It starts as far-off vibrations, but like an approaching storm you can feel a dirtbike coming, electrifying the air. With a rooster tail of dust behind him, Ty Fazi lofts the front wheel high into the air and blast away from a sandy berm. He wheelies past standing up on the dirtbike, absolutely shredding. For him it’s as easy as existing in the world.
“It’s like when you have a conversation with somebody,” Fazi tries to explain, “you don’t even think about it, you just do it.”
He’s a 20-year old professional off-road motorcycle racer with, apparently, zero social anxiety.
“From the second I could walk, I’ve pretty much been on a motorcycle,” he says. He turned pro a year and a half ago, but isn’t sure how long he can continue. “I’m getting a little old in the racing world,” he explains.
For now, he works at Trail Tours dirt bike and ATV school in Kawartha Lakes, Ont., patiently teaching utter beginners like me how to ride a motorcycle off-road.
If you are on the fence, thinking about learning to ride, or just starting out, riding off-road is the best way to get a taste for life on two wheels. For one, you don’t need any kind of licence to do it, not even a learner’s permit. For another, it will make you a much better, more confident rider – or so I’ve been told.
Back to School
I am, on this day in August, probably among the very worst motorcyclists in the world. I’ve never ridden on dirt, gravel or sand. In fact, I’ve actively avoided it. I don’t even ride in the rain – too afraid of slippery streetcar tracks.
Groups such as Trail Tours, Smart Adventures, Honda’s Junior Red Riders program and similar schools across the country will lend you a motorcycle and all necessary riding gear: jersey, pants, plastic body armour, boots, helmet, goggles and gloves. Prices range from around $150 to $350 a lesson, depending on what and how long you want to ride.
“As far as dirt biking is concerned, I think it’s the hardest motorized sport to do. So don’t get frustrated, we will teach you,” Trail Tours senior instructor Steve Ray says to a group of a dozen or so assembled riders.
Dressed up like an out-of-shape-Spiderman, now sitting proudly astride a red Honda CRF230F trail bike, I’m ready to shred too. Or something.
Some key specs on this not-so-mean machine: it costs all of $4,999 brand new; the dinky air-cooled single-cylinder motor makes so much low-end torque it can easily pull away in fourth gear; and while the 34.6-inch seat height might sound intimidatingly tall for some, the suspension compresses once you swing a leg over. At 5-foot-11 I can get both feet firmly planted on the ground.
On a dirt track carved into the side of a grassy field in the Ganaraska Forest, near Peterborough, Ont., we practice locking up the rear brake and sliding to a stop. Then we learn to lean the bike over to turn while, in theory, staying upright.
Standing up on a motorcycle is all about balance. In photos it looks as if riders are leaning forward, putting weight on the handlebars. Watch good riders go over big bumps – appropriately called “whoops” – and they look similar to pigeons; riders’ heads stay weirdly still while their bodies bounce up and down. The trick is to balance on the foot pegs and hold the bars as lightly as possible to maintain precise control of the throttle. Mostly though I’m just hanging on for dear life.
Nearby, nine-year-old Gabriel Saju is already riding circles around me. It’s his fourth summer riding at Trail Tours. He’s on a small 110cc Honda.
Dirt bikes come in a range of sizes for children. The idea is to get them while they’re young.
“It’s super fun going fast,” Saju says. (I’ll have to take his word for it.) “It’s also fun because on dirt you can jump.” (I’ll work up to that too.) “Last year I fell six times. This year twice. I just want to get up and go again,” he says gleefully.
Out on the forest trails. there are brief moments when it all makes sense, when the balance and throttle control and all of the lessons come together. It feels right and natural for a split-second until the front washes wide again, I panic, death-grip and barely avert another low-speed fall. I’m exhausted, my superhero outfit is soaked in sweat, but I’m learning.
A growing sport
There are a vast network of off-road trails across Canada, maintained in part by membership dues to organizations such as the Ontario Federation of Trail Riders (OFTR).
“We just surpassed the 3,000 member mark,” OFTR event co-ordinator Rome Haloftis says. “It’s hard to believe, but membership has doubled in four years.”
The sport is growing. Total motorcycle sales in Canada are up from 54,000 new bikes in 2013 to 61,000 in 2017. Last year, sales of off-road recreation and dual-purpose (street-legal off-road) bikes increased 20 per cent and 15 per cent respectively compared to 2016. Street-bike sales – while still the largest market segment – were down 4 per cent over the same period after several years of tepid single-digit percentage growth, according to data from the Motorcycle and Moped Industry Council of Canada.
Off-road riding splinters into different disciplines: trials, enduro, motorcross and rally. After learning to ride at a place such as Trail Tours, there’s a whole world of dirt biking that opens up to you.
The easiest next step for a beginner would be to join an organized trail ride such as the Calabogie Boogie. It’s been going on for 25 or 30 years, Haloftis explains, and draws around 250 people to the forest near Ottawa for two days of riding.
“Trail rides are not races. They’re not competitive. It becomes social and that’s a big draw,” he adds. People camp out for the weekend and stay up late bench-racing.
This year, Husqvarna Motorcycles is sponsoring the event and bravely let me try out some of their bikes.
The Husqvarna FE 250 is a glistening white steed. An $11,499 street-legal off-road bike, it’s among the smallest in the company’s range, but still feels about as tall as a horse. Seat height is a vertiginous 38 inches. I’m barely on my tiptoes. If I slide off to one side I can get one foot on the ground. It’s intimidating at first, but because the bike only weighs 105 kilograms it’s almost like riding a big bicycle. A very, very fast bicycle.
The extreme height is so the FE 250 can roll over giant rocks and fallen trees. With the right rider, there are very few places on earth this motorcycle could not go.
At 52 years old, Rome Haloftis is positively graceful aboard a motorcycle; 30 years of riding experience will do that. Weight the outside foot peg as you lean the bike over in a turn, he advises, and then power through.
Okay. Twisting the throttle coming out of a corner, the FE 250’s rear wheel slides out. I know this feeling: a powerslide. Oversteer. On two wheels! It’s addictive. There’s an incredible freedom to riding in the forest you just can’t get on the street.
A few weeks ago I was scared of streetcar tracks. Not anymore. Riding a dirtbike off-road forces you to face fears and, more often than not, find that you can overcome them.
“Confidence,” Fazi says. “Once [new riders] get it in their head that they’re not confident and think they’re doing badly, they start to forget the things they’ve learned and it just starts to go out the window.”