Off-road is the new on-road, mud the new tarmac, and matching pant-trouser ensembles are the new leathers. Yup, this season anyone who's anyone is taking to the dirt. Simply put, the sway towards off-roading in Blighty is growing by the nanosecond. It's hardly at the level that we'll see sportsbike sales dropping through the floor, the trackday business drying up and everyone commuting on KX125s, but there's no doubt muddy motorcycling is enjoying something of a renaissance right now.
But before we get carried away, let's get one thing straight. Off-roading falls into two main camps - motocross being one, and trail riding the other. Motocross is done on purpose-built dirt tracks with jumps and stuff while trail riding is done out in the wilds of nature's own playground, and although both are riding the crest of a boom, it's motocross we'll concern ourselves with here. Why? Because we are. Got it? Good, back to business then.
So why would anyone want to go motocrossing? First up it's a bargain compared to road riding. Crash your dirt bike (as you will many times) and the chances of damaging more than your pride are about a gazillion to one. Drop your gleaming GSZXR-RR at a standstill, however, and you're looking at a four-figure bill before you know it. And how about taking said GSZXR-RR on a trackday? Well you'll not see much change out of £400 once you've taken into account tyres, sign-on costs and fuel. And if you lob it? Oof, doesn't bear thinking about.
And while we're talking crashing, let's talk pain. Crash on tarmac and even if you don't break anything you're unlikely to feel like doing the funky chicken for a few days, but because crashing in the dirt happens at lower speeds and on to nice soft mud, injuries are less common.
You'll get fit too - you won't believe what a workout it is hanging onto a bouncing, slewing bike trying to go in at least three directions at once. Throw in the fact you'll be pulling the thing out of a ditch every half hour - if you're trying - and it soon adds up to a training regime Rocky would be proud of.
Finally, the most important ingredient. Fun. Motocross is an absolute gas. No matter how crap you are, in your head you can be a hero instantly. You can slide the back, lose the front, bounce through the air and even crash with every lap. Brilliant.
Although most of us road riders may be new to motocross, one group who've been aware of its benefits for years are the road racing fraternity who've always seen the value in muddy action, not only for building stamina and fitness but for honing all-important riding skills. Sliding a 180bhp superbike on slicks at a ton-plus is all very well, but it's not something you learn overnight. You have to do it in stages, and where better to start than at 15mph on the dirt? Exactly.
With all this in mind I felt I should see what this motocross lark was all about so I took up a certain Mr Paul Young on his kind offer of a day at the Mallory Park motocross centre, which he runs with one of his sponsors.
Possessing the off-road abilities of an earthworm, I needed all the help I could get. So I sourced a gleaming CR125 from Honda, and top-to-toe motocross gear from the benevolent fellows at Thor Motocross - at least I was going to look fast as I fell into the mud at 3mph.
Having never paid a great deal of attention to motocross bikes the CR was a revelation. Minimal and flyweight, it was a work of art. And once fired up the crisp, shrill bark of the diminutive highly-tuned two-stroke motor sent shivers down my spine.
Rolling up at Mallory I drove through the familiar gateway, but hooked a sharp left into a field instead of taking the usual route across the racetrack and into the pits and within seconds I was in another world. While 100 metres away racebikes caned around the super-fast Gerards bend on a practice day, all around me was mud, grass and the buzz of crossers leaping and slithering their way around the one-mile circuit.
Finding Youngy I signed on and asked how much it was. "Twelve quid for as long as you want," came the reply. He must have taken my bemused expression as concern, because he quickly pointed out that as a guest I wouldn't have to pay. In fact, I'd been taken aback - when you're used to £120-odd for a few sessions at a trackday, £12 for all-you-can-ride is a steal.
Struggling into my unfamiliar clobber, I noted the company I was in. As well as Youngy, BSB boys Glen Richards and Jon Kirkham had turned up for the crack, as had R6 Cup front-runner Peter Ward, our very own Niall Mac and even Chris Vermeulen, who had taken time out from leading the World Supersport championship to chew the fat, although a mangled thumb was keeping him off the bikes.
Noting Glen was looking seriously handy tearing his local track apart I collared him for advice on basic motocross technique. "Just get out there and enjoy it, mate," came the reply.
Even with my brain emptied of all thoughts technique-related I still felt a rising tide of nerves and seemed to have forgotten the basic principles of bike riding as I lurched my way to the track entrance. But before I could dwell on matters a clear spot in the traffic appeared and it was time to dive in.
The first berm bounced into view and took me that much by surprise I nearly rode right out the top of it, but I just managed to lay the bike down at the last second and skim the top edge, spraying a vast rooster tail into the sky, and then... Erm, okay, actually I put my foot down like a girl and then nearly ran it over. But I stayed on. At the tabletop I leapt inches in the air (no, really) and almost threw myself over the bars in the process, and on the main straight I ploughed into the deepest mud pool, slewed violently left and nearly hit a trackside post. Three corners later, having convinced myself I was a dirt-riding god (in my head), I lost the front and went down like a sack of spuds.
After five laps I had to pull in. I was sweating like Bertie in a pie shop, my forearms had pumped up that much getting my gloves off was a struggle, and I seemed to be wearing most of a field on top of my once-pristine kit. A glug of water and a Mars bar later however and I was ready for the off again. What a perfect way to spend a day.
