It’s remarkable in this modern day and age that some people get surprised when I tell them I ride motorcycles. More women are riding today than ever, but I guess, I don’t really fit the stereotypical mold of a female rider.
I was 22 when I took a motorcycle training course, and I dropped the 125cc bike loaned to me a bunch of times. I had never driven a stick shift before, so just mastering the clutch and changing gears was a steep learning curve, and I also had to learn how to brake with my fingers and a foot. This was much more complicated than riding a bicycle, and I had to relearn what it meant to be on two wheels.
The first full-size motorcycle I rode was my boyfriend’s Suzuki GS500. Man, that bike felt so heavy to someone my size! It is a daunting task learning how to balance that weight properly, how to smoothly come to a stop without a note of panic. I once forgot to put down the kickstand before setting down my bike, and with my novice ability and 110-pound frame, I couldn’t save my first real-world drop. The one thing I could control was that I got back up and got back on.
I bought my own Ninja 250 at 23. It was light and nimble. I find different things appeal to me as a lady who rides. First and foremost I want to feel comfortable, and I enjoy being able to flat-foot a bike when I come to a stop. Learning on that 250, where coming to a stop felt secure instead of a balancing act on one foot, did a lot for my confidence.
It wasn’t long before I had my bike on the highway, rode through rain, rode at night, and rode to my gigs as a stand-up comedian in Toronto, Canada. Parking in busy cities with a motorcycle is a breeze! I was happy with my Ninja for years until a very magical thing happened. I stumbled upon the motorcycle series Long Way Round and Long Way Down. This was when my eyes were opened to what could be accomplished on adventure motorcycles. Ewan Mcgregor and Charley Boorman went together to some of the most remote parts of the world, on a shared obsession, and it was a beautiful thing.
I love to travel, and riding for more than a few hours on my Ninja left my back sore, and the lack of storage space meant I could only travel with a small backpack. It wasn’t going to take me up the fire roads I saw in the mountains. At 28, I was bit by the adventure bug, but where was I to go to ride one?
I now live in Los Angeles and to my surprise, not even an hour away there’s a BMW Off-Road Academy, run by RawHyde Adventures, one of two in the United States. This academy specializes in exactly what I was looking for: riders who want to begin their journey into adventure riding. The first two days would be training at their facility, and the last two days would be a real-world basecamp adventure! The standard training is $1,395, and the basecamp is an additional $595, which includes all meals, drinks, and sleeping arrangements.
The class provides rentals ($165 per day for a G650GS and up to $205 per day for a R1200GS), but since I was late to the table, all the bikes had been snapped up and I had to bring my own bike. I borrowed a Husqvarna TE630 dual-sport, which resembles a dirtbike more than a streetbike. Despite my unease riding it due to the tall seat height, I wanted to get into RawHyde’s last Intro class before the California location shut down for the summer and headed to Colorado.
The problem with the Husky is that I could not flat foot it like I was used to and I felt unstable simply putting the kickstand up and down. I was hoping the practice and tips taught at the school located just north of Castaic, California, would improve my confidence.
I decided to come early on Friday for the “Pre-training,” an option which costs $325, where you get a bit of a jump start on the drills that begin the following day. We gathered together to listen to our coaches brief us on what to expect out of the day, a few hours practicing techniques like braking in the dirt, tight turns, and going up and down smaller hills.
We began a drill on a place called the Meadow to learn how to balance the bike while moving it back and forth just using clutch control, when a coach noticed a problem with my bike. A subframe bolt had backed itself out, so my bike needed to be grounded and returned to the ranch.
You can give me a microphone and I can make a room full of strangers laugh, but you don’t often see me using a wrench. I am lucky that RawHyde has an on-site mechanic, as he was able to find a bolt that fit my bike and used some Loctite for good measure. My bike would be good to go for the official start of training the next morning.
Jim Hyde runs BMW’s Off-Road Academy. He has a warm, inviting demeanor and a clear passion for bringing people into the world of adventure riding. When we go inside and all sit around the bar (which is open every night after class), we go around the room telling everyone who we are, what we do, and what we hope to expect from the training. We are told this group had more ladies than most, at 6 of 40. The ratio is one that I know will grow over time – these ladies were all long-term riders and shared the sense of spirit and exploration that I had. I also think dudes probably shower more with us around, and I’m sure the staff at RawHdye appreciate that.
The introductions were an excellent icebreaker to start off the evening and lead into dinner. RawHyde’s website states that its dinners are prepared by Cordon Bleu-trained chefs, and I was not disappointed. We started off with a salad with walnuts and goat cheese, then some Mahi-Mahi for the main course, and a dessert of warm chocolate cake with a banana glaze. Jim is a connoisseur of wine and went by the tables offering his selections of red and white.
