“The point of trying off road isn't because our customers are about to ride the Dakar but because it gives them better riding skills, learning in a suitable riding environment.” - Simon Pavey, BMW’s Chief Off Road Instructor and finisher of 7 Dakar Rally’s.
BMW called. Said “do you fancy trying off-roading?” I said “yes please”, packed my brand new TCX off-road boots, helmet, many layers and hot-footed it to Wales to cover possibly the most enjoyable 80 miles of my motorcycle-riding life.
The BMW Off Road Skills (ORS) training school is run by Simon Pavey, his wife Linley and their band of enthusiastic and talented instructors. Their range of 36 BMW’s is made up of the G650GS, G650GS Sertao, F800GS and R1200GS Adventure so there’s plenty of choice depending on your level of experience.
Eight different courses are on offer via the Off Road Skills school, all aimed at different levels of skill and ability. Ultimately, all of the courses are designed to take a step-by-step theory and practical guide towards making you a better rider, not only applicable for off-road riding, but with skills that are transferable to all genres of motorcycling.
Aim of the game
The objective is to get each rider from “zero to competent”
The Level One course is taught over two very well structured days to a maximum of 32 riders who are split into three groups. Each group have their own dedicated instructors over the two days with the objective of getting each rider from “zero to competent” in terms of off-road riding ability. And considering my previous total experience of off-roading was ½ day at the Motorcycle Off Road Experience run by the MCIA, I naturally opted for Level One aboard the 650 Sertao.
Starting at the Start
An industrial estate in Ystalyfera, South Wales is our starting point. It’s easy to find because 36 BMW motorcycles are parked outside. Sign-on, grab any pre-ordered protective gear, put your mobile in a plastic sleeve and get ready for Pavey’s welcome speech.
Ten years on from his Long Way Round extravaganza with Ewan McGregor, TV adventurer and Celebrity MasterChef finalist, Charley Boorman is also ‘teaching’. The duo had taken their first off-roading lessons at the BMW ORS before setting off on their epic trip, so Boorman is no stranger to this part of the UK.
On the bikes and 7-miles down the road we find ourselves on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. The first lesson is concerning; how to pick a bike up off the floor. However, with two days of riding over terrain that will test balance, dexterity and ability to multitask with clutch, accelerator and brakes in unfamiliar surroundings it becomes apparent just why you need to learn the correct methods to pick 260kg of R1200GS Adventure up, in the rain.
The teaching methods are concise and easy-to-understand. The practical side of the exercises are the more challenging parts.
Most fell during the two days but it was always a low speed tumble and is almost encouraged so you can a) learn how it feels, b) learn how to fall ‘properly’, and c) practise the techniques required for picking the bike up again. This includes the best technique for positioning your body and feet when lifting as well as mounting the bike, leaving the bike in gear so it acts like a handbrake for example.
Here's a 5-minute video review of the course:
Lessons on the flat
Most of the first morning is spent developing your new found riding style – stood up on your pegs - and how you can adjust your balance to complement the bikes own. Vision and braking are key elements to riding off-road taking into consideration how much more you need to see, how far you should be looking ahead and how to control the bike on loose surfaces. For now, we were concentrating on these elements while on a relatively flat surface.
As with all exercises, Pavey demonstrates before we each had several attempts. One to note is the rear brake challenge. Common sense will tell you that using a rear brake only on such a surface will not stop you very quickly and this became very clear on the first demonstration as Pavey reached 30mph, pulled the clutch in, stomped on the rear brake (with ABS disabled of course) and slid on for another 60 feet. The evidence is obvious that it has very little practical use although it did make you feel like you were BMX'ing aged 8!
After lunch, forest
Now that you’re ready for the Dakar, well not quite, we head into the 2,000 acre playground to test our new found skills.
As you begin to feel comfortable with the equipment and the techniques learned, any confidence is quickly put to one side with a new lesson. Each is followed by another 20-30 minute ride to practice. On each occasion Pavey talks through any challenges the terrain ahead may present and what skills are required in order for it to be conquered. Once demonstrated, there were at least three runs to practice.
First challenge: the descent. Hop off the bike and wander over to a dauntingly-angled drop with limited run-off, an obviously loose surface and large rocks that add to the lack of volunteers to go first. Of course as soon as one went, everyone else followed.
Put your faith in the engine braking for your first run, then a combination of throttle and front brake to balance the speed on the next run. On the third attempt Pavey stands half way down the hill and you’re told to stop next to him…in a controlled manner. He’s brave. Either that or he genuinely has confidence in our/the bike’s ability!
Wrapping up Day One
The afternoon pans out with ever-more challenging tracks in-between trees, down hills and through puddles. The more new and varied terrain covered, the more you want to ride. The rain simply added to the challenge - a dry, warm day can often be worse due to the dust kicked up.
