A few years ago I got back from England where I had the opportunity to take part in one of the most amazing, kick ass off road motorcycle rides of my life. Prior to the trip I considered myself to be a pretty decent rider. After all I had over thirty years off road experience, which included motocross, hare scrambles and trials. Although no longer competing, I imagined that I was ready for anything. Little did I know that I was in for a rude awakening and a big bite of humble pie.
It all started when I agreed to accompany my dad to England. Before we left I received an e-mail from my brother, David, in England inviting me to take part in an off road excursion through the Peak District. He informed me that his friend Andrew had a friend, Boyd who had an off road motorcycle tour company called Overlander Trail Tours. Boyd would supply me with a dual sport two-fifty Yamaha and riding gear. I only had to bring my California motorcycle driver’s license and a helmet.
The words dual sport spell doom in my vocabulary. Dual sport bikes are not designed for serious trail riding. From my brother’s description I imagined that the ride would be a sedate excursion through the British countryside on a WR-250R, a hefty, under powered, road legal Yamaha with less than adequate suspension and ground clearance. If I had my druthers I preferred a more off road orientated motorcycle, but riding a bike, any bike in the dirt was enough to get me very excited.
We were slated to meet at Boyd’s house at eight-thirty a.m. which meant an early start for the two hour drive with my brother’s friend, Andrew, in his van from London to the Peak District. His bike was strapped down in the back. Although I had never met Andrew, we established an immediate rapport.
He explained that we would be riding green lanes in the Peak District. Although green lanes were mainly used by trekkers, many are legal for appropriately registered off road bikes. Some of the lanes are connected by asphalt necessitating the requirement for a road license. “Don’t let the name fool you, he warned me. Not all green lanes are the innocuous tidy little trails that you might expect”.
When we arrived at Bridge House Farm there was a motor home in the driveway and I was introduced to George, the owner of several motorcycle dealerships in and around London. He was unloading his Honda CRF-250X. While Andrew unloaded his Yamaha WR-450 Boyd took me inside the house and gave me my riding gear and told me to suit up.
My ride, it turned out, was a Yamaha WR-250F, an enduro bike with a license plate, but with no blinkers, no mirrors and nothing in the way of the street legal paraphernalia. It was far superior to the dual sport model that I had originally assumed that I would be riding. Boyd told me that the bike was stock and would be the most appropriate tool for the trails we would be riding. His stead was a six speed KTM 450EXC.
Things were looking up. Boyd said that he let the other riders determine the pace and the severity of the ride. We were all riding modern enduro bikes and according to Andrew both he and George were experienced enthusiasts looking forward to a challenging outing. It was beginning to dawn on me that this ride would surpass all expectations.
Before we departed I asked Boyd if he had checked the tire pressure and he assured me that there was eighteen pounds front and rear. I did a double take. “Eighteen pounds – isn’t that a lot?” He said that the high pressure would protect against flats in the rocks. I was still more than a little dubious. Later I would find out what he meant by rocks.
As we were making last minute adjustments, a herd of cattle appeared ambling down the road in front of Bridge House Farm. A car trapped behind the cows plaintively honked its horn, but to no avail. A few cows paused, mid stride, to glance over their shoulders straining to see what the ruckus was all about. The herd, squeezed between stone walls that bordered the narrow road, continued plodding lazily along in their unhurried languor and the car followed at a walking pace.
The landscape in the Peak District is breathtaking. Vast reaches of wild scrub land are interwoven with cultivated fields and pastures bordered by rock walls and shrubs. The peaks consist of a series of craggy ridges surrounded by lush, green valleys laced with trails meandering up and down the undulating topography.
The weather that morning devolved into intermittent showers. Boyd told us that showers were the norm for that time of year in the Peak District. Bright sun baked cumulus clouds swirled high above a menacing veil of underlying grey, which was beginning to blot out the last visible patches of blue sky.
