A brilliant time off road with i2imca near Thirsk.

Way back last year I spent a couple of days with the i2imca guys on an airfield in a place called Tockwith, learning some techniques with my own bike. The general idea will be familiar with anyone who has had to learn any discipline with a physical element – lots of small drills build up to a larger result. As the person riding (or driving) a motorcycle has such a big influence on how it behaves, these drills consider what you can do to work with or against a motorcycle for stopping, cornering and accelerating. That makes all sound a bit formal, but really we want to have more fun on the bike and falling off or doing it wrong isn’t fun.

The i2imca guys developed their programme a few years ago to blend elements of offroad and road motorcycling, with four machine control courses – MC1 introduces ideas and is done on your own bike. MC2 does the equivalent off-road and uses their bikes and clothing. MC3 is more advanced techniques and is again on your own bike and MC4 is a blend of what has gone before using their bikes, but Supermoto this time.

A new idea they had in 2008 was to do MC1 and MC3 in a weekend on Saturday and Sunday, so I did that with them. And this year I will be doing all four – MC2 and MC4, and as they are coming up to Scotland I am repeating MC1 and MC3 to make sure they had no problem with numbers (EDAM were helping with that).

Anticipating aches and pains and general immobility, I decided to get the train to and from Thirsk – which is near where they run the off road courses. So got my cheap deals organised for travelling down on the Train on Friday, motocrossing / off road on Saturday and then back on the early train on Sunday. And a nice B&B booked just 5 minutes walk from the station.

The train down was fine, and having recently discovered the bluetooth PAN support on my mac, I used my HTC Touch Diamond for internet access on the way down – and found myself doing a mild bit of SharePoint installation support for a colleague – he was covering it off anyway but it is always helpful to have someone around to bounce ideas off, and speaking to the car people about changing my car.

I got to Thirsk around 5pm and found my B&B pretty easily – on the main road, straight out of the station – funny how different places look in real life compared to Google maps. Then got a nice welcome from Amanda at the B&B with a pot of tea and a slice of cake and a wee chat – and the room was really nice. I think all of their rooms have “private access” i.e. you all have your own front door which is a nice touch. I asked for recommendations for somewhere to have tea and had two options – immediately across the road for pub food or about a mile away for something special. So to get a nice walk I took the other option and headed off to the Dog and Gun (classic countryside naming round here) and it was superb – all home cooked stuff, no exploding puff pastry or bulk buy frozen chips. The only slight mark down would be the slightly off mix (low syrup high carbonated water) of the pint of coke I had – no real complaint, and just down to me not drinking. And a good walk back, unfortunately I gained a blister on my heel and a hobble for the week after.

Local taxi arranged (thanks Amanda again!) and after a nice breakfast on Saturday morning, headed up to Sutton bank – which is where the countryside goes from flat to hilly. It was a bit foggy heading up so I didn’t see much of the country, apart from a quick glimpse of racing horses practicing in the fog. Then we saw the marquee and Tom from i2imca bouncing around and waving us in to the track. The marquee was familiar from MC1 and MC3, table with the hot water, orange squash and biscuits at one end and deck chairs down each side. This time we also had the kit laid out – jacket, shirt and jeans on a coat hanger with my name on, chest protector and helmet on the seat, and boots in front of the chair.

So I was glad I was there early as I got changed and listened to the order of what to put things on in. Knee and elbow protectors on first, then trousers and shirt over the top. Then chest protector over that and finally the jacket on the top. Somewhere in there the boots go on – bit stiff things with clasp fasteners and metal bits protecting the toes.

Other folks began tricking in and soon we got the Health and Safety briefing – coned off areas and areas to park bikes. The course had some folks with their own bikes so I made sure I knew which bikes where the i2imca bikes – orange KTMs with 250cc and 400cc. The folks on the course where in blue wulfsport kit (me included) instructors/helpers where in orange wulfsport, or actually red too 🙂

A few pointers – do not get on the bike with the side stand down, as it is made of chocolate and will bend (actually I thought chocolate was brown but call me old fashioned). Do not use the rear brake as motocross boots have no feel (so you tend to stamp on it). And a few other bits – starting the bike, turning the bike off etc – I must admit I had a real real problem changing gear – just me I guess, so I spent the day in first! We were allocated into teams, and one of three teams would be out at a time to manage numbers. So I went for the medium option – Team 2.

The first lesson they had us doing was going round the track – an oval set up on flat field and this was ok – the ruts in the corners looked scary but I kept it steady as told, actually I went a bit fast and was asked to slow down as we would go faster later 🙂

Then back in and a lesson on positioning nearer the centre of the bike, which actually meant feeling quite near to the front. The idea being that if you have a choice of a wheel to have grip you want the front to have it. So the next lesson was sitting further forward. One thing that Tom at i2imca does is have you watch the other riders who are out, so we could watch the others!

So the principles started coming out – sit nearer the front, then grip the bike with your knees in order to lighten your grip on the bars. Spinning wheels are like gyroscopes so they will tend to self correct unless the rider fights it, so alter how you hold them. So for off road we ended with elbows up so that the bars could move a bit – quite a hard habit to get in to.

Then a lesson in letting the rear do its thing and keeping the front in – I tried this, steady in to the corner then opening up. Unfortunately I was gripping the bars too much and got a bit mucked up coming out of a corner – so off the bike I went and oof – down on the ground I went. I had a wee rest and up I got for another shot.

