October 23, 2020
Most of the successful older people that I know say that doing things out of your comfort zone is important every now and then. As a result, when I was recently given the opportunity to do my motorcycle CBT (knowing almost nothing about motorcycles), I said yes. I wouldn’t describe myself as a petrol head, in fact until recently I would say I was the opposite (a.. custard foot?). Previously a city dweller, my transport needs have hereto been met by the public service network. Accustomed to this life of leisurely shuttling, the thought of being on the open road exposed to the elements became surprisingly daunting on contemplation. To the die hard riders out there I am sure the thought of a CBT is a comical and distant memory. A tunnocks wafer, a leisurely drive through the back roads and a crisp certificate given out for attendance. Having now completed mine, I have to admit that the learning curve and the sensory assault were far greater than I first expected. To preface the following account, I must state the following; at the time of my first getting on a motorcycle, I was (and remain) in my mid twenties. I have a sum total of zero experience on the road in any motorised vehicle. I do not possess a licence for a forklift, a car or a hot air balloon. It would not be unfair to describe me as tortoise-like, in whatever context you care to apply.
So am I your typical biker? While you can probably give a quick and easy answer to this question given the information above, it is also unclear to me now what the typical biker is. Like many who didn’t grow up around motorcycles, my thoughts on them were mostly informed by stereotypes. Gruff characters in movies wearing aviators. Vietnam war vets. Arnold Schwarzenegger driving down a canal firing a shotgun at a cyborg. Motorcycles are cool, I thought. They are for people who can pull off a leather jacket. While some of these biases are undoubtedly not without foundation, I have come to realise that the motorcycle community is large and as diverse as any other out there. Perhaps Harley Davidson really did sign their own death certificate with their rigid adherence to a certain aggressive machismo that jaded a generation to motorcycles and those who ride them. An image that has in recent years become increasingly unfashionable.
To digress for a moment on my thoughts going into this experience - it is in my own experience no longer common for a young man seeking an identity to purchase a motorcycle. In all honestly I had barely considered it as a potential mode of transport in my former life. In my generation excess funds now often go on the backpacking holiday, the DSLR or as the older generations would describe it, the “avocado toast”. That is to say there is something that has become almost uncool about motorcycling in the eco-conscious, tech-obsessed millennial and gen x generations. Does this unanalysed feeling of distaste hold up to inspection? After learning a great deal more about motorcycles, I now believe that it does not. Enough about all this for now though, back to the bike.
A quick talk about how the bike works from the instructor. It has wheels, which are strapped to a combustion engine. That’s humans for you. If you pull on the throttle the thing will move. Okay good. Check. That’s the clutch. Sure, sounds easy. It wasn’t easy.I don’t care to say how many times I stalled the bike in the first couple of hours, but you can safely assume it was many, many, times. Once moving I was immediately excited by the acceleration, there is a great visceral quality to a bike that I hadn’t expected, and feeling it accelerating fast underneath you is a great feeling. Like many (I have been told) newer riders, I had the instinctive desire to start going fast quite soon after first sitting on the thing. The bike was easier to control at higher speeds and to be honest - it was great fun. After getting moving and managing to squeeze in a few laps (even changing gears!) I was quickly brought back to reality by the requirement to complete a series of increasingly demanding low speed manoeuvres. I use the word “demanding” lightly here as these were your standard fare basic manoeuvres. U turn, signalling, figure eight, how to stop moving before being forced to contend with newton’s third law. It is basic stuff and slowly I got there, but I will readily admit that it took a great deal more effort than I had naively imagined to get comfortable. As the complexity increased the lack of time to become familiar enough with the previous task quickly led to a compounding brain bandwidth issue. The more complex the task, the more likely I was to do some things successfully while forgetting to do others (yes my indicators are on and yes its on purpose, they are indicating my inability to remember to turn them off).
Humbled, I was forced to admit defeat on the first day I got on a bike. I decided to keep practising the basics of clutch control, shifting and slow speed control before I felt ready to hit the road. While it didn’t feel good to “fail” at my goal of trying to get my certificate on day one, I would recommend other new riders to do the same if they aren’t feeling confident. The extra time I got on the bike was a huge help - every hour when you are just starting will give you huge gains in your level of comfort in handling the vehicle and when you go out on the road you will do much better if you’re not as nervous or struggling with the basic controls. Towards the end of the day I was starting to feel good and even managed to get in a little lean or two whizzing around the car park. I had enjoyed myself and was keen to finish, so decided to come back later in the week after things had had a chance to settle in to get it done.
The second day brought some dire weather but my spirits were high and I was keen to push myself and get out onto the road. Suited up to the gills in waterproofs (still not enough it transpired), I had a little time to re-familiarise myself on my now somewhat less intimidating steed. I was stalling much less now, and my brain had done an adequate job of filing away some of the minutiae into muscle memory. Changing gear happened naturally now, and pulling away was feeling consistent. After getting the rest of the slow speed training out of the way it was time to hit the road. Here we go.
Emergency stop. Screeeech. That wasn’t too bad.
“So we are going to pull out onto the A9 now”
The thought of being on an A road was a big leap, but I plucked up the courage and I pulled off. Before I knew it I was doing 40, then 45, 50. I was in control of a vehicle moving at 50 miles an hour. It felt good! We pulled into a nearby village to do some cursory tootling around and an hour in I really started to feel much more comfortable. The fear of lurching and stalling had lessened a great deal and I even had time to appreciate the vast amount of water which had somehow found its way into my realm of influence. I’m not sure I have ever been as wet as I was that day after riding for two hours - thankfully I have never much minded getting wet. A valuable character trait if my motorcycle journey continues I am sure.
After our tour of the town we finally came back around to the A9, this time barely phased. It felt good to have grown my confidence so much in such a short span of time. I would recommend the shock learning approach to anyone who has thick skin and doesn’t mind an occasional bollocking from the instructor, because you willdo some really stupid stuff if its your first time. Just grit your teeth and keep learning and you will be glad you did it!
Certificate in hand, I left with a new appreciation for those who are able to handle bikes and enough of a taste of the open road that I’m sure to come back soon. Maybe you will hear about it when I do. As for all the stereotypes I had about bikes before I started, they are almost all gone. A bike is something that takes you places, and that can be as literal or metaphorical as you want it to be. You don’t have to be cool to ride one. You don’t even have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger. Everything is down to the rider, and that’s what makes a bike unique.
Thanks to the brilliant instructor at KDM Car & Motorcycle training in Inverness who was very patient with me. If you're thinking about doing any training they are highly recommended and you can find them at https://www.kdmtraining.com/
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