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30th March 2004


Opinion: Advanced Riding (Again)

It's National Motorcycle Safety Week this week. No, we didn't know either. To celebrate, Real Mart goes under observation and Paul Friday tells why he took his advanced test...

Back in my teens I could ride everywhere flat out and hurtle round blind bends, confident in the knowledge that most motorcycle accidents were the fault of car drivers. After surviving a couple of years I began to take pride in my riding. I dabbled a bit off road, helped out on the local RAC ACU course but continued to treat other road users with suspicion. Later, as the years wore on and I kept covering the miles, I could be confident in my own skills and the abilities of my bike's triple disc brakes, big fat tyres and responsive engine to keep me out of trouble. I did race schools and trackdays to improve my skills, did some more off-road dabbling, but mostly I just rode my bike. A lot. Everywhere, all year.

But recently I've started to have doubts. It's ironic really, but now that I work from home and write about motorbikes for a living, I actually ride less - no more long distance commuting, you see, and a lot of weekends spent on foreign motorways driving a hire car. And here's a more worrying thing; most motorcycle accidents these days don't involve that traditional enemy, the myopic motorist. We're throwing *ourselves* through hedges and drystone walls these days, we don't need any help from other people.

I'm 20 years old, I'm scraping the pegs on my BMW, and I'm immortal. So far.

It's easy for us experienced riders to blame all these single-vehicle mishaps on other people; whether it's the born-agains, the people on sportsbikes, the kids on scooters… as long as it's someone else then *we're* alright. Jack. But let's be realistic. Are your skills as sharp as they were five years ago? I know mine aren't. And I still ride all year round, if not every single day; if I'd spent the last five months rebuilding a much loved basket of bits ready for the spring, I know I'd be rusty even if my bike wasn't.

So I decided I had to do something. I dithered over signing up with the Institute of Advanced Motorcyclists, I looked at various one-to-one advanced courses, I got sidetracked by an offer to ride in Spain with a racer friend, I just missed a day with Bikesafe... and then I found out that our local IAM group was having an open day about two miles away. Maybe it'd rain or something…

You see, I have preconceptions. I was an associate member of the IAM some twenty-odd years ago, and I know all too well that there can be a lot of variation between different groups. Some insist on members "making good progress" whenever possible, while others will excommunicate any of their clan found exceeding a speed limit. And then there's the attitude; that little green triangle seems to give certain people total infallibility - even when they're wrong they know they're right.

Keep an eye on that bloke with the beard. I reckon he's an under cover RealClassic journalist.So I rolled into Tesco's car park expecting the worst, only to be expertly disarmed by man-in-charge-for-the-day Tony Vernon. With twenty riders having already been sent out on observed runs in the first hour and a half, he was expertly pairing up observers with observees while fielding my questions. "It's the first one of these we've done for a long time, but we thought we ought to do something for Bike Safety Week - the accident figures aren't good, and we're seeing more single vehicle accidents in the county." He also couldn't see any problems with riders turning up on classic motorcycles: "The only requirement is that they can maintain the national speed limit. I don't know if we've got any classic riding members or not; how do you define classic?"

Spotting the glazed look coming in to my eyes as I prepared to answer that, he paired me up with BMW riding David Parnell for my observed run. We discussed the route, he told me to ride as I normally would, and we were off…

It's not easy, this "riding normally" lark. Especially when someone is watching, and even more so when you know that person is going to list back to you all the things you've just done wrong. Every overtaking decision becomes a Mensa puzzle, every curve a "how would I normally take this" challenge, and every road sign a moment for hesitation (was it first left at the second roundabout, or second left at the first roundabout?). And then there's the Sunday morning Fenland traffic to deal with…

We stopped halfway round the route, discussed dithering drivers and how to deal with them, and then set off again. The route back to base took in quieter country roads and sleepier villages, and I managed to spend more time thinking about how I was riding and less time worrying about how it looked. Indeed, at a couple of points I was thinking so hard about my own riding that I kind of forgot about the speed limits. No Gatsos round there y'see - no need to watch your speed, normally. Ahem.

I'm sure he had a full head of hair before we set off...

So how did I do, and did I learn anything? Well, I went a bit fast in a couple of places, but if I was honest I could probably have predicted that. We had a useful discussion about road positioning, and observer David thought that work on this would improve a lot of areas. Also it seems I do "Banana" overtakes, which is not good, and I tend to sit too close to the vehicle I'm about to pass. Food for thought, and riding the Morini that afternoon I was much more aware of where I was on the road at all times rather than just when cornering.

