We love adventure riding at CMG. We’re not very good at it [speak for yourself – Copy Ed.], but we love it all the same.
It’s just so adventurous: swing a leg over a tall saddle and set off for Africa and Mongolia, even if you don’t make it much past Tim Hortons. We love when people call out to us at the traffic lights: “Hey! Are you – oh…” There’s only room for one Ewan McGregor in this world (hear that, Charley?), but we can at least pretend just for a while.
What we don’t like is crashing out on the trails, especially when 530 lbs of BMW R1200GS comes crushing down on us. And we don’t like having to drive slowly on gravel roads, holding up the cottage traffic, because we don’t really know what we’re doing. So when BMW invited Canada Moto Guide to come up to the Horseshoe Valley Resort near Orillia, 90 minutes north of Toronto, to learn from Clinton Smout at the BMW Performance Riding Centre, we jumped at the chance.
Smout’s been teaching riders for years on Yamahas as part of the SMART Adventure Program. He’ll show you how to ride snowmobiles, motorcycles and ATVs, but the bikes are relatively small, not to mention easy to throw around in the dirt. When more and more riders started coming to him on bigger “adventure” bikes like the BMW GSs, he realized they wanted to learn on those same, larger machines.
BMW operates a handful of off-road riding schools around the world, so Smout and the Beemer people had a chat last year about bringing a specialized school to Canada. They already knew each other – Smout helped manage the GS Trophy Challenge last year in the Rockies. Next thing he knew, he found himself on a bike at the Edmonton dump, being trained as a certified BMW instructor. He gets to go to all the best places.
Now he’s back at Horseshoe and he and his instructors were getting us warmed up on the first day. It’s a two-day program that costs $600 if you ride your own bike, or $750-$1,000 if you want to scratch up one of his. You don’t have to own a Beemer or even ride one – bring your own Multistrada or Africa Twin if you want. There are 10 BMW GS bikes available: the lower price is for the F700 GS, while the cost goes up if you want an F800 GS or R1200 GS. They’re all donated by BMW for the season and will be sold by dealers at the end of the year (“one careful owner?”), so while scratches and dents are okay, you’ll have to pay for anything you break.
ON THE BIKE
Like a regular road course, the first thing we did was push the bikes around in a field, to get the feel for their weight. I’m clever (really? – Copy Ed.), so I bagged a smaller F800 GS to start off. Pushing the bike around would be simple, except I was kitted out with full riding gear that’s normally included as part of the price: boots, jacket, pants, gloves, helmet and goggles. And it was a warm day. Fortunately, the pushing-around was over fairly quickly and it wasn’t long before Smout was riding circles around us, literally, sitting side-saddle.
There’s a point to this malarkey and it’s to demonstrate “peg steering,” which I’d never heard of. We watched Smout for a bit, and then we watched another instructor, Amanda Kennedy, and then we tried it for ourselves, riding slowly around with our weight on one footpeg or the other, then we jiggled around and moved both legs to one side of the bike, standing on the peg and waving our other leg into the air like circus performers. Doing this showed how the weight distribution pushes the bike to one side or the other, effectively steering it without using the handlebars. Nobody crashed, not even me, and so we set off into the woods.
Horseshoe Valley Resort sits on the edge of the Simcoe County Forest, which includes hundreds of kilometres of trails open to motorized vehicles with a trail permit. We didn’t travel fast, but we practised standing on the pegs and steering the bike by pushing our weight on one side or the other. “Pretend you have eggs inside your gloves,” said Smout. “Look where you’re going and use your weight to steer the bike. The front wheel will find its own way.”
Easy for him to say, especially when your right hand is trying to stay steady on the throttle, but we made it through in one piece, then rode on to The Quarry.
SURVIVING THE QUARRY
SMART Adventures (snowmobile, motorcycle and ATV rider training – geddit?) is based in The Quarry, up at the top of Horseshoe’s ski hill. It’s a dust bowl on a hot day and a mud bowl on a wet day, with little trails shooting up and down the bowl’s slopes. Smout rode happily up to about the halfway point and then crashed in the long grass. Ooops.
