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The Hayabusa journeys, part 1: Ipswich to Swansea and riding up some gravel track mountains

Me, the kid and the bikeAt very short notice, I was given 6 weeks off work and I was determined to do something fun with it. I remembered fond talk of the BMW off-road skills course in Wales (Beverly and David Rudland especially), so looked up the details ( http://www.bmw-motorrad.co.uk/world-of-bmw/off-road-skills/level-one/ ) and with 8 days to go until the next course, booked my place and the loan equipment. After four phone calls, I also had a hotel room for the 8th to 10th July.

I was really looking forward to learning how to ride a motorcycle well off the beaten track and meeting some equally enthusiastic motorcyclists. This was something I’d been a bit nervous of doing, long journey there, what would it be like, would I be any good and how would I cope with the varying demands on my insulin requirements. If I wasn’t careful, I could spend forever thinking why it was a bad idea and never do it.

Thursday 7th July had been spent getting the bike ready – the panniers, a tank of fuel, tyre and oil check, checked the brakes, lights, got the bike clean and got the mirrors into the best position. Friday 8th July, I was due to ride to Wales, 271 miles (if taking no wrong turns) and that was not the time to find something obvious was wrong with the bike.

Ironically, my Zumo 400 was determined to send me along the A14 before heading south and given this was meant to be an adventure, I thought why not. The map shows the two versions: pink heading out, blue heading back.

There and Back Again

Figure 1: There and back again

So, on Friday 8th July at 13:05, I headed west.

The forecast for the weekend was wet – mostly showers, so I did take some vital equipment:
• One spare helmet for the off-road bit (everything else could be hired)
• Camel pack – general riding and the off-road bit
• Two motorcycling jeans
• Non-bike clothes
• Base layer
• Tooth paste and brush
• 1 pair sandals
• AA card (just in case)
• Mobile (a camera and means to get in touch with the AA)
• Waterproofs
• Kindle
• 1 testing kit, spare insulin, testing sticks and needles and injecting mechanism
• Shampoo and shower gels to get the mud off again!
• 150ml cans of coke for the journey (fit into both jacket and trousers and raise the blood sugar quickly and easily)
• First aid kit (some glucose too)

This was split between panniers and top box. The insulin and spare testing materials were wrapped in insulating material and kept well away from exhausts.

I didn’t plan stops: one of the beauties of the sat nav and major routes is the ability just to stop when needed. It would also mean that I had a chance to test when I wanted to; after all, the aim of this game was to get to the hotel in one piece and do the course to the best of my ability. The cans and testing kit in the jacket meant this could be done at very short notice in a small space. I wore a camel pack too to help deal with high blood sugars and general dehydration.

I wasn’t expecting an easy journey, traffic wise, Friday afternoon during the summer. Indeed, I hit traffic just before Bury St. Edmunds but it wasn’t too bad until just before Huntingdon. The 26 miles to the Kettering services took an hour – I was filtering but the cars were switching lanes and I was keen to get there in one piece. I would dip in every so often to allow my brain a break. Rain was causing visibility problems for everyone, and it wasn’t the first time I wondered if you could get a powered visor wiper for the Shoei.

I didn’t need fuel but had a very welcome cup of coffee, test and comfort break at the Little Chef two and half hours after setting off, 98 miles covered. I filled up the tank of the bike.

I waited an hour, and while the rain hadn’t stopped, the traffic seemed a little better so I put on the dry helmet and jacket, was wished luck by the staff and customers and set off again. The next 5 miles were spent filtering but finally hit reasonable traffic and picked up some speed. The rain had gone from a steady downpour to odd showers.

I got into Wales around 17:00. After just short of 4 hours of riding, I took a 20 minute break just outside of The Hotel Whitchurch (I know, but there really wasn’t the opportunity, I did take a quick break on the hard shoulder of the M6). This time, I didn’t get fuel but checked blood sugar, got a snack and spent 10 minutes off the bike. The scenery has already become distinctly Welsh: hilly, mountains in the background and twisty roads. The sun is shining and only 48 miles to get to the hotel, the Ynyscedwyn Arms Hotel, Ystradgynlais. Nominally, I should be there in 1 hour 45 minutes but I’d already let the hotel owner know I’d be late.

