Off Road Training – Day 1

October 25-26, 2014

Hechlingen (Germany) Enduro Park
Jump ahead to Day 2

When Dan and I went on our very first off road trip together we were vastly unprepared for the challenges that we would face. We had planned to spend a week riding our KLRs from the southern border of Oregon to the northern border with minimal pavement involved. Called the “OBDR” for short, it is roughly a 1,200 mile journey of unmarked trails and roads.

Our first day went poorly and we quickly realized that if we were going to enjoy ourselves, we’d have to make a change of plans. So instead of exploring the truly wild back country, we decided to enjoy the less challenging forest service roads throughout the state, leaving the wilderness to those with more skills.

Fast forward eight years and the time had finally come to learn those skills that we should have had back in Oregon. We signed up for a two day course at BMW’s Enduro Park in Hechlingen, Germany and eagerly awaited the day. We had scheduled a weekend well over a month away – in mid-October – just to ensure that we would be able to rent the same motorcycles that we currently own. It was taking a chance with the weather, but at least we’d learn on bikes that we could transfer the knowledge to easily.

We debated on riding to the course or renting a car and finally decided that the car was the way to go. We didn’t know what the weather would be like, and at almost four and a half hours of motorway (in each direction), a cold and wet day would really be taxing. In addition, the car would ensure that if anything went awry while taking the course, we’d have a comfortable way of getting home. When the time came, we picked up a small Fiat 500 from the airport and drove north.

Our travel estimation was a joke: we had discovered German traffic. The four and a half hours was extended to over five hours by the time we crawled our way through construction site after construction site, joined by thousands of others on this beautiful Friday afternoon. Eventually we left the motorway behind and instead took winding country roads through farmland and forest. The traffic had disappeared almost completely and we spent the last hour of our drive enjoying the view and the perfectly clear weather.

Hechlingen is a small village and it was easy to find Hotel Forellenhof, the sign on the wall proudly stating that it was built in 1904. After dropping our gear off in our room (which had a lovely view of the church high on the hillside), we took a walk around the town to see what there was to see. It turns out that there isn’t much. While there are many nicely-kept homes, we didn’t see any sign of economic means other than agriculture. Considering how far into the countryside we were, I wasn’t surprised.

It was dusk when we returned to the hotel for dinner. There were half a dozen people seated in the restaurant area and we suspected that they were here for the same reason we were. We sat down and ordered our meal. Only after we had finished eating and were contemplating if another beer should be ordered did the couple at the table behind us joined the guys at the table next to us. They all spoke German, but we knew that they were there for the course. They eventually noticed us and invited us to join them at their table. The six of us then proceeded to make our introductions and tell our stories until not-too-late in the evening; we had a big day ahead of us!

While the BMW Hechlingen Enduro Park is listed as being in “Hechlingen”, it really isn’t. It is about 5 km south in a disused quarry. Dan and I hopped in the car and drove to the dirt parking lot at the stone-lined entrance to the old quarry. We hauled our gear to a fancy, glass-walled building and checked in with one of the waiting employees. The building wasn’t huge, but it had large locker rooms where we could stash our clothes and even take a shower afterwards. While you had to bring your gear, the Park did offer Enduro motocross boots for rent. Considering that we planned on pushing our limits this weekend we sprung for the sturdier boots and I was happy with the decision.

The worst possible picture of the main building

“…a heightened risk of accidents in off road training and travel is to be expected”

Just over thirty people eventually gathered in the main room and we were soon called to attention by our four instructors. They introduced themselves, but unfortunately I didn’t catch all of their names. They then proceeded to give us a quick overview in both English and German. The group was predominantly German, but there were some people from Croatia, Greece, Switzerland and the Netherlands, at least the ones I met.

Our instructors

The instructors formed four groups based on our own self assessment: one beginner, two intermediate and one advanced. We choose our own level but if we ever felt that we needed to move up (or down), it would be easy to slip into a different group at any time. It was nice to know that I wouldn’t be locked in to the intermediate group I had chosen if I felt I was in over my head.

Dan and I had the same instructor, Manuel (spelling is questionable for all names) who wasted no time getting our group of eight started. We picked out our previously selected bikes (either the F800 or R1200; and the one guy who brought his own Transalp) and immediately did some laps around the main training area. Then the work started.

The bikes ready for the students

Balance. It is the key to keeping your motorcycle under control. We started out with some easy stuff: while riding in a large, slow circle, I stood up on the pegs and stuck alternating legs out. Then a strange maneuver: putting a foot up on the seat behind me, and eventually both feet up. I can’t say that I’ve ever knelt on a moving motorcycle before and it was surprisingly easy. But then things got really tricky: side saddle.

Our instructor

While still moving around the circle, I stood up and swung one leg over so that now both legs hanging on one side of the bike. Then I switched them over to the other side. The final step in this exercise was to swing both legs over to one side, but then stand up on the peg using the inside leg. This wasn’t so bad on the peg of the inside of the circle, but it was much more difficult on the outer peg. I should have enjoyed how easy this was, as the next exercise was very tiring.

After we were done with our circus moves it was time for the next exercise. It was all about cones and clutching and lasted for what seemed like an eternity. There were two rows of offset cones and the idea was to weave slowly through the row with an exaggerated leg and body movement to keep the center of gravity where it should be. By the end of this exercise my quads began to scream. Also screaming was my left hand: the clutch on the F800 isn’t light and with constant use for this amount of time, I could feel the discomfort. One by one, our instructor pulled us away from the cones and had us practice a very tight, very slow U-turn, using the same movement we were supposed to be practicing in the slalom. Every once in a while someone would drop their bike, as the instructor said we could expect. We used the first drop (not mine!) as a lesson in various ways to pick up a fallen motorcycle, and after that we were on our own.

