It’s 11 AM on a Friday morning and I’m ripping down a fire road at over 70mph. While the rest of the world is working hard on the last day of the week, I’ve got the bike in sixth, traction control off and as the 230 kilo machine flies over the brow of a hill in the achingly beautiful scenery, it’s hard to imagine that there is anywhere else I’d rather be. My grin is as wide as the front of my Shark helmet and for that moment, I am Marc Coma coming to win his fifth Dakar Rally …
But of course I’m not. I’m a guy from Bristol and I’m on the second day of the Africa Twin Experience run by the Honda Adventure Centre in South Wales. But that’s a minor detail – I’m enjoying a truly stunning motorcycle on a dedicated off road circuit that has everything you’d want for a day in the dirt. Tough hills – check, tricky technical sections – check, flat out sweeping trails – check, endless fun – check. This is what off road motorcycling should be and – hand on heart – we can’t recommend it enough. It isn’t cheap, but unlike the song told us, the best things in life are not free …
OK so some explanation is necessary for those unfamiliar with the set up. Honda already had a very successful and popular base within South Wales in the Dave Thorpe Off-Road Centre, set in the hills to the north of Pontypridd. Three-time world motocross champion Thorpe runs the Buildbase Honda Motocross team, but when he’s not doing this and generally flying the flag for the brand that bought him those titles, he and the team run the show at this purpose-built venue. There’s a full motocross track and trail loop at the base for the MX boys and those without licences, and if you want to take in the miles of trails in the area on there’s a fleet of CRF250 and 450X and a squad of qualified instructors.
But with the relaunch of the hugely successful Africa Twin, Thorpe has taken things to the next level with an all-new HQ and riding venue and the all-new Honda Adventure Centre at Merthyr Tydfil. With swish new training areas, changing rooms and chill out space above the Marsh MX showrooms, the new facility feels more like a corporate training centre than the usual portacabins of practice tracks across the world – I mean there’s a Cappuccino machine and packets of biscuits in a bowl!
But the star of the show is a massive fleet of the new Africa Twins both standard and DCT versions, plus a supporting cast of slightly smaller machines for the short of leg, or confidence. Riders can book up for a two-day course with approved instructors and these can be individually tailored from all abilities from off-road virgins to rugged dirt bike veterans. And it’s a facility that is proving hugely successful, with legions of AT owners or potential owners queuing up to get down and dirty on the bike that is taking the adventure market by storm. We don’t know if Dave can surf, but in this new venture, he’s caught this wave at the perfect moment.
So to get a feel of both the bike and the course, Ride Expeditions booked into a two-day course at the start of August. The other riders – including two women which was a first for the Adventure Centre – had a range of abilities from two with absolutely no off-road experience to a couple from California that had called in on the way home from a motorcycle trip that taken then all across the world from Belarus to Bracknell. Mark was a veteran of numerous Baja 500s and was making his way home to do the time keeping for this year’s race. He could handle a bike …
BACK TO SCHOOL
After getting kitted up in either our own kit or that supplied – top of the range Fox MX and Enduro gear –we head down to the classroom to get familiar with the bike. With such a range of ability it’s necessary to establish the basics, so although it’s far from news to the seasoned off-roaders, to the virgins the practice of standing on the pegs and steering with your feet is pretty ground-breaking stuff. The instructors – Pat Jackson and Mike “Flash’ Gordon – take in all in their stride, getting all the class to take part, get to know each other and the bike.
With the basics covered, it’s out to our allocated bikes – and a chance to get the feel of the surprisingly agile feeling Africa Twin. We set out in convoy to the off-road centre in convoy and it’s time to stretch the legs on the AT on the fast running A420 heading north away from Merthyr. All too soon we turn off the main road onto the twisty B roads on the way to the former open cast mine site where we are going to ride.
The first lesson is just to get the hang of moving the bike around using the clutch and gears. This might seem simple, but this is a bike that weighs twice that of conventional dirt bike, so needs respect and the correct technique to avoid disaster.
With this in the bag, we transfer to a clearing in the vast forested area and start doing loops of slalom and faster returns to see how the bike responds to the loose surface. We also get the chance to try the different traction control modes, from full nanny-state 3 to no holds barred off mode. We like.
While we are going through the paces, the instructors are assessing our abilities and split the group accordingly. As the newbies are taken for an extended introduction to off-roading, us more grizzled riders are taken off by Pat to go straight to the trickier stuff. Over the course of the morning we cover everything from gentle downhills with and without gears – which needs respect with a big bike, to shaly climbs, steeper climbs and descents with and without traction control and ABS. With a stop for lunch when we drive to a local Welsh pub, the training continues into the afternoon and perhaps the most useful lesson – how to turn round one of these bikes from a stop on a hill. It can be scary with a bike that weighs three times your body weight, but with Pat’s guidance we all get the job done and the bike back to safety.
EAT, SLEEP, RIDE, REPEAT
After breakfast at the hotel, it’s back to Merthyr and the bikes. The mechanics have checked them over and given them a cursory spray, but for the most part they haven’t been unnecessarily jet washed and pimped like they yesterday never happened. These are adventure bikes and they wear their mud with pride. We kit up quickly and it’s back to the forest venue for another dose of the same. We’ve lost one of our number to a tweaked back, but otherwise the team are ready for more.
With the first day establishing the basics of getting the best from these awesome bikes, we spend the morning upping the ante – climbing steeper hills with more and more speed so soon we are hanging out the back end like it’s a 110kg enduro scoot. And the Africa Twin can do it so well – it’s incredible just how easy and natural this bike feels so quickly and how this means that you can take liberties with it that you would never have dreamed of before. This bike rocks.
