It was late and getting later as we drove into the road network of the Red-Haired Mountains (Rothaargebirge) in northern Bavaria. We had left Munich in the late afternoon in a minibus made by a company I have been sworn never to mention in connection with BMW (well, okay, it was a Mercedes, a brand decried as the Evil Empire by all loyal BMW employees including our driver, whom I shall call Cam). As the afternoon turned to evening, we encountered more and more “road closed” signs, with the entire Hallertau valley apparently having its communications rebuilt.

Fellow journalist Nigel, sitting up front with Cam, was bravely trying to navigate with the aid of an enormous map which seemed to be just about 1: 1 scale. He kept folding and unfolding sections and turning the map right, left and occasionally upside-down, trying to make it match the increasingly dusky and now rainy landscape we were traversing.

“You know,” I said to Snag, the third of our little group of four motorcycle scribes on its way to BMW’s Hechlingen off-road training facility, “where we are, here, I think, is the oldest hop growing area in middle Europe, used to brew the finest beer.”

“You’re kidding,” said Snag. “In that case, why are we driving around in circles in an unmentionable van instead of drinking beer?”

“I don’t know. Hey, Cam, why aren’t we drinking beer?”

The tracks make maximum use of the old quarry’s landforms.

“Because we are trying to get to the hotel in Hechlingen at a reasonable hour,” he said. “Nigel, what if I make a left here?”

“I think that will take us to Budapest,” said Nigel unhappily. “Or maybe to… Strasbourg. Aaargh!” A demented face, not unlike that of a muppet that had been run over by a mechanical street sweeper, had appeared at the window of the van. It was Woose, the remaining member of the party, who had decided to follow us on a bike rather than joining us in the van. He gesticulated in an unpleasant manner before drawing back his gauntleted fist, clearly preparing to pound on the van’s window.

Cam accelerated away and Woose’s muppet face disappeared behind us. We drove on, through silent and dark villages most of which I would have sworn we had visited before.

“These villages are all dark, Bear,” said Snag. “Why are they dark? Where are the people?” — “The people are in bed,” I enlightened him. “It is late.”

“Yes,” he said, somewhat unhappily, “yes, it is late and we are still not drinking any beer.” – “Or anything else,” I said. The van continued its erratic journey, with Woose’s headlight occasionally flashing in the rear window and turning the raindrops into coruscating, er, drops of rain.

BMW has added a modern kiosk to the quarry, but has left it mostly alone to provide a variety of obstacles.

Eventually we arrived in Hechlingen and found our hotel. It had an ostler or someone standing outside holding a lantern, just as ostlers must have stood for hundreds of years waiting for delayed coaches. We carried our luggage inside and were sent straight to bed without any supper or, more importantly, beer. Cam was not happy with us.

In the morning, after the typically ample German breakfast which lacked nothing but beer, we bundled back into the van for the short drive out to the abandoned quarry that BMW had turned into an off-road paradise. Well, paradise if you were competent to ride that kind of territory. Potentially something quite different if you weren’t, I thought.

But I was wrong. With the assistance of the thoroughly professional instructors, we were soon tackling obstacles that I, at least, would have judiciously avoided at any other time. Much of the training consisted of remarkably simple-sounding advice which proved to be spot on when applied. I rode a plank I would not previously have even attempted, and followed the instructor along slippery single track paths and over sharp precipices. This was turning into fun, and I was learning at the same time.

The instructors made the training fun.

For a moment at the beginning of the course, it had not looked quite so good. When we introduced ourselves, we were also asked to state our age and the instructors were not entirely happy when I answered “54” (Yes, it was that long ago). But they let me start anyway, and for quite a while it looked good. Then, just as we were about to learn panic braking in mud while standing up, my right knee gave up with an audible crack, and I fell off the bike.

Shift your weight and stay upright — unless your knee lets go.

Much to the relief of the instructors, this sidelined me from then on. Snag joined me shortly afterwards with a large burn on his calf. But while I just sat there and tried to take in some more of the course, he decided to take action. He got a big piece of ice from the kiosk and applied it to his leg. Without a towel or anything between ice and flesh, which meant he developed an enormous blister. That made him the cynosure of all eyes later that day when we were finally sipping beers in celebration of surviving the course.

Dressed only in underpants in his nether regions to keep from breaking the blister, he nevertheless rallied. “Bear, I’ve learned a lot. Not least why this beer is so good.”

 

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