Then we got in to leaning the bike – now this was a bit of a revelation. When I started out on the motocrossers I was applying the stuff I had learned with i2imca on my road bike – leaning off to the inside, the classic pose you see with racing bikes. So was this right or not? Well, we all got round a bike and Tom explained why different techniques are used. A few principles come in to play – we don’t like leaning our head too much, but a big one is that motorcycle cornering is mostly down to clearance. We all know that bikes lean in corners, so what more do we know. Well, tyre grip does not tend to be the limiting factor in cornering (bike tyres have a curved profile – unlike cars which are pretty square) so clearance is the big thing on the road – you do not want one of the hard bits of a bike touching the ground as this could lift a tyre off the road and away you go.

But take a look at an off road bike and you’d be lucky to find a bit to touch down – actually Tom and the other guys claimed that an off road bike would probably touch down the hand guards on the handle bars before anything else – ouch, that is a long long way. So the bike is happy going over, but our eyes and inner ear go – oi, problem here, I don’t like this – and we start doing stuff like panicking, grabbing brakes, handlebars – doing stuff that is not helpful to going round corners.

So what we do is keep level, but lean the bike under us – perhaps a bit of a swivel of the hips but you lock in your knee to the side and let the bike do its thing with grip in the corner. Give that a try – and it works – rather strangely, but it does.

So I gave that a few laps, and then tried a bit with using my inside leg as a counterweight – not to dab down on the ground or anything – just a bit like half a tightrope walker’s pole. It was still a bit strange having the bike move around as much as it did, but it was ok.

So we did a few more circuits of the oval, giving the techniques a try and I got a few things wrong at one stage – gripping too tightly on the bars and down I went to the left again – ouch again. By this stage I was getting a little bit dirty and sore on my left, but it was so dry that it was dust rather than mud.

Then before lunch we got a wee shot round the outside of the main circuit – well, I say outside, we got a bit lost and ended up going over a “knife-edge” and a jump which was a bit unexpected – I just held on best I could.

So some more techniques in the afternoon. We learned how to stand up on the bike without messing with the bars – motocross boots have grippy material on the insides of the ankles – the idea being that when you stand up you grip the bike with those, and lean forward to reach the bars – your contact with the bike is through the inside of boots – and I must admit that this felt quite comfortable. So with this we illustrated how stable a bike is by doing an exercise over a plank of wood with no hands, which I actually found harder than I did when doing it on a hard surface with my road bike – problem with gears perhaps.

Then we did some experiments with braking and positioning. The helpers/instructors showed how positioning makes a difference to braking grip – by sitting back on the bike they could ride along with the front wheel sliding. And then moving forward on the bike gives a whole lot more grip on the front – and helps stop things better.

So cue more up and down the middle of the oval trying braking and stuff like that, cool..

And then to some other stuff. First was going up hills. The principle here is to look where you are going, and make sure you apply constant steady throttle and let the bike do the rest. So I tried this, and with a bit of sitting in the seat and standing up. A bit hard to look where you are going but the bikes do a lot of the work. So I had a few goes at that – up a hill I would have a hard time walking up!

Once that was done we moved on to jumps, which sounded a scary prospect. This was right at the other end of the track, about half a mile away, so I got a lift on the back of one of the instructor’s bikes – my first pillion – scariest bit of the day!

Tom covered the principles for us – and the natural things you do that aren’t so helpful. When airborne the bike can change attitude due to the throttle – chop off and the nose will dive, meaning you land on the front wheel and tips you over the front. Sit on the bike and the first part of the jump compresses you into the saddle, then pings you off when it goes airborne – weeeee. So as with hills, the key is constant throttle from the start of the “ramp” through to when you land.

So I gave it a go and frankly – it was fine, I did what I was told, I was happy standing up and took it easy, and Tom and the instructors said it was all working – up the jump on the rear wheel then in the air then landing fine. Actually, I had more of a mental issue with the little left turn after the jump to loop back!

So we gave that a few goes – it was good fun, the point being to listen and apply what we were being told – do that and it was easy. Actually as well as the left turn the other tricky bit was that the jump was just after the knife edge – we would queue up until the run was clear, then a short stretch dropped away about 8 ft i.e. it seemed straight down but it was not a problem for the bikes.

So then I got another lift back to the paddock area and we got shots going round the circuit. The instructors led and round we went. By this time I was getting a bit tired but the techniques made it easy to get round but on a left hand turn again I got the bars wrong and down I went and I think this time I caught my elbow in my left side – ouch, a bit like my cracked rib last year.

I’d had lots of fun but decided that at 3:30 I was fading a bit and headed back to get changed and have a rest.

As predicted I was tired and sore but grinning from ear to ear. There was so much to take in and I didn’t have the stamina to take it all in, so when I get opportunity I will try this again – it was superb.

I think I took about an hour to get changed – I was beginning to hurt and that stupid blister from the walk to the pub got to me. I’d caught my right knee and shin at some stage and my left side was hurting at my shoulder and my side. Thankfully the protective kit had all done its job and I didn’t have any bruises.

While the others hooned around the track I took my time and took the opportunity for a wee blether with the guys – I met Dominic Curran, Tom’s uncle who originally had the concept for the i2imca series and laid the fundamentals in physics and psychology. I’d actually suspected he was there earlier as he is one of the few people I know who call Tom “Thomas”. And Dominic always introduces himself as such, whereas he is generally known as “Dr Dom” if you read some of the internet forums. And I had a wee blether with some of the other guys – who were all there having fun, but volunteer to help out to see folk improve during the day.

So thanks to Dr Dominic Curran for coming up with the ideas, Thomas Killeen for having gone through the process himself and now runs a business based on the ideas of that came out of Dominic’s early efforts with an off-road bike at an airfield. And thanks to all of the guys instructing / helping who were all having fun helping us learn.