“Why you should attend an off-road riding academy & how to pick the best one for you”
According to the University of Southern California’s classic Hurt Study, 92 percent of the motorcycle riders involved in accidents have little or no training. Riders involved in accidents usually are self-taught or have learned to ride from a family member or a friend.
Furthermore, 95 percent of the roads in the world are unpaved. This means that if you want to explore the world, then you need to have off-road riding skills – or you'll find yourself confined to a mere five percent of the planet.
Off-road motorcycle accidents can be caused by many things, including:
- Driving hung-over or under the influence of alcohol.
- Not being able to stop in an emergency situation.
- Driving with emotional disturbances (e.g., being angry).
- Fixing a target on the road until you hit it (e.g., staring at a rock).
- Sitting down when you are supposed to stand up.
- Not distributing your weight according to the terrain.
- Using handlebar raisers. (Yes, you read it right! Handlebar raisers can increase the chances of accidents while riding off-road.)
When people ride without the proper training or riding gear, motorcycle accidents can cause broken bones, paralysis and even death.
My name is Salvador Carlucci. In the last twenty years, I have ridden over 80,000 kilometers in more than thirty countries.
One motorcycle accident that often comes to my mind is the one of our brave Advriders Ozymandias, who hit a donkey while driving in Mexico in 2006. He was evacuated to the United States, where he went through extensive spinal cord surgeries. After hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of hospital bills, he ended up confined to a wheelchair. A few months later, he could not take his condition anymore and committed suicide. A sad story that always reminds me to take as many precautions as possible.
I started riding my older sister’s 50cc scooter at the age of thirteen in Italy. At sixteen, I got my driver’s license on 125cc Vespa. At twenty-five, I got my first dual sport bike, a BMW F650GS Dakar.
I had been riding for twelve years, and had experienced my share of accidents and ambulance rides and a couple totaled bikes, before I got my first dual-sport motorcycle. I had learned through my mistakes, and I thought that I knew how to ride. I didn’t feel the need for a training course, and I enjoyed learning the hard way. In addition, all the off-road training courses that I found were for “small” bikes (less than 500cc).
I bought a dual sport bike because I wanted to travel around the world on a motorcycle. I wanted to discover the wonderful world hidden in the maze of dusty roads. I wanted to be in the middle of nature, go camping and visit rural villages. I wanted to be off the beaten path. Most importantly, I wanted to ride off-road confidently and without any serious accident.
When I told my family and friends that I was planning to quit my job to travel around Latin America on a motorcycle, their responses were variations on the following statements:
- “You are going to kill yourself.”
- “You are crazy. You will injure yourself.
- “It is too dangerous to ride in foreign countries.”
I didn’t have the support of my family or friends to undertake such an adventure. I had to do something about it to receive their blessing and support. In 2005, I came across two off-road academies for “big” bikes. The first one was taught by Jimmy Lewis, who was doing an advanced course in Nevada for experienced off-road riders. Jim Hyde in Southern California taught the other, an introductory course. Both courses were expensive, with prices of approximately 900 to 1,400 USD for two and a half days.
I ended up going to Jim Hyde’s RawHyde Off-Road Academy. The experience was great. I met like-minded riders, I got to know my new motorcycle, and I learned several off-road techniques. After the course, I joined several off-road rides in Southern California to build on the experience. A year later, I took my Latin American trip across twenty-one countries, twelve months and 55,000 kilometers without any serious accident.
The RawHyde Off-road Academy was my first motorcycle training. It helped me understand my equipment and develop essential techniques. But after my Latin American trip, I realized that the course provided only a limited set of skills. I needed more off-riding techniques in order to tackle my next continent – Africa.
Preparing to travel across Africa two-up with my girlfriend, I decided that I needed to do another course to refresh my skills, learn new ones and provide my girlfriend the opportunity to learn how to ride off-road as a pillion.
Based on my experiences in my first motorcycle course and in Latin America, I made a list of things to look for in.
Here are the things you should consider while picking a motorcycle course.
I believe that the instructors are the most important part of the equation when deciding what off-road training to take. For example, Jimmy Lewis has competed in the Dakar race several times, but at the time I looked at his course, he had limited long-distance traveling experience. So he is a great guy to teach how to drive fast over difficult terrains. Jim Hyde, on the other hand, has never raced, but he has traveled with a motorcycle in many different countries.
Course structure and techniques:
It has taken me several years to learn the subtle and not-so-subtle differences among off-road riding techniques used across continents and decades. I have learned, for example, that clamping the bike with the legs while riding off-road was popularized by trail bike racer Martin Lampkin in the 60s and 70s. It was several years later that Mick Andrews helped make bow-legged riding style popular. He let the bike move around instead of clamping hold of it.
In the RawHyde course, the instructors recommend holding the bike with the legs, which feels good when you are tired, but it is not the most effective way to ride off-road. I learned that holding the bike raises the center of gravity and makes riding more difficult. Instead, letting the bike move around lets you keep the center of mass closer to the ground and makes it much easier to balance the bike in difficult terrain.
I highly recommend that you speak to graduates of the different off-road courses that you are considering to understand what you will learn if you decide to attend. Also, if the opportunity presents itself, you can ask the instructors of the school about the major differences between them and their competitors.
Once you have found a great instructor and made sure the course curriculum matches your interests, the next step is to find out whether the program has the facilities to deliver what it promises. Here are a few questions to consider: Does the program have a deep and long water crossing? Does it have steep up-hills? Does it have a sand pit? Does it have a gravel road? Does it have a trail with pin curves? Is the location of the facilities inspiring for off-road travel? Does the course have an oval track? Most accidents occur on curves, so it is good to practice curves in an oval track!
