Ride Smart. The art of adventure riding

Brooding skies

CCM, GS and a Triumph somewhere in Shropshire. Don’t forget your brolly.

Post a thread on any internet adventure bike forum inquiring about the off road capabilities of big trail bikes and you are guaranteed to arouse passionate responses. Dare to question the effectiveness of an 1190 Adventure or a GSA 1200 on technical off-road trails and you’re likely to attract responses ranging from a polite but firm rebuttal from BMW GS enthusiasts to poison pen letters and death threats from the online KTM community. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration, not all KTM riders are psychotic but you get the picture, it’s a sensitive subject . The issues surrounding the off-road performance of adventure bikes bikes stem from too much power, too much weight and not enough grip for the job in hand. This shouldn’t deter you from taking your big bike off road, but if you understand the limitations you can plan days out on your bike which play to its strengths rather than amplify its weaknesses.

Dab.jpg

This, believe it or not is a puddle on a trail 1000′ above sea level. Trail riding can be unpredictable…

For those unfamiliar with trail riding allow me to share one or two observations about riding the green lanes you are likely to encounter in the UK. Our unsurfaced roads [ the technical definition of a green lane] are often narrow and rutted and can become waterlogged, which is the reason they become rutted in the first place. These ancient rights of way have often been in use for centuries and sometimes sit well below the level of surrounding fields because the passage of traffic over time has actually worn a deep groove in the countryside. This encourages water to collect. There are lanes close to where I live which never completely dry out and are tricky to navigate on a big bike even in the middle of summer.

The problem is, you won’t find this information on any OS map or your GPS, you have to ride the trail to find out and there’s the rub – half a mile down a narrow track you might suddenly find yourself in a deep muddy rut struggling to find traction . On a typical 110kg trail bike you can simply dismount at this stage, lift the back wheel out of the rut and then do the same with the front and continue on your way. If you’re riding a 200+kg adventure bike you now have a pretty serious problem on your hands, especially if you decide the route is impassable and you need to turn back.

Strata

Bad enough on a 90kg trail bike, on a big adventure bike you would now have your work cut out  . This was taken on Strata Florida in Wales.

Of course we also have access to hard packed trails and forest fire roads in the UK and these aren’t such a problem on an adventure bike, but be aware it’s not possible to do these easy routes in isolation and sooner or later you’re going to come across mud , soft ground and some tight technical trails. This is why taking a big bike off road needs careful thought and planning.

The trick is to avoid getting into a difficult situation in the first place. For instance, if you sense a trail is becoming narrower or getting too muddy stop immediately and go and inspect on foot . If you don’t like what you see don’t be afraid to turn round and find an alternative route. I can’t stress how important this is on a big bike, it might seem a bit feeble, especially if your leading a group but it can save a lot of potential heartache. Getting bogged down in deep mud and unable to go forwards or backwards is a frustrating and exhausting experience.

A pal of mine was out trail riding recently and stopped when he saw something sticking out off a particularly deep muddy bomb hole on a trail. On closer inspection he realised the object was a Land Rover’s roof. Try to picture the consequences of simply ploughing into a similar rut on a big GS hoping it will all sort itself out.

Trail riding can involve a lot of manhandling of the bike. For instance, pulling up to a gate on a steeply rutted lane and stopping the bike often means getting off and having to drag the back wheel around until you find a suitable place to deploy the sidestand. Again, not an issue on a lightweight trail bike but on a heavy adventure bike this type of thing can become very tiring so keep your eyes on the trail and plan well ahead, look where the best grip will be for a restart will be and where you can park the bike and dismount easily. It can be a lot less stressful to stop well short of a gate at a suitable spot and walk the last few yards to open it. When you restart the bike this will usually give you a nice clean getaway instead of having to struggle in the mud and ruts created by all the other vehicles who drove as close as they could to the gate before stopping. Always seek out opportunities to save energy, you don’t know when you might need it. Once fatigue sets in it the possibility of falling off big heavy bikes increases dramatically.

Lands end Bishops wood 1

Once fatigue sets in the chances of falling off a big bike increase dramatically! This is yours truly on the Land’s End Trial a few years ago, my first attempt at tackling serious off- road stuff on an adventure bike.

If you find yourself on a tricky section of steep trail with lots of rock and mud and you’re wondering where to find grip a good tip is to follow the route of any  water flowing down the lane. Water will usually wash away any mud and I find if I need to make a quick decision on which route to take through a hazard there’s usually grip to be found beneath flowing water. On technical trails pick up momentum when you can get traction and then allow the bike to roll along on a neutral throttle over sections where the grip will be compromised. It’s all just common sense really but riding smart can make the difference between having a chilled and enjoyable day or a brutal, unsatisfying slog.

At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, planning routes is very important, much more so than if you were on a small bike. I’ll happily set off on my own on one of the Adventure Ride Pamperas and go and busk it, exploring new routes and going wherever my fancy takes me but I never do this on the KTM 640. I’ll speak to other trail riders and ask them what lanes they think are suitable for big bikes. If you can see from the contour lines there will be a steep ascent, think about planning your route to tackle this lane in reverse so it becomes a descent. If I’m planning a big bike day I’ll look stuff up about the route on the web and ask questions on forums. Forewarned is forearmed.

