Riders report from the Meon Valley

Riders report from the Meon Valley

submitted on 02/09/2011

A Dirty Weekend By Dave Clark In January this year, keen off-roader and adventure biker Tony Carter set up the TVAM Adventure Group. In actual fact, it was re-formed since it existed in a different guise several years ago. This group is aimed at so-called 'adventure' bike owners (BMW GSs and the like) who are keen to use the full capability of their machines and venture away from tarmac. The group quickly gained a good number of members and there have been a couple of excellent ride-outs, taking in some of the less extreme green lanes and byways around the Basingstoke area. Personally I have always been keen to take my GS off-road, but never got around to trying it as I didn't know where to go. I have zero off-road experience, and it is impossible to tell from the pink dotted lines on an OS map which byways are gentle enough for my very limited skills. That is where Tony's extensive knowledge of the network of public trails comes in handy. Our appetites for the rough stuff wetted, several of us expressed an interest in 'proper' off-roading. This prompted Tony to call his friend Steve who runs a trail riding company in Wales called Trail Riding UK. He persuaded Steve to bring a van-load of enduro bikes and kit to Basingstoke for a weekend of dirty fun! The event was run over a Saturday and Sunday towards the end of July, with 4 different riders each day. I opted for the Sunday, and the following is an account of that day. However, I am told that the Saturday group had just as much fun! Roger, Toby, Bob and I met up with Tony and Steve at 8am in a lay-by on the A30 near Hatch, east of Basingstoke. We were also joined by Tony's friend and experienced enduro racer and ex-TVAM member Eddie who came along to help. It was a bright and sunny morning, a relief considering the wet weather we had had the previous week. After payment and paperwork formalities were completed, it was time to get kitted up. The riding kit comprised lightweight off-road trousers and top worn over knee and body armour, off-road boots, gloves and helmet/goggles. We were then introduced to the bikes; these included Honda and KTM 250 four-strokes, a Honda 230 four-stroke (for smaller riders) and a more extreme KTM 300 two-stroke. Several of us swapped bikes after lunch so we had an opportunity to experience different machines. All the bikes were road-legal as approximately two-thirds of the day would be on roads linking the trails. Luckily the bikes all had electric starters, since we were to fall off and have to restart them many times during the day! We were advised to wear camel-backs since the day would be very physical and we would need plenty of fluids. We took bets on who would fall off first. It turned out to be Roger before we had even left the lay-by! I began on the KTM 250 four-stroke. This was an excellent bike - light and easy to ride with smooth, linear power delivery. I instantly felt at home on it as we ventured off down the road in search of our first trail. I was concerned that the knobbly tyres may not offer much grip on the road but I was pleasantly surprised at how confidence-inspiring they were. Tony was leading the way and I was third, following Roger on the KTM two-stroke - what a delightful smell! Ahhh, memories of RD250s and the like from my youth! Eddie rode mid-pack with Steve bringing up the rear so we didn't lose anyone. The bikes felt basic and primitive on the road compared to our modern, high-tech road bikes. 40mph felt like 70, and hand-signals were the order of the day since there were no indicators. Thankfully most of the road sections were narrow country lanes so there was little traffic. It was only a five minute ride to our first trail. This was a relatively short and easy dirt track to get us used to the machines and the stand-up riding position. This seemed alien at first, but soon began to make sense, offering a lot more balance and control with the bikes pivoting beneath us and helping the suspension soak up the bumps. We were all coping well and enjoying ourselves as the trails gradually became more difficult, as hills, ruts and muddy puddles were introduced. Before each new challenge, Tony, Steve and Eddie gave us a few words of advice on how to tackle it. This really helped. We all had a few offs, but nothing serious. I was impressed at how indestructible the bikes were, and how easy they were to pick up and restart. Towards the end of the morning we were all beginning to feel tired and were looking forward to a well-earned lunch stop at the Star Inn. The last leg before lunch was a particularly long and difficult wet, muddy, deep-rutted section that we all struggled with. The experts Tony, Steve and Eddie had the confidence to just blast along the top of the ruts while the rest of us paddled our way along slowly. The pub was a welcome sight after that! We enjoyed a nice pub lunch, sitting outside in the sun and reminiscing about the morning's ride. We were all covered in mud but the pub staff nonetheless welcomed us. We were all in agreement that off-roading is great fun - but very tiring! I now understand why a lot of road racers go off-roading in their spare time to keep