The sat nav had the hotel in as one of its Points of interest so I had high hopes of being able to find it and lo, off the A4067 there was the inn. I’d made it. 10 minutes to check in, clean up and let Jon and Ken know I was safe and sound and I got down to the restaurant for 2035. Twenty minutes later I was tucking in to a lovely piece of steak and contemplating the day ahead.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but instinct told me this was going to be a day of the base layer. Over that, I put my normal biking gear with the spare helmet in the top box. I had cokes in a bag and one in my jacket along with the testing kit. I get there, and sign the paper work and work out which is my bike. It takes a while to get the clothing sorted, off road boots are as bad as ski boots in terms of fit and when I do this again, I am buying a set. The clothing seems very light, I am wearing layers to allow getting warmth/comfort/protection levels right. The trousers have no pockets! I speak to Linley and she sources a different pair for me. It’s then down to the briefing. We’re riding the bikes up to the park (please be careful, some riders don’t get that far) and then dividing up into groups. Linley is driving the support van with spare clothing and stuff, a break at 1230 for food.

So I mount the F650 GS which as different to my bike as you can imagine. It’s had the front indicators removed (I should imagine to prevent breaks) but retains a speedo and rev counter. It’s painfully light, 179kg dry compared to the busa’s 260kg wet mass but sturdy, and not too high, I can flat foot it: the F650GS seems like the ideal bike for the job.

Having got to the park (sited on the Brecon Hills), we split into two groups and do the first stage in the off-road training: picking the bike up once it’s gone down. At that point, the understanding that there’s a good chance you’re not going to be able to keep the bike on its wheels hits home.

The bikes are laid down and everyone has a go at picking everything up. There’s real technique here not strength, a quick show is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bsdzdm35lbI but http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPjYweKeiLk is really comprehensive. When you’re off-roading there isn’t necessarily anyone to help!

We were taught a slightly different technique and I have to say the worst bit is dropping the bike. I did the F650 then got the opportunity to do one of the R1200GS. It’s not easy but the technique means there’s no strain or risk of injury.

After a quick break and water is really is king here we progressed to slow riding. Much like SAM’s dexterity course but on gravel and dirt: cones, cornering: doing everything on your feet rather than your bum. We began moving up through the gears too. Braking practice was weird: getting the back to slip out then releasing the pedal to get the bike back in line, front only braking, all working up to an emergency brake.

The great thing about this approach is a complete understanding of the bike and how it behaves. We had lunch (really welcome by this time) and some tighter turns and then off round the track to learn about balance. Through the advanced training we understand how the bike turns: off-roading takes this to a new level. Very little riding is done sitting down but on the middle part of your foot allowing turns to be initiated quickly and with whole body control. The bikes are well balanced to aid this and allow gear changes and braking to happen with little effort. On the dirt, I didn’t manage to get above third, but there really wasn’t any need.

Having got the hang of the track, we hit the slopes. Getting down dirt tracks on the bike is not limited to the flat and understanding the options open to you really helps you make progress.

We were shown how engine breaking can help control speed down a slope then built that into breaking control while going down the same slope. Not being a fan of steep slopes this wasn’t my favourite exercise, but is really useful to know on the road, as anyone who went to the Yorkshire Dales last year will appreciate.

We then did some more trails riding and a stream crossing. My bottle went for the stream crossing and I went a slightly different route, but most people did manage it on both wheels. We then left the park and headed back to the business park. Next rendezvous was at the Abercraf Inn and the inclusive team meal. The group was 18 in number, plus the instructors and varied from riders who had done the course many times to newbies like me. Almost all had had their road licenses more than 3 years and the age range was from 30 to 65, a couple of born again bikers, and some very serious off-roaders from the midlands. One rider with a GS thought he had the longest journey back with a ride to Hackney, East London.

At the end of the first day, I ask for an extra night at the hotel – the thought of loading the bike up and heading back Sunday evening was not particularly appealing: I had discovered muscles in my arms and legs that had been under used for a long time, but the feeling of accomplishment the end of that first day was incredible. Much of what I do instinctively makes sense off road and it really didn’t seem strange to be on a bike in the Brecon National Park.

I had however managed to not only leave my lights on but the key in the ignition so in two hours had completely drained my battery. By this time, it was dark and while the car park was reasonably clear and at the top of a steep hill, I wasn’t a 100% sure how to get it to a reasonable stretch to bump it – I had never had to bump a bike let alone a fuel injected one. I asked for some help getting the bike round (probably I didn’t need it, but it allowed me to strip the bike down, just in case a stall led to a drop) and Mark and George helped and gave some advice. Keep it in 2nd, once it’s moving let out the clutch and open the accelerator and wear your helmet (again, I had removed my jacket to give me some freedom of movement if I needed to pick up the bike).

