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.
The 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.