I’m in the middle of the Ganaraska Forest somewhere, looking ruefully at my bike, a Honda CRF230. It lays on it its side, lifeless, on a rutted downill slope with a generous sprinkling of rounded river rocks. The forest is largely silent except for odd bird and swishy leaf. My trail guide is nowhere to be heard, nor seen.
I stand the bike up, got on, and hit the starter. I hear the creak-creak-creak of the starter, but it doesn’t catch. Unsure what do, I coast down the hill for a few metres, and hit the starter again. This time there was a promising rumble, but nothing that would get me anywhere.
“Maybe the carb is flooded” I think to myself, trying to sound knowledgeable.
Only a few hours ago that morning, I was contemplating a different machine, the “Popcake” pancake machine at the local Holiday Inn Express. A traveling family had managed to make a considerable breakfast of a pile of turkey sausage patties and several presses of the one button pancake machine. I had a coffee and pre-fab breakfast sandwich (No match for an egg McMuffin) and hit the road.
A fellow doing laps around a parking lot on a dirtbike with a red jersey led me to the Trail Tours parking lot. From the parking lot was a trail through the woods which led to the Trail Tours base.
“Al” took my information and I was fitted for gear (Which was in pretty good shape and clean I might add) and directed to a large tent to change. On the wall was a poster on how to get dressed, dirtbike style. Kneepads. Elbow pads. Then pants. Then jersey (First time I’ve worn something that says “No Fear” on it). Then boots. The boots had seen better days but they stayed on.
Then the good part, choosing a bike. Although there was a smaller CRF150, I was steered toward the taller 230. I was a bit leery at first but I figured if I wanted to change it would be easy.
Al talked about the basics of dirt riding. Sit forward on the bike. Squeeze the bike with your legs. Get your elbows up a bit. Use the rear brake first. Don’t death grip the handlebars or else you’ll wear out your forearms. We skipped the basics of how to use the gearbox and controls although they will happily teach people with no motorcycle experience at all.
My first two laps around the open-field training course were pretty nerve wracking. With only street bike experience, the “loose” feeling on being on dirt was highly unnerving at first. I stuck the basics of all motorized activities – don’t tense up; look where you want to go; stay smooth on the controls. I told myself to breathe. By lap 3 everything felt OK again.
Next were some braking exercises, to get in the habit of using the rear brake first. Using too much front brake can cause the front tire to dig into soft terrain, possibly pitching you off the end.
Then, clutch exercises. Then, standing up while riding, which felt really weird at first, and then only less weird as time went on. I wasn’t really sure if I was doing right, but then maybe my lanky frame had something to do with it. Then, crossing logs. Al demoed jumping over things bunny-hop style (Which sort of looked like jumping curbs on my mountain bicycle) but I didn’t want to push my luck.
After the exercises in then open field we headed into the adjacent wooded area to try out my singletrack skills. To my surprise, trail bike singletrack is basically the same as the mountain bike singletrack I’d seen bombing around provincial parks on my mountain bike – i.e.: Pretty damn narrow. Like maybe a foot of clearance from the handlebar ends. I was skeptical. But – although there were a few dicey moments and leg dabs, I did get through a few laps without going down or hitting any trees. More than once I caught myself going for the front brake on a downhill instead of using the rear brake, but the earlier training had paid off.
Al was pretty good about taking water breaks and asking frequently how I was doing. I was also super lucky because was the only person there so I got one-on-one attention. (Go on a weekday!) On the trails this was nice because I didn’t have to worry about people behind me or in front of me.
After the wooded training session we took another water break and then set out some real trails. As it turned out, many of the “real trails” were actually less challenging than the training area, so I needn’t have worried. We went through a mix of doubletrack, and occasionally turned into the forest for technical singletrack to mix it up. Lots of variety during the day. It reminded me somewhat of mountain biking for lazy people, but without the silent communion with nature. Trail riding is fun, but it’s not exactly beautiful. Thoreau would have disapproved.
After lunch we set out for “Lookout Point”, again a nice mix of easy-going wide double track and challenging singletrack. Though with thousands of kilometres of trails it was pretty clear to me that you could do as much or as little double or single track as you wanted, depending on the type of ride you wanted and the skill of the group. The driest trails were pretty sandy but the recent rain had tamped some of the dust down, and even left some puddles, though I was discouraged from driving straight through puddles as their depth and ability to support the bike was unknown. On a few occasions I took some twig clusters to the face (Poison ivy doesn’t have branches right?) on detour. You do get goggles but mine didn’t play nice with my glasses so I made do.
Pretty much all the skills I’d learned that morning were applied. Standing up proved its usefulness both as a way to stretch, but also to get better control over wavy moguls or messy rutted areas.
Still, one downhill got the better of me. I was standing up on the bike, rapidly trying to read the slope and pick a friendly line through washes of rocks and intertwining ruts, while keeping the bike under control. I think I may have let the bike stall by letting the clutch out, loosening up the rear wheel over already sketchy ruts and stones. The next thing I knew, it was sideways. I must have somehow jumped off the bike (I was going pretty slow) so my body didn’t hit anything.
I stood the bike up, got on, and hit the starter. I heard the creak-creak-creak of the starter, but it wouldn’t catch. Unsure what do, I coasted down the hill for a few metres, and hit the starter again. This time there was a promising rumble, but nothing that would get me anywhere. After a couple more hits of the starter it came back to life and I caught up to Al, who had turned around to look for me.
“Everything OK?” he asked.
I assured him I was fine. Along the way he took some action shots and videos of me (“We get a lot of customers from Facebook”) … if you don’t have a bag for your phone, ask for one, they have some spare fanny packs lying around.
We reached the Lookout Point and soaked in the view and shade. I also found out that Al was a pilot! The pilot-rider combination is alive and well. We talked about electric bikes. I liked their silence but Al felt that might be an issue on the trail, plus weight and range anxiety. May be better for ATVs he thought.
I asked about the route back. Al said we’d take it easy since people are usually pretty worn out by the end of the day and start to make mistakes.
True enough the route back was mostly wide easy doubletrack. I followed Al back to the base bike cleaning bays. Handshakes and congratulations went all around! It was a great day. Not a bad way to get a motorcycling fix in a relatively safe (Nobody texting while trying to make left-hand turns) and cheap environment. $260, gear and bike included, for the whole day. Hard to beat. Next time I’ll try to ride a little harder, maybe even skid a bit. But for now I have to get over this sore neck!