27 May 2015

BMW GS Trophy UK Qualifier 2015

This weekend gone I took part in the GS Trophy UK Qualifier 2015 which took place in the beautiful Brecon Beacons in Wales. I was invited to join along with 8 other customers and Tom, Lottie and James from BMW Park Lane, split into 3 teams of which I was part of ‘Team Tom’.

Ready to go!

We met on Saturday at BMW Park Lane before filtering through the bank holiday weekend traffic out of London at midday, and down the fast but rather soulless M4 motorway towards Wales. After crossing over the gorgeous mile-long Severn Bridge we rode into the Welsh countryside to the registration at the Ancient Briton pub in Pen-y-cae, before riding to Swansea to our hotel.

Parked up at the hotel in Swansea

On Sunday morning after an early breakfast we had a sprightly ride, led by Lottie from Park Lane, through the mist and fog back to the Ancient Briton to start the challenges. My team included Tom (from BMW Park Lane) and Kamal (with his broken toe) on their R1200GS Adventures and Alex on his F800GS. Our team was due to set off at 9:48 and 30 seconds. While we were waiting, there were a few rain showers but by the time we departed, these had subsided to a few spells of drizzle.

Misty morning

The directions for the challenges were printed with distances between visual points, which meant our GPSs were of little help—for example, turn left and go to the 2nd cattle grid etc. The complete route was about 90 miles. Some of the challenges were simple questions relating to landmarks or signs at each destination, and others included a fitness challenge, a mechanical challenge and several off road challenges.

Ready to leave after completing the fitness challenge

For the fitness challenge we had a choice of riding a pushbike up a hill and back, carrying tyres up a hill and stacking them, or running to the river to fill a cup and bring it back—each was timed and taking too long resulted in negative points. I did the cup challenge within the allocated time.

My only mishap of the day happened then—I got on my bike and put up the side stand, then realised I needed something out of the top box. Of course I absentmindedly got off the bike without putting the side stand back down, so my bike went onto its side. Nothing happened to the bike and I sustained, somehow, my only ‘injury’ of the day—a tiny blood blister on my middle finger. No paramedics required.

Sheep... disturbing

We carried on through twisty forest roads and misty dales, stopping only for a herd of sheep to pass, each giving us the evil eye, and to answer a couple more challenge questions.

Rolling hills—still misty

A panoramic shot of the dales

Quick photo opportunity

Finding out the answer to one of the questions

Next up was the mechanical challenge where there was a choice of changing a tyre (to be clear, using tyre levers to remove it from the wheel and put it back on), an apparently impossible diagnosis challenge (so we heard) and a loading challenge which we did in pairs. This involved picking up an F800GS, loading it into a trailer and securing it with tie straps. I did the challenge with Kamal and it went well, except we didn’t have the bike tied tightly enough so we each earned a negative point.

We went on to the off road challenge which took place at the 4,000 acre Walters Arena Enduro Park. As with the other challenges, there were a number from which to choose, each carried out on one of BMW’s own bikes (not our own). We each were required to take part in 5 challenges and I did the following:

  • Accelerate hard on loose gravel between two cones, then skid with the back brake only as far as possible (F800GS)—I made it to the ‘1’ marker which meant 1 negative point (the worst possible was 5)
  • Run to a bike, start it and get it through the cones within 11 seconds on loose gravel (F800GS)—I wasn’t given a time but I did it in less than 11 seconds so no negative points
  • Ride through a tight slalom/figure-of-8 course on loose gravel (R1200GS) within 44 seconds—no problems, apart from the fact I took 75 seconds which earned me 3 negative points
  • Ride a rut course (R1200GS)—I took it slow and made it through without any problems, although I had a slightly panicked moment when I slipped on mud after the exit cone, nearly dropping the bike, but no negative points!
  • Tow a bike up a hill and back down, using a tow rope (G650GS x2)—we split into pairs for this and Alex towed me, although while turning around at the top I ended up having the tow rope pull the bike over onto its side, but no negative points
Tom and Kamal’s towing challenge is worth a mention as ‘the most exciting tow of the day’ when the tow rope pulled out and wrapped around the front wheel of the towed bike.

