3 Sept 2018

My First Experience Riding A Motorcycle Off Road

My brother had said he fancied doing a motorcycle off road day. I think at the time I said something like "Yeah OK" and promptly forgot about it whilst he organised the whole thing. He did some research, decided the best one was the Yamaha Off Road Experience in mid-Wales and booked two places on the one day experience. Along the way he booked a hotel and sent me emails with all the information.

And then a few days before the actual event I thought I'd better look at the paperwork. Blimey! I said. It's a four hour drive from home and it starts at 9am - I'm not getting up at 4am. So I booked a really cheap B&B room in a place called Rhayader in deepest darkest mid Wales, just 15 miles south of Llanidloes.

And then I thought I ought to get in to the spirit and decided I'd ride there on my motorbike. You can see in the picture below that my own motorbike, a Triumph Tiger, is actually a kind of off roader. There's no getting round the fact that it is classified as an adventure bike. I bought it because it's comfortable to sit on and ride (I do 7,000 miles a year on it) and because it has a big aluminium box on the back (called a top box) which can swallow enough stuff for a weekend away.

But, unless you include a brief spin across Salisbury Plain, I'd never ridden it, or any other bike, off road.

The fact I had zero experience off road played on my mind as the day approached. I'd heard riding a motorcycle off road is a brutal, intensive and tiring experience. I'd heard tales of constantly falling off the bike and picking it back up, of getting stuck in mud, of being miserable. Would I enjoy it? Would It hate it? I had no idea.

And so after work on the Friday I checked and rechecked the Tiger. It had new tyres and I'd squeezed everything into the top box. I set the satnav for the hotel and left at 6.15pm.

The journey was pretty epic. An hour of M4, cross the Severn crossing, turn right at Newport on to the A449. After half an hour of dual carriageway the road became smaller and more twisty. And the scenery became more spectacular. I rode through the Brecon Becons, I rode up mountains and down mountains, round lakes, and through villages. It was warm and bright and brilliant.

Darkness descended and the road got even more twisty. My eyes were on stalks as I went this way and that following the snake-like contours of the A470 until finally I arrived in Rhayader at 9.45pm.

The room was spacious and comfortable. I necked a couple of beers and slept well.

At 8.30am I set off for Yamaha Experience Centre. It's so isolated the nearest postcode is half a mile away. It's a few miles west of Llanidloes and you have to set the co-ordinates into your satnav. I'd checked it out on Google Earth and found it easily enough and rode into the farmyard where it's based.

The site is literally a working farm. I was directed to park the Tiger in a massive cow shed and met up with my brother and the rest of the people who were on the course. We all gave our various waist and chest and feet sizes and were given boxes of kit, a pair of huge boots and a helmet.

Once fully togged up in off road gear we assembled in the farmyard and inspected the bikes. There was a long line of hardcore trail bikes which were for another group who arrived just after us. Our row of bikes was a little more eclectic.

My brother, rather sensibly, had elected for the slightly less hardcore option and booked the Ténéré Experience. A Yamaha Ténéré is an adventure bike. It's road legal and has knobbly tires and a low revving, torquey engine. There were two 1200cc Ténérés and four 660cc Ténérés . As well as these there was a smaller, lighter WR 250R and a WR 450F.

There were six riders in our group plus two instructors. The lead instructor was Dylan Jones, a vastly experienced Enduro rider.  Dylan spent 30 minutes talking us through the bikes and their specs and capabilities as well as describing the format of the day and what to expect.

So far so good. My initial worries about off road riding were being to dissipate. The whole set up was professional. The bikes were obviously maintained to a high standard and the instructors knew exactly what they were doing.

Most bikes did bear a few battle scars though - and Dylan duly explained how to pick up a bike if one of us were to drop it.

Eventually we all chose bikes - I went for a 660 Ténéré and my brother a 1200 - and we set off in single file behind Dylan.

The roads around the farm are all single lane. The tarmac is old and dusty. The corners are sharp and often steep. We rode at 20 to 30mph getting used to our bikes and loosening up. My Ténéré felt odd compared to my own bike. The seat was a similar height, which is quite tall compared to most bikes, but the bars felt closer and higher. The engine was strong but vibey and it didn't like revving high. It had a sweet spot of between 1500rpm to 4000rpm and outside of that it complained gruffly.

