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16th February 2004

Opinion: Advanced Riding

Do the technicques taught on advanced riding courses really translate to classic bike riding? Paul Friday took his test (and wants to know how many roundabouts make four, exactly)...

I passed my IAM Advanced Riding motorcycle test. No big deal, as my local IAM group makes a habit of preparing candidates well. Big deal for me though, and proof that the professional approach of so many can coax even the truly challenged to improve.

It all began one Summer about two years back, when I was driving round the outer bypass near York. Eejits in racing leathers were chasing each other through the traffic, making me wince. I was a born-again with a sluggish bike and a young family, and I wanted to live. So I went looking on the web for bike training. Just by chance I came across the IAM, and noticed that they had a local branch. I called the contact number and spoke with someone who was polite enough not to laugh when I mentioned that I had a 30 year old bike that could barely reach 80mph. 'Just as long as it will reach the national speed limit,' he said. I crossed my fingers.

It's widely known that the Boys in Blue are amongst the best riders...

So I went to a few of the monthly meetings, and found that the people were normal. What I was most worried about was rocket-jockies who would sneer at my 26bhp, or safety nazis who wouldn't let me out without a yellow jacket and stabilisers. This bunch were strange in only one regard: they were all passionate about learning to ride better. Even the good ones.

So I sent off my money and joined the IAM Skills for Life scheme. The paperwork and a couple of books arrived, and I waited for my turn on the training schedule. I should add that all of the training is provided by volunteers. These people do it because they care about riding better, not because they can make a living at it.

I spent each night under the bedclothes with a torch, poring over my Motorcycle Roadcraft. Gradually I learned that progressive was a riding style, not a type of fork spring and that a riding plan was more than working out where to stop for petrol and a wee.

Finally, the fateful day - I was to start training. The gear lever spring in the gearbox chose that week to break, so I rode off to meet my Observer with a gear lever flopping about and resting on my toe. My Observer was a supernaturally patient mild-mannered chap, riding a huge BMW. It was so tall that even if I got a bus between us, he could still see what I was up to. After each frenzied run, he would heap praise upon my efforts before gently suggesting just one point that I might consider on the next one. Each time I concentrated on the latest advice, I promptly forgot all the previous pearls. And still he coaxed and coached, never once being less than cheerful.

The weather when we started was cold enough to need the full gear. I waddled to the bike and struggled to turn my head against the grip of a woolly scarf caught on a velcro chin strap. My nose ran like an old tap, only for all the unpleasantness to freeze on my scarf and jacket. I gradually overcame my fear of the bike. Despite its age, low power and drum brakes it really could keep up with traffic and stop in the same county. I began to look further ahead than the front mudguard, and marvelled at the newfound ability to anticipate the road and the traffic. The weather got hotter and hotter. Where I used to finish a session suffering from hyperthermia, I now suffered with adhesive leathers and a soaked helmet lining. It was tempting to turn up wearing a tee shirt and flip-flops, but my honorable Observer set a standard that was hard to ignore. I'm not sure that he ever got out of first gear when we were out, but he never stopped smiling and encouraging.

Then the sunny day finally arrived when my Observer shook my hand and pronounced me fit to have a go. This meant the thing I had been dreading - the final check-up with the Chief Observer. This man was a road god. For various boring reasons I had a long delay between the end of training and my final check, and you know what? I forgot the lot. I finally went for my check on the night before going on holiday. The rain varied from extreme to worse. The roads were flooded. I was nervous. The horn fell off the bike.

After three weeks, they were deemed good enough to move onto lesson two: Releasing the clutch.

I made a complete arse of the ride, and finished with a sudden flat in the rear tyre on a country road. Still, I did get a lift on the back of an R1. All right, I thought, if you like that kind of thing.

I went off on holiday depressed - I knew I'd screwed-up and was fit to chuck the whole thing.

When I got back, the Chief Observer phoned me. He'd been thinking... 'Here it comes' I thought 'get lost with your sluggish bike and poor road manners'. Instead he arranged more training for me. My original Observer was busy, but he knew just the person. So I met my second Observer outside a shop near his house. He had a brand new jet fighter of a bike with tyres wider than the roller at a cricket pitch. Even running-in, he had more than a hundred horsepower advantage of me. His one-piece leathers were dead fly colour at the front. I was about to kneel and chant 'I am not worthy' when he admitted to binning his previous bike at a track day. He was human!

So I did my polishing sessions, relearning the skills that had leaked out of my brain. I discovered that I'm different to the computers I work with: you only have to punch information into them once. My Observer discovered that I am both numerically and directionally challenged. Told to turn at the fourth roundabout, he would usually have to pursue me and turn me back from wherever I had gone - hence the title of this piece.

