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19th September 2007

Riding Classic Trail Bikes - Part 2
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Old bikes are often cheap bikes, which means you don't worry if they get a bit muddy. David Towers tells part two of a tale involving early eighties XL, DR and TS trailbikes...

The next week was spent putting the DR back together - the lights had more or less all quit, the exhaust was loose and blowing, the side stand was bent (shouldn't try and start it on the stand - silly boy!). The rear indicators were pointing in odd directions, and the kick start was going to snap off at any moment.

The lights were easy, bulbs and a couple of dodgy connectors (not mine either - miraculous!). The side stand responded well to gentle persuasion, and the kick-start got welded. Things were looking good for another go at the gentle art of trial bike destruction - do you think I should pitch it at channel four for future 'reality' show programming?

Note the rider struggling to get back on his feet after foolishly sitting down for two minutes rest. XL500 on left, DR400 at the back, TS250 on the right.

Then Foxxy threw another imponderable into the mix - a guy who could actually ride! Oh dear. Martin had been riding off-road since he were a sprog, had apparently even been sponsored at one time, and rode the most disreputable looking Honda XL250 Motorsport I have ever seen. He started stripping the paint on the tank (quite successfully I might add) about three years earlier, and… Well, that was as far as he got. So it was bare metal, and filler, and rust, and something green? The green bit is quite worrying - I'm sure it's growing. Did I mention rust? Oh, and rust.

Now I don't think Martin will mind me saying this - at some point in his formative years, he fell on his head. Probably more than once to be fair. He's had to give up his garage business, because - he's just had open heart surgery. Yes, really! Showed us the scars, basically from arsehole to breakfast time to misquote Dickens yet again. So you would expect him to be calm and placid, and wrap up warm, and wear sensible, protective gear, wouldn't you? Yes, of course you would.

But he doesn't. He wears an ancient helmet that wouldn't have passed a safety inspection in 1930, and a button-up shirt, and jeans. He does, to be strictly fair, do the buttons up. I'm going to make the leap here and say off-roaders are, as a breed, quite insane. But he can't half ride! Occasionally on two wheels, sometimes sitting on the seat as opposed to standing on it - very rarely both at the same time.

There was the odd 'look' exchanged between us, quite what had Mr Fox inflicted upon us this time?

So it was with some trepidation (not to mention gallows humour) that we set out for our second attempt on the same route as the previous week. And… well, what a difference a week makes. It had ceased raining for the majority of the week, and there was dust, lots of dust. When we got to lane three (we had started to call it 'the killer' privately, and its height, severity and sheer bloody impossibility had grown in our minds with the passing of each subsequent day) we just sailed up it. No water equals… traction. No brains equals… speed.

I've got a new favourite biking moment; dusty track, pretty level going, about six foot wide, third gear, lots of throttle and Mr Fox behind me. Wheel-spin is fun. Covering him in assorted elements more normally associated with the farm-yard, even more so!

So, this second week, bit of input into our riding (excuse me while I snigger) 'technique' from Martin - 'Bend Zee Knee's' he hollered repeatedly, like some demented ski instructor, and the total time for same journey - two hours.

Total cost for four coffees: £9.20. Ouch! Devon in the summertime, don'cha just love it?

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So, being cocky, we did the same route in reverse. Mr Fox fell off. Damage equalled one rear number plate, one mirror, one sense of humour. Yes, the normally placid and imperturbable Mr Fox spat his dummy, threw his toys out of the pram, etc, and his mirror sailed over someone's hedge, followed by cursing and swearing. Really, not quite the thing, old boy.

But we three others, we did the far, far better thing…. And laughed. Just not where he could see us - cowardice is often the better part of friendship, I feel.

A nice quiet day in the country. Quiet, that is, apart from the gasping for breath and groans of pain.

The next time out, it had rained - we are talking about summer in Devon after all - and several billion gallons of God's finest had landed everywhere we wished to be. So I fell off in the mud. Several times. Oh all right, about a dozen times. Just couldn't get the hang of shifting my weight to the back, keeping loose and staying on the throttle, while every instinct screams at you to brake like mad and hold on for dear life.

I blamed the suspension - far too stiff. Mr Fox, like the gentleman he is, refused to laugh at my dire attempts, instead choosing to congratulate me on the one lane I did complete without falling foul of gravity. I blamed the back brake (way too fierce, locks up constantly) while Steve chose to point out that my riding style looked like a spider monkey learning to crochet. Pah! I blamed the terrain and type of mud (symptoms of the old British rail there. Anyone remember their famous 'wrong type of leaves'?). Martin just sailed imperiously passed and for a change said nought.

The time after that Steve fell off in the mud, gently and with a casual grace uncommon in one so tall, and I fell off on the road. Never trust a Cheng Shin (give me a break - it was all I could afford!) rear tyre on the road, in the rain. Cor, didn't it hurt. Roads are really much harder than mud. First time I've fallen off on the road in many a year and I can categorically state that falling off sucks! And it makes your bum sore. And your elbow. And your wallet.

So. Off-roading, good or bad?

Brilliant! And this coming from a man who is sat awaiting the bill for the repair of one Ice cream truck (stand snapped on the DR while it was parked behind said van) with a dent in the side. I wouldn't advise the use of a classic British scrambler/trials iron, not unless your bank manager calls you 'Sir' as a matter of course. But, using a classic Japanese single from the late 70s or early 80s is a definite yes.

Off-roading is wickedly (say it quietly or they'll ban it) good fun. You slip and slither every which way, you learn how to steer the bike with your body weight, how to get traction - front or rear by the same method. How to use the bike's controls with a delicate touch. And all this at speeds which would barely trigger an egg-timer, let alone a speed camera!

Suddenly the thrill of being outside your comfort zone is back in your motorcycling. Over the years I guess we all become just a little complacent, a little too assured of our abilities on a bike. Like going on a training course, off-roading challenges our capabilities - always a good thing. Oh and did I mention that it's superb exercise? It is - trust me you will feel the burn! And on the morrow you will still have your head, but your body will ache so much, you may wish they were separate!

Downhill in the dry; the easy bit.

Your choice of bike is something on which you should expend copious amounts of thought: Steve's Honda is really too much bike for the terrain. The XL is top heavy and with way too much power. Not to mention that it has a 17 inch rear wheel - seriously limiting your choice of tyre, so pretty much only road-biased available. But man is it comfortable, just a bugger to start.

Mr Fox's Suzuki TS250 is superb: light, manoeuvrable, and blessed with ample two-stroke, low-down torque - not what you would expect at all. It's also delightfully easy to start, a definite advantage. And either Mr Fox is a superb, nay, superlative natural talent off road, or Messrs Michelin's pukka trials tyres are a distinct bonus.

And from what I can gather, those in the know rate the Suzuki DR400 as the best 'beginners' bike available. Four-stroke, so tractable and with plenty of power for those 'brave' moments, not too heavy, with good brakes and suspension. Just needs an electric starter. So I'm just rubbish off-road - right? Not quite, mine started out as a road bike and is blessed with dodgy rear suspension and a back brake that doesn't know the meaning of the words 'gentle braking'! A genuine DR should be just the job - and the later ones have electric starters.

So sometimes it pays to do that 'better thing'.

A little profit or a new, fun way to enjoy our hobby. I know which I prefer.


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