After ten minutes on the road we turned on to a gravel track. We carried on, through the amazing Welsh countryside and into the Hafren Forest. The tracks got a little rougher and it felt less like farmland and more like wilderness.

Dylan parked up at a junction and we all came to a stop. Engines off and he explained that we would be riding in a loop taking in a few very sharp corners, some seriously rough ground and riding around some debris left by loggers.

He told us how to stand on the pegs and what we should be doing with the engine, clutch and bike in general.

We all felt ready for this as he led us slowly around the route. The bike was suited for standing on the pegs but I had to bend a little too much for comfort so I kind of swapped between standing and sitting. We spaced out and took the route at our own pace. It was undoubtedly tough but within a couple of circuits we all mastered the basics. We carried on round this loop a few more times, exploring different techniques and lines.

Eventually we stopped again and water bottles were handed out. We were all grinning and chattering away about our own experiences, what we found hard and easy. There was one particular section I found hard and it wrenched my arms and shoulders a little as I struggled to keep the bike upright. But I had become better at it each time I arrived at it and this simple incremental improvement felt hugely rewarding.

After the debrief and rest we headed off again on a longer ride at higher speeds round dusty, rough trails. We spun the rear wheels a little and controlled tiny slides and felt amazing.

Then we stopped by a place where a tiny track met the trail - disappearing into the forest. Dylan explained it was downhill, possibly slippery and there were a couple of sharp corners. We headed down one by one.

Standing up where possible it was first gear, very gentle braking, concentrate intensely on the track ahead. Where did it go, where precisely did I need to place the wheel, how would my body position affect the bike? All these things and more. I caught the front brake and slid a little on a very sharp downhill hairpin but let go the brake and reapplied it in an instant - this time more progressively and controlled and saved myself from an embarrassing spill.

At the bottom we were elated. Did we want to do it again? Yes! So we did, only better.

And that's how the morning continued. A decent ride at a fair old lick along some dusty trails followed by a tight and tricky section with some gravel and bumps and logs and rocks and hills and puddles and trees and sweat and concentration and smiles.

For lunch we headed to a small country pub in a small country village and ate a hearty meal and pints of coke and lemonade.

And in the afternoon we did it all again, only this time we did more and faster and harder. We swapped bikes and swapped stories. I had a go on the much smaller and lighter WR 250R. Its power band was smaller but it was more fun, and easier to use, on the rougher sections.

My brother rode the 660 Ténéré and the 1200 Ténéré. He reckoned the 1200 was pretty capable on the rough stuff - its weight and electronics and plush suspension taking care of some of the tougher terrain.

I had one crash, a fairly slow motion affair. I was really chuffed with myself. I'd successfully ridden down the steepest, slipperiest hill of the day. Right at the bottom was a sharp right hander and I kept it in too high a gear on the 250. It stalled and the rear wheel locked and I went down. No damage to me or bike.
I rode two bikes on the day

There were a couple of other spills. In the morning we all went into a forest section one by one. One lad stalled at the top of a slope and the rider behind, already committed to the slope had to avert and they ended up side by side like fallen dominoes. No-one was injured and the bikes were fine.

As the afternoon wore on I started to feel weary. We'd been well looked after by the instructors but the toll of riding all day was starting to make itself felt in my limbs.

After half an hour or so of non stop riding round amazing trails I slid to one side as I stalled again. I was fine but exhausted. I took stock and had a chat with the instructor. We were only a mile from the farm, he said, and would be back to base soon.

At around 4.30 we rode into the farmyard. Filthy, sweaty and exhausted, but happy and with a sense of achievement.

I'd mastered the art of off road riding and I'd had a brilliant day. I was glad my brother had decided to do it and organised it. My initial fears hadn't played out at all.
My own Triumph Tiger 800 XCX

The team at the Yamaha Off Road Experience were fabulous. The bikes were prepared well, the level of instruction was tip top and mid-Wales provided a fantastic playground as well as some amazing views.

That night we stayed in a local hotel. We downed a few cold beers, ate another large meal and swapped off road biking tales.

The next day I rode the four hour journey home on my Tiger. A perfect way to finish a wonderful weekend of biking.

By Matt Hubbard