January can be bleak in England, so in pursuit of fun and sun I flew to southern Spain. I have often wondered what trail biking is like – it looks so different to road riding. The bikes are different, and so is the kit. The places are very different and the riding seems to follow different rules.
Tristam, my Observer 10 years ago (I was his first and only test pass), keeps a couple of KTM trail bikes in Spain for regular visits. So I joined him in Mijas, near Malaga in Andalusia.
Down the coast I could see the Rock of Gibraltar and across the glittering Med the jagged profile of the Moroccan Rif mountain range. The sun was warm by day, but there was a nip in the air and at night it was really chilly.
The coastal hinterland is ruggedly mountainous, but green in this season. As if a giant bowl of noodles has been tipped on it, it’s a biker’s paradise of tangled dirt roads, trails, walking paths and animal tracks from one sierra to the next. The mountains are scattered with rock, boulders, scree, scrub and gorse, bare red earth, varied forest and orchards of early-blooming pink almond trees.
This winter, the heaviest rains and snow in living memory have fallen. River beds, streams, ditches, culverts and trenches cut through the landscape. In places bridges and roads have been swept away.
There’s virtually nowhere a trail bike won’t go and you can get to places and viewpoints otherwise only reachable on foot or horseback. Even so, wherever you roam, someone is usually within earshot.
The Adventure Rider Centre in Mijas, where Tristram garages his machines, was set up five years ago by Baz and Kaz, from Southport, Lancashire. Baz is a cool and chatty dude who was an engineer, but lives to ride.
His partner Kaz has ridden bikes since she was six and is a UK SandAce champion. Her father started Southport’s Kawasaki dealership. She doesn’t ride enough now, she says, as she’s too busy providing an airport shuttle, managing the riders’ kit and doing the admin for their growing business. She gives the warmest welcome and kits out all the riders.
Tristram and I are booked into a comfortable local hotel with panoramic sea views and a fabulous outdoor pool, too cold to brave. At the Centre, Kaz kits me out with helmet, boots and full protective gear. All I needed to bring on EasyJet was an overnight case.
Baz and Kaz are supported by Dave, from Edinburgh, who takes care of a feet of bikes, mostly 250cc KTMs or equivalents. These may sound small, but they are really torquey and, just as important, they’re not too heavy if they fall and you have to pick them up again.
Baz takes Tristram and I out on the frst couple of days – a Swede called Andreas on days three and four. They have amazing skills and judge well how fast we are getting the knack of things.
Trail bikes cope brilliantly with this terrain, with long forks, soft springing, wide bars, huge torque and chunky rubber that bites into wet or loose surfaces. They will keep skipping along as long as you have the courage to keep up the revs and ride on.
I quickly learn to stand up on my pegs, gripping the bars loosely and steering through my feet. Gear changing not so easy, especially hooking up – down is a stomp. I try to keep my centre of gravity over the part of the bike that needs my weight most, going uphill or downhill. I use the clutch to manage drive to the back wheel when I’m most at risk of grabbing a handful of throttle, and brake hard going down steep inclines and slide if I must.
Above all, I try to look way in front, choosing my line through rocks, bushes, holes, trenches, water and roots well before arriving there. You have to place your trust in the machine to deal with these hazards as it passes over them.
Falling off hurts – what’s down there is all hard! Tristram had a heavy tumble on our first day out and he wrenched his shoulder. As I write, he awaits surgery for a detached ligament and hopes he’ll be fit to sail in the Clipper Round-the-World Race starting in August.
Nick Houlton lent me one of his neat Helite airvests, and it proved itself a couple of times. In the end I put it aside – there are times when you just need to step away from the bike without an umbilical cord and those CO2 cartridges aren’t cheap! But for regular road riding or commuting the airvest must be worth serious consideration.
Trail riding with the Adventure Rider Centre can be pitched at any level from novice to expert, and you are in the hands of experienced tutors. It’s addictively fun and I was really bitten. You just want to find out how much more you can do; how much further you can go. But if you plan to sail around the world too, think twice!
The Adventure Rider Centre website is www.adventureridercentre.com
Baz (Barry Fleming) and Kaz (Karen Waind) run the ARC. Flights to Malaga are cheap. The riding is not, but your bike and kit are all provided. The Centre escorts and coaches riders in ones and twos or groups. Insurance for off-road touring can be purchased through Endsleigh.