Sticks and stones and broken bones

When we started the Mother Road Ride Rally in 2001, I remember the incredulous looks from the Americans on learning that I was planning to ride Route 66, 2448 miles from Chicago to LA, on a single cylinder 650cc bike! They were astounded when, despite sounding worryingly like a lawnmower at low speed, above 60mph the BMW F650GS simply purred along, easily keeping pace with the big boys and often, literally, leaving them standing. While their Harleys were prone to flat batteries, oil leaks and overheating, my little “dirt bike” never missed a beat. We shipped it home after the trip and it proved its worth as a commuter for several years in London before I traded it for an R1200GS in 2005. John was never a particular fan of German cars or bikes, and my 1200 was no exception. It therefore surprised me that my F650’s successors, the G650GS and G650GS Sertao, were pretty much top of John’s list for our Inagh to China excursion.

Mindful of the variable quality of the roads in Mongolia and the ‘Stans, we were looking for something with proven off-road capability, but more comfortable than an MX bike and lighter (and, let’s face it, cheaper) than BMW’s latest GSA behemoth. The 650 Sertao seemed to tick all the boxes, so what better than to take it on a bit of a test ride …

Neither of us have done any off-road riding since our Alaska trip in 2009 and, while John has been pootling back and forth to France on his Triumph Tiger, my 1150GS has been laid up with electrical issues and I haven’t so much sat on a bike in nearly six months. Not ideal preparation, but then we were only re-doing Level 1, so what could go wrong?

Silly stuff with a bike and a hillOne can’t fail to be impressed with the standard of tuition at the ORS School. The instructors, all former competitors in one bike discipline or another at international level, seem blessed with limitless patience. In their hands, a quarter tonne 1200GSA becomes apparently weightless and what they can’t do with those bikes isn’t worth knowing. Just as well, as surely the most difficult part of their job is to convince the punters that they can do it too … with a little practice, of course. It’s an extraordinary transition to watch as every one of us, whether nervous, vertically challenged, slight of build or carrying a few excess pounds, gradually starts to believe we really can. By lunchtime on the first day, the talk is all sheer wonderment at the crazy exercises that we’ve surprised ourselves with, the very first of which is to pick up a dropped motorcycle. Sensibly so, as falling off is an occupational hazard on this course.

As it happens, John and I had both pretty much decided by the end of the morning that the Sertao wasn’t the bike for us. There was nothing wrong with it per se. If our trip was shorter, may be, and with a strong off-road bias, the Sertao would probably be perfect. But the truth is that more than half the mileage will be on tarmac and the 650 is just too under-powered and vibey to be comfortable. In any event, we were doing fine on the bikes until John misjudged a tight turn after a successful ‘hill recovery’ exercise on the second day. It was an innocuous enough topple, but the footpeg caught his right toe as the bike went down. He hopped about a bit, but there didn’t appear to be any serious damage, so he got back on the bike and we carried on to the ‘momentum’ exercise …

The momentum exercise involves riding up a small but steep mound, pausing on the top and then making a controlled descent the other side. It really couldn’t be much more straightforward, especially as we had been careering happily around dusty fire tracks, up and down much longer and steeper hills, through loose gravel and deep ruts, for a day and a half. Perhaps we were unconsciously afraid of running over our instructor, who was standing on the crest, ready to offer any necessary assistance. Whatever the issue, somehow this harmless little mound seemed to be playing mind games with us. The first two riders achieved the necessary clutch control without problems, the next stalled but made a safe descent. Then it was John’s turn …

The one that got away

John, ignorant of the fractures to his fibula and waiting to try another bike, props his sore foot up as he explains how the accident happened.

He says he got his weight all wrong. He accelerated up the slope but, as he reached the apex he found himself sitting back on the pegs in such a way that he could no longer reach the clutch lever … or the brake. For fear of parting company with the bike entirely, John grasped the bars tighter, with the inevitable consequence that he opened the throttle rather than closing it. The result was spectacular! Instead of coming to a standstill at the crest of the slope, John literally took flight. Realising that, on its current trajectory, the bike was likely to land in the trees, taking him with it, he bailed out, swiftly moving his legs clear. On any other day, the bike would have slid away without incident. Alas, today, the bike’s knobbly tyres bit in the soft dirt, causing it to stop dead and bounce backwards onto John’s already injured right foot. Ouch!

