James Owens the 40-year-old dirt bike virgin takes on a package tour with Redtread

James Owens


Southern Spain is a paradise of mountain trails and river crossings, perfect for a spot of off-piste action. Thing is, James ‘Road Boy’ Owens is a 40-year-old dirt virgin. We join him in Competa, Spain, as he trades in his tarmac tyres for knobblies and prepares to get schooled dirt-style

I don’t know why it’s never happened before now, it just didn’t. I’ve seen these bikes around, obviously, and I’ve even played on the odd green lane, but always on touring/adventure bikes and always on road tyres. So when the boss gave me the opportunity to finally pop my dirt cherry, I thought, ‘how hard can it be?’ Damn hard as it turns out, but also damn good fun in equal measure. I don’t think I’ve been so scared and elated at the same time in all my life.

Now, utter the words ‘package adventure’ and you’re sure to provoke a mixed bag of reactions ranging from quiet distain to total outrage. It can cause some riders to foam and the mouth and see others jumping on their soapboxes faster than an MP cashing an expenses chit.

I’ve roared across the Eastern Block many times on road tyres with nothing more than a few town names cellotaped to my tank, but before plunging headfirst into a potentially doomed (and costly) relationship with a dirt bike, I wanted to take the ‘try before you buy’ approach and I wanted to do so in style and comfort. So, package adventure booked and suitcase packed, that’s exactly what I did. And what an adventure it was!

Something for the weekend

Redtread HQ is situated about an hour from Malaga airport in the small town of Competa, Southern Spain. Nestled at the foot of Mount Maroma – an impressive snow-capped peak at 2,065m – the town has a population of around 4,000, many of them ex-pats. With breath-taking views down to the Mediterranean and pretty whitewashed buildings with their terracotta roofs dotting the hillside, I can see why so many Brits would want to call this place home. I can also see why this area’s such a Mecca for dirt riding. Just reaching Redtread’s base had us driving roads that could rival Cumbria’s Hardknott Pass!

Competa loves a good fiesta, second only in popularity to the siesta. The Festival of the Wine is held every year in August and as you’d imagine, it’s one huge vino party. Being 10 miles from the coast and within eyeshot of North Africa, this is prime grape-growing country. The patron Saint of the area is San Sebastian. Famed for being shot with arrows and then clubbed to death, he’s also the patron Saint of athletes – this did not bode well for my trip. I’ve been called many things by many people in my time but ‘athlete’ was never among them.

On arrival at the base I was kitted out with everything I’d need for the weekend’s riding. Having all the gear and still no idea, I never realised that dirt riding requires so much stuff! Normally I’d just throw on my bike pants and trusty Altberg boots and head off, but it turns out I had to get done up like a colour-blind batman reject before I could even look at the bike.

Another plus point to the package deal – I basically brought my own underwear and that was it. Imagine if I’d forked out for all this armour upon armour upon armour only to find that off-road riding wasn’t for me? My eBay account would take a boost but my wallet would take a kicking. Did I also mention that the Redtread complex has its own pool? Thought not.

Best foot forward

I met my fellow riders the following morning, all bright eyed and looking equally ridiculous. After a hearty breakfast, it was time to check out the bikes and get some riding in. Redtread’s ‘Digger’ – I never asked his real name and from the looks of him he probably didn’t know it himself – gave us a safety brief and a walk around the machines.

Now I’ve ridden a fair few bikes in my time but I’ve never had to go up on my tiptoes before. The Yamaha WR 250 F was a gangly alien-looking thing to me; a huge, skinny front wheel and no indicators! I found that out trying to do my start-up checks. I had issues from the off… well, before the off actually. It was more like a total inability to start the thing. The moonboots I was wearing were so protective I was unable to feel anything around my feet and this included the gear lever!

Eventually clunking the machine into first, I jittered and jerked my way over to the Redtread training grounds where Digger and his tuft of blue hair were there to give eager students some tips. The noise from the engine was a high pitched squawk, and the vibration! My god, the vibration! It went right where you’d least want it to.