Descent

Descending can be easier than climbing. This is JP, one of BMW’s off-road instructors making it look easy on a Triumph XC. There is no way this bike would have gone up this slope. Take into account the gradients when planning your route. [photo courtesy of Bike magazine and photographer Chippy Wood]


Don’t be tempted to simply pick out a few Byways on an OS map and head off into the wild blue yonder. Gather as much intel as you can, believe me it will pay dividends.
Before setting out make sure your bike has decent lifting handles and if it doesn’t, fit a lifting strap to the rear of the bike. When possible, leave your adventure style panniers at home, they’ll catch and snag on ruts lifting the rear and losing grip. Do everything possible to minimise getting stranded with a puncture. Pushing a big adventure bike with a flat tyre off a remote trail to the nearest garage will definitely spoil your day. Make sure you know how to remove both wheels and have the tools with you to do so. If you’re serious about going off road and haven’t yet changed a tube on your bike practice in the comfort of your garage. Far better to learn how to deal with a puncture listening to Radio 4 with a cuppa to hand than out in the Brecons with the rain lashing down your neck and dusk approaching. Carry a spare tube [or a tubeless repair kit]. Don’t rely on Co2 cannisters or a tyre repair cannister. By all means take some but for goodness sake carry a mountain bike pump as back up. Treat the tubes with a sealant such as OKO.

I would also strongly advise you don’t ride alone, trail riding isn’t a dangerous activity but in my experience it can be unpredictable. I’ve seen people break bones after an innocuous- looking fall and this would be very bad news if you were riding solo.
Drop the tyre pressures, I find 15psi each end works well on my KTM, don’t be tempted to go too low – unless you’ve got security bolts fitted the power of a big bike can spin the wheel in the tyre and tear the valve out. And don’t forget to put some air back in for the journey home. Ride smart and arrive home in one piece.

home

Photo courtesy Bike magazine and Chippy Wood

KTM 640 Adventure

Stretton anon

By and large my motorcycling activities have been relatively injury-free. However, towards the end of last year’s riding season the KTM 640 I use for AdventurerRide’s big bike off-road days reminded me big singles need treating with respect .
A tell-tale clicking from the starter solenoid informed me the KTM’s battery had become discharged and and the only option was to revert to the analogue starting procedure. Standing fully erect on the kickstarter I brought a hefty 90kg to bear with as much force as could be mustered. Somewhere close to the bottom of the swing the KTM gave a mighty cough and launched me in a reverse trajectory skywards to the garage roof breaking my ankle in the process. Painful? Oh yes…
Of course if I’d bothered to read the handbook I would have known not to open the throttle during the starting procedure. Although the 640 has a good old fashioned carb, it also has a TPS [throttle position sensor] which I suspect threw the ignition to full advance creating a spark at the wrong time. I don’t think I’ve been hit so violently since the days I was taught by Catholic clergymen.
Some months on and still limping it’s time to reflect on the 640 Adventure and give a few riding impressions. I bear the bike no malice, but the fact a modern bike can deliver such a debilitating wallop to its unsuspecting owner underlines the KTM has no frills. No electronic trickery to minimise the possibility of kickback, no clever little cams which lift a valve to ease the starting procedure as found on some Japanese bikes . Nope , the 640 Adventure is a rugged , take-no-prisoners bruiser which the Austrian factory have kept down to a commendable 150kg.

KTM map

A GPS isn’t OE on the 640 Adventure but no matter, the Ghobi panniers are double skinned and can carry water/petrol/wine in the void between the two skins. The two screws at the base of the pannier are to fit an external tap. Now I ask you, would you rather have GPS or the ability to carry two two litres of Rioja with you on your adventure?

The low weight comes with a corresponding lack of refinement. At first acquaintance the 640’s single cylinder engine feels crude, specially when compared to something like a Yamaha 660. Its balancer shaft doesn’t eliminate vibes quite as well as the equivalent Yamaha or BMW single and the rider is always aware just one cylinder is doing all the work. A Jaguar car engineer once told me you can’t have refinement without weight and so it is with the KTM, it’s 30kg lighter than the equivalent Yamaha Tenere and there is consequently less mass to dissipate vibes. Compared to the Yamaha’s counterbalanced smoothness the raw -boned KTM feels visceral and uncompromising.

