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“Riding motorcycles only really becomes dangerous when you ride beyond your ability.” My riding instructor used to say “Well that and when some berk doesn’t see you, but you can’t do much about that.”

Since this was drilled into me and because I’ve got at least a vague sense of self-preservation (on motorbikes, anything else is fair game) I don’t tend to get talked into doing something I’m not comfortable with, well mostly. As part of Honda’s organised event at Silverstone there was the chance to do some laps on the bikes. The selection of bikes was, well it was a selection of different coloured Fireblades.

A Fireblade, in silver

A Fireblade, in silver

Now the Fireblade has a bit of a reputation, it’s almost given as the definition of a bike you shouldn’t get until you’ve got a few miles under your belt. So as I threw my leg over it I said a little prayer to Thor and Ogri and set off.

At first it wasn’t so bad, it had be beautiful purr of an engine that isn’t even trying and yet you are already going stupidly fast and like the CBR 600 RR it felt nimble and light the moment it started moving. The first corner wasn’t too bad either, we weren’t going that fast and while it was a bit cold it wasn’t awful. With the first few corners out of the way and a lovely straight ahead I thought I’d give the bike a bit of a twist to see what it could do.

My throat hurt, this motorcycle accelerated so fast that it made my throat hurt. It didn’t just feel like it was about to take off, or that I could barely hold on it was something else. It was brilliant, and way beyond what I could handle and then it started snowing.

Yes snow, I’d been around Donington in the rain and so Silverstone had to go one better and snow. I dread to think what Brands hatch will do.

The rest of the track session was spent in well, blind terror. Not because the Fireblade is so unmanageable, it’s not, for something so powerful it’s very well behaved. It’s just that not only was the track cold, now the weather had decided to combined a gusty crosswind with some light snow and a bit of rain. I would have made a mess in my trousers if I hadn’t been worried that it would have affected the delicate balance of the bike and thrown me off.

A few, not exactly brisk laps (but still rather faster than I would have liked) later I got off the bike and felt simultaneously more and less of a man. I’d had the absolutely limits of my riding tested and I’d spent a lot of the time rediscovering god – it’s hard to be an atheist when the rear-wheel is hopping around as you approach a corner a little bit too fast. At least I wasn’t dead, and more importantly I hadn’t dropped the beautiful motorcycle.

I’m not sure I’d want a Fireblade, or at least, perhaps not as a winter ride but perhaps now I’ve had a snow-bound track day on one everything else will seem rather sedate and sensible. They do look rather good in red.

Sorry for the lack of posting over the last few days. I’ve been off working on some other things and so haven’t really been messing around with motorcycles as much as I should have. Still I have to pay for the motorbike habit somehow. 

In the meantime here are some more photos of the Bonnie I had for a few days. I took it up to a local Iron Age fort to photograph in slightly more interesting surroundings. Fallen leaves are jolly pretty but extremely hairy to ride on so I think I’ll be avoiding Iron Age forts in the future, especially leafy ones in the Autumn.

Classic British Iron, at an Iron Age fort

Classic British Iron, at an Iron Age fort

The engine is rather lovely too, and I was impressed by how many times the word Triumph appears on the T100.

How many Triumph logos can you spot?

How many Triumph logos can you spot?

 

The bike relaxing while I open a gate

The bike relaxing while I open a gate

I’ve spent most of today playing with the new motorcycles. After a quick oil change the large of the two was fired up and I gave it a good blat around the fields. It’s not really designed for riding sitting down, as the pegs are so far backwards so you really have to stand. The gearing is very low and rather annoyingly the farm is rather flat so it’s not really in it’s element at the moment. I need to take it to somewhere really muddy and preferably, vertical and then it will come alive. It was interesting to think about how different it was to the F 800 GS I rode a few weeks ago. The 800 GS is a serious off road bike but this motorbike is something else, it’s just so specialised.

Some parts of the bike are still a bit of a mystery to me, I can remember being told the sequence of things you had to do to start it but the reasons behind them were slightly lost to me. Thankfully the lovely chaps at the Classic Bike Forum were able to work out what was going on.

The clutch is fairly easy to spot, but what are the other two things?

The clutch is fairly easy to spot, but what are the other two things?

As you may notice this end of the handbar has slightly more levers on it than normal. The one on the top of the handles is the advance/retard for the ignition, it changes the rate at which the engine ticks over. The one below is a bit more mysterious. If you squeeze it when the engine is running the bike stops (which is handy because the bike doesn’t have any other off switches) and it is also used when kick starting. After I explained what happened to the chaps on the forum they said it might be a valve lifter, so I took some photos to investigate

There is where the cable goes, so valve lifter it is then.

There is where the cable goes, so valve lifter it is then.

And so you can see on the right where the cable connects to the top of the engine. Another mystery solved. I also got my Dad’s old helmets when the bikes were delivered. One of which is lovely old school lid, perfect for riding retro bikes around.

It just needs some goggles.

It just needs some goggles.

