There are a few things in life that for me define manliness. A non exhaustive list would include: flying planes, driving trains, riding motorcycles, shooting guns, catching fish, building things, chatting up all the women, doing sports, getting hurt doing sports, climbing things, cycling up and down things really fast, getting muddy and drinking lots and lots of beer.
Fortunately for me, I’ve had the chance to sample a lot of these and I’d like to share with you my experience of riding motorcycles.
It started in the early part of 2010. The days were long, and the weather unseasonably warm. A friend had bought a Vespa with the intention of riding to work, and during one of our rambling, drunken chats, he mentioned that it was a really quick, really fun and really cheap way of getting about. I’d been fantasising again about buying myself a wholly inappropriate car, but he persuaded me to at least try to ride a motorised two-wheeler.
Having looked up the rules and regulations governing the use of engines connected to wheels by 21-year-old lunatics, I discovered that I would be limited to a 125cc Motorbike after doing a one day course called the CBT. The CBT (compulsory basic training) teaches you the essential skills and techniques required to safely handle a powered two-wheeler on our public roads. It assumes a basic knowledge of the highway code, along with an understanding of the various aspects of riding motorcycles, such as personal protective equipment and basic maintenance tasks. It is a fairly cheap (about £120 in London) way of becoming competent and legal enough to start your riding career.
You can select to do the course on an automatic scooter (the easy way) and when you have the certificate, you are still entitled to ride a manual bike. Alternatively, you can do the course on a manual bike (the hard way), and still ride whatever you like afterwards. Naturally, being an overconfident cock, I did it all on a manual bike, having never swung a leg over a motorcycle before. It was challenging getting to grips with using a clutch lever, brake lever, foot brake lever, gear lever, and throttle all at the same time as checking mirrors, balancing a huge, heavy and uncomfortable helmet on your head, and wearing unwieldy gloves and shoes. However, I picked it up, and by the afternoon I had ridden my way to a shiny certificate with my name on it.
The next day, elated at my newfound skill, I went to the only motorcycle shop I knew of and test rode a couple of bikes. Being 21, and of the stubborn disposition that I want the best of everything it was a bit of a let down. Turns out there are only really two big contenders on the market in the 125cc category of sports bikes. Honda make one, and Yamaha make another. I sat on the Honda and immediately decided it was too small, too light and too uncool. The Yamaha felt a lot bigger, heavier and looked almost exactly the same as the big boy bikes at the other end of the showroom. The only giveaways were the thinner tyres and smaller brake discs. I thought I should at least give it a go. I thought 125cc could pack plenty of power and serve as a good starting point.
Riding the bike away from the dealership, I felt a pang of remorse at how I’d bagged the test ride based on a load of bollocks about how I’d been riding for ages. As I stalled it twice, right outside the door, I thought they’d be sure to be onto me and decide to take their shiny and expensive bike back into the showroom and banish me forever. However, I finally got it going and rode off down the road. Never one to stick too strictly to the rules, I used my local knowledge to take it down a road with very little traffic, street furniture or other traffic calming measures in place. Cracked open the throttle for the first time, expecting mechanical orgasm to hit me like a truck. Instead, all that happened was an impotent burble from the exhaust and a slow, steady acceleration up to about 45mph. From there, the engine whined like a banshee and eventually got me going at 60mph.
This wasn’t going to cut it. I continued riding for a while, vainly checking my reflection in shop windows before returning to the dealership and handing back the keys. I had to think about it.
In the end, my business and personal life took over, and I had put the motorcycling dream to one side for a while. Reading up about the options for riding bigger bikes, I was limited to either riding a restricted bike for two years having done all the tests, or waiting until I was 24, and doing a bunch of tests and having direct access to anything I wanted. Of course, my friends and family thought I should get a 125cc, ride it for a while, lose interest before killing myself and stop the motorcycling completely. I on the other hand, thought nothing of waiting another couple of birthdays and trying again.
