There was a period of about three seconds from the point where my large Tiger left the ground and went flying perfectly through the air to the point where it all went south. Or in this case, it went sideways. Very, very, sideways.
Behind me was a fine gentleman by the name of Mike Shetler, who saw the whole scene from atop his BMW F 800 GS.
“Dude, for a split second you looked cool as hell flying through the air," he informed me. "You really had that big bike airborne. And then, you crashed. It would have looked cooler if you had landed it.”
I laughed and thanked him for his sage advice as he helped me pick up my Triumph Tiger 800 XCx.
It had been about six months since the Tiger had seen the dirt and my off-road chops had grown rusty over the winter. I decided I should sharpen them before heading out to Moab, Utah, to ride a Honda Africa Twin. While scouring the Internet for maps of off-road trails through the Pine Barrens, I stumbled upon the website for the Pine Barrens Adventure Camp Riding School. I'd always wanted to go to the RawHyde Adventures Camp, but distance always seemed to intervene. PBAC, however, was just 45 minutes outside of Philadelphia in the heart of New Jersey.
Figuring it couldn’t hurt to call, I dialed the number on my screen and before I knew it I was engrossed in conversation with an enthusiastic character named Jack O’Conner. Jack impressed me with his passion for motorcycling and his desire to further off-road experiences for East Coast riders. In addition to providing educational opportunities, he and his business partner, Michael Bradway, fight to preserve the right to keep local trails and roads accessible to motorcycles and work to organize large off-road rallies, like the Pine Barrens 500. By the end of the conversation, I had signed up for the two-day Dirt 101 course.
The cost for the course was $550, which included two days of instruction and riding, water, lunch on both days and dinner on Saturday night. I also shelled out an additional $60 for a room at the Hammonton Econolodge for Saturday evening and a few hundred dollars for a set of Continental Twinduro TKC80s for the Tiger. (My Mitas E-07 tires were about shot and I wanted to try something more aggressive for off-road riding.)
I arrived in Nesco, N.J., just before 8 a.m. which made me about 30 minutes early. Surveying the course, I noted deep sand trenches, dirt trails, two-by-four boards to balance on, orange cones spread across a large field for cornering maneuvers, and in the distance a privately owned motocross track which we would get to use the following day.
As Jack and Mike want riders to become familiar with their own machines, rental bikes are not an option. While the course is intended to help riders learn to control large ADV bikes, any street-legal dual-sport is welcome. As I looked around, it was clear that the BMW R 1200 GS was the machine of choice, with Triumph Tiger 800 XCs and BMW F 800 GSs coming in a close second. A few of the one-offs included a Triumph Tiger Explorer, a Yamaha Super Ténéré, and some smaller KTMs and Huskys.
After introductions, coaches came around to everyone's bike with a bag of tools and an air pump. They helped riders set lever placement, bar height, and shifter location. Tire pressure on the big bikes was set at 28 psi in the rear and 26 psi up front. Peter Ryan, one of the coaches, helped me set up my Tiger. As Pete shared a very similar size and stature to my six-foot-three-inch, 205-pound frame and was a fellow Tiger owner, he had no problem offering tips and suggestions for adjustments. I was amazed by just how much these simple changes helped my riding off-road.
A steady rain was falling against a slate-gray sky as Mike began to walk us through the basics. We started with some general balancing exercises where Mike had us stand on the bike with the sidestand up to see how long we could balance the stationary motorcycle before having to drop a foot to the dirt. Sounds simple, right? Give it a try. If you can balance the bike for a solid three seconds, you're doing well. This started a trend that would carry through the rest of the weekend. Riders were to remain standing whenever they were on the bike. If you come to a stop only one foot was permitted on the ground.
Coaches were also on the prowl for riders ham-fisting the clutch and brake levers. A lot of riders tend to use all four fingers to grab their levers, which negatively affects their overall control of the machine. Remember, you want to have at least two fingers anchored around the grips at all times while using only your index, and possibly your middle finger, to control the brake and clutch. If you're not already riding like this, you should start practicing. You'll see huge gains in control both on- and off-road once you master this skill.
The first exercise of the day was braking. Riders were instructed to lock up their rear wheel in a straight line. We then progressed to pitching the bike sideways after a slide had been initiated, and lastly we practiced locking up the front brake and releasing it just before we crashed. In between braking runs with the coaches, riders were encouraged to free ride the course and practice balancing on slippery, rain-soaked two-by-fours.
