Dave Thorpe Honda Off-Road School
By Lara Platman for Honda
Landing shoulder first into a hedge off the front side of a Honda CRF 250cc motorbike, might not seem like anyone’s idea of fun; but with all the armour I was wearing, all I could do was peel myself out from the brambles ensure that my legs were not caught and reveal a state of laughter as to how on earth I was to pull the handlebar out of the mud that it had become very attached to. It was at this stage in the day, some 3 hours after I began riding off road for the first time that I realised I was very, I think very in love with this form of motorcycling.
The hill of where my hedge incident occurred was named after me, “Lara’s Hill” and forever more at the Dave Thorpe Honda Off-Road School, I will be infamous. It is at this school, where you will also be tested psychologically, to roll down a near vertical drop where, your mind says “no, no, no” and Dave in your ear says, “Go on, I wouldn’t let you do it if I didn’t think you could,” and with a little cheeky ‘let go’ of his hands, you find yourself rolling down that oh so I cannot do it vertical hill. And whilst you are rolling you are hitting your brain into reality that you wasted all that time telling yourself such poppycock and with a gentle squeeze of the brakes at the bottom on the flat, you scream “what a ninny”, laughing at your achievement and shaking at the knowledge of the adrenaline rush is engulfing your whole being.
It is also at this school, the day with Dave Thorpe that you meet some amazing new friends, who have a variety of riding skills who - after the first time we see them fall off and worry about their safety, which in turn, creates a sort of tandem effect of making you fall off, yes after this first time we see them fall off - we just ride on. We ride on and hope they are not hurt. Knowing that it doesn’t hurt actually to fall off, and believe me, I know!
The Dave Thorpe Honda Off-Road School is very well organised: in the morning Louise Goodman and I over tea and coffee had a sort of riders briefing - where we were told the format of the day - allowing our rather less experienced rider minds to be able to feel confident of what was to come. We went to meet our bikes by the lorry on the top of a beautiful escarpment over the Exmoor woods and had our off-road rider kit handed to us to try on. We had already given over our sizes beforehand, but if there were any ill-fitting items, there were plenty more at hand, so we didn’t need any of our own riding gear at all.
Fully loaded with armour, helmet, gloves, brightly coloured vests and trousers, along with very unforgiving boots, Louise and I tried our bikes on for size and were reminded of the basics of riding again, with the tickling of the brakes and smoothness of the clutch very, very much on the forefront.
Louise is taller than me, so she had a bike with a higher seat; saying that, I still couldn’t touch the floor when sitting on my bike, hence my knowledge of falling off was very apparent. My five-foot-five height proved that my legs were shorter in proportion to my torso, so when I started or stopped, I required a log or ledge to rest one of my legs on. Looking for these props whilst hoisting myself on and off the bike became second nature as the day grew and looking in advance to stop by a ridge was my challenge. Luckily if Louise had arrived at a stop point before me, she of course knew of my vertically challenged predicament and brilliantly pointed at ledges and logs for my attention. I stopped falling off as much and simply enjoyed the ‘real’ falls of misjudgement when they occurred.
Sublime scenery along with exceptional weather captivated our every ride out on a new path to explore, some riders returned to base each time rather muddy, some decided to sit out the next ride into the woods, and some - such as Louise Goodman and I - appreciated our relatively similar riding levels and went out again and again discovering new ways to control the bikes, new levels of bravery, new understandings of the thrill of being out on these paths, whilst I mastered new techniques for me to start and stop with short legs.
It seems that both Louise and I were a perfect match for the trails, in terms of passing our full tests to being on the roads with a bike, but really the progress of our handling of the bikes on this glorious dirt riding day grew so significantly we just wanted to go out again and again.
We stopped for a well-earned lunch, sandwiches and chips along with a cup of tea I had never realised I needed so much. Gulps of water tackled by everyone explaining their own highlights and foibles. Louise and I listening to the more experienced of the party, at how they found new tracks and speeds they were achieving, accompanied by others who said that they would simply like to stick to the paths from the morning’s play. Everyone let everyone ride their own limits without any judgement or question.
