In August, 1997, I went along, on a BMW R1100GS, on a greenlaning trip with British XT500 enthousiasts.
It was a mighty experience, both to discover the greenlaning tradition, and to do that on my big, heavy BMW.
Friday, August 15, 1997
Getting up at three in the morning is not among my favourite things to do. Neither is riding for hours on the motorway, in the dark, with mist so thick that it was sometimes hard to see both lines on the sides of the lane at the same time.
And yet I felt great: Ernst and me were on our way to an XT500 event somewhere in the Peak District in good old England. The photographs on this page, however, are of a similar event a year later, in the Yorkshire Moors, so if you think you don't recognise the Peak District, you are right ;-)
We arrived in Oostende at 7, perfectly on time. The boat arrived in Ramsgate at 11 local time (of course, even the time of the day is different in England). For the first time in my life I had to ride on the wrong side of the road, but after some strange feelings on crossings and roundabouts, I got used to the idea.
One of the nice things about England is that everything is so English: phone boots, this crazy tendency to ride left, royal mail cars, pubs, fish and chips affairs (sometimes called quality fish and chips), etc.
We had to ride most of the rest of the day on the motorway, so we tried to make some fun by staying on the left side as much as possible, slaloming between the cars. We excused our behaviour by stating that people are used to it in England, but I am not totally certain about this.
Eventually we arrived at the camp site, generously offered by Ken, the owner of the land. We were the first to arrive, so we tried to get some sleep, but of course were cruelly interrupted by some noisy XT500's arriving half an hour later. "These English guys don't know how to adjust their valves" Ernst remarked.
I have a terrible memory for names, so I will probably forget to mention several people. There was a certain Steve, who appeared to be so smart as to bring mocassins along (I had only my motorcycle boots or my bare feet, and the camping ground was full of thistles).
Some guy with a full face helmet on introduced himself as Simon, and it took me a day or so to find out which face belonged to him.
Then there was Ray, the one who had organized this whole event.
And Neil, the benjamin, with some long dreadlocks at the back of his head.
A very friendly looking guy appeared to be called Dave, who spoiled the idea that Dutch is a difficult language by pronouncing the word Schiphol impeccable at the very first try.
A certain John even introduced himself in Dutch.
Of course, Ernst was immediately checking everybody's bike. Unfortunately, he had to declare John's XT terminal. Ray was so friendly to ask the pub owner to keep the kitchen open a little longer, and after some time we were finally able to get Ernst away from the bikes, into the pub.
We tried the local bitter, wich was warm and tasty. And the food was just as English as we could have hoped: a rare steak means that it is thoroughly cooked, but the vinegar on the chips makes up for everything.
On these occasions, between all these XT-guys whom I suspected to be very capable dirt-riders, I always feel slightly uneasy about my BMW : it is twice as big, twice as heavy, twice as powerful, and many times as expensive as an XT (although in the state mine is in now, it might be worth only twice the price).
I might be a reasonable good rider in some situations; on other occasions I can be very clumsy. The best way to get rid of this uneasiness is, of course, to act as clumsy as possible, and so I did:
The BMW was parked on a (in my eyes very steep) slope, and I had to do some U-turn sort of thing to get it on the road again. When doing the U-turn, the rear wheel slipped away on what later appeared to be a metal grating or something, I gave some more throttle, and next thing I know: the bike is doing donuts, leaned on its cylinder. After having pulled the kill-switch, I saw that the whole pub was sitting outside, looking how these bikers were departing, and I was not alert enough to make a bow and pretend that I did everything on purpose :-(
The only excuse that I had was that I was very very tired, so I went on to sleep immediately.
Saturday, August 16
We woke up very early in the morning by XT-riders revving their engines (each of one eliciting first a "They never learned how to start their bike, these English guys", and then a "They never learned how to adjust their valves, these English guys", from a very sleepy Ernst). Of course, we tried to ignore the noise and fall asleep again. Somehow, the bikes only stopped when we could use a little noise from outside the tent.
We were waiting and waiting for a nice English breakfast, served in the tent, but instead, at 9, the bikes sounded as if they were really planning to leave. We got up, and saw everyone sitting on his bike, ready to go.
Fortunately, I was able to turn the BMW in the grass on a slope without falling already (by ignoring the sliding rear wheel) so we could leave without delay.
The mocassins of Steve were not a clever idea to bring along; they appeared to be the only shoes he brought, so he is the first (and probably the last) one I ever saw doing off-road riding on mocassins.
Ray, the organisator who had planned the trip, had explained us some details: the first off-road part, an uphill climb, would be "slightly difficult for those without previous experience". But we had not to worry: after having done that, everything would be very very easy.
Ray looked rather thrustworthy, so I decided not to worry.
Of course, I was totally wrong. The uphill climb looked like a dry wild river, very steep, full of rocks. But I had no choice, because my pride prevented me from saying that this was impossible for me on the BMW.
So I took a deep breath, and tried to get up the hill by giving as much throttle as I dared. Alas, after a while, an XT-rider before me stopped, and when trying to stop myself, I fell off for the first time.
Ernst and someone else helped me up, I fell almost again when putting my right foot onto the non-existing ground on the right side of the bike, and went up again.
If I remember right, this went on for 1,5 kilometers. I had to ask Ernst to ride my bike for a short stretch, but I managed to do the rest myself (fell again in a stretch full of deep ruts).
So, at the top I was sweating all over, but confident that from now on everything would be easy.