The flipside to the KTM’s diamond-in-the-rough demeanour is its off-road capability which is outstanding for a bike of its size, a true adventure bike in fact. The 640 will launch you down fire-roads floating imperiously over ruts and bumps which would have lesser bikes tied in knots. It will also plonk through deep mud and scabble up rocky inclines finding grip where you’d swear there wasn’t any. It’s this pedigree which helps generate the almost fanatical devotion of KTM’s partisan fanbase.
One of the quirks of the Adventure’s LC4 motor is the way it gets noticeably smoother when thoroughly warm. By thoroughly I mean after about 100 miles. A pal of mine restores vintage aero engines and knows a thing or two about motors and what makes them tick . Back in the day he bought a new LC4 Adventure and mentioned this characteristic of the LC4 engine, explaining that some engines behaved this way. It’s the kind of ‘character’ the Japanese endeavour to engineer out of their bikes. I’d completely forgotten about it until I went for a long ride on mine and after a couple of hours the whole plot settled down and smoothed out. At this point the 640 feels as if could thrum along all day eating the miles, which is something the Adventure excels at . It’s never going to be as smooth as the Yamaha or indeed the BMW 650 which has an engine of similar pedigree but it’s on the right side of acceptable. Of course it might just seem smoother after a couple of hours because your arse has gone to sleep.

big trail bike

Somewhere in the Welsh borders. On these kinds of trails in this type of country the 640 has a lot going for it.

On short gearing [standard gearing is too tall for serious off road use] the Adventure will buzz along happily all day at 60 to 70mph with 80 plus being available for short bursts of overtaking. Although the KTM is happy to rev, it’s a brave man who ventures anywhere near the 8500 rpm redline, 4000 to 6000rpm is the sweet spot and anything above this is unnecessary and can feel harsh.
So, having established the 640 Adventure is an agreeable, if not particularly quick road bike what’s it like off the tarmac? Bear in mind I’m not a fan of big bikes for serious trail riding, spoilt as I am by the 90kg Pamperas on the AdventureRide fleet. Therefore I approached the KTM with a degree of caution before doing anything serious off-road. On standard road gearing the 640 is unhappy in second gear on technical trails, I’ve rectified this by fitting a 15t front sprocket. Caution should be exercised on technical descents because the “stall speed” is relatively high and if you’re going slowly on slippery surfaces the engine’s high compression can lock the rear wheel and stall the engine.  The answer is to acquaint yourself with the arcane art of deploying the decompresser to prevent stalling. It’s an acquired knack needing a delicate touch but once mastered is a useful technique to know and might help avoid an embarrassing low speed spill.

DSC_0869

Pressed into service during a recent photo shoot for Bike magazine. The 640 was a used as a mule carrying photographer Chippy Woods tripods, lenses and cameras.

During my six month tenure with the KTM I’ve done one or two minor maintenance tasks such as wheel bearings and starter clutch and have to say the bike is , on the whole, a joy to work on. Well engineered, robustly made and sensibly laid out, the KTM is a quality product. The paintwork in particular is stunning, it looks like standard KTM orange from a distance but in fact has a subtle metallic flip flop effect which looks fantastic in sunlight. However, like most bikes, the 640 ain’t perfect and scores low in certain areas. Particularly annoying is the seat retaining bolt. KTM’s designers have seen fit to retain the seat by a single hex-headed 6mm bolt located in the centre of the rear wheel well facing downwards to the tyre , perfectly situated to get coated in mud and road crud off the rear wheel every time you ride the bike. The battery lives under the seat and it’s feasible you might need to access it when out on the trail and finding the bolt can be difficult. I’ve slotted the head on my seat bolt with a hacksaw and Araldited half a penny washer to it so a] so I can find it and b] so I don’t need to use a spanner to undo it.
Other gripes include the fiddly oil change and filling procedure. Google it if you’re curious. It involves [amongst other things] bleeding air out of the frame via a hard to access bleed screw in the headstock. No big deal but not exactly user friendly or intuitive.
I would also criticise the left hand kickstart [OK it’s got a leccy starter so perhaps I’m being picky] the overly fierce front brakes – great on the road but a liability off it – and finally ,and this is a big one, a disappointing lack of flywheel mass. KTM are not the only manufacturer who are guilty of this. Yamaha, BMW , Suzuki and Honda all make big singles which are lacking in the trouser department when it comes to flywheels. The result is an engine which needs knocking down a gear on long ascents and judders when asked to cope with large throttle openings at low revs. On tight nadgery trails this is exacerbated by the large jump between 2nd and 3rd gears. A decent flywheel would solve all this.
The problem is, on all these bikes, the space normally occupied by a flywheel is now taken up by an electric starter sprag clutch mechanism. I suppose it’s the price of progress and instead of firing every lampost, modern big singles now thrive on revs and make their torque higher up the register. I’m afraid it’s the modern way. The sprag clutch  is notoriously fragile and mine needed replacing almost as soon as I got the bike. Starter clutch life can be prolonged by using the decompresser briefly whilst spinning the engine up on the starter motor. Pop the decompresser off and the engine usually fires instantly.
In summary I’m extremely happy with the 640 Adventure, it’s a true dual purpose bike in that it’s capable of being driven very long distances on the road, up to 300 miles with its 28 litre tank, and still make a decent fist of tackling quite technical trails when you get to your trail riding destination. Most important is that it’s actually fun to ride, unlike some of the 250kg big traillies which have to be treated with a great deal of respect on loose surfaces. Of course the larger capacity bikes will cover big miles cosseting the rider in a way the 640 Adventure could never hope to match but if you’re looking for a bike which is genuinely enjoyable to ride on or off the road you could do a lot worse than look out for a used Adventure.

