Photos by Scott Wilson
Courtland, Ont. – For most folks, when it comes to planning a new family activity, the typical strategy seems to be taking up something like skating, riding around on bicycles together, or (shudder) golf. Good, wholesome activities, to be sure.
Not so for my family, who instead prefers two wheels of the motorized sort. My brother, Scott, and I have been riding regularly since taking our first rider training course together through a local college years ago and becoming immediately hooked on the exhilaration of motorcycling. Since then, between the two of us, we’ve owned 17 bikes from 10 different manufacturers, and we always seem to have at least two bikes in our shared office. We’ve even produced a TV series together where a motorcycle serves as a co-star (with another bike series on the way).
My partner has been riding for more than 25 years, too, having gotten her bike licence before her driver’s licence, and we love going for rides with her parents and sister, who’ve each got their own bikes. To say that motorcycles have become a big part of this family is an understatement.
So, it’s no surprise that once my son was old enough, he was signed up for Honda’s Junior Red Riders program. The framed photo on my desk of him leaned into a dirt corner with his little riding boot thrust out still bursts my heart with pride. Since then, the three of us have done the S.M.A.R.T. Adventure Program together to work on our dirt riding skills.
Honda has dropped “Junior” from the Red Riders name, recognizing that there are plenty of adults who never had the opportunity to try dirt bikes or trail riding in their youth but still want to learn. My brother’s wife, Christina, is a prime example, having patiently tolerated my brother towing his old Honda CRF 250L all over the place during years of family trips, just in case an opportunity came up to have a quick ride, wherever they might be.
Christina had never ridden before and was eager – if somewhat apprehensive – about learning. An ideal candidate for the Red Rider program, she signed up, along with 6-year-old son, Jack, and my now-13-year-old son, Jordan. And, hey, since there were bikes and gear available, I was able to sign the waiver to join in on the fun, too, while my brother was nominated for photo duty and to keep an eye on his 3-year-old daughter.
As part of the program’s evolution, it’s moved from the lawn of Honda’s Markham headquarters to Gopher Dunes, situated roughly 90 km southwest of Hamilton, Ont., in the heart of agricultural Norfolk County.
I had been to Gopher Dunes more than 20 years ago and was surprised to see how the venue has grown to the world-class facility it’s become. With the main track hosting one of the national Triple Crown Series motocross events and dubbed the hardest track in the world, it’s surrounded by smaller training tracks, kilometres of woodland trails and even a beginner’s track.
Upon arrival, the friendly staff in the pro shop quickly put minds at ease, getting us sorted with an overview of what to expect and quickly suited with the necessary riding equipment for our adventure. Outfitted head to toe, we certainly looked like we belonged amongst the hard core dirt track riders, even if we were escorted to the row of Honda bikes lined up from tiny 50-cc ones to the CRF250F parked on the lawn. Our instructor introduced himself and his teenaged son, who would be helping him with the lessons, and after discussing each of our riding experience, we were assigned our steeds straight away with Jack on the CRF50F, Jordan on the CRF110F, Christina on the CRF125F, and yours truly on the CRF250F.
While the two first-timers were given the basics to start out, Jordan and I were sent to get a feel for our bikes, slaloming around cones, and working on tight figure-eights on the lawn while the young assistant instructor critiqued our technique. With Jordan’s 110 still having an automatic clutch, he was very quickly showing off just how maneuverable the smaller bike was chasing me around the cones.
Christina’s apprehension about learning the new-to-her experience of not only balancing a motorized two-wheeler, but grasping the process of shifting by foot and clutching by hand promptly dissolved and she joined the parade around the cones in short order. Jack, meanwhile, received much of the instructor’s attention, getting him motoring along smoothly on his own, while the rest of us moved on to the beginner’s track to fine-tune the skills on the hard-packed dirt, still all at low speeds. It wasn’t long before our youngest rider joined us on the beginner track, too.
Little more than half way through the two-hour session, Christina, Jordan and I followed our junior instructor across the facility to the entrance of the wooded trails where we’d finish up the rest of our session and Jack continued building up his skills on the beginner track. Our guide led us into the woods, with Christina following immediately, then Jordan and me bringing up the rear.
The trail conditions varied significantly from the grass and hard-pack dirt we’d experienced to this point, and a few corners in, we quickly learned to stay loose in the deep sand we found in some of the corners. Jordan’s CRF 110’s little tires washed out in the sand easier than the larger knobbies on the 125 and 250, and he took the first of several spills early on the first trail. Our instructor, unaware, carried on with Christina hot on his heels and we were left on our own for the rest of the session.
With father and son exploring the forest together at our own pace, I was getting a taste of what Jordan and I could do if we each had our own trail bikes, enjoying some quality time together. We didn’t really mind being left behind. Still, without any instruction to help improve in the loose sand, lesser-experienced riders could become frustrated pretty quickly. Students should also be warned that the trails are used by experienced riders travelling at a high rate of speed, which we discovered in a near-miss while trying to help Jordan back on to his bike. Even still, by the end of the trail, Jordan was exhausted from picking his bike up out of the sand multiple times, but still smiling ear to ear. Catching up with Jack and Christina revealed that they had thoroughly enjoyed their experience, too.
The years of Honda’s Junior Red Riders program being able to successfully get new riders away and wheeling on their own in short order was evident in this Red Riders experience. It’s entirely conceivable that new riders who’ve never even sat on a motorcycle before could learn the basics of riding and gain enough enthusiasm to want to pick up a dirt bike of their own after only a two-hour lesson, making it a strong business case for Honda, and a great way to get new riders enthused about the sport.
Our Red Rider experience was very much geared toward beginner riders, and those with some existing riding experience were offered some input to improve their skills. I had hoped Jordan would get some saddle time on the CRF125F, where he could learn the clutch process absent from the automatic CRF110F. I was also hoping there’d be an opportunity for me to take my rudimentary off-road experience to the next level, but neither was afforded in this session.
As a rider, I’ve always subscribed to the all-the-gear-all-the-time rule, and as students, we were provided with excellent equipment, but it was shocking to see the instructors wearing t-shirts, sneakers, and bicycle helmets as they tootled around on the bikes.
The Honda Red Rider program is a great way to get families excited about motorcycling together, especially if they’ve never been before. Honda’s broad lineup of trail bikes ensures that there’s a perfect fit for every rider and the friendly atmosphere and excellent facilities at Gopher Dunes are assets to the program. Plus, at $195 per student, including the instruction, motorcycle, and gear, it’s a solid value for the two-hour lesson. It’d be great to see Honda expand the program to help riders of all levels improve their skills, but even as it is, the Red Rider program is sure to help create more families that love riding as much as mine does.