How to go trail riding

Sunday mornings aren't meant for squash, sleep or 'Songs of Praise'. Meet the best hangover cure ever, buggering about in bogs on bikes...

OK leatherboy, call me a liar if you like, but there are thousands of miles of roads in this country bereft of cat's eyes, white lines and Gatsos where you can ride as fast as humanly possible and never encounter another vehicle (ooh er missus, is that another irate tabloid attack ahoy ?). They consist mainly of mud, rock and turf, are collectively known as 'green lanes' or more recently and unsurprisingly, 'trails', and most of these are ancient Rights of Way (RoW), often dating back hundreds of years, originally used to herd cattle to market and enable the well-heeled to gad about on their four legged friends.

Trailriding introduces you to parts of this still surprisingly green and pleasant land that other motorcycles can't, and unlike motocross, enduros and trials, it's a non-competitive exercise where you can set your own agenda and not be humiliated by 16 year-olds on hot-shot machinery their daddies have bought 'em. And it ain't mutually exclusive of course: you can enjoy your road and your off-roading in equal measure - sometimes on the same bike. That's what dual purpose machines were invented for... So most every Sunday morning I haul myself out of my fetid pit and go out trailriding with a group of similarly hungover pals in the mid-Wales hills.

Unfortunately after a little high-speed altercation with a ditch, my XT350 was out of commission, but my friend Roy Simcock kindly lent me his CCM 604E for the escapades you see here. So off we went for a typical morning's trailing with two more of the Radnorshire Unreliables, Tony Reddock and Dave Barnet on their 'Ondas, XR250 and XL500 respectively. Which makes the point that almost anything with a set of knobbly tyres can be trail-ridden with varying degrees of ease, but maintenance must be scrupulously, er, maintained especially if you're also using your bike for regular roadwork, as brakes and electrics take a hammering in the dirt. My 1989 XT cost just £600 last year, by the way, so it's cheap too.

On a sweltering hot August Sunday we opted for a short 16 kilometre loop in familiar territory along the oddly named but extraordinarily scenic Water Break Its Neck and Black Yat trails which rise some 540 metres above Llandrindod Wells.

Much of the going was on rutted mud tracks that can be treacherous when it's sheeting it, but were now dry and dusty - conditions with their own pitfalls if you're riding too close behind a pall of dust kicked up by a mate's bike and can't see a change of ruts or washout (dried stream bed) lying ahead.

Ruts are in fact my least favoured off-road phenomenon: you often have no option but to stick in one which may get deeper, go on forever and lead you to horrible bogs. Rutting techniques are limited to either sitting down, letting the rut steer the bike and being ready to foot it either side, or maintain a slower speed, stand on the pegs and carefully pick your path. Careful throttle control and the right choice of cog, as always off-road, are of the essence.

Just beyond Llanwentre Pool we met a couple of girlies on horses, obliging us to stop, kill our engines and have a cheery chat - absolutely essential in sustaining good relations with other green-lane users - and fortunately they were friendly. A couple of minutes later we were able to cool off riding through Gilwern Brook and drench photographer Morgan's Nikon. Riding through water isn't too much of a prob if you can see the bottom and avoid the slippery rocks that can unhinge you. Charging through muddier stuff is hostage to fortune time, especially if there are submerged ruts that can kick your front wheel away if they change tack.

As a general principle, and even more so than on tarmac, you've gotta keep watchful as far in front of you as possible and be ready to adapt your speed, riding position and gearing well in advance. Relaxed arms and legs and sitting toward the rear of the seat are favourite, enabling you to easily kick out the back wheel and foot around a bermy corner, or lighten the front if needs be. Jumping ditches or the like means 'pegging it and aviating the front end, but don't go for a spectacular unless you're dead sure of what's on t'other side.

This is especially true in the case of the Rotax-engined CCM which is a big, heavy bike that needs lotsa right fist to wheelie it and comes down with a mighty thump. Plus on a long day's ride, heroics soon wear you out.

Apart from close encounters of the slowing down kind with numerous sheep (you never know when you'll need romance in them than lonely hills), the rest of the morning was mercifully uneventful. Very unlike the last time we all went out together when my XT expired, Roy blackened several toes on a gatepost that came out of nowhere, and Dave managed to badly sprain his wrist descending a badly lit shale track. Fast riding on loose surfaces, such as coarsely gravelled forestry fire roads, oblige you to let the bike pretty much steer itself, but when you're riding down 'em use only your rear anchor and engine braking, otherwise you'll be eating dirt pretty smartish.

Eventually we got out of the searing sunlight and meandered beneath heavy tree cover down the deeply rutted Llanhaylow Lane where a twisty, rocky climb follows a tricky river crossing (and another snapper soaking). Like most steep'n'slippery inclines, second gear and standing on the pegs gives you the wherewithal to choose your path with some certainty and the option of bottom gear if you run out of puff.

