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Tuesday 10th July 2012


PH BLOG: HARRIS LEARNS BIKING, PART ONE

It's CBT time for Monkey, who's on a mission to find out more about biking


As a practical demonstration of the popular mantra 'know thine enemy', my A-level English teacher's approach to his agnostic beliefs was extreme, but robust: he could quote freely from the King James Bible. "You cannot possibly claim to understand the opposing viewpoint unless you have an excellent working knowledge of the subject."


He had a point, and an enormous brain. His voice has echoed in my brain for many years now - mostly when I see people on motorcycles. As a car driver, it is not possible to express opinions on motorcycling without being on the receiving end of significant abuse. I have my thoughts on how the majority of bikes are ridden, and how a tiny minority of bikes are ridden - you can probably guess what those are - but I figured I can't really express them until I have followed the example of my English teacher.

So on Saturday and Sunday I did my CBT with BMW (one of the advantages of being an established car brand is that newbie Billies like me will instinctively trust you), as a part of a direct-access course over the coming weeks. It was extremely thought-provoking and mostly enjoyable.

I held a CBT about seven years ago - it took a day of wobbling about on a scabby 125 and some road riding. At the end of it I couldn't believe that I was legally allowed to use the public highway. The whole thing was slapdash and insufficient. That CBT lapsed after two years. The BMW CBT, as a part of the Direct Access Course, takes two days and involves more of everything. Lacking any talent on two wheels, I found this reassuring. The weather forecast wasn't.


You can research what a CBT is and what you need to do to pass it yourselves - it's not especially difficult, but like anything done in the presence of someone official looking, it's fraught with nerves. For me it was a chance to get out on the road, on a bike and begin this process of trying to understand what it's like being a biker.

I passed my driving test in 1992, so cannot comment on the current test or teaching procedures, but it's quite clear that learning to ride a bike with BMW contains a level of contextual, non-practical teaching that far outweighs anything I've experienced in the car world. You're immediately made to feel you are embarking on a fun process, but one which can have serious consequences if not approached seriously. You are entering a club.

The two days is as much about the culture of motorcycling, the bending of the human brain to operating on two wheels in a predominantly four-wheeled world, as it is to physically riding a bike.


After an hour riding around cones and proving you have the basic skills to operate the machine, it's out onto the road on a 125. These first few miles are really potent, and I think many people will have their perception of riding permanently shaped by them: the feeling of liberty is compelling, the noises, the smells: the exposure to the wind. But it's also terrifying - a Jaguar XF no longer looks like a friendly blob of exec-saloon. It looks like a Sherman Tank aiming to drive over you. You view the world in the conditional tense: what if......

It's this relationship between cars and bikes that I want to investigate during the Direct Access process. From the very beginning you are taught that, as a motorcyclist, the motor car is something to be wary of.

For me, this is the most divisive aspect of the CBT course: the message that by default a motorcyclist has to assume that every other vehicle is a potential threat. Of course, it's the only sensible way to approach a situation where a human body is protected by nothing more than clothing when surrounded by tonnes of metal, but as human beings we naturally amplify emotions and what begins as a perceived threat quickly becomes The Enemy.


After a decent stint on the 125, it's onto a BMW F650 GS. This is completely nerve-wracking to begin with, because the thing feels so powerful. But the extra weight and stability soon give you confidence, and despite having to ride through some biblical rain I thoroughly enjoyed my time on it.

Summary thoughts on this first, most basic part of the training? You can't fail to be impressed at how rounded the process is: instructor Ian Biederman spends hours talking with you, helping you learn the passive, but positive mindset required to ride safely in the UK. I really enjoyed the amount of thinking required to read the road and the peripheral surroundings.

The CBT confirms what we already know: that nothing fosters sympathy for fellow road users like cross-pollination. Hire a van for a weekend's house-moving and the next time you encounter some poor sod limping past an HGV in a Mercedes Sprinter, you will be less hasty to take issue with his middle-lane occupancy.


If every car driver had to take a CBT, they would be far more sympathetic to the vulnerabilities of the biker, and they would be much more observant of the general road environment. But there has to be reciprocity, and the notion of the car driver as 'The Enemy' does worry me. Equally, there's the thorny subject of the quality of the bike riding on display - but after a lowly CBT, I'm still not qualified to say anything about that.

I'm looking forward to the next stages, and maybe doing something I didn't manage in a motor car: passing my test first time. With a 60 per cent pass rate, I'm not holding my breath.

Chris

 

Author: Chris Harris
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