It caught first time, with a bit of a roar, and I took the bike round the block and parked up to get properly dressed and the top box reattached. Mark had kindly stayed out with my gear and said that I’d done really well, though I’d probably woken half the neighbourhood. I was feeling relatively ecstatic, though a little concerned about fuel and whether the bike would start in the morning. I rode for a little but made the decision to head back to the hotel and took the top box off with a firm plan to get up at 07:00 and get some petrol. Due to the day’s exertions I feel asleep really quickly.

I was up early and went down to check the bike: bike key and room key to hand and nothing else. I was really dismayed to find the bike on its side having fallen uphill! Using my training and enlisting local Bryn, (84) with strict instructions not to help but to call for help if I got trapped under the bike, I picked up my hayabusa – thanks to the crash bungs, only the hero bob on the riders side was affected. I got back into the hotel and had breakfast and headed out to get petrol and pick up the F650.

My bike did not catch first time, my heart sank a little as I assessed where I could build up enough speed to bump it and retried the ignition switch. It caught (phew) and I left the engine running as I loaded up the top box and sat nav. Being a Sunday, the first two service stations I tried were closed: it could wait until later.

I got booted and suited and we went back into the park on the trails. Mark (helpful one who’d help me turn the hayabusa round) managed to lose his R1200 while going up an embankment. Bike went one way, he went the other. Thankfully the bike was stopped by some bushes and it took four people to lift it back on to the track. The lesson here, boys and girls is not to give the bike a fistful of accelerator half way up a steep track.

Some warm up exercises then the first lesson of the day – how to turn your bike round on a slope. This is an important lesson as a stall on steep, loose ground on the slope means you can’t just clutch control back up the mountain.

Again, another water break and then a momentum exercise. Unfortunately, my blood sugar had decided to rise and was refusing to come back down so I had to sit out for a period missing valuable practice time. When it got to a reasonable level, I got up the slope on momentum three times. Again, this allows you to cope with sand and gravel traps up mountainous areas.

Lunch was followed by goes on some of the other bikes round the race track. I tried the F800GS (I really liked this bike), F650 GS (great weight and balance, forgiving gear box but the seat was really wide which meant I didn’t feel that confident) and the R1200GS (powerful and sure footed, it felt like you could achieve anything on that bike). Next time, I’d like to spend the 2 days on the F800.
Some more trail riding, this time with some track crossing and what I misjudged to be a clutch control rather than momentum exercise. I managed to stall, in second, while running up the side of an embankment. Rather than manage to lean into the slope, the bike went with gravity, and I can say I was really glad to bring a spare helmet with me as the back of my head met a rock. It took me a moment or two but my head was the only piece of me really hurting, just bruises elsewhere and the embarrassment of being trapped under the F650 GS. I couldn’t lift it off me! We had a water break before going to meet with the other groups for the ride back to the garage. I’d got through on two wheels for all but the last 10 minutes.

So the end of the course and time to head home, at the garage we got certificates for our efforts and returned the bikes and gear. I got some petrol and went back to the hotel via a battery charging route. My headache was pretty painful, but I packed up, got some food and some entertainment: Raj, the owner of the Indian restaurant, not only knew where Ipswich was but his cousin owns the Cinnamon on Spring Road.

I planned on coming back M4, M25 and A12, so it wasn’t the most exciting route. It took nearly an hour to get to the M4 but the ride was pretty easy and I rested every one and half hours. It had taken nearly 7 hours of riding (with 2 hours of breaks) to get to Ystradgynlais, by contrast the return journey was just six including an hours rest. The Severn Bridge was amazing and the biggest difference in my riding was how I felt. Thanks to my experience and the skills I’ve learnt in SAM, the difficult bit of the training was not the skills but my confidence. I can ride a bike and do it reasonably well on difficult terrain.

As such, I am hoping to put together a group of 10 riders with type 1 diabetes. Many diabetics are given good opportunities to do unusual things but a course like this is demanding and completely off the wall – which is not easy if you’re diabetic but definitely achievable. If you know anyone who has a bike license, diagnosed before June 2011 and would like to do a trip to Wales to learn to ride on rough ground, please pass on my details (sam.j.watkins@btinternet.com) or number 07773 02 73 41 🙂

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