Motoworks Chicago is located in the city itself. We’re not a Chicago “area” shop. We’re not in the ‘burbs and we’re not located outside of town along one of the major commuter train lines. Instead, our shop stands at 1901 S. Western Ave, right on the edge of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. We love where we’re located because it keeps our fingers on the pulse of what’s going on in the local rider community. That said, being in the city itself means that every once in a while we love getting out of town and into the countryside for some time in the dirt.
That’s why this previous weekend’s Hugellandshaft dual sport event in western Illinois was such a refreshing change for us. We teamed up with the Chicagoland Dual-Sport Riders Meetup for a weekend of rural riding in the area around Galena, IL. Johnny and a small group of Chicago riders headed out Friday evening, while my wife Kate and I made our own way later that night with our own bikes in tow.
For the two of us especially, this event was exciting. This would be the first time either of us had ever ridden motorcycles off-pavement. Kate would be on her chipper little Honda CRF230, and I’d be a new-to-me BMW G650 GS. I was more than a little bit nervous (in a good way) about leaving the comfort and more sure-footed surface of the pavement. Between eight seasons of riding and last year’s Motoworks Track Day, my on-street riding confidence was pretty solid, but I’ll admit that even small squiggles and momentary losses of traction on the street have been enough to scare the confidence right out of me. So for me, the trip was about getting my feet wet (figuratively and literally) in the world of off-pavement riding where my bike’s grip would be quite a bit more, shall we say, fluid.
Add to that the fact that for both Kate and I, we were riding machines that were completely new to us. She’d barely more than test ridden her little Honda, and the majority of miles I’d put on my G650 GS to date were on the trip home from Motoworks when I bought it less than a week earlier.
It was in this spirit of wide eyed, newbie adventure that we both arrived in Stockton, IL late Friday night. We crashed at the hotel and then subsequently slept in late enough to miss the larger group as they headed out from Vel Terra Ranch on Saturday morning. The two of us arrived at VTR, got our bikes unloaded, and decided to just bomb around the property a little bit in the morning drizzle. We didn’t know the route, and had no idea where the group would be at this point, so we blazed our own trails around the perimeter of the corn fields at VTR and practiced our skid stops on the gravel paths.
Not long into our small scale romping around, the weather took a turn for the blustery and the drizzle turned to actual rain. A serious storm was obviously blowing in, so we parked our bikes and retreated to the truck to see if the weather would just blow over. It didn’t, so after watching the trees dance for a little while, we headed back into town toward the hotel. No sooner did we round the corner into Stockton did we see a large group of adventurous-looking motorcycles parked outside of JJ & Freddie’s, one of the local restaurants. We’d found the group.
We entered to find a U-shaped bar and about a dozen gear-clad motorcyclists in from the wet about half way through their lunch. Johnny and Jay sat at the far end in matching ICON Raiden jerseys, both of which said “Scheff” on the back — obvious carry overs from those previous adventures. It was great to finally get attached to the group, even if we were likely going to get rained out for the rest of the day.
It was clear they’d earned their lunch with the day’s adventures so far. Tales were told of bikes getting pushed through the mud, righted from tip-overs and even one incident of a spill that involved one rider going down and another rider going over top of him — with the tire marks and tears over the back of his jersey as evidence and souvenirs. No injuries though, which was the important thing. Everybody was wet, dirty and having a great time.
We made our own way back to camp, or rather, back to the improvised paddock Johnny had set up for the group’s use during the event. A handful of EZ-UP tents and picnic tables sat in the center, surrounded by campsites and RVs. Because camp was down in a little valley of sorts, it was surprisingly well sheltered from the wind, and a significant tree canopy gave us pretty good protection from the persistent but unenthusiastic drizzle that we’d seen most of the day so far. Robert and Dainius did a beer/cider run and by the time they returned, the handful of us who hadn’t retired to nap away the afternoon relocated one of the picnic tables under the main Motoworks EZ-UP tent as the drizzle once again turned to rain.
Our relocation came just in time. Robert and Dainius returned with the spoils of low-percentage adult beverages just as the skies opened in earnest once again. Mostly dry in the relative shelter of the EZ-UP, we toasted the day. After all, the best part of a riding trip, aside from the riding, is spending time hanging out with the great people who turn up.
The rain intensified and the wind picked up considerably, even in our little valley. We soon found ourselves not sitting at our picnic table, but standing on it clutching the rafters of the EZ-UP as the wind and rain assaulted our little campsite. A fast flowing stream soon developed as several inches of rainfall seemed to descend all at once. The stream flowed down and under Johnny’s truck and trailer, sweeping small items like extension chords and tent bags along with it, only to have them logjam just on the edge of our campsite.
Under the EZ-UP, our mostly dry party couldn’t help but laugh our way through this bizarre turn in the weather. Half an hour later, the rain let up back to its now signature drizzle. Another half an hour on, and I was tired of being damp. We headed back to the hotel, dried off, and then couldn’t resist the siren song of a warm bed. The two of us mega-napped our way to nearly 9:00 PM before venturing out to Corner Tap for one of the best thin crust pizzas I’ve ever had.
