With anything new, it’s important to understand the nature of the beast. In this instance, the beast is me and my somewhat nervous, panicky nature.
I had been given the opportunity to join an off-road school for the day. Having lost a lot of confidence in bikes, biking and my ability, this was deemed to be a great way of getting it all back.
Not only that, I’ve always fancied doing this and could quite easily picture myself standing on the pegs of an off road bike whilst power-sliding through a muddy puddle.
Trailworld are based in Hertfordshire, just off the M1, as well as running schools and trail holidays in Andalucia, Spain. So on this not-too-hot but sunny day, Hornet Boy and I set off with high expectations for a great day out. HB was really looking forward to it, while I had my usual nervous stomach ache.
Initial communication for this day had been with Craig, of AJP Motos as we were going to be using their bikes, followed by Sal, at Trailworld and they could not have been more helpful if they had tried. They delivered a very friendly and prompt service, making things clear and concise and therefore taking the worry out of things. Most reassuring.
We followed the driving instructions provided, as once you come off the main road you really are in the arse-end of nowhere and you could easily miss them by not going far enough down the trail, where we were met by Bob and Allan.
Introductions were made and we were escorted to the ‘horse box’ (really – it’s a horse box) to get changed into the protective kit that Trailworld supplies. We did bring a lot of our road bike kit with us but Bob looked at it and decided that it wouldn’t be right for the type of riding we were going to do. However my very girlie, pink, off-road lid was quite acceptable… in the physical sense.
Hornet Boy was easy enough to kit out, but Bob was a bit more challenged trying to get body armour and boots to fit me. As they don’t really cater for children, having someone kiddie-sized proved to be a little ambitious and my dainty size 2.5 feet were flapping around a bit in the boots provided.
“Just do them up really tight – you’ll be OK”
And I was, despite a bit of room, they were OK, and proved to be very useful later in the day.
All of the kit was provided and initial thoughts of ‘I hope these are clean!’ were put out of my mind as within five minutes we were all splattered in mud, so they were most definitely clean to begin with.
On our school day, we were a group of six and HB and I walked back from the horse-box to Bob and Allen, to meet the rest of our group. As soon as I walked up with my pink lid, the other woman on the course pointed at it and laughed at me;
“That has got to be your own helmet! And do you have a pink bike to go with it?”
Hmmm… OK, off to a good start here. I’m not really the sort to wear my biking credentials on my sleeve and still to this day, people seem genuinely surprised that I ride the bikes that I do – possibly due to my stature or my general Muppet-like demeanour – who knows.
I never actually learned her name, but she was German (excellent English – only a slight accent), so in my mind, she was Frau Biker, and quite keen to let everyone know it.
The three guys were quiet and didn’t say much but as the day wore on and we got chatting, it turned out that the really big one was a journalist and was doing the course for similar reasons to me.
Our tutor for the day was Chris; a hugely experienced and very talented rider, with a few world titles to his name, as we found out at the end of the day.
The bikes were AJP 125’s, little lightweight 4-strokes and for me, a ¾ size bike – perfect. There’s not a lot to these little bikes but we were given clear instructions on mounting and dismounting, and what to do if we came off and had to kill the engine. Other than that, there was nothing else for it but to get on and ride the course.
I was quickly identified by Chris as the least confident (read: competent) of the group, and whilst performing circuits of the course I was pulled to one side and instructed to carry on ‘gaining confidence’ whilst the others were given tuition about different aspects of riding. I was still chugging around slowly, slipping through the muddy puddles whilst the others were learning to stand on the pegs and use their body weight to help turn the bike. Despite this, I was told that I had a naturally good riding position, with more weight to the front of the bike, pushing down through the forks for additional grip on the front tyre.
Yes, I was the first one to fall off whilst I was ‘gaining confidence’ however the grass was long and soft and my landing was more of a splash as I had a power slide through a puddle and hit the bank on exit. Interestingly enough, Chris was instructing the rest of the group when this happened and only noticed I had gone over after I had picked the bike up. Convenient!
He checked I was OK, helped me get back on and off I trundled, covered in mud. Ten minutes later two of the lads came off, so we were called to a halt and instructed on how to lift the bikes properly. We were all offered the opportunity to try and lift the fallen bike and Frau Biker was first in line to give it a go. Fair play to her, she had it back up in seconds, but I declined my go, pointing out that I had already done it. Out of interest, I asked what the weight of the bike was, as I was trying to draw a comparison to my DT, “about 120kgs” came the reply. Frau Biker was quick to point out to me that I didn’t actually lift the full 120kgs as the wheels were on the ground. I had sort of worked that bit out for myself.
The next skill we were taught was stopping using the back brake. Chris gave us a fabulous demonstration of sliding through the gravel with his foot stomped down on the back brake; HB and I just looked on bemused, questioning the location of this mythical back brake.
