A tiny figure on a Honda CRF250 slowly ascends a rocky slope in the rough country of southeastern Utah. Partway up she veers off course and stops a few feet from the top. A lifelong street motorcyclist, this is her first foray off pavement. Her breathing is rapid, eyes wide.
A man in a faded Tilley hat steps forward and offers a few words of encouragement. “You nearly cleaned that hill!” says Bill Dragoo. “Just stick with the plan and keep your eyes on the top. You’re here to slay some dragons and this one has met his match.” She takes a deep breath, stands up again and leans into the hill, this time victorious. A cheer goes up from her fellow students.
For many a motorcyclist, the “Pavement Ends” sign triggers a U-turn, along with a twinge of regret. The trail ahead may be alluring and the bike fully capable of handling rough terrain, but the rider lacks the confidence to explore the unknown. This group is gathered to learn how to keep going when the asphalt disappears. MotoDiscovery has brought Bill Dragoo to Utah to train guests on one of its small-group adventure tours, beginning with two days of instruction at 3 Step Hideaway, a motorcycle-oriented resort in remote Lisbon Valley.
For Dragoo, the fun begins when the pavement ends. Through his school, Dragoo Adventure Rider Training (DART), his mission is “to provide quality off-road training at a fair price.” A member of the United States BMW GS Trophy team in 2010, Dragoo began teaching off-road riding skills in 2013 while visiting Bolivia. There, fellow riders sought his coaching for handling their big dual-sport bikes more skillfully on the country’s treacherous unpaved roads.
Soon after, he was conducting classes in his home state of Oklahoma, then accepting invitations to travel across the U.S. and back to South America to train riders as part of organized motorcycle tours. Now he is one of a handful of Americans certified as an off-road instructor by BMW Motorrad at its world training camp in Hechlingen, Germany.
Here in Utah, Dragoo’s job is to help riders prepare for MotoDiscovery’s 850-mile tour through some of the state’s best scenery, much of which can be reached only by leaving the pavement. Seven clients have traveled from across the U.S., some bringing their own dual-sport bikes, including a BMW R 1200 GS, and others renting Suzuki DRZ400s and a Honda CRF250. Skills vary widely, from newbie to desert racer, but there is something here to challenge them all.
Dragoo’s training is tailored to prepare riders for adversity. He starts with the basics and moves through a series of skill-building exercises designed to present the types of challenges students will face during a real adventure ride, whether on a local forest road, one of the Backcountry Discovery Routes or an around-the-world journey.
At 3 Step, the first morning is spent on fundamentals. Starting with static exercises, Dragoo teaches proper body position, the value of maintaining balance and the benefits of peg-weight steering. Before riding drills, participants are taught to “lead” their bikes, practicing clutch and brake interaction while walking beside the machine over small hills. Enduro steering follows, in which counterweight turns, head and eye position and the nuances of fine clutch and brake interaction are emphasized.
It is slow-speed work, keeping the bike in tension at times by dragging a brake against the clutch while executing tight circles on loose terrain, skills useful on rough mountain roads and tight switchbacks. An afternoon trail ride helps the group loosen up and apply what they’ve learned.
The second day adds braking on loose surfaces and provides comprehensive practice with a variable terrain exercise, then it’s off to the trails again for more advanced skills: hill fail reversals, loose hill starts and even towing. It is an intense two days, and responses vary. Many students are tired and eager to return to 3 Step for a rest, but a few spend some extra time riding a sand wash, just for fun.
Departure day brings a late September frost and, after a hearty breakfast, the riders layer up against the cold. Barak Naggan and Alex Moore shepherd the group for MotoDiscovery, Naggan leading on his Yamaha WR450 and Moore in a support vehicle. I’m also in a chase truck, photographing the event.
Traveling west, we skirt the edge of Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District, then ascend into the La Sal Mountains, negotiating dirt roads with tight switchbacks and precipitous views, where new skills come in handy. Returning to the desert, the distant towers of Monument Valley are visible on the southern horizon. We arrive at Hall’s Crossing on Lake Powell for the 4 p.m. ferry. After an intense day of riding, the chance to relax is welcome. Soon a structure becomes visible on the opposite shore–our lodging for the night, the Defiance House Lodge. When the ferry docks we roll off and travel smooth, curvy pavement to the hotel.
Awakening the next day to light showers, we head out for Notom-Bullfrog Road. We enter the graded dirt road off State Route 276 and are greeted by some of Utah’s most dramatic scenery as our route hugs the east side of the Waterpocket Fold, a jagged, 100-mile buckle in the earth’s surface. The Burr Trail cuts across the fold, and we ascend–and then descend–its notorious switchbacks. One of our least experienced riders shines here, delicately balancing his machine over loose terrain and picking his way along with the dexterity of a dancer.
Back in the valley, we really begin to experience the effects of the rain: two riders go down in the slippery mud. No harm done, except to their now-grimy riding outfits, and soon we are off again, practicing a stream crossing in the Fremont River, riding a dry wash near Caineville, and taking a side trip to Capitol Reef National Park’s Cathedral Valley before ending the full day of riding in Hanksville. The town is little more than a crossroads, but it’s the only place around, and the basic but clean Whispering Sands Motel serves its purpose.
There is more rain overnight and Naggan recommends the paved route to our third destination, Moab. A late morning arrival leaves ample time for individual side trips after checking in to the plush Best Western Canyonlands. Two riders join Dragoo and Naggan for a ride over Hurrah Pass. Their ride is cut short by a flat tire on Dragoo’s BMW R 1200 GS, but the inconvenience quickly becomes a teaching moment as he demonstrates a field tire repair before turning the group back to Moab.
Leaving Moab on our last day, we wind through the slickrock playground of Sand Flats Recreation Area. We stop at Porcupine Rim Overlook, where low clouds obscure our view of Castle Valley. Peering down from the edge, we try to glimpse hints of the formations below and are rewarded with a rare “pilot’s halo” forming a sliver of rainbow. Snow in the La Sals discourages further ascent on dirt roads so we return to 3 Step via pavement, where we load bikes on trailers and say our good-byes.
For many of these riders–learning new skills and having the opportunity to apply them immediately–it has been a week of transformation. Now for them, pavement is the means to an end and the “Pavement Ends” sign the beginning of adventure.