Why Every Biker Needs to Try Trail Riding

We tried Phoenix Motorcycle Training’s trail riding course in the Peak District

Two trail bikes on a green lane
Two trail bikes on a green lane

“Surely I’m not going to get up that,” is the thought that goes through my head, shortly before proving my doubts wrong with a bit of extra gas and some trust in the bike underneath me. The aforementioned “that” is a chunky-looking arrangement of rocks going up a reasonably steep bit of gradient. From the bottom, it looks particularly chunky. 

 

This isn’t some dedicated off-road facility, though. No – it’s a green lane or ‘byway open to all traffic’ (BOAT) that anyone can ride on. And that, when you think about it, is pretty cool. If you have a suitable bike, you can spend pretty much an entire day riding on some seriously rough terrain without paying anything but petrol money. And maybe a cup of tea and cake at a nearby cafe when you need a rest. And you will need a rest. 

Four trail bikes
Four trail bikes

Trail riding is one of the real joys of motorcycling, and something I’ve wanted to try for years. I’ve had a sample of riding a motorbike on rougher ground via the Sweet Lamb Ducati Riding Experience Adventure Academy, but that was in a private facility and on big adventure bikes. Small-capacity trail bikes on publically accessible green lanes aren’t quite the same thing, so despite some transferable skills, I was keen for my first go to involve some expert tuition. That’s where Phoenix Motorcycle Training comes in. 

 

While the main core of Phoenix’s business is training for road riding, the company also offers trail riding courses at several venues dotted around England - Foots Cray in Kent, Salisbury Plain, the West Pennies and the Peak District. 

 

It’s the Peaks I find myself in today, with hours of trail riding to look forward to under the instruction of John Bilbrough or ‘JB’. A day like today will set you back £270, for which you’re getting expert instruction, bike hire, safety gear (I’m using a mix of my own stuff and Phoenix’s) and - most importantly - lunch. Group sizes are always small, and instructions - plus directions - make their way to you via a one-way intercom.

A rider on a Honda CRF250L
A rider on a Honda CRF250L

In the Peaks, you can choose between a Fantic XEF250 and a Honda CRF250L with a lowered seat. I opt for the Honda, not because I need the low seat, but because the side stand on the Fantic is a pain in the arse and I figure I don’t need to increase the chances of dropping a bike any higher than they were already. 

 

In the end, though, I don’t need to worry about the CRF ending up on the floor. The first time we venture away from the asphalt, it’s a gentle, unintimidating trail. To get there, we have a short stretch of road riding, an alien experience in itself for someone who’s never used road-legal tyres biased more towards off-road use than on (in this case Michelin Trackers). I’m not used to such an abrupt transition from being upright to leaning over. 

Three trail bikes on a green lane
Three trail bikes on a green lane

Once we’re on our first green lane, we tackle the basics, the first being body position. Everything starts from this point - stood up, slight bend in the knees, back slightly forward and elbows lightly bent and pointing outward. If you don’t have this sorted, everything else becomes much more difficult. 

 

It takes me a bit of work (and looking back at the photos after, I realise I didn’t quite have it nailed), perhaps not helped by the fact I have years of mountain biking conditioning my body to want to adopt a slightly different position for two-wheeled trail riding. In time, I’ve no doubt it’ll come naturally, as it clearly does for JB. 

 

The second essential is cornering, the technique for which is pretty much the opposite of what’s done on the road. Yes, you could lean off the bike, but if you lose grip, that offset of mass might cause you to unceremoniously depart the machine and end up on the floor. Instead, the bike is leant over while the rider stays upright. 

A Honda CRF250L splashing through water
A Honda CRF250L splashing through water

Again, it doesn’t come naturally, but in time, the process begins to become automatic. Simultaneously, you start to get used to the feeling of the bike losing grip or traction and moving around beneath you – it’s unnerving initially, but you eventually accept it as part of the experience. 

 

As the day goes on, the trails we’re riding become progressively harder, but the difficulty level increases so gradually, that what we’re doing isn’t at any point scary. One particularly technical descent, littered with reasonably large, loose rocks, would have been pretty terrifying had we tackled it first, but after hours of building confidence, it passes with relative ease as I learn to let the bike move around underneath me, its chunky tyres and long-travel suspension taking the sting out of the trail. 

A Honda CRF250L on a green lane
A Honda CRF250L on a green lane

Having the right tool for the job helps, too. Yes, I could be on a middleweight or even a full-fat adventure bike here, and from my two days at DRE Sweet Lamb a few months ago, I know a Ducati Desert X would dispatch all this gnar with ease, but at the same time, I’m appreciating the lighter, more nimble nature of this CRF. And as fun as over 100bhp is on loose trails, the 23bhp served up by the single-cylinder engine chugging away beneath the seat is plenty. 

 

As we’re on public trails, the speeds are a little more modest, and we need to be wary of other trail users - mostly hikers, but I’d imagine on weekends you’ll come across a few mountain bikers too, and the odd horse rider. This isn’t just a case of riding safely around others and giving space, or even stopping to let others pass - it’s important to be as polite and accommodating as possible. 

Three trail bike riders navigating a gate
Three trail bike riders navigating a gate

The internal combustion soundtrack of this particular countryside pastime means not everyone’s a fan. Only a few weeks before I took this course, a columnist writing for The Guardian took aim at trail riding. Already, only a tiny percentage of publically accessible trails are open to motorcycles, and all through the ride, JB points out various routes we can no longer take due to a closure notice being slapped on them. Ignore that notice and get caught, and you’re at risk of your bike being impounded and crushed. 

 

Being courteous, then, could go a long way in helping preserve the joys of trail riding. Joining the Trail Riders Fellowship (TRF) is worth it, too, with access to trail maps to show you where you can ride, and your membership going towards advocacy and maintenance projects.

Two trail bikes on a green lane
Two trail bikes on a green lane

Even with many trails no longer in use, there’s enough to string together a spectacular route that only ever strays onto properly surfaced roads for short stretches. Yes, we have to stop to open and close gates, but that just gives us a little more time to admire the scenery. 

 

As we need to stop and repeat sections to capture photography, we end up finishing the day having completed one of the two loops customers would normally ride. But even half of the route proves to be an epic experience, and one I’m keen to repeat. I also think trail riding is something all bikers need to try at least once, even if they don’t reckon the dirtier side of motorcycling is going to be their cup of tea. 

Three trail bike riders enjoying the view
Three trail bike riders enjoying the view

The main reason is what it’ll do for your road riding, even if certain elements like cornering techniques are a bit different. Trail riding gets you used to the sensation of a bike losing grip, conditioning you to not overreact and do the wrong thing. It’s likely to increase your overall riding confidence and make you better at shifting your weight around for optimal balance. You’ll certainly feel far more comfortable the next time you’re riding across a gravel car park, and if you’ve bought a big, heavy adventure bike you’re nervous about taking off the tarmac, the Phoenix course will be a great prelude. 

 

And here’s the other thing – I’m almost certain you’ll enjoy it, even if you don’t think you’re going to. The only trouble is, that you might find yourself diving into the classifieds to look at cheap trail bikes when you get home. Don’t ask me how I know. 

 

 

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