It’s the night before my Level One course begins at World of BMW’s Off Road Skills and I'm sitting in a pretty Welsh village pub in the idyllic Vale of Neath pondering my fate.
During my DAS course with the brilliant BMW Rider Training in Royston last year, chief instructor Ian suggested that once I'd passed, I go on the BMW Off Road Skills to hone my skills.
Right now, I'm cursing Ian. After being stupidly excited about this for the last two months, I'm now actually here, and it's really not helping that he’s just text me to offer some last minute advice.
“Just don't look down” he says.
Yep, thanks for that Ian.
It’s a good job the forecast is dry for tomorrow. We’re in Wales. In spring. Of course I'm lying. The forecast is horrendous. Solid rain for the next two days. Great.
The next morning, I arrive at the Off Road Skills workshop and standing in the rain showing customers where to park is old friend and instructor JP. He tells me to take my driving licence into the workshop to sign-on. Oh dear. In my attempt to declutter myself for the day ahead on a motorbike, I've left my wallet in the hotel. Luckily, I'm a few minutes early and staying at the Abercrave Inn which is just down the road, so I jump back in the car and head back to fetch it. On the drive I remind myself it probably won’t be the only daft thing i’ll do today.
On my second attempt, I arrive back at the workshop, this time to be greeted by motorcycle enduro and off road racer, (including ten times Dakar legend) Simon Pavey, who together with his wife Linley, run BMW Off Road Skills and I'm suddenly a bit star struck.
There are three courses running today; levels one, two and three, so there’s around 40 customers and eight or so staff milling around. Simon directs me to the workshop with my newly retrieved licence and then on to the kit store to collect the Wulfsport gear I've arranged to hire.
At this point, Linley, a no nonsense straight-talking Aussie, rounds up all the girls - ten of us in total and a record for a group this size - to give us a little pep-talk.
“There’s no denying it’s tough out there and there will be moments when you struggle and question why you’re here”, she says, “but I want you to try to not berate yourself if you make a mistake or struggle to pick up a skill as quickly as you’d like, or you just feel a bit scared. It’s all completely normal and I promise you will get through it. Talk nicely to yourself and hold your chin up and you will amaze yourself with what you’re capable of.”
Wise words indeed, and ones I would find myself repeating both in my head and out loud the following day. As nine of the ten ladies here have come with their partners, Linley explains they have a rule that you mustn’t engage with your partner during the training sessions. They’ve learnt from experience that it usually results in one half of the couple feeling under unnecessary pressure and that the more confident one tries to coach the other, often unwittingly giving them bad advice. It’s key that everyone learns at their own speed.
With the chat over, it’s time to go and after a short road ride, we arrive at the training centre; Walters Arena, a 4000-acre motorsport park on the edge of the Brecon Beacons previously used for special spectator stages in the WRC Wales Rally GB, an event I've previously been to watch. It comprises a large off-road training pad and miles and miles of gravel fire roads, tracks and trails.
Once the main group has separated into the three ability levels, ours being instructed by Simon himself, we get stuck straight in. Simon starts with the technique for dealing with the inevitable - how to pick your bike up.
Turns out, once you know the technique, this is much easier that you expect and after a few groans and laughs I really surprise myself that I can lift the BMW G650GS that I'm using for the course. We get to practise this on each of the different models of BMW GS bike available (650, 700, 800 and 1200) both on our own and in pairs. Oddly, the 1200 is the easiest to lift thanks to the side bars preventing it lying as flat as the other bikes.
Next up, Simon teaches us some new techniques for getting on and off bike, given that in off-road riding you can’t always guarantee you’ll have a nice flat surface and space to get on in your normal way.
Once we’re on, we learn about the standing riding position. Okay, here’s my blonde admission - it never actually occurred to me that I would need to ride standing up. Sure, in my pre-course research I'd watched a couple of videos where the off-road riders were all vertical, but I guess I just thought those riders were showing off. I gulped when I realised I'd be riding like this for the next two days. Thankfully, it came pretty naturally to me, although I did struggle changing from first to second a little bit to begin with, as I had to get used to both the new position of my foot but also the Wulf motocross boots which are more rigid than my TCXs. But the pros certainly outweigh the cons, as when you’re upright you have much greater control of the bike and clearer visibility of the terrain coming up.
Onto steering; slow speed control is very different on a wet and loose surface, so we practised quite a bit on the slalom course on the pad. The sensation of the bike moving around underneath you does take a bit of getting used to, but eventually you realise the bike’s movements are infact tiny, they just feel magnified by the time they reach your head because of the pendulum effect and then you feel more reassured. Luckily for me, extra help came from photographer Llelwelyn, Simon and Linley’s son, an expert in off-road riding, having himself competed in the Dakar last year at the tender age of 23. He took me back to the basics of pulling away and stopping which helped bring my focus back to the task in hand.
Time for lunch, so we head off on an easy trail through the forest to a local cafe where we meet back up with the other groups for a cold buffet lunch. There’s lots of chat about the morning’s activities - one chap I spoke on the level two course had already come off his bike six times, but was unhurt and in very much in high spirits.
Fully refuelled, we headed back to the training pad to learn the important art of stopping. I genuinely thought Simon and fellow instructor JP, who had joined us for the afternoon session, were joking when they told us they were going to teach us to lock the wheels up and skid the bikes around.