That morning Andrew was having mechanical difficulties. After draining his battery attempting to get his bike running with the electric starter, he resorted to kicking it over again and again until it finally fired up.
Afterwards we quietly stormed out of Boyd’s driveway and followed him a short distance down the narrow winding road through the deserted landscape. We waited while Boyd opened a gate that led into a dirt tract. At first the trail was fairly easy going, although it was muddy and slick in places because it had started to rain.
As we continued along the trail, the boulders started getting bigger and more frightening. Pretty soon there was no path between the huge obstacles and we had to commit to going over them, and I was more than a little intimidated. I put my bike in a low gear and literally smashed through the rugged terrain, relying on my bike’s bash plate as I aimed directly at the fearsome rock monoliths.
In California I had never tackled such humongous rocks, except on my trials bike. This was a new and challenging experience. I tried to pick the best line and keep up my momentum. I pulled back on the bars and used the throttle to lift the front wheel, and then centered my weight over the bike as I motored up and over the huge boulders. The bike was the perfect weapon for the terrain with plush suspension, a torquey power band, and a maneuverable weightless feeling.
The only disadvantage was that the bike was a tad on the tall side, and accordingly my short legs could not reach the ground for a well planted security dab. It was either a clean or a five, which in trials parlance typically means taking more than three dabs (out of the question for me), crashing, or going out of bounds.
I didn’t crash although I did go out of bounds when my front wheel ricocheted off a rock and the bike turned down a steep rocky goat path. I was just along for the ride struggling to regain control as the bike catapulted down the unintended detour. By the time I had brought the bike to a stop and was contemplating the best route back up to the trail the others had disappeared.
I was forced to get off the bike and manhandle it up through the rocks. The electric start was a godsend and I had almost managed to get it up onto the trail when Boyd came back to see what had caused the delay. When I finally got myself sorted out, he accompanied me up the trail to meet up with the others who were waiting for us.
I was not the only person having trouble that day. As I mentioned earlier, Andrew was having problems with his bike. Each time he had to restart his bike, he had to kick it repeatedly before it eventually caught and started running again.
His bike was fully modified. The engine too powerful and the power-band was too abrupt for conditions. In addition, his suspension was stiff and unforgiving. I gave him kudos for even attempting the ride on his modified bike. The others were not so accommodating.
Exasperated, Andrew blurted out “Blimey! It just won’t start”.
Boyd looked over in his direction and responded, “Bloody Hell! You’ve poured so much money into that thing that it’s blaming useless.”
“I know. It is set up for cross country and motocross”, replied Andrew.
Then George interjected “Here it is as useless as tits on a bull. Isn’t it mate?”
At about ten o’clock we stopped in Buxton for energy bars and coffee. We parked our mud spattered bikes outside and trouped into Five Ways Cafe with our helmets and wet gear. No one gave us a second glance as we sat down with our coffee and chatted. During the course of our conversation George informed me that Buxton was originally founded by the Romans in 79 a.d.
It had started raining again when we fired up our bikes and resumed our ride. We followed Boyd and waited while he opened and closed the gates leading into and out of various tracts of land. Along the way there were numerous challenges to surmount; including deep, narrow, slippery ruts; treacherous stream crossings; roots; staircase like ledges; vertical rock climbs; rock strewn, twisty down hills; sections of loose football sized rocks and a lot of good old British mud.
Our well ventilated off road jackets, boots and pants kept us dry and toasty regardless of the conditions, although we had to discard our goggles due to intermittent showers that obscured all visibility.
As the ride progressed I gained confidence in the Yamaha and started to really enjoy the bike’s light and nimble handling. I rode the bike in a higher gear and with my new found self-assurance floated over large rocks on twisting sections of downhill trail and skidded around slippery turns with abandon.
Our itinerary took us through a quarry with snotty, muddy hill climbs and steep meandering trails through the trees where I was able to take a few photographs. Before leaving the quarry I accelerated up the ramp of a sharp jump face and soared into the air, landing in a huge puddle. Not the coolest of moves, but big fun.
