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I’m a subscriber to Bike Magazine, I’ve been for a while now. I was strangely methodical about trying out every motorcycle magazine I could to find one that had a tone that I got on with and Bike seemed about right – Not too speed obsessed but also still able to have fun. Also my dad used to get it and I can remember reading the Ogri strips while sat in  the cupboard under the stars.

Anyway, I’d like to write some stuff for Bike but I’m not sure what I could talk about with authority so I’ve not pitched anything yet. So I was slightly surprised to find myself quoted in this month’s issue. Sadly it’s in an advert, and technically it’s a misquote but it’s a start, no?

I’ve taken a photo of it so you can enjoy the cringe-worthy comment for yourself.

A god of biking eh?

The god of biking eh? I don't actually remember saying that.

It’s nice to be quoted on something, and Charley is a lovely chap but I’m still cringing all the same.
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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