The instructor’s voice still echoes, yelling over the screaming engine. “Dump the clutch, light it up!” he’s shouting. “It’s the only way you’re getting out of here!”
Sand flew high in a rooster tail behind the back tire and the wheel sank, but the chunky rubber knobs found just enough grip to save the day. The big BMW pushed out of the rut, rode forward to the next deep drift of sand and threw me off again.
Both instructors, standing alongside, thought it was hilarious. Actually, it was pretty funny.
There’s a technique to riding a motorcycle in sand, and BMW’s official GS training school at Horseshoe Valley teaches it as part of a two-day off-road-riding course. “Adventure touring” is one of the most popular genres of motorcycling, and the BMW series of GS bikes is at the forefront. They were good at their job for years, and then in 2004, actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman chose them to ride around the world for their reality TV show, Long Way Round. Sales went through the showroom roof and haven’t stopped. The R1200 GS is BMW’s best-selling motorcycle by far, and at least one in every three BMW motorcycles sold in Canada is a GS model; the international sales figure is closer to 40 per cent.
“GS” stands for Gelande/Strasse, German for off-road/street, and the bikes represent the freedom to ride anywhere. But they’re big and tall and comparatively heavy, and there are few places to learn to ride them properly off the asphalt. Canadian owners were coming to Clinton Smout’s off-road training school at the resort near Orillia, Ont., to practice on much smaller Yamahas, so last year, Smout teamed up with BMW to open a certified GS training centre. It’s similar to other schools in Europe and Australia.
There’s a lot to learn. In addition to balance and technique, the motorcycles’ many options can be as daunting as those on the cars. All the bikes come with advanced ABS brakes as standard, but most include varying degrees of electronic traction control and suspension adjustment. There are up to five separate traction settings, and the correct combination of traction, brakes and suspension is crucial for different conditions.
The smallest and most basic model is the F700 GS, which starts at $10,825, and the line rises through the popular 800-cc version, starting at $14,000, to the largest 1200-cc bike. The most expensive is the R1200 GSA, which starts at $22,150.
I was buried up to the axles in sand on an R1200 GS, in a private area near Horseshoe that Smout calls the Sahara Desert. The bike weighs 238 kilograms when its 20-litre gas tank is full, and that’s a lot of weight to haul around on slippery ground. It’s normally tall, too: The seat can be adjusted to either 850 millimetres or 820 mm high, though shorter riders can chop an extra 30 mm off the suspension when they order a new bike from the factory.
There are two ways to get a bike out of such a rut. The first is to rock it back just a tad, like a car in snow, and give it some momentum to catch grip. If that doesn’t work, Smout says, just kick it over.
“Get it on its side, then swivel it around on the cylinder heads,” which protrude to each side of the boxer-twin engine like a pair of short arms. “The thing is a tank – you’re not going to break it. And if you scratch it, well, every scratch tells a story.”
Even more useful is Smout’s advice for riding on loose ground: Steer by standing on the footpegs and leaning both your weight and the motorcycle in the direction you want to travel. Don’t bother turning the handlebars – the front wheel will only get snagged in a drift. This “peg steering” takes a surprising amount of practice and is counter-intuitive for most motorcyclists.
“I got smitten by the Ewan and Charley videos, so I bought this last year, but I’d never ridden off-road,” Eric Sweet says, standing by his 2004 R1200 GS. “I came here last year to learn on the smaller bikes, but I was overwhelmed by the weight of my bike, so I came back for this course.”
Sweet, who’s 52 and owns an advertising agency in Kitchener, Ont., is planning a ride across the continent next year on the off-road Trans-America Trail. He feels better prepared for that now.
He paid $600 for the two-day course, and spent about another $200 to stay the night at Horseshoe Valley resort and on meals. He could have rented one of the school’s 10 BMW GS bikes for an extra $150-$400, depending on the model, but preferred to use his own bike.
“It’s been fantastic,” he says. “It’s given me huge amounts of confidence. Being able to steer on soil and in sand – I couldn’t do that before.”
For more information on the BMW GS Training School at Horseshoe Valley Resort, go to BMWHorseshoe.com, or call 1-800-461-5627, option 7.
The writer was a guest of BMW. Content was not subject to approval.