Pye corner

And some final food for thought. These original 640 Adventures are starting to be seen as classics and hold their value very well. You can’t beat a bit of depreciation-free fun.

A Horse-Drawn Man.

At the risk of sounding  Luddite or a member of the Flat Earth Society I just don’t understand the growing trend among off-road enthusiasts to depend on GPS devices for navigation. Don’t get me wrong, I think Satnavs are fantastic devices. They’ll get you around the European road network quickly and efficiently, just bang in the destination postcode and off you go. But for trail riding? Nope, I just don’t get it.
One of the joys of organising a day out in the Great British countryside is the anticipation and planning. And for me, there are few greater pleasures in life than pouring a nice glass of red and poring over a 1:25,000 OS map planning a journey into the wild blue yonder.

I’m one of those fortunate people who can look at contour patterns and immediately visualise the surrounding terrain, it’s by no means a special or unusual skill but in my experience not everyone can do it. Once I’ve picked out a likely route I’ll scan the surrounding area of the map looking for points of interest potentially worthy of a diversion such as hill forts or Roman ruins. I’ll also be looking for signs of distinctive topography such as rocky outcrops, Trig points, woodland, rivers etc to use as sense-checks should we get lost. Can you do this on a 4” LCD screen? Not very easily. The spatial awareness provided by studying the wider picture of places you want to go is a key component in effective navigation.

On a more practical level the thought of being in the middle of nowhere with a dead Satnav battery or loss of GPS signal is also unappealing. I appreciate the loss of signal is rare nowadays but the fact remains you are relying upon someone / something else to guide you and if there’s one thing trail riding teaches you, it’s to be self sufficient. SYOSO as they say. By contrast, a paper map is absolutely 100% reliable. No moving parts or Lithium crystals y’see.

Without trying to be a smart-arse I recently posted a comment on a well known off-road forum asking for GPS advocates to summarise the key benefits of satellite-aided navigation over paper maps. It was a genuine request because I honestly believed I might be missing out on something. Aside from predictably stupid comments about non-technology users being in the Dark Ages the answers were as interesting as they were unconvincing. They ranged from being able to provide evidence against potential prosecution for Rights of Way infringements to having all the OS maps stored in a convenient handy-to-access device. Let me tell you, it’ll be a sad day when I start recording what I do in case I later need to refer to it in a court of law. Not only that but having instant access to a detailed map of Weymouth harbour when I’m lost somewhere in the Welsh Marches is of questionable benefit.
The other flaw in the GPS argument is the data being used to compile the routes is not necessarily infallible. To be fair, the same could be said of OS paper maps . Even the so-called definitive rights-of-way maps used by local authorities can be found wanting in providing reliable information. The only way around this is to get out there and do the ground work, speak to locals , carefully research routes and then get down to your local authority to check. I suspect this is the last thing the upcoming generation of young trail riders brought up on easy-to-access information and instant gratification want to hear but that’s the way it is. You still need to put the leg work in whether you’re all teched-up with a Garmin Geek-o-Matic Lone Ranger Tech Trail Gen 2. v8.5 or whether you choose to navigate by sextant and compass. It’s one of the things I love about trail riding. It ain’t easy and that’s what makes it so satisfying.

Touratch road book holder. OK , I admit it, I'm an analogue kind of a guy...

Touratch road book holder. OK , I admit it, I’m an analogue kind of a guy…

Years spent competing in long distance trials taught me the value of decent route notes transcribed into a crude short hand and loaded into a road book holder. A road book holder is a simple handlebar mounted device which basically contains a very long roll of paper upon which you put your notes. Expensive road book holders have a facility to scroll the notes by means of an electric motor. Being a horse-drawn man I favour a manual scrolling system [ie you turn a handle with your left hand] but the model I have does have the luxury of integral lighting, green l.e.d.s providing subtle diffused lighting, easy on the eyes and essential for night time navigation. For an event like the Land’s End Trail I would transcribe 350 miles/20 hours worth of route notes onto a 25′ roll of paper and expect to complete the event without a single navigational error. I reckon that’s a pretty good argument for the efficacy of paper maps and road books. My Touratech unit was very expensive [about £100] twenty years ago but it’s never let me down. It’s been crashed , bashed and even fully immersed in a river on one occasion but it’s still providing reliable service. All it needs to drive it is a map and a brain.

To me , a satnav is an unjustifiably complex version of a route book holder, better in some ways but flawed in others. It will augment a map but woe betide those who come to depend on them and eschew the paper map. One day your choice will bite you on the bum.
For the time being I think I’ll stick with what I’ve got.

You won't believe this but the road book holder stopped at exactly the same point on the route notes as where this crash occurred. Spooky.

You won’t believe this but the road book holder stopped at exactly the same point on the route notes as where this crash occurred. Spooky.

