City motorcycle commuter and FTR contributor Greg Parmley reveals why a life off-road is good for the soul.
Living and riding in a city, I spend a frustrating amount of time escaping one traffic jam only to pile headlong into another.
Beating the queues on my Bonneville T120 does bring a certain feeling of smugness, but it’s not exactly completing the Dakar or Mondo Enduro. So given the opportunity to get my first taste of off-road riding – courtesy of Triumph UK’s preferred adventure partner, Trailquest – I jumped at the chance.
I’ve clocked up a fair few road miles over the years but, like most riders, steered deliberately clear of mud, slippery bits and mountainsides – in fact, it’s been tarmac all the way. So I arrive at Trailquest HQ, bordering England and Wales in the Malvern Hills, with more than a slight sense of trepidation.
“Usually, it’s the most confident who fall off first”
Fortunately, according to Principal Richard Jeynes, that puts me in the same boat as everyone else for the Introduction to Adventure Riding day-long course. “A lot of riders think that because they’re experienced on the road, they’ll be great off road – usually it’s the most confident who fall off first,” he says.
The Malvern Hills are renowned for their natural spring water, much of which was, until recently, bottled and sold worldwide. But it turns out the water’s purity and international renown doesn’t make riding a 200kg adventure bike through it any easier.
Richard is a straight-talking ex-forces rider who’s undertaken more than his share of two-wheeled expeditions, and trains riders for almost every type of environment and eventuality. So when he tells me that most of what I think I know will be useless, I suspect he’s speaking from experience.
Following a quick health and safety briefing, the day begins with getting familiar with the Triumph Tiger XCx bikes favoured by Trailquest. I quickly find that the premium ‘x’ model of the 800cc range features a load of touches designed to make off road riding less daunting than I’d previously thought.
The switchable ABS and traction control, three rider modes – including a dedicated off road setting – and ride by wire throttle delivery all help me feel instantly in control while the hand guards and sump guard engine protection bars are an added reassurance.
Richard then demonstrates that in first gear, the Tiger XCx will travel at 8mph without any throttle input from the rider.
“Suddenly, it doesn’t look quite as easy”Greg Parmley
We start off with baby steps on some wet grass where I naturally accelerate too much, then brake too hard. Eventually, I give in and let the bike ride itself while I sit astride it. Then Richard demonstrates making tight turns, effortlessly weaving between cones by using his feet to stabilise the bike.
Short of sticking out my legs to greet European bikers, my feet are always firmly planted on the pegs, so when I attempt to copy Richard, I overshoot most of the turns, flatten a few cones, and suddenly it doesn’t look quite as easy.
“The most fun I’ve had in months”
Nevertheless, Richard seems encouraged that I haven’t fallen off yet, so we head out across a field, the Tiger drifting easily across furrows and loose dirt. And surrounded by warm spring sunshine, it’s at this moment that I’m struck by a profound sense of freedom – the difference between following a pre-determined direction on a road and being able to ride in any direction.
It’s time to face the first of the Malvern Hills’ water, which has conveniently filled a long muddy trench. Richard goes first, demonstrating how important it is to be slow, steady and to keep moving. But when it’s my turn, I roll the Tiger forward, fumble with the throttle, stall the bike and tip over into the mud.
Once everyone’s stopped laughing, I have another go and manage to stay upright. It’s a grounding experience, and one that highlights both how responsive and capable the bikes are. I’m also starting to think this is the most fun I’ve had in months.
Light and nimble precision
We practise standing up, leaning forward over the handlebars to lessen the impact of the bumpy terrain underneath, crossing backward and forward over the field, faster each time. And then Richard leads us to our first trail through nearby woodland, the potential hazards helpfully marked.
As Richard predicted, the skills we’ve been practising individually start to come together, like pieces of a jigsaw revealing the final image. The importance of slow, steady progress, the light use of the throttle, the braking sense, balance and using feet for stability.
This isn’t road riding London-style at all. It’s a far more physical pursuit, and as we pick our way through the narrow trail, it’s remarkable how precise a route the Tiger XCx allows riders to choose while the steering feels light and nimble.
From Worcestershire to Lesotho
Over lunch, Richard chats about working with Bear Grylls on filming the promo video for the 2015 Tiger at Trailquest’s grounds, and expeditions the team are currently planning to Rajesthan in western India and South Africa, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. “We are keen to promote adventure riding to a younger audience and would like to see more female riders have a go as well,” he says.
While Richard talks, I try not to focus on the muscles in my legs and hips that are attempting to stage a workers’ strike of my lower body.
As well as the three levels of its Adventure Riding programme, Trailquest also runs a one to three-day Expedition Planning and Preparation course, and will arrange bespoke training to suit specific needs. For anyone considering an overland adventure, it’s an outfit uniquely placed to offer guidance and support.
Up hills, down dips, new skills
Back out on the bikes and we cover hills – starting on tame hillocks and building to some vertiginous drops that require slow and controlled descent and brisk acceleration to climb. Again, Richard teaches new skills that feel unnatural for habitual road riders. Stopping on a hill climb requires different applications of back and front brake depending on your direction. I fumble most of the attempts and either stall or slide, but my patient instructor greets it all with good humour.
Finally, Richard leads us to a hilly forest section where we first walk the trail to assess potential hazards. “Five minutes spent looking at something on foot can save you five weeks in hospital,” he says, pointing out exposed tree roots and slow-drying wet patches under trees that can catch a rider off guard.
The trail is a mix of waterlogged ruts, narrow tracks lined with brambles that pull at your jacket, and tug at your arms and legs, muddy downhills and tight turns. I take the lead, the back wheel of the Tiger XCx drifting out at moments when I push too hard, but the off-road setting no doubt helping as it adjusts traction control and throttle mapping.
“Around 90% of people who try the Introduction course go on to the next one”
Accelerating through the undergrowth and down muddy tracks, I get lost in the moment. Work, family, commitments… it all disappears as I focus on reading the trail while the Tiger XCx responds. Six hours ago I was petrified of skidding. Now, I’m wondering where the nearest mountain is.
It’s been an eye-opening day, and to say that my horizons have been expanded is an understatement. The Tiger XCx is obviously happy chewing through motorway miles or picking through traffic in towns, but also being able to tackle most situations off road changes the definition of what motorcycling is.
As the day draws to a close, Richard seems unsurprised by my enthusiasm. “Around 90% of people who try the Introduction course go on to the next one,” he says. “Quite a few head straight to a dealer.” So it’s no surprise that I’m quickly enquiring about dates for the next course… after all, without tarmac dictating my ride, a world of possibilities just opened up. Just as long as I don’t keep falling off in big puddles.
To find out more about the courses available visit the Trailquest website