I must profess that of all the skills, the hardest for me to get right was the Hendon Shuffle. This is an obscure piece of footwork that ensures the bike is under the control of its brakes or engine, and ready for the off when the lights change. It's also the hardest for my Observer to understand from behind - my bike has a right-foot gearchange and the brake light only works on the rear. If I cover the rear brake pedal in case I need it, it brings the brake light on. This too seems to cause excitement from behind as I appear to trail-brake right through a corner. I'd always wondered why following cars seemed to drop back so sharply in bends.

Excercise Seven: The Stern Face. Candidates must give no outward sign of enjoyment at any time during the test.I also discovered that an ancient Moto Guzzi single can corner like a threatened rat on the wriggly back roads round where I live. His crotch rocket may have got the legs of me on the straights, but I could hold him off in the twisty bits. Having learned the confidence to corner without excessive braking helped, too.

Still - idiosyncrasies apart, I was judged fit to have another go at the final check. Of course, I made an arse of it again. 'Making progress' for some reason became 'press on regardless of oncoming HGVs'. Either the Chief Observer could see through it to my inner goodness or I'd worn him down, as I was pronounced free to go for the test.

I studied, prepared and analysed every move I made on the bike. I would ride it to the paper shop at the top of our road and do fifty miles getting back. When I had to use the car I was chanting my Hendon Shuffle footwork when I stopped at the lights. I was doing lifesavers walking along the pavement. I was obsessed, but I knew I had to deal with The Examiner, a man with X-ray vision who could spot the wrong leg going down from a mile away.

My test was set for ten o'clock on a Sunday morning. Of course, it rained heavily for the week before. I left home at eight thirty to get tuned in and warm the bike right through - just in case the Examiner wanted to do the slow riding right away, and I couldn't have the bike spitting and lurching on choke. The rain eased off just before the test time, as I was on my way back to the meeting place. The bike misfired and died. I coasted into a farm entrance, gave it a quick check and phoned the Examiner. He had already left, but his wife very kindly offfered to drive down and tell him the test was off. Realising I had blown it, I calmed down and had a fiddle with the bike. The fault was a corroded connection to the coil. One minute to fix and I was running again. I raced to the rendezvous but the Examiner had already gone home. I called him at home to let him know I had got it running, and he immediately offered to put his gear back on and do the test. What a guy!

Of course, the heavens opened again. We did the slow riding first, and the old nail chuffed round like an East Coast Line train. Slowly. We then hit the back roads; me riding and the Examiner in pursuit. Sacrificing the perfect vision lines for safety, I picked my way through the shallowest points in the corners. Except for the ones where the madness took me. It's a good thing I have tall boots.

The 'shift to warp speed' is one of the trickier manouevres taught by the Federation.Just to make my day complete, the misfire came back on the M1. I tried to nurse it to the next exit, but the engine died. I was about as happy as you can imagine. Still, a thorough wazz of the wiring with some WD40 got it running. Pulling onto the M1 from the hard shoulder with 26hp at your command and a stiff headwind is character forming, but stressful on the underwear.

In what felt like a couple of minutes, we were on the outskirts of Ripon. The Examiner wrote some notes and said that we would head home. My heart sank - I really had blown it. To make it even worse, the headwind on the way back held me down to a ragged fifty. I nearly missed a turning in Ripon and I did a rather wild filtering manoeuvre on the approach to our village. I was too wet and depressed to care.

We parked up and went for a cuppa. The rain had stopped, but the lady in charge of the tea shop gave me the face of death for dripping on her carpet and chairs.

After a few questions, the Examiner took a deep breath and looked me in the eye. And told me I had passed.

It really is possible to walk on air - I did it all the way back to the bike.

So what can I say? It is obvious that Harrogate Advanced is totally committed to improving people. Everyone involved has been unfailing cheerful and supportive. Despite my painting a picture of brave incompetence, I know that I wasn't 'eased through' or indulged. I have spoken to other members (in truth I pumped them for information), and I took the same test as everyone else. Slower perhaps, but the same. I really am an Advanced rider, but I'm also very aware of how much more I could learn. I have nothing but admiration for the people who put so much into making this work, for no direct personal gain than the pleasure of seeing people improve. This gets a full ten on the 'worth doing' scale.

Anyone else had a go?

Wearing a gaudy black one-piece wax cotton suit and terrorising the suburban streets on the latest sportsbike, Roland never realised how much of a trendsetter he would become.


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