Lunch is again at the same pub before we return to the forest for the final time. We all get the chance to spend time with the frightening addictive DCT version, allowing the auto-box to handle everything we throw at it, and then giving the paddle shift a bashing – so wrong but sooo right.
As our time in the off-road section draws to a close, Pat take myself and Mark – the two most experienced riders – off for a few more advanced sections of the area, where we get to put all the training and the bike’s capabilities to maximum effect.
While we clearly would have spent all day, the final section of the two-dayer beckons, so it’s out onto the roads of the Brecon Beacons National Park to find what the AT can do on the black top.
On exactly the same tyres that have just been shredding the shale in the woodland, the same hoops give impressive grip as we blast across deserted moorland roads, braking a bit too frequently for the seemingly suicidal sheep. The bike is as good on the road as the trail even wit the 21 / 18 wheel combination that few adventure bikes now have. The bike is the full package, and not one of the riders wants to give theirs back as we return to base.
A great two days riding, faultless organisation and an awesome bike – what could you not like?
If you want to find out more about the Honda Adventure Centre click here .
Pat Jackson is the main instructor and runs the Honda Adventure Centre courses for Dave Thorpe and the off road Experience
“ I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was thirteen, racing off-road in local motocross clubs. I took a detour for something like twenty years when I got into rallying, but I was always dabbling with bikes when I could. I got my ACU Instructor badge as a commercial coach which gave me various disciplines from Supermoto, to Adventure riding, motocross and enduro – so this role fits perfectly with that experience and training.
“In terms of the bikes, we don’t have to change too much – we change the standard tyres for Metzeler Karoos, remove the rear footrests, increase the compression two clicks and wound in the preload to give a longer travel, so the bike sits slightly higher at the front. Rear suspension is left stock, but we can offer different seat heights and rear preload to adjust to height. The only other addition is the front crash bars to protect the bike in those little spills – they work well.”
“Most of our customers find the two days relatively tough – that’s not necessarily down to the content – more the venue. In the dry it’s relatively easy to conquer, but we are in Wales and it does rain! It’s harder riding then, but the bikes are so competent then they will take all the mud and just push through like it’s not there. When it’s neither dry nor wet, the ground can become quite slick and you have to respect the bike, but that’s true for any machine in these conditions. And don’t forget a sizeable amount of our riders have never ridden off road before!
“We launched at the same show as the bike – Motorcycle Live at the NEC – and were taking bookings from that day. Since we opened at the end of March, we’ve had around ten to twelve each week for the two-day course and demand shows no sign of changing. The response has been massive from those who have already bought the AT or from those considering buying, and we are also getting a lot of convertees as bike for pound, the Honda is a great package. The other marques may have shaft drive, tubeless tyres, all manner of electronic adjustments, but in reality, once it’s set – how many times are you going to change it? And it you don’t change it, all these systems are going to stop working. The Honda is not old-fashioned, it just has what you need – it’s sensible technology not unnecessary technology.”
Peter Greenwood was one of the self-confessed off-road virgins of the group, so taking on his first ride in the dirt on a 230 kg motorcycle shows Olympic-class cahonas in our book.
“ My current bike is a Honda Fireblade, but I’m getting an Dual Clutch AT later this year so I thought I’d better learn how to ride it! The two days have been fantastic – the gnarlier stuff is a little bit beyond me at this stage having never been on dirt before, but the training and the experience I’ve got from these two days has taken any fear I might have had in going down a fire trail or something like that – the bike is superb and can handle anything.
“To have a chance of getting used to the bike – how to get the best from it and how the other riders ride the bikes has been really useful. The instructing has been excellent – considering you have a range of riders from regular experience off –roaders to complete novices it’s been handled really well. The guys have pushed us a bit – you know they haven’t let us just sit in a comfort zone but allowed us to stretch what we thought we could do There’s been no pressure to take on things we really didn’t want to – just a nice balance of moving you forward and giving you a sense of individual achievement.
And in terms of the bike – was he happy with his choice and looking forward to the call from the dealer? “ Absolutely. This has really reinforced that buying was a good decision and the right decision for me. The DCT was the big thing for me to decide and I opted for it as for the type of riding I will be doing is long tours and holidays – the time spend on the bike has made me confident that the bike is going to work so well for me.
As a veteran of the infamous Baja 500 motorcycle race, Mark Stickelmaier knows his way round a mo’cycle. Passing through the UK on the final part of a long tour with his wide Luanna on their BMW G650Xs, the two seasoned riders had decided the African Twin Experience would make a good diversion. As a man that regularly rides his KTM EXC500 and BMW HP2, he knows his bikes.
“ I wanted a really long test ride on the bike and this seemed like a whole lot of fun,” says Mark. “ I’ve got a lot of good riding out of the two days – I’ve not been too challenged or necessarily learned a heap of new skills but then that’s not what I was looking for or expecting. Spending time on bikes is never wasted so to get some practice on these bikes in this location has been great.
“ We’ve been travelling through Europe for two months, so that’s taken in Italy, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland – whatever. Just vagabonding around and slowly making our way back to the ‘States. We had a couple of days free – saw this online and thought lets give it a try!
So has this made him want to buy an AT? “ It’s certainly made me consider it – it’s probably on the shortlist now. Compared to something like the new BMW GS it’s a lot easier to ride this off –road – it has way better off-road manners. It’s lighter, it’s balanced and as off-road is my primary focus – I wouldn’t even consider the GS. In fact the only two I’d consider now are the old KTM 990 or the Africa Twin.”
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