My turn came and I slid happily through the gravel, feeling that I had skidded for ages, when in fact it was probably less than a foot. Next up was braking with two fingers and pulling the clutch in at the last minute, and feeling the difference in the way the bike reacted. Again, my turn came and afterwards Chris chided me for not using two fingers.
“Yeah, you really should try riding and braking just using your forefinger and middle finger, as I suggested”
“I can actually only ride a bike and brake using my middle finger and ring finger, cos my hands are too small to reach and do it any other way”
By the time we stopped for lunch I was pretty much left to do my own thing as the others all powered past me, standing up on the pegs. I know what it’s like to ride in a group and have one crap rider that keeps everyone else from moving on (we had Ed when we went to Spain) so I was more than happy to move over and let them pass me time and time again – I was having fun, no matter what.
Whilst eating our packed lunches (it really is in the arse-end of nowhere so you are advised to bring your own lunch), Frau Biker was talking to us all about riding in Germany and how bad some of the drivers are there.
“Porsche and BMW drivers are the worst – they just think they own the roads there – they are very aggressive towards bikers”
Big Lad looked over to her then glanced at the car park; next to my BMW, was his Porsche. We caught each other’s eye and grinned a little, and said nothing.
She went on, then claiming that the worst place to ride was in central London and I was to think myself lucky that I didn’t have to do that!
“I know” I replied, “I commuted from one side of London to the other for 7 years”
“You did?? What did you ride on? A scooter?”
By now, I was a little fed up with her patronising manner towards me, “I rode Fazer 400, a GasGas 450 and a couple of R6’s – which I still ride now.”
Now that got everyone’s attention.
“I may be crap at this, I’m aware of that but give me a race track and sports bike and it’s a different story”
Chris then became interested as to why I was on this off-road school day and I told him that I have issues with bikes on gravel or poor road surfaces – I just panic and freak out. I have come off bikes a couple of times after hitting a patch of gravel and I need to re-wire the way I think and ride, and I was hoping that this day off-roading would help me do that.
He then began to tell us about how the off-road bikes work in gravel and the differences between them and road bikes.
Could’ve done with that at the beginning of the day.
One of the big things I needed to overcome on the day was my constant use of the clutch. As I ride my 2-stroke most days, it’s not a bike that likes idling or going slowly, but a lot of my commute is filtering through traffic and if you’ve never ridden a 2-stroke before – it’s either full open throttle or none at all.
So in order to control the bike and ride it reasonably smoothly at low speed, I constantly feather the clutch (as do most road bike riders I presume).
These little AJP’s didn’t need any clutch control, they would plod on round the course with very low revs and not stall, but I just couldn’t get my head into that way of riding so most of my mishaps throughout the day were a result of my heavy clutch hand.
After we attacked the more advanced stages of the course, Chris took us out on some local green lanes nearby. I was bringing up the (almost) rear with HB riding behind me protectively, and as I was so slow, I went the wrong way. Got flustered and wore myself out trying to push the bike back up hill in very soft, sandy gravel. Even though it was a little bike – it was still fecking heavy!
Chris came back up the trail and helped me get back on the bike – by now I was really feeling like a hindrance, and to make matters worse, at the end of the trail, my goggles flipped down off my lid, poked me in the eye and one of my contact lenses fell out!
This has only ever happened once before, and that was when I was on a motorbike too!
In honesty, the best bit of riding I did all day was back down that trail with one eye unable to focus; ”Tree roots? What tree roots?”
Popped a spare lens back in my eyeball and joined the group back out on the course and started doing the more advanced bits; some very steep slopes with big puddles at the bottom, ruts running the length of the field, corners full of bark chips and sets of rubber tyres to ride over.
After a couple of rounds of this, I was utterly exhausted and was quite happy to call it a day and take photo’s instead. The bigger lad of the three others had made the same decision and as we got talking, it transpired that he had been in a bike accident four years ago that had put him in a wheel chair for six months and was gradually getting back into biking. He had had a nasty fall out on the course and was beginning to feel a bit battered and bruised so he was also hanging up his boots for the day.
Hornet Boy was in his element and continued into the sunset with the biggest grin on his face I think I’ve ever seen.
Don’t get me wrong, despite my few personal issues (and we all know I have issues) I had the best day out – it was so much fun. It was relaxed and easy going in style but certainly challenging both mentally and physically.
Did it address my overwhelming fear of gravel and uneven road surfaces? Probably not – far too much re-wiring required for that… but it was a seriously great day out. I can highly recommend it!
Many thanks to Craig at AJP Motos; and Allen, Sal, Bob and Chris at Trailworld.
Tinks attended the off road school, which is £199 for the day. Trailworld also offer off road guided tours of Hertfordshire and Hampshire – see their website for details.