But yes, I learned something. I now know that I would certainly benefit from some advanced training, and that the Cambridge Advanced Motorcyclists wouldn't be a bad place to start.

**********

Paul Friday has already explained exactly how he passed his Advanced Riding test. This time he ponders the whys and the wherefores

Real Mart raised the question on the message board about advanced training. Leaving aside the practicalities of learning the skills of advanced riding, let me tell you my view on what it means to me.

The problem now is looking back to the time before; not that it was a long time ago, but it sure feels it. It's like trying to remember what it felt like to be asleep. And that's really how it feels, as looking back from here I wonder how I lived this long.

I got my bike licence as soon as I was seventeen. I hit the highway like a bat out of hell. More accurately: I hit the highway. I used to fall off about once a week. My average gradually improved, and I learned enough to stay upright and dodge the cars.

Then I did the usual bit before one gets born again - do we call it 'biker in driving existence' or BIDE? So I bade my time, until the sultry allure of a pretty blue Moto Guzzi turned me once again to the dark side.

I must admit to considerable trepidation when I went back onto two wheels after -mumble- years. Everyone knew that born-agains were the axle-grease of modern traffic. But I coped well enough, until I recognised the onset of that most dangerous phase - the Road God Syndrome. I began to think I was pretty good, and that the majority of car drivers were little more than moving chicanes. So I got some training.

I passed my IAM Advanced Riding test, but thankfully it didn't stop there. I was lucky to fall in with a good crowd who were driven by the desire to be good, rather than the need for speed. This means that the IAM test was the beginning of a process of continual improvement, rather than the end-point of a process.

Paul was doing fine until he confused 'riding round the cones' with 'riding round *with* the cones'.

All right already - so what's the difference?

I honestly feel that I used to ride around with my eyes shut. I remember that I used to go as fast as I dared on the country lanes, with a line of cars up my chuff pressing to get past. I would often find myself at bum-pucker factor nine midway through a corner, when a bit of gravel or mud appeared suddenly on my line. I used to follow slow cars for miles, as I just knew I couldn't overtake on my lardy old Guzzi. When riding in the rain, I used to be so tense that my shoulders and neck would lock-up to cramp levels. More than twenty miles in wet weather meant Nurofen at journey's end.

What has changed is that I can now ride the lanes at about the same speed as a car, or quicker if I want to. I can see so much further ahead up the road that I can see the bad bits before I get there. I've had a slide on a gravel drive, and didn't even slow down. Not because I'm stupid, but because I was expecting it and knew what to do. I have overtaken a few cars and even a bus - don't mock, it was on a narrow country lane.

Last summer I was up in the North Yorkshire Dales and came upon one of those giant circular straw bales. It was lying in the road, right after a blind bend on a narrow road with drystone walls. But I had braked to the correct speed for the bend, rode round it and continued on my way. Unlike all the cars that were getting rather intimate, heading in the opposite direction.

The real difference is that I have vastly more confidence in my bike, and I know how to increase my zone of safety to the point where I can be relaxed. Because I have done some off-road training, I know what happens when the bike reaches its limits. I also know just how far away those limits really are. I've had my myths dispelled: I know that I can brake in a bend, that I can use the back brake for stopping, and that locking-up the front wheel under braking does not mean falling off. I also know that the bike will go round corners.

You could be forgiven for expressing surprise at the last point, but just look at the accident statistics. There's a large proportion of accidents that occur on bends, typically left-handers, where only the motorcycle is involved. What seems to happen is that the rider goes in as quickly as they dare, the bend tightens, and they bottle. The rider brakes or sits the bike up, crosses the road and has a close encounter.

What should you do? Lean! The worst that can happen is a low-side, and this is usually preferable to crossing the other lane and hitting a wall or tree. The bike will usually track round smoothly, leaving you to wonder what the fuss was about.

So, does advanced training work? Yes, providing you treat it as a stage and not a destination. Does it make you ride faster? Yes, but only if you want to. You will find yourself sticking to speed limits more often, though, and spotting the cameras before anyone else.

Does it make you feel like a Road God? No, actually.

It makes me feel more alive and engaged with the bike and the process of riding, but I feel a lot more humble than I ever did before. Do I recommend it? Totally, but do try as many different groups or courses as you can before you buy, to find the right one for you.

Advanced Training. Worthwhile?


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