My Love For The Dirt
My first taste of motorcycling was on dirt. I had a ‘play’ on a friend’s tiny 50cc dirt bike when I was about seven or eight. I had already fallen in love with the idea of biking by this point, but it was that very short blast on that petrol smelling dirty bike that set the dream in concrete.
Fast forward 30 years and I have pretty much avoided mud and dirt since that very day. I struggle to relax when I’m riding on anything that might move, and as I’ve gotten older that feeling has definitely grown. I’m an anxious person at the best of times!
My excitable adventurous dirt-loving childhood self, that still exists inside somewhere, has had her eye on the two-day courses run by Off Road Skills for BMW for years. Every year I pick up the brochure at Motorcycle Live and think about it some more. This year I pulled the trigger…
I stood looking at my allocated F 700 GS, wondering if I would be able to reach the floor. I’d gone for the F 700 GS low version because it was the closest to my own F 650 GS machine. This one was significantly taller and with my left foot on the ground, even on tiptoes, I could not force my right foot to reach the tarmac on the other side. I was clearly trying very hard – one of the instructors looked at me and said “don’t worry, you can totally ride that”. I’m glad he thought so!
Off Road Skills is a company run by the Pavey family. You’ll probably have heard of Simon Pavey; he’s competed in the Dakar Rally 10 times and is the guy who taught Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman to ride off road before Long Way Down, and then rode the Dakar Rally with Charley a year later. I had heard excellent things about the courses from others, and when speaking to them at bike shows felt I was taken seriously as a rider despite my obvious concerns about my strength, height and skill level. They listened to my concerns and explained how they would give me the confidence to get over them, and that, for me, was the dealmaker.
I was an absolute bundle of nerves as we left Off Road Skills headquarters to head to the Walters Arena. I could have booked a ladies only weekend but wanted to ride with a couple of our friends, who were also keen to do the level one course, and these things are always better when shared. I was pleased not to be the only female rider that weekend, there were about six of us.
The day started with us watching on as one of our instructors (we had two with us) lowered their bike down on its side and explained how we should go about picking it up. Easy… position the handlebars correctly, squat nice and close to the bike, both hands under the lower bar, keep your arms bent and take the weight from your legs, and lift.
I took hold of the bike, very slowly and carefully pushed it upright and raised the side stand and lowered it to the ground as carefully as I could. Thankfully the course price includes any damage, providing you weren’t doing anything ridiculously stupid! There is a support van on site with tools and spare parts to make repairs as needed, and a spare bike just in case things went very wrong.
I saw the guys putting their back into it and gave it a go. I reckon I got the bike around three centimetres off the ground before I put it back down. Back to it, with some encouragement from those around me, and I just about managed to get the bike on its wheels again. I know one of the instructors had his hands hovering around the rear of the bike to jump in if I needed it, which was a nice security blanket, but I maintain that I lifted that thing up on my own!
After learning how to pick up the bike without ruining our backs, and walking next to the bike over the uneven ground using the engine and clutch (not easy!), we got on the bikes for some slow riding practice. Once on the bike, standing up on the pegs, I could ride that thing at slow speeds all day long, and with total trust in my ability.
We practiced using the clutch to control speed, using our weight to turn the bike, looking where we wanted to go, choosing good lines over ruts and through puddles, changing gear while stood up, and generally had time to hone our slow riding skills.
Still on the proving ground, our instructors set up a slalom course so they could teach us about making tight turns and switching direction. The first few turns were fine, but they got progressively more difficult. The next time one of the instructors ran the course with me shouting where I should be looking on each turn so I could make the bike go where I wanted to without wobbling. Eventually, I managed the whole course twice in a row, giving myself a little whoop inside my helmet in congratulations. Turning: sorted.
After lunch, it was all about the braking. We had fun locking up the rear wheel and skidding to a stop, learning where the locking point was on the front brake, and practicing how to avoid a stall when braking hard. Even with the sogginess of Wales, the braking exercises were a lot of fun and I finally realised I’d got the hang of stopping confidently on one foot with my bum hanging off the side of the seat.
We finished the afternoon with a decent length ride around some gravel fire roads and mostly mud tracks, the trails were where I wanted to be. I did enjoy it every time we went for a ride along the trails; it was an opportunity to put things into practice and set everything in my memory banks ready to take on the next lesson.