New Kid on the Block

Stretton anon

There’s a new addition to the AdventureRide fleet – a KTM 640 Adventure. The Adventure was KTM’s initial take on the big trail bike theme, at least it was until they launched the 950, which was a more appropriate corporate response to the ubiquitous BMW GS . To put it in context, the 640 Adventure is the bike Ewan and Charlie really wanted for their round the world motorcycle glamping trip before being lured away by BMW’s more TV-savvy marketing department. The 640 Adventure is more Barry McGuigan than Bruno and gives away almost 100kgs to the Bavarian bruiser . No doubt Ewan and Charlie figured a lighter bike such as the KTM might provide more scope for carrying laptops, camera equipment, Satphones,  a Corby trouser press, a Yurt and all that other essential motorcycle touring equipment they toted about with them. Not to mention a weighty script…
Joking apart, I like the GS and, having owned an R80 G/S back in the day confess to having a soft spot for the early air-cooled models . My good chum Craig has a new 1200 Adventure and by any yardstick you care to measure it by, it’s a spectacular and extremely capable motorcycle. Choosing an adventure bike was a toss up twixt an 1150 GS [the only derivate my meagre budget would allow] or a middleweight 600.
My problem, when choosing an adventure bike is this;  I’ve got a dodgy back and shoulder and if I dropped a GS [which would be inevitable given the amount of trail miles I travel] , there is no way I could pick it up again. No, I needed something lighter and when you start to look at what’s available in middleweight adventure bikes the choice is very narrow. In the end it boiled down to Yamaha’s excellent 660 Tenere, a Kawasaki KLR . a Beemer 650 Dakar [21″ front wheel] or a KTM 640. I’ve not ridden either of the Jap bikes [although I had an MZ fitted with the 660 engine which I liked very much], I like the Beemer’s engine but even the 650 is still a bit heavy for me. I’d ridden a 640 Adventure when they first came out and I knew they were good . The KTM won.

KTM

Tall, wide and handsome. And that’s just the rider. Hepco and Becker Gobi panniers. Would you believe these have a tap arrangement on the outside of the case and hold 3 litres of fluid in the sidewall of each pannier. I always knew there was something missing from my motorcycling life and now I know what it is.

Riding the 640 is like being aboard a very torquey set of stepladders. It really is unfeasibly tall and riding it home from the vendor’s house found myself looking across into the cabs of HGVs, nodding knowingly at the drivers as we surveyed lesser road users from our lofty perches. To me it feels like the World’s Tallest Motorcycle but despite the high c of g the KTM handles superbly. I’m not sure how big trail bikes manage this , but manage it they do. It’s a well known phenomenon that GSs and such like will handle a twisty road as well as a sports bike and presumably this is one of the reasons for the extraordinary growth in the adventure bike sector. Your average modern adventure bike is quick, it’ll stop well, go round corners and take you and the missus plus the kitchen sink across continents, you really can have your cake and eat it, and if you’ve got some Hepco Becker Gobis with optional taps you can make yourself a brew to go with it. Try doing that on an R6.

So, what’s not to like? Ah well, I was just coming to that…
The thing with adventure bikes is they don’t work very well off road in the UK. I emphasise the UK bit in case I get sackfuls of hate mail from disgruntled GS owners, fresh back from epic trips across the Namibian desert . In Blighty our green lanes are more often than not , brown lanes and full of thick, gooey mud . Heavy bikes laden with luggage and equipped with 50/50 road and trail tyres can find themselves floundering in these claggy conditions. This is where I come in and neatly brings me to the reason I’ve bought the KTM. I’ve been putting together some routes specifically aimed at adventure bikes which avoid treacherous , energy sapping ,muddy trails and allow these bikes to shine at what they do best, covering big mileages and able to cope with poorly surfaced roads and hard packed trails. The routes I’ve picked can be navigated on dual purpose tyres and will give an opportunity for adventure bike owners to sample some proper trail riding and get their bikes dirty without having to spend half the day extricating it from a Welsh bog. We’re going to be clocking up some big miles whilst taking in some of the ancient Welsh droving routes on the high overland trails. It’ll be great and it’s going to add a new dimension to AdventureRide . I’m looking forward to the possibility of 350 mile days and perhaps even making it across the mountains to the coast during a typical ride. All you’ll need is a big trail bike and a sense of adventure. Full details will be up on the website quite soon, in the meantime has anybody got a pair of platform boots I can borrow?

Coates pegs 2

Tank

We’ll be avoiding this kind of stuff when we go out with the adventure bikes. This is Strata Florida in Wales after a very dry summer… I kid you not. Imagine this in February. Some people like this kind of stuff. I don’t. There’s no skill involved, it’s just a war of attrition between man and mud.

Ossa Explorer. Caveat Emptor.

After being off the road for nigh on ten months the Ossa Explorer has finally been returned to Ossa following a refund of the purchase price. Last May, after numerous relatively minor but very inconvenient problems the bike suffered main bearing failure which Ossa, to their credit, repaired quite promptly.
Unfortunately the bike then suffered a catastrophic rear suspension failure at which point I decided I’d had enough. It’s regrettable because I feel the Explorer had great potential but the bike highlighted the problems faced by small, specialist manufacturers trying to bring technically advanced products to market whilst having limited development resources available.