Although in some obvious discomfort, John manfully continued the day and even tried out a few of the other bikes. His new Forma Adventure boots provided sufficient support to disguise the severity of the injury until he came to take them off back at the hotel.

John's fractured tibula

… and here they are. Two small fractures of John’s right fibula.

John spent most of Tuesday with his right foot in a bucket of ice, trying to reduce the swelling, but on Wednesday morning it was as bad as ever, so we decided a visit to A&E (ER, if you are American) was in order. It turned out that John had two small fractures to his fibula and possible damage to his big toe, and is now looking forward to six weeks in plaster. “Quelle fromage”, as Del Boy Trotter would say.

It was a shame that John’s ORS course ended on such a sore note, as everyone (even John) had thoroughly enjoyed themselves. It is a great credit to the quality of teaching and the respect that the participants have for the instructors, that injuries like John’s are comparatively rare. Amazingly rare, in fact, when you consider that we are doing with these big bikes. Out of 40 or so participants, I believe John may have been the only one to require hospital treatment – and even then John hadn’t allowed the injury to spoil his day.

Since no photo exists of John's spectacular flight, I felt obliged to supply an illustration

Since no photo exists of John’s spectacular flight, I felt obliged to supply an illustration

Travelers’ tales

No sooner had we collected our certificates and goodie bags from the ORS team, than we were on the road again. A quick detour back to the Abercrave Inn to pick up a case of our promotional T-shirts, and we were on our way north to Donington Park. Not, alas, for a track day. Though, perhaps, in retrospect, it was just as well. No, we were off to pick the brains of other, more experienced, adventure travelers at Horizons Unlimited’s HUBBUK event.

Donington Park’s campsite is conveniently situated directly below the flight path of the East Midlands Airport, less than two miles from the end of the runway, as the crow – or Airbus – flies. It also borders the racing circuit, making the provision of a quiet ‘no talking’ zone somewhat futile. But, having put the tent up in near darkness – our feeble wind-up torch augmented by occasional aircraft landing lights – it didn’t matter. We had been up since 6am and all we were interested in was a cold lager. Alas, it was not to be. Not tonight, at least. In one of the barns, we found a make-shift bar, stocked with a bewildering choice of real ale and cider. After a couple of pints of warm beer with quaintly accurate names like Thundering Bowels or Belching Betty, we were utterly done in. We slept through until sunrise. We didn’t even need the complimentary earplugs.

Ed March and Austin Vince

Long-distance motorcycle adventures don’t come much more bizarre than this. Here Ed March is showing Austin Vince his battered Honda C90 on which he made the trip from Malaysia to the UK.

It became quickly obvious, the following morning, that no matter how far you intend travelling, how original your motivation or how bizarre your chosen mode of transport, there will be someone at a HUBB event that will have your project trumped. Nothing is impossible to the point that, seeing a small ATV with a tent-like canopy for a roof, I momentarily wondered how far the driver had traveled in it – until I realised that it was, in fact, the hotel gardener’s buggy!

Not all of the journeys are successful and very few of the personal challenges involved make sense in any conventional understanding, but the resulting tales prove the old Taoist proverb, “The journey is its own reward.”

Wearing our ‘Inagh to China’ T-shirts for the first time, we wondered how our trip would measure up. At its most basic level, our route to China is a 9,500-mile road trip. Though, admittedly, around half of those roads will be unpaved or of variable quality, a lot of people have travelled the same route so we can be reasonably confident of getting there. More important to us is our responsibility to our nominated charities and, in particular, to William Winder’s family. There is something quite special to us about carrying William’s name all the way across the world and we are determined to do some good on his behalf. Naturally, we hope that our ride will raise a worthwhile sum for The William Winder Rainbow Foundation and Young Minds, but we are also well aware that far too many of these trips are for ‘charity’ in name only. It doesn’t take 5 minutes to set up a donation page with JustGiving or, in our case, iDonate (for William Winder) or VirginMoneyGiving (for Young Minds), but we really want our ride to accomplish more than that. We are determined to engage the young people who are the focus of the two charities: perhaps getting local school children to set up some challenges for us along the route, or perhaps getting them to prepare a short presentation to show other school children in the countries we pass through. We’re open to ideas.