We started with some circle work. Digger explained that, to go left, you need to have your left foot up with your right elbow up, slide your arse fully forwards and power on, dropping the bike and not leaning against it. So, nothing like how I’ve ridden for all those Advanced Awards then! All my years and miles on a bike now meant diddly squat.

After just a few goes around the circle pitch, though, I was getting cocky. I was also getting a numb backside due to the razorblade seat, learning more and putting on more power. A slight swish of the tail soon had me reeling it back in and thinking that I’d lost control of the tyres. Turns out you’re supposed to do that and the bike’s meant to slide away as you power into a corner. I beg your pardon? I’m supposed to lose the back end? Getting my muscle memory to stop reacting to this ‘controlled slide’ was a nightmare that had me laughing out loud in my helmet.

Where’s the rest of my engine?

After a while, I was going around in a circle like a god! And if not a god then a lesser-known off-roading saint perhaps. I could by now get around a full circuit without falling over the front of my handlebars. Score! Time to move on. As we’d entered this huge Enduro playground, I’d spotted a wall of dirt with grass on top. Digger now pointed at this near-vertical mound of earth and announced, ‘Okay lads, we’re just going to park up there and have a look at some hill work’. Up where!?

From over his shoulder Digger called, ‘Don’t forget to lean over the handlebars, balls to the pad!’ My balls where somewhere in my stomach looking at this thing, but off I rode to what I was sure was going to be me ending my days buried alive in a mudslide. To my utter shock, though, the front forks just gave and I found myself riding smoothly to the top of the mound. ‘Made it!’ I thought triumphantly before pulling up and then remembering to breathe.

‘Okay lads,’ came the Cornish Knievel again, and standing on the edge of the precipice he announced, ‘Keep it in first gear, hands off the throttle and off the brakes’. He means for me to ride down this thing! I realised, horrified. If you’ve not seen Hitchcock’s Vertigo then please do rent a copy so as to fully understand my emotions of eyeing up this terrifying descent. We looked around at each other as if to say ‘who’s going first?’ Then Dave just suddenly went for it. As there were no screams or sounds of crumpled metal, the other three lemmings and I headed over the edge.

The engine kicked in and slowed the bike down as promised and once at the base of the mound it was hard to remember what all the fuss was about. We started a new circuit, incorporating the hillclimb into the circle exercise. Around the circle, up the hill and down the hill I went, each time getting a little faster and a little more comfortable with the bike. At this point I was starting to think Mick Extance and Simon Pavey may have a new rival! I tried second gear but the amount of grunt needed to scale the wall was a first-gear job and I missed my extra 400cc of oomph. Then again, I’d never even attempt this on my 650 – with that in mind, perhaps Simon and Mick are safe for now.


After lunch we headed around 25 miles of trails – up, down and back up tracks that had me searching for the rear brake like a fat kid looking for a chocolate bar on the floor. I was on my pegs, on my seat, up the gears and down the gears, shuddered to the point of breaking my spine and teetering around 90-degree downward turns that had no barrier and 100ft free fall beyond. I’ve never used callipers, brakes and clutch so much in my life. The group was making good progress for the day considering none of us had done this sort of thing before, and looking rather like an off-road version of a pre-school trip, we made our way past some of the most beautiful backdrops I’ve ever seen.

The trails were various grades of dirt and gravel, some better or worse than others depending on your perspective. Deeply rutted with large rocks, the trick was not to get too fixate on them, as we all know, you ride where you look! It was wonderful to drop the pace and ride at my own speed with no pressure on the tour, taking plenty of leisurely breaks for a smoke and a look around the place. To be honest, I needed it. I was knackered with all this up, down, start, stop, judder, judder, judder malarkey.

So after a full day of playing in the mountains that took us down towards the coastal town of Algarrobo and back up to what’s known locally as ‘The Red Brick House’, it was time to speak to Digger, the human pharmacy, for some Brufen. Everything apart from my wrists and forearms ached with a deep workout throb.

Here, the joy of an all-inclusive comes into play. Ditching my kit, my bike was washed for me while Adrian, my second Mum while on the tour, greeted me with a rundown of what was on this evening’s menu before I flopped down on my bed, exhausted.

