I'm a busy person. As marketing manager for RiDE and several other motorcycling magazines, my life is a blur of deadlines, events, radio ads and swearing. So it’s always been easy to find an excuse for not getting round to doing my bike test, despite wanting to since I was a teenager.
I've always loved the idea of getting out with friends on a Sunday, or out on my own with no particular place to go. I think it would be such a release.
I've done my research and learned that most schools offer CBT (compulsory basic training) courses which are based around a single day's intensive training. But BMW Rider Training in Royston, Hertfordshire, have recognised a need for some new riders to take a little more time by spreading the course over two days. Sure, it does cost more, but it is perfect for raw beginners like me who want the whole experience to be as least stressful as possible and hope to go onto further training and tests such as the Direct Access Scheme. It means you can take a bit more time, discuss and evaluate what you're learning (I do like a chat), rather than just do the bare minimum to stay legal.
For the last couple of weeks running up to my CBT, I'd been worrying myself stupid about the weight of the bike; would I be able to handle it, what if I dropped it, especially when a photographer was there, but also about how I'd handle the gears - how I would know what gear to be in?! I’d read some books that gave me an idea of what to expect from the training (including the excellent 'Pass the Bike Test: Your Real-World Survival Guide to a Great First Year in Biking' by my friend and colleague Rupert Paul), but I was still feeling a bit nervous, particularly about 'the swerve test' which is one of the skills on the module one test. But I shouldn't have worried, when I arrived at the training centre in Royston, the experienced instructors immediately put me at ease and I was comforted by the fact the other two guys on the course were of a similar age, with a similar lack of experience.
After a short chat about what the course involved and a bit of advice on what clothing to wear, my two classmates and I were led out to have a look around our bikes. We used Honda CB125F's, since BMW don't make currently a bike small enough for a CBT course. Paul, our instructor, also gave us some pointers on how to look after them. I’m quite mechanically minded, but I was surprised by just how much you have to check on a bike every day compared to a car - although the acronyms do help, like BESTCOP - brakes, electrics, suspension, tyres, chain, oil and petrol.
Then we went over what should be some simple things, but are surprisingly unnerving, like learning the correct way to get a bike off the centrestand and pushing it around. Once you know the technique, it's easier than you first think.
Pulling away and stopping
When you get on a bike for the first time there are a bunch of acronyms to remember. FIGS – fuel, ignition, gears and start – leads on to the hardest part for many, clutch control. I struggled a bit with the co-ordination of throttle and clutch, and took a while to get used to the biting point. I have fairly small hands, so the biting point was right at the end of my stretch, but Paul adjusted the clutch, which helped a lot. Once I'd got used to holding the revs up, finding the biting point was much easier - it takes a little time, but I’m more confident with it now.
To begin with, Paul told us to confine our braking to just the rear brake while getting used to pulling away, which as car drivers, we were all happy with. The front brake is pretty fierce, I still had memories of going over the handlebars when tearing around like a lunatic on my pushbike as a kid!
We'd talked about weight transfer in the classroom, but despite the theory, it does take a bit of confidence and getting used to applying 70 per cent on the front brake and 30 per cent on the rear. The trick is to gently squeeze the front brake progressively harder, rather than jam it on. Even in emergency stops, this is still the case, just do it a bit quicker! I kept struggling to find first gear after stopping and would then panic and stall. And then me being me, I got cross with myself, which just made the whole thing harder. Paul showed me how you can ease the clutch lever out a smidgen, to make changing gear a bit easier when the bike is stationary, which helped a lot.
Keeping with clutch control and balance, it was time for slow riding. Paul got us to try U-turns and figure-of-eight moves while keeping our feet up. People think it’s just like riding a bicycle, but there’s so much more involved, like dragging the rear brake lightly to keep the speed from escalating. You also get more confidence by moving the bars more at slow speeds.
Gears were propbably my biggest fear; Which one to be in, how I'd know what gear I was in and how to remember which way to kick the lever. But the strangest thing is that’s the part you seem to get straight away – I had to think whether first was up or down a couple of times, but otherwise gearchanges were no problem.
On the road
By the end of the second day, I'd passed my CBT and got my DL196 pass certificate so Paul treated me to a go on the BMW F700GS I was going to be riding on my DAS course. Amazingly, the larger bike is so much easier to ride, I’ve just got to be more confident with the weight. But that little go has got rid of most of my butterflies.
Thanks to Ian Biederman and all at BMW Rider Training, Royston – see www.bmwridertraining.net