Earlier this year BMW Durham invited me to join a special offroading event. Designed for individuals who wish to improve their Adventure Riding Skills on back roads and light trails, we also had Lawrence Hacking as our guide and instructor. Lawrence is not only a professional rider but also the author of “To Dakar and Back”, has over 30 years of off road experience, and was the first Canadian to complete the fabled Paris-Dakar Rally in 2001.
In addition to being a great day of riding, Lawrence was to teach us some hands on techniques of Adventure Riding on larger dual-purpose machines (depending on what we rode to the event). My ride for this event was my personal BMW 650GS and I was certainly apprehensive about how well I would do considering my worn chain, sprockets and very worn tires. Oh well…we only live once and I wasn’t going to pass up this chance to learn a few things from Lawrence. Good thing I’m not afraid of failure!
My day started pretty early since I had to ride out to the rendezvous point at Haugen’s Chicken just outside of Port Perry. I was on the road around 8am to ensure that I would arrive early for the meeting time of 9am. I wanted to talk to a mechanic about my bike, which was in need of some service but no mechanic was arranged for this event. I was hoping a mechanic would be available should I throw my chain during the ride. Oh well…good thing I’m not afraid of failure!
Yes…failure was a bit of concern at this point. My bike wasn’t in the greatest condition and I was in the company of some reasonably experienced off-road riders, including the very accomplished Lawrence Hacking. Personally I had virtually zero off-road experience (I don’t consider gravel fire roads and dirt trails proper “off-roading” and that was all the experience I had prior to today). All of the other riders were astride either 800GS or 1200GS machines and most of them had proper knobby tires. At this point I was expecting to be dealt a lesson in humility. There were 18 of us and I was on the smallest BMW there. Sigh…once again, good thing I’m not afraid of failure.
Our first section was on backcountry roads as we made our way to the first “challenge”. We stopped briefly and Lawrence gave a quick warning about riding in the sand ahead. He didn’t actually instruct us on how to tackle it though! As we tackled this sandy road, I remembered back to the riders meeting where he discussed “rake” angles and how adding more throttle allowed the front wheel to better flow over rough terrain. Basically…when in doubt…more throttle! Although a very counter-intuitive concept, adding speed extends the front fork and helps prevent the front wheel from slipping out from under you, which would result in a humbling low-side crash or prevent the front wheel from hooking a rut, which may result in the more dramatic and serious high-side crash that pitches a rider over and off the bike (often leading to a trip to the hospital).
Ok…lets go! We headed off and I was mid-pack as we approached the “sand trap”. Up ahead I observed riders being pitched and thrown around on their bikes as they tried their best to stay upright. Of course things got really interesting for me as riders crashed in the loose sand. Great…not only did I have to tackle the sand but I also had to find a way to avoid fallen riders and bikes as they blocked my path. Although I reached the end of that section of sandy road without falling, many of my fellow riders didn’t fair as well and arrived at the end of the stage covered in sand.
It was at this point that Lawrence actually gave us a demonstration of how to tackle sandy conditions. I was thinking though that this would of come in handy prior to attempting the sandy stage we just completed. I also realized that although my tires were worn, I was still on par with the riders on their 1200GS bikes with their knobby tires. Sure they had more grip in these conditions but my bike was considerably lighter.
Next up…ruts and mud! For me this was more of a lesson in common sense. Sure our bikes could easily tackle ruts full of water and mud but I wanted to avoid it. I knew that my worn tires would not offer me the grip that knobby tires would offer so my strategy was to ride on top of the ruts and avoid the mud and water altogether. This turned out be the proper choice as once again several riders fell and got covered in gunk and once again Lawrence advised us to avoid water and mud if at all possible since they can not only make the riding more difficult but could also affect our brakes. This just made sense to me but thanks for the heads up!
What’s next? More bloody sand! Ok…I wasn’t liking this but I was dealing with it. Before long I found that I was flying at nearly 100km/hr in sand that was rather deep. I did have to stop several times to help out other riders in my group who crashed and got a helmet full of sand. In this rather large sandy stretch, nearly everyone crashed at least once, including one of our guides from BMW who went headlong into the trees. Everyone was looking pretty dirty and somewhat beaten and although I hadn’t fallen yet, I was beginning to feel the fatigue of riding hard in those conditions.
From here we tackled several back roads towards our lunch stop in Bethany and although most of the roads were riddled with loose gravel, this was the only section that didn’t have someone crashing. By the time we stopped for lunch, we all very much needed a break. Of the 18 riders who started the day, 12 had crashed at some point and several had fallen many times. Most of us were speckled in mud and dirt and some were simply covered in it from their numerous falls. At this point I was one of only a handful of riders who hadn’t fallen. To be honest, I was surprised but I knew that there was more riding yet to come. However, I figured that considering the conditions…it was only a matter of time.
After lunch we headed off for more punishment and good times but several riders bailed out during the lunch stop. They had enough. One had other plans, although I can’t imagine what he would rather do than ride through dirt, sand and mud! As for the other bail-outs…they were simply beaten. After the crashes, the pain, the mental and physical fatigue, it was simply too much for some riders (not to mention a couple riders had some bent foot levers making riding that much more difficult).
Once again we headed off on some small side roads towards our next series of challenges. I was soon faced with thickly wooded areas with rutted trails that were either mixed mud trails or trails of sand. Great…more bloody sand. Well eventually I screwed up and dumped my bike. It wasn’t on an especially challenging section (compared to what we had already tackled) but I was getting tired and lost focus. When in doubt, more gas right? Well I didn’t and to make things worse I looked down and that’s where I ended up…me and my bike inches deep in the sand with me thinking “what the hell?!”. Ok…I finally failed. It happens and much like stepping in poop, all you can do is scrap it off and keep going.
I didn’t feel all that bad though. Out of 18 riders that started, there was only about five who hadn’t crashed by this point and those who had fallen had done so more than once. So onward we went. The trails certainly got more interesting as we did our best to negotiate the narrowly spaced trees, deep ruts, mud, sand, rocks and other loose surfaces, both uphill and down (including large piles of deer crap but luckily nobody was too close behind me to get sprayed with the flying pellets). I was well aware by this point that I wasn’t a fan of deep sand but I also realized that riding up or down hills with large rocks (some as large as basket balls) was also nerve wracking. How I didn’t crash on those hills, I have no idea but I’m glad I didn’t since it would of been rather painful.
Eventually we cleared the brush and returned to paved roads to head back to our original starting point. All in all it was a great day! We all learned a lot, not only about some of the essentials of off-road riding, but also about our limits (both personal and mechanical).
I am very much looking forward to next year and joining Lawrence Hacking and the guys from BMW Durham once again.