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I’ve not messed around with the project motorcycles for a while now, mostly because I’ve been so busy writing and travelling. That’s a lie, the main reason why I’ve not been working on the motorbikes is that it is bloody freezing in the workshop. It’s too cold to be able to grip a spanner and so it’s not that much fun taking things to pieces to see how they work.
 
I need to get some sort of heater rigged up if I’m going to be in there during the winter months. I’ve heard of a ‘fair weather biker’ but is their such a thing as a ‘fair weather mechanic’? Although I don’t think I can call myself a mechanic of any sort really, I can just about take things to pieces, and put them back together again but actually fixing them, well it’s more down to luck than anything else.
 
All this means I’ve not been in the workshop very much over the past few weeks, I’ve been up in London a lot for work or if I have been here I’ve been chained to my computer writing. Which means the big, empty workshop has been left alone for a while and leaving any sort of cleared inside area on this farm is dangerous because the moment you make a big space in a shed it gets filled with a bit of farm machinery.
The motorbikes all squashed up, but why?

The motorbikes all squashed up, but why?

I had started to organise all the tools in the workshop so I could find things faster and then I went away for a few days to test the 800 GS and suddenly something huge and mechanical had appeared in the workshop.

I didn't even know we had one of these on the farm.

I didn't even know we had one of these on the farm.

This is what happens when you clean indoor spaces on the farm, they get filled. It’s like fighting against the tide, one made out of scrap metal. Thinking about it I should have cleaned out the workshop last, so that all these metal things that needed a home were already tucked away before space was made near the tools.

In more upbeat news Hugo at Classic Bike has said he would like a piece on the motorbike my Dad built so I’m writing that now and trying to arrange some photographs. Hugo and my Dad spoke  on the phone about doing a feature on the bike before my Dad passed away so I know my he would be very pleased that this feature is going to happen. 

Even more excitingly as a side effect of this blog I’m off to work at Motorcycle News for a bit. Yes, this is an example of blogging getting people work. I won’t go into the exact details of what happened but I’m really excited about working there.

I start tomorrow and I can’t wait.

Now before we get started on the important business of reviewing the motorcycle I should say I’m a little bit biased towards the F800GS. I rode one while at Simon Pavey’s off-road training school and that was one of the best weekends I’ve ever had, not just of riding bikes, but ever.

I’m not sure if this makes me terribly sad or just a little bit too into motorbikes but I think you should be aware that just looking at the bike, especially covered in mud, reminds me of good times. And yes, I’ve just realised that sounds a bit sleazy. At the off-road school I got to experience what the F800GS is like in the mud with proper knobbly tires on it, and I’ll put a link to that at the bottom of the page. This is a review of what the bike is like on the roads.

The bike, with a little bit of mud on it.

The F 800 GS, with a little bit of mud on it.

I tried to think of somewhere completely unlike rural Wales to take the bike. Something far away from the rolling hills and muddy tracks I’d been on before so I took the motorbike to London. In the rush hour. In the rain.

Since I first encountered the F800GS when it was parked up next to a load of 1200 GS motorbikes I always think of it as rather small, well perhaps not small but not huge. However when you put it next to most other bikes it’s size is fairly noticeable. It’s a bit of a giant, but in a good way. The only time that this became an issue was when I was trying to park the bike, although too be fair the panniers were causing most of the troubles.

The bike had the BMW panniers attached to it and they are big, heavy and waterproof. They are wider than the handle bars and after about ten minutes of riding around London I realised why you never see couriers with panniers, they only ever have top boxes. They also make it fairly difficult to park the bike snugly in the motorcycle bays dotted around London. On the plus side the can be removed in a few seconds with a satisfying clunk so once you’ve found a space you just pop them off and put the bike in.

The bike lurking in London.

The F800GS lurking in London.

The rest of the ride around London was fairly uneventful. The F800GS has lots of pleasant torque at low revs which means if you need to blip ahead of someone when the traffic lights go green you will. While it can be a little bit snatchy at low speeds once you allow for that with a bit of clutch work it’s great fun. It’s roll-on acceleration is really impressive so if you have to go from 30mph to 60mph it will get you there before almost anyone else.

The height is also an advantage, while sat in the seat you will see over the top of most cars and if you stand up on the pegs you’ll be able to see over the roofs of black cabs which is very, very useful. So useful in fact that they should include that in the sales pitch when selling the bike in London.