Although the ride was an absolute blast, it was physically punishing. The short sections of sit down riding on the asphalt were a blessing and gave our cramped and tired muscles a chance to recover.
We gassed up and stopped at a pub in Hope for lunch. After wolfing down our sandwiches we motored off once again. Boyd led us down a muddy single track through some trees and across a stream.
Before crossing the stream I was warned to stay to the left. As I paused before the stream crossing I was in the middle rut following Andrew because it was the easier route and I couldn’t reach the ground to take any safety dabs. The rut on the left was full of large slippery roots and low overhanging branches. As I emerged from the stream I was somehow still in the wrong rut (go figure). The others rode the rut on the left safely up the bank onto the main trail. The rut that Andrew and I were following led to a six foot overhanging rock wall before intersecting the trail.
When I stopped at the other side of the stream crossing the others yelled down at me to go to the left. Was Boyd concerned that I would wreck his bike because my brother had crashed one of his two-fifties a couple of months earlier?
As I got off my bike and struggled to get it out of the rut, Andrew continued up the groove and launched his bike over the overhanging rock slab and then abandoned ship. The crew dragged it up the rest of the way.
Back down below where I was marooned, the deep and narrow rut swallowed the wheels of my motorcycle making it impossible to pull it free. When I attempted to pull out the front wheel, the back wheel became cockeyed and lodged in the rut and vice versa. Finally Boyd walked down to where I was stranded and helped me get my bike back onto the main trail where the others were waiting.
After a short excursion along the asphalt, we stopped in front of one of the many gates which Boyd opened for us to ride through that day. Then we rode along a trail that passed through a farmer’s field. A short time later we came upon a warning that read; this trail is not appropriate for vehicles.
The English are famous for understatement. The sign should have read; abandon hope all ye who enter here on two wheels, a warning not unlike the warning Dante posted over the gates of hell in his masterpiece The Divine Comedy (a fitting comparison). The trail quickly turned into a steep minefield of rocks.
As the ride progressed, we passed a few more warning signs posted beside the trail, and each time I felt a tinge of apprehension. When I asked Boyd what’s with the signs, he said that we were traversing extreme terrain. He told me that he had been informed that I was an experienced rider and had bypassed the more moderate trails. (Who ever told him that I was quote, unquote, experienced? My brother! Damn him! Does he really believe that drivel, or is it just an expression of his sadistic tendencies?)
Nearby Boyd pointed out an area where Dougie Lampkin, a twelve time world trials champion, honed his skills.
The ride took place on a weekday. The trails were virtually deserted except for a couple of trekkers who assiduously avoided my glance as I slowed down to prevent startling them or splashing them with water as I skirted the numerous puddles littering the trial. Nobody in our group acted in a discourteous manner but we were all met by a uniform steely eyed look of distaste.
Boyd assured me that most local trekkers accept motorcyclists as long as we show respect and ensure that our bikes are properly silenced. He said that it was the outsiders who sometimes do not accept our right to ride on legally designated trails.
That afternoon I was enjoying a fairly smooth section of trail when the trail descended into a low-lying marshy area and it deteriorated to the point where there were three or four different ruts to choose from. They were deep and narrow. I attempted to pick a line between the ruts, but the utter lack of traction made a mockery of my intentions and my wheels just slid back into the rut.
The strategy seemed to be pick one rut and run with it. As usual I picked the wrong rut. If I had looked at the rut more closely I would have realized that it inexplicably veered towards a barbed wire fence. I was later informed that the ruts were made by farm machinery, which made no concession to such dangers.
When it comes to ruts; once I make a decision, I stick to my decision. Stick-with-it-ness is considered a positive moral trait, at least among third grade school teachers, and some say don’t change course in mid stream. For me stick-with-it-ness is the rule rather than the exception.