I dug it out this morning to wear while riding the bike around the farm but when I picked it up I noticed it still had my dad’s white hairs on the inside. It was as if he had only taken it off five minutes ago and so I decided I think I’ll leave it for now, I’ll buy a new helmet for me and leave that one for him.

A few years ago I went on a rally across Europe. It wasn’t the sort of rally where you have high-performance sports cars and swan around in posh hotels instead we weren’t allowed to spend more than £100 on our car and we were raising money for charity. My chum Henry had invited me and some other chaps along as he was going to write about it for a website he worked on.
Our car, customised to look like a Pirate Ship

Our car.

We got hold of a Volvo 740 and customised it to look like a pirate ship, or at least a Volvo owned by pirates. Everyone else on the rally had customised their cars too which made the event feel like an episode of Wacky Racers.

Note the custom pirate dash board

Note the custom pirate dashboard

The first half of the rally was very jolly. We had a Sat Nav but no charger so we could only turn it on in emergencies. So instead we managed to navigate across Europe using the map in the front of a copy of Asterix and Roman agent. As you can imagine we got lost quite a lot but it was all part of the fun. Even the bit where we sort of drove through someone’s front garden was good. On the second day we awoke in Switzerland. We had driven in the night before so we hadn’t seen much of the view so went we woke up it was a lovely surprise. Switzerland is extremely pretty, and it has some of the most wiggly roads I’ve ever seen.

Look at how bendy that road is

Just look at how bendy that road is

Even though we were supposed to be doing a challenge on that day (Every day we had a different task to complete and there were prizes for the best teams at the end) we decided to abandon any pretence of gaining points and just spend a day driving on really wiggly roads. It was absolutely fantastic fun, I’ve never enjoyed driving a car so much and yet we were constantly passing motorcycles and their owners taking a rest with huge grins on their faces. It looked like they were having even more fun than we were, more on that later.

After a day of brilliant riding we decided that the only sensible thing to do would be to leave Switzerland via the infamous Stelvio pass. Henry was driving and so at the bottom of the pass we stopped the car, checked stop watches and set off. At the first corner the breaks failed and we went up on to two wheels. Henry managed to slow the car down by driving it onto a bank and we came to a stop. One of the other chaps in the car went into shock at this point.

The corner we nearly fell off

The corner we nearly fell off

Even though we had enough computers with us to send a spaceship to the moon we didn’t have any tools. Yup, not a single tool. It turned out that our day of thrilling driving had boiled off the brake fluid. The RAC refused to come out and help us because we weren’t going to bring the car back from Europe and so we were rather stuffed. The sensible thing to do at this point would be to slowly work our way down the hill and wait out the next day.

Instead another team said we could ram them if we needed to slow down and so we attempted the Stelvio pass without any brakes. Let me find a good picture of the pass so you can get an idea of the sort of undertaking this was. 

Yes, that is a road

Yes, that is a road

The next two hours were life-changingly scary – absolutely terrifying. At every corner we could have died and we knew it. We even started doing video messages to our loved ones if we didn’t survive but that was so depressing that we stopped.

Tsk, look at the car in front showing off with his brakes

Tsk, look at the car in front showing off with his brakes

We made it, and the first pint we had when we stopped was the best tasting pint I’d ever had. Nothing like a bit of death to make drink taste better. Anyway the rest of the trip was marvellous and it was the best holiday I’ve ever been on. Even my dad was impressed and talking about the rally was the moment when we started to bond again for the first time in years.

Anyway, since returning I’ve often thought about those motorcyclists having the time of their lives and so Henry and I are going to try the Stelvio again but this time on motorbikes. Just thinking about it makes my legs go a bit wobbly so I think I’ll get a bit of practice and possibly some specialised training before I decide to hit the pass. Oh and this time it would be nice to have some brakes.

 

My lid was starting to pong a bit so it was time to give it a good clean. After a bit of searching on the Internet and talking to some friends it seems that you can take helmets into the shower and wash them that way even if it seems a bit wrong. The advice was just to wash it carefully with shampoo and then let it try out naturally over a few days.

Even the cats thought it was a bit whiffy.

Even the cats thought it was a bit whiffy.

 So I took it into the shower and started scrubbing it down, this was going well and then I noticed that the lining came away so it could be cleaned seperately. What a prat. If I’d read the instructions for my helmet I would have known that. There was even a little white tag inside the helmet saying ‘removable lining’. Double prat. I think the reason I didn’t read the instructions was what would they say? ‘Step 1 – Place on head, Step 2 – ride’ 

The offending lining

The offending lining, just after being removed.

Anyway the lining has now been handwashed seperately and the helmet has survived it’s trip to the shower so it clearly is safe to take helmets into the shower to wash them. Another mystery solved.

If you are really concerned just phone up your dealer and check with them. Just so you know, if you tell people you are washing your helmet* be ready for all sorts of sniggers and silly giggles, especially if you mention it got a bit smelly after riding hard.

Oh and I washed my Hein Gericke Tuareg suit in the washing machine and it’s fine. You just have to remove the armour before you chuck it in. Yes for some reason I’m able to read the instructions on a jacket but not on a helmet.

*In Britain at least it’s slang for something rude.

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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