The main exercise of the day came with the cornering drills. Mike took a lot of time introducing and explaining body positioning. We started with our bikes parked on center stands as instructors poked and prodded us to make sure we had the movements right before we ever set the bikes in motion. From there, we were instructed to navigate tight 180-degree turns around tall orange cones. Weight on the inside footpeg, elbows out, you'll want to position your body over the outside peg while pushing your outside knee into the tank. After practicing the basic motions, we started building speed and incorporating the braking drills by sliding the rear end around the corner.
The day's final drill was in deep sand, where riders were asked to "dab" a foot on the ground to keep balance while maintaining momentum with the bike. After a few passes we went for a short group ride to explore sandy trails and gravel pits hiding in the swamps of Jersey. Jack explained that while it is normally illegal to ride in the gravel pits, PBAC was granted a special exception from the state to allow for educational access.
Day one wrapped up with a group dinner at Frog Rock Country Club. After way too much food and drink we were shuttled back to our hotel where we all promptly fell asleep reflecting on the lessons of the day in preparation for those that were soon to follow.
With the sun shining, we all met on the field at 8 a.m. The morning began with a review of the previous day's exercises. Braking, turning, dabbing, all while building speed and cutting tighter turns. With our bodies and machines warmed up, we headed back to the deep sand trenches.
The first lesson of the day was to climb out of a deep trench while riding parallel to it. For this exercise riders followed along a 14-inch ledge before pushing the front end of our respective machines right into it. While incorporating the dabbing motion, we learned to trust ourselves as well as our machines as they slid back and forth in the sand before finally taking hold and launching us out of the pits. Attacking a berm head-on is one thing, but trying to navigate a 500-plus-pound ADV bike up a berm from the side is another thing altogether.
Everyone took turns falling over or getting stuck. Thus, we all made sure to take turns helping one another pick up these big bikes.
Once everyone had a chance to practice escaping a trench, we took turns navigating a vintage MX track where the instructors had set up a short course that incorporated a variety of skills. After a few laps, we set up for the final lesson of the day before heading out for a group ride.
We lined up at the base of a short, but steep, hill. It was a very quick uphill blast, followed by an almost immediate downhill descent. Both sides were relatively equal in their vertical pitch. Mike led this lesson by showing riders how to lean forward over the front of the bars to balance one's weight over the front tire while climbing the hill. He immediately shifted his weight to the back of the bike upon descending the other side. The trick was to match correct body positioning while maintaining a steady throttle. As a final challenge, we were asked to stop halfway up the hill and turn the bike around.
With the day's lessons complete, it was time to head out for a ride to practice our skills in the field. Jack led the group while Mike, Mani, and Pete filtered through, shouting out tips and making sure folks were maintaining the correct form. The ride was longer than the day before and we tackled everything from deep mud to deep sand. The previous day's lessons began to sink in. All that time we spent crashing, picking ourselves up, and trying again paid off. This second time around, we were landing the jumps that had previously escaped us. We were pushing through sandy corners calmly and confidently. I learned that playing it safe only gets you so far. Learning comes when we push ourselves past our comfort zone. If we push too far, well, that’s what crash protection is for.
As the weekend came to a close, we all said our goodbyes while making promises to see one another again soon. Our 48 hours together had solidified friendships born from a like-minded obsession for motorcycles and advancing our ability to handle them off-road. I now had 14 new friends to ride with and visit. Folks from as far away as Vermont and North Carolina had made the trek to attend the class. A small group of us plan to team up this year to run in the Pine Barrens 500 Rally while others talked of longer treks up along the Canadian border.
Riding home, I thought about how lucky it was that I had accidentally stumbled upon the PBAC website and how different my weekend would have been if I had just gone out riding around and practicing on my own. It is amazing to see how quickly my skills and confidence increased after just 48 hours of proper instruction. If you’re an East Coast rider and you’ve always wanted to get your big ADV bike dirty, but you weren’t sure where to start, you should check out the Dirt 101 class. For riders looking for an advanced experience to push your skills even further along, check out the Seven Mountains Adventure Resort in central Pennsylvania, where you'll build upon the lessons learned in Dirt 101. If you plan on attending this year's Pine Barrens 500 rally, I hope to see you there.
If you have additional recommendations for great educational opportunities, either on- or off-road, please make sure to pass them along in the comments section below. We’d love to hear about them.