When it comes to exploring the Brecon Beacons, you can’t beat experiencing it by bike…
Measuring 835 square miles, the Brecon Beacons is quite simply massive. It’s one of the largest national parks in the UK and, undoubtedly, one of the most stunning. Especially when you start getting off the beaten track to see it from the less-travelled lanes and trails that criss-cross it like a spider’s web. Of course, most people don’t know about these routes and probably never will, unless they join the BMW Off Road Skills’ (ORS) Brecon Beacons Adventure.
Headed by 10-times Dakar competitor Simon Pavey, the world-renowned training centre is based in the small town of Ystalyfera, just north of Swansea. It’s famed for its three-tier adventure bike tuition, which takes place in an enormous private playground, perfectly suited to pushing the limits of anything and anyone. But a less well-known side of the company is its off-road adventures. With trips ranging from several days to several weeks, hosted in Australasia and Europe, ORS is the place to go if you want to get out and dirty on a motorcycle. Being limited by both time and money, I had to overlook the school’s Australian Savannah Way tour, but the popular Brecon Beacons Adventure seemed a more realistic trip. It takes place over two days, twice a year, and is open to anyone who’s completed the school’s Level One training course — a box I’d ticked a few years previous.
At the booking stage you can choose between any of BMW’s GS-range models. I’ve been lucky enough to go to the centre a few times and I always end up on an R1200GS; they never fail to amaze with their ability. But I’m less familiar with the F800GS — it lacks a lot of its bigger brother’s technology, which means you can’t depend as much on electronics to get you out of trouble, but I fancied a challenge so chose it for the trip.
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Simon Pavey introduced himself and his team to the group of all ages and sizes, giving a brief explanation of the more delicate intricacies of the trip and helping to divide us into three groups of riders, based on ability. Lumping everyone in the same group would have been carnage, and unpleasant for those who weren’t as confident on the rough. In my group were eight other riders, plus Simon and fellow instructor Chris Northover. A great pair of guys, they led us out in convoy on the local roads.
Ystalyfera sits in a valley, so whichever way you go leads you into the hills. Our bikes were fitted with off-road rubber, so the pace on the Tarmac was steady, but I wasn’t complaining. Wherever you looked, the views were stunning; lush green pastures with waterfalls and rock faces. Postcard stuff. But we weren’t there on a sightseeing trip, as was firmly reiterated when we suddenly branched off the main road and took to our first trail.
ORS puts no pressure on anyone to perform like a Dakar rider; the aim is fun. Despite being in the advanced group, the initial pace on the dirt was slow and considered. Wide tracked and overhung by trees, it didn’t take much riding to feel completely removed from civilisation; it was exciting and unnerving at the same time. Having clocked up a few miles, the trail ended and we found ourselves back on another remote and narrow road. It had been the perfect warm-up.
We’d come to ride trails, but there was a real pleasure in exploring the local, winding roads, which seemed devoid of traffic. Thirty minutes later we pulled up once more. We’d arrived at a hole in a hedge, not much wider than a bike. This was to be our first proper green lane and we set off one by one. The F800 is narrower than the GS, with the biggest advantage being its cylinders tucked away within its frame. The trail descended sharply, the tree stumps on each side of the steep banks etching outwards and catching the cylinders of the 1200cc riders. Now was the time to start concentrating, carefully determining the best route downwards while making sure not to apply too much front brake and lock the wheel.
The addition of deep ruts made the ride even more exciting, bouncing the bike all over the place and giving the impression that the GS was crossed up. It wasn’t, but by the time I’d reached the bottom of the slope, I felt like I’d had 10 minutes on the edge. A river crossing up ahead brought everyone to a stop, offering a much needed breather. Traversing it one at a time, I’d caught my breath and despite a few slides on the slippery stones below the water, the crossing was straightforward enough.
Just around the corner was the next major challenge; a steep climb. With everyone’s bikes dripping wet, the soft soil below was getting a good watering, which made the challenge of rounding an uphill corner and racing up a harsh climb even more difficult. This was where some people got stuck.
The disadvantage of traction control is that it reduces the machine’s output and costs you momentum. A number of the RI200GS riders had elected to keep the aid switched on and stopped halfway up. Heavy throttle hands only made it worse, digging the rear wheels into the ground. Chris and Simon had their work cut out, yanking bikes out of ruts and showing riders the best techniques to make it to the top. Progress was slow but eventually everyone, bar myself and Chris, was up.
Come my time, the terrain was chewed to bits and there was no straight path to the top. Building my speed, I attacked the hill in second gear and kept the throttle open while keeping the revs low. The bike was dancing around, the rear tyre never being in line with the front and I was conscious of not pulling in the clutch and compromising drive. It doesn’t matter how many times you tackle such an obstacle, there’s always a little bit of doubt in your mind. It had been the first major test of the adventure and it felt great to reach the summit…
LIKE A LOTTERY WIN
Lunch was a good chance to regroup with the other riders and instructors. Riding off-road really takes it out of you, so the organised feast was a welcome sight. We were told again about the importance of keeping hydrated, while being handed bottles of water by Simon’s wife, Linley. Fuelled up, the afternoon saw us ride out on some even more impressive routes, switching relentlessly from roads to trails and back again. With fantastic weather, the riding was even more pleasurable, but the real highpoint came when we arrived at a private wood. Hundreds of acres of trails, varying in altitude and complexity, were to be our play pen for the next few hours. It felt like a lottery win.
