othing shouts ‘freedom’ like riding a motorcycle. It’s perfect for exploring the open road, side-lining traffic jams in London and for notching up scenic miles on long, sunny, European tours. Except, of course, when travel restrictions have been in place.
Now, for frustrated London motorcyclists whose ‘rides’ have been locked up for much of the past year, salvation is at hand in the form of a new off-road training centre.
For years, Phoenix Motorcycle Training focused on training novices for the road while also coaching experienced riders for the advanced motorcycle test. Now it has invested in an exciting new venture, introducing riders to the thrills – and spills – of green-laning.
Based at Sidcup, under an hour’s ride from central London, the firm has bought a fleet of bright red Honda CRF 250L off-road motorcycles to give Londoners a taste of riding in the rough. It’s fitted them with knobbly tyres, hand guards, beefed-up handlebars and one or two other mods – and launched the Trail Riding Centre.
After recruiting experienced off-road instructors and buying all the protective gear riders need to stay safe while getting to grips with the challenges of riding off-road, Phoenix created a training ground, complete with grass and dirt areas on which riders can get used to the disconcerting sensation of riding on loose surfaces.
Once novices have acclimatised to the technical challenge of pulling away, turning and stopping on grass, mud and gravel, they can progress to a series of obstacles cleverly designed to prepare them for the next stage – hours of fun riding the green lanes of Kent and Surrey, just minutes from the training centre.
MD Mark Jaffe’s rationale is simple. He sensed that – following a major boom in the sales of adventure bikes – there was growing demand from city riders wanting to know how and where to use them. Especially with European travel on shaky ground.
“It’s all very well buying your adventure bike and all the gear, but it can be daunting going off-road for the first time, and everyone can benefit from expert instruction,” Mr Jaffe told the Standard. “We aim to offer an easy introduction to off-roading in a controlled environment, on manageable adventure bikes, under expert tuition. Best of all, it’s on our bikes, so you don’t have to damage your brand new, shiny, adventure bike.”
Off-road team leader Adam Augustin says there’s more to off-road riding than just having fun.
“It’s a great way to develop your riding skills, making you more confident, sure-footed and safer on the road,” he says. “It improves your balance, makes you aware of your – and your bike’s – limits and prepares you for the unexpected; that split-second loss of grip which, if you’re not used to it, can end in disaster. Above all, it’s a huge amount of fun that every biker should try at least once.”
Phoenix offers offer four different stages of training. The first is a two-hour £55 ‘taster’ session, open to any rider with or without a bike licence provided they have basic riding skills.
After a safety introduction, participants are encouraged to get used to riding over loose surfaces. Much of the riding is around cones and instructors offer constant individual advice and encouragement.
Novices are told how to mount and dismount, how to sit – or stand on the foot pegs – and how to balance so that they keep enough weight over the front wheel for grip in bends. Back-to-basics tips include operating the brake and clutch with just one or two fingers (allowing the other digits to loosely grip the handlebars) and how to position your arms for the best ‘leverage’ in bends.
Then it’s onto the green lane-style trail obstacles on an adjacent patch of woodland. There’s a small hill where riders can practise throttle and clutch control on the way up – and braking skills on the way down. There’s are also challenging muddy ruts, a log path and a tricky, deep, muddy trench, so don’t expect to ride home clean.
“The idea is to give novices a taste of what they’ll encounter out on the green lanes in a safe environment, where it doesn’t matter if they have one or two ‘offs’,” says Jaffe. “Then there won’t be any surprises.”
Riders can progress through three different stages ranging from ‘easy’ to ‘very challenging’, starting with Level 1 which gives riders six hours in the saddle, starting on the training ground before riding out onto local roads to discover miles of often remote, undulating green lane.
Levels two to four involve full-day rides around southern England, with bikes delivered to strategic points including Kent and Salisbury, in a van, for prices ranging from £250 – £500.
I strapped on as much protective gear as I could find (see below) – and joined the team for Level 1.
There’s no denying it; for those more used to road riding, it’s unnerving when a bike on knobblies’ develops a mind of its own on mud or grass. Your natural reaction when the rear – or front – wheel slithers sideways is to tense up and hit the brakes.
But after half an hour of weaving in and out of cones, it all began to feel more natural – and enjoyable. After breaking the ice with a minor tumble that saw me land on my feet and the bike fall harmlessly on its side, I was ready for the obstacles. With tips from instructors Adam, and Roger Pitt, I was soon loving every second and trying to copy Roger’s trial-style body position as he leaned off the bike, to counterbalance in bends.
