Chasing sheep and victory at the BMW GS Challenge

We spent a long Bank Holiday weekend testing our navigation and off-road ability with BMW Off Road Skills

Chasing sheep and victory at the BMW GS Challenge

A LITTLE bit of competition in a relationship is good, right?

Maybe, but when that competition dictates your entire life, it’s likely time to rethink things – or settle the argument once and for all…

This weekend’s GS Challenge gave Leo and I the opportunity to draw swords and battle it out in order to ascertain who is better off road – a dispute of at least six months.

We both began Sunday equally hungover, following a family wedding the day before. Perhaps if one of us had had better foresight we would have eschewed alcohol in order to secure an advantage, but that’s just not how we roll.

Leo would be riding his own 2008 F800GS over the two day event, while I was lucky enough to blag one of Off Road Skill’s own F850GSes, which had arrived from the fatherland just days before. With 13 miles on the clock and in pristine condition, the pressure was on not to drop it on any of the three off-road sections of the ride.

The brief was fairly simple: 140-odd BMW riders (you don’t have to own a GS to take part, any old Bimmer will do) would take to the magnificent roads surrounding Brecon, completing tasks and answering questions along the way. Afterwards everyone would congregate at Walters Arena to tackle a series of off-road challenges. It’s scored trials style, - i.e. the rider with the fewest points at the end of the event would win, simples.

“Enjoy yourselves,” ORS instructor Chris Northover announced to the assembled crowd, “ride carefully, and most importantly look out for sheep.” (We later found out that this wasn’t just the standard Welsh ‘sheep shagger’ joke but actually a serious threat).

After kitting up and struggling to reset the F850GS’s odomenter – that TFT dash is pretty but tricky – we got off to a great start when, barely 300m down the road, my makeshift map case developed a twitch and spat my route notes out. It was down to Leo to navigate us to our first checkpoint and typically we rode straight past it.

Now, while carrying cups of water through woodland blindfolded may sound more like the plot of a bizarre horror movie than a motorcycle competition, it what awaited us at the ‘Absolute Adventure Challenge’. Thankfully, my steady hands came through and I didn’t spill a drop. Leo wasn’t so lucky, and walked away with one penalty point. I wasn’t smug at all.

Back on the bikes and we smashed it through tall hedgerows and dense woodland, before emerging on to a sprawling misty moorland. ‘What six things can you do on open access land’ was this section’s corresponding question, and on the first off-road route we came across – a gravelly green lane – we found the answer: ‘walking, picnicking, sightseeing,, climbing, bird watching and running’.

As we progressed further up the lane, the gravelly troughs became muddy ruts, and the F850’s road-biased Bridgestones began to struggle. Leo’s 800, however, was shoed in the ever capable Metzeler Karoo 3s and he showed no sign of slowing down. As the deep puddles sluiced up and over my feet, my heavy motocross boots began to slip on the footpegs, but removing the rubber peg pads soon fixed that. We emerged a couple of miles later triumphant, and unscathed.

Miles of typical Welsh countryside followed – tall hedgerows, flint walls, rolling hills and endless expanses of green. As we rounded a corner in a road barely wide enough for two GSes to pass, we came across a local resident loitering in the lane. He seemed in no rush to move so we dismounted and chased him up the road and into the bushes. A scuffle, and muffled ‘baa’ as he dived through the hedge, then silence. Chris was right, sheep were everywhere.

The easy off-road route was a gravelly blast, and we rolled up to Walters Arena in high spirits at 1pm. Leo was confident in his chances on the six challenges that awaited us, but having seen the calibre of the previous year’s competitors, I was less so.

First up was the Slow Speed Riding challenge. The aim was simple, cover a convoluted muddy course on the quick-to-stall G310GS, as slow as possible. Take over 35 seconds for zero points, any less and they’d quickly start totting up. I got off to a great start by hitting a rock and dropping the bike before I’d even got to the start line. Embarrassment aside I revved the sh*t out of it along the course, collecting three points. Leo got two.

Next, the Trials Challenge. Leo went first and promptly stalled at the first hurdle, scoring the dreaded full five points. I did one better and dropped it on the steep mound, which again meant five points. Annoyingly, we both took another go at this challenge and scored much better. Leo did impressively on the Graded Hill Climb, teetering his way around the tight course to two points. A tight right-hander caught me out and I walked away with six. We were both miles too slow on the average 20mph ride – a picturesque course winding around the arena, on which the aim was self-explanatory.

The Tennis Ball Challenge required speed, accuracy and steady hands, and of course Leo made a right dog’s dinner of it dropping the balls left, right and centre and eventually crashing into the fence. I tried to style it out slowly, but only managed to match his pace and we both bagged three points.

But any points he may have avoided earlier in the day were soon gained on the Speed Challenge, after an overzealous spin sent the bike diving into the ground - an automatic five pointer. In my case, slow and steady may not have won the race but it was enough to bag me just two points. And as we left Walter’s I had just one point more than him, something I wasn’t allowed to forget.

The picturesque ride back to the start line included the dreaded ‘Hard Enduro’ section. A half-metre drop off a boulder led into a steep, rocky gully barely wide enough for our slight parallel twins – I don’t know how 1200 GS riders had managed it. The going was tough and in the late afternoon sun it wasn’t long before we were drenched in sweat. On a couple of occasions my slick front tyre slid to the side, but thanks to the proximity of the banks, it wasn’t going anywhere.

Upon arriving at the Ancient Briton, we were informed that there was one challenge left – testing our clutch control on the G310R. Leo’s gung-ho attitude got him in trouble here and he stalled twice, scoring two points. My steady hand once again pulled through, and to my utter jubilation I finished the day one point less than Leo. I had only bloody beat him!

With our scores decided at the end of day one, the pressure was off and day two was a breeze. Another stunning road route, looping past Pen Y Fan, took us to Walters where the 12 finalists were announced. As expected, we were leagues behind them – these guys had managed less than 10 points the day before, we’d got more than 40…

The challenges were upped in difficulty and the pressure was on. The graded hill climb now resembled a rock wall, but somehow the likely lads were able to wrestle their bucking GS Rallyes up to victory.

Following a team final, the scores were announced. A valiant effort by all but there could only be one winner.

But winning aside, the 140-odd assembled riders were in high spirits. Awesome riding, camaraderie and German engineering was the theme of the weekend, and everyone had indulged. 

With next year's challenge being a qualifier for the global GS Trophy, many riders vowed to be back and ready to fight for a place on the UK team.

Here’s what Leo had to say:

Points don’t mean prizes The GS Challenge uses the trials systems of scoring and like a UK driving licence the less points you get the better. Cleaning a challenge equates to zero points, however points are added for infractions such as placing a foot on the ground or being too slow on a task. Most challenges are a test of motorbike control and skill, others less so.

Whether the ability to traverse a rope course blindfolded without spilling a cup of water will help you succeed in Mongolia remains to be seen. Having got less points than Laura on the slow race and graded course, I led going into the final challenge – the seeming irrelevant tasking of pulling away on a G310R on a rolling road without touching the throttle. One slightly sticky clutch cable and two stalls later and the results were in, Laura had pulled away first time on the little 310 and beaten me by one point.

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