Going Off-Road at the BMW U.S. Rider Academy

I’m a fan of proper training. The value of learning from qualified instructors is not lost on me, particularly when it comes to photography and motorcycling.

Unlike photography, proper motorcycle training has implications beyond enjoyment and mastery of the pursuit. Health and safety are at stake when honing your riding skills. That’s why I’ve spent so much time at the Motorcycle Safety Foundation campus near my Georgia HQ. I recently branched out, though, and ventured to South Carolina for the BMW U.S. Rider Academy’s Women’s 1-Day Off-Road Adventure Foundations course. It may be one of the most valuable things I’ve ever done for my riding and for myself in general.

Exercises

bmw u.s. rider academy - val in real life
It was quite an honor to spend the day building off-road skills with these folks.

Our day began with a short introduction in the classroom. Our coach needed to get a picture of each of our skills and the riders needed a sense of camaraderie before riding in close contact. The class was small, only three riders, including me. BMW’s intent for the course was to be all women, including the instructor. Unfortunately, the sole female instructor at the U.S. Rider Academy was injured and couldn’t teach the class. We had Ricardo instead, along with Rob assisting. I was disappointed initially that it wasn’t all female but Ricardo and Rob quickly overcame my hesitation with their professionalism, approachability, and supportive attitudes.

The tone of the course was set in the classroom which was “challenge by choice”. Ricardo and Rob made it clear they were going to push us but we had the ultimate say in what we attempted and what we didn’t. The sense was that we were going to build our skills on our own terms by moving just past the edge of our abilities and comfort zones. That was both exciting and a little frightening.

We began the hands-on part of the day with:

bmw u.s. rider academy - val in real life
Ricardo in action, demonstrating a solo lift.
  • balanced walk-arounds: this confidence-building exercise helped us get dialed into the weight and balance of the bikes by finding the balance point and keeping it there while we moved around it.
  • raising the bikes on the center stands.
  • working from both sides on mounts and dismounts.
  • Lift technique demonstrations, both solo and buddy.

In our first riding session we tackled:

  • moving around the bike with side saddle: we worked through a series of positions beginning with placing a knee on the saddle, moving that leg to the opposite side of the bike, riding side saddle, then swapping foot positions so we could stand on the opposite peg, before returning to a normal seated position. Gonna keep it real here… when this exercise started I thought I was in way over my head. I thought “If they’re starting with this, I’m in trouble. This class is way beyond my skill level.” Guess what? That warm up was super easy and a successful confidence-builder.

    bmw u.s. rider academy - val in real life
    My steed for the day, an F 700 GS like my Evie but full seat height and no bar risers… a slightly different geometry to master.
  • slow riding: refining our skills at low speeds where most drops happen.
  • trial stands: getting as close as we could to a balanced stop before using the throttle to restabilize.
  • weaves: slow riding around cones with hard turns and learning where to position our bodies.
  • circles: this was added in to help us get past our struggles with how far we needed to move our bodies off the side of the bikes. We returned to weaves much more capable after this exercise.

After lunch on the BMW campus, we got back on the bikes for:

  • washboards: understanding the limits of the bike’s suspension and how to handle it.
  • ruts: controlling the bike by solely using the pegs.
  • camel humps (with track stands): working through body position transitions in quick succession over humps. I really struggled with track stands even though I have pretty decent balancing skills on pavement. I can still hear Ricardo saying “That’s not a track stand! You didn’t stop!” With love and support , of course. 🙂
  • enduro run: a chance to ride through trees and unexpected obstacles not dictated by a man-made exercise.

After a brief break there was still more to come:

BMW u.s. rider academy - val in real life
Rest breaks included South Carolina sun and plenty of snacks and drinks from BMW U.S. Rider Academy.
  • another enduro run:  this was much longer and across the full campus in a scenario in which nothing is known; it was all new terrain to integrate the skills we’d been working on all day.
  • emergency braking: I struggled with this more than I feel I should have. Late in the day, fatigue was the governing factor. I initially mentioned to my classmates this would have been much more valuable earlier on. Afterwards, I realized that mastering emergency braking when completely exhausted was, in fact, the best time to do it because that’s when you make mistakes. And having it be second nature at your worst point was actually the point of the exercise.
  • trying other bikes: I rode a BMW F 700 GS most of the day. The variation from my own F 700 GS “Evie” is that this one was standard seat height and had no bar risers. At the end of the day, I got the chance to ride the F 800 GS as well as the R 1200 GS. I really shouldn’t have ridden the 1200. Can you say “Come to Mama”? I wished I’d been riding it all day!
  • lifting: Our last exercise was a chance to practice lifting the bikes. We had some inadvertent practice during the day, of course. However, the opportunity to have it be a focused exercise instead of a rush to clear the exercise path was very helpful.

Quality

bmw u.s. rider academy - val in real life
Our enduro runs put our newly-developed skills to practical use.

I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of the course. The instructors fully grasp that most of the challenge behind mastering these skills is confidence followed by understanding what these machines are capable of doing. The pace of guided progression through confidence building was spot on, especially with the overtone of “challenge by choice” set from the beginning.

Our main instructor, Ricardo, is a motor cop and international BMW instructor. One of the hallmarks of a good instructor is the ability to deviate from the plan when necessary to give his or her students what they need. Ricardo is a very skilled instructor in that sense as well as an expert rider. Our course was also overseen by logistics dude Rob, who managed the mechanics of the motorcycles and assisted as an instructor. He was encouraging, helpful, and pushed us appropriately when needed.

