Join me, for a minute, in my comfort zone. It has a squidgy armchair, a good reading light, a regular supply of espresso and is close to a purveyor of French pastries. In fact, it looks a lot like a cafe in North London. This weekend I have been so far outside it that I might as well have been in island of Whalsay. The BMW Off-Road School is, I think, the hardest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done.
But it started well. I picked up keys for a 650 X-country, which came up to my kneecaps, put on my tasteful motocross pants and gnarly boots, and rode up in convoy to the Walters Arena where the course is held: looking like a Hells Angels funeral (if their colours had been 100% polyester.)
If you were less nervous than me you’d have admired the 4,000 acres of mountain, pine tree and gravel, laid out under a hazy blue sky for our off-road pleasure. If you’re me, you’re looking at the gravel and thinking, you want me to ride on that…?
I handicapped myself from the beginning by answering yes to the question, have you ever done any off-roading before. I did a day in Cambridgeshire in 2007, which apparently entitled me to be in the same group as someone who’d completed a 5-month Globebusters TransAmerica run, and someone who’s spent both the last two winters riding overland to The Gambia. Which left me wasting rather too much energy thinking I’d given the wrong answer and should have been in the proper novice group. But that group had Julia Sanders in it, so the definition of novice is clearly one with which I am not familiar.
The first few exercises broke me in gently by being familiar from 2007. Laying the bike down and picking it up (still couldn’t do it on my own, but Fil – the rider with the map of Africa on his helmet – came to my aid (the first occasion of many)). Walking the bike round under power (and trying not to have it hack my ankles with the footpegs). Slow-riding slalom (and you know how much I love that!). Full-lock circles (first crunch of the day) – standing up. By this point I’d swopped the midget X-country for an X-challenge, which was a lot more comfortable but is at least 7 foot tall. Lock the back brake (eek!) and then the front (eek eek!). And then the most terrifying bit of all: “It’s a lovely day,” said Gwyn Barraclough. “So let’s go for a ride.”
Out and up, on the fire road, over the gravel into the tree line. Standing on the pegs is hard work until you do it right, then it’s as easy as standing at the bar (Gwyn promised this to us earlier in the day and wasn’t wrong), but the bars keep kicking up into my hands and my thighs burn from trying to hold the bike upright, which is a big mistake. The bike needs to do its own thing and I need to learn to let it go. As a control freak, this is not an easy task.
I can’t tell you much about how spectacular the setting was, because most of the time I was focussed on the rut ahead in terror. Gwyn had inexhaustible depths of patience and got me driving forward through deep gravel, riding down steep hills, and splashing through (tiny) puddles – until after lunch, just when I was starting to sing showtunes, it all went wrong and I was upside down on the trail with the BMW’s exhaust burning a hole in my leg. Invalided back to the van I learnt that I wasn’t the first casualty of the day, the previous crasher being taken to hospital as a precaution. Having crashed before on the road, I am apparently at an advantage as I’m less outraged by the discovery that sometimes the shiny side goes down.
I drop my trousers in front of off-road goddess Linley Sullivan-Pavey and get plastered, then sit in the van with a cold drink nursing my wounds while the final riding of the day takes place.
Dinner on Friday night at the Abercrave Inn was full of travellers tales and stories of crashes endured and injuries overcome. I would have stayed longer but had to get back to Swansea (left it too late to book any of the nearer accommodation) and was falling asleep, so I was a lightweight back on the road by 9.30, and out like a light not long after.
Saturday morning was not so good. Maybe I was tired from the first day, maybe I was anxious after the crash, or maybe my slow learning curve had caught me out, but I was all over the place and simply not coping. More of the same as Day One, but more adventurous – we got to a muddy corner with two big puddles and a right-hand bend, and even though I watched everyone else ride through quite happily I came to a dead stop and couldn’t go on. Talked through that obstacle we rode on to a long muddy rutted track.
“How are you doing?” asked Gwyn
“I’m utterly terrified,” I had to say. Every second and every inch and every wobble of the wheel and every buck of the bars was making my nerves shriek and my stomach turn. And it was only 10.30.
As a mercy killing I was taken back to the van for a break, where Linley patches up my head this time.
Take down the sign that says “can’t” and throw it away.
Linley tells me I am good road rider (which is nice) and the problems I am having are all in my head. I think that’s what this course is really about for me – facing that barrier and trying to overcome it. If you’d shown me the gravel I rode through on Day One I would have said no way. I looked down the hill and thought, that’s not going to happen. Linley says I must ban “can’t” – it’s OK to say, “I need help with this,” or “I find this difficult,” or “I struggle,” but “can’t” is a closed door which ends all negotiation. I have another go on the slalom and – well, “I struggle.” Lunch comes early as one of the guys who was moved out of our group this morning is brought back with a possible broken ankle. I feel sad that everyone else is covered from head to foot in muddy water and grinning like loons. Falling off for them isn’t the end of the world, it’s part of the fun.
At lunch I wonder whether there’s any point in going out again. I don’t want to give up, but who am I trying to be brave for? Why worry about losing face, I’ve already been seen “all snot and tears” stuck the wrong side of 2 big puddles and swearing as the bike folds up beneath me and sinks in the ruts.
After lunch it’s “try a different bike.” I think about what Caz told me at Cadwell – that I’ve paid as much as everyone else and if I need to go round in second gear and at walking pace, well, that’s what I should do. So I do. I ride an 800 and then a 1200 like Ruby, which feels calm and relaxed and reboots my brain. I tell Gwyn I don’t want to go out again and then instantly regret it – so catch up and say, no, I’ve changed my mind, I want to come. And I’m struggling, but I’m not afraid any more. In the afternoon sun we ride tiny tracks and big long hills, through deep gravel with the bike fishtailing under me. I get stuck on a hillclimb and require rescue, but handle a downhill stall where I locked the back wheel and slide down with it trying to overtake the front. I start to have a tiny bit of fun, then we ride another long, long rutted track, me in second gear, Gwyn on my left shoulder shepherding me safely along, and I run out of bravery – but it’s the end of the day and the only difficult bit left is riding back to the road. I sit down because my legs have turned to jelly.
Why do I put myself through it? Because I refuse to believe that I’m this strangled, terrified creature who can only cope if the world is entirely predictable and safe under my feet. Because I enjoyed feeling righteous tiredness, earned by doing something terrifying and difficult and new. But mainly I do it to challenge myself, hoping I’ll find that place within where “can’t” has been banished and I don’t limit myself because I’m afraid but ride forward and drive hard all the way to the top of the hill.
PS – the best biker crash story of the weekend? “I was hit by a pheasant”…”I was hit by a chicken..”…”my mate was taken out by a sheep that jumped on top of him from behind a dry stone wall.” Don’t worry – the sheep got up and walked away.