BMW Performance Center US Rider Academy
March 21-22, 2015
I had been looking forward to this trip ever since I purchased my R1200GS back in October. I knew after winter disappeared my options for getting to places that I could ride off road would open up. I was excited to go because I had never, ever been off road riding to any extent, but knew that was what my bike was made for – adventuring. I did try a tight pack gravel road once (sitting down the whole time), and I did go off into some mud near my house for about 60 seconds before I dropped my bike hitting a washout. That sucked. So, I wanted to get trained by the best at the BMW Performance Center US Rider Academy.
The Academy I attended is in Greer, SC located next to the relatively new BMW plant that produces all the X series crossovers and SUVs. Otherwise, you have Spartanburg to the north or Greenville to the south. I stayed in Greenville at a Hampton Inn, which was about a 15-minute ride to the facility. Greenville has experienced a renaissance since BMW moved to town and the down town area is quaint, well maintained, and suited for tourist. There are lots of places to eat and see. From home, this was about a 425-mile ride, and although both going and coming were long, they were good rides in decent weather.
The Performance Center serves several functions, including new vehicle delivery, on and off road courses for both motorcycles and BMW’s entire lineup. It was fun to watch the M series cars tear up the asphalt. The off road portion of the facility wraps around the main building and asphalt track and spans several hundred acres. It is paradise for both easy and challenging riding.
My class was small, starting with six students (more on that later), and we had three instructors and one fourth guy working on becoming an instructor. We always had someone close by the help and provide encouragement. The entire staff was amazing and the “Challenge by Choice” basis for their training breeds true in everything they teach. If you’re not comfortable doing something, simply say, “I am going to sit this one out” and there is not so much of a comment. That’s fine. In cases where I did sit out, I usually didn’t just sit, but puttered around in the periphery by myself.
I rented a motorcycle from them for $350, the same bike I have. It was set up with the windshield and mirrors off and the handlebars rotated up and controls down. We were to be on the pegs all weekend and this configuration provided the most comfort and control standing up. I preferred renting so I wouldn’t be falling off my own bike all day. Plus, I had TKC70s on, which weren’t really meant for what we were doing – gnarly stuff!
The class was at the onset challenging, which started at 8am on day one with a brief about the bike, balancing the bike with our fingertips, walking around the bike, and learning how to pick up the bike after falling. We were also told not to try and pick up the bike by ourselves and instead, use whoever is riding behind you to help pick up the bike. Most of us dropped the bike several times over the weekend.
Next was easy ride around the facility to a large packed gravel area where we practiced slow speed maneuvering, getting to know and trust the bike, and learning how to shift our weight to balance on tight turns. I was thrilled from the beginning to be on loose gravel and seeing the TKC80 tires grip just fine. We practiced our balancing techniques by changing positions on the bike while riding, going from side saddle on one side to side saddle on the other in steps, never stopping and going around in a big rectangle. I thought there is no way, but I did and felt very comfortable learning how to become one in balance with the bike. Later in the morning continued with slow speed maneuvering in the gravel, riding around in tighter turns, going through slaloms, and small boxes. It was a good confidence builder.
Before heading in for lunch we conducted what would be called “enduro rides” around the facility, which consisted of going through single track trails that took us into the woods and around tight turns in a real environment to practice what we had just learned. All of the enduro rides were that way, applying what we had just learned.
We all headed in and were all pressure washed from the knees down to get all the mud off before going in for lunch. Lunch was buffet style, but amazing!! We took a break for an hour or so and after eating I explored the main building, shopping at the gift shop, and then relaxing a bit before the afternoon started. The place was quite crowded with drivers and driver instructors. We off road ADVers looked like a motley crew and got lots of stares.
Before we started the afternoon however, we had our first drop out. He simply stated this was not for him and did not want to get hurt. Everyone respected that. We were then five students.
The afternoon started with another warmup enduro ride to “shake our food down.” This ride took us to new parts of the grounds that included a packed mud/sand mixture that was fun to “braaaap” on and throw up a rooster tail. Next, we rode some washboard and through ruts simulated by four by fours layed out in parallel. Then we did some whoopties that were muddy as hell and I slipped and slid all over the place, but never dropped the bike. So far, that had been the most challenging. The day seemed to go very quickly and before you know it we were headed in around 4pm after another enduro ride. I managed to make it to the last 15 minutes of the day before I dropped my bike for the first time. I was pretty proud of that.
I went back to the hotel that night excited for more, but tired and sore as hell. You really have to be a good shape, and I was not.
The next morning I almost could not get out bed. I was still tired and sore. But, I did. After breakfast at the hotel, I rode in the rain back to the facility. I was thinking, oh boy, here we go. This should make the day interesting, but it stopped raining just as got there and was told it was so light, the rain really should not have affected the course. Then, I learned we lost a second student, who called it quits at the end of the previous day. We also picked up another instructor for some reason or another, so now we had four students and four staff folk with us. Not bad. Did I mention these guys were awesome?
The next day is kind of blur, well, to be honest, I was tired and sore, and my anxiety was up because the instructors told us day two was more challenging and because the rain heaped more water on the mud holes from the previous day, I was a tad worried. I won’t go into the lunch (but it was as delicious as the first day) and just try to list the exercises we learned.
In the morning I recall we learned how the bikes handle and feel under different braking situations. We would lock up the front tire briefly, then we would lock up the rear alone. We braked with ABS on and then with ABS off. Then we did full on emergency braking. We learned to stop going up a hill, by stalling the bike, and recovering, but using the dead engine compression to creep down using only the clutch. We also learned hills, shifting our body forward going up and leaning back coming down, all while under control. We also learned how to start standing up from each side. I really enjoyed these exercises, all of them.
I recall the afternoon we had to learn to go through deep, loose gravel, which I seemed to have no problem with when going too fast (they told me to slow down – “Ride fast! Crash Fast!” they said. OK. I slowed down and completely sucked, dropping the bike several times. Next, was deep sand with similar results. Sand really sucks as anyone who’s been through can tell you. I think the secret is speed personally. Get the weight back on the bike, be loose with the grips, and gun in. Then, mud. More of the same, only worse. Deep mud, with the bike squirming all around underneath was challenging for everyone. We ended day two with a full enduro lap for which I opted out and rode off with one of the instructors for a “lite” lap, which I appreciated. By the end of day two, I was totally exhausted and simply not as good as the other three guys.
We had a brief closing ceremony where we were given our certificates and bag of SWAG, which included a BMW ballcap and t-shirt, and other small stuff.
This group really bonded, students and instructors alike. We were all challenged and stuck together and encouraged each other. Of the four students that finished I was definitely the slow kid, but I never felt and pressure, or judged in any way. I think bikers in general have a simple, foundational respect for fellow riders, despite their abilities, but ADV riders are somewhat of a breed apart I think. There’s a bit of fun-loving, risk-taking in there, but also the realization that you are not going to do something crazy if you know you shouldn’t.
In closing, I think this course was amazing. I learned a ton and cannot wait for my FIRST off road adventure. Here’s a video if you’d like to take a longer look. I tried to hit everything, but found I missed a lot on video.