“Look straight ahead! Don’t look down!”
The instruction that I’m screaming silently to myself would normally be easy enough to obey, but not right now.
I’m in a forest on the edge of Exmoor in the West Country, standing up on the footpegs of a Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports. I’m riding slowly in second gear along a narrow rut towards a particularly muddy section where I tipped off on my last lap through the forest.
Last time, I focused on the rut, slowed down, lost grip with the front tyre and had to pick up 250kg of Africa Twin. This time, Honda Adventure Centre instructor Pat’s advice to look straight ahead is ringing in my ears – and I manage to ignore the temptation to look down.
Amazingly, it works. Several times the bars twitch, the big Honda moves below me… but I manage to keep my balance, the throttle steady, and the bike on course. Seconds later I’m splashing through the last puddle, then accelerating away on more solid ground, feeling relieved – and distinctly more confident about facing those fiendish ruts again.
That tip about looking ahead was perhaps the most valuable of many absorbed over two hugely informative and enjoyable days at the recently relocated Honda Adventure Centre. The centre, run by motocross legend and four-times world champion Dave Thorpe, opened two years ago in south Wales. This year it has moved to a new venue near Taunton in Somerset, with the benefit that the spectacular, forested acres of the Combe Sydenham Country Park are all private land.
The course format is much the same, set over two days’ riding. As before, the bike of choice is Honda’s Africa Twin, with both standard gearbox and Dual Clutch Transmission. The fleet now includes the latest Adventure Sport version, with its big tank and longer travel suspension.
Day one of the main course begins with an introduction to the Africa Twin, and bikes being set-up to suit riders’ heights: low seats for shorter riders and raised bars for very tall ones. After a short road ride to the venue, there’s instruction on body position when standing on the pegs (legs fairly straight; bend at the hips if necessary) and getting on the bike, from both sides and without using the side-stand.
Then some simple exercises with cones, on a flat section of ground: first pushing the bike with engine running, to emphasise balance and throttle control; then slaloming slowly through the cones, leaning the bike while balancing by moving body weight in the opposite direction. This is one of the basics of off-road control but feels strange to many riders, as it’s the opposite of “hanging off” on a road bike.
After these basic lessons the group of up to 15 riders is divided into two or three, by experience and ability, and allocated to the three instructors, led by off-road veteran Pat Jackson. “We advertise the course as Level One or Level Two but we assess riders on the day, and have freedom of movement between the groups,” says Pat. “Some people start well and drop off; others start slowly and progress really quickly. We take each group through the same skills and modules, just at a different pace.”
Africa Twins have adjustable traction control (or “torque control” in Honda-speak) and an ABS system that works well off-road, and can be disabled on the rear wheel. On a broad, gravel surface, we accelerate hard repeatedly to discover how the bike responds with TC on its various levels. For many riders, it’s a revelation to discover how hard the front brake can be used on such a loose surface, provided they squeeze the lever progressively rather than grabbing it.
With the ABS disabled, purposely locking the rear wheel and skidding to a halt is fun and also useful, both for getting used to the feeling of losing traction, and for improving deft use of the pedal with a big motocross boot. (Off-road gear is available for hire.) Still on the wide gravel road, which curves through a picturesque Somerset valley, we practise “bike acrobatics”: riding with only one foot on the footrests, using weight and body position to help the big Honda turn.
The next lesson is how to pick up a bike. There are two main methods, one facing the fallen machine and gripping the handlebar and the other facing away from it and lifting at the rear, holding seat or grab-handles. After an instructor has demonstrated the technique, all riders are welcome to have a go. “But it’s very exhausting and used to take too long, so we don’t make everyone do it,” says Pat. “When you’re here there will always be someone to help pick up a bike.”
Hills are next, but only after we’ve been shown how to turn the bike round if we get part-way up a steep climb, and can’t make the top. The technique is deceptively simple. Kill the engine with the bike in gear. Slowly inch it backwards by briefly squeezing the clutch lever. (If you need to get off, stay above the bike on the hill.) When the bike is facing across the slope, move the front wheel slowly downwards by repeatedly moving the bars from side to side. Then front brake on, climb aboard, start the engine and ride back down…
Then it’s time for the real fun: up and down hills, single-track routes through the forest, crossing streams. Quite gentle terrain at first, becoming increasingly challenging as the gradients get steeper, the fords deeper. But there’s plenty of advice and encouragement, and the big Honda proved very capable – plenty of smooth, low-rev torque; reasonably light for a big adventure bike; and with excellent suspension and brakes.
After lunch in a local pub we swap bikes, so everyone gets to try the DCT version of the Africa Twin. I’ve tried the double-clutch system off-road before, so am not surprised to find I like it, especially the ease of changing gear with a flick of left index finger or thumb, rather than left foot. “Some people don’t want to try it and most have preconceived ideas,” says Thorpe. “It takes a bit of getting used to, but most riders like it after a while. Personally I’d always pick DCT over a manual if the two were set side-by-side – off-road it’s absolutely amazing.”
The opportunity to try DCT and the Africa Twin is a factor in many riders signing up for the Adventure Centre. “Our typical customer is someone who has an Africa Twin or is considering buying one, and wants to experience some off-road riding, to have a clear understanding of the bike’s capabilities,” Dave adds. “You certainly find out what it’s capable of here. Although 99% of people’s bikes won’t ever do what we do here, given a bit of rider knowledge they can do most things.”
That knowledge is expanded in the second day, which starts where the first left off, and gradually gets more difficult in places. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that, having tipped off several times on the first day, I find myself lying beside a horizontal Honda only once on the second. And with Pat’s advice to look ahead, not down, fresh in my mind, I make it through the muddy ruts that proved my downfall first time round.
I finish the two hugely enjoyable days impressed by the Africa Twin, more confident in my riding, and keen to get out there and ride off-road again as soon as possible. Gravel, hills, ruts, streams… bring them on. Especially when there’s an expert on hand to show you how, and get you out of trouble if needed.
The Honda Adventure two-day course at Level 1 or 2 costs £499 and includes use of Africa Twins, lunch on both days and evening meal on the first night. There’s also an advanced Level 3 course at the same price, and a one-day Adventure Experience for less experienced riders, mainly on-road, for £299. More details: www.hondaadventurecentre.com
Insure your Honda motobike through Carole Nash.