The Motorcycle Diaries – Part 1: Getting a taste for it

Covered mag, presented by
  • | by Kristian Dando

First, an admission - I’m not the most natural of motorcyclists. Never mind ‘Born to be Wild’ - with me, it’s more a case of ‘Born to be Mild.’

I’m a card-carrying klutz, possess the natural balance and grace of a hippopotamus on ice skates, and are so averse to high speeds that I used to feign illness in order to avoid school trips to Alton Towers so I could be spared the humiliation of being too afraid to go on the white knuckle rides. Oh, and it took me a morale-sapping four attempts to pass my driving test ten years ago. The nearest I’ve ever got to motorcycling was trying to ride a quad bike when I was 11, and even then I fell off.

So when it was mooted to me that I go and investigate how easy (or not) it is to ride a motorbike, with the endgame of running one for a week to see if it could reduce my outgoings on my daily commute, I was sceptical.

I’m a man who likes the home comforts of heaters and air conditioning, cossetting seats and wafting to work to the dulcet sounds of Radio 4’s Today program. Sitting astride a piece of equipment which is tantamount to an engine with two wheels, suspension and brakes filled me with a sense of trepidation, to say the very least. But I’m also an unashamed cheapskate.

With the price of petrol and car insurance on an unstoppable rise upwards, and my daily commute a mere 10 miles or so in both directions, trading the home comforts of a car for better MPG and ease of parking makes sense.

A few months back, I asked if scooters were a smarter choice for prospective younger road users, and was intrigued by what I discovered. At the grand old age of 28 and a bit, I may not fall under the category of ‘young’ these days, but I could certainly do with saving a bob or two. But before diving headlong into booking Compulsory Basic Training and buying all the gear (whilst still having no idea) I decided to take a taster day near work to see if I really was a hopeless case as I’d imagine.

On arriving at Celtic Rider Training HQ, the signs aren’t good – a sudden and unexpected bout of hailstones appear just as I exit the car. “This will be fun,” I think, as the tiny crystals of ice batter my face and the wind howls. Driving license in hand, I’m greeted by Simon Walsh, my instructor.

He’s been training motorcyclists for 20 years, and prior to that was a delivery rider. He’s incredibly cheerful, friendly and accommodating but at well over 6ft, it’s safe to say that you’d think twice about stepping out of line. “It’s a steep learning curve,” he warns. “But once most people get over that, they’re fine."

The leisure centre which Celtic Rider Training uses has a large track with road markings on it, so “It’s ideal to get 16 year olds with mopeds who have absolutely no road sense,” says Simon. I rather think that it will be good for me, too. We go through the equipment checklist – amazingly, an approved helmet is the only piece of gear a rider is required to ride legally, but I’m advised that gloves (to protect your hands if you fall off) and a jacket is par for the course for all but the incorrigibly reckless.

Motorbike insurance is a legal requirement, too. I learn that leather provides the best protection, but it isn’t waterproof (unless you shell out a lot of money for a hi-tech breathable cowhide number) and that armour-bolstered man made fabrics are a wise everyday choice. Denim trousers are fine, but not a great deal of fun in the rain. It turns out that my flappy jeans and battered hi top trainers aren’t the wisest idea for riding, either.

Next, I’m introduced to the bike I’ll be getting to grips with – a Suzuki GN125. “It’s a forgiving bike,” Simon tells me. “It allows you to get away with things when you’re learning.” And over the next day or so, it needs to let me get away with plenty. Simon tells me that it’s good for around 60mpg and is “the perfect commuter bike,” capable of around 60mph –  “or more like 70 downhill with a tailwind,” he says.

I’m then shown around the various parts of the bike and, by crikey, is it an eye-opener. You change gear with your feet. You accelerate with your right hand. Neutral is located somewhere between first and second. There’s a front brake and a rear brake, but the front one shouldn’t be used while cornering. Then there’s the fuel tank, which is located right under the riders’ crotch.

I’m shown the correct way of taking the bike from its side stand, and how to walk with it, the ignition process, and then it’s time for me to get on. I grip the bikes handles, give the throttle a bit of a squeeze, and gently release the clutch.

By now, a group of people have amassed at the side of the track. I expect to pull away gracefully and gently. But unfortunately, nothing of the sort happens. I’ve given too much throttle and released the clutch too quickly, and judder forward erratically, with no great lack of noise, juddering and revving for about 30 yards, before wobbling and stalling to a halt. The folk at the side of the track are amused. I’m not.

It’s an inauspicious start to my career as a motorcyclist, but over the next couple of hours, things progress. I learn to get my feet up on to the bike, corner, and to ride the clutch to control my speed around a bend. I even get into second gear. In fact, by the time the session finishes, I’m actually rather enjoying it.

“Haven’t scared you off then?” asks Simon. Tomorrow, I’ll take my Compulsory Basic Training – on completion, I’ll be able to legally ride a motorcycle (up to 125cc, of course) with ‘L’ plates. “It’s a full-on day,” warns Simon. “But we’ll have a few laughs.” Incredibly, I’m actually looking forward to it.

Fancy finding out if motorcycling is for you? You can sign up for a free session through Get On!, the motorcycling campaign group. You may love it, or you could end up finding it’s not up your particular street. Either way, what have you got to lose?