Bob Ridgeway

Happier days, exploring on the Explorer

Based on Ossa’s successful TR280i trials bike the Explorer should in theory be a great bike. Unfortunately the conditions a trail bike operates in are very different than a trials bike and bolting on a dual seat, an extra tank and set of lights to a competition trials bike simply isn’t enough to effect a transition from hard core trials iron to a credible all day cross country machine. My experiences with the bike left me feeling Ossa failed to appreciate the wider implications of building a bike which targeted customers outside their core customer base of club trials riders . One which would bring the company into contact with customers with potentially higher expectations of sales and service support…
For a start trail bikes are more likely to cover more miles at higher revs for longer periods . Buzzing along at 6000rpm in top gear on a stretch of dual carriageway is a world away from plonking around a disused quarry using short busts of throttle to climb over a trials section. I’m sure the premature main bearing failure suffered by my bike can be at least partly attributed to sustained high rpm on the road in conjunction with the very meagre 100 to 1 pre mix ratio stipulated by Ossa.

The 280i trials gearbox ratios fitted to the Explorer [ie five ultra close ratios topped off by a very tall sixth] made keeping up with the customer Pamperas on the road sections very hard work . The Ossa never seemed to have the right gear available for the job in hand. When climbing hills on the road it was either falling off the torque curve in top or screaming its nuts off in fifth. Not pleasant. I even tried gearing it up so I didn’t actually have to use sixth but to no avail. It was never happy. When Gas Gas developed the Pampera they had the good sense [and presumably the development budget] to build it with a proper wide ratio set of gears. It makes a huge difference.

The rear suspension failure is a very different and potentially very dangerous ball game. For some reason Ossa equip the 280i/Explorer with plain bushes in the connecting linkages. Why Ossa chose to plough this lonely furrow whilst almost every other manufacturer uses needle rollers in this application is anybody’s guess. It could be down to weight saving, cost or simply limited space but whatever the reason it’s a potentially flawed concept. As far as I could tell the bushes in my dog bone linkages seized causing the dog bones to shear under stress resulting in complete rear suspension collapse. This trashed the expensive silencer and the rear tyre, not to mention dumping me on my backside in the middle of nowhere.
A quick trawl of the web revealed sheared dog bones is a more common fault than Ossa would care to admit. I’ve even seen the dog bones being sold on an Ossa dealer’s website alongside consumables such as bushes and bearings. Now if that isn’t an admission something is fundamentally wrong with Ossa’s suspension design I don’t know what is. The problem is , if the Explorer’s suspension unexpectedly fails on a busy road [by no means an unlikely scenario on a trail bike] the results could be potentially fatal. Given the Explorer is being sold as a dual purpose road/off road bike this could have very serious implications for a small company like Ossa . A larger manufacturer would have done a product recall long before the law suits started piling up.

Ossa mudguard

This is where the problems started. The rear mudguard dropped off , which dragged the wiring loom onto the tyre, which stretched the loom and caused problems with the ignition which….well I won’t go on about it. Suffice to say it cost me my entry into the Land’s End Trial.

In summary, I rode the Explorer on seventeen trail rides. It broke down on four of them and suffered numerous minor component failures before snapping its rear suspension. It became completely non-viable to operate as part of a trail riding business. In stark contrast, doing exactly the same work, the trusty Pamperas kept plonking on, day in day out. So what next? Well, having now made some space in the workshop hitherto occupied by a dead Ossa I’ve resurrected my old ’98 MK2 Pampera . I suspect these early Pamperas [which are more trials orientated than the later MK3s on the hire fleet] probably provided the initial inspiration to Ossa’s engineers when they created the Explorer concept. The Pampera is 18 kg heavier than the Explorer but, like the MK3s they’re a tough old bus with an excellent reliability record. I used this bike for long distance trials and it was the machine I used to do all the initial exploration of the AdventureRide routes. It’ll do for me.

DSC_6209

The legendary MK 2 Pampera, now becoming quite collectable. The original ‘cheats ‘ bike in long distance trials. Seen here wearing it’s handlebar-mounted Touratech route book holder. Welcome back old friend.

Everything but the kitchen sink.

Thankfully we have an excellent reliability record at AdventureRide. I like to think this is a combination of careful maintenance coupled with the Pampera’s inherent ruggedness – bear in mind the Pamperas get ridden by a wide range of riders from novices to experts and lead a pretty hard life. They get crashed and bashed and generally get knocked about. Despite this the bikes take it in their stride and just keep going

By way of contrast when the Ossa was on the fleet I used to leave the van on permanent standby with a spare bike in it in order to deal with whatever problem the Explorer might throw at me . At one stage I even gave a key for the van to a retired friend who offered to act as an emergency call-out should I find myself on some remote trail with a dead Ossa. I recall the van  being deployed on four of the seventeen occasions I rode the bike.  In fact,I ever since the Explorer err….retired itself from active service 10 months ago [more news about that little fiasco in the not too distant future] the fleet Pamperas have enjoyed a 100% reliability record. It was therefore a bit of a surprise to be out on a ride yesterday and find myself dealing with a serious show-stopping breakdown – I should point out at this stage the three customers were all highly experienced riders had all brought along their own bikes, two Honda XRs and Suzuki DRZ. All three bikes were well- prepped and fit for purpose but one of the Hondas, having behaved impeccably all day, threw a wobbler on the return leg of the trip. The problem appeared to be a dropped valve or a slipped cam chain or similar. Whatever it was, it was beyond the scope of a trail side repair and we had to work out how to get the bike and rider home from a remote sector of the England / Wales border.