The next big test of the bike was some motorway riding. I had to go up to Silverstone for a work thing and then down to Devon. The weather report was awful with rain, vicious crosswinds and even a hint of snow. This would be a proper long distance test of the bike. I zipped up everything I could on my Tuareg suit (a link to the review is at the bottom of the page) and set off.

At 70mph the bike cruises happly, and strangely doesn’t seem to actually use any petrol. It has a specially programmed engine which tries to use as little fuel as possible and it really works. it’s amazing how far you can go between filling up.

Aside from the surprising fuel economy there isn’t really much else to report about the bike on long distance slogs and I mean that as a good thing. I travelled through horrible cross winds, had to deal with rush hour on a motorway in the snow and even a couple of slightly hairy moments when a hire van decided to change lanes without indicating or checking it’s mirrors the bike just dealt with it.

This glows orange at night which looks excellent.

The display glows orange at night which looks excellent.

That’s the overriding impression the bike gives, it deals with things confidently. Put the panniers on and you can cover vast distances with all the gear you will need without it getting wet and take them off and you’ve got a surprisingly slim bike that can slip through tiny gaps in traffic.

Even without the impressive fuel economy this would be a bike to consider but once you factor that in it’s something you really should take for a test ride. BMW really are ahead of the pack on this, I talked to a load of other motoring journalists about reviewing bikes and they said the top question they get asked about bikes these days is fuel economy.

So it’s stylish, comfortable, fast, adaptable and even suitable for when the fuel runs out and we live in a Mad Max style society fighting over petrol. in short it gets a big thumbs up from me.

Links mentioned
A review of Simon Pavey’s off-road school

An off road review of the F 800 GS

Review of Hein Gericke Tuareg gear

BMW F 800 GS

Okay, let me start off by saying this is an off-road review of the F 800 GS, I did get to ride the motorcycle around a bit on some roads but that was a fairly limited experience so I can’t really talk about that yet. I’m going to try and do a road review in a bit but I’ll have to sort out a loan of a motorcycle with BMW and various other things like insurance.

I managed to get a flat tire, but it was fairly easy to change.

I managed to get a flat tire on the first day, I'm still not sure how.

The first thing you notice when getting on the F 800 GS is that it is fairly tall, so I wouldn’t recommend it to shorter riders. It’s not stupidly tall but if you are riding something off-road you want to be able to stamp your feet down if you need to. It’s also a pretty heavy motorbike. You don’t realise it at first because the handling is so good but when you drop it a couple of times (like I did) it soon starts to get heavy. It’s 185kg dry and a reported 207kg ‘road ready’ with a full tank which is a lot to lift in the mud. Interestingly the bike has a maximum load of 443kg so in theory you could use the F 800 GS to carry another F 800 GS if you could sort out the bungee cords to hold it on. That’s pretty cool when you think about it and gives you an idea of the grunt this bike has.

This power is a bit of an issue until you get the hang of it, the controls are so sharp that if you go over a bump or a rock your hand may jerk around the throttle and the bike will go screaming off into the distance, possibly with you hanging on. I got caught out with this a few times until I got in the habit of riding in a higher gear and feathering the clutch to take the edge off the engine.

The bike is designed for people who really know what they are doing off-road so I have to admit the first day on it was a bit of a struggle. It was exhausting trying to control the bike over hills and things, it was just so eager to go and since a mistake was typically rewarded by having to pick the bike up again I was not a huge fan by the time came to go the pub. After chatting with the instructors about the bike over a pint (read about the course I was on here) they said you had to bully it a bit to get the best out of it and so that is what I resolved to do the next day.

The F 800 GS sporting optional water carriers.

The F 800 GS sporting optional water carriers.

With the advice I’d been given repeating in my head I set off on the second day of riding and tried to be a bit more bossy with the bike. I didn’t quite understand what this involved at first but the F 800 GS has so much oomph in every gear that you can just chuck it into things and it will sort itself out. I just had to have the confidence to do that. The Eureka moment for me was during a hill climb where suddenly the vast amounts of power on tap became a huge asset and from then I was completely sold on the bike.