Continue for the right gear for riding motocross
What gear you'll need
Helmet & Goggles
Motocross lids aren't as sophisticated as their top-spec road race brethren, and have most of the front missing. This is normal, as are the pointy peak and extra-long chin bar. Vents on top help cooling, although most of this is looked after by the big hole at the front. Goggles are essential to keep mud out of your eyes and flying stones off your face, just take care not to scratch them to buggery cleaning them between sessions.
Mainly there to stop kamikaze pebbles cracking your sternum and is also handy when you hit the floor. Can be worn under your shirt for those hardened to nipple rub, or over for perfumed ponces like Wozza. A kidney belt is also a must because your lower back and kidneys will take a hammering. Good knee armour is essential too because you will spank your knees. A lot.
Don't expect to a) walk or b) feel the gear lever in these at all. Like ski boots they hold your whole lower leg solid. The upside of this is feet and ankle injuries have been all but wiped out. The downside is knee injuries are more common as impact forces are transmitted there instead. Oh, and they'll bugger your carpet if you wear them in the house. Best cleaned by placing upside-down on a traffic cone at the jetwash, according to Niall Mac.
Elbows are the only part of your body likely to take a heavier pounding than your knees when you're learning so elbow pads are vital.
Normally neoprene with token leather patches over 'impact areas', motocross gloves would last two seconds in a tarmac crash. On dirt, however, they're just the job and give loads of feel and grip, even when soaking wet.
So now you'll need a muddy steed, but what? Check this lot first
Which bike is for you?
Don't be fooled by the capacity - two-stroke 125 competition bikes have plenty of power, although are somewhat peaky. The CR however manages just enough midrange to help novices while still packing bugger-all weight (there's nothing here that doesn't need to be, so no lights, indicators, etc, and no electric start or oil injection either), stunning brakes and demon handling. On the down side it'll need mucho maintenance (pistons, rings...) to stay sharp.
So you think a 125 isn't enough? Well, why not try a 250 then, and enjoy daft amounts of power with a more useable spread thanks to the extra cubes. Usual two-stroke rules apply though so fastidious spanner work will be required, and practicality away from the motocross track is non-existent. You can forget trail riding on one of these unless you like long nights alone on windswept bogs waiting for the AA to arrive. By helicopter.
Just as they have done in MotoGP, the four strokes have hit the motocross world hard. Finally they're as light as the two-strokes, but come with the all-important easy drive and flexibility of a four-stroke. They don't need the pampering a two-stroke does either, although these are still a far cry from any trail bikes - they're kickstart only, and as pared down as their two-stroke brethren - making them as useful as a chocolate teapot away from the track.
Made for road use as big brother to the KMX125, the 200 is a modern classic. You get practicality of sorts (lights, indicators, speedo, mirrors), reliability (made for road use first means no serious tuning although you get 30bhp anyway thanks to those cubes), and basic yet capable handling, which is more than enough for any beginner. You also get the added bonus that your KMX will handle green laning when asked. But they are rare and only available used.
And now we come to the four-stroke trail bike. Far heavier than the motocrossers thanks to full road gear and sturdier build for mile after mile of bog-hopping, the DR is rather unweildy on the motocross track. That said, the fat power delivery makes for a very easy ride, and the bike is far more capable than it should be on the track. Think of this as three bikes in one - road commuter, trail hacker, perfect for a motocross dabble and you're getting there.
You've got the gear and the bike, now find our where to ride and learn
Where to do it
Got a bike and trailer? Then why not ride the motocross tracks dotted around the country? Phone the circuit for opening days/times and just turn up, average cost is £12. Check out www.mxtrax.co.uk for track listing
Woodside Motocross Track
Tel: (01343) 814858
Tel: (01357) 440202
West Wales Motorcross track
Tel: (01558) 650312
Tel: (07866) 240375
Tel: (020) 8467 7516
Tel: (07909) 965316
Tel: (07711) 626922
Tel: (01577) 865111
Where to learn it
If you fancy trying out motocross but don't want the grief of splashing out for your own bike, gear and trailer, then try some of this lot. They'll all supply everything you need - all you need to do is have a good time.
The Suzuki Off-road Experience
Venue: Mallory Park, Leicestershire
Costs: £150 per day
Bikes: Suzuki RM125s, 250s and DR-Z400s
Includes: bikes, gear, tuition, food
Contact: (07909) 965316
Jeff Mayes Motocross Try-out
Venue: around Newmarket and Doncaster
Costs: £75-£90 per half day
Bikes: Kawasaki KX65s-125s and KDX220s
Includes: bikes, gear, tuition
Contact: (01379) 852452
Barry Johnson Yamaha Off-road School
Venue: all over the country
Costs: £149 per day
Bikes: Yamaha PW50s and 80s (nippers only), WR250s and 450s, YZ250s and 450s, TTR90s and 125s
Includes: bikes, gear, tuition
Contact: (01543) 271675
CAS Honda Off-road Experience
Venue: all over the country
Costs: £120 per day
Bikes: Honda XR125s and 250s, CR125s and 250s, CRF450s
Includes: bikes, gear, tuition
Contact: (01933) 674036