John Rynne at HUBBUKDuring the two days we spent at the HUBB event, we gleaned much in the way of practical information that will feed into our route planning. But of the many inspiring travelers we met and listened to, there was none more so than Ted Simon, author of Jupiter’s Travels. We had been due to leave at 4pm on Saturday, in order to get back to Wales for the ORS course on Sunday, but it was an easy decision to delay our departure to hear him speak. Ted Simon set the benchmark for motorcycle travel when he set out in 1973, on a four-year journey around the world on a 500cc Triumph Tiger.

Listening to Ted’s video presentation with footage and photographs from that trip, you couldn’t help but recognise how much the world has changed in forty years. And very little of it for the better. Again and again, he emphasised how important it is that travelers look around them and see the world as it is, rather than accepting the Fool’s Paradise of organised tourism. Ted Simon says of his own journey,

“The goal was comprehension, and the only way to comprehend the world was by making myself vulnerable to it so that it could change me. The challenge was to lay myself open to everybody and everything that came my way. The prize was to change and grow big enough to feel one with the whole world.”

“Ever since my original journey I have been learning more about its significance. The idea that I might be making it for others, as well as myself… It seems that when you raise yourself up to achieve something beyond what is needed just to live day by day, the energy you generate has an effect on those around you.”

That seems a good starting point for our trip.

Horizons Unlimited

On Wednesday last, John and I bundled our bike helmets and camping equipment into the car and headed off to the UK for a few days, in preparation for next year’s trip. It was a pretty packed itinerary: a day’s bike maintenance at the BMW Off-Road Skills School in Wales, followed by two days’ camping at the Horizons Unlimited HUBBUK event at Donington Park, followed by two days’ actual off-road riding, back in Wales – a round trip of nearly 600 miles or 900 km even before counting the few days spent with John’s mum in Surrey.

We had, in fact, done the ‘Adventure Maintenance’ course before, in 2009, but – mercifully – the curtailment of our US tour that year meant that we never had to put the skills we learned into practice. On our return, we were only too grateful to be able to deliver our bikes to a local dealer whenever they appeared to require attention.

ORS Adventure MaintenanceThe format of the course had changed a little since its first presentation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ORS School has ditched the carpeted classroom environment of the Dove Community Centre in nearby Banwen, in favour of a more authentic workshop experience at their own HQ. Even so, you can’t please everyone. I overheard at least one comment to the effect that it was impossible to learn about emergency roadside repairs, while using proper tools in a fully-equipped workshop. But to think like that misses the point.

A couple of fellow ‘Adventure Travellers’ at the HUBBUK event asked us whether we thought the maintenance course was worth it. I have a hunch that the sort of person most likely to ask that question is exactly the sort of person who will most benefit. Of course, I didn’t put my answer quite like that. In my experience, bikers fall broadly into two categories. The first are the kind who took to two wheels in their teens: riding off-road until they were old enough to get a license and, of necessity, learning to maintain a decrepit MX bike on a few quid earned from a paper round. Faced with an unfamiliar warning light on a £10,000+ motorcycle with a computerised ECU, this type of biker will have no qualms about taking a peek under the pretty plastic fairing to diagnose the problem. This type of rider will then either fix it himself or will simply tape over the blinking light until he can get it to a dealer. If this is you, stop right there. The Adventure Maintenance course is not for you. But you knew that anyway. You would not have asked the question.

Then there is the second category of biker. The rest of us. Us folk who were probably already licensed to drive a car, but saw motorcycles as a cheap and practical means of travel, a fun and adventurous way to see the world, a cool fashion accessory, our ticket to instant street-cred and eternal youth, or some combination of any or all of these. When it comes to our cars, we’re not necessarily mechanically inept. The amount of work that can be achieved at home with the aid of a Haynes manual is dwindling with every new technological advance but, for the most part, we know how to check the oil, top up the windscreen wash, change a tyre and renew a headlight bulb. Even so, somehow, when it comes to working on a bike, our default reaction is that it’s best left to the experts. Red warning lights spell danger and we need the reassurance that the wheels won’t fall off if we start taking things apart. More importantly, if we’re caught out in the middle of the back of beyond, we need to feel confident that we can put things back together – at least well enough to get us to the next telephone. It is for us that the Adventure Maintenance course was designed and, for those of us who have never had occasion to remove a wheel, plug a puncture, clean an air filter or replace a brake pad, it is comforting to know that we are capable – even if we might not always have access to the ideal tools for the job.

Evan's emergency toolkitIncidentally, for those of us who worry about not having the right tools (and consequently carry far too many), this little toolkit belongs to Evan, Workshop Manager at the BMW Off Road School.