Learning to Ride: First Off-Road Ride

December 24, 2013
Byron Wilson
Byron Wilson
Associate Editor|Articles|Articles RSS

Byron's sure to be hunched over a laptop after the checkers are flown, caught in his own little version of heaven. Whether on dirt, street or a combination of both, MotoUSA's newest addition knows the only thing better than actually riding is telling the story of how things went down.

It was only the second turn on the roll chart and my numbers were already f*$%^#. “You have to start from the starting line you idiot, or nothing’s going to line up. You can’t just take off from the truck.”

Lots of gravel roads made the C course easy enough for even a noob like me.
Lots of gravel roads made the C course easy enough for a noob like me, though I got a lot of invaluable help from two other riders that allowed me to tag along with them.

I wasn’t particularly easy on myself thanks to the combination of nerves and coffee, but I’d never done a legitimate off-road jaunt before, much less a 100-plus mile dual-sport ride in a part of the country I’d only ever seen in pictures. I was a little on edge. Just a few days prior I had gotten my first look at a roll chart and instructions on how to use it, along with a tool kit for emergency break-downs and some sound advice from former MotorcycleUSA Off-Road Editor JC Hilderbrand: “you’d better find some other riders to hook-up with out there.” As I returned back down the hill to the starting point, noticing how few there were left to leave all I could think was, “what the hell have you gotten yourself into?”

Over the spring and summer I’d been riding the Rogue Valley streets on a Honda CRF250L. I’d also been out on a number of other bikes; a Kawasaki Ninja 300, Ninja 650, V-Strom 650, NC700X and a few others, but never off road. It bugged me that I was neglecting the dirt, especially since it had been suggested to me as a great way to improve my skill by more experienced riders. “Get out on the trails,” they’d say, “spend as much time off road as you can.” But I also wasn’t going to head up into the hills on my own without someone there with me. It just seemed too risky.

So I pushed it to the back of my mind and was happy to gain confidence on the pavement. Then, in early September an email hits my inbox with details on the Oregon Motorcycle Adventures (OMA)-KTM Diamond Lake Dual-Sport Ride and Adventure Challenge presented by our local OHV riding club, the Motorcycle Riders Association (MRA). Diamond Lake is a few hours north of Motorcycle USA’s home base in Medford, Oregon and others in the organization have done this particular ride in the past, so I was assured that even with negligible off-road skill I’d be able to pull it off. To make double sure, I went down and introduced myself to Jeff Moffett, founder of OMA and organizer of the event, explained where I stood in the scope of new-riderdom and he, too, assured me that I’d be more than fine on the C course, and probably even ok on the B course.

With the season winding down and this most likely my last chance to get any serious off-roading under my belt before winter, I decided to sign up. I’d be going it alone since the others in the office were busied-up with other projects, which was fine because I figured I’d just meet-up with other C course riders and ask nicely to tag along.

The intervening weeks were spent combing YouTube for videos about off -road skills and trail-side repair tips. After some long talks with JC on what to expect, gathering up all the gear I needed and some sleepless nights imagining the worst, the time came for me to load up the truck and head out.

So in the dark of the pre-dawn morning I backed the Ford into a small ditch outside the MotoUSA garage, rolled the CRF250L into the back and strapped ‘er down. It was just my luck that the night before one of the first legitimate autumn storms rolled through the area and though the rain had subsided by morning, everything was soaked. I’ll add here that in addition to zero off-road experience, I’d also never ridden in the rain. Go figure.

I pushed on and made it up to Diamond Lake just a few minutes before 8 a.m. , thinking the ride didn’t start until 9 a.m. and that I’d have plenty of time to get signed in, mingle a bit, maybe talk to Jeff and find some like-minded slowpokes to trail for the day. Needless to say my time was off. Luckily, I caught the bulk of the rider meeting, in time to find out where to store my gas can and hear what we could expect to see on each of the three courses. C course was mainly gravel and paved road, which didn’t sound all that authentic in terms of off-roading, but against the disclaimer that some parts of the B course got pretty hairy, I figured it was the safest bet. So I signed in, got my roll chart and headed back to the truck to get unloaded, all the while watching as riders who have figured out the whole punctual thing zip by on their way to the trail head.