And the sun came up over Africa

A little clichéd perhaps, but true none the less. The pain in my legs was eased by the sight of a beautiful sunrise coming up over the coast and washing over what I could see of North Africa, a myriad reds and golds streaking the global canvas. Spain was separated by the royal blue of the Mediterranean, and I was up for some more of this off-road stuff – boy did I get it!

After kitting ourselves out and warming up the bike, Digger appeared with a smile on his face and spoke with that confident Cornish accent, ‘Right then! Let’s do some technical stuff, eh?’ ‘Technical?

Yesterday wasn’t technical enough for you, you pasty-munching lunatic? What the hell are we going to be doing today!?’ These were my thoughts on the subject. What came out of my mouth however was: ‘Oh great, let’s crack on’.

We ran a 70-100-mile circuit and this time there was no training ground; it was off to play and play we did. We headed off at a faster pace and this time we cut off towards Lake Vinuela for some serious off-road fun. Crossing via the same amazing gravel trails and views that height always affords the traveller. This area is just littered with trails and you could spend months exploring it, so it really does help to have a guide to do all the research for you. Don’t get me wrong, I love planning a ride as much as the next biker, it was just a nice change of pace to play follow the leader – well, as best I could anyway!

Wetter is better

Lake Vinuela is a man-made lake in the Costa Del Sol. Named after a small Andalucian town, it’s fed by three rivers and holds an incredible 170,000,000 cubic metres of water. The route to Lake Vinuela took us up and across the river Guaro with its deep, loose shale and large pebbles. This first river crossing claimed the first victim. As the soft banks gave way, it was an unsuspecting Gareth who went for a swim.

As both bike and rider had been fully submerged, the Yam refused to start, but being on a ‘package adventure’ it wasn’t the end of the ride. Digger and Ed soon stripped the bike down like a pair of worker ants attacking a trespassing grasshopper. Tools flew around and bits where pulled from the engine, the bike was shoved into a wheelie position and things shoved back in – true to form the bike fired up again instantly under the expert riverside ministrations. Me? I had a smoke and took some pictures.


It wasn’t much later on that I realised ‘technical’ is dirt-speak for ‘scary’. I was directed at another river crossing down the steepest, wettest, rockiest bank I’ve ever seen. I shouted to the drop-off man ‘ARE YOU SERIOUS!?’ it seems he was. I pushed down for first gear, shoved my arse back far as I could and kissed it goodbye. But the bike just rode down and then flew back up the other side without so much as a slip!

More of the same kept coming and the ‘dips’ as Digger called them, ‘wet muddy crevasses’ I’d call them, got steeper and steeper. The bike took them all in its stride though, despite me stalling on a few of the up sections due to being in the wrong gear. Then came the second river crossing – I’d fallen behind due to 1.) Stopping to take pictures of horses and stuff, and 2.) Because I was crap at this!


I was advised time and again to let the bike dance around underneath me – but years of muscle memory wouldn’t let me do it. Every time it shifted, I corrected it by dropping the power or leaning in depending on the need. I just could not get the road riding techniques out of my head and it slowed me down – ironic as they speed me up on the tarmac.

So, by the time I reached the second crossing, my fellow riders were already on the other side. Digger pointed to the line I should take. I dropped down to the bank and then powered on – I know in principle you should enter a water crossing slowly and when the bike sinks, power on more to thrust out, but I ignore all this and just gunned it. Putting my trust in the Dunlop chunks of rubber on the rear, I poured out as much power as a 250cc bike gives. I hit ‘something’ midway across the river and the slow-mo action replay was the bars snapping to the left and the water coming closer and closer to my face. I knew I was going for a swim and all I could do was think, ‘ah, bugger’.Munchen and glad to be back

Tapas at the El Rancho Grande in Alcaucin was our lunch stop. As I stood there in a puddle of my own making, the sun dried my gear while I chomped down on a banquet of battered prawns, deep-fried calamari and various other yummy titbits.