Despite all three groups being in the forest at the same time, the sheer vastness of the complex meant that we seldom saw one another; the only sightings often being across the valleys. Simon and Chris had got the measure of our group’s ability and went out of their way to help us have the most enjoyable few hours possible. Gradually increasing the pace of the ride, along with the technicality of the terrain we were riding, it wasn’t long before we were made to feel like proper adventurers. Having never met any of my fellow riders before the day had started, it was great to see how quickly they’d dismount their own machines to get stuck in and lift me and my bike up, each time I toppled over. As the riding went on, the frequency of assistance increased as we began to take the bikes down ridiculously tight and complex routes. From riding down stone-based streams, to bashing bracken in forests, it was relentless and it felt epic.
Throughout the ride Chris and Simon had been offering sound advice, whether on how to pick the bike up or how to master hill starts; the information was delivered in a clear and non-patronising way. At one point we arrived at a fallen tree – some two feet in diameter – blocking our path. I thought it crazy when Simon suggested we ride over it, but that’s exactly what he did and he showed that it was possible. One by one, we each rode our bikes up and over this natural obstacle, witnessing some funny and terrifying scenes along the way. But the point is that we all achieved what none of us would have considered before that day. Without realising what was happening, we were upping our game.
BIGGER IS BETTER
Beered, fed and rested, the following morning saw a prompt start, kicking off the second and final part of the tour. Everyone’s confidence was up and there was a hearty feel to the morning’s first trail, which turned out to be fast and mostly loose-stoned. Because someone fancied a swap, I’d also managed to land myself an R1200GS. The differences between it and the F800GS were considerable, with the bigger bike being much torquier and easier to ride. The clutch felt lighter and the weight lower, and easier to manage.
I’d had a great time on the smaller GS, but the larger machine just seemed to make everything easier. The F800 had a tendency to be led more by ruts, owing to its narrow front wheel, whereas the 1200 seemed more capable of ploughing its own path. That first ride of the day saw us undertake some pretty undulating routes and I was impressed by the big GS’s ability to smash anything that came its way.
The suspension, set in Enduro mode, absorbed imperfections better and the power and versatility of the motor meant I had to worry far less about which gear I was in. It also felt more comfortable when sat down on the branching stretches of roads. The other advantage to the bike, as I was soon to discover, was that when you fell off it the cylinders meant the bike was propped slightly off the ground, so was easier to pick back up. Having got a few spills out of the way, the day was progressing nicely and the trails again proved exceptional. As we made our way towards the top of the Brecon Beacons, the terrain began to morph from dense woodlands to open moorlands. The confines of narrow routes changed to broad expanses of grassland, with less-defined paths to follow. We were riding where few people ever travelled. The views across the Beacons were something else, unobstructed and vibrant with different shades of green.
Much of the route was easy-going and felt effortless on the big GS. Things changed drastically, though, when we descended back down from a summit and arrived at a rocky and severe-looking trail. With little run-up, power from the bottom was essential to blast up the initial climb. Having watched the guy in front make his way effortlessly to the top, I was perhaps a little too confident of doing the same. To the crowd watching behind, the sight of me being flung over the front of the bars must have been hilarious. Fortunately, I somehow managed to land back on the bike and cracked on up the ascent. Loose rocked all the way, the ride was tremendously bumpy and ridiculously fun to tackle. Logic dictated that slowing down would have made for an easier ride, but I was in my element on the big GS, determined to push myself and maximise my enjoyment of what was to be the last bit of off-road during the trip. Eventually the trail broadened and its severity lessened. A cattle grid brought us back on to a public road, where I waited for the rest of our party to arrive. The look on their faces expressed exactly how I was feeling; pure elation.
The ride back to base was sobering; the caked mud on our bikes and kit a reminder of a memorable weekend of adventure bike riding. Everyone had had a great time and already people were talking about booking onto the following Brecon Beacons adventure. As we all gathered to be awarded a certificate of completion and biking goody bag, it became apparent that a large proportion of those who’d been on the event had already partaken before, and were likely to do so again. I can’t blame them, and would happily join them if the chance ever came again. No wonder the adventure’s always fully booked.
I tried it: Oriol Espinet
BIKE: BMW R1200GSA
I love being out in the middle of nowhere, and that’s exact what the Brecon Beacons Adventure delivers. You get to see things you simply can’t see from the road, plus you get to have a lot of fun riding a bike down some pretty fantastic trails. I have a GSA of my own, but I wouldn’t dare ride it down the routes we’ve taken our hire bikes. Another great thing about the trip has been the spirit of the event; everyone’s so happy and excited. I’d definitely came back and do it again.
I tried it: Rachel Andrews
BIKE: BMW F800GS
This is the second time I’ve done the Brecons Adventure, and I think I’ve managed to enjoy it even more this time. Getting lots of off-road training is great, but you can’t beat being let loose to ride routes like the ones you do on this trip; it’s so liberating. I really like the simplicity of the system; all you have to do is turn up and everything from the bike to the accommodation is perfectly organised, so all you have to do is worry about enjoying yourself.
Join the adventure
Besides offering some of the best off-road tuition for all levels of rider, the BMW Off Road Skills team offers adventures around the world. Check out the calendar at www.offroadskills.com
Available to hire
Words: Bruce Wilson Photography: Llel Pavey & Bruce Wilson