Resolved to ride the C course alone, I instantly make my first mistake and head up the paved hill from my truck rather than the start line which is three or four tenths of a mile down the road. My odometer’s telling me I have to turn, but there’s no turn in sight and I finally realize my error, reset and try again.

This time I’m able to find my bearings and take a left onto a winding alpine road. Directions say to head up a few miles and there will be a right turn onto a dirt section. Again, I overshoot the turn and have to double back. The odometer is screwed again and I haven’t even made into the woods yet. I find my way to the right spot and stop the bike to take a breath, regroup and assess the situation.

“Keep an eye out for the ribbons that indicate junctions, you’re looking for the white ones” “figure out what your odometer will read by the next turn” “stay calm.”

If you look to the distance  you can see the four cows that gave us a bit of trouble on the trail.
If you look to the distance, you can see the four cows that gave us a bit of trouble on the trail.

While these thoughts ran through my head, I noticed two riders just ahead of me, both on brand new Yamaha WR250Rs pointing at their roll charts and making a plan of attack. I roll up and say hi, introduce myself and ask if either is running the C course. One of the riders has the C roll chart on his bike, the other has the combined A/B and they’re planning on doing a little bit of each. I heave a monumental sigh of relief when they agree to let me follow along.

The first off-road bit is sandy dirt double-track that undulates endlessly. There are plenty of exposed tree roots, some rocky sections and, of course, plenty of puddles from the previous day’s rain. I’m crouched on the pegs, standing slightly and trying my best to keep the second of the two riders in sight. Each obstacle comes and goes in a moment and I’m able to leave the frustrations of before to the past and focus wholly on the present, on staying upright and picking the line of least resistance.

We get through that section and come on a long stretch of gravel road. At each indicated turn the two Yamaha riders, Erik and Doug, stop to assess where they’re at. I line up my roll chart with Doug’s and start to get a better feel for how it all works.

Soon after, we get cooking on a section of road that is takes us higher and higher up a mountain and round a corner only to come face-to-face with a four-some of wayward cattle. They were absolutely terrified of us and immediately turned tail, running in the same direction we were trying to go. The cows remained four-wide for a while and we were stuck, but then one veered off into the bush. The other three continued and we couldn’t find a safe way past but the fourth cow, not wanting to be left alone, started charging from behind to catch up. Pulling up the rear of our riding group and all I could see in my mirror was bounding, pissed-off cow that I hope to God doesn’t plow me to the ground. Before any catastrophic thing like that happens though, the three cows up front find a spot to pull off and we throttle past.

It looked nice enough at the outset, but this bit of trail quickly
turned to a rocky, single track ascent into the trees.

After a few more miles of gravel road we stop at another juncture where the A/B course veers off for about 12 miles from the C course. We’re looking at the trail and it’s definitely single track, rain has started to lightly fall and my riding partners were getting sick and tired of the monotony of gravel. I get to know a little more about Doug and Erik while we’re stopped. Turns out they are old riding buddies that used to race enduros some years ago. Doug is now 70 years old and Erik a few decades younger. Doug had taken a break from riding for a number of years to save his body and spend time working on hot rods but the desire to ride never left. As part of a bucket list, Doug decided he wanted to get back to some of his all-time favorite trails in Colorado one more time. So he sold one of his hot rods to buy two new Yamahas and the Diamond Lake OMA event was a training ride for them, their first time back on the trail together in many years.

Doug was ready for a more challenging section and I, still not wanting to hold anyone back, doublechecked my C course chart and bid them adieu. But they would have none of it and assured me that if anything happened, they’d get me out of there. So Doug headed up first, followed by me with Erik bringing up the rear. It was a bit of single track through tall grass at first, but soon turned into a rocky ascent up into the trees. Erik pulled up beside me before things got too sketchy and gave me some immensely valuable pointers, telling me to maintain a good amount of throttle going up and to stop fighting against the bike. Let the suspension soak up the bumps and with a little speed, it will be much easier. It absolutely worked and after I scaled that hill I was ecstatic. It was a track I wouldn’t have wanted to try and walk up, much less power a 320-pound motorcycle through.