Anyways, eventually I snagged my handlebars on the barbed wire causing the bike to fall over and stall. I dismounted and got my glove disentangled from the sharp barbs, but the bike was resting with all its weight against the taught wire strands, and because I couldn’t get a good footing in the slick ruts, it was impossible to get the bike free.
Again I was rescued by Boyd who had turned around to come to my aid. Together we hoisted the bike into the good rut and with splayed legs acting as outriggers I rode the bike along the rut until it ended. So much for showing off my superior bike handling skills to my British hosts…
That afternoon as we were riding a trail through a farmer’s field, a rabbit jumped out of the underbrush directly in front of the wheels of my motorcycle. I stomped on my brakes and jammed my handlebars back and forth in an effort to avoid running over the frightened creature. Although miraculously I avoided contact, I am sure that he was convinced that I was trying to nail him because he darted first one way and then another almost foiling my attempts to steer around him. I breathed a sigh of relief. I had almost murdered Peter Rabbit.
What would Beatrix Potter have thought? Although I knew that cute furry creatures are run over by cars every day, I did not want to add to the slaughter. As consolation for that frightening experience, a short time later we rode beside an ancient Roman road made up of flat paving stones still visible beside the trail.
By mid-afternoon the weather had cleared, but that didn’t prevent me from getting soaking wet. There were deep puddles everywhere. I took great pleasure in speeding through them as fast as possible and getting totally drenched in the process. I didn’t mind at all. I was having a blast.
At one point in this madness, I watched as George went for a trip over the handlebars when his front tire hit a vertical slab hidden in the water. Later George blasted by me drenching me once again. The water was dripping off my face under my helmet but it couldn’t hide my huge ear to ear grin. I was stoked. It was brilliant as the British say.
When we finally arrived back at Boyd’s house at about 5:30 pm we were all knackered (British slang for exhausted). The ride was awesome. According to Boyd we had covered over a hundred miles.
The icing on the cake was when Boyd told me that I had done well, ”brilliant” he added. I couldn’t have been prouder, although a truly brilliant rider, like David Knight, probably would have considered our ride a walk in the park. The bike I was riding never missed a beat and was the perfect weapon for the conditions. Don’t let anyone denigrate the lowly WR250F. It eats rocks for breakfast and keeps on ticking. Oops! There I go again. I can’t stop praising this bike.
Boyd, who was once an airline captain, established Overlander Trail Tours in 2002. A rider all his life, he provides instruction and offers easy to extreme challenge days. For those lacking a ride, there are rentals.
He describes the rental WR250Fs as perfect for beginner riders and extremely light and nimble when tackling our more advanced routes. His web site is http://overlandertrailtours.co.uk./bikehire.htm
He also provides overlander tours through parts of Africa. Although there are many other reputable tour outfits available, Boyd’s cheerful demeanor and unflappable good humor made the ride an absolute blast.
The terrain was very different from what I ride in Northern California, and predictably the ride provided some extreme challenges and a few scary moments. Overall the experience was exhilarating.
Although there are trails available for every level of rider from rank beginner to accomplished expert, a knowledgeable guide is essential to link together the appropriate trails. Boyd claims to know every trail and every rock in every trail in the Peak District. This is quite an achievement until you take into consideration how many years he has been riding in that area (all his life).
So although I wasn’t able to arrange to have tea with the Queen (in truth not on my itinerary), my trip to England was an absolute success. I will always cherish the memories of that ride and I hope that someday I will be able to return and hopefully better my reputation as “an experienced rider”.
Before repairing my slightly tattered reputation, I will have to break the habit of stick-with-it-ness, at least as it relates to ruts, and work on better line selection. Even if my attempt to better my riding skills founders, I definitely plan to return to the Peak District. My, or rather Boyd’s, WR250F will be in his garage beckoning me to come back.
There are some who say, “Big bite of humble pie… my butt! Those lads had the hometown advantage”, but every off-road rider worth his or her salt knows that an experienced rider does not gain that reputation by riding the same trails every weekend, even the so called expert trails.