Ten minutes later we were supping much needed pints of boozo the wonder drug at the Royal Oak at Gladestry (just shandies all round, yer honour), the ideal end to a pleasantly taxing morning of the fun'n'fitness regime we call trailriding. And you've got little excuse not to be doing the same next Sunday.

Continue for What you'll need

The Gear and Bikes

How to look like a biking bog-dweller

An open-faced MX helmet with chinguard keeps you protected but lets you breathe (and sweat). Shark do good 'uns  around £130-150. Fog-free goggles also important, Pro-Grip, Scott and Oakley most popular - £25 upwards

Enduro Suit
Enduro suits, up to £400 for a Alpinestars jacket/trouser combo, should be waterproof and breathable, with removable protection for elbows, shoulders and knees, but strap-on shin/knee pads are desirable. Old school trailpersons swear by (cheaper) Belstaff waxed cotton suits with tons of pockets Kidney belts fairly mandatory, body armour less so... after all, this ain't racing.

Most trailsters wear motocross gloves, but any proofed, lightweight thingies will do

Proper trail/enduro boots provide the best protection from the elements and bone crunching whilst offering some suppleness. Expect to spend £99-150

Fuel Tank
Fuel tank should be large enough to enable half-a-day's riding without taxing reserve, yet slim enough to permit a comfy riding position. Since you may need to remove it for running repairs, make sure that'll be quick'n'easy. Ditto the seat

Engine should start easily (especially when hot) and provide manageable power delivery over as wide a range as poss. Peaky two-stroke  powerplants aren't much fun when you're knackered and soggy. A slick gearbox that allows the odd clutchless change is a boon in tricky situations

Electrics must be thoroughly waterproofed. Always carry spare plugs, wire, electrical tape and a miniature can of WD40

Suspension travel should be roughly equal both ends and progressively damped to prevent fatigue/arse-ache on long rides. Setting up to suit you and your pace can take weeks.

Ground clearance should be at least 12 inches, unladen

Tyres should be road legal, but choose the chunkiest grip pattern possible if off-roading is your priority. Metzeler Karoos and Pirelli MT21s are the boss boots, but IRC TR8s and Barum C20s are decent low-rent alternatives. A heavy duty inner tube will limit risk of compression punctures, and always carry a can of tyre sealant and/or puncture repair kit

Top Five used trailies

Thinking of taking up trailriding for the first time? Then look no further than these tasty little machines for your first venture into the ruts...

  • Gas-Gas Pampera Mk. 3
  • Yamaha XT225 Serow
  • Suzuki DR-Z400s
  • Kawasaki KLX300R
  • Honda XR125L

Do's, Don't's and Where

Do's and Don't's of trail riding

  • Preparation is God. Lube and adjust your chain, check tyre wear and pressures before every ride. Change engine oil and filters strictly according to manufacturer's specs. Ensure your suspension works properly and that all cycle parts are tighter than Gordon Brown
  • Get the right gear. Naff clothing and safety stuff can mean misery if you get caught in crap weather or fall off, as you certainly will
  • Get tooled up. You'll need more than the average flimsy manufacturer's toolkit if you break down off-road, so work out what might go wrong or need adjusting and then buy the necessary, best quality items you can afford
  • Don't go it alone. Trailriding is a sociable thing and you could be in trouble if you break down or injure yourself miles from the nearest Little Chef. Don't venture off alone without informing someone exactly where you're planning to go
  • Respect the countryside. Stick to legal routes and stop for walkers. If you meet any farmers whose land you're crossing, stop and exchange pleasantries - it'll pay dividends. But report to the local council's RoW Dept. and/or the TRF any obstacles deliberately placed across trails
  • Pace yourself and plan ahead. Plan your route in advance and make sure you, or someone in your party has the right maps
  • Read the right stuff: Buying a suitable bike and riding kit is essential, but likely sources aren't so obvious. To guide you in the right direction, check out: Trail Bike Magazine, at all decent newsagents monthly. Tests, buyers guides, riding tips and tons of useful adverts

Top trail riding topography

The beauty of trail/dualsport and enduro bikes is the fact that they do indeed have the ability to run on roads. However, tiny tanks and planks for seats mean you may want to stick to trails close to home, right? Find your dream trails and tell the TRF. Keep them legal though, eh?

Jewel of the Lake District, but pressure on trails for other recreational use can cause problems

The Cambrian Mountains, Black Mountain and Brecon Beacons are three of the best trailriding scenes in the UK.

Devon & Somerset
Lots of good going here, especially the Quantock Hills and Exmoor National Park

Surrey & Kent
Close to London, but still a surprising amount of good green-laning available

It's not all white stilettos and 3-series Beemers in Essex, which boasts squillions of great green lanes, some of the best tantalisingly near London

Yorkshire Dales
Mainly upland riding with dramatic scenery and many taxing trails

Spaces that are often wider and more open than Wales, and closer than Scotland (where the are NO legal green-lanes!)

Mainly upland riding with dramatic scenery and many taxing trails