Fast forward to 2013 and I’d just gotten back from Vietnam, where I hired a motorcycle and rode around the countryside like a raving lunatic with the needle bouncing off the limiter wearing nothing but a pair of flip-flops and swimming trunks. I thought to myself.
“Motorcycling is fun. Motorcycling is freedom. Motorcycling must be part of my life all the time. Not just on holiday”
The day I landed, I had looked up the nearest training centres, and booked my first batch of training. Within a few weeks, I’d already refreshed my CBT (they expire every two years), passed my theory test and was ready for my course. I invested fully in it this time, buying the best helmet I could afford, along with gloves, boots and a jacket. I had all the gear, and no idea. It was wonderful.
In my industry, I’m regarded as an expert (by nature of my position, not because I actually know anything) My field of work relies on our clients being cliquey, following trends, becoming desperate to one-up each other and comparing the size of their dicks. I don’t really partake in the dick swinging because I run the show, and somewhat guide the trends. With motorcycling however, I suddenly found I was in a whole new members club. One where I knew absolutely nothing, nobody owed me any favours, and I was free to be a complete newbie again. It was with childish glee that I started frequenting all my local motorcycle dealers, trying on the gear, learning about the bikes, comparing stats, reading reviews, joining forums and immersing myself in the culture.
I quickly learnt about the hierarchies of this new club I was desperate to join. I couldn’t possibly ride a scooter. They weren’t cool enough. I couldn’t ride a sports bike. They were too boy-racer. I wasn’t ever going to ride a tourer, as I am too scrawny to lift them off the side-stand. A Harley would send all the wrong messages. I could have a cafe racer, but I didn’t know a thing about motorcycles really, and a classic 1970’s bike was going to need a lot of loving. I guess that left me with a naked bike. I rationalised it by thinking I’d probably drop the fucking thing a million times, and didn’t want to pay for expensive pieces of plastic fairing each time it happened. They also looked really cool, went really fast and were within my price range of <£ ridiculously expensive.
So naturally, the rational thing to do was to walk into Metropolis and buy the first thing I wanted. This happened to be a Ducati Monster 796. However, the salesman was a bit of a c*** and seemed to think I was joking when I wanted to buy one and basically shrugged off my gamely advances. I was however, quickly and charmingly accosted by the Triumph salesman, who told me about the virtues of the Street Triple. This is Triumph’s contender for the naked bike category, and frankly, it is the best in class. It’s won best bike of this, that or the other, since about…well, since it was conceived. One thing led to another, and I’d paid a hefty deposit before leaving that day.
So I kind of had a dilemma on my hands. Basically, I’d committed to buying a very, very nice motorcycle, but hadn’t passed my tests, couldn’t insure it and couldn’t legally ride it. I called the training school and pleaded for an earlier course. However, it wasn’t possible, so I ended up booking myself in on a couple of days training with another place, booking my tests and going rain man on the internet in the meantime, trying to absorb every last piece of motorcycling knowledge available. I think I’d seen every “how to ride a motorcycle” YouTube video in existence. Twice.
To get my full, unrestricted licence, I had to the the Direct Access course. This means a theory test, module one and module two tests in addition to holding a valid CBT.
Learning to ride bigger bikes was a little bit tricky. Most forum users and motorcycling “experts” seem to recommend you learn on whatever the school give you, then buy something genteel and well mannered when you “graduate” and use that for a while to get used to riding and handling a big machine. I did my training on a Yamaha XJ6. About 60hp 180kg, its a naked bike that has enough power to scare the shit out of you, but enough steering lock and low end smoothness in its fuel injected engine to flatter a beginner. I found the thing bloody impossible to ride at slow speeds, and a downright liability to ride quickly. I smacked my balls on the tank when I tried to accelerate over a hill at 40mph, and I dropped it on my leg trying to ride figure of eights in a car park.