The secret to off-road riding, it seems, is trusting that the bike will usually take you where you’re looking – if you hang on long enough and fight the tension. Even so, it was sometimes challenging to remember Adam’s advice ‘Look where you want to go – because you’ll always end up going where you look’. I found it impossible not to focus on the muddy ‘walls’ of the trench, for instance, with the result that I found myself pinned to them by the bike more than once, with my carefully-chosen protective gear taking the strain.
After negotiating the intimidating-looking log path – it’s easier to ride over than it looks – we rode out onto the roads in search of fully-legal green lanes, which criss-cross most of rural and semi-rural Britain.
The first taste of freedom as we left the tarmac and shot off along a deserted, gravel-strewn hill was exhilarating. Feeling the bike slide in bends, with the suspension soaking up the lumps and bumps as I stood on the foot pegs for better balance and steering was intoxicating.
We clocked up 80 kilometres on an occasionally white-knuckle ride incorporating minor roads and green lanes through woodland, alongside fields, over picturesque hills, along rutted muddy tracks, gravel and grass.
Toughest of all were very steep ascents – it’s important not to interfere with the bike’s balance by gripping the handlebars too tightly – and steep descents, when picking your route and careful front-wheel braking are key.
Stopping for riding tips in advance of tricky sections – water-filled ruts, steeply ascending log paths, deep gravel, wet tree roots, narrow sections in between slippery grass – my balance, confidence and riding skills improved fast.
Thanks to a permit bought by Phoenix, the climax of the ride was a hilly private stretch of green lane winding through forestry land, dotted with deep, rutted puddles, where we picked up speed and swooped along the crest of a hill and around bends. The sense of achievement, excitement and fun was addictive; it felt like flying just above ground level.
The CRF250Ls are perfect for the job; light and nimble enough to manhandle through tough sections and gateways, easy to pick up if dropped and easy to control. But watch those knobblies; they make you run surprisingly wide in bends on Tarmac.
It’s physically demanding, too. By mid-afternoon my energy and concentration plummeted and we headed back to base for a de-brief.
“It’s not just fun – it really does improve all-round riding skills,” maintains Adam. “Knowing how your bike behaves when it’s on a loose surface, when it’s off-balance, when it’s sliding – and doing that somewhere safe and in the right conditions – hugely benefits anyone’s riding.
“It’s partly about learning not to tense up when the bike moves around. If you can ride relaxed, go with the flow, not fight the bike, you become a better, safer rider. As soon as you tense up, that’s when you prevent the bike from doing what it wants to do. What it wants to do is remain balanced, and get over the next obstacle!”.
Adds instructor Roger Pitt: “Off-road riding also reaches you to sort out braking and speed before you get to a bend, or hazard. You can’t get away with getting it wrong when you’re on a tight mud or gravel track.”
Above all, it’s brilliant fun.
The following day I felt as though I’d fallen downstairs, as long-forgotten muscles reminded me of their presence. But above all there was a sense of achievement – and of having escaped central London traffic for some proper adventure riding.
I shall return for Levels 2, 3 and 4. And next time I need to ride across a grassy car park, negotiate a patch of gravel or mud, or experience a momentary loss of balance, I’ll be better prepared than ever.
What to wear?
It’s safe to assume that at some point while training to ride off-road, you’re going to hit the ground, so it pays to wear the best technical protection you can.
An adventure-style helmet is ideal, offering the best option for the mix of tarmac and dirt roads. They have peaks; great for shielding your eyes from the sun (it’s inadvisable to wear shades as you suddenly lose vision when entering shady, wooded areas) and good for deflecting low-hanging foliage. They are also more spacious around the mouth and nose, to let in the air you’ll be gasping for…
Shoei’s superb-looking Hornet Sovereign (from around £470), designed for on and off-road use, is ideal. Complete with peak, reasonably spacious chin guard and reasonable ventilation (you get sweaty off-roading), the padding is removable for washing (it quickly becomes dirty in dusty conditions). Other features include a 7-position visor that can be used with the provided Pinlock liner to prevent misting, and a wide field of vision. Off-road it proved very comfortable; the trick required of any good helmet is that it ‘disappears’ when you put it on and ride, and the Sovereign achieves this both on and off-road. On-road it felt balanced, streamlined and snug and, despite the peak, not overly noisy. Importantly it has four different outer shell sizes, so it should fit everyone, although I found it was a tighter fit than their on-road helmets, so moved up a size. Other Hornet sovereign advantages? The visor is easy to remove and replace, while the quality of the finish is – like the looks – stellar. There’s also a chin ‘skirt’ for colder weather, and it can be supplied with a highly effective comms system, which provide ideal for connecting with other riders or your sat-nav. More at https://www.shoei-europe.com/.
