15 Months later...

February last year I got myself a new motorbike...the rather shiny and gorgeous Honda VFR800. My first _big_ motorbike, as opposed to the previous, smaller road bikes I've had.

The plan way, way back then, to join up to the National Escort Group (NEG), which is not a rather seedy prositution ring, but rather a bunch of motorbike/cycling enthusiasts who act as safety vehicles for cycling events... I'd first encountered them when I did Ride Across Britain in 2010, and it seemed a great way of combining hobbies... The first hurdle of joining NEG, however, is to gain an advanced riding qualification...either with IAM or ROSPA. Now i've always considered myself a safe, but slightly nervous motorcyclist...specifically I've had a bit of a mental block with poor road conditions and cornering, and being on a new bike anyway, it made sense to look into additional training...a bit of investigation showed that I was lucky enough to live very close to Thames Vale Advanced Motorcyclists (TVAM), which just happened to be the largest motorcycle IAM club in the country, so signed myself up. IAM run a Skills For Life, which is a fixed-fee course that covers all training and your IAM Advanced Exam for the (insanely low) fee of £139.

Soon after signing up, I was assigned an observer...Norman. All the observers are volunteers, and having met a few now, extremely passionate bikers. Norman was no exception...he's recently retired, extremely calm, probably one of the nicest chaps I've ever met, and he rides a Triumph Speed-Triple like a demon...he also restores old Velocettes (a sub-brand of Norton). Over the last year, I've done about 20 ride outs with Norman around the UK...typically covering 60-100 miles each time, and he's managed to get rid of the hundreds of bad motorcycling habits I'd picked up over 9 years...

...seriously, I was terrible. Advanced motorbike courses (and car ones for that matter) are based around a set of rules known as "The System", which breaks down into 5 sections;

  • Information
  • Position
  • Speed
  • Gear
  • Acceleration

...and each of those has it's own series of rules. You get a textbook to read as part of the course, and one thing that really jumped out at me was "80% of drivers focus their view a maximum of 20 metres ahead of them". I was one of those...I would plonk myself in the middle of a lane, and only look about 4 bike lengths forward (roughly where a car would be if I was following one...far too close)...quite scary when you think about it...doing 60+mph, and not paying attention to anything more than 1 second ahead. My cornering was, as a result, atrocious. I would be going in too fast, trying to scrub off speed as I was leaning the bike over, and thus loosing all the stability...old habits die hard, however, and it took a very bad ride last summer (out towards Popham Airfield) where it suddenly started raining, to get me to change. I nearly bottled the entire ride, and ended up crawling round simple bends. Norman calmly got me a cuppa, and we talked over what had happened, and what I should be doing...

I also got the opportunity to do a fantastic course (twice actually), called Look, Lean, Roll, a course unique to TVAM. It teaches the correct, balanced approach to turning a 2-wheeled vehicle, and explains in pretty scientific ways why I was feeling so unstable in corners. Half the course teaches counter-steer, while the other half explains and teaches why motorbikes should always accelerate/positive throttle around corners (long story short, move centre of mass towards the rear tyre, where grip is more important). If I've ever had a eureka moment on a motorbike, that course was it...it fundamentally changed my approach to how I ride. I immediately stopped taking corners far too timidly, and instead started whipping round them... Norman immediately noticed the difference, and my scores (you're rated after each ride) went from C+/B- to B+/A- almost immediately... From there is was onto Overtaking (an important part of motorbikes, even moreso when you think that we are accelerating through corners, and have more acceleration than a car anyway, which is why we always catch cars coming off a bend). This involved about 6 weeks going up and down the A4 between Theale and Thatcham getting 3-step overtakes perfected.

At the end of April, after being checked and double-checked by several other observers, I was put forward for my test with IAM...I can say with absolute honesty that I've never done more work for an exam, and I've never been as nervous. I finally got a test date for 20th June...the examiner is an off-duty police officer, and takes the format of 30-40 miles of riding taking in all road types. The exam generally went well, I managed to demonstrate a few overtakes pretty quickly, but I probably got a bit over-confident towards the end, and went for an overtake that was (what I thought) was a bit marginal...I'd caught the guy through some twisties, but he was doing ~58mph in a 60-zone...I went past, but apparently there was a couple of hidden driveway entrances on the right-hand side, and the examiner said it "was not a suitable position to overtake"...

...however, as I'd already done the previous overtakes it was a markdown on the section, rather than a fail, which was a bit of a relief. My test result is here...you have to score an average of 2, with no individual marks below 3. There were also questions on bike maintenance and the Highway Code, as well a slow-speed skills section (which had me terrified, I've not done slow-speed figure-8's since my CBT 11 years ago!, and that was on a bike that weighed a third the VFR).

I've loved doing the Advanced Course...my ability to handle the bike has improved out of sight, and I know I'm safer as well...I'm no longer someone who looks 20 metres ahead and rolls along in the middle of the lane...instead I'm working out my line as the road comes into sight, and enjoying riding a lot more...I'm going over to France for a week next month, and I can't wait! As for the cost...well, for £139 I've had;

  • 27 Observed Rides (with a variety of observers, though mainly with Norman)...over 100 hours of tuition right there
  • For £35 I did Look, Lean Roll
  • For another £10 I did a motorbike Maintenance Course
  • The exam itself

The observers are all volunteers, and typically just want a cuppa and a biscuit as thanks (as well as willing students)...frankly the cost is nothing.

Also, the original plan is still there, though with a slight change. I've spoken to a few people involved in marshalling, as well as some road racers...there was a recent fatal accident of a NEG Rider...I had a friend in the race, and apparently the guy was a trainee. Marshalling cycling races has an extra level of technical complexity to it compared to Time Trials and Triathlon (involving managing the "crocodile" of the peleton, and arranging a rolling road-block)...so, initially I'm going to apply to Triathlon England to be a marshall for them...there is no closed road procedure for this, so it should be a better introduction while I continue to improve my riding skills and marshalling awareness... I'll definitely still apply to NEG, but don't want to end up risking my own, and other, lives.