Dirt Riding is Perfect for Beginners

Do you remember your first time?

I mean on a motorcycle, of course. Maybe it was a friend’s bike, or you bought one yourself and crossed your fingers with just a beginner’s licence. It can be intimidating to learn how to ride, but for many of us, we knew right away this is what we wanted to do.

But what about other people who are kind of curious about riding, but not sure they’ll like it? It’s not worth buying a bike if you end up hating it, and teaching yourself to ride a motorcycle in city traffic can be downright frightening. Maybe none of your friends have a bike to try, and taking a licence test without previously sitting on a motorcycle is just foolish.

But wait; there’s a way for people to try a bike with minimal cost and maximum safety. Don’t go to the street, go to the dirt.

All over Canada, trail and off-road tour operators offer dirt bike training for all levels of experience. They also supply everything, from the bike to the helmet and all the riding gear, meaning you show up in a T-shirt and jeans without the need to invest in anything else, other than around $200 or $300 for the day’s experience. You get a safe riding environment with no traffic or pedestrians to contend with, and you get training from experienced riders geared to whatever your own experience may be.

Which brings me and my friend Kathy Tidy to an isolated plot of land near Ontario’s Ganaraska Forest, just off Highway 115 south of Peterborough. Trail Tours offers guided lessons and rides on a variety of new Honda bikes and ATVs. It’s a sunny September day, and while Trail Tours can accommodate larger groups of riders, today it’s just Kathy and I for a ride through the tall trees.

I have been riding bikes for, well, a long time, and while I have ridden off-road in the past, it’s been, well, a long time, so I’d like a refresher. But Kathy, a motion graphics artist in Toronto, has never ridden a motorcycle, and while she’s spent the past summer on the back of my own bike, she’s long thought about taking the reins herself.

“My old roommate was an artist and painted motorcycle tanks,” she says, “and ever since then, I’ve been curious to try riding. But I never had the nerve to do it on the street, it just seems a dangerous place to learn.”

We’re doing a half-day of learning and riding, and we’ll each get a guide to ourselves; the beauty is I can go on a more advanced ride, while Kathy will get schooled from the ground up.

“I’m nervous,” she says, biting her lip. “I know this will be safer than the street, but I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know the controls of a bike, I don’t know how I’ll do.”

After awkwardly donning our garish off-road attire, we meet our instructors; Damian gets me on a Honda CRF 250F, while Jeff gives Kathy a smaller CRF 125F, and it’s here, after some pleasantries with the guys, that Kathy and I part ways. Damian takes me up to a small dirt track while Jeff stays with Kathy on a grassy field, showing her the basics of posture, controls, and everything else you’d expect a non-rider wouldn’t know.

After some instruction, I’m slowly weaving around pylons, improving my own posture and getting the feel for the bike; it’s slowly coming back! We pause, and Damian, who has been a motorcyclist for more than 50 years, looks back down the field at Kathy. “I love to see new riders here,” he says enthusiastically. “This is really the best place to learn how to ride a bike.

“It’s not like it was 40 years ago, where there was more open space through the cities; find an empty lot and nobody was gonna call the cops. That’s how a lot of kids started. But for most people, especially if you’re in the city, you don’t have that opportunity anymore.”

We move off to a few trails cut through the woods, then another sand track to work on balance and throttle control. Finally, we hit an obstacle course, where Damian runs me through going over logs, rocks and other difficult terrain. “The thing is,” he says, “if you’ve done this here, you know you can do this on a trail or even on the street if you have to”

And I see his point; these lessons aren’t just about learning technique, they also build confidence in your own riding. And it really doesn’t matter if it’s your first day on a bike or your 50th year.

At one point, I want to go see how Kathy is doing, so Damian and I hit a trail back to the main camp, but we don’t get far; she’s rounding a corner led by Jeff and headed our way. She’s tentative, she’s having a little trouble with the clutch – but she’s riding. And she’s having fun, too.

The four of us finish off our half day with a ride on the trails through the trees before we land back at the base camp. Despite our different experiences, both Kathy and I agree: not only did we learn a lot today, but it was also a really enjoyable way to spend the day.

“I was worried that I’d be treated like a ‘girl’, riding a bike for the first time and being looked down on,” says Kathy. “But that wasn’t the case at all. Jeff was patient, encouraging and pushed me just within my limits. I really appreciated that.”

“You rode excellent,” says Jeff with a huge smile. “And a huge improvement throughout today. So you come back again, you’ll just go further and further in your riding skills.”

Finally, the big question is: How does Kathy feel now about stepping into the world of motorcycles?

“I’ll admit, I was nervous and a little scared during the day, but by the end, I was much more confident and I really enjoyed it all,” she says. “Now I’m thinking about getting my licence next year. But I want to come back here first.”

That’s $200 well spent, in my opinion. Now the real spending is about to begin.


  1. Neil, did you notice that you stayed on Trail Tours property, and didn’t ride into the Ganaraska Forest? Do you know why? Conservation Authority staff are taking advantage the May 21st Derecho storm and the change of the Board of Directors, brought about by the October 24th municipal election, to step by step close off the forest to recreational use. This is completely against the policies of the 2018 – 2038 Forest Management Plan (FMP), which went though a significant amount of public consultation and was approved by the Board. There actions, which represent a major change in policy direction, were never taken to the Board, let alone approved. Staff have gone rogue, and there isn’t even a Board in place to pay attention.

    So what are they doing:
    – On September 1st, they presented a report to the Recreational Users Committee (RUC) for their information only. It was supposed to be an Operational Recovery Plan (ORP) for after the storm, but there is very little in it about documenting and clearing storm damage and reopening. Its about logging (some clear cut), and permanently closing sections of the Forest, reducing motorized use areas, prohibiting anyone under 16 from riding in others, fencing and limiting access to a single area (P2) where they can control entry. They don’t present a map to show what they’re closing, just list it area by area in tables.
    – On September 30th they reopened the forest with about 1/3 of the land available with less than 7% of the trails open, and no single-track. They extended existing memberships by 1 year, and have started the clock on their expiry. No new memberships or day passes are being sold.
    – On November 3rd, they presented a staff report about closing all “unofficial trails”, a term that has never appeared in the ORP or FMP, and also looking at closing some GRCA sanctioned trails. People are also reporting that the OFTR and Honda single track markers are disappearing, even in the areas they are theoretically keeping open. Hmmm, coincidence?

    If you want to find out more, watch the video of the October 20th Board meeting. You can find it at the Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority website, under “Who are we”, then Board of Directors/Governance. Or email me.

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