BMW Off-Road School
Greer South Carolina
I grew up on dirt bikes – about 40 years ago – before I became a street hooligan. So when my annual ride group all decided it was time to dip our toe in the ADV riding experience, I was eager to engage. After the four of us rode loaded KLRs on the full Trans America Trail last year the hook was set for greater, more epic adventure travel. So, I traded my K1600GT on a 1200GS. I put some street miles on it and loved it. I switched it over to some TKC80 knobbies and went off into a challenging enduro ride on some single tracks in PA - and busted my ass. After healing up for a couple of months, I felt like maybe there was something about wrestling this big bike around off-road that eluded me so I signed up for the BMW Performance Center Off-Road School in Greer, SC.
I’m going to apologize up front that I took very few photos or video while there. It was always moving and my mind was processing what was coming at me like drinking from the firehose and I just didn’t think of it often enough.
They teach this school with one or two day options. In the single day, and the first day of the two-day school, they focus all day on some fundamentals of balance and bike control in easy terrain and obstacles. Let me just say up front that many of these skills sound pretty simple but most required focus. There were several times when they would describe something we were about to do, and then demonstrate it, I’d remark out loud to no one in particular, “Yep, and that’s where I’ll be on the ground.”
I did the two-day school so here’s about how it went. We had a brief classroom session where the two instructors, Richie and Melinda, explained what was in store for us. We’d do an orientation on the bikes and then go out and perform a series of balancing skills. They’d explain it, demo it, and then we’d do it ourselves. They also explained that everything they teach is “challenge by choice. “ You could tap out of any drill and just watch it done or dive in and crash all you wanted. After the classroom talk, we all went out and learned how to put the bike on and off it’s center stand and slightly more challenging, with the bike off the stands and resting on it’s tires, walk completely around the bike holding it with two fingers without dropping it. In hindsight, what they were introducing is the concept of keeping your eyes up and not focused on the bike or the ground. They also explained proper foot position on the pegs (arch/middle foot on the peg and not on the ball as you would on a street bike) and warned us that we would be standing on the pegs all day long – never sitting on the seat for any of the skills or rides.
There were no parking lot drops so off we went on a short enduro ride through some fields and trees to a place that looked like a big gravel parking lot with cones set up all around it.
Warm up drills:
We rode in circles sitting side saddle on the bikes; switched sides and did it again; and rode around hanging off the bike with our right foot on the left peg and our body off the bike waving our free leg in the air as we rode around in a gravel lot. After this bit of simple stunting, we rode up and down the gravel lot as a “mall walker’s pace.” Clearly they’d never seen my wife power shopping at the mall or this would have been a second gear drill and not the friction zone exercise it was. But we all got really good at creeping along until we could do a trial stop and continue at my granny’s mall pace.
Slalom cones aka “breaking the centerline”
Next up was riding very slowly through a tight slalom course that required leaning the bike pretty aggressively at a crawl to make it through successfully. This is where we learned to exaggerate weighting the outside peg and push the bike down to make tight turns while keeping ourselves standing up right on the bike. This felt pretty awkward at first but got easier with every lap until it started to seem pretty natural.
After each couple of skills we’d learn, we’d take a break to hydrate (it was close to 100 degrees there) and rest a few minutes and then go off on a 15 – 20 minute enduro ride through the areas that tested what we’d learned thus far. There were trails through some pretty tight trees and rocks that absolutely required the steering technique we did in the slalom and these rides were always fun and helped to reinforce the skills we’d been drilling.
At noon, we’d do another enduro ride that ended up back at the Center for an excellent spread of lunch and a full hour to rest and cool down, make our calls, etc. The funny and interesting thing about this is that we’d wonder in all sweaty, smelly, and knocking clouds of dust off of us into a dining area inhabited with all the beautiful people that had been sliding M cars around the road course all day with the air conditioning on. Lots of nice clothes, jewelry, and perfectly coiffed hair styles in that group – and there was us: loud, nasty, sweaty, dirty, and laughing our asses off over recounting each other’s antics. Meh, we were having way more fun even if a few of my classmates were bruised a bit by now.
After lunch we spent some time riding some small whoops and easy wash boards and practiced peg weighting the bike’s steering through some tight ruts. That rut exercise dropped a few more of my mates to the tuck ‘n roll recovery position. Commitment and “eyes up” were key to staying on the pegs here.
After that bit, we were on to emergency braking in the big gravel lot. Accelerate to 20 – 30 mph and then stomp the rear brake. First with the ABS on and watch how we just keep going right off the end of the lot. Then, with the ABS off; rear brake stomp and slide, and stop in about 2/3rds the distance. The next braking drill required a pre-exercise of going slowly through the lot, holding constant throttle, and locking up and pushing the front wheel for a few feet and releasing it. “Yep, that’s where I’m going down…” How I managed to do that and not drop it, I still don’t know but after several laps of pushing the front, we went on to full emergency stops with the ABS off. We’d accelerate to about 20 – 30 mph again and the stomp the rear to lock it while pushing and releasing the front. Low and behold, my stopping distances came down to less than a third of my ABS stops.
