A Day Off-Roading

All I could think, as I sat on the precipice, staring down the very steep, very high, rock-strewn slope, was “How the hell did you get yourself into this mess?” I’d never really thought about off-roading before. Then I saw in Motorcycle Monthly, that Kawasaki and Bikesafe had got together to offer discounted days at several off-road schools around the country. Never one to miss a bargain, I convinced myself that it might improve my slow-speed control and was straight on to the Kawasaki-bikesafe websiteI found two outfits in my area: Lee Dunham Racing in Gloucester, run by the ex- British and European motocross champion, and Trail & Off-road, based in Melksham and run by Martin Chappell. The Dunham school is track-based, with the emphasis apparently on racing skills, while Trail & Off-road offered a day on green lanes on Salisbury Plain. I opted for Trail & Off-road, which seemed more in line with my needs. After a quick call to a very helpful lady at Bikesafe to get my bikesafe number from years ago, I registered with Kawasaki. Within a couple of days, Martin contacted me make the arrangements.

And so it was that I turned up at a Community Centre in Melksham at 9.30am on 31st October to meet Martin, Jason, who would be our sweeper, and a 13-plate Kawasaki KLX 250. There was one other guy on the course, normally there are 4-6, who came from Derby and had been given the day as a present. He had had some off-road experience years ago, before the authorities banned motorised vehicles from all the green lanes in his area.

We were kitted out with riding gear, knee pads, trousers, jumper, helmet, goggles, gloves and boots, which was all well-used but serviceable, except for the boots, which leaked. When I went through the first puddle, I thought I had scoops fitted to my toes!

Martin then gave us a short introduction to the bikes. Keep the weight well forward, in order to load the front tyre, both when sitting and when standing on the peg, which you do most of the time. Look well ahead and let the bike do its own thing under you. Cover the clutch with a finger, so that you can whip it in and cut the drive, if you get out of shape. Also cover the front brake with a finger, to minimise any delay in braking and limit the pressure on the brake. It’s easy to lock up on loose, slippery surfaces.

Then we were off, covering a few miles on roads to get to the lanes. That was an experience in itself, with knobbly tyres on still-damp tarmac, no mirrors and no indicators. I hadn’t done hand signals since I was a boy! However, we soon turned off road onto a wet mulch covered gravel track between two lines of trees, which we covered at what I thought was a ridiculous speed, though it was probably no more than 20mph.

It was towards the end of this section that I learned (again!) that target fixation really does happen. I looked at a deep 4×4 track on one side of the track and immediately rode into it, banged against the sides a few times, trying unsuccessfully to climb out, and ended up in a heap in the adjacent field, fortunately without damage to me or the bike. Jason was immediately on hand to help me and offer some sage words “don’t try to keep up with the others until you feel ready, if you get in trouble, in with the clutch and then sit down and paddle out. It’s what the pros do”.

Suitably chastened, we moved on to several miles of unmade tracks and rough pastures, where I found my confidence and speed growing nicely. Then we came to the first “technical bit”. Looking back, I don’t suppose the hill was more than 10 feet high but the track was narrow, steeper than 45˚ and studded with embedded rocks. From my lowly saddle, it was huge and terrifying.

“Stand up and lean well forward to stop the bike flipping. Give it some throttle at the bottom to generate enough momentum to get to the top and then shut off just before getting there, so you don’t go over too fast because you don’t know what’s there.” Martin made it sound and then look easy. And it was, after a few goes, although my first attempts weren’t every elegant or controlled. Then it was time to go down the slope, using engine braking – no brakes – to control the speed. Again, initial nerves gave way to delight and no little wonder as I managed it without falling off.

And so the morning went on: long runs of loose gravel tracks, unmade roads and rough grass fields with ever more, deeper ruts, pot-holes and puddles, tackled at progressively higher speeds, interspersed with occasional technical bits.

At about 12.30, we stopped for a short session of slow speed manoeuvring around cones on a flat but wet and slippery hard standing, before riding into Upavon for a very welcome pub lunch (Included in the price). 31st being , the warmest October day on record, we were able to sit outside, chatting and enjoying our choice of excellent bagettes, with chips and a cuppa. Then it was back to work.

The afternoon followed the pattern of the morning but we were riding a lot faster – at one point I looked down to see 52mph on the clock – and the tracks were a lot rougher. It was quite a revelation suddenly to realise that I was looking ahead and had the time and awareness to pick a line through the pot-holes; not always the best one but definitely my choice, instead of just holding on.

Not that everything went smoothly. One track comprised a pair of foot deep 4×4 wheel ruts, with a very rough, 3 feet wide earth strip, covered in long grass, between them, for us to ride along. I daren’t look at what speed we were doing but it was fast enough for me to think “If this goes wrong, it’s going to go very badly wrong!” It was about that time I rediscovered target fixation. I glanced at the left hand rut and rode straight into it, arms and legs flailing. On the positive side, I knew what to do after my earlier experience and I got it stopped without falling off – but it was a close run thing.

And then we came to the technical bit that caused me to question my sanity. I suppose it must have been a bomb crater, as steep and rough as our first hill but dropping about the height of a house, with a similar climb out the other side. Engine braking alone wouldn’t be enough for this one! Martin also warned us to keep to the right on the way out, as the 4x4s had left a 2 foot stone step halfway up. To be fair, he also suggested that, as a newbie, I might like to give this section a miss but I’m far too stupid for that.

To cut a long story short, I got off line on the way down and ended up heading straight for the step. Faced with stopping and falling off or going for it and falling off, I gave it a big handful – and made it! I think that surprised everyone. It certainly did me.

Soon – I’d like to say all too soon but, frankly, I was knackered – it was time to head back to Melksham, where we arrived at about 4pm. I never checked the mileage but I used a whole tank of gas.

And so to the questions that count:

  • Did I enjoy it? A resounding yes. I can’t say it was fun exactly – I was too sacred too often for that – but it was exhilarating and immensely satisfying to know that I attempted every obstacle and, even more so, that I’d overcome them.
  • Did I achieve my objectives? Well, I didn’t do much slow riding but I learned some valuable lessons that are transferable to road riding: avoid target fixation and, no matter how much trouble you are in, keep thinking. It’s surprising what you can get out of.
  • Would I do it again? Probably not. Much as I enjoyed it, off-roading is not for me. I prefer tarmac.
  • Would I recommend others do it? It’s not for the faint-hearted or unfit but yes. It’s an experience and, as motorcycle days go, good value at £199 (or £180 with Bikesafe discount). Off-roading may not be my thing but, who knows, it may be yours.

Pete Watkins