My classmate, Patty, describes the collection of obstacles and terrain as an impressive off-road playground. I like how she puts that. I certainly felt like a little kid riding with abandon that day! She adds that she enjoys the physical challenge and mental focus it requires to participate in the class. It’s an intense day in the saddle. And worth every minute.

What I took away

bmw u.s. rider academy - val in real life
Practicing riding through ruts.
  • A massive boost in confidence. Riding on sketchy terrain builds skills on pavement and off-road and means you’re ready for all sorts of scenarios that are thrown your way unexpectedly. My street riding improved as a result of this class.
  • I know what skills I need to work on most now. Some of the exercises went well for me, others I’ll need a lot more time to master.
  • Using BMW’s bikes is the way to go. It frees you to push yourself without concern over damaging your own bike. That’s a huge benefit. It takes away many layers of mental obstacles in improving your riding.
  • This is a huge physical challenge: Off-road riding is a different beast in terms of the physical challenge it presents as a rider. While I did fine and was able to complete all of the exercises, boy I was sore afterwards! My bum limb, “Frankenleg,” presents an additional obstacle to my physical stamina. Towards the end of the day, I could feel it giving out from fatigue. But I wanted every ounce of this experience and I couldn’t allow it to hold me back. It became a battle of wills of the you-don’t-get-to-quit-now type, but I clearly need to work more intently on rebuilding its strength.

Why women only

bmw u.s. rider academy - val in real life
Chasing Patty’s tail on an enduro run.

One of the discussions throughout the day is why having a women’s-only class is important.

Gary Hardin, Chief Motorcycle Instructor of the U.S. Rider Academy, says that they could have offered the standard one-day class but felt it was more important to directly address female rider concerns. So they invited women rider influencers to participate in a standard one-day course and give honest feedback. What came of the focus group afterwards was a thumbs up on the class content and structure but the desire for the addition of the last couple of exercises that were included in our course at the end of the day.

So essentially, the women’s class is what is offered in the standard one-day, finessed to include more of what women riders are looking to improve. For me, while I don’t mind training alongside men, the dynamic is quite different. It’s often competitive and that’s not why I’m there. Being a minority in the motorcycling world, the opportunity to be surrounded by others who understand the distinct challenges it is to be a woman rider is valuable. The overtone of our small group was absolute respect for one other and acknowledgment that we’ve all had a different path to this point in our riding.

bmw u.s. rider academy - val in real life
Teamwork is required when a rider’s low-suspension bike gets hung on a hump.

Patty, having taken the two-day course in the past, said:

“Although I’m accustomed to riding with the guys, I thought it would be a nice change of pace to take a class reserved for women. It’s always fun to meet other women who ride and even better those who are interested in off-road riding. I enjoyed hearing other ladies’ experiences and opinions about gear, motorcycles, and travel.”

My classmate Charlene was comforted by the knowledge that there would be others who understand where she was coming from in her return to riding after a couple of years off. She said she was excited by the idea that she had nothing to prove and could focus on getting back to something she loves.

Of course, given how much I enjoyed this experience, I asked Mr. Hardin if a two-day women’s course is in the works. He said he would love to see that happen if enough interest can be generated. Even beyond the two-day course, he would like to offer a class similar to their advanced off-road class in which they spend time off of the bikes giving travel tips for anyone wanting to adventure ride outside of the country. That particular class is only offered as an extension to graduates of the two-day off-road curriculum.

Mr. Hardin added that not many know that the U.S. Rider Academy offers private one-on-one and group instruction. That means if you desire the female group dynamic but the course schedule doesn’t fit yours, you have the option of private instruction or arranging your own all-female training.

I want more

bmw u.s. rider academy - val in real life
The 1200… can I have one? Pretty please? This is a really sweet ride.

While I’m glad my first course at the BMW U.S. Rider Academy was all women, I won’t be waiting around for the women’s two-day course to be offered. I’ve got too much to learn to let that hold me up. One course is never enough when you’re intent on mastering a pursuit. And I know I still have so much to learn and refine.

In review-type posts, I typically like to offer suggestions for improvement, even when I enjoy the product or experience immensely. This time, the only aspect I’d like to see improved is pre-course information on what to bring, what to expect, etc. I give all other aspects of the course top marks:

  • The pace, structure, and content of the of the course are really well thought out, in my opinion.
  • The campus and obstacles were great.
  • We were given plenty of opportunities for breaks, hydration, and snacks.
  • The machines ran well and Rob responded quickly to any requests to tweak clutch levers and what-not.
  • The staff was absolutely top-notch.

But the biggest factor here is that BMW has taken the initiative to embrace the needs and challenges of women riders as separate from our male counterparts. It’s not that women’s concerns are better or worse, or more or less important, they’re just different. And given our minority in the motorcycling community, those considerations are often overlooked. BMW is acknowledging that. I’m a fan.

Ok, you’ve made it this far! Here’s a little behind-the-handlebars glimpse of riding at the BMW U.S. Rider Academy…

 

2 thoughts on “Going Off-Road at the BMW U.S. Rider Academy

  1. Nice video. Not sure your instructors discussed this but I noticed you did not have your fingers on clutch lever during your “enduro” in woods portion. If you have lever in hand and you feather that in the tight stuff your going to be a better rider.

    1. Thank you, Bruce. I appreciate you watching the video so closely. Yes, I still have some skills to improve! Trying to absorb all of that information and incorporate it in one day is a challenge. I’ll keep practicing. 🙂

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