LB's Zander Goes Off-Roading With Black Desert Training
All very impressive, and on top of that they used to be instructors at BMW's off-road school in Wales - but decided to do their own thing about a year ago.
So to quash his mounting concerns about Cambodia Zander picked up the phone, and that's where we pick up his story.
To Wales I Go
I contacted Craig for a bit of advice on the enduro and very luckily he offered to help me out over the upcoming Saturday. His rates for one-2-one tuition were more than acceptable, acceptable enough in fact for me to take his advice and go buy some Alpinestars Tech 3s I spotted on offer at Hein Gericke!
Come Friday and down to South Wales I drove where I met up with Craig and Tamsin at their house for what turned out to be a very relaxed and friendly evening.
After lots of chat, and Craig giving me loads of help with gear and other tips (even selling me some at a good price) Friday night became Saturday morning and all too soon we headed out on Suzuki DRZ 400s. I went with Craig in my momentarily spotless Tech 3s while Tamsin took another two bikers out on some different routes.
Within minutes from their house is some amazing Welsh terrain. I know Wales quite well but this surprised me!
Getting The Boots Dirty
We started off down some lanes before heading into a farmer's field which, after New Year rains, was sodden and slippery. Luckily I've had a couple of small introductions to off-road with Patsy Quick and Golding Barn so I was able to avoid embarrassing myself at the first challenge.
Across the field we hit a farm track to find it muddy, stony, bumpy, full of pot-holes, water and more – all this in just the first few minutes of the day’s riding! Using this introductory terrain as our practice area Craig ran through some of the basic off-road techniques of body positioning, standing up for visibility and comfort, picking-up a dropped bike, keeping your fingers over clutch and brake, and loads more.
Practice complete we quickly got off the track with Craig pointing out the different terrain and what to look out for; slippy grass, ferns being grippier - but hiding nasty things, reeds in the wetter bits, sticking to lines and avoiding "edges". The back wheel on the bike was slipping around way more than I've ever been used to even though the bike was hardly moving forward at times!
Down To Earth
After getting used to the bike moving around a lot we sped up a little and crossed some countryside. It wasn’t long before my bike just slithered out from under me suddenly but fortunately no damage was done. We had a little rest and carried on. Remounting, I remembered some of Patsy's tips about body position and weight on foot pegs etc so started using body position more than handlebars for steering. This helped to keep the bike up straight and stopped the front wheel digging in or slipping around.
Craig then led me through some muddy rutts - a new experience of trying to make progress while having to look out for every little puddle or small boulder to avoid (yes, these were much bigger then pebbles!).
Eventually we stopped by a rather steep, muddy, rocky track up a hill and Craig said something like "we'll probably see these in Cambodia". He explained technique, demonstrated it for me, then I gave it a go. To my surprise (or maybe not in hindsight) I didn't make it, but managed to hold on to the bike then took it back down for a second try. With a bit of a struggle we got up while after a couple more goes I was more relaxed and giving it more gas.
We then made our way down some more rutted tracks and found the local pub for a nice lunch just as Tamsin and the other 2 riders arrived. After some nice chat, we realised that one of the riders was Anne - who's a regular on LB’s Mark and Angie's trips to Wales! It turned out that Anne and I had bumped into each other when the LB ride and my Meetup group met in Snowdonia last year. We also talked about my trips to Bahrain and Tashkent and lots of other things.
Getting The Hang
After a bit of food, we headed off again - some more trails and sliding around. Craig started to cover different terrain, including some steeper, rockier ups and downs needing different body positions, and streams. We then covered ruts, and "paddling" through them with feet wide so as not to get caught up in the rear wheel.
After a while we got to a big field with trees in the distance. Craig stated the field had lots of different options, and it was important to pick your line. I went first and it was horrid! Not a single flat bit and ruts everywhere - even under the apparently flat grass. I eventually made it over, and Craig was pleased (although I’m not sure whether that was about my progress or having a bike still in one piece!). The going was getting harder all the time and no-one should underestimate how your increasing fatigue amplifies the difficulty of the terrain. My next challenge was a steep downhill section that was basically just one big rut so my line down it and my control of the bike were really tested. We were also starting to go into "sheep trails" which are narrow little ruts that can easily throw your wheel out of position, especially on steeper inclines.
Throughout all of this I never felt in any kind of danger, which is a testament to the instruction given (so my capabilities were enough to retain control) and more importantly the choice routes – challenging yet without any real danger should a tumble occur. It would be all too easy to find oneself in a dangerous position out on the hills – fall off onto a rock-strewn hillside and serious injuries are likely – so exploring with a local is strongly recommended.
A Paddy And A Dunking
We took a rest half way through the ride, and chatting to Craig he realised he knew Lord Paddy who I've been on the long rides with. It turned out Craig was about to go on a ride with him the year before me, but Craig dislocated his elbow 3 weeks before. Small world!
We then went through various terrains - woods, trees, bigger rocks, streams, bigger hill climbs, tighter turns etc. I didn't drop the bike once. Then we got to series of large puddles which with a smidge more rain would have been a stream bed. Suddenly there was no "edge" to one big pond and I paused half way through it to plan my exit. When I started off again, the rear wheel stuck on a large rock and I dropped the bike into the pond! Luckily it kept going and Craig came back to help rescue it before the engine flooded. To my pleasant surprise my new Tech 3's held out most of the water and the DRZ just kept going.
We carried on but the day was taking its toll because I was starting to flag. I think there were more woods and dirt trails (they start to blur together especially when you are focussing on what’s in front of you when learning, but mercifully it seemed like we were heading home down some roads I half recognised – could we be heading home?
Suddenly, Craig (is if aware I was looking forward to a hot bath) took a left turn and I followed - right up a steep hill, with sheep trails, steep sides and more hazards than you could point a stick at. Finally we climbed to the top where Craig said "always expect one last challenge before the end".
The view was gorgeous though, and the ride down was sweet but then all the rides home after a long trip tend to be like that don’t they?
Return To Base
Back at base we cleaned up before a nice cuppa and scones. Tamsin, Anne and her friend soon arrived and were totally covered in mud! Apparently Tamsin had led them through a muddy bog, and they only just got the bikes out.
I totally recommend a day or two with Craig and Tamsin if you get half a chance but be warned that unless you are pretty fit or experienced you might prefer either one full day like I did or two lighter days to give to time to recoup between trips out. I was beat and a day 2 would have likely been more pain than pleasure with stiff legs and sore arms.
They say off-road skills really benefit tarmac riding, and matters less how the weather is so winter/early spring is a great time to do a course with Black Desert Training to get you prepared for the summer bike season. Perhaps we need an LB adventure weekend there – let me know if you might be interested.
Also, they've recently finished making a "Wales Coast to Coast" off-road route which is around 6 days of almost pure-off road from Swansea up and around Wales. It’s getting rave reviews already, and seems very reasonably priced. http://www.blackdeserttraining.com/courses/coast-to-coast-6-day-adventure-ride.html -- I'm thinking of organising a group booking, so again let me know if you fancy it.
According to Tamsin Wales is one of the best places for biking in the world, possibly only beaten by Romania in her book, but then her book is bigger than ours.
LB Verdict: Black Desert Training – Odd name, great people, great experience. Top Marks.