Smiles all round as the the team optimistically set about finding the source of the problem.

Smiles all round as the the team optimistically set about finding the source of the problem. From left to right, Roy , Tony and Jason. All good men and true.

Ten minutes later the gravity of the situation dawns...

Ten minutes later the gravity of the situation dawns…

If you look at the bag attached to the front of Jason’s XR you will see it’s a common or garden enduro-style bum bag. Or is it? I’m not so sure … Mary Poppins sprung to mind as Jason’s bag spewed forth a baffling array of cables, levers, hydraulic lines , tools , nuts bolts and spares for just about every conceivable problem which might be encountered on a trail. Sadly, none of which could deal with a dropped valve and then, just as I was contemplating the logistical nightmare of rescuing a dead bike from the middle of nowhere Jason held aloft….wait for it…. a tow rope! I could have kissed him. I thought I was a bit OTT about carrying spares and tools for every occasion but clearly Jason has taken it to a whole new level. This is a man you need by your side when going trail riding.

Now,towing a bike with another bike can be tricky unless both tower and towee know their onions. No worries on this score. Within a few minutes we were under way with Tony confidently towing Jason back to civilisation and his bike trailer. I’m not saying there weren’t a few hairy moments on the way home but one way or another we all got home safely.

Towing the line. The lengths some people go to to save ten bob on fuel.

Towing the line. The lengths some people go to to save ten bob on fuel.

Which brings me to the point of this post, just how much kit should you take on a trail ride? Well here’s my starter for ten;

1] Tow rope. Light, cheap and versatile. It’s just gone to the top of my list.

2] Tyre levers

3] Front tube [which can also be used as a rear in an emergency]

4] Tube repair kit, in case the unthinkable happens and you puncture the spare tube. You wouldn’t be the first…

5] All the spanners necessary for front and rear wheel removal- and don’t forget the spanners/allen keys  for the front axle  pinch nuts and the caliper bolts.

6] Gaffer tape and tie wraps. You’d be amazed what can be patched up with these two simple constituents

7] Good quality mountain bike pump. Forget fancy Co2 cannisters and such like, go analogue, a pump will always get you home.

8] Spare clutch and brake levers

9] Spare throttle cable[s] and clutch cable if it’s non hydraulic

10]Two litres of fuel.

11]Spare split link

There’s always more of course but this little lot will do for starters. Happy riding!

Jason prays to the holy spirit of Soichiro Honda for divine inspiration. None came.

Jason prays to the holy spirit of Soichiro Honda for divine inspiration. None came.

We also got a bit of riding in. Tony gets his boots wet...

We also got a bit of riding in. Tony gets his boots wet…

Chain Reaction

The past few weeks at AdventureRide have been intense. Lots of rides with groups of three and four riders have meant the bikes have been worked  very hard. For me , this means lots of cleaning and lots of preventative maintenance followed by long days in the saddle. Yeah , yeah, it’s a tough job etc etc… but no, honestly , it is.

Steve, Richard and Simon

Steve , Richard and Simon. Stiperstones in the background.

Joe

Like I said in the opening paragraph, the bikes have been working hard!

Many years ago I worked  for one of the world’s largest truck operators and saw first hand the importance of effective fleet management.  The consequences of a breakdown in the truck industry is invariably expensive and occasionally dangerous. So how does the macro level of world fleet management translate to the micro level of a tiny rural trail riding business? Well you’d be surprised.

When working at Ryder System I was often impressed by the accuracy of the maintenance expenditure forecasts provided by the fleet engineers. This information had been garnered from experience of running thousands of trucks over millions of miles maintained with rigorous attention to detail. After a while patterns of wear and tear emerge and it starts to become easy to predict when a clutch will be needed or a gearbox is likely to need an overhaul. And so it is with my tiny little fleet of Gas Gas Pamperas. They are becoming boringly predictable. Now remember, when you run a fleet of trail bikes which take you and groups of customers to the back of beyond, boring is Good and surprises are Bad.

