Day 14 – 16 – Class Is In Session!!

Greenville, South Carolina

0 Miles

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I arrived in Greenville, South Carolina along with my friend Frank from New York to attend a two-day BMW Offroad Riding Clinic held at the company’s U.S. manufacturing headquarters. I had been waiting for this weekend for months. This was going to be awesome!

Two days of driving MY EXACT BIKE through terrain and obstacles I would never have the courage to attempt. But because it’s BMW’s bike, one can afford to make small mistakes (like dropping the bike and letting it roll down a gravel hill or smashing it into someone else’s bike – both of which I witnessed).

We showed up at the gorgeous facility that BMW calls its Performance Center. The company hosts a variety of other programs at this location which features a huge winding test track for their automotive clinics (including a slick pad that is kept wet and allows drivers to correct spinout due to loss of traction) as well as miles of off-road riding for the motorcycles. They also constructed a huge gravel pad, sand pit, hill climbs and a myriad of other obstacles to help us learn what our motorcycles are capable of, given the correct technique.

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As the elephant said to his mistress, the mouse, – nothing is easy, neither was BMW Off Road School. In its literature, the school states that riding continues through rain or shine. It also continues in the 100+ degree heat wearing helmets, armored jackets and pants along with knee-high riding boots. I thought my earlier riding through Alabama, Mississippi and Texas were tough. But leisurely riding on paved roads paled in comparison to the physicality of off road riding in the heat and humidity in South Carolina. I was utterly drenched in sweat all day, and even overnight my riding pants couldn’t completely dry out. It was crazy hot.

Three instructors, Ross, Blair and Ricardo, would be our sensei in all aspects of offroad motorcycle proficiency. When you finally decide that you want to ride your motorcycle across Mongolia or traverse the Darien Gap, this is the place you come for training. These guys are the best of the best.

Our class was comprised of eleven students of varying ages, although the average probably skewed a bit past 35. The instructors remarked that despite our class being all male, they usually had at least one female in attendance. None of us possessed any extensive off road riding experience, and a palpable sense of anxiety permeated the room as we watched a marketing video depicting motorcycles slogging through deep mud and catching air off 6-foot ledges. One guy asked if anyone had any Advil or Aleve.

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After a brief classroom session, the eleven students (including me) went out to the racetrack to meet our steeds for the next two days. A BMW motorcycle buffet was presented to us featuring F650GS, F800GS, R1200GS, and of course my favorite – the R1200GS Adventure.

The class started with a presentation of the different motorcycles and their varying operation. The instructors then surprised us by taking one of the R1200GS bikes and laying it on the asphalt.

“You’ll be dropping these bikes a lot over the next two days so the first thing you better learn is how to pick one up.” Blair explained to the class.

Bear in mind, these bikes weigh over 600 pounds when fueled so “picking one up” is not a trifle matter, especially when one has been eating at Waffle House and scarfing BBQ for the last two weeks. Blair demonstrated an ingenious method of turning your back to the motorcycle and “walking the bike up” using your legs and opposed to throwing out your back. I’m not saying it was easy, but it was clearly doable.

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With the basics out of the way, we proceeded to mount our bikes and head out to a gravel field where we learned the next foundation skill – standing on the pegs. We were expected to be riding standing up at all times to facilitate greater control over the motorcycle. This way, the instructors explained, the bike can be jostling underneath you, while you stay above it and in control. This also meant that yours truly would performing a half squat for 6 hours each day. Please review the above descriptions of the South Carolina heat and my poor dietary choices before comprehending how arduous this might be.

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But man, the instructors were right! Standing up afforded us far greater control over rough uneven terrain that sitting down ever could.

“Stand up, and stay in control. Remember if you’re sitting down, you’re just along for the ride.” The lead instructor Ross continually told us.

We proceeded to ride in long ovals practicing standing up while alternating lifting our legs from each peg, then riding with one foot tucked underneath our butts, then graduating to riding sidesaddle. This is where the part about dropping these behemoth motorcycles came to fruition.

Bam! Crash!! Crunch!! Bikes started dropping like hail as we tried to master riding while having our LEFT legs standing on the RIGHT peg. Think about it for a sec. Pretty damn hard.

Luckily, Germans don’t make wimpy motorcycles and all the bikes are fitted with roll bars protecting them from the inevitable put downs. The curriculum quickly accelerated to riding our bikes over sets of ruts, small hills, and drop offs.