After dinner, a fire was started outside in the firepit. It reminded me of the vibe I got while at cottages during my summers back in Northern Ontario. I grabbed a beer and spent time getting to know my fellow riders and coaches. There were several other Canadians there; British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec were all represented. There were business owners, best friends, a married couple and many singles. And despite the fact I was the youngest rider, I fit right in. When you all come to do a shared hobby, and one that requires teamwork and commitment, it attracts the kind of people you want to spend a weekend with.
I was having fun so I stayed up a little later than I had planned, but I wanted to be very tired when I went to bed. I was sleeping in what closely reminded me of a pod of tents with blue tarps. I was perched above ground and inside was a sleeping bag, and a pillow. I don’t often camp outside, so it was a nice change to the apartment I have become so accustomed to. Being that it was already May in Southern California, I was plenty warm in my private cubby, and was happy knowing coffee and breakfast would be waiting for me when I woke up!
Saturday was our first full day of training and we gathered around all the bikes while Jim gave us a briefing of what to expect and a few rules. These were big groups, so we split up into people who felt more novice and people who felt more accomplished. I had clicked well with the coaches of the advanced group around the campfire, so I decided to hop into the advanced section. Sometimes I remind myself of my Yorkie – he is 4 pounds and thinks he is a German Shepherd. I joined one other lady, and it was time to get to it.
One obvious thing about off-roading is that the ground below you is not going to be easy to start on, as there is often sand or loose gravel below. Another important aspect of off-road riding is how to properly stand on the footpegs. I had been dirtbiking once before, so I had a small dose of experience with this stance but still felt uneasy while doing it. One coach noticed me standing awkwardly on my pegs and said that if I turned my toes slightly toward the bike and leaned my knees into the frame, I would have a bit more stability. He was right. Listening to your coaches is another important skill. I thought that would be obvious, but not everyone takes direction well. I figure a coach with 20+ years riding experience knows a thing or two about off-roading.
One of our first exercises was how to lift up a bike that has gone down, and this is a good one for me. I am weak and had dropped my Ninja a few times and had never been able to pick it up on my own. For the weekend they did not want you to ever pick up the bike by yourself, it is a quick way to run out of energy, but they wanted to show how it’s done, as well as a two-person technique. This would be useful for all of us as the weekend progressed.
It wasn’t long before I dropped my bike. I had come to a stop on an uneven patch of dirt and I could only put one foot down, and the weight of the bike proved too much for me to hold up. The lesson learned was that I needed to put extra care in selecting where I should stop and always aim for as even a patch as possible.
The S turns were also proving to be my kryptonite. We would go slow speed on our pegs, purposely done to make it more difficult, and I wasn’t turning my body or head enough to make the tight turns. A few more drops and breaking some of the plastic guards that protect my clutch and brake levers was my punishment. However, I was not the only one dropping my bike – most were dropping theirs as well. Sure, there were a few folks who hadn’t, but many of us had little experience off-roading and were also on bikes we had rarely or never used. The curriculum was also designed to make us better at the most difficult aspects of riding: low speeds on uneven terrain and sharp turns.
The feeling of not being great at the exercises made me feel anxious, and there were times I had to take each challenge in 10-minute windows. I wasn’t thinking of getting through the day; I was thinking only about getting through the next attempt. The most important thing is to keep going, knowing it will be hard, but this is the hardest it’s going to be. It takes a lot of practice for something to become second nature. Watching each other struggle, fail, and then succeed created a wonderful sense of camaraderie.
At the start of the next segment we noticed the troublesome bolt on my bike had come loose again. This time Mr. Jack of All Trades did a bit more investigating, which was a nice surprise since the TE wasn’t a school bike. He took off the seat and noticed that the entire subframe was loose, and that was the reason it was causing the bolt to shake out. I sat down and watched him tinker away and tighten up the bike, to where he grabbed it and it felt solid in every direction. I was back in business.
Sharif, one of my coaches, returned to get me and took the time to do some one-on-one training to catch me up. I found the staff very accommodating when it came to learning new skills. If they felt you needed a little extra attention or guidance, they were happy to provide it. They shared in the happiness of our improved abilities or felt accomplished when we had those ah-ha moments where a drill finally clicked.