Pricing and bike rental:
If you are planning to attend a course, it is important to remember that you will pay for what you get. It is also important to know that some courses are very expensive for what you get. (I personally feel that a course costing over 1,000 USD for a weekend is too expensive).
It is important to know whether the course that you will be attending has rental bikes. In some cases, you will be going to a different state or country to do your training. In other cases, your motorcycle might break down, and you might want to rent one in order to finish the course.
Last but not least is safety. Before you attend an off-road training, it is important to know how important safety is to the instructors. Do they put their students at risk? Do they know when to stop a student before he or she gets hurt?
It is also important to know how far away the nearest hospital is and whether the instructors have alerted the hospital about the course. In my RawHyde course, a lady broke her leg and the ambulance arrived within a reasonable amount of time because the staff had been alerted that the course was taking place.
As I prepared to cross Africa on my F800 GS, I looked extensively across the globe for another off-road riding course. I looked at off-road schools in several countries in North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa.
In the US, several courses were interesting and probably had very good options. However, some of them were too expensive, others didn’t have rental bikes (I was living in Switzerland), and others did not have proper facilities. Courses in Europe had better prices, but there are no public dirt roads there, so instructors have very limited experience on real dirt roads. In Asia, people mostly have small bikes, and I didn’t find anything in English. It was in Africa that I found the perfect match.
The best riding academy I have found so far is Country Trax
in South Africa. I will tell you how I picked them using the same criteria that I suggested above, and why Country Trax might be a good fit for you as you learn to ride off-road.
Before committing to Country Trax, we met several of their instructors. The ones we met are motorcycle store owners, have extensive long-distance travel experience, and have gone through rigorous instructor training. I was impressed by their knowledge and, in particular, the priceless guidance they provided for our travel across Africa.
We chose to do our training with Jan du Toit. Jan is the founder of Country Trax and its lead instructor. Jan has extensive motorcycle experience ranging from enduro racing to long-distance travel, and he is one of the founders of the BMW GS Challenge, along with the famous writer Deon Meyer.
Picture above Jan showing off his riding skills!
Jan has an impressive motorcyclist curriculum and even more impressive motorcycle skills. No wonder that BMW Germany keeps him in close proximity as an off-road instructor and GS Trophy marshall and invites him for all the launches of the new GS models.
We felt that Jan was the perfect match for our needs. He combined racing, long-distance, and more than 40 years of off-road experience. Most importantly, his passion for researching and sharing off-road riding techniques showed us that he is the best out there in the off-road motorcycle training market.
Course structure and techniques:
Country Trax has one of the most comprehensive off-road motorcycle curriculums in the market.
It offers six courses to meet the needs and skill levels of different riders:
• An introduction to off-road riding (one day)
• A weekend off-road course (three days)
• A sand riding course (three days)
• Dirt bike fundamentals training (three days)
• An advanced off-road course (three and a half days)
• An off-road instructor training course (only on invitation)
The course structure follows part of the BMW off-road curriculum and combines it with other researched and tested techniques for riding off-road.
Jan and his team of twenty instructors are continuously reviewing the curriculum and incorporating the latest off-riding techniques from enduro racing, trial bike racing and their own experiences.
Also, it might help to know that Jan and his team helped Dakar Racer Greg Raaf prepare for the 2012 Dakar race in Chile Argentina and Peru.
CountryTrax headquarters is in Amersfoort, Mpumalanga. It is a HUGE motorcycle paradise. No words can do justice to such a majestic combination of log cabins, green surroundings and an impressive motorcycle playground.
Jan du Toit has specially designed and prepared the facilities for high-quality off-road training. The course provides realistic and varied riding conditions, from sand tracks to steep uphill ascents and downhill ruts, and from water passages to rocky terrain and gravel tracks.
The facilities have an obstacle course, an enduro track, a bush track, a sand pit, mud pits and three oval tracks.
In addition to Country Trax Amersfoort, Mpumalanga, Jan has opened twelve training facilities around South Africa, and based on our discussions, he is also planning to take his training to other parts of the world.
The part I enjoyed most was what I labeled the Country Trax roller coaster: After riding in green hills, you reach a steep downhill, a steep uphill, and a steeper downhill; then you reach a pond, where you have to make a tight circle on an inclined surface (see the picture below), and then you go again through a tight downhill and uphills.
Pricing and bike rentals:
The course structure is extremely competitive and much cheaper than the courses in the US. The introductory one-day training is approximately 100 USD, and the weekend three-day course is approximately 500 USD.
In the US, RawHyde charges approximately 1,500 USD for a three-day course, and the guys at Texas Tornado Boot Camp charge approximately 2,000 USD.
It is almost cheaper, and definitely a greater adventure, to buy a plane ticket to South Africa and do the off-road training with Country Trax. Country Trax can help you arrange the bike rental.
Country Trax puts a strong emphasis on safety, and the techniques that you will learn are designed to help you avoid accidents. We spent a significant amount of time off the bike, discussing the theory of the riding techniques we would learn. Jan always checked our energy level to avoid accidents. He constantly checked our riding ability before moving to more complex exercises. Furthermore, you will not get your certificate of completion if you fail the emergency break.
After having done my research and based on my experiences I highly recommend Country Trax
. Before I left the Country Trax facilities I got talking with Jan about doing a training in North America and he said he would consider it if there was enough interest.
I would love to hear any other points that riders should take into consideration when deciding a riding academy and about experiences with other motorcycle trainings.