What’s more fun than riding a motorbike along country roads? Riding it off-road of course. I was off to Wales this weekend for a Friday/Saturday off-road skills course on the border of the Brecon Beacons National Park.

Leaving work for the ride into Wales on Thursday was a nightmare. London traffic was a killer and even the bike couldn’t get around the clogged roads onto the M4 motorway. After about an hour of near standstill I was well on my way. Rather than sitting on the motorway the whole way, I turned off near Swindon and took the A-roads over the border. Once in Wales it was like “where did all the traffic go?”. Empty roads through national park, empty 3 lane highways, about 4 degrees and no-one in sight.

Accommodation for the trip was The Mole Inn which came recommended from the training course, and I can highly recommend it as well. Arriving at the Mole there were already 3 R1200GS bikes parked outside so I knew this was the right place. Using the quality of the shower as the primary factor in my decision this is great a place to stay. Additionally, the breakfasts were very good, staff very friendly and helpful, and the cosy bar area with log burner was a welcome end to the days.

Breakfast on Friday morning was a chance to meet the other guys staying at the Mole who were also enrolled on the off-road course. Steve, Suzie and Hewy were the lucky 3 and we all had breakfast together. I found out that they were all in the pub down the road when I drove into town. They heard me coming and saluted the mighty Bumblebee…mer as I rode past. Needless to say I didn’t see them but got a laugh out of the story.

For the course the only mandatory items of protection are motocross boots and the road legal helmet. I had purchased some shiny new motocross boots for the occasion and borrowed a mates motocross gear. Having a motocross helmet and goggles proved a lot better than wearing a road helmet the entire time. Once I also add knee protection, hip protection, elbow protection, shoulder protect, back protection and an armoured kidney belt to my outfit I was ready to go.

There was about 20 people in total doing the off-road skills course which ranged from first-timers like me to occasional off-roaders improving their technical skills.

The bikes on offer were all BMW’s. The G450X, G650Xcountry, F650GS, F800GS, R1200GS and R1200GSA for the instructors. I had gone for the F800GS for something that was lighter than my bike but not so light that the skills I learnt would not be applicable to my normal riding.

We all headed off to the off-road park and broke into groups for the first session on an open field. First learning of the day was to the thing we would do the most. Picking up your bike when you got kicked off or pulled the eject yourself. The instructors were very open that you were going to do this a lot so it made sense to learn the most efficient way of getting your bike upright again. Then we went into some slow moving exercises. This started with the proper way to stand on the pegs as all the riding we would do would be standing up. How to balance and more importantly how to be comfortable and relaxed that you were not straining your back We did a slalom course, revised tight cornering and counter-balance to turn in tight circles without falling over or putting a foot down. Next was the faster part of the first session. Skids!

Our instructor Gary was the humble demonstrator of this exercise. Demo 1 was how we were to do it, first gear, accelerate, clutch in, stand on the brakes and skid for a couple of metres to a stop, then ride off. Simple. Demo 2 was once you felt comfortable you could go a bit faster. Gary went just a “little” faster and once he got back from a 50m fish tail across the dirt we were ready to try for ourselves.

This is where I learnt the true benefit of the boots, arm protection and gloves I was wearing for the day. First run and I hit the dirt in a big way. Front end dropped away, I half went over the handlebars and the bike pinned my right leg to the dirt. Boots paid for themselves in that moment. Thought I had fractured my hand and the swelling was almost instant but who would stop having all this fun. After a few moments of gathering myself in the dirt I was back on the bike and ready to try again. Next few times were a lot better and great fun.

So now we had done the rear wheel skids it was time to do the front wheel skids. What the? I’m sure I had been told this was a deadly exercise and if it happened, sure death would follow. But in the world of off-road all the rules had changed. Straight line, weight back, on the gas and you easily lock up the front wheel for half a metre or so and recover. And I came through that unscathed.

With those skills under the belt it was time for a trail ride before lunch. This was the bit I really liked. Riding through forest with the confidence to tackle turns and straights on sand, mud and loose gravel. Being the first ride I also knew the instructors were probably taking it easy on us.

After lunch we would do more exercises out on the trail rather than the open field. First up, balance with a bit of “Gary says”. Riding with one hand in the air, one foot in the air and finally both hands in the air. Look mum, no hands! And no stacks either.

Being comfortable skidding the bike and recovering, it was time to tackle some downhills. Again we had a great circuit of a few different hills to go down where you could slide down them, engine break down them, stop half way if you wanted to and then set off again.