Eventually, I got the hang of it, and passed my module one on the first attempt in the pouring rain. Module one is a bunch of controlled exercise that assess your ability to handle the bike at low speeds, and also to ride in a precise manner at speeds of 32 mph. They also make you push the bike manually, which is something you do an awful lot when parking around town, so it makes sense. Plus, I find it bloody difficult!
Having passed the Module one, all I had to do was ride the bike around town for an hour with an instructor following me for Module two. This was the part I was most confident in, as having held my drivers licence for years, with a couple of advance training days more recently in which I was told my driving was still passable, I was happy I wouldn’t do anything too retarded in the test. I drove down to the area of the test centre in the car and downloaded their preferred test routes onto my navigator. For the best part of all night I drove around memorising the junctions and roundabouts in a bid to be prepared.
On the day of my final test, I rode down there with the instructor and had another ride around the routes. Back to the test centre, 15 minutes of nervous waiting, and my name was called. I was being tested first. The examiner seemed completely uninterested in what he was doing. As he asked me to read a number plate, show/tell a couple of things on the bike, and answer some of his questions, he looked positively bored shitless. It didn’t do too much to calm my nerves, but I stuck with it anyway.
Riding out the centre, I took great care not to fail by doing something silly, instead, taking the first opportunity to overtake something and get the fuck away from the boring moody guy mumbling in my earpiece. He then decided he’d initiate the independent riding section of the test, since he could no longer see me. He told me to follow signs to somewhere nearby. I’m not sure if he even followed me, as I rode there, pretty much how I ride today. Like a loon. Eventually I saw him in the mirrors and toned it down again. Unleashing the bad boy motorcyclist had helped me relax, and the day was becoming enjoyable once again. I noticed as we turned into a side road that he’d fallen asleep and left his indicator on, creating a hazard for other road users. As this would be an immediate fail for me, I stupidly thought it would be a sensible idea to let him know his oversight. The moment I gestured, he switched it off. We finished the test and I thought nothing of it. Seemed like a nice ride, didn’t do anything too stupid.
He got off his bike at the test centre without saying a word, and marched straight into the debrief room, making me wait outside in fits of anxiety for a whole 10 minutes. Eventually, he called me in, and without so much as a smirk on his face, said “I’m really sorry, but you got two minors.” It took a split second for this to register in my reptile brain, but I realised that was a pass. I was delighted, and blubbered my thanks in between bursts of giggling that would make a teenage girl long for a straight razor. He explained that removing my hand from the bars to gesture to him was a loss of control, and that overtaking police bikes before immediately turning left in front of them, was probably a bad idea. Aside from that, my riding was good, safe and confident and he was happy giving me a pass to go wild. Ace. As I waited around for the other chap to do his test, I sorted the insurance out for the Triumph, so I could ride it home.
The girlfriend met me at Metropolis as I’d promised to get her a helmet that afternoon (she was also learning to ride) and she was a bit surprised when I pointed out the bike with my name on it. She politely declined to get on the back for my first ride, so I sorted the paperwork out with the ever charming sales rep, got on it, and rode it home.
I can probably say I’ve never been so scared in my life. The parting words of the sales rep were “just don’t open the throttle past 5k rpm until you get used to the bike, otherwise you’ll end up like those guys did” as he pointed to a pile of broken bikes in the corner of the lot. “Yup, thanks guy, for warning me now, after I’ve handed you all of my money and it’s far too late!” I rode home like a geriatric driver, barely pushing 30mph, and braking 300m too early, for everything. Within the final few hundred meters, I’d gained enough confidence to open the throttle about 20%. The resulting explosion of engine noise, air intake, exhaust note and joyous gut wrenching acceleration was absolutely incredible. I don’t think I stopped smiling for a week, from that single flick of the wrist alone. Once I finally made it home, I picked up the missus, and we went for a joyride up to Alexandra Palace. What has happened since then?
You’ll just have to wait and see.
Love and mayhem,