Another longish enduro ride again after a break and then it was off to practice trials stops on the downhill side of some larger whoops. A final 45 minute long enduro ride and the first day was done with my drop count at zero. I put a foot down from time to time; got completely out of control once or twice; but I was clean on dirt naps.
We wrapped it up with them telling us that was the easy part and tomorrow it gets fun; gets us out of our comfort zone; and shows us a bit more about how easy it is to ride these big bikes in challenging terrain.
Day two started with an enduro ride roaming around the property to some places we hadn’t seen yet and then out into a big dirt area where we were to learn and practice doing very tight circles and our balancing drills as a warm up. Then it was on to a drill that might be the most awkward thing I’ve ever done on a motorcycle – getting it moving while standing beside it and hopping on as you ride away.
I think the point of the drill was to reinforce keeping my eyes up and feeling the balance of the bike. I did it, several times in fact without a drop. But I was glad when this was over. One guy in the class practiced this the rest of the day while we were on and off the bikes. I felt way too awkward doing it. Again, in hindsight, I probably should have kept practicing it on their bikes since I probably now won’t do it on my own.
From there we started working on drills in soft stuff. We started in this big gravel pit where it was very deep and soft. There were many drops here amongst my classmates as everyone got use to again, keeping your eyes up, letting bike do it’s dance through the soft stuff while holding constant throttle churning the rear through it. The key here was that once the clutch was out to leave it out and use maintenance throttle inputs with my weight back and light on the bars. Most the steering was done with peg weighting. I didn’t get any photos of the deep gravel pit but once we’d all mastered that, we were off to the sand pit.
This was a lot of fun once I got the hang of it. Weight back, light on the bars, leave the clutch out, and just keep the momentum going with slight changes in throttle and peg weight steering. I got all crossed up near the far side of the pit once and nearly mowed down one of the instructors but they were too quick on the feet and no BMW employees were harmed in the making of this video.
We went from there back over to some larger whoops and then to some drills on a slightly bigger steeper hill where they taught us how to almost climb the hill. I started to ask why we weren’t learning to actually climb the hill but I’d used up my smart-ass remarks for the day in the sand pit. So here, we’d ride most of the way up the hill and then leaving the clutch out and front brake level free, stomp on the rear brake to stop the bike and kill the engine. “Yep, that’s were I’ll be tumbling back down…” As it turns out, this is a pretty easy drill when I’m doing it on purpose. The rear tire in gear holds the bike with one foot down with no drama. Then, since we haven’t dropped it yet, the trick is to ease the bike backward down the hill using only the clutch friction zone. Easy peasy.
Next up up climbing almost up the hill and dumping it. This one they offered to demo but discouraged us from doing it unless we just really wanted to. Here’s the drills:
I’m sure I’ll get some practice on this one out in the wild so I took their advice and watched our instructor Melinda drag her bike around on the hill side. So now with our knowledge and fearlessness of hills, we went off in search of some more hills to practice our trials stops. We would climb to just beyond the crest of the hill and then do a trial stop without stepping down off the pegs, then continue. After we all had the hang of that, then we practiced trials stops on the way down the hill. We’d start off down the hill until the coach gave us the stop signal where we’d bring the bike to a trial stop. From there, we’d make a sharp turn on the hill side to exit the hill 90 degrees from the down hill direction. Again, fun stuff once I got the hang of it. For this one, it’s all about where I’m looking. Keeping my eyes up and the turning around to look where I want to go make this easy. Seems simple to say like that but when I’m balancing a 525+ lb scooter on the side of steep slope the urge to look at the ground was strong.
Once we all finished up with these hill side trial stops it was on to our graduation enduro ride. They gave us a choice to be in the intense or mellow ride group. No one said anything during the break so they asked us again who wanted to go in which group. That little voice in the back of my head started talking to me about “the last run of the day” on the snowboard so I broke the ice by saying I’d take the mellow ride. Once I said that, 3 other riders joined me and there were two that opted for the more intense ride (one of those guys was probably the best rider in the class). Let me just say there was nothing mellow about our ride. Our coach took us through all the parts of their courses that we hadn’t yet ridden; over the rocky hills they use for X5 demos; through tight wooded areas; deep ruts, and soft sand and gravel; up and down some big-ass whoops changing directions on the hill, and up one long hill climb where when you got to the crest you were looking at a very steep descent (more like a fall) if you didn’t cut hard left to follow the ridgeline back down to level ground. Somewhere during the middle of this ride we stopped to let one of the “instense group” riders join us. He bailed on his buddy pretty quick on that ride. We must have ridden around for 45 minutes over the entire property before we headed back to the classroom and some A/C.