Do you feel lucky?
The sky is blue, and the road is dry, you’re out for a run on your 2×1, aka, the bike. Then, behind you, he appears, as if out of nowhere. It’s a copper on his bike. Point-less trying to shake him off, you correctly guess that he’ll be a better rider than you. Stay cool, mind your P’s and Q’s, and he’ll drift off shortly. He’s shifting position and watching your every move. Gears, braking, approach to bends and hazards. There’s no doubt about it, he’s got it in for you. A full forty minutes later, after a comprehensive mix of urban and country roads, dozens of speed limit changes, and he’s still there. This isn’t funny. Then, the inevitable. Sh*t, he waves you in.
No, you’ve not been nicked, you’re on a BikeSafe course. It’s time for a cuppa at the caff, and a chat over what’s been seen. He’s actually quite complimentary. Apparently you’re doing most of it pretty well, but he does have a few quite important, and constructive suggestions, on how you could be a safer rider. Speaking as a simple user, BikeSafe has always sharpened me up, and I never come away without having picked up an extra trick or two. At £65, it’s money very well spent. As a biker, motor-cyclist or whatever, I know I am at greater risk than pretty much any other road user. We accounted for over 300 long wooden boxes last year in the UK, and we only represent one percent of road traffic. The rest of ‘them’, either regard you and me as a nuisance, or are oblivious to our presence. They won’t actually mean to kill you, but they surely will, especially if you give them an opening. It may be a trite old cliché, but the day you pass your test, is the day you really start learning to ride. I’m not a copper, I’m just a regular Joe like you. But I’ve got a Doris at home, a couple of kids, and even a shiny new grandson. I want to have a great day out on my bike, give it some lash, and get home to see them all again. Over the last decade, I’ve done four BikeSafe courses, and I learn something new every time. I’m not especially dim, but you do get an awful lot of information and technique directed at you, and it’s just not possible to soak it all up in one go. And yes, after this training, I do feel that I am a better, safer, rider. I get through bends with more of that ‘yes’ feeling. A well-executed manoeuvre, and the satisfaction of hit-ting that elusive sweet spot.
Bak to skule
As the runners and riders assemble in the parking area at BikeSafe’s Redditch HQ with West Mercia Police, there’s an eclectic mix of machinery. Mostly sports bikes I note, but a very respectable old Kwacker, and even a high-mileage Pan are in the mix. I’m astride my trusty boxer. She might look a bit of an old dear, but she can hitch up her skirts and keep up with most of them. So, a (socially distanced) welcome coffee, and we’re into the classroom setting. Our presenter is a very engaging Brummie, a retired copper with decades of bike experience behind him. Usefully, he can also convey it in a very digestible and friendly form. It’s not a lecture, points are debated, and opinions are respected. Er, except when you’re wrong! Filtering, junctions, cornering, overtaking, group riding, observation improvement; they’re all analysed and dissected, and much more besides. With a break, this takes up most of the morning, then we’re all split in-to groups of three. With the observer always in position two, the pair of riders under assessment take it in turns to lead. Personally, I thought this ratio was a real luxury; one notch above a one-to-one. And there’s value too in watching your fellow rider being observed, from the back of the pack.
Hitting the road
Mercifully, we had a beautiful dry Autumn day for it. I led out to be observed first. Being followed is a bit stressful for the first few minutes, I’ll admit. But as soon as you get your eye in, it’s easy to relax. The observer gives very clear and agreed signals on where to go, so there is little chance of going astray. After 45 minutes of a comprehensive mix of tarmac – urban constipation, through to country roads with some ‘interesting’ bends to test your mettle – a convenient (planned) caff pops up, where a friendly debrief is swiftly run through. You also get a written school report from the headmaster to take away, just as an aide-memoire. Mine had a mix of good stuff, and what modern idiom calls ‘development objectives’. The “slower into bends and faster out” advice, and trimming my offside default position a little, I put into practice this afternoon on one of my favourite rides. Buckingham – Chipping Norton – Woodstock – Bicester. And sod me sideways, it works!
I suppose that you have to start out with the mindset that learning is a lifelong pro-cess, it doesn’t end when you’re 27. Sadly for Jimi, Janis, Jim and Brian – the ‘Club of 27’ – it did. They weren’t bikers, they all lived on a different edge, and paid the ultimate price. But what was apparent at my session, was the demographic. A few youngsters for sure, but not enough of them. It’s a relative term of course, but the twenties and thirties were under-represented. The son of a friend of mine recently took un-booked flying lessons off his ZZR, in an urban setting. In his early thirties, he’d passed his test quite a few years ago, and his ticket to oblivion had been nestling quietly in his arse pocket ever since. No post-test training for him, and he was a statistic just waiting to appear on a list. My friend lost his dear wife to the big C last year; he didn’t need to see his son go west too. A broken arm and wrist was the good news. With 47 consecutive years on two wheels, I am essentially a survivor. But here’s the thing, I haven’t trusted totally to luck. My post-test training began thirty four years ago, when I passed my IAM. And don’t run away with the idea that training is a one-off, it isn’t. Things change. I did stuff on my IAM test that I’d be crucified for today; using position six for example!
To be blunt, I have dead biker friends, yes. Maybe you do too. But it’s not just about staying alive and keeping points off your licence, it’s about enjoying your biking even more, by adding skill. How else do you expect to acquire extra ability, except by training? Being able to pick the brains of these coppers is priceless. Why wouldn’t you? As Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry was wont to say, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” Well, do you? One day, on a fast left-hander, your luck might just run out. Sign up!