I could happily scream up and down hills in second gear, third with a bit of a run up and any really tricky tracks (the sort that would trouble you on foot) were resolved by just keeping the throttle open at a reasonable rate in first and using the clutch to control the speed. Even though I’d just adjusted my riding style a bit it felt like a completely different bike, an excellent bike, a wonderful bike.

The F 800 GS is a great machine, one that can handle almost any terrain and after you have been on it a bit other off-road bikes either seem a bit breathless or sluggish. It really is something really special so special that I think my dream garage may have to be changed a bit to make way for a new member.

Here is the official BMW F 800 GS website, and click here to read more about my time at the BMW Off-Road skills course in Wales.

Like almost every other man alive I watched Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman ride motorbikes around the world and thought, ‘cor I’d love a go at that’ so when the opportunity arose to be trained to ride off-road with Charley Boorman I couldn’t resist.
The BMW off-road centre in Wales was set up eight years ago by Simon Pavey and the sadly departed John Deacon, to teach novices, and Jedi (Ewan and Charley did the course before they set off) all the skills they would need to ride motorbikes around the world. Simon really knows his stuff when it comes to off-road riding; he has competed in the Paris Dakar rally six times. All the instructors on the course have at least some Dakar experience so you are in good hands. 
Rows and rows of lovely bikes

Rows and rows of lovely bikes

You can hire out almost everything you will need – apart from a helmet but I decided to get my own gear as I’d been warned how hot you get and I didn’t want to spend a couple of days bathed in someone else’s sweat. I got slightly over-excited and so got hold of a top of the range Tuareg suit – I’ll have reviewed it here.

On the F 800 in the Taureg suit

On the F 800 in the Taureg suit

I was riding around on the new F 800 GS which has only recently been launched and is a bit of beast. There are a range of bikes you can ride (650s and 1200) but for off-road beginners like me, there are more suitable bikes. It’s an amazing bike, but as it’s so responsive I found it a bit of handful to begin with.

The first day started with us filling out extremely long disclaimer forms and then being assigned our bikes. We would have a short, slightly nervous ride to the site on roads and then the proper training would begin. The site is amazing, it’s an old quarry that has been landscaped so we had 4000 acres of muddy paths, gravel roads and streams to ride around in and we didn’t have to share it with anyone else.

We began with familiarising ourselves with the bikes, we had to walk around them holding on with only one hand to get a feel of the balancing point and the weight. Then we practiced picking the bikes up when they were on the ground – something I’d be doing a lot over the weekend. This training course is quite different to other off-road courses in that they make a big thing of really teaching you skills. So we worked through a series of excises like turning in the tightest circle possible and how to slow down properly on mud so we could handle the bikes off-road. The breaking was excellent fun because before we were shown how to do it properly we had to practice doing it wrong and then learning to control the bike. I’ve never done so many skids and wheel spins in a short amount of time.

Charley appeared at this point to help out and almost immediately someone flew off their bike because they got distracted. The chap and the bike were fine (although the 1200 lost it’s windscreen which I thought was a vast improvement) and so teaching resumed and we started working on some more advanced, alien techniques with Charley helping out. We were standing up on our bikes at this point – it feels weird at first but it makes it much easier to balance and gives you more control.

The first big step was being taught to steer the bikes only using our legs, something I didn’t realise was even possible. And then once we had got the hang of that we had a ride around with our hands in the air – only using our legs to manoeuvre. Riding at 40mph on a gravel track with your hands in the air is a bit terrifying to say the least.

After a morning of skill based work we started on our first ride around the site. Gary (one of the instructors) took us out in a group of six and we would follow him and try not to fall off. I fell off a lot. I could have been auditioning for BMW bike diving team, but I didn’t hurt myself, or the bike and I loved every minute of it. I couldn’t believe some of the tracks we were managing to ride along. At about 4pm the riding stopped for the day and we were physically and mentally exhausted. It was definitely time to go to the pub and swap stories.

All the instructors joined us in the pub as did Charley. Everyone was really jolly after having such a fun day, Charley said this was entirely normal for the course ‘The lovely thing about helping teach here is that everyone is so happy and then people go away and realise that there is a whole world out there to explore.’

