I’ve personally known four people who were killed or very seriously injured in motorcycle-related incidents. All were riding off road when their accidents occurred.
I recognize that’s not a terribly large sample size, and it’s entirely possible the experiences of my friends and family members are not representative of the larger picture. But the reality is that stuff did happen and, as such, it tends to shape my attitude toward off-road riding.
In the United States, it’s common for existing riders to argue that the best way to learn how to ride a motorcycle is to get a cheap-o bike and thrash it around in the dirt; or the best way to foster motorcycling is to put a dirt bike in the hands of a child and just let ’em go. I’m not sure I agree with that. It’s unnecessarily expensive (you’re spending money that could be used on a street bike), it’s impractical for those who don’t live near acres and acres of open land (so, pretty much everyone in Britain), and it’s not nearly as safe as its supporters make it out to be.
After you get your license, however – after you’ve built up a certain amount of confidence and experience with road riding – I think there may then be value in heading off the beaten path. And in that situation, I think off road or adventure riding schools are a good way to go about it.
BMW, Honda, Triumph, and Yamaha all have official riding schools here in the United Kingdom, but you’ll also find a fair few independent operations. I’ve had the chance to experience instruction at both BMW’s Off Road Skills and the Triumph Adventure Riding Experience, and as a result I’ve come ’round to the idea that they can be pretty beneficial to an existing rider seeking to build upon his/her skillset.
You Get to Crash an Expensive Motorcycle
One of the major benefits of taking a riding course, rather than, say, heading out on your buddy’s old DRZ, is the fact you get the opportunity to do brutal things to a bike that isn’t yours.
In the aforementioned courses I managed to crash a BMW R 1200 GS, a Triumph Tiger 1200, a Triumph Tiger 800, and a Triumph Street Scrambler. No one was angry at me, though; no one insisted that I cover the cost of repairs. In the case of the R 1200 GS, an over-confident slide resulted in my high siding the thing and its rocker cover being split by the impact of the crash. Oil was spitting from the engine and all I could think was: “£12,000.”
That’s roughly the starting price of an R 1200 GS in the UK (£12,400 to be exact), but there were no repercussions. The instructor’s only concern was that I was alright. Once I assured him that all was well, he was able to patch up the bike with some crazy magic spray and we carried on riding.
The point here is that in riding bikes that aren’t yours, you don’t have to fret over them, and as such, you can feel a little freer to push them.
You’re not just out there crashing bikes willy-nilly, though. Good adventure riding schools have instructors with surprising pedigrees – guys and gals who have competed at the highest level. And – importantly – they have worked to develop the ability to share their skills.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had the misfortune of trying to learn from someone who can’t teach for shit, but it’s an exhausting process for everyone involved. My uncle, for example, was an excellent fisherman – he could pull catfish and bass from a lake about as quickly as I could go into a store and buy them. But when he once took me out on a lake, he could not for the life of him adequately explain how to cast, reel in, etc. After 30 minutes of him saying, ” Jus’ eaz it, li’kiss,” and me snagging the line again, he calmly set down his rod, fired up the boat, and said: “You bedder work on yer schoolin’, get a good jahb – cuz you cain’ fish fer nuthin.”
I can only imagine how badly things would have gone had he been trying to teach me to ride a bike off road. Whereas the professional instructors I’ve encountered at both Off Road Skills and the Triumph Adventure Riding Experience have actually managed to teach me a few things. They’re encouraging, they’re supportive, and they won’t push you into tackling something you’re simply not ready for.
With pro instruction and the freedom to totally destroy someone else’s bike, you’ll find yourself willing to take on challenges you might not ever attempt out on your own, on your own machine.
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Rear-wheel slides, for example. That’s the cool thing you see everyone do in ADV videos, where the rider jams the rear brake, shifts his or her weight, and gets the bike to slide sideways in the mud/dirt. It looks super cool and is pretty fun to do. Dirt bros insist it has some sort of practical purpose, too. I’m not sure I believe them.
I do know it has no real direct value for street riding. But the cumulative effect of riding off road will build in you a greater sense of confidence. I think the most obvious example here again has to do with the rear wheel losing traction, though, this time not on purpose. Get up a good pace on a dirt road and the whole back end of a bike will dance around a bit as you make progress.
