"Is that all there is to it?” Not words you would normally expect to hear from a learner on their very first day of training. Today Aimee Fuller is showing that the seemingly mountainous challenge of getting her bike licence isn’t half as huge as it might first appear.
But if anyone knows about mountainous challenges, it’s Aimee. A professional snowboarder who represented Great Britain at the 2014 Winter Olympics, she’s also the first female to land a double backflip in competition. When you’ve done that, riding round some cones in an industrial estate probably doesn’t seem too daunting.
Last year 22-year-old Aimee passed her CBT, but she hasn’t ridden since. Today she’s at the Phillip McCallen Training Academy in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, to start an intensive week-long course that will, she hopes, conclude with her earning an A2 licence. But the training doesn’t appear to be quite as intense as she was expecting. After she quickly demonstrates her proficiency on a KTM 125
Duke, instructor Paul upgrades her to the 390 model. While it’s physically the same size, the 390 Duke has almost three times the 125’s power and a far sharper throttle response.
But Aimee doesn’t seem nervous. She hops on, rockets off and is instantly doing perfectly balanced U-turns, slaloms and figure-of-eights fast and smooth enough to shame most experienced riders.
Aimee actually has some two-wheeled experience quietly hidden up her Alpinestars jacket’s sleeves. Though this is only her second day on a road bike, she rode motocross as a child. Her first time on a bike was at just six years old. “It was a little 50cc KTM,” she says. “I can remember always being desperate to ride it round the garden. I was so excited, I’d sit there with my helmet until
Dad would come home from work and let me go out on it.” But the experience isn’t a massive help when it comes to earning her road licence: “I stopped riding when I was 15 or 16 and I’ve probably picked up lots of bad habits from motocross,” she says. “If I had no bike experience at all, today would probably be easier.”
While her clutch and throttle control are evidently well drilled, Aimee has to learn how to ride the way her examiner will expect. This means knowing which shoulder to check first before setting off; which order to put her feet down when she stops; and even the correct way to turn the engine off. Unlearning what she’s already used to is probably harder than learning it in the first place.
While trying to remember all that, Aimee is also being familiarised with the different stages of her practical tests. Tomorrow she’ll face Module 1, also known as the “off-road” section. Sadly, it’s a different kind of off-road to what Aimee is used to. Here, off-road simply means away from the public highway, on a safe, purpose-built testing area. Aimee will be asked to demonstrate slow-riding skills, including U-turns, swerves to avoid hazards, and emergency stops. Today she’s just been
shown the procedures she’ll be expected to perform and
passes the lot with ease. “I thought there was going to be
more to it,” she smiles. “It’s a pleasant surprise.”
If anything, she’s shown competence far above and beyond what’ll be expected of her. Her slalom runs are faultless, despite instructor Paul having secretly set the marker cones closer than she’ll face on the real test. She charges confidently to almost 40mph during the hazard avoidance test, despite only needing to reach 32mph.
“That might be a record,” laughs Paul.
At lunch Aimee’s 390 is replaced by a 690 Duke. Although the 390 Duke can be made A2-licence compliant, in a peculiar twist of bureaucracy it isn’t suitable to actually take the practical tests on. Such bikes need to have an engine capacity of at least 395cc, to prove a rider really can manage a big bike. Although a 690 Duke makes too much power to be A2-approved as standard, it can
quickly be tamed from its regular 67bhp to the required 47bhp with a simple engine remap. There’s no messing about with fiddly restrictor kits, washers in the exhaust or awkward throttle plates: a technician simply plugs the bike into a computer, uploads the reduced-power 47bhp map, and it’s ready to ride.
Just hours after starting on a 125cc machine this morning, Aimee climbs on the 690 Duke. Despite being only 5ft 4in tall, she handles the far larger 690 with a calm confidence. She’s asked to repeat all the tests and routines she completed on the 390 this morning. Again, her emergency stop is perfect. Her hazard-avoidance swerve is performed in complete control. And her low-speed slaloms and U-turns are incredible.
Well, apart from one gentle topple over. The 125 and 390 machines are so low-geared that Aimee can control her speed by throttle finesse alone, with little need to control the clutch. On the taller-geared 690, a faster idle speed means Aimee has to slip the clutch more. And with the clutch lever set a little too far out for her hand, one momentary error – after hours of flawless riding without so much as a tentative foot down – sees the 690 stall, stop, and roll gently over onto its side.
A learner rider’s first tumble is a pivotal moment. Some respond by walking away from the bike, both physically and mentally. Aimee doesn’t. Her attitude, drive and determination are clear by the way she’s already trying to haul the KTM upright before instructor Paul reaches her. After he demonstrates the correct technique for picking a bike up, then adjusts the clutch lever’s span to solve the problem, Aimee’s straight back on, completely unfazed. But then if falling off was a problem for Aimee, she probably wouldn’t be doing backflips on snow…
During a break Aimee explains the similarities between snowboarding and motocross. “In motocross you’ve got take-offs and landings, just as in snowboarding,” she says. “You position yourself very similarly in the air too, stabilise yourself in the same way with your core.” Anything else? “We wear back protectors in snowboarding too, though the rest of the kit is lot baggier than this set of leathers.”
With snowboarding and motocross on her CV, is she a bit of a thrill-seeker? “I’ve done bungee jumping, diving and parachuting,” she smiles. “But I wouldn’t ride a horse. It might buck you off and you can’t control it. When I do a backflip, it’s a calculated risk. People think I just go for it, but I assess the jump first.”
So is the road licence another opportunity to expand her thrill-seeking horizons? “No, it’s something different for me. I’m not into bikes to go fast – that’s pretty stupid on the road. It’s just a cool way to get around. I sold my car last winter and I think a bike would be more cost-effective. “Plus, I’m planning a trip this summer with a friend of mine who also rides. We want to go riding in Norway, see the glaciers and fjords, go snowboarding and surfing too. I love travelling, and riding a bike is a new way to experience
things and see different places. Riding a bike can take you to places you maybe wouldn’t go to in a car.”
In the afternoon Paul takes Aimee out onto the roads around Lisburn for some further instruction. Just as with her riding this morning, she looks every bit the old hand. She even pulls a few tricks for the camera, charging through deep standing water while stood up on the pegs, then with her legs sticking out. Best not let the examiner see that later in the week…
Sure enough, the next day Aimee aces her Module 1 test, not even picking up a single minor fault on her scorecard. And two days after that, she completes the on-road Module 2 assessment as well. With desire, confidence and the right attitude (as well as some self-evident natural talent), Aimee’s achieved her A2 licence in just five riding days, allowing her to tear up her
L-plates and ride a 47bhp bike. Next step, Norway…