For those who have never ventured onto the shifting sands of Dubai's desert on two wheels, a desert riding course with an experienced instructor is really the best way to go.
Rider lessons in sand and safety
For those who have never ventured onto the shifting sands of Dubai's desert on two wheels, a desert riding course with an experienced instructor is really the best way to go - for reasons of safety and to have the best possible time. Even if you have ridden in other terrains - on tarred or dirt roads, mud or bush tracks - the desert is something entirely different. It is the dynamics of desert riding that make a course so invaluable. The shifting sands provide an experience akin to riding on ball bearings. Throw in some dunes and, unless you know what you're doing, you can spend a lot of time sprawled on the ground.
There are only a few companies running organised off-road motorcycle trips in the UAE, and I chose KTM Adventure Tours because they also offer a course for those new to desert riding. The head instructor, James West, has many years experience of off-road riding, having won some of the world's most prestigious events in this field, including Mexico's Baha 1000, the World Rally Championship and the Dubai leg of the Desert Challenge.
Along for the lesson, I joined Dennis and Michael Spillane, twin brothers originally from Ireland now living in Dubai, out in the desert just south of the city (the courses are limited to a maximum of four people with an instructor). Once kitted up, the three of us listen intently as West uses a combination of simple explanation and demonstration to get us riding on the sands of Dubai's desert.
Appropriate use of the clutch underpins the entire process of desert riding, and this is where West starts his instruction. He explains the importance of using a combination of clutch and throttle control to moderate your speed in the sand. "Basically, the clutch ends up working like your brake - it saves you from being tempted to grab the front brake," says West. "When you pull the clutch on, it slows the bike gradually, which is what you need in the sand."
Whether cresting or descending a dune or simply slowing on a flat section, West explains I should roll the throttle off and gradually pull in the clutch, using the engine and transmission as a brake. If needing to slow a little quicker, I can dab the rear brake slightly, but under no circumstances touch the front brake - unless I want a quick visit to the desert floor.
Positioning yourself correctly on the bike is also related to having correct control of the clutch. As West explains, "sit or stand in the centre of the bike, with your arms bent, so you have full control of the throttle and steering." Most of the time while moving through the dunes, you stand on the footpegs to keep the centre of gravity low, gripping the tank with your knees and keeping your legs slightly bent to absorb the impact of bumps and move your body with the suspension of the bike.
Unless you want to ride in a straight line for hours, you need to know the best way to make a turn in the desert. West demonstrates a turn at speed, taking a short run-up before making a 180 turn. He first explains the process - "just ride along straight, grab the clutch to slow down slightly, begin making the turn and throttle-on slightly as you're about halfway through." He then executes four neat arcing turns, churning up the sand as he powers out, left leg extended slightly and just brushing the ground to put more weight over the front wheel. While it looks simple enough, it takes me a few tries - and a couple of falls - before I make a relatively clean turn.
West explains the importance of keeping up your entry speed when approaching a dune, and not being afraid to hit the dune at a decent speed. "You can always take them on faster than you might think," he says. Accelerating while on the dune will cause the back wheel to dig in and can lift the front wheel. "The ideal way is to coast up to the top," he says.
According to West, you need to resist the urge to stop at the top of a dune, as keeping your momentum helps ensure you don't get stuck and keeps the bike more stable. Once you have reached the top and slowed enough to assess the terrain on the other side and pick your line down, keep the clutch lever pulled in and gradually release it as you roll forwards, also adding a touch of throttle.
Again, sitting towards the bike's rear is crucial in avoiding going over the handlebars. Keeping a gentle acceleration as you descend also means you're ready to negotiate any bumps you may hit on the way down. By accelerating over these, the weight is taken off the front wheel slightly. "If you coast down, you're making the front end heavy, causing it to dig into the sand, and you'll go over the bars," says West.
After these pointers were covered, the brothers Spillane and I took off across the dunes, following in the sandy wake of West, for a chance to put the above techniques into practice. Further into the desert, a startled gazelle dashed across our path, scared by our snarling engines. Later, as we are parked, doffing our dusty helmets and gloves, I ask Michael, who has been living in the UAE for about 16 months, what brought him out to the lesson.
"I've always had an interest in riding, even if I hadn't really done much in the past. Riding in the desert is something new, and something unique to a place like Dubai, where we have the desert right on our doorstep." His brother Dennis, living in Dubai for more than two years, was happy he took the KTM course. "We were starting from scratch, basically, so we opted for a course. There's no huge formality with the process, with all the techniques demonstrated, and you can learn at your own pace. I never felt like I was riding at a level I didn't feel comfortable with."
The courses are run year round, though the months between October and April are the most popular. For Dh700, you receive the use of a bike and two hours of practical instruction, along with the loan of protective gear. firstname.lastname@example.org