FOR THE first time since I was about 16, I’m riding a proper off-road bike. As I speed towards one end of the practice field at Ady Smith’s off-road school, I take a quick glance down at the speedo, expecting it to be showing me 130mph. It actually reads 34mph. I didn’t know 34mph could be this scary.
And I didn’t know riding an off-road bike could feel so alien. Then again when I was a teenager, grabbing a go on a friend’s dirt bike usually happened at about 11pm on a Friday night, after several Bacardi Breezers and some strong hash and as we all know, alcohol makes tyres grip better and enhances all existing riding talent so setting a quick lap time around the local golf course always came easily.
Ady Smith runs his off-road school across the UK in Wales, Eastbourne, Bristol, Worcestershire and Derbyshire. After arriving at his north Wales venue near Llanarmon, it’s not long before the briefing has been and gone and I’m looking like a proper off-roadist thanks to some MX pyjamas, body armour and other kit, supplied by the school. Ady even lets me use his spare boots which I’m grateful for at the time, but I have developed a nasty case of athlete’s foot since…
I’m also lucky enough to don a fluro yellow tabard because of my status as a knobbly-tyred knobber – i.e. novice off-road rider. The school caters to all abilities and the tabard means that less experienced riders like me can don’t have to tackle anything we’re not comfortable with.
At the start of the day, I’m not comfortable with much but that’s point – I’ve come to Ady’s school to learn something about off-road riding and add at some basics skills to my repertoire, and who else to teach me than a former British enduro champion? A quick self-assesmnet also leads me to believe that I could do with working on my off-road riding after I fell off a BMW R1200GS Adventure while riding down a green lane a few weeks ago. (watch Steve's video here to hear him talking about what happened). It was a fairly innocuous crash but still, afterwards, I couldn't help but wonder if I'd have avoided it had I been a better off-road rider.
Being an official KTM school, Ady Smith’s outfit is stocked with all of KTM’s 2017 EXC bikes and participants can either pay a price that lets them use the school’s bikes, kit and fuel (£195 on weekdays, £205 at weekends), or pay £110 and bring their own bikes and fuel. You can also do a two-day school on Ady’s KTMs (£295) or your own bike (£145) and he also offers one-to-one tuition and tuition in small groups.
If you use Ady’s KTMs, you can swap between different models to get a taste of what the range is like. In fact, a large part of what makes the school so popular isn’t just the training on offer; people come to experience KTM’s range of enduro bikes.
Being keen as mustard, as soon as I’m kitted up and looking at the available bikes, I’m eyeing up the big 500 EXC-F but knowing that I’d probably park it up a tree, Ady gently suggests that I start with something a bit more user friendly, like the Freeride 250R – a lightweight, friendly, all round off road bike. Frankly, I’m insulted…
… But not for long because even as I’m lead from the paddock area to the practice field, via some terrain I’ve got no idea how to negotiate, it takes me about 15 seconds to realise that:
- I’m hideously out of my depth and don’t know what I’m doing
- Riding off-road is shit and I hate it
- Today is going to be long and probably painful
The first 30 minutes of riding take place at the school’s nursery – a flat-ish field. Everyone rides round a marked course so they can become familiar with their bike and so Ady can get an idea of your ability (or inability in my case) before imparting some knowledge.
It’s on the starter field where I discover that Freeride hates my guts and, sensing my ineptitude, is unwilling to do what I want. Just getting it through a corner is a tense affair because I’ve got no feel for anything - no idea how hard I can turn it, what the front end is going to do and how hard I can brake. Like I said, riding off road is shit…
Then someone comes past me through a corner looking like they know what they’re doing so I copy them and do that foot out thing to see if that helps but it feels weird and I go back to wondering how long it’ll be before I’m lying on the ground gurgling in pain.
Thankfully, this is where Ady steps in to gather me and the seven other participants together to demonstrate correct body position and as if by magic, while putting it into practice, things instantly feel better and it turns out that riding off-road isn’t shit, I am. What a revelation.
That’s essentially how the morning works – you ride around the countryside, stopping every so often so Ady can give you tuition when you come to a section that requires a specific technique. He’s a good tutor and explains how to ride in an accessible and useful way and the fact that even I managed to finish the day alive and completely unharmed is testament to that.
Easily the best part of the day, the afternoon ride is the chance to utilise all the skills learnt over the course of the day, while bothering some sheep (but not like that, I’m not Welsh…) and putting the bikes to the test. It’s also worth noting that if you’re an off-road god and have turned up just to test the new bikes without tuition, Ady can cater for that too.
With the basics just about nailed, me and the other guys are soon disturbing in the peace as we razz about the surrounding Welsh countryside and I grab the chance to ride KTM’s 2017 300 EXC – the largest capacity two-stroke in the range. It’s got bags of top end power - way too much for a mud-shy imbecile like me but I get on well with it because it’s light, exciting and even though I get the impression it’s a bit too expert for me, is easy to ride.
When Ady challenges us all to an impromptu uphill straight-line sprint race, the red mist descends before me and the dinger scream forwards. I can’t help but laugh inside my helmet because the 300 EXC is so visceral – it sounds good, pulls relentlessly and wants to wheelie its tits off through the first three gears. I get to the other end of the field grinning from ear-to-ear and realise that I’m enjoying this enduro thing.
Maybe I shouldn’t be too surprised though because the tuition at the school is well considered and delivered, and easy to apply. For example, at one point Ady leads us to the top of a steep hill where we’re going to ride some laps of a looped course, which involves having to ride on some steep off-camber sections. He teaches me how to weight the bike and off I go – all of a sudden the terrain isn’t so intimidating.
By mid-afternoon it’s time to go exploring on a longer ride, and I seize the chance to swap bikes again by chopping the 300 EXC in for the KTM 250 EXC-F Six Days – a pimped up version of the 250cc EXC-F, powered by a four-stroke 250cc single-cylinder engine with different graphics, a bar-mounted map switch, orange frame and various anodised parts for me to try and damage. It’s only 3kg heavier than the 300 EXC and has a less frenzied top end, which makes it feel a bit easier to control. I feel like I can ride it a bit harder, especially when powering out of bends, but it’s not quite as engaging as the 300 EXC.
At some point during the afternoon ride I realise that I’m comfortable with the bike moving around under me, and the I’m enjoying feeling the rear slide out of corners because I feel in control of it. When the front threatens to fold in corners, because I’ve got my foot out, I manage to avoid getting a face full of mud but of course, falling off is inevitable and I manage to stack it when I slide off trying to get through a deep muddy rut, then 7 seconds later trying to get out of the rut.
The Ady Smith school undoubtedly did wonders for my off-road riding and over the course of one day took me from feeling complete trepidation to having a great time. It gave me some decent foundation skills that I can build on next time and it challenged me to think about my body position, throttle control and clutch control and balance and use them with more finesse to overcome terrain that at first glance seemed daunting. Considering how apprehensive I felt in the morning, at the end of a long day’s riding I was gutted that I had to put the toys away, (but thankful the next morning because I could barely move).
And could it have saved me from crashing that BMW R1200GS Adventure? It's hard to say, but one thing's for sure, had I been to Ady's school beforehand, I would have been better skilled and more confident about what to do with the bike away from tarmac.