For a mix of on and off-road riding you need jacket and trousers that offer protection from the elements, and in the event of an ‘off’, but that also allow free movement and great venting (green laning is sooo physical). They don’t get much more functional – and better looking – than Rev’it’s new £419 Sand 4 H20 kit (from £400 for the jacket, £242 for the pants). Displaying the firm’s pedigree with superb design and high-quality construction, its success also lies in its huge versatility, comfort and range of adjustment. Jacket and pants are four-season with two, independently and easily removable liners for warmth and waterproofing, which can be stashed in the ‘rabbit’ pouch on the jacket back. The lightweight jacket (nice and cool without the liners) is commendably comfortable, and has great, carefully-considered venting with snap-back chest panels, as well as zipped bicep vents and long vents on the back. It’s the same story with the pants, boasting large snap-back thigh vents. They seem to have thought of everything including a jacket collar fastener that can be poppered open, ‘webbing’ for a neck brace, hoops for hydration tubes, generous outer pockets and inner pockets. No matter your shape/size, you can tailor the jacket and pants for a close fit (you don’t want material flapping around off-road) with its adjustment straps and tabs, some poppered, some Velcro’d. Zips on jacket and pants are chunky and grippy, and the elbow, shoulder and knee armour is reassuringly well constructed – and vented. Hip armour in the pants is lighter, and you must pay extra for the ingenious multi-layered, vented back armour (£30). Never mind the theory – it all works brilliantly in practice, offering comfort, safety – and cool air when you’re zipping along those green lanes. More at https://bit.ly/3jpTMcJ.
Many – myself included – wear extra ‘armour’ underneath the suit, too; the more, the better. I chose Alpinestar’s Sequence Long Sleeve Jacket (£184) and Pro Shorts (£85) which – despite being lightweight, breathable and unobtrusive to wear – provide plenty of extra protection. Lightweight, close-fitting and elastic, with plenty of adjustment, they fit comfortably under your jacket and trousers without snagging, riding up or overheating. Despite a couple of ‘spills’, I was well protected. The athletic, slimline look belies the fact that the mesh jacket has Level 1 CE protection on the back, chest, shoulders and elbows. The mesh shorts also have perforated, vented armour in strategic areas, reinforced stitching and compression fit support. It’s an impressive modern solution to an age-old biking problem; falling off. More at https://www.alpinestars.com/
Even if you don’t fall, your knees and feet take a pounding. After years of dabbling unsuccessfully with strap-on pads, and with dodgy knees from too much running, I tried Alpinestars’ versatile SX-1 V2 Knee Protectors (from around £90), a far more sophisticated, sculptured, engineered solution that protects above, below and the knee itself. Also preventing hyperextension, the protector proved completely comfortable, stabilising – and protective. Despite its slightly bulbous appearance I was unaware that I was wearing them – until one or two tumbles, when I benefited from the protection. Easy to fit and adjust, with dual strap hook and loop fittings, they also fitted neatly into the top of Alpinestars’ comfy, entry-level Tech 3 Enduro boots.
Lightweight, flexible and requiring little breaking in, they’re sufficiently streamlined to allow easy control of brake and gear levers, while also providing a good level of protection. Costing from around £190, and with a three polymer buckle design, they incorporate an array of protection for the calf, shin and ankle, with a replaceable sole thick enough to smooth out most of the pressure from the foot pegs, without losing too much feel. They are ideal for the job.
Even the best off-road boots sometimes let in water – especially when you’re riding through – and falling off in – deep fords and puddles. The answer is waterproof socks, so that you can ride home dry and warm. British firm EDZ make some of the best, with their merino-lined model. Costing £19.99, the calf-length version was comfortable – and dry. More at https://bit.ly/3iXrsid.
Want to know where to ride?
The Trail Riders Fellowship website has a wealth of information about how to get started – and how to find legally-approved green lanes, so that you can ride on the right side of the law. More at www.trf.org.uk