It may well have been Ewan McGregor on a motorbike in Long Way Round that put the idea into my head. The motorcycle has been my means of getting from A to Z in London ever since my bicycle was stolen in 1995. At the time I entertained the idea of getting a scooter but had seen a couple of workmates go that route and graduate quickly to a motorbike. In addition, it wasn’t just about getting around London: I also fancied the idea of getting out of the city on two-wheels sometimes.
Of course, the issue of safety had always been at the back of my mind. With a mental jolt I recalled five years earlier receiving a letter from my good friend Ron’s father explaining that his 28-year-old son had been killed in a motorcycle accident involving a collision with a car. After careful consideration I decided I would reserve my decision to purchase a motorcycle until I completed my certified basic training (CBT). At the end of the one-day course I felt confident on a motorcycle in the city and it seemed that my years of cycling London’s roads had been good groundwork.
Over the years I did enjoy the occasional trip out of London: to Brighton, Cornwall and once to France, but what I enjoyed most was the benefit of getting from A to B in London efficiently and swiftly. I’ve never outgrown the sense of satisfaction you get filtering through stationary traffic in the city, nor taken for granted the ability to quickly park in busy Soho.
But something vital was still missing. Proper bikers love nothing more than taking on the twisties of a country road. I’ve tagged along a couple of times with motorbike mates on country rides, but that’s just what it felt like as I struggled to keep up. My friend Mykel once asked me what I was so afraid of when I approached a corner with extreme caution. ‘A car coming round the corner from the other direction and into my lane,’ I answered. Mykel’s response was to suggest I try riding offroad.
So it was that about the time of turning 50 I found myself daydreaming of riding in a world without road signs, trafficlights, cars, buses and SUVs. It was this obsessive thought that lead to a discovery when I heard about a motorbike course run by BMW that offered the chance to learn to ride offroad.
Scouring the web for information I discovered that learning to ride offroad on a motorbike isn’t just a jolly. The level one course is designed to teach key machine (bike) controls that are directly transferrable to the road. BMW’s reputation was enough to instill complete confidence in the course, but discovering that it was headed by Simon Pavey, seven-time competitor of the gruelling 16-day Dakar Rally provided more than ample reassurance. What’s more, this was the very school that prepared Ewan and Charlie for their long way round trip. I shed my fears and apprehensions and found myself bound for Wales.
Driving up the day before the start of the two-day course, the June weather was glorious. But, clearly, as I stared out of my bedroom window across the river at the pouring rain, sunshine two days in a row in Wales may have been too much to ask for. Never mind: Londoners are used to rain too and I had never been a fair weather rider.
After swift preparations for proper clothing and signing in with the BMW team at the Swansea headquarters, about forty attendees headed to the 2,000-acre Walters Arena on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Forest. It was stunning — even in the wet. It was also daunting – if I didn’t stick close I could be lost for days. Here we were divided into groups for the different levels (three) and introduced to our instructor. Jenny was our level one group instructor who quickly put all eight participants at ease by demonstrating how to approach, balance, and handle our own motorbike. At 5’ 4”, Jenny’s bike of choice was the substantial BMW1200 R GS, and with its kickstand raised she walked from the front to back of the bike holding it up by her hands as she continued her way around, illustrating the bike’s centre of balance, or, I thought, its core. We each followed suit with our own vehicles: each year BMW supplies brand new bikes. I was paired with the user-friendly G 650 GS single cylinder. My first motorbike in London was a Honda 650 single so I was happy that I would be comfortable and content with this bike. The G 650 GS is a new addition to the fleet and due to its low seat height and riding position allows for great visibility (even with shorter riders), being perfectly suited for city riding where you want to be looking ahead and peripherally for moving, hidden obstacles (pedestrians, bicyclists, opening car doors, etc.) in a densely populated area.
Next, Jenny demonstrated how to pick up her bike weighing 229kg and nearly 1.5 metre high. Gingerly laying the beast on its side, Jenny used the handle bars to turn the front wheel skywards and used the left handlebar as a lever, lifing the bike back upright in a matter of seconds. As with this exercise, and as Jenny explained during the next task of skidding, ‘There are not many places where you can practice this’ and ‘it’s important to know what it feels like when it happens.’ Skidding involved the rider going as fast as he/she could then stomping on the rear brake when Jenny raised her hand. Turns out, everyone loves the skidding, but measuring one’s skid marks in the dirt proved more than a little difficult!
After a few more mental and coordination tasks it was lunchtime. With lunch and dinner there was instant camaraderie, with no hierarchy between bikers and instructors of the different levels. Mealtimes provided a good opportunity to exchange information and humorous tales of the day. After lunch we headed for the hills with Jenny in the lead and another Simon from the team following at the back. Incredibly, the few key skills we learned that day allowed each of us to handle our bikes down steep hills (no brakes!), around blind corners and boulders, in ruts and, most fun of all, through puddles that must have been 2-foot deep.
Day two provided even greater enjoyment with the weather clearing and much information from the previous day falling into place. Amid the fun and frolics, however, I became somewhat complacent as I fell into the most basic of traps: looking into a direction I did not want to go. While travelling in the right hand rut of a muddy trail, instead of looking ahead in the distance, I fixed my gaze to the woods on the right, where the bike naturally followed over the edge getting us both seriously stuck into some mud. I honestly thought we were going to need reinforcements to get the machine out but quickly became impressed as Jenny skilfully manoeuvred the bike out in the time it would take to do a three-point turn in a car on a road. At the end of the day, getting muddy was part of it, and mud or no mud, I knew I had learned plenty to warrant my certificate.
I arrived back in London riding with a new-felt confidence and found renewed enjoyment of my Triumph. Among constant reminders of the two day Welsh adventure, I recall the first thing Jenny said to us: “it’s about having fun”. Whoever said commuting in London shouldn’t be fun? And besides, with my new skill-set I felt safer as a rider, too.
Lou’s two-day tour of the Brecon Beacons cost £499 and included food and a night’s accomodation. For more information on BMW’s offroad courses, head here.