Bikes were dropped several times and one was even ridden into a tree, but each rider emerged unscathed and with improved off-road riding skills. A successful day of training with the Desert Rose Adventure Riding Academy.
Whilst I have been riding bikes for over 40 years, my off-road riding has been fairly limited. The most exposure to off-road riding was gained during my tours with Kickstart Dirt Bike Adventures in Cambodia. That provided a great introduction to off-road riding but it was on smaller dirt bikes – not the much heavier adventure bikes. Since I bought my BMW F800GS Adventure, I have ventured off-road on some of Portugal’s dirt and gravel trails, but I haven’t felt very comfortable due to the size of the bike and my limited off-road exposure. I felt the need to get some professional training.
As a BMW owner, my first thought was to visit the BMW-affiliated Off Road Skills training centre in Wales. They have a 4,000 acre training facility and students can choose to train on various BMW adventure bikes. However, when I contacted them, their two-day level-one courses were fully booked. I looked online for alternate training facilities and found the Desert Rose Adventure Riding Academy. Only one hour from Gatwick Airport, it was perfectly located for a short visit. Rather than BMWs, Desert Rose uses the KTM 1090 Adventure R and KTM 1290 Super Adventure R, as well as smaller dirt bikes. They offer single day courses designated stage-one, stage-two and Adventure Bike Introduction (based on the stage-one course but tweaked for adventure bikes).
Desert Rose is owned and operated by Patsy Quick who is an extremely qualified off-roader. She is a former British Women’s Enduro Champion, European Women’s Champion and has competed in many international rallies, including 4 Dakar Rallies! Now retired from top-level competition, she is committed to providing rider training as well as rally-support services for other competition riders. In addition to Patsy, there are three other instructors with varying levels of experience.
Communication with Desert Rose was quick and easy and I was soon booked for a one-day course in September. Bookings followed for a direct flight from Porto to Gatwick, a two-day car rental and two nights of accommodation.
Desert Rose utilises two training facilities, both in East Sussex. My course was to take place on land near Broad Oak, Heathfield. There is no permanent office at these locations. Instead, the Desert Road truck transports the bikes and gear to the site and serves as a training-base for the day. All of the riding gear is provided, from helmets, boots and body armour to shirts, pants/trousers and socks. This was great for me, as I didn’t have to travel with luggage full of bike gear. Everything is in the truck, in a wide variety of sizes to fit everyone.
The class size was small – three students and one instructor. My fellow students were Ray and Yavuz (Turk). Ray is from the UK and has been riding road bikes for about 38 years. But he had never ridden off-road and had been wanting to do the training for a couple of years. Yavuz is from Turkey (hence the nickname Turk), but has been living and working in the UK for several years. He has about 20 years of riding experience and has previously owned adventure bikes, but didn’t have the confidence to venture off-road with them. We were from different backgrounds, but we all wanted to develop some off-road riding skills. Yavuz and I had both opted for the KTM 1090 whilst Ray was riding a smaller KTM dirt bike (350, if I remember correctly).
The KTM 1090 Adventure R was lighter than my BMW, and has more power, but it was a good substitute for learning to handle an adventure bike off-road. The comparison proved useful when I got home and took out the BMW to practice the newly learned skills. I realised that the handlebars on my bike are not high enough to be able to comfortably ride off-road whilst standing. As a result, I’ve ordered a set of handlebar risers to improver the ergonomics.
Our instructor for the day was Harry, the youngest of the training staff (about 21 years old). He has a calm and patient approach and was able to effectively teach a group of old dogs new tricks. In addition to being an instructor, he is one of the mechanics for the fleet of bikes. And he can handle that KTM like a mountain bike!
The training was progressive throughout the day, starting with the basics of getting on and off the machine and building upon each new aspect as we moved to new challenges. You might think that everyone knows how to get on and off a bike, especially after doing it for many years, but Harry demonstrated techniques that make mounting safer and easier (especially for shorter riders who can’t ‘flat-foot’ a tall adventure bike). Tips on reading the terrain, before putting down a foot, paid dividends later in the day when we had to stop on a sloping dirt trail (putting down the wrong foot would have resulted in a fall). The initial introduction to the bikes included handling them on and off the machine, as well as the correct riding position and balance. This included how to ride whilst standing (a skill I wanted to develop). From there, we set out to get a feel for the bikes.
We started out riding the bikes around a large grassy field, to get comfortable before moving on to more technical aspects. First we started out seated and then progressed to riding whilst standing, all the while practicing balance and control (and being mindful of the slick surface caused by morning dew on grass). Then we got to try a snaking track for the first time, to develop better bike control and balance. Whilst this tighter track was more challenging, any errors at this point just meant that you ran off the dirt track onto the adjacent grass. A safer step before graduating to winding trails surrounded by trees! The following video clips were taken later in the day when we returned to the ‘snake track’ to see how we’d improved. Ray had just begun to try out the 1090, after riding the smaller dirt bike for the first half of the day – and managed to drop it a couple of times.
As the day progressed, the training gradually introduced new elements. These included proper use of the clutch and throttle, followed by braking, including harsh braking to lock up the wheels. With those fundamentals covered, we began riding the narrow trails, putting into practice the skills we were learning. After getting to grips with the gentle undulations, we tackled ascending and descending slopes of varying difficulty (whilst standing). Whilst it was a fairly steep learning curve, the skills were gradually dripped into the training, each building on the one before, so confidence gradually increased with each new challenge. Of course, there were still errors and bikes were sometimes dropped (or ridden into a tree), but we were certainly learning and improving as the day progressed. And each error provided a teaching/learning moment.
At the end of the course, we were tired but happy. The three of us agreed that the course had been very useful, that we had learned a lot and that we’d be interested in returning for the next level of training at some point in the future. Personally, I was happy to have gained more confidence in the skill of riding off-road whilst standing and I hope to further develop that on my BMW in the coming weeks. Whilst I was already quite confident at climbing hills, I was nervous when descending. The training helped me to develop better descending techniques but I need more practice before I feel confident. Having travelled a fair distance to do the training, I would have liked to have done a two-day course to get more bang for the buck. But, currently, back-to-back training days are not available. Nevertheless, it was definitely a worthwhile trip and I feel I’m better prepared to tackle the trails of Portugal.
Where to Stay
If you are planning to attend Desert Rose yourself for a training course, I recommend the Iwood Bed & Breakfast as a place to stay the night before the training. It is conveniently located about 10 minutes away from the Broad Oak training facility and the lovely breakfast will set you up nicely for the day of riding ahead. Hosts Jack and Audrey are friendly and accommodating and the rooms have everything that you need for a comfortable stay.