Once dry and back on the trails, we had swung from 200m to 800m with many a track, deep, rutted and loose. I found the going up much easier than the coming down as I knew I could stop going up if I so desired. My biggest hindrance was being reluctant to ride faster than I know I can stop.

My road discipline wasn’t totally lost, though. Coming around one such bend I was met by the sight of Ries sat in the middle of the track, his bike thrust up the side of the hill. I was able to stop long before I was too close to him. Ries is 19 and was on the Redtread trip with his Dad, Dave. He was shaken up by the spill but other than a nice gravel rash and a dead leg he was none the worse for wear. ‘This is where all that protection comes in to its own’ I thought.

I was now going down some 35-degree descents, on loose gravel, with alien tyres and feet that couldn’t feel the rear brake. Add to that the fact there was a 100m sheer drop to the side of me; it was fair to say that a small child could have walked down quicker than I rode – but I loved it all the same. Soon we were heading back to the base and after a full day of getting dunked, standing, sitting, shifting and leg lifting with a big ole boot on, I was knackered.


The bike

The Yamaha WR 250 F has a lot of championships under its belt, none of which will ever be won by me! But it does sport a four-stroke, liquid-cooled, DOHC, five-valve, forward-inclined, single-cylinder engine. Phew! At 990mm it’s not for the short legged either. It’s a very lean and angular-looking bike. I ended up calling mine ‘For $%#@ Sake’ due to my total inability to find the gears thanks to the super-protective boots I was wearing. The Dunlop tyres did give me a bit of confidence, though. Best of all is the fact that this bike has an electric start to save the novice looking like an inebriated Batman in a Country and Western line-dance contest.

Want to do this?

How long does it take? James’ off-road package break with Redtread Off-Road School (www.redtread.com) was over a weekend, but the company does offer longer breaks of up to a week and customised tours, too.

When to go? Tours run throughout the year, so it’s really up to you as to whether you can stand the heat! June-August you can expect temperatures in the mid-to-high 20s and winters tend to be very mild.

Get there: Flights are not included in Redtread’s packages, but the nearest airport is Malaga. Flights to Malaga are available from most major UK airports from around £30 return.

Fly or hire? Bike hire is included in the tour package, as is all the protective gear you’ll need to ride it. Riders can choose either the Yamaha W 250 or 450 F.

Accommodation: Monte Pino is Redtread’s luxury country house for use exclusively by its guests. Each suite has its own kitchen, bathroom and private terrace. There’s also a bar, BBQ facilities and a private pool. Lovely.

Paperwork for you: All you need is a valid UK licence, your passport and repatriation insurance.

Is it for you? James says: “Chatting to the lads, I was interested to find out what had brought them to Spain and why they’d chosen to go the package route instead of just hiring a bike and pleasing themselves. Dave and Ries reckoned that having everything planned out for them meant they were able to spend more time enjoying the father-son experience of riding the trails together.

Thrill-seekers Andy and Gareth were on their second visit. For them, it was a chance to try something out of the ordinary and the fact that they didn’t have to fork out loads of dosh for kit meant they still had some left over in the budget for another extreme sports holiday – snowboarding, perhaps. I must admit, not having to wash the bikes after a day on the tracks was also a bonus.

For those looking for more ‘hardcore’ or expert stuff, Redtread does offer more challenging trails, but I defy any rider, however experienced, to have a go at this and not come back with a huge grin on their face.”

Kit list

SpainRedtread’s gaffer Ed Wild gives us the perfect off- road starter pack

Helmet – Arai MX3 (get the best that you can afford)
Body – Knox Cross Shirt
Pants – Alpine Stars Tech 3
Gloves – Knox Off-Road
Shins – Knox X Knees
Boots – Alpine Stars Tech 3
Hydro – Kriega Hydro 3

And as for the bike…

1. Yamaha WR 450 F offers great feedback but can be a bit ‘fruity’ for a beginner
2. Honda CR 250 wonderful pedigree but no longer sold new
3. Yamaha YZ 250 F very forgiving and great for motorcross
4. Honda XRV 750 bulletproof engine but no longer sold new
5. Gas Gas TXT 250 pro all-round great ‘tinker’ bike