From an observer’s perspective, such movement is impossible to see. But the rider can feel it, and if you are street rider going off road for the first time it will scare the bejeezus out of you. It did me. After time, though, I began to accept that the tolerances for traction are greater than I had realized – a little slip doesn’t mean imminent death. Now when I ride off road this is one of my favorite sensations: just zipping along on a dirt road with the back end shifting, almost as if it were a tail and the bike was swimming.
Being comfortable with this feeling means that if I suffer a little slip out on the street I no longer go into full-on panic mode. I’m not saying I seek out oil patches or any such thing, but I’m able to ride in a more relaxed way, which is your best bet when dealing with on-the-road challenges, whether that’s wind, rain, tar snakes, or gravel in the road.
The dirt bros could probably list off several dozen ways in which off-road riding transfers to or enhances your street riding. I think some of that stuff should be taken with a grain of salt (“Bro, you totally need to know how to wheelie because you never know when you might encounter a trash can and need to go over it.”), but here are four things I can think of:
1- Improved foundational skills
Braking, throttle input, and clutch operation are all skills that you’ll work on a lot in an adventure riding course. You’ll learn how to use these skills to manipulate the bike far more deftly than most riders really need out on the road (London commuters being the exception here; I suspect a lot of scooter delivery dudes from the Big Smoke could do quite well at enduro). These skills will most often come into play when riding slowly or in adverse weather.
2- The whole ‘Look Where You Want To Go’ thing
Your body will go wherever you are looking. That’s a piece of advice I’ve been told a million times, going all the way back to when I was a 6-year-old boy playing soccer in the sun-baked fire ant pits that the city of Dallas called sports fields. I was told that again when I played football, and again when I played rugby, and again when I learned how to drive, and again when I learned how to ride a motorcycle on the street, and again when I took RoSPA courses, but for some reason the physical acknowledgement of that truth didn’t come until I took a bike off road.
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You look where you want to go, you give the bike throttle, and you get there; if you look where you don’t want to go, unfortunately that’s exactly where you’ll end up. Finally actually learning this, rather than simply knowing it, has improved my riding considerably. I’m faster and more confident on the road.
3- Body position
I mentioned this in my article about riding in the rain: having a little off-road experience can help you to better understand how your body position can affect things like handling and traction. Admittedly, when it comes to body position and riding on dry roads, it may be that taking a track riding course would be more useful, but an off road course will give you a sense of how to hold yourself in low-traction situations.
4- Staying loose
I mentioned above the value of staying relaxed. Fact is, a bike in motion generally wants to stay upright. Tensing up can cause erratic movements or poor balance that will go against the bike’s wishes. By teaching yourself to ride in a relaxed way – calmly accepting the “swimming” of a motorcycle on dirt, for example – you’ll respond to road situations better. You’ll be less likely to overcorrect, less likely to unsettle a machine with unnecessarily sudden braking, and so on.
Having Said All That…
Perhaps because of my cynicism toward some riders’ implication that off-road riding is perfectly safe, I feel it’s worth noting that all of these skills can be developed without having to go spend a day getting wet, cold, and muddy, and – in my case, at least – chucking yourself at the ground repeatedly.
Indeed, some people might find off road stuff to be demoralizing. Rather than coming away with a broader skillset they may finish the experience thinking: “Maybe I’m not good enough to be riding motorcycles.”
This is especially true for those who end up breaking their wrist or tibia – things that happened to other students at the courses I attended. I only suffered bruises and sore joints and hurt pride, but I’ll admit that at the end of my day at the Triumph Adventure Riding Experience (where I crashed nine times) I felt pretty downhearted. I actually lost some of my interest in riding for about two weeks (thanks to Pirelli for pulling me out of funk).
That’s not the result you want. Which leads to my final argument in favor of taking an off-road- or adventure-riding course: you don’t have to commit to a lifestyle to do it.
Getting away from the asphalt can be helpful and a lot of fun, but it’s entirely possible that you’ll fucking hate it. By taking a course, you have the ability to walk away from the whole thing without regrets: no bike that you have to sell on eBay, no dirt bro friend who keeps pressuring you to try again. Meanwhile, if you do like it, taking a course will introduce you to a whole lot of people with whom you can ride.