fit; we were getting a proper workout! The road sections between the trails were a welcome chance for a breather. After lunch we swapped bikes and I found myself on the KTM 300 two-stroke. What an experience this was! I haven't ridden a two-stroke since my youth and I had forgotten about the ring-ding-ding sound-track and tiny power band. On the road it sounded awful and took a while to get used to riding in the power band, but it had great character and I soon got to like it. Off-road it was just as tractable as the four-stroke machine I rode in the morning. Tony later told me that the previous day someone had dropped it in deep water and it was completely submerged. It took a while to get it started again, but start it did and it showed no ill-effects during my ride. A four-stroke would probably have needed an oil change. The lunch stop gave us all renewed energy and the pace picked up a bit in the afternoon. After a quick fuel stop, the trails appeared to be getting easier, but in fact they were generally getting harder while our abilities were improving without us realising it. There were far fewer minor offs in the afternoon, although Roger hit is head on something and thought he may have been slightly concussed and Toby gets the prize for the most spectacular off when he lost control in a deep muddy puddle and took an early bath! We also had a couple of punctures which were quickly and expertly repaired by Steve, with help from Tony and Eddie. These gave the rest of us a chance for a welcome rest and highlighted the importance of a bit of mechanical competence when riding off-road. If you break down or get a puncture, you either have to fix it yourself or face a long walk home! After fixing the second puncture, it was time to tackle the infamous Water Lane near Alton. This is a dry river bed which is very stony and quite steep and wet in places. I had seen YouTube videos of bikes negotiating this before and it looked really difficult. We would be going down it rather than up, as there are some large steps which would be difficult for us novices to get up, but going down is apparently easy! Steve went ahead so he could shout advice to us at the difficult bits, as well as photograph us falling off! I went first with some trepidation, but my skills and confidence had increased steadily throughout the day, and once I got going I took it in my stride and had no real problems. We all made it safely to the end and felt quite proud that we had conquered Water Lane. By now it was 5pm and time to head back. We tackled a particularly steep, muddy hill which I found quite easy, whereas earlier in the day it would have been near impossible. Next we were riding a dusty trail along the edge of a field with trees to the right. I was following Tony at a reasonable pace when suddenly he disappeared! His bike had become "cross-rutted" and he landed in the trees with the bike on top of him. I stopped and ran to help, with the others soon joining me. It was obvious that Tony was in some discomfort as we helped him up. Nonetheless, he got straight back on his bike and led us home, taking in three more trails on the way. Back at the lay-by at 6pm after a long and tiring but very enjoyable day. Time for a quick souvenir photo then peel off our wet, muddy kit and say our goodbyes. We all agreed that it had been an excellent day and we were pleased at how our off-road skills had improved. Throughout the day we had only travelled around 60~70 miles and we were never too far from Basingstoke. Half the time I had no idea where we were but every now and then we would cross a familiar road such as the A339. We used very little fuel during a whole day’s riding (much cheaper than a day of road-riding) and we saw few other people (a couple of mountain bikes, a Land Rover, a couple of horses and a few walkers plus several other trail-riding motorcyclists). I will now feel more confident taking my GS on some of the less extreme trails, and there is no doubt that our newly-acquired skills will help our road riding as we have become used to the bike moving around beneath us so shouldn’t panic if it slides. The next day every muscle in my body ached, but I enjoyed the ride so much that I can’t wait to do it again and I am seriously considering saving for an off-roader! Unfortunately there is a sad end to this story – Tony’s crash towards the end of the day actually resulted in a trip to A & E, X-ray and a broken ankle, despite the protection provided by his heavy-duty motorcross boots! However his spirits are not dampened and he can’t wait to get his cast off and get back on his bike. GET WELL SOON, TONY! Many thank to Tony for organising everything and his expert guidance of the trails around Basingstoke, Steve for providing the bikes and kit and Eddie for his expert help. If this has inspired anyone to want to join the TVAM Adventure group, go to http//autos.groups.yahoo.com/group/tvam-offroad and click the “Join This Group!” button. As well as ride-outs, we have had a talk on “what to pack in your panniers” by experienced round-the-world adventure biker Scott Nettleton, and an excellent tyre-changing demo by Tony. Details of Steve’s Trail Riding UK company can be found on his website: http://trailridinguk.com