Throughout the day we had had a few emergency repairs on the bikes. Mainly the cylinder heads on the R1200GS bikes which were starting to spit oil all over their riders. This became the first (and luckily the only) medevac for the weekend. One guy had lost it in the dirt, with a bit of speed and rather than driving it like a rental and getting the hell out of there when the bike started to go, he held on tight and ended up riding it into the ground. Bike and blood everywhere he had busted up the bike and his hand and was destined for Swansea hospital. Ended up getting a tendon sewn back on and a skin graft on his hand. We lost about an hour in that, which also mean our instructors were tied up tending to him and then fixing his bike. So they called in the big guns. Our instructor for the afternoon, manager of the off-road skills centre and 7 time Dakar rally starter with 5 finishes, ex-pat Australian Simon Pavey. He trained Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman for Long Way Round and competed in the Dakar Rally with Charlie Boorman in the TV series Race To Dakar. We did some more trail riding and in the process lost a fellow rider in the process. It did mean we got a glimpse of Simon’s skills when he had to race around and find our missing rider.

We finished up about 5:30pm and went out for a group dinner in a neighbouring town. Great meal and all up a great group of people. Not the “bikers” I was expecting. People that just loved riding their motorbikes and came from all walks of life. Labourers, lawyers, business owners, café managers and the occasional IT professional.

Saturday started where Friday left off. Quick trail ride to get back into the flow of things. Today would be about uphills, recovering for a fall or stall half way up, and some momentum exercises for steep inclines where you don’t know what’s on the other side. With balance, uphills are surprisingly easy. The bikes just go over anything and going faster is a smoother ride than going slow. The momentum exercise was interesting. Approach the hill with a bit of speed, clutch in and coast up using up all your speed at the reach the top. Then you can have a bit look around to determine the best way to proceed. This test is the assessment to see if you are good enough to go on to Level 2 of the course, but that isn’t something that interests my at this stage.

After lunch we all got a change to swap bikes and go for a short trail ride to see how the other bikes handled. First on my list was the larger R1200GS. It was great. The power comes and goes a lot smoother than the smaller bikes, and the extra weight is almost un-noticeable on the trail. I am sure you notice it after you drop it and have to pick it up a few times. Also had a go on the little 450’s. Much more built to scramble over boulders and up and down narrow scrubby trails. Definitely not built for comfort!

The afternoon was all about trail rides using all the skills we had learnt and that was just the greatest part for me. Absolutely loved just riding the trails, through the forest, through the sand, gravel, mud and puddles. Knew I was getting tired in the afternoon. Lost it a few times in thick mud getting stuck between ruts. Frankly, I wasn’t looking far enough ahead and really wasn’t going fast enough. “When in doubt, look up and gun it” should have been running through my mind but wasn’t.

First hit I landed straight on my sore hand which was sub-optimal. Picked up the bike and headed off again. Slammed into the wall of a rut in the mud only minutes later and flew over the handle bars into the scrub. This time all I could think about was how comfortable the ground was once you were lying on it and really didn’t want to have to keep picking up my bike. By this time everyone was a fair way in front of my so giving it a bit of an extra umph to catch up actually meant I rode better and while the bike was slipping and sliding underneath me, I was riding like a pro and getting the bike caked in the mud in the process. Excellent!

We had a few retirements in the afternoon as well. One lady, who ultimately had a hill named after her, had a couple of spectacular crashes. Of note was the sounds of an open throttle and cracking trees, and the sight of the bike launching into the forest and the rider flying like superman alongside the bike. She was very tough and went on for a couple more falls before retiring for the day. Solid effort. Another guy didn’t quite make the top of the hill on the momentum exercise and just could give it some gas quick enough to get the R1200GS up. Over her went landing on his shoulder and giving the body armour a bit of a work out. Another fall on an uphill and he retired hurt as well.

I was pretty happy to make it to the end of the course having only slammed my head into dirt or mud 3 times, swollen and bruised one hand, bruised left calf (from the handlebars after flying over them), bruised right thigh and sore right ankle from having the bike land on it.

Saturday night was spent back in the Mole with the instructors from the course. They came around for the beer and a meal and it was great to spend the evening just chatting away. By this stage a few people had also started to arrive for the Sunday/Monday Level 2 & 3 course.

I chose not to take a camera with me as I am sure it would have smashed a few times if I did. So the only photos I have to share are the before and after picks of my boots and a shot of my bruised hand.

This was the last off-road skills weekend of the year now that the weather has started to turn. They start again in March 2011 and I think I will be signing up for the Level 1 course again. It was great fun and you learn a lot of skills that apply equally to road riding. Anyone interested?

You can find out all the details at www.worldofbmw.com