Off Road, On Course


Photo Credit: Red Sky Adventures

When I was a kid, I would go to police auctions to buy my bikes and bike parts. These were auctions of the stolen, then recovered but unclaimed bikes. You could enter a large area before the auction where all the bikes were ticketed with a number and on display to inspect them before the auction began. Then noting the number of the bike you were interested in, you’d wait until it came up for auction. My outbidding with my paper route money some father always elicited some snickers in the crowd.

I always looked for a certain type of bike. Basic. Didn’t matter the colour, because I’d paint it later, always black. Didn’t matter the condition, because I’d strip it down to the ball bearings, clean and re-grease everything before putting it back together. A little steel wool and elbow grease removed any rust from the rims. Didn’t matter the handlebars or the tires because I would change them, putting on wide handlebars and knobby tires. I was making my own motocross bike.

Then we would go to the little forested park near my house and race them. We built berms and jumps. We also dug up a few suburban front lawns with our terrorizing of the neighbourhood. I learnt how to wheelie and we had competitions with that too. I could wheelie the entire street if I got a good one going. When Evel Kneivel attempted to jump the Snake Canyon in 1974, I was eleven. It didn’t matter that the jump itself was a disappointment. All the hype leading up to the jump led us to start jumping our bikes—really jumping. We built ramps by turning a municipal steel garbage can on its side, wedging rocks behind it to stop it rolling, and laying scavenged wood on top. I bent a few back wheels doing those jumps, but never broke a bone. No one ever wore a helmet in those days, but the Gods smiled on us. The worst of it was some serious road rash.

Eventually I gave up the custom 3-speeds and bought a 12-speed Supercycle mountain bike from Canadian Tire. I must have put half a million miles on that bike, especially the summer I was a bike courier in London, Ontario. That bike still lives, repainted black, of course, with red pin-striping from Canadian Tire down the side.

So when I went to buy a motorcycle, I knew I wanted a dual sport. Yes, I want to tour, but I also want to play. And it had to be black.

On Friday, going in to the long weekend, I decided to get my ya-yas out and go for a ride, my first full day ride since getting the bike out of storage. I headed toward Ontario, taking my favourite route out, which puts me in Lancaster. There’s a short story I know by Hugh Hood called “Getting to Williamstown” in which the narrator describes in detail a drive to Williamstown, ON, just north-west of Lancaster. The story was written in the 70’s. Would the road he describes still exist? The one-lane bridge? The gas station with ice-cream? I was curious.

What does any of this have to do with off-roading? By going to Williamstown, I stumbled into my first off-road ride. While exploring those concession roads, I saw a dirt road leading off of the main road. I turned around and studied the sign at the entrance. No cars, but to my surprise, snowmobiles, ATVs, and motorbikes allowed! It didn’t look that hard.

It wasn’t . . . for the first 100 metres. No sooner had I started when I came to a section completely washed out, a huge puddle of muddy water spanning the width of the trail. I knew enough from watching YouTube that you don’t try to skirt the puddle by sneaking around the side; that only leads to the tire sliding out sideways and you and the bike going down. You have to go through the centre, hoping it’s not too deep and that there are no big rocks or logs down there. I stopped and pondered. Turn back or risk forward? The trail looked clear ahead except for this puddle. I did the imprudent thing and went for it.

It’s hard to estimate how deep it was. In the moment, I was concentrating so hard I didn’t take note. But it’s an unnerving feeling heading into the centre of a puddle the depth of which you do not know. (If I had had my adventure boots on, I might have waded in to find out first.) I knew that if I’m going for it, there are no halfways and I didn’t want to be tentative. So I gave it some throttle and saw water plough up around the fairing—probably easy stuff for an experienced rider but not so easy for a newbie. Safely across, I whooped into my helmet.

The trail beyond was a mixture of dirt, gravel, with sections of larger rocks that were tricky. I found it difficult to operate the throttle smoothly from a standing position and shifting was awkward. This would take some getting used to. After a brief foray into 2nd gear, I decided to keep it in first. This was, after all, my first time off road. At one point, I passed a father and son going the other way on ATVs.

There were other sections washed out—not one big puddle as before but several muddy puddles to navigate through. I thought of shooting rapids and skiing moguls, how you have to look up ahead and select your best line through. I could feel the bike sliding around beneath me but kept my cool, my weight over the bike, and my hand off the brake. I was nervous but tried not to grip the handlebars tightly, letting them and the bike move around. And I understood why you’re supposed to steer the bike by weighting the pedals rather than turning the handlebars, because even at that speed, when it’s that slippery, turning the bars can lead to the front wheel washing out. It was exhilarating!

I’m convinced that during those sections when the bike was sliding around under me, I was drawing on muscle memory from those early years on my bicycle. It’s the same principles, just a lot more weight involved. I’m hoping this might be something I take to easily, even at this “advanced” age.

I probably shouldn’t have been doing that alone. When I spoke to my dad later in the day, he said the same. Even at that speed, anything can happen. If the bike lands on you, you could break a leg and then you’d be hooped. So I messaged my off-road partner and suggested we go back together. I also looked up on Google Maps the trail and discovered I only rode a small section of it; it continues in the other direction all the way into Quebec and ends near Saint Polycarpe. In June, I’m going to the DirtDaze Adventure Rally in Lake Luzerne, NY, where I’ll get some beginner’s instruction and go on some guided rides down there. I also plan to do the full day adult course at SMART Riding Adventures.

It’s going to be a fun summer.

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