At the next stretch of off-road riding, Ray confirmed again that it would be "very smooth", and so it looked.
Dave took his bike for a little joyride uphill, on a grassy slope, and made a beautiful somersault when falling on his way down. The strange thing was that he did exactly the same maneuvre once again, after he got up. I must say I liked the sight very much, but disliked the fact that he would have the honour of the most spectacular fall.
After a while, I started wondering wether Ray is just an understatement type of guy or a plain lyer: steep stretches, stones, and above all narrow ruts: you name it, we encountered it. Especially the ruts: my give-a-lot-of-throttle technique somehow did not impress them at all, and I fell down a lot of times.
And I was not the only one! Also, I noticed, it might be the case that I needed help in getting the bike up; for others it was almost impossible to kickstart their bike again in some situations.
Ray and Ernst were constantly walking down to help us poor fallen dirt-riders, and in some cases bring bikes up for us. It appeared that John and Neil had never before ridden off-road, which I found really amazing.
And Dave was very good in stalling his bike too, I must say.
At the last occasion, in a very deep rut, my back brake lever broke off, so it was impossible to use it again. Ernst took the BMW; I took the XT, and together we took a shortcut to the pub, were we would eat our lunch.
I decide to go back to the camping site because of the lack of a back brake, to allow the others to do some rough stuff again.
They certainly did some rough stuff in the afternoon: everybody went down (except for Ray I think, and except for the guy on his XR, but that doesn't count). There were some kind of natural stairs which I would never have made according to everyone (though in the night, after a lot of beers, one of them started telling me that he was confident that he could do everything with my BMW; did not hear him again the morning after if I remember correctly).
Jess had some miraculous self-made glue, and with that glue, and a lot of wire, my back brake was made usable again.
After a barbeque and a camp-fire, we went to our tents again (thank you Dave, for warning us that we had fallen asleep near the campfire, and that it might be a good idea to search for our tent).
Sunday, August 17
Again, no English breakfast on bed. But the sunny side was that the combination of English Bitter and warm Irish Guiness had not settled in my head.
Today, we were accompanied by Tad and Joseph, on an SR (Joseph on the back). This time, I tried to prepare myself for a really rough ride (Ray: "It will be very easy today, not comparable to the rides of yesterday").
I also decided to try another technique or strategy: instead of giving as much throttle as possible, I planned to ride trial-like: slow and controlled.
To my astonishment this worked very well. Ray got us some sort of natural stairs again, and my BMW climbed them, very gently, as if he had always done it.
The biggest difficulty was formed by roads consisting of nothing else than narrow ruts. Only mantra-ing "Easy, easy, keep in the rut, keep in the rut" got me through them.
I survived a back wheel which slipped some 90 degrees, and saw other people fall where I kept upright. And my average speed was higher than yesterday, even when not counting falling-time!
After a while, we paused, and I felt very tired, and very pleased with myself.
Then Tad and Joseph arrived. They had done the same trip, on their SR, and had been keeping their bike upright as well! I complimented them with that (and Jospeh, for sitting on the back under such conditions), but they looked as though they did not understand why I was making such a fuss about a normal, easy trip.
Well, never mind. I decided to keep on feeling pleased anyway. We went on, my new technique worked perfectly.
And then there was this picturesque wall at the side of a narrow rutted road. I had chosen the leftmost rut, and could not steer the BMW out of it. The handlebar never hit the wall, but I had not noticed this stone, sticking out, at cylinder-height.
I did feel it though. I could again be pleased that I managed to keep the bike going, but at the end of the road I looked down towards the cylinder, and saw the oil spraying outwards.
That was the end of off-road riding for the BMW today. We put the bike in a nearby village, and Neil was so kind to lend me his lock.
I did the rest of the trip as a passenger of Ernst (which is a difficult job in some situations I noticed, because it is almost impossible not to plan your own route and steer the bike with your body. Sometimes I had to close my eyes to prevent me from interfering with Ernst).
At the end of the trip, Neil, Simon, Ernst and me would go back to my BMW. Neil could then take his lock with him and travel home (his lights were not working so he had to leave early), and we would wait for Jess to come with his special glue.
The glue was at the camping site, were the rest of the XT-riders would be going.
Alas, after a while we discovered that Neil was not following us, and Ray and Ken, whom we met just at that moment, could not find the group again. We all rode to my poor BMW, and waited a while for Neil.
Ernst then thought he could just as well start to repair the cylinderhead with the two-component glue that Ken brought along, and after that we waited again.
We talked a bit, and waited, and just for fun, Ray tried the lock with the key of his own lock. It fitted. We discussed whether this was a chance of one in one million or in two million, while Ernst tried his key too. It fitted.
Poor Neil, his lock appeared to be useless.
We decided not to wait for Neil, but go back to our tents. Of course, Neil was gone in the mean-time, but he was very friendly about it when returning (after having asked in all the shops in the village whether they had maybe seen people steal a BMW):
"No, it doesn't matter at all, I had a very pleasant ride".
We said goodby to almost everyone. Only Neil, Ernst and me kept camping this last night (Neil's lights were still not working). Neil turned out to be very pleasant company: we drank beer and talked music in the pub, and had a walk in the moonlight.
On Monday, after saying goodby to Neil, we enjoyed the English country-side, country-roads and pubs. We enjoyed the night in Ray's spare room.
And then, finally, Ray made us a tasty, extensive, REAL ENGLISH BREAKFAST.