How to lift a fallen bike

The dreaded cones

Dan takes out a cone in the U-turn exercise

Our reward for surviving the cones was a break at the main building. We parked our bikes and went in for refreshments and a snack. Much to my surprise, the young woman I had been talking to the previous evening came hobbling out of the building on crutches. I learned that her bike had fallen over in the sand and it landed on her foot. After a trip to the hospital that afternoon we found out that she had broken three bones in her foot. She seemed to take it very well and encouraged her husband to continue with the rest of the course, which he did.

AFter our break Manuel gathered us together and led us out of the main training area and up a steep, rocky road. It was trail ride time! We rode single file, following the leading bike along rocky single track, up and down gentle hills and through other open training areas of the park. It felt good to actually ride the bike somewhere. With over sixty four acres of land, the Enduro Park has a lot of area to play with it. And being an old quarry, there were already many manmade terrains that were perfect for this type of training. Even though there were so many people in the four groups, we rarely came across them and saw them only when they were traveling through for another practice session.

Advanced group playing in the hills

The main training grounds with the 2nd Intermediate group in the background

We came down from the quarry trails and parked our bikes at the main building, as it was lunch time already. We were to grab anything we needed and then we’d ride the bikes together back to the hotel in Hechlingen where the group lunch was waiting for us.

It was during the brisk ride on the pavement that I realized how blessed we were with the weather. It was only about 16C and overcast. Infrequent drops of rain fell – just enough to keep the dust down. I had worked up a sweat in pushing my F800 GSA around in the park, but now I was feeling chilled at 70 kph. I could only imagine the discomfort this training could be if taken during the heat of summer when temperatures could reach 30C in the quarry grounds.

Nuns coming out of the restaurant/hotel

All meals were provided by either the hotel (breakfast, if you are a guest) or BMW (lunch and dinner) and they put out a good spread. The entire group filed into the room reserved for us at the back of the restaurant and we piled the food on our plates. After an hour we hopped back on the bike and returned to the park. Dan had made the decision to move to the Beginners’s group, a decision that would enable him to more thoroughly enjoy his time. He liked the smaller group size and the slightly slower pace. Also, he could feel the effort of the clutch in his forearm and he wanted to be sure not to push it (foreshadowing!) Meanwhile, Manuel took our group for a couple of loops around the main practice grounds before leading us up into one of the smaller open areas further up in the quarry.

It was time to learn to ride in a rut. A 40′ trough had been constructed in the ground, framed with thick wood for the edges and the bottom was hard packed dirt. Our goal was to ride our bikes down the center of this trough without losing our balance or running the wheels along the edges. It took me only one trip down the rut before getting the hang of it: keep the elbows up and loose, look to the end and it was a breeze. Finally, something I was good at!

Throughout the morning I had been fighting with the clutch. Even though I own the same bike, I have never had the opportunity to ride the bike for four hours while using the clutch almost the entire time. There was also the fact that I usually use all four fingers to pull in the clutch, but Manuel insisted (and rightly so) on the safer use of only two fingers on the clutch. This meant a lot more effort with fewer digits. Manuel and I tried to adjust it so that it was easier to pull but it was still a heavy pull. After we left the artificial rut we took some more natural rutted paths through a grassy plateau. They were deep and muddy and took a lot of concentration. And that’s when my hand cramped.

To be clear, it didn’t really cramp. I just could no longer feel it and it wouldn’t respond to my brain’s requests for motion. I was unable to pull in the clutch. Fortunately I was going slow so I rolled off the trail and let the bike stall. My hand started to respond and I flexed the fingers with some effort. The group meandered through this field while I sorted out my hand. As soon as I could gain full control I rode down to where Manuel was and hailed him. I explained the situation and he immediately was concerned. It was a serious safety risk and had to be addressed. He also had a solution.

We rode down to the bike shed and I parked the 800. I was sad to leave it behind but also curious as to Manuel’s substitution. We walked into the room and he went into the corner and pulled out a tiny, 200cc dual sport. It was a Betamotor Alp 200. I had never ridden anything like it – but that would change.

Another embarrassingly fuzzy picture of the bike shed

The bike was tiny and the clutch was feather light. I sat on it, feeling like an adult on a child’s toy. The group took off and I followed, revving the little bike as we took off across the grounds. The day suddenly got much easier.

Betamotor Alp 200

Our next exercise was to tackle hills. Small hills, to be sure, but hills nonetheless. The ones we first approached were maybe ten feet high and composed of packed dirt. We were instructed to ride until we almost reached the top and then stall the engine. The point was to understand how to back down a hill while using the clutch. It was another simple exercise, but a good one to know. Once we knew how to save ourselves if we didn’t make it up the hill, it was time to actually go up the hill. The trickiest part of this was timing the rolling on of the throttle at the base of the hill and then the rolling off the throttle so that I didn’t launch myself over the top. Yes, of course that sounds like fun, but the point of this practice was to know how to make a controlled ascent. And what comes after a controlled ascent? A controlled descent. Perhaps these exercises would have been more demanding on the F800, but on the little 200, it was nothing but fun. And the best part was that my hand felt fantastic!

We ended the day with another trail ride through the grounds. This time we went on even more remote trails that snaked through young forests. The narrow trails were muddy and caused problems for the larger bikes but I blew through them like nobody’s business. I actually felt a little guilty, but not guilty enough to give the bike back at the end of the day.

Day 2

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