by Liz Jansen
I was terrified even before I got on the 125cc Yamaha TTR at the mid-week off road riding course. Six years earlier I’d gone over the handlebars and shattered my shoulder at this very place. Last year, I slid off a gravel driveway and down an embankment in Idaho Anatomy of Life Lessons in Fear, Community and Humility after wavering in my confidence.
I’m an advocate of continuous learning at all times, but now, preparing for my trip to South America, I knew that I had to get over this fear. With a departure date looming, I had to take action, and the first step was booking a course at S.M.A.R.T Training with Clinton Smout. There’s nothing like off-road training to prepare you for dealing with the unexpected when it invariably happens when you’re on the road. I’m not interested in trail riding. I am interested in staying in control and safe ON the road.
After gearing up in the appropriate attire, it was time for the safety talk. Clinton does a good job of explaining the basics and what we can expect from the day.
I look calm and cool here but I’m sure my cortisol level was through the roof. Deep breathing, visualization and rationalization all helped, until it was time to get on the bike, one with an engine that’s 10% the size of my Super Ténéré. I really felt like a big baby.
Clinton’s graphic illustration of the difference between the effect of injury on young bones (green stick) and old bones (dry stick) didn’t help matters any. I knew all about what could happen!
The exercises are structured to first get used to the bike and then gradually build our skills. Staying calm, relaxed and keeping my shoulders away from my ears was the biggest challenge of the dayFirst up was a few laps around a sandy loop, with pockets of deeper sand. The natural inclination here is to roll off on the throttle but that’s exactly the opposite of what you should do. Staying on the throttle and looking where you want to go when your bike is fishtailing around underneath you is unsettling, but it works. The motocross boots are thick and make shifting and braking awkward, especially on small bikes. I had to pull over and stop a few times just to breathe before continuing on the course.
After “mastering” the sand, it was time to try some rear wheel skids. This prepares you for loss of traction on the road and demonstrates that you can steer your way out of a rear wheel skid, as long as you stay in control, and use your eyes to look where you want to go. All of these skills develop the muscle memory that can keep you out of trouble when the unexpected happens.
We enjoyed a short break, and then it was time to head for the trails and more challenges. I couldn’t help but feel like little ducklings, following the single track trail through the woods.
Instructor Chris showed us each the correct body position and how to steer while standing. This wasn’t so bad, although because my bike was so small, I was pretty hunched over. Small trees and shrubs in a bumpy rutted field were the pivot point for practicing sharp U-turns.
Then it was back into the woods for more trails. It was a pretty tame trail as these things go, but I was tense, not knowing what was around the corner. Roots, logs over the path, sand and ruts were all par for the course. Staying focused and on the throttle got me out of a few tenser than normal spots.
Deep in the woods, a small hill we crested looked very familiar. Just over that crest was as far as I’d gotten the last time before I catapulted over the handlebars. There were no erosion ruts or foggy goggles this time and I easily passed the spot that had stopped me before. Somehow the hill was much smaller than I’d remembered.
Back at the base, lunch was a welcome chance to share our experiences—and relax! Everyone in our small group was challenged, but then they were there to push there comfort zone and develop their skills.
In spite of it’s size, getting back on my own big bike in the afternoon to ride gravel back roads was a welcome relief. While Clinton on his BMW 800GS challenged another student riding a BMW 1200GS through some wooded trails, I followed along side on the gravel. I had no desire to take my bike into the woods and I was accomplishing what I’d come for.
By mid-afternoon, I was ready to call it a day. I recognized the signs of fatigue, no doubt hastened by my self-induced stress, and I still had an hour and a half to ride again to get home. I was pleased with my progress. I’d made it the whole day without dropping my bike and had sharpened valuable skills. Just a few hours in a little bit of loose traction under expert tutelage was enough to gain back a whole lot of confidence.
S.M.A.R.T. offers a variety of off road riding courses, from half to full day, at their Horseshoe Valley location on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout the season. To book your course, contact them through their website, by email email@example.com or phone: (705) 835-2790 ext. 1288.