I followed him up some hills I had never been before and we went over a few bumps. The first bump I took well, but I went off at a funny angle from the next one and fell off onto my side. Sharif stopped and helped me up, made sure I was okay, and then we went up one more hill to join the group. They had seen my fall and were happy I was alright, and this time I could feel a sweet bruise forming on my thigh. I was actually kind of excited I would have a battle wound. This course is meant to improve your skills and toughen you up to the elements.
Our next drill would be to go down a hill using no throttle, then some throttle, and how to go up hills slowly and then more quickly. And, finally, we learned how to brake, stop, and then restart on a hill.
At the end of the day we took a casual ride off-road, during which I dumped the bike going around a corner. The sweeper coach helped me lift it up while the group had backed up along a slope to wait for us, so I got a bit nervous as I looked up the hill. Would I be able to stop on the angle without dumping the bike? Well, that hesitancy made me unbalanced and I ended up running the bike into the bush before the hill. I wasn’t hurt, and it gave the coach a great view of an entertaining fall!
The day had come to a close and it was time for a beer. My appetite was starting to slow as I ate a heaping plate of pasta and enjoyed another glass of red wine. We talked as a group about our highs and lows of the day, and later I got up to tell a few jokes to the class. After dinner I headed back out to the fire pit to hang out with my fellow warriors.
One of the best parts of the day was going through the sand. Sand is a slippery beast, where your handlebars get wobbly and your tires feel slippery. When this happens, it almost feels counterintuitive to relax and just let the bike work itself out as you give it some gas.
I dumped the bike the first two runs, and Sharif told me that I had to trust him to use more throttle while I rode across the sand. He wanted me to try again right away, so I looped around and they cleared a path for me to go. Despite my apprehension, I gave it more throttle and I skidded my way upright through the sand! The best part was after I made it to the other side, all the riders started honking in celebration. It was a great feeling.
One of the last drills of our second day was doing S turns through trees in a much more hilly area. I had seen this area while doing the simpler version of these drills and thought, man, am I going to be able to do this? The best part of training is that you ease into things and level up incrementally. By the time this drill began, I had more confidence. Thinking in those 10-minute intervals had gotten me through everything.
We did a few runs going from the bottom of the hill to the top, and I made my first few turns well, dumped the bike once, and made my last two turns. On my second attempt I also showed signs of success and failure, and when I dropped the tall Husqvarna again, a coach decided to try the maneuver on my bike.
He went around a few turns and as he went passed me, he said, “This is not the bike to learn on.” He complained about its jerky throttle response and grabby rear brake, and noted that riding a G650GS would be a relative breeze. That conversation gave me a renewed sense of confidence. The Husky had not been easy for me to ride, especially with the height when coming to stops, so I was proud I had made it through the two days of training.
One of the areas I needed improvement was controlling the bike at slow speeds when on uneven terrain. I wasn’t comfortable when I had to stop unexpectedly, and it often led to me dropping the bike either because of the stop or at the restart. On our trail ride at the end of the day, I came up to a bottleneck where a bike had been dropped up ahead. My stop was successful, but my restart lead to me drop the bike. Some oil leaked out of my bike once it was lifted up, so the coach decided it was best for me to two-up back with him.
After a long day of falling in the dirt I decided it was time to try the outdoor shower! What a lovely time. One of the coaches stood guard for me, and I looked out with a smile as the sun was starting to set over the hills. I took a few selfies as a memento, but those I can’t share! It also provided me some time to reflect on what I had learned over the course of a few days.
I had grown volumes as a rider. I remember when I would accidentally find myself on a dirt road on my Ninja – boy, did that send my heart pumping. Now it is what I want to find.
The lessons learned at RawHyde’s BMW Off-Road Academy might not be cheap, but neither is a trip to the ER. What you buy with your money is an intense dip into the world of adventure riding. I can now ride in sand, something I had never attempted. I could stop and start on a steep hill. I might drop the bike here and there, but learning how to fall and pick up the bike properly will have my back thanking me later. I now know the best body position and sight line to choose to round a tight bend, and how much attention and spacing I needed to have with my fellow riders to ensure I didn’t end up horizontal.
The best part of the lessons was that what once seemed daunting was now an accomplishment. With the guidance of my coaches and repeating the drills, at the end of three days, I could do what previously scared me and enjoy myself while doing it.
Next up for me is RawHyde’s basecamp adventure ride, which will probably cause a few more bruises to my body, but I am excited to add them. Each fall teaches me what not to do, and each success builds my skillset and gets me closer to my goal of being a world traveler on two wheels.
More info can be found at the BMW Off-Road Academy’s website.
Michelle Christine is a motorcycle enthusiast, comedian and writer originally from Toronto and now living in Los Angeles.
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