Ewan McGregor and his buddy Charley Boorman weren’t the first to drop everything to ride across the world on motorcycles, but they are probably the most famous. Their TV shows – Long Way Round and Long Way Up – made adventure riding a popular pursuit. Now, every hedge fund manager and dentist rides a BMW GS in the hopes that, one day, he or she will follow in Ewan and Charley’s tire tracks.
Their third series, Long Way Up, in which they ride a pair of electric Harley-Davidsons from Patagonia to California, will debut on Apple TV+ in September.
Ewan and Charley’s first adventures took place on massive BMW GS bikes, just like the one that is before me now at the BMW GS Adventure School at the Horseshoe Valley Resort in Oro Medonte, Ontario about an hour north of Toronto.
For so many riders, this is where their own around-the-world adventure really starts.
Clinton Smout, the founder and head instructor, has been teaching people to ride off-road since before I could ride a bicycle on pavement. He’s even trained with BMW in Germany, proving his mettle by riding around the world himself.
When Smout does it, riding the new 1250 GS Adventure looks easy. Most riders would be intimidated by this beast, especially a beginner (which your assigned correspondent very much is). The 1250 is BMW’s biggest off-road bike, weighing around 600 lbs with more torque than most compact cars.
Mercifully, the school day starts off on small, plastic 250cc dirt bikes. We’ll work out way up to the big BMWs.
Balance is key. Riding a motorcycle at low speeds – as you often do off-road when going over roots and rocks – is a bit like trying balance one bowling ball on top of another. All the weight needs to be right down the middle. To start, Smout demonstrates how to stand up while riding the bike around a dirt track, squeezing the gas tank with his knees, keeping a light touch on the bars. He gets cocky and starts doing it with his left hand in air, off the bars entirely.
Now: your turn. The first few laps I was bucked back and forth, nearly falling off, looking like a rodeo clown. Eventually, you find that balance point and it all sort of clicks. You’re not supposed to hold on to the bike so much as balance on it.
Got that? Okay. Now here’s how to stomp on the rear brake and skid to a halt without falling over. Next: pull tight u-turns at walking pace, then learn to ride up and down hills that would be a challenge even to walk up.
Ontario’s cottage country, it turns out, has most types of terrain you’re likely to encounter riding around the world, from wide open gravel roads to tight to twisty single track trails through the forest to deep sand. We try all of them before trading the dirt bikes for BMW Adventure machines.
There’s the whole range to choose from, from the little 310 GS to the mid-size 750 and 850 GS Adventure to the tank-like 1250 GS. Swinging a leg over the 850 just feels right. The parallel-twin motor is extremely compact – unlike the wide boxer-twin in the 1250 – so the bike isn’t too big nor too small. There are all kinds of electronic rider aids, but to ride through the forest we switch them off: no ABS, no traction control. Gulp.
The forest is sublime. Sun shines down through the trees as you pass from light into shadow and back. The bike hums away, its long-travel suspension easily soaking up little obstacles, steamrolling over everything in the way those little plastic dirt bikes simply couldn’t. The throttle is easy to modulate, even at low speeds. There’s a cool, earthy early-autumn breeze in the air. Riding down into a valley, you feel the temperature drop a degree or two. There’s no danger of cars pulling out in front of you here, no lane markings to follow. There are moments of pure bliss, both thrilling and calm all at once.
And then you come around a corner and see a patch of deep sand and, for a moment, sheer panic takes over. By this point in the day though – thanks to Smout’s incredibly patient and expert tutelage – you know what to do: The trick is to keep the front wheel from bogging down. So while your instinct may be to get off the throttle and slow down when you feel the front wheel sliding sideways in the sand, what you actually need to do is the opposite: give the bike a burst of power, lifting the front end and pushing it through the soft stuff.
Every obstacle conquered feels like a victory. While one day of training is, perhaps, not quite enough to keep up Ewan and Charley on their next continent-crossing jaunt, it is enough to get you out of the house and into the unknown. Every journey starts somewhere.
This content was originally published here.