The second day began with a couple more advanced techniques, like stopping the bikes on hills you couldn’t even walk down and then more tricky rides around the site. I was feeling far more confident at this point and I started to really understand and enjoy the bike. The F 800 GS is an amazing bike, absolutely amazing but you have to have the confidence to bully it a little bit and then it really comes alive. We also had a chance to ride around on the other bikes on the course so I had a quick lap on the F 650 XChallenge, F 650 GS and the infamous  R 1200 GS. Compared to the F 800 GS the F 650 GSs were a bit more nimble but didn’t quite have the same responsive grunt that I’d come to love on the F 800 GS and the R 1200 GS felt very strange but stable. On the first day I wasn’t a big fan of the F 800 GS but by the second day I’d got the hang of it and now I’m a huge fan.

Other people on the course were also amazed by how far they had come. Paul, a lecturer in Scotland had been riding for 35 years had learned things and even Elvin, a Policeman from Northern Ireland who also is an observer with the Institute of Advanced Motoring was picking up new skills.

Simon explained that this was one of his favourite aspects of teaching ‘People are always amazed by how much they have come by the end of the course, and then they go and use these skills in the real world. We train people up and then a few months later we get an email from them saying that they are in Ulaanbaatar (in Mongolia).’

Near the end of the course Gary offered to take out a brave group on a really tough ride to test out their new skills. Testosterone got the better of me and I volunteered to join them. Out of the thirty people on the course only four people dared to go on this ride. It was really tough work, everyone else fell off their bikes at least once including the instructor but it was the moment when it really clicked for me and I fell in love with my bike – when I had to hand it back I had a manly tear in my eye.

The group who dared to go on the final ride

The group who dared to go on the final ride

The course ended with us getting certificates and people talking about what they were going to do next – almost everyone was planning to go off exploring around the world. If you are even slightly tempted to do any off-road riding go on this course, the level of instruction is amazing and no-matter how long you have been riding you will learn some useful skills. So who else is up for a jolly around the planet?

The two day beginner off-road course costs £449 – Http://www.worldofbmw.com – 08000 131 282.

My Tuareg suit is from Hein Gericke – www.hein-gericke.co.uk

Today I emailed an editor to organise meeting up for lunch in London, fairly standard stuff really. I just happened to mention that Charley Boorman was doing something with the BMW off-road course in Wales. It was only an aside and not really a pitch. However it caught her attention and a few phone calls later and I’m going along as well to write about it. So no trip to London for me, I’m off to Wales instead
Most of the time journalism is hard graft, constantly chasing down stories, pitching them to editors, last-minute rewrites, cancellations and things but sometimes it’s absolutely brilliant and today has been one of those days.
Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor

Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor

Like most people I’ve been hooked on Charley (and Ewan’s) adventures since they started riding around the world. I admired how their shows introduced new people to riding, and gave bikes a public image that wasn’t biker gangs or racing. Plus they are properly obsessed with bikes in a slightly schoolboy way, which is how you should be.

Anyway I can’t wait to get on the bikes and to start sliding down hills and falling off logs. It was a bit of a trial to get on the course, all the journalist places had gone, long, long ago and then there was a very tense half an hour when the editor checked in with her boss to see if I could go  but I got the thumbs up and now it’s all sorted.

So I’ve got two glorious days of riding BMWs in Wales to look forward to, the only marginal down side is that it will cost slightly more than I could reasonably put on expenses so I’ll have to absorb some of that but I think it will be more than worth it. I’m treating it as a sort of working holiday, this won’t be an assignment that helps the Daytona fund.

BMW F800 GS

BMW F800 GS

This is going to be my bike for the weekend, the sparklingly fresh F800 GS. BMW want me to ride it because it’s new and so they want it to appear in the newspaper. I’d imagine that after I’ve spent two days riding it up and down the Welsh countryside I’ll be able to provide a pretty reasonable assessment of it’s off-road ability so expect a review to pop up a few days after I return from the course.

Riding bikes in Wales has an extra significance for me as my dad lived in Wales and one of the last weekends we ever spent together – our best weekend together really – was spent riding motorbikes around in the rain on the hills in Wales.

He died a year ago of cancer, and I’ll be spending the anniversary of his death on a motorbike in Wales. I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute.

EDIT – I’ve noticed a lot of people are finding this page while searching for the course, so here it is.

http://www.worldofbmw.com/content/offRoadSkills.asp?article=251

You can read my review of my time on the course here

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