He’d meant to just stop, but he actually tipped over on the big R1200 GS, and we all thought that was pretty funny. And we were all pleased it wasn’t us. Smout popped straight back up from beside the fallen bike like a whack-a-mole and we wandered over to help him pick it up, but he was having none of it. He wanted to show us how to pick up a bike that’s stuck halfway up a hill.
“You won’t have the traction to continue up the hill from here, so you’ll need to get back down again. But how do you do that?” he asked. We looked at our boots. We’d do it by finding somebody to help pick up the bike. The GS was lying on its left boxer cylinder, scratched and dead.
“You can’t break a GS,” said Smout, “so use the cylinder as a pivot and turn it around on it.” And he tugged at the front wheel, turning the wheel so that it grabbed against the grass and started swinging the entire bike around. Soon, with him pulling only on the front wheel, everything was pointing back downhill. Holding onto the brake, Smout pushed the bike upright, swung a cheery leg over the seat, started the engine with a press on the thumb button, and rode back down to give it another try.
We all gave this a go on our own school bikes. I was still on the F800 GS, which doesn’t have a dirty great cylinder sticking out the side to act as a pivot, but it was smaller, lighter, and easier to turn. We rode up and down, around and around, getting pretty confident, trying out the ABS brakes on the downhill slopes. “Use your front brake in the dirt,” said Smout. “The ABS is good enough now that it won’t lock the wheel and it’ll just dig the weight of the bike under the tire. The rear brake will never have that power.”
INTO THE DESERT
Of course, true GS adventurers don’t dream of being Ewan and Charley – they dream of completing the Dakar Rally. They never will. Hardly anyone does, because it’s just too damn tough, but the dream is there and it includes vast swathes of sand and crap. So the next day, Smout and Kennedy took us down a long trail to a privately-owned piece of land that he calls the Sahara Desert, because it’s nothing but deep sand.
Of course, being adventure riders, it was an adventure just to get there, with steep hills and sandy trails. I was riding the big R1200 GS now, and stayed at the back so I could watch the others crash. I almost took out the entire class at the top of a particularly challenging hill, which you can watch here.
“Don’t tell anyone where this is, because I don’t want others coming here and ruining it,” Smout said. He was born nearby and has always known about this place, and he has an agreement with the land-owner that allows him and his students to churn up the sand. Which we did.
This was where everything we’d been learning came into its own, on vastly more challenging terrain than we’d normally want to experience. I dropped the bike and picked it up again. I dug the bike deep into the sand, and rode it out again with a near total abandonment of care for the clutch (“The thing’s a tank – don’t worry about it”). And most important, I rode around in the very deep sand without crashing too much, steering with my weight on the pegs and letting the front wheel push its way forward on its own. If I can ride there, then dirt roads and muddy trails should be a piece of cake.
OUT THE OTHER SIDE
I would not have wanted to take my own bike there, especially if I’d spent $20,000 or so on it, but Eric Sweet was also along for the training course on his own 2004 R1200 GS. He figured the two days would cost him a bit north of $800 once he’d paid for his room at Horseshoe and the various meals, and he thought it was money well spent.
“I got smitten by the Ewan and Charley videos, so I bought this last year, but I’d never ridden off-road,” said Sweet, who’s 52 and owns an advertising agency in Kitchener. He’s planning a ride across the continent next year on the off-road Trans-America Trail and feels better prepared for it now.
“I came here last year to learn on the smaller bikes, but I was overwhelmed by the weight of my bike, so I came back for this course. It’s been fantastic. It’s given me huge amounts of confidence. Being able to steer on soil and in sand — I couldn’t do that before.”
Me too, and I’ve got a year on him. I guess you really can teach an old dog some new tricks.
For more information on the BMW GS Training School at Horseshoe Valley Resort, go to www.BMWHorseshoe.com, or call 1 (800) 461-5627 ext. 1288.
Check out all the pics that go with this story!