Motorcycling is an extremely personal experience and hence, there are several different kinds of motorcycles with different designs and specifications meant to help them deal with a vast variety of riding conditions. And the reason for that is simple – there are different kinds of riders. And when it comes me, well, I am someone who prefers to have as much grip as possible. I like to take my corners fast and don’t mind going around in circles on that perfectly laid tarmac as fast as I can all day long. So without a doubt, I prefer riding on race tracks and I am fortunate enough, with the help of TVS, to experience the exact same sentiments and mindset that a racer would probably go through during a race weekend. This is because TVS conducts the Young Media Racer Program which in simple words, is a racing championship consisting of riders from different media publications.
Now there is still some time to go for the race season to begin – and when a time like this is upon the godly MotoGP riders, what do they do? Well, they hit the dirt. The majority of racers during the majority of their off-season time practice riding motorcycles on dirt tracks. And TVS is doing something extremely similar with us lot as they called us for an off-road training experience which is exclusive to this year’s Young Media Racer Program participants. That’s not it, the experience will be led by TVS’ champion riders – KP Aravind and Abdul Waheed Tanveer.
Now here’s the thing, one would think that this fantastic opportunity will get anyone excited – and it did – I was also a little bit concerned. You see, when you are on the race track, the riding techniques required are completely different, if not opposite, to what you are supposed to do when you ride a motorcycle on dirt. On the track, during corners, you are supposed to lean over and get under the motorcycle and stay as close to it as possible on fast straights. Your body position follows the lean direction of the motorcycle and well, your bum basically just stays glued to the seat. When on the dirt, however, all of these techniques go flying out of the window. You are supposed to stand on the pegs (what?!), stay away from the motorcycle, and your body position is opposite to the lean direction of the motorcycle. During turns, in short, you stay ‘under’ the motorcycle on a race track and ‘over’ the motorcycle on dirt.
And then, above everything else, is the fact that how comfortable you are in each of these riding conditions. Being used to track, it was honestly, intimidating for me to even take part in this experience in the first place but given just how big of an opportunity it was, surely I was not going to let it pass.
The venue was TVS’ off-road training track near Bangalore and the moment we reached the track, we saw both the TVS riders catching massive air while ripping around the track on the rally-spec RTR 450FX. But before we hit the track, it was time for the all-important classroom session.
We were told about the basics of off-road riding and the tasks we will be undertaking. It was not a race but a learning experience for those who are new to off-road riding and a chance for those who are familiar, to enhance and polish their skills.
After the briefing, the first thing we did was hop on to our motorcycles and well, stay on it and learn how to be on it correctly. It was time to understand the nuances of having a proper body position.
The motorcycles that we would be riding were, thankfully, not the RTR 450FX but instead the rally-spec RTR 200. It was stripped down to a bare minimum, had a free flow exhaust, improved suspension, chunky tyres and several other changes meant to make it suitable for these riding conditions. Thankfully, because given our skill set, it is better to learn on a motorcycle that lets you use more of it than a big, powerful motorcycle whose full potential will only be marginally used.
With that done, and after a few stretching exercises to help us unfit journalists through the day, it was time to get started with the first activity – the figure of eight.
Now as simple as that sounds, it does include a lot of work. You turn on both sides, you have quick direction changes and there are continuous braking and acceleration involved too. Then, as you feel comfortable, you can start pushing your braking marker and tightening your lines too.
This exercise brought out a big flaw in my approach. I was braking as much as I could towards the apex of the turn, as you would on a track and that was resulting in my turning arcs getting really wide because of which I was slowing down a lot. Whereas I was supposed to finish my braking before entering the corner and focus on getting a good exit speed. Also, a crucial thing to keep in mind when going through a turn is to keep your elbows up. As KP says, “you can never do it enough. Exaggeration is good”. So while the elbow wasn’t that much of a problem, the leg was. You are supposed to lift the inside leg (the one that is in the direction of the turn) up high and the toes should be facing the front forks. It sounds easy, but for well, a generously sized person like me, it’s a bit of an effort.
Seeing us struggle with the body positioning and given the free flow exhaust was quite loud, we couldn’t really hear what Tanveer and KP had to say to us. Out came “the stick” to let KP “gently” point out where we were wrong with our body position.
THE BIG O
With that done, the next exercise was to go in circles. Literally.
The champs laid out two cones around which we had to go and the path was a bit of an oval. This meant we kept going left, or right, continuously and given the shape, we would also be moderating the throttle quite a lot. This helped us understand the fine art of throttle control and also made us comfortable with letting the rear slide while coming out of a turn and also dropping the bike lower and lower while we prepare for corner entry.
It was now time to speed things up a bit. Next up, was a slalom course and the cones were spaced out far enough to let us carry quite a lot of speed through them. The idea was to stay standing up on the foot pegs throughout the course and, if possible, let the rear slide out whenever there is a direction change. Easier said than done.
But the best part about all these challenges was that we were given enough time to practice and learn from our mistakes, and not just understand what we are supposed to do theoretically.
Post these three exercises we had a good idea about how the motorcycle behaves and what is the correct way to handle them and the body position to have through corners and straights. More importantly, we were now comfortable with the motorcycle and the low-grip riding conditions.
Now that we had covered the basics, approached the correct techniques in depth and worked towards improving ourselves bit by bit, it was time to hit the track. That very track on which we saw the champions taking huge jumps earlier in the morning. However, we were not going to be taking on those big jumps (and probably end up hurting ourselves) but rather focus on the MX part of the track.
It is also important to point out that a big part of the confidence that was building up in us was due to the fact that the motorcycle was such a capable one. It was not too big in size to leave us an intimated lot and powerful just enough to let us push ourselves and learn to the fullest.
The track consisted of long, sweeping turns, sharp turns, straights that allowed us to push the bike as high as fourth gear and several elevation changes of varying degrees as well.
And right away, it was evident that whatever we have learned was helping us through all of it. And when we were feeling uncomfortable, it was easy to reconcile about what could possibly be wrong and correct it as well. And just to help us out even further, we had KP leading the pack and Tanveer at the back, watching everything that we did very, very carefully. This is where another critical mistake of mine came out. The issue was, given my road-biased riding techniques, I ended up trying to steer the motorcycle using the front wheel mid-corner because of which I was having a lot of shudder at the front and the bike would feel like it just wanted to dip down. And this is why riding with professionals is such a great thing as I could simply go up to them and ask them why is that happening, and they would pinpoint the issue there and then and guide us about how should we correct it. That’s not something you can do on your weekend trail rides.
This was followed by another track session and at the end, we did a braking exercise that gave us the confidence to brake as hard as possible without being afraid of the low-traction surface underneath the bike. And like always, we had multiple tries at it under constant supervision of Tanveer and KP.
And with that, we came to the end of our day at the TVS Off-Road Track day.
So to sum up the entire experience, as I said, I was a bit intimidated by the whole idea of going off-road. And I have attended a few schools that teach off-roading before as well but I have to say, I have never learnt so much in a single day. Am I great at it now? Definitely not. But given the next opportunity that I get to go to a dirt track or hit the trails or even go through a bad patch of road, I will be a lot better equipped with the correct techniques and also, be aware of the correct way and time to apply them - I would say that's a win. At the end of the day, it is not that scary to let the tail out, to push yourself and power your bike out of turns, and to take risks – something that I couldn’t really say at the start of the day.
Above everything else, it is the confidence and the belief that dirt or track, we can approach both the riding conditions with confidence, thanks to TVS and their champion riders.