Here’s a little section for my fellow bikers about my experiences of trying to ride off-road. Those not of a biking mind look away now…!
I say “off-road”, it’s not really off-road because these are the roads. They just happen to be made out of gravel, rocks, dirt, mud, sand anything but the nice stuff that gives a smooth reliable surface. My previous experience of anything-but-tarmac is all of 6 hours that I spent on a training day in November in mid-Wales with the good people at the KTM Adventure Bike Experience. It wasn’t a cheap day but was worth every penny as it gave me a head start with the basics and has kept me from starting with my own bad habits. I’ve now done a few of long-ish days with sections of gravel for a few hours each day and I feel I’m starting to get the hang of it. A bit.
The first major difference to road riding is of course, the lack of grip. I’ve spent years trying to develop a decent technique which assumes that the back and the front tyres remain in contact with the road and don’t slide. The lesson I had in Wales was on a brand new KTM Adventure 790 R with 100% off-road tyres and electronics out the arse – ABS and traction control turned up to 11 please sir. So, even on that off-roading experience I had pretty decent grip and a big safety net to help me out.
Not so Bumble, bless her. I’ve loaded her with plenty of (far too much) gear and she’s shod with Metzler Tourance tyres which are at best a 30/70 compromise (30% off road, 70% on). This means that I’m asking quite a bit of her when we hit the rough stuff. And there’s ham-fisted me at the controls.
Now I can handle a bit of weave at the back end, reminds me a little of my teenage BMX days or even sliding down Great Central Way on my mountain bike on the way to work in the snow. What is a very difficult sensation to process is the front end losing it, then regaining it, time and time again. I suppose eventually it feels “normal” but right about now I just have to keep telling myself not to panic (Mr Manwaring). All the advice says keep a relatively loose grip on the bars and let the bike wander where it needs to, everything will be OK. Will it really!!?? The automatic reaction that I have to fight constantly is when the front loses a bit, a terror grip on the bars which of course tightens everything up and causes all the problems. It feels like the front could fold beneath me at any time.
There’s the usual issue with target fixation too. I’m sure my first off was a case of.. “oh shit, watch out for that ditch, watch out for that ditch, watch… oh you’re in it”. The age old adage of look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go is never truer.
I think getting the right speed seems to help a lot too. Too slow, and the bike sinks into every hole with a clunk, the front seems to weave on every loose patch but get up to a decent (for me) speed of something like 30/40 mph and the holes don’t seem too bad, the bike seems to jump over all but the biggest ones. She’s also better at holding a fairly decent line too, I guess this is partly down to the gyroscopic effect of the wheels spinning faster giving the bike more stability. Another truism off-road, as it is on, is to look ahead at the horizon, try not to focus on the 20 feet in front of the bike. Easier said than done, but I’m getting better.
Finally, the biggest challenge at the moment is the mental endurance to focus on every foot of road. You just can’t afford to look away or lose concentration for a second cause things can get out of shape very quickly. The surface is constantly changing from big chunky rocks like marbles to smooth compacted dirt, to 6 inches of sand (eek!) and everything in between. I guess the better I get, the easier this will become but right now it’s a real mental test. Oh, and the bit I’m OK at so far is to forget the bad things that have already happened, you can’t change those, just get back on and try not to make the same mistake next time!
postscript – having written the above, I had another “interesting” day off the tarmac. The terrifying highlight of which was a “roadworks ahead” sign after which I expected to see a few blokes in hi-viz doing not much. Oh no, not in Chile. The road suddenly had deep piles of rocks and gravel, more or less in the middle of the road, but cascading from the middle onto each side of the road. The worst surface I’ve had to contend with. At just this time a lunatic 4 x 4 decided to overtake, churning even more loose rocks my way and leaving a trailing thick dust cloud. As I’m clinging on for dear life and squinting through the cloud, the 4 x 4 brakes hard and narrowly avoids the heavy duty grader driving down the middle of the road spreading out the rock pile. Change of pants please.