Chains , sprockets , wheel bearings , shock linkages, tyres, water pump seals all wear out with monotonous regularity. It’s the cost of doing business. But now here’s a thing, as a fleet operator albeit of  a very tiny fleet, I’m always looking for improvements and ways to extend the service life of components. The two main consumable components on a trail bike are chains and wheel bearings. I took a pragmatic approach to wheel bearings and worked out their tragically short life expectancy had very little to do with quality and everything to do with operating environment. Having done exhaustive field tests [ie riding bikes across lots of fields] I can report high quality branded bearings such as NTN, SKF or FAG wear out just as quickly as unbranded Eastern European bearings. Regular dousings in the river Onny three or four times a week coupled with  healthy dollops of Shropshire clay and mud being compacted against the outer seals will see off the even the finest Japanese made precision bearing just as quick as its Eastern Bloc counterpart. And so I now fit cheap bearings.

Andy2

This is what does yer bearings and chains in but who cares? It’s great fun.

Chains are different. The old maxim, buy cheap, buy twice definitely applies here. For years I’ve sworn by Regina O ring ‘Enduro chains’. Not cheap, but tough as old boots needing only minor adjustment after each ride, my only gripe about the Regina Enduro chain is it generates quite a lot of transmission drag, an inevitable consequence of tightly fitted O rings, which is the only way to keep muck out.  For some strange reason I was tempted away from good old Regina by the beguiling blurb put out on t’interweb by Ognibene [pronounce Ognee-benny, not Ognee-bean as I’ve heard some folks say]

Ognibene’s marketing puts out a very convincing argument for their X ring off road chain, primarily focusing on the low drag attributes of their product. And so I bought a couple . They were almost exactly the same price as the Regina chain and so the decision making process was driven by the potential for improved performance rather than a reduction in operating costs.

To say the Ognibene chains wore at an alarming rate would be an understatement. Within half a dozen rides I’d used up all the considerable adjustment available on the Gas Gas and had to remove a link.  Last week whilst out with a group of customers one of the Ognibene’s shed its centre link neatly depositing the chain in a ford, languishing like a dead eel in the gently lapping water. Fishing it out of the stream I could tell from the side to side slop the chain was on its last legs [see pic below]. I haven’t checked the riding log but I’d be surprised if the chain had been used more than a twelve times. A quick check on the second chain revealed its centre link had become dangerously loose and was also in imminent danger of self ejecting. Fortunately I’d packed a couple of spare links and ten minutes later we were on our way with the detached chain refitted and a contingency in place should the second also throw its hand in. As soon as the bikes were back at base I removed both chains and lobbed them in the bin, ordering up a couple of Regina Old Faithfuls to replace them. Rather annoyingly, I’d written to the Ognibene supplier a couple of weeks earlier politely expressing concern at the rate of wear and didn’t get the courtesy of a reply or an acknowledgement.  Don’t you just hate it when that happens? Shame on you Bike Torque Racing for not responding to your customers, and double shame on Ognibene for producing sub standard stuff.

Ognibene

I wouldn’t have believed this was possible. This folks , is an Ognibene X ring chain after a dozen rides. That’s a 100 link chain sideways bent into an arc 92cm long. That’s some serious degradation in such a short time! A complete waste of money…

Which brings me neatly to the point of this particular blog – I’ve now decided to introduce a regular product review element into the posts. It occurred to me I’m in a fairly unique position to assess off road motorcycling products due to the shear amount of hours I’m out on the trails . So, if you’ll indulge me I’m going to vary the ‘voice’ of the blog and provide some hopefully meaningful reviews rather than the thinly-veiled advertorials you find on forums when you search for product reviews.

Here’s a quickie for starters;

Park Tool TL 5 Heavy Duty Steel Levers.

The term ‘heavy duty’ in this instance us a misnomer . This is because is these levers are aimed at cyclists, not trail riders. Park Tools have an excellent reputation in the cycling world and amongst other things produce a range of professional tools for everyday use in bike shops with a well deserved reputation for outstanding quality. I know this because I was in the bicycle business for twenty years. I must confess I have had a set of these levers for years in my cycling tools and never used them, consequently they’ve been hung up gathering dust on the garage wall

It was only when my normal motorcycle tyre levers escaped  through a hole in the tail pack a few weeks back that I started packing the Park levers as  emergency backup. Last week we had a puncture out on the trail  and so the levers were deployed for the first time.  I have to say these levers are the best I’ve ever used on motorcycle tyres. The narrow nose and neatly curved lip make them ideal for getting under the bead of a close fitting trials tyre. They’re a wee bit over-engineered for cycle use and this is what makes them perfect for trail riding. They’re definitely man enough for what we want.

At 200mm long they fit neatly into an Acerbis tool pack …whaddya mean 200mm isn’t very long? If you can’t change a bike tyre using 200mm levers then you’re doing it all wrong.  I’m so impressed with them  I’ve ordered a spare set in case the first set also make a bid for freedom  out on the trail. Prices on the web vary so be if you buy a set be sure to shop around. Expect to pay around £17.

DSC_6973

Initial deployment of the Park TL5s. Is there anything worse than fixing a puncture in front of an audience? Well I suppose it could have been raining as well… Customers Simon and Richard take the opportunity to have a quick break.

Park levers

Park TL5s, I’d say these are a must for any serious trail rider. Beautifully made ,very effective and not too heavy. A definite five stars review. *****