Pavey, Boorman and Co. host an evening in the local pub where stories of the day are exchanged – many not fit for publishing!
Moroccan trip forthcoming
“It's definitely doing the business. At every stage there's always something new which at first you think I can't do that but the instructors give you confidence to achieve it.”
Kevin Young, 49, South London
Despite being inexperienced off-road, I hadn’t been nervous during the build-up but had rather underestimated how much the bike moves around with just a little bit of power. So day 1 was about conquering the control. The step-by-step approach was ideal at first creating a base from which to add with each lesson.
Tip: if it’s raining on Day One then get your gear into a boiler cupboard or drying room overnight. You’ll regret it if you don’t!
Day Two – what goes down must come up, or something like that
Aches, pains and soggy riding gear apart and everyone forms the convoy heading back to the forest for another packed day of skills learning and developing. Before the days’ first lesson, we start with a warm-up ride.
After Day One
"It’s been an awesome, challenging and physically gruelling day. I've learned and performed manoeuvres that I never thought I could. Tomorrow will be sponsored by Paracetamol!"
Dom Mehta, 48, Newport
Remember yesterday we learned how to go downhill? Well, how about going uphill? Simple, right? Nope. Several hours are spent learning techniques around momentum, choosing the line, gear selection, analysing the terrain and, most importantly, what to do if you stall, fall or loose grip.
By using a combination of gravity, the gearbox, clutch, front brake and your body position you can take a bike that is half way up a hill, turn it through 180 degrees while maintaining full control, get back to the bottom and try again.
Even if you don’t find yourself stuck up a muddy hill in a Welsh forest on a regular basis, manoeuvring a bike of any size can sometimes be tricky. The fact is, lessons learned on the ORS school are easily transferable to on-road situations and will instil confidence when controlling your bike.
As Pavey led the way, the trails became increasingly tougher; bigger hills, narrower passes and deeper ruts/puddles. Like any comedy double act Boorman and his Tour Manager, Billy Ward, who are both very adept at riding off-road, add entertainment and occasionally offer helpful advice. But mostly just hoon around demonstrating that practice and experience does make a difference!
The final challenge
You'll have to go on the course and find out what the final challenge of the day is!
At the end of two amazing days riding, your body will shout ‘rest’ but your mind will just want to carry on exploring.
What else do you need to know?
The ORS opened for business in 2000 by Simon Pavey and the late John Deacon, a fellow factory Dakar rider. The team have since spent a lot of time training teachers, not just instructors, via their in-house training scheme ensuring customers are taught by the best.
For the ladies
Linley Pavey and her fellow 5ft 2” female instructor, Jenny, have no issue hauling the R1200GS Adventure through the forest and are actively encouraging other ladies to get involved. Even Isle of Man TT racer, Maria Costello, has signed up to join a female-only group on 21st/22nd September.
Summing it up
Looking back on the volume of tutorials, amount of practical riding and skills learned and I can honestly say this course is excellent value for money. On top of that I can guarantee that all 32 pupils will have departed not only ‘competent’ but also more than content. Yes there were physical bruises and ego bruises as one after another had low speed falls but by ending up in a bush or lying next to a GS, the other members of the group are permitted to take the mick yet will also rush to your aid. There’s a sense of camaraderie among newbies. By the end of Day Two, you’ll feel right at home on loose surfaces facing gravelled descents or sliding the rear using just your right hand.
During the afternoon of Day Two there was a short opportunity to try the other bikes but that was like dangling a carrot because all I wanted to then was ride the R1200GS Adventure instead of the Sertao, understandably.
This review offers an overview and by no means is a complete and thorough description of the course. To learn all of the skills on offer, you’ll need to sign up.
As Simon says. “It’s structured learning deliberately to teach you as much about riding and having fun too. Level One is still the bread and butter but we've got a full programme now including Adventure Maintenance which is a full day course as well as tours and trips. If we can get each ride from zero to competent with their skills and confidence then we hope they’ll carry on off-roading.”
Simon’s Top 5 Off-Road Riding Tips
The Level One course costs from £479 with clothing hire being the only additional cost. So if you catch a branch or put a rock through your rocker cover (as was the case on day 1 of the course I was on), you won’t need to put your hand in your pocket.
His final words of wisdom: "Work on improving your basic motorcycling skills. Purposeful practice, make it count"
Thanks to BMW Motorrad, Simon Pavey, Charley Boorman and all at the ORS. The official Off-Road Skills website is: http://www.offroadskills.com/
Boots: TCX X-Mud
Helmet Hair: models own
Photos: Billy Ward