If you’ve often noticed an unpaved track or trail leading off into the distance while riding and wondered where it might lead, then BMW Off-Road Skills should be of interest. The award-winning course, pioneered in Germany, has been specifically designed to appeal to road riders who have never ventured away from tarmac, but have always wanted to have a go.
The limiting factors have always been the prohibitive cost of the required machinery and a lack of knowledge in terms of where to ride safely and legally. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation: you don’t want to spend a small fortune on the tools required for the job unless you can be sure that you will be happy with the result. So why not try BMW’s solution, which has been to (a) provide all participants with a choice of suitable machinery and (b) procure an exclusive 2,000 acres of off-road paradise in sunny South Wales.
And on a crisp spring morning, I turned up at the Seven Sisters Enduro Park for the BMW Off-Road Skills course, accompanied by a group of equally nervous members of the motorcycling press, carefully chosen for their lack of skill on the rough stuff.
The location was simply stunning – breathtaking views across the Welsh valleys, tracks and paths as far as the eye could see, and extensive woodland to get lost in. Parked in a sheltered corner were a selection of shiny new BMW F650 GS and GD (Granada Dakar special) machines and several R850 GS boxers. You could take your pick, so I opted for the Dakar replica – after all, what worked for BMW in the Dakar Rally might just rub off on me in Off-Road Skills.
Then we met our instructors and following a briefing we were promised us that as well as being great fun, everything we learnt could be transferred back to our road riding, where we spend most of our time on two wheels. We split up into groups and were shown around the bikes. It was a cold day and therefore reassuring to know that heated grips were available. So was ABS, but what would the fun be in switching that on?
The fun and games started early, as exercises designed to make us feel at ease with the bikes saw us turning ever decreasing circles using counterbalance techniques, riding side-saddle, and even standing on the saddle while riding. The result? Complete confidence on a machine that was unfamiliar a couple of hours before.
Then we moved on to braking and skid control. Take it from me, there is nothing better than showing the group your best skid on somebody else’s tyres, but there is a point to these exercises: if you can learn to recognise when one of your wheels is locking and learn to control it accordingly, then your safety margin increases significantly. Transfer this to your road riding and it all starts making sense. One of the many skills we had to master was to ride with our front wheel locked – a seemingly impossible exercise until shown how. Don’t try it at home though.
This first ride revealed why BMW had chosen this location and offered an opportunity to see what was still to come. For the beginner there were miles of light trails, loose gravel, gentle inclines and woody tracks, while the expert could expect water crossings, deep sand, near vertical slopes and rocky passes. It was nearly lunchtime though, so we made our way by bike to a nearby pub, where everyone compared fisherman’s tales of off-road prowess, while sampling from the hearty menu.
Suitably refreshed, we went back for more and learnt the first of many important lessons: when you’re halfway up a steep incline, and realise you’re not going to make it to the top, then stop, turn the bike around and have another go. Easier said than done of course. How do you turn a bike around on a 60-degree slope without toppling over? There’s a technique and it has to be learnt, but suffice to say it can be the difference between an early bath and making it to the top.
That said, the feeling of elation on making it to the top of an incline that had previously scared the wits out of you, is unsurpassed. Skills have to be mastered, such as the correct weight transfer to provide maximum traction and grip. Although unfamiliar and unnerving at first, you soon become used to the bike moving around beneath you, and find yourself doing things you never thought would have been possible in your quest to reach the top.
And what goes up must come down. Unsurprisingly, there are also invaluable techniques that have to be learned when descending such as using the gears and engine braking, rather than the hand or foot operated variety to get you safely down.
With each exercise, confidence grew and there was a buzz in our group as participants enthused about their new skills. Inclines, crossings and trails that had seemed nigh on impossible were tackled at the right time, in the right frame of mind, with the help of an instructor when needed. One of our final assignments was a water crossing that had us wondering what we’d let ourselves in for, but everyone made it through and nobody minded too much about their wet feet.
The end of the course left me feeling as if there wasn’t anything that I couldn’t tackle. My confidence was high and judging by the reaction of those around me, I wasn’t alone. It takes many years of practice to get to the standard of the instructors, but it doesn’t take long to master the basics. It doesn’t matter what kind of bike you ride, but it is important to learn to ride it properly. All BMWs tested were extremely capable off-road and could have been ridden home if necessary, unlike many enduro machines.
What better way to spend two days in the company of like-minded individuals who want to get the same thing as you – top rate instruction, a real grounding in the basics of off-road riding and some great machinery on which to get started. BMW Off-Road Skills costs £325 and courses are running on the following dates with more planned for next year: 19-20 October, 21-22 October
Call 0800-013-1282 for more information and to book. The price for the two-day course covers expert instruction, the use of a machine and a head full of memories.