Louise and I went back out ready for a new path and new challenge and what a gift it was presented to our eyes and minds. This one escarpment has a foray of different intertwining paths so we would often see the other riders intersect with us. I looked up at one path and said to Louise, “Oh my gosh can you imagine doing that one?”
On the next ride I noticed we rode down that very same path, through the little ravine of water and I couldn’t believe my adrenaline, we were actually riding on what I thought was near impossible for me.
Finally, we could feel the day nearing its end and we asked if we could ride a path that was both different to before, but not necessarily as challenging so we would go home on a high. Quite frankly, we were both going home on a high since before lunch!
It was then we discovered the psychological challenge of the vertical drop to start us off for the final ride out. “Easy?” I could hear both of us saying under our helmets, but then straight after that enlightenment of ‘we can do anything’ we rode what has to be one of the most beautiful paths in the United Kingdom. I would even vouch to say it could be up there with routes in far-away places across the globe that I have never been to! For the ride that you take at that moment, surely has to be the best ride anyway. Surely the moment, the very moment you are having the best fun on a dirt path on two wheels, has to be the best path in that moment.
Louise and I had not been off-road before and we both agreed that this was a totally infectious way to enjoy the countryside, on a seat of two wheels. As women we rarely hear about dirt riding or off-roading, it may seem to be something for the boys, when really us ladies had a ball. We are not big built in frame and we managed to pick the bikes up after learning the trick of how to do it. It is a gloriously full of energy and probably one of the best ways I have found to keep fit as every muscle in my body was woken up, I discovered the day after!
I would return to Dave’s school in a flicker, he has other experiences, but I would repeat the day. I know Louise would repeat the day too, as we only touched on the basic paths as beginners, whilst we witnessed the more experienced return back to base totally filthy, out of breath and raring to go out again, as they had taken routes more suited to their skill level. Louise and I came away keen to come back knowing that next time, we might be able to go just that little bit faster, that little bit steeper and that little bit more daring.
It is so easy to book a day like we had, the school has a great website so you can see what would be most appropriate for your skill level and interests. I really think every experience would suit every skill level as there are so many paths that the instructors will know where to ride along for your level - and choosing the experience? Well the day Louise Goodman and I had was the Off-Road Experience Day. A couple of emails beforehand explaining our levels of road riding experience along with our body sizes for riding gear, we were good to go. There are hotels recommended nearby as the day starts early and although Louise stayed in the area that evening, I drove home, thinking, ‘Perhaps, that was a good idea as I just want a bath right this minute’!
What now? What am I to do now? Find a bike that suits my body frame for starters, that I can easily manage. Height of the seat and weight of bike is a must, also for me, I rather like the historic look of things, but I adored the modernity of the equipment. Can I find both? Will I be able to find a bike that I can attach to my 1964 Land Rover Series 2a – on the tailgate? The search is on!
Secondly, find a group of friends to play out with and upskill my bike control. It was such a hoot riding out with everyone, the encouragement and enthusiasm was infectious. It is indeed addictive and I have well and truly got the bug. When you see someone sort-of similar to you achieving the ride, getting through keeping the speed and concentration, it helps you do the same, and vice versa when you have your friends behind you, you need to keep going you need to keep the same flow to allow them to feel the reassurance of all is going to plan.
I learnt so much from riding along those seductive paths, from bike control, to personal limitations. My understanding of the brake and the clutch along with using gears appropriately has advanced my road skills to no end. My personal barriers broken I realise that I have achieved such a strength I never knew existed in me. I am not a dare devil sort of creature, I am usually very cautious and that in itself played a massive part in being able to judge the speed, the consistency and managing the bike. Having trust in the bike to allow its tyres to really travel over the sometimes very slippery paths and acknowledging that mud, water, gravel and rocks all have different requirements for the balance of the bike. As a woman fairly new to motorbikes, I cannot recommend this off-road day more, it was simply a perfect way to improve confidence levels whilst having a brilliant day out.
Louise and I although similar in riding experience and perhaps in our outlook to the day came away with exactly the same feeling of “when can we do this again please”.
Thank you to the Dave Thorpe Honda Off-Road School for a properly – I mean properly – sublime day, a true bucket list day.