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Face Meet Dirt – Off-Road Training

Yes, in fact you can teach an old dog new tricks. A crash course in off-road training academics brings one savvy vet up to speed in a hurry.

My roadracing career spanned almost 20 years, so it’s safe to say I’m fairly proficient on asphalt. When venturing off-road however, my skillset has two levels. I get hurt … or I get hurt bad. 

There are a number of high performance riding schools and track days for pavement riders to hone and improve their skills, but what about the growing number of adventure riders? 

BMW’s R1200GS is the poster child for the adventure touring crowd and the company operates several off-road training facilities around the world. Clinton Smout has been teaching off-road riding for decades in Ontario. BMW contacted him, and the next thing Clint knew, he was roosting around an Edmonton facility en route to certification as an Official BMW Trainer. 

BMW Canada chipped in with a variety of new GS-series motorcycles for Clint’s school and now there’s a place for eastern Canadian adventure riders to get world-class instruction on the large adventure motorcycles they’ve purchased. Clint offers a two-day program for $600 if you bring your own bike, and school bikes are available for rent if you’d rather not scuff up your pride and joy. 

Clinton gets his message across with a rapid-fire, Rodney Dangerfield-like delivery blending facts with humour that keeps everyone interested and engaged. Demonstrating how to ride up a steep sidehill, Smout obligingly crashed in the long grass. Instead of accepting assistance though he seized the opportunity and showed us assembled students what to do with a downed motorcycle that’s stuck halfway up a hill. 

First, there’s no hope you can pick up the bike and ride it the rest of the way up the hill starting with zero momentum. “You can’t break a GS,” said Smout, as he grabbed the front wheel and pivoted the bike on the engine cases till the front wheel was pointed downhill. Grabbing the brake, Clint levered the bike upright, punched the starter button and rode the bike back down to try again. Slick. 

Becoming proficient in any activity starts with a good foundation of “the basics,” because you’ll never play guitar like Clapton if you can’t master the simple “E” chord. 

Smout’s “E chord” starts the off-road training with participants walking their motorcycles on a flat area, motors running in first gear. It’s a great exercise to teach clutch engagement points and throttle control and gets students familiar with the balance points of their motorcycles. 

The next step was first-gear riding through cones set up in a figure eight, which teaches slow speed proficiency as you combine clutch and throttle control with balancing a 226-kilogram motorcycle at a walking pace.

Street riders weight the inside peg and lean to the inside when cornering. Do that in the dirt and you’ll take soil samples with your face. The inside peg is definitely weighted but, although the bike is leaned slightly into the corner, the rider’s weight is shifted to the outside. 

To get the feel of peg weighting and how it steers the motorcycle, students ride around the field shifting their weight from one peg to the other and noting how the motorcycle behaves. Next, we stood with one foot on the peg and the other sticking out to the side, like a dog taking a pee. 

A loose grip on the bars is imperative for all off-road conditions. Clint says, “Pretend there’s an egg in your gloves; use a light grip. The front wheel will find its own way.”

Sand is a nemesis to many riders and the trick is to slide your weight back and keep accelerating. Eventually, in a long sandy section, you run out of acceleration before you run out of sand. Do NOT shut the throttle off—the front end will dig in and your chin will discover how deep the sand is. Clinton advises riders to “Slightly roll the throttle off and then keep blipping it. It keeps the front light without letting it dig in.”

I started feeling quite pleased with myself. I completed the basic drills with flying colours. I felt comfortable on the uphills and downhills, breezed through the ATV trails and felt great negotiating several kilometres of single track through the woods. Long, steep uphills in axle-deep sand had become a piece of cake—keep a loose grip on the bars, weight back and lots of throttle. I even enjoyed getting it sideways and throwing large roostertails out the back.

But disaster was looming. I could sense an ominous presence, like a violent thunderstorm rumbling over the horizon. Rain the day before had turned the loose loam on the trails to slippery mud. We’d swapped bikes and I was aboard an F700GS, a nice streetbike that, when equipped with slightly more aggressive, off-road tires is, well, still a nice streetbike. 

My confidence was still soaring as I approached a steep, 60-metre long, muddy downhill. Snicking the 700GS into first gear, I picked my route between the roots and rocks, and, boom, went down hard!

The motorcycle’s little twin doesn’t have much engine braking even in first gear, and it kept accelerating, the tire treads filled with mud and Hulk Hogan couldn’t have body-slammed me down any quicker, or harder. 

I ended up lying on my back, head pointing downhill with my right leg pinned between the engine and front wheel, wondering where my confidence, skill and dignity had gone. I emerged from the semi-disaster, bruised and limping, but able to complete the rest of the course, although muddy downhills are now the main cause of my night sweats. 

After sampling BMW’s entire off-road lineup, the motorcycle I preferred for off-roading training was (surprisingly), the biggest and heaviest—the R1200GS. Sounds odd, but for me it was easiest to control when the going got dirty. The big twin has seamless throttle response with metric tonnes of torque available right off idle, which is a huge plus in sand, mud or even hardpack.

The boxer engine carries its weight down low and the low centre of gravity allows the chassis to react well to peg weighting. 

An added bonus is that the tires are wider than the other models, allowing them to float a little bit better in sand or muck. And, the two big pistons firing opposed from each other provide lots of engine braking in first gear, making a muddy downhill (twitch, twitch) a cinch to navigate. 

I’ve spent a lot of highway time on the big GS and now I understand why so many serious adventure riders select it as their mount of choice. Clint’s off-road training course is money well spent for owners who want to fully explore the limits of these extremely capable motorcycles.  

By Steve Bond Canadian Biker #325


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