“To manage these bikes well off-road requires a manner of finesse you probably haven’t learned as a street rider,” says Jim Hyde.
It’s Saturday morning and the founder of RawHyde Adventures is addressing a group of new students huddled outside on rough wooden benches. Hyde’s white hair and beard betray middle age, because his vitality and enthusiasm befit a much younger man. I hurriedly jot down notes as he delivers the introductory speech – a cross between pep talk and lecture, as the cheerful master imparts wisdom to the nervous but eager novitiates.
Hyde has been training riders on the finer points of adventure riding since 2002, with RawHyde Adventures gaining an international reputation as a premier ADV destination. In 2008 RawHyde was officially endorsed as a BMW Off-road Academy – one of only nine in the world, and the California-based company has also branched out as a provider of guided adventure tours. Visiting RawHyde has long been on the to-do list for this dirt-leery editor, so when the invite came to take the Intro to Adventure course and Base Camp Alpha tour, we saddled up and headed south.
Adventure-touring bikes enjoy great popularity, as one of the few segments to grow during the overall motorcycle market decline in recent years. But the ADV class battles the perception that many Adventure bikes, if not most, never meander far off the pavement. The “Starbucks GS” rider is not an altogether unfair stereotype – but Hyde has made a living teaching AT riders how to exploit the true potential of their mounts.
It all boils down to Hyde’s succinct observation – most street riders simply lack the skills to confidently pilot their bikes off-road. Many active riders (and I reckon many reading this story) did not enjoy the luxury of dirt bikes during childhood. Instead, the path to motorcycling has been exclusively on the street. And making that transition from street to dirt is a challenge – particularly on big, heavy ADV bikes like the ubiquitous BMW R1200GS.
For off-road neophytes, riding in the dirt is difficult and more than a little scary. The bike routinely does things it’s not supposed to do, like slide around… Traction off-road is a fluid thing, while it’s almost 100% guaranteed on pavement – the rider disconnect having only grown with modern technological interventions like traction control and ABS. No wonder the GS Starbucks cliché has stuck.
RawHyde’s two-day Intro to Adventure course gives riders all the basic tools they need to tackle dirt. The fine-tuned curriculum delivers core precepts in a short amount of time – and in those two days students will transform from timid to competent. Drills, drills and more drills are in store for students, but one of the biggest takeaways, at least for this student, was Hyde’s personal input before the riding even began.
Hyde touches on the fundamentals of riding off-road, like body positioning, the principles of traction and importance of staying relaxed on the bike. The overview of information is useful, to be sure, but what’s more important is introducing the mental aspect of riding off-road. Thinking ahead, planning lines, evaluating terrain – venturing into the dirt requires a different mindset. Some of Hyde’s maxims for off-road success are downright zen-like, with my personal favorite: “Look toward the good path, and that is where you will go.”
The morning meeting ends with a clear statement of intent, for students to humble themselves and fully engage with the training program. “Check your ego and your pride right here at the door,” implores Hyde, who adds with a smile, “and visualize some success for yourself.”
After the rider meeting, Hyde entrusts the teaching to his experienced team of instructors (Jim had to leave early on a scouting expedition in Baja, for a future RawHyde tour), and our Intro class was taught by Shawn Thomas and Owen Balduf. If Hyde is the resolute wagon master at the RawHyde Ranch, Shawn and Owen are the likeable, if slightly crazed, trail guides – the bearded mountain men shepherding wide-eyed pioneers into the wilderness.
RawHyde instructors keep the drills entertaining, like this one – where students must creep along at the lowest speed possible without being distracted and losing concentration.
In this case the wilderness is RawHyde’s substantial property, which stretches over several acres of hilly California chaparral. The ranch is located about 50 miles north of Los Angeles, close enough to the freeway that students can gaze east and see semis trudging up one of the steep grades Interstate 5 follows through the Traverse Ranges. It’s an off-road playland, with numerous trails and training areas to serve various skill levels. RawHyde also offers a more advanced “The Next Step” class, which as the name suggests builds off the Intro class skills or is available for experienced dirt riders looking to refresh and hone their off-road skills. The classes run in tandem but at different locations on the ranch, with the students sharing meals and downtime together.
The Intro class is taught in a simple, straightforward manner. Instructors explain what skill is to be learned and how it applies to real-world situations. They then demonstrate it in a drill, which students immediately follow. Repetition is the name of the game, with the goal to, yes, drill the specific riding skill into the student’s muscle memory as more of a reflexive response than conscious action.
I won’t divulge all the curriculum details (that’s why you pay for the class!), but students immediately learn to get comfortable moving around on the bike. Off-road riding requires more active movement from the rider, and standing on the pegs quickly becomes second nature. So is exaggerating body position and transferring weight from side to side. Within the first half-hour of on-bike instruction, students will comfortably be riding side-saddle, one foot on the peg and their entire body moved to one side of the bike.
From there it’s a rapid progression. RawHyde instructors know how to push students without getting them too far over their head. And for the newbie behind the controls, learning to slide the tires and initiate panics stops aboard a tall 530-pound motorcycle proves a thrilling challenge. But the training is a crash course, literally.
Students learn the limits of traction and the required “manner of finesse” that Jim spoke of by continued repetition and, occasionally, exceeding the limits of traction. Throughout the class, bikes are routinely dropped, and some spectacularly so! Thankfully, the carnage is mostly benign and instructors maintain a controlled, safe environment – they are also certified for basic emergency medical intervention.