All the bikes used on the course have the ABS disconnected and the lesson begins with rear wheels skids. The idea being that once you’ve felt and understood how and why the skid happens, you can learn to control it. With that mastered, we move to the more daunting front wheels skids and yet again after the initial apprehension has passed, I'm really enjoying myself skidding the bike around, grinning like the village idiot.
Next we head off on another short trail ride around the forest and have a game of “Simon Says”, where, whilst leading the group who are following in single file, Simon does various things that we have to copy, like sticking his left leg or arm out and so on.
Little did I know, this fun interlude was merely a ruse to get us all to the location of our final lesson for the day - hills.
“There are three ways you can get down this hill on a motorbike” Simon explains “1) using engine braking, 2) using your brakes only or 3) using a combination of both.”
“Or 4) with your eyes closed and screaming” I joke, to nervous laughter from the rest of the group. I stand on the crest of the hill and peer over - it’s so steep I can’t actually see down it.
“Put the bike into first gear and don’t touch the rest of the controls at all” explains JP, “Just trust the bike, look well ahead down the hill and where you want to go at the bottom, then just steer it there. The engine braking will control your speed and give you the maximum amount of grip”. A few minutes later the hills of Wales were suddenly alive with the sound of ten grown adults shouting ”Weeeeee!!!” during repeated thrilling but totally controlled rides down a very steep hill in the rain!
Back at my hotel I reflect on my first day of the course and the moments of both sheer exhilaration and sheer panic I've experienced. I realise how far I've come in a single day and that everything I've done today has been much less scary than I expected it to be. Then, utterly exhausted, I promptly fall asleep.
Day two didn’t start well for me. I have absolutely no idea why, but I just felt really nervous. It was totally irrational given all the skills I'd learnt yesterday, but on the trip to the rally arena I'd had to stop a couple of times to have a quiet word with myself. Simon showed his masterful handling of novices and his knowledge of the park when persuaded me back onto the bike and rerouted me on a slightly easier trail to rejoin the group.
Once at Walters, we circumnavigate the arena several times on a trail that brings together all the different skills we learnt on day one. About two thirds of the way around the course, there’s a reasonably hard left-turn flowing directly into a steep upward hill. Despite me having had a rocky start to the day and this being the most technical part of the course, I dig deep, lean my weight over on the pegs as far as I dare and power the bike up the slope. Much to both the visible relief and delight of Simon and JP who are standing alongside the course.
We return to the cafe for lunch, to be greeted by the best smelling curry this side of Mumbai - just the ticket in this horrid weather - before donning our squishy wet gear again for the final session.
There are two skills left to cover on the level one course and first-up is hill recovery. Simon and JP demonstrate the technique and then ask for a volunteer to have a go. At this point, everyone in the group looks at the floor and shifts their weight from foot to foot, so I gingerly stick my hand up.
During our little pep-talk at the start of the course, Linley had suggested this was a great way to get over your fears. Despite no formal qualification, I can tell you that what this woman doesn’t know about sports psychology isn’t worth knowing.
So I ride up the middle of the hill, come to an abrupt stop and intentionally stall the bike. With the rear wheel now locked in gear and taking the weight of the bike, I'm able to jump off and manoeuver the bike in a reverse arc so it’s facing across the hill. From there I can row the handlebars back and forth which walks the front wheel into a position where I can safely roll-start the bike back down the hill and have another go. Despite dropping the bike, I pick it up and complete the task. Everyone in the group has a go and despite the freezing rain now driving harder than ever, we’re all enjoying ourselves and feel elated at yet again being able to achieve something that had previously seemed impossible.
The final skill is about controlling the bike using momentum. The idea being, that on a trail where one skills leads directly into another, you’re still in control of the bike when you reach the top of a slope and ready to make your next manoeuver. It involves generating enough drive to power you up with hill without actually accelerating up it and then you can easily change direction at the top and continue on your way. It looks pretty daunting, but again I volunteer to have a go and it’s easier than I expected. We practice it about four or five times each, before heading back to the park gates to meet up with the other groups for a quick team photo and the road ride back to the workshop.
Back at base, everyone receives a certificate for passing and I grab Linley for another chat. She explains that majority of customers come for level one training and often enjoy themselves so much they come back to complete levels two and three. They do offer a women only targeted training session at level one, but after that encourage the girls to join the mixed groups. A lot of people, like me, are keen to learn skills that will improve their road riding, particularly in tricky conditions, but often even after just level one, customers get the off-road bug and sign-up for one of the adventure tours the company run in the Brecons, Iceland, Spain, Portugal and Australia.
It’s a testament to the standard of tuition here that nearly half the customers on the various courses this weekend have come from other European countries. A large group had ridden from Sweden to receive off-road instruction from the BMW ORS team, and some were returning for their second or third visit.
As a motorcyclist, I don’t think you can ever stop learning about your sport and there are loads of courses I am really keen to do, but I can certainly tell you that if you only do one course after passing your test, this is it.
For more detail on the skills taught in the level one course, order the July issue of RiDE magazine featuring the new and better rider supplement inside.
With thanks to BMW Off Road Skills.