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I’ve been thinking a lot about off-road riding. It seems natural to me to ride off road, I think because until recently all my motorcycle experiences have been off-road. I had a couple of motorbikes in my youth which I used to ride around the farm, and typically crash. One into a wall (although, I have to admit that was on purpose, but that’s story for another time) and one into a tree while jumping. Although now that I think about it, I didn’t crash that one.
Evel sporting a rather dapper jumpsuit

Evel sporting a rather dapper jumpsuit

My Godfather Pete crashed that motorbike. Pete was and, still is a very cool Godfather, mostly because he was a biker. I remember him turning up at my Primary school when I was about six or seven on a motorbike and he had a denim jacket on with a teddy bear on the back. In a small (my class had about six other kids in) rural village that was about as rock and roll as it gets. That appearance made me cool by association until about the age of eleven.

I had a black moped for a while and I used to ride it around the farm jumping it off things while humming the theme from Star wars; I’m not sure why. I think because it was black I had decided it was a Darth Vader motorbike. There was a line of thick fur trees on the edge of the gardens and since one of the trees was smaller than the others you could jump a bike through that gap. This was an amazing stunt as it seemed impossible and yet you could burst through the ‘solid’ trees to the other side with no side effects other than a pine fresh aroma. I had managed this lots of times, although admittedly I practiced on my bicycle before I tried it on a motorcycle, and was fine.

Pete had a go at the jump and hit a tree. The bike was a write-off and Pete did something awful to his ankle and couldn’t ride for a few days. He had to hobble around using a broom handle just like a pirate which made him seem even cooler. I think there is a lesson in that we could all learn.

Today is a very important day, my classic motorbikes are being delivered.

I’m so excited I feel a little bit sick. I’ve waited just over a year to sort out getting these motorcycles picked up and now they are on their way. The company doing the delivery are the aptly named – Motorcycle Delivery – who were recommended by a load of people on the Classic Bike forum and I’m really impressed with the service so far. I had tried to arrange to pick the bikes up myself but since I don’t have a suitable car let alone, a two bike trailer I was really stumped.

Well I am stumped no more as the motorbikes are on their way.

One of the bikes, rating the day I am having out of ten

One of the bikes, rating the day I am having out of ten

I’ll have to do a longer post later when they have arrived but for now have a read about one of the bikes being delivered – Classic trials bike

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

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