Adventure times two

Jen and I developed a travel bug over the last few years, and we have spent a fair amount of time aboard our 2013 BMW R 1200 GS. We have some big-bike, two-up, off-road experience, but we have also been looking for genuine, two-up training beyond the School of Hard Knocks.

First, we looked for a two-up off-road tour, then tried “two-up off-road training.” That’s when we discovered DART, Dragoo Adventure Rider Training. DART owner Bill Dragoo says his mission is “to provide quality off-road training at a fair price for all who wish to learn.” There it was on the website, “Two-up training available upon request.” It’s hard to find, and indeed it’s practically a footnote, but it was there, clear as day.

I called Bill and asked if this was for real. Two-up, both standing, off road? Yup, yup, yup. Jen and I excitedly made arrangements to meet Bill and see what this was all about. As it turned out, Bill was going to lead MotoDiscovery’s Southern Utah Adventure Training tour several months hence. We signed up. We also arranged to meet Bill in Moab for a private lesson a couple of days before the tour.

Jen and I are from Florida, so we decided to ship our R 1200 GS (we call her Sally), to Las Vegas, then ride to Moab via Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Zion and Capitol Reef National Parks. We also planned to ride on from Moab after the tour, going to Denver by way of Aspen, Colorado.

Despite our eagerness to add to our skills with DART, we knew it would be a challenge for Jen to hang on while standing when the going got rough. Previously, when she stood up, she would hold on to the open side vents in my Rallye jacket, a less-than-ideal grip. I ordered a few wearable “handle” products to try but returned each one because they weren’t right for us. Nonetheless, we committed to two-up training, so I ordered the makings for our own harness: a set of heavy-duty aluminum side-release buckles, lengths of 1.5-inch webbing and some plastic handles from Strapworks. After a couple of tries, we had a workable harness.

Ambient temps on our departure day from Las Vegas peaked at 105F. Despite the heat, we eased into our road trip and experienced the peace that falls upon you like rain when you head out on the first day of a long-anticipated ride. Sally safely transported us to Escalante, Utah, where we spent our first night.

I am not sure why we didn’t anticipate the heat, but we were definitely unpleasantly surprised by it. Along the way we made numerous roadside stops to hydrate. We finally made it to Moab in the late afternoon, settled into a rented Airbnb, and found dinner and a cold beer at The Spoke on Center.

On Day 3, we met Bill Dragoo at Moab’s Love Muffin Cafe for a quick breakfast and briefing. Bill is a kind and unassuming character in his early 60s. He was on time, friendly and he seemed genuinely happy to be taking us out for the day. We shared some about our experience level and he told us a bit about his training style. We made a loose plan and headed out of town.

A few miles up Kane Creek Road, we stopped at a large, unpaved parking lot beside the Colorado River for our first drills. Bill wanted to see me perform tight, alternating turns, first without Jen, and then with her on board. I must admit that whenever I go off-road for the first time in a while, even in a parking lot, there is some tension. Add to that some sand, an instructor and my wife watching, and the combination can be downright intimidating. I couldn’t help thinking that if I kept making smaller and smaller circles, sooner or later I would drop my bike. Expectedly, my prediction was correct.

Bill is a good mentor and coach, focusing on what I was doing right and encouraging me to do more of it, tweaking my hand, finger, eye and body positions slightly. I soon shed the rust from my off-road riding, improved on my strengths, and my confidence grew quickly. Bill gave me a break now and then to demonstrate our next exercise by riding Sally with Jen’s sub-50 kg (110 lbs) on pillion. He would sometimes replace Jen with my more than 100 kg bulk, which I found disconcerting at first until I discovered the mastery with which he handled the bike with me as pillion. Doing this also gave me firsthand knowledge of what Jen experienced. It was an epiphany.

Next, we practiced two-up turning and braking. We discussed energy conservation and the teamwork required for two-up adventure riding. Bill’s lessons also included discussions on the effects of fatigue on folks in such close proximity when the stakes were high. He even showed Jen how to help me lift Sally up when she falls, which is something I never considered having her do. Bill explained to us that if Jen can reduce my lifting load even a little bit, it would preserve my energy and keep us both safer. He showed Jen a technique to help lift Sally that allowed her to use her weight as a counter-balance, which noticeably reduced my effort while expending little of her own. Finally, Bill introduced me to a concept he calls “bike in tension,” something no other instructor had taught me. It involved dragging the rear brake a little as I kept the bike moving oh-so-slowly by slipping the clutch. The result created a stability I had not previously experienced at such low speeds. This skill has completely changed my riding.

We left the parking lot, harness on, and headed toward Hurrah Pass. Sally, Jen and I took the lead. The terrain started as a dirt road and became progressively more difficult. We stopped occasionally to discuss the challenges ahead; Bill also reminded me to keep the bike in tension when the going got rough.

As we approached Hurrah Pass there was an imposing rock climb. Jen dismounted for the climb. Although I am always disappointed when Jen chooses to get off, we agreed long ago that letting her off when she doesn’t like the terrain will always be the right decision. On the first try, Sally and I almost made it to the top. After we got Sally back up on her wheels, Bill gave me a tip or two, then had me make the descent and climb three more times. Each time we made it! Each time, Sally felt more sure-footed. My confidence definitely improved. After my successes on Hurrah Pass, we continued down the ever-degrading trail to a small cave, where we stopped for some shade and a well-deserved lunch.

Despite the heat, Bill, Jen and I shared our thoughts on motorcycles, motorcycle gear, riding and more importantly, life in general. We shared our common passions for travel. Jen and I expressed our gratitude for Bill’s coaching, which was destined to improve our ability to use our chosen mode of transportation, while Bill expressed his gratitude for students like us.

After lunch, we began the climb back toward Moab. Jen and I started really working together on making Sally do what we wanted. Sally traveled far more deliberately and in better control on the way back than she had on the way out. She behaved differently as we experimented with our newfound team style and by keeping Sally in tension during the rougher sections. Jen noticed it too and I recall her commenting through our helmet comms on how she felt more confident about my riding and our new skills. Those words were most welcome, as there is nobody I would rather impress. We climbed back up Hurrah Pass to discover a welcome breeze and spectacular view. It was 104 degrees when we arrived in Moab. We were tired and soaked with sweat, but satisfied, not to mention eagerly looking forward to the days ahead.

We took a day off, then for the next two days ate, slept and rode on-site two hours south of Moab at the Three Step Hideaway in preparation for our immersion tour with MotoDiscovery. We trained on the grounds, frequently in a large dirt field, but also on surrounding trails and rocky hillsides. As we practiced low-speed maneuvering and sketchy terrain management, Bill continued to reinforce DART’s four cornerstones of adventure riding: balance, control, judgment and attitude. Jen and I agree that we learned something about them all. The tour was a continuation of what we learned, applied in real time on real back-country routes. We never imagined all we learned in this short week. Tired, happy, and with a whole new set of skills, we are ready to set off on more adventures, times two.