Other challenges included 5 laps of the enduro track (which Tom did), a navigation challenge, hill climbing on mud, riding rocks, a difficult momentum challenge (which Tom very bravely did), jousting (which looked rather difficult), riding electric bikes around a track, and a bike pushing challenge.

Most of the off road challenges were fairly difficult (not carefree byway riding) but great fun, although we made a fatal error of spending far too much time at Walters Arena.

Walters Arena where the gravel challenges took place—finally some blue sky!

Riding the ruts challenge!

On our way to the next challenge we came across the only (known) incident of the day—the lead rider of one of the other teams had slammed on the brakes to turn onto a hard-to-see road and the rider behind had gone into the back of him, rendering both bikes unrideable. Fortunately they were not injured, but there were police and an ambulance in attendance.

We stopped for a much needed bite to eat at a pub, each of us having, of course, Welsh lamb with all the trimmings. Refuelled we carried on.

More sun, more dales... can’t get enough of the views here!

...and a perfect photo opportunity for Team Tom—Kamal, me, Tom and Alex

A brief stop to take in the amazing view

Somehow we couldn’t find the answer to one of the challenge questions—we were meant to find a bridge with trolls underneath but saw nothing of the sort. Tom rode back to double check but still was unable to find the bridge.

Waiting for Tom to return from the bridges

The next top was at a coffee shop in the town of Brecon before carrying on to Merthyr Cynog to get the number from a telephone box and answer a couple more challenge questions.

Parked near the coffee shop in Brecon


Friendly dog in Merthyr Cynog

From Merthyr Cynog we got lost and circled back before realising we’d been on the correct road the whole time. This let out onto some fast roads to a stunning viewpoint between Cray and Penwyllt.

Panoramic shot of the viewpoint

Cray Reservoir

Starting to feel tired

Our final challenge was the Absolute Adventure Challenge. Sadly when we arrived there was no one there as we were nearly 3 hours past the time limit. Unfortunately this meant we were effectively disqualified from the GS Trophy so we carried on back to the Ancient Briton pub to hand in our late scorecards and take a photo at the finish line.

Team Tom makes it to the finish line (3 hours late)—no reason not to smile!

Highlights of the day? The scenery and roads were amazing and we all had great fun doing the route, even if we took far too long to complete it. Some of the lanes required a degree of precise riding to avoid the moss, sand or mud between the tyre tracks but this kept things interesting. There was such a sense of wellbeing riding around the Welsh countryside. This was my first time to Wales (apart from a half day in Cardiff in 2005) and I wish I had gone long before now.

There were a few more, of course. Having my bike over because I forgot to put down the side stand. Tom getting stuck on the momentum course (lost Oakleys probably shouldn’t be mentioned). Alex setting a new performance standard for the F800GS, never trailing behind despite having two-thirds the power of our 1200s. And Kamal giving the R1200GS’s rev limiter a thorough test after coming off the bike during the slalom course.

We headed back to Swansea for dinner and a much needed sleep. The next morning I left earlier than some of the others in an attempt to beat the bank holiday weekend traffic returning to London. I had a relaxing, uneventful ride back and was home in the early afternoon.

The GS Trophy made me realise a couple things about myself. I was very happy to find that I had no trouble keeping up with fast riders on twisty roads, even though my everyday riding style is much more laid back. And I’m very comfortable navigating byways on my own, at my own pace, on dirt, mud or gravel—but doing off road challenges in a competitive environment made my confidence all but disappear. But most of all, I had a great time, with some great people, pushing myself beyond my day-to-day experiences.

Were you at the GS Trophy this year? I would love to hear your experience in the comments below.

2 May 2015

Riding off the tarmac

Today I went to the byways for a bit of off-the-tarmac riding and to bring Zev along so he could collect a few nettle plants for his garden. Usually I go alone if I’m riding in the dirt as 2-up riding can be slightly hairy on loose, slippery or rutted surfaces. I seized the opportunity to have Zev take a few video clips.