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The overriding emphasis focused on accomplishing these riding challenges in a slow and controlled fashion. Pinning the throttle to plow through whatever lay ahead would only result in launching a 600-pound bike though the air possibly landing on top of you whenever your body should choose to crash back to Earth. This was sadly proven to the class through example on more than one occasion.

I found myself doing well balancing the bike though slow tight maneuvers on the enduro course and I had a pretty good sense of exactly how much throttle to apply when I approached hills and camelhumps. But soon, I would meet my nemesis.

Sand.

Unghhh! I HATE driving a motorcycle through sand. Earlier this year, I went on a motorcycle trip with my brother to Baja, Mexico where we rode through hundreds of miles of sand. I hated almost every minute of it. That’s because I totally suck at it.

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The trick to riding in sand is hitting it with enough speed that you effectively surf on top of it, as opposed to sinking into it. This increased speed means that every bump and ridge on the surface gets translated into your handlebars that much faster.

I did Baja with my 300-pound Husqvarna 510TE motorcycle. Now I was at BMW School with a big GS bike weighing more than double.

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As soon as my front tire hit the deep sand pit, my handlebars started gyrating like a drunk Elvis impersonator. Of course, the inbred male response to all predicaments automotive is to give the fucker more gas. I heard one of my earlier driving instructors refer to this masculine phenomenon as “red mist”. This sudden application of throttle in deep sand results in either the bike spinning around 90 degrees tossing you unceremoniously over the handlebars (I call it the Bavarian rodeo) or your bike promptly sinks two feet into the sand. Both suck.

Sadly, I was never able to successfully negotiate the sand pit without laying my bike down (or shooting off into the grass on a diverted 90 degree angle – that’s really fun too). I tried keeping my head up and eyes looking forward, not down. I continually maintained a steady application of throttle. But, I just couldn’t keep my bike upright in the deep sand. On the bright side, I have now learned that should I encounter such sand during my off road travels in New Mexico or the Southwest, I should promptly turn around and seek the safety of the nearest Waffle House. Good to know these things in advance.

However, my off road education ended on high note, literally. Throughout the school session, there was one monster hill near the center of the endure course that kept winking at us, daring us to scale its heights with our trusted bikes. None of the instructors would tell us when we would be tackling this hulking obstacle but all the students suspected that it would somehow pop up on the final exam.

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In the last two hours on the second day, our class broke up into smaller groups each lead by one of the instructors through the enduro course. Everything was fair game as we tackled all the forest, bridges, ruts, bumps, and drop offs that we had encountered previously, albeit at higher speeds this time. Finally, my group pulled up beside the Big Kahuna and I looked up at 50 feet of steep loose gravel that lay before me.

“Are you guys ready to hit the big one?” our instructor Ricardo asked.

Now, what do you say to that? In an all-male class, declining a testosterone laced challenge like gunning your motorcycle up a steep hill followed by a sheer drop off would by like admitting to knowing the lyrics to Les Miserables. The only acceptable response to the instructor’s question was “hell yes!” or faking a mild cardiac arrest.

I approached the steep hill cautiously, applying a committed burst of throttle as my front tire reached the incline and the motorcycle’s suspension compressed. I quickly remembered to keep my eyes forward and to look straight ahead which startlingly meant I was now staring straight up at a cloud formation and a Continental commuter flight on final approach to the nearby airport. But just then, my bike managed to summit over the peak and my straight-ahead gaze was rewarded by seeing a gravel path leading me back down to Earth. Pretty goddamn thrilling.

Overall, the class was a game changer for me. It greatly expanded on my existing riding skills and made me appreciate my own motorcycle even more. I’m not sure what roads lie ahead as I tackle the Great West and some of our nation’s largest national parks. But now I feel I like I have the skills and confidence to negotiate most terrain (or at least know what to turn around and run away from).

On a side note, Frank and I did manage to sneak away from school long enough to visit the Zentrum BMW Museum where they showcase some amazing vehicles from BMW’s past, present and future. I could try to describe some of the amazing cars and bikes we saw but I think I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED THIS WEEKEND: The most important lesson about motorcycle riding is where you look. Your head is always up high, eyes on the horizon looking ahead not down in front of you. Feels sort of like a life lesson.

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