What goes up, however, must come down. Erik talked me through some basics on descents. Stand-up, carry a little speed and whatever you do don’t yank the front brake. I kept it in first gear and did all he said successfully, for a while. Then I got spooked when I couldn’t find a comfortable line coming down a soft dirt section, pulled in the clutch and got way too much speed way to fast. I yanked the front brake and went down, the bike landing on and pinning my leg.

Luckily I was able to pull the leg out in the loose dirt and there weren’t any injuries to speak of. At this point Erik had taken off ahead and Doug was pulling up the rear behind me, so he stopped and talked me through the finer points of picking the bike up in the tight space, which I was eventually able to do and we continued on.

There was a different task at each checkpoint during the Diamond Lake Dual Sport ride. Here we got a chance to earn points by hitting targets with a Red Rider air rifle.
There was a different task at each checkpoint during the Diamond Lake Dual Sport ride. Here we got a chance to earn points by hitting targets with a Red Rider air rifle. Erik (red helmet) takes his shot as Doug (white helmet) looks on.

Soon after my spill we came on the second checkpoint. Since this wasn’t a timed race, people with a competitive spirit were able to gain points at different checkpoints for a variety of tasks. I missed the first, which was a jump rope challenge at the start line in full gear. The second was air rifle shooting challenge, with three targets placed at varying distances across a small river. While we were shooting, all the sweepers showed up, though neither Doug nor Erik seemed perturbed by the fact that we were now, without a doubt, bringing up the rear.

After our checkpoint was done, we hopped back on the bikes to get back to business. There was a slightly steep gravel embankment that both Doug and Erik took without issue. I, on the other hand, didn’t carry enough rpms as I tried to make it up the hill and the bike bogged out and died, tipping over once again. Adding to my embarrassment was the fact that down on the river bank, all the sweepers were standing there watching with bewildered amusement. What a noob.

I backed the bike down the hill and made sure it was in first gear, and then opted for a more gradual route back to the trail. During my less-than-graceful recovery, I noticed I’d bent the gear shift lever during one of my exploits. It was still operable and was clear of the case; I just needed to use the tip of my boot now to cycle through gears. Erik offered to help me bend it back to shape during the next checkpoint.

More gravel led us to the third checkpoint and lunch. We ate our sandwiches and chatted some more, refueled our machines and headed back on our way. This time the rain really started to fall just as we hit a 55 mph stretch of highway connecting us to the next trailhead. I was nervous to be rolling at those speeds in the rain, but was really pleased to have crossed another thing I hadn’t yet done on a motorcycle off the list.

Heading out onto the next portion of trail, another section of double track, things began to click and I started to worry less about the particulars of what I was doing and just started to have fun. I found that allowing the bike to flow over the terrain, maintaining speed, keeping focused on the line washes away anything else troubling the mind. I imagine if the Buddha had a trail bike there’d never have been a need for Zen.

Me  left  and Doug  right  stop for a photo after a winding portion of trail through the trees.
Me (left) and Doug (right) stop for a photo after a winding portion of trail in the hills.

Erik gives me some more tips on how to take loose corners with a little more speed and I’m losing sight of them less and less as we draw closer to the end of the trail. The final portion, through a burned-out section of forest on another undulating section of loose, sandy dirt is where I hit my peak. I begin to see lines and plan moves for them before I get there, use my body to take corners with more confidence, attack hills with plenty of speed and stand on descents, feathering the rear brake at times but using my gearing to keep the pace manageable against the gravity pulling me down. There’s a flow, a groove that’s utterly satisfying. Even when I come close to crashing again, I’m able to save it and keep upright, adding a nice little boost of confidence.

Sure, I’m still nowhere near able to keep up entirely with Erik or Doug (both of them can absolutely rip) but it’s an amazing feeling to be tuned in to the machine, the terrain and the experience so completely.

We wind our way through the final bits of trail and highway, returning to the parking lot where it all started. It’s been about seven hours since the first riders took off and Doug’s trip meter says that we’ve almost reached 100 miles for the day. As a final show of kindness, Doug and Erik help me push the CRF into the back of the truck. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have had the experience I did and though I thanked them profusely then, I’d like to thank them both again here as well. It was an unforgettable, absolutely liberating, amazing day and I can’t wait to do it again.