I believe off-road experience allows a rider to really learn about the handling characteristics of a bike and understand how it behaves when it breaks traction. This understanding translates to a more relaxed rider on paved roads, especially in less than ideal conditions, enabling the rider to react naturally if the bikes slips unexpectedly, instead of panicking and stiffening up which will usually end in tears.

Unfortunately, many dual-sport bikes are sold more for posing duty than for their off-road capabilities (much like Land Rovers and the like), but I say these riders are missing out some of the most pleasurable riding—being able to access the lesser travelled roads in safety and relative comfort.

Indeed, most dual-sport bikes come with glorified road tyres from the factory, some with a no cost option of more knobbly tyres. My F800GS came with Pirelli Scorpion Trails, not a bad tyre on the road, but next to useless in anything slippery. For anyone intending to do much off-road riding, the right tyres are a must. I use Heidenau K60 Scouts on my F800GS which provide a good blend of on- and off-road grip.

First up, a ride-by on a section of byway with a pull-out:

For those who don’t do much riding off the tarmac, the thought of doing so can be daunting, but it is possible to safely maintain a decent speed even on loose surfaces like gravel and dirt. The bike is more stable with the rider’s bottom off the seat (practice those squats!), as this lowers the centre of gravity to the foot pegs and allows the bike to glide over bumps without throwing around the rider. In the clip above I’m doing roughly 30 mph and the bike is completely stable. It is key to keep a relaxed grip on the handlebars to allow the front wheel to move around naturally—too firm a grip can cause the bike to destabilise and lose control. Remember—the bike wants to stay upright when the wheels are turning, all by itself, so don’t fight against what it wants to do.

The next video shows brisk acceleration on a loose surface:

The bike has a tendency to wiggle at the back as the rear tyre spins faster than the speed of the bike, but again, keeping a relaxed grip on the handlebars allows the bike to track naturally—in this situation, a panicked ‘death grip’ could end up with the bike trying to come around on itself, unceremoniously ejecting the rider. Let’s see that in slo-mo:

In slo-mo you can clearly see the front lift (that’s why we keep a relaxed grip on the handlebars) and the rear wheel spinning. The wiggling of the back of the bike is due to the spinning wheel taking the path of least resistance and following any ruts/imperfections on the road surface.

Next up, why (standard) ABS isn’t good on loose surfaces (I neglected to deactivate the system):

In this clip you can see (and hear) the ABS preventing the wheels from locking. My F800GS has standard ABS which is designed to prevent the wheels locking on slippery asphalt road surfaces. On loose surfaces the system is out of its depth, fully activating the system which makes stopping distances much longer. The bike has a switch to deactivate the ABS when riding off the tarmac as some locking/skidding is required to stop quickly and effectively on loose surfaces. The ABS in slo-mo:

The F800GS’s ABS system is so quick there is no perceptible stopping of either wheel, even in slo-mo, but the bike doesn’t stop very quickly. Newer models such as the F800GS Adventure and the R1200GS have off-road ABS modes (Enduro on both, and Enduro Pro additionally on the R1200GS) which allows for varying degrees of lock-up between each pulse of the system—maintaining enough rotation for the bike to stay upright, but enough lock to stop effectively on loose surfaces. The Enduro Pro mode on the R1200GS (which is designed to be used with knobbly off-road tyres) only activates on the front wheel, allowing the rear wheel to be fully locked for cornering techniques.

Finally, 2-up riding off road:

The byway in this clip is quite steep at the beginning but the surface is fairly good apart from some light ruts. At the top of the hill, the roadway becomes angled which presents more of a challenge on a bike (being a single-track vehicle), as it wants to settle at the lowest point due to gravity and the gyroscopic effect of the wheels turning.

When travelling 2-up it is even more important to be aware of bumps, rocks or ruts, as the bike will be far less forgiving, and the suspension will be taxed with the extra weight. Also, it is impossible for both the rider and pillion to stand on the pegs meaning their weight acts as a deadweight and it is quite easy to bottom out the suspension (not a good thing as components can bend). Keeping the speed low, consistent and smooth will keep both the bike and the rider/pillion much happier.

Any thoughts to add or experiences of your own? Let me know in the comments below.