Sunday morning we hustled to make sure we got ourselves back to Vel Terra Ranch in time to ride with the actual group. The group itself had evolved a bit, with many riders doing their own thing and improvising routes that would actually help them be on the way in their individual rides home. A core group remained, about six strong, to ride at least part of the route so expertly put together by the Chicagoland Dual-Sport Riders Meetup. This would be my and Kate’s first real experience off-pavement, and we were ready for the challenge. Johnny had given us some basic tips to get us going.
“About 99% of the time, if the bike starts moving around and feeling weird, just give it an extra crack of throttle and that’ll usually fix it. Just build that habit. Crack the throttle and just relax and let the bike do what it needs to do.”
With just a handful of us riding, Johnny took the lead. He had all the available routes preprogrammed into his GPS unit, so we were set. We fueled up in camp and then headed out single file. The gravel road up to VTR had been badly washed out along its edges. We stuck to the centerline and I got my first taste of gravel at speed aboard my little GS. As had been true the day before on our cornfield lap, Kate was outpacing me on her Honda CRF230L. I was jealous of her bravery and her slightly more dirt-oriented tires.
Our route for the day was more or less a series of loops and tangent roads that orbited VTR and the surrounding area. We saw a mix of dirt, gravel and pavement and sometimes all three on the same stretch of road. None of it was single track trails or anything particularly technical. These were roads, for the most part, albeit much of it was unpaved. The gnarliest things we encountered were a couple wash-outs, but even my barely dual-sport tires and newbie nerves handled that stuff no problem.
No matter our road surface, two themes dominated our ride. The first was Johnny’s newbie-friendly pace. We weren’t going slow, but we were going slow enough that neither Kate nor I were over-riding our tires or our nerves. “If I want to go fast, I’ll go race Baja.”, Johnny reassured us. This gave me the chance to encounter little slides and bobbles and get to know the loose-surface handling characteristics of this new-to-me motorcycle in bite-size pieces. I was building my habit for “cracking the throttle” as Johnny had put it, and it wasn’t an hour before I felt really comfortable off-pavement.
The second thing that tied our entire ride together was the wonderful scenery of Western Illinois. We wove our way through bucolic farmland. Our route was a gentle roller coaster (think log ride but without the water) of roads that was constantly bobbing up, diving and sweeping gently from one direction to another. The landscape kept shifting, ever interesting and often scenic. We’d pass through a section of forest, only to crest a hill and have a vista of bright green farmland open up in front of us. As introductions to dual sport riding go, I don’t think we could have done better.
An hour in, and several dozen off-pavement miles under my belt, I noticed a really fun change in my riding confidence. Whenever we’d transition from dirt or gravel back onto pavement, my BMW felt like it was on rails. I’d already gotten used to, and pretty comfortable with, the bike squirreling around a little bit underneath me. Where this feeling had previously terrified me on the street, I’d gotten used to it now. We’d hop back up onto pavement and the level of grip my mostly street-oriented tires were giving me felt infinite. A big, sweeping tarmac turn would come up and I’d just smoothly dive the bike into it, rolling on the throttle through the apex.
I’d known the theory, and even practiced it at the Motoworks Track Day last year, but it took some dirt miles to actually make me believe it. Two hours on and I wasn’t actively thinking about road surface much at all anymore. The only situations that forced me to really concentrate were steep downhill stretches on gravel with turns in them. Even this was pretty easy to manage at our pace. I’d just favor the rear brake, let the bike settle down before entering the turn, look where I wanted to go and give the bike that little crack of throttle Johnny taught me. Easy peasy. Getting outside my head only made the ride that much better.
We hoofed the last 15 or so miles back to camp on the 55 mph blacktop. Kate’s CRF230L struggled a little with the big hills, but otherwise did just fine holding 60 mph. When we returned to camp she was a little bit self-conscience about the pace on her smaller bike. Little did she know that it was all I could do to keep up with her sometimes. Johnny was further re-assuring.
“Your pace was great! You know what really slows down the group? Riding beyond your comfort zone, crashing, and getting yourself hurt. Nobody wants to see that happen. That’ll ruin everybody’s day.”
Right there we have one of my favorite things about the events we put on at Motoworks Chicago. Everybody is truly welcome. “Never done this before? Great! You ride up front behind the leader and you can help us set pace.” Done.
In the 18 months I’ve been writing here at BEHIND THE MOTO, this was easily the most fun I’ve had, and that’s saying something. Not just that, in my eight years of riding scooters and motorcycles, that ride we took on Sunday morning was the most fun I’ve ever had on two wheels. Hands down. Kate and I both were left wishing the whole event had been a couple days longer. We didn’t want to be done.
Yet done we were. By just choosing the half day’s route, we’d returned to camp a little after 1:00 PM. This afforded everyone the opportunity to pack up and head back to Chicago with some Sunday leftover. On balance, getting to unload bikes, pick up our dogs, and return our rental trailer in daylight was the perfect punctuation on an exceptional weekend. Sure, we didn’t get two full days of riding in, but we were satisfied nonetheless. Whether it was sliding around corners on beautiful country roads or sailing the USS EZ-UP across a stream that hadn’t existed just a moment before, we’d had a blast.
A huge thanks to everyone who came, to the Chicagoland Dual-Sport Riders Meetup for organizing, to Vel Terra Ranch for hosting, and to all of you for reading.
And now, a gratuitous animated GIF of Robert dancing in the rain-made river: