"Unfortunately, when he overcooked the left-hand bend, instead of following Neil and Simon's first rule of cornering - lean it right over and open the taps - he braked sharply, stood the bike up, went across the centre line and met a Ford Granada coming the other way. Game over. Dead."
Simon has a very direct way of telling stories; both the funny and the deadly serious are totally believable. He has Class I Police Motorcyclist status, has seen nearly everything, and believes that every motorcycle wishes it were a VFR800 ("Best bike in the world. Buy one.") Neil, who is also Class I qualified, rides a ridiculously oversized Triumph, and has an altogether drier sense of humour.
Both of them are Bikesafe instructors. Bikesafe in Cambridgeshire comprises three two-hour classroom sessions, where we learn The System. After that, we get a check ride. One of our instructors will follow one of us for 30-40 miles, then debrief us on which aspects of our riding are up to snuff, and which aspects need work, according to The System.
The Police System of Motorcycle Control, to give it its full name, is the backbone of the course. It's not about riding slowly; it's about riding as fast as possible, as safely as possible. It's how police motorcyclists blast down country roads without killing themselves. Yes, they have sirens and lights, but it's amazing how little protection a siren is when you've just ploughed into the side of a Volvo. To stay alive, they have to ride really well. If you're a motorcyclist, and you don't have a Police Class I ticket, you can learn something from the system.
But motorcyclists, like most people, are resistant to going back to school. Like all drivers, we think we ride brilliantly. To keep us listening to what they have to say, to make sure they get the message across, Simon and Neil fall back on basic methods of engaging a listener: humour and honesty.
To relax us, they demolish the myth of police infallibility pretty quickly. "One of our guys lost it on a bend in Derbyshire. The bike went into a field full of rocks, smashed a hole in the gearcase. We stuck the gearcase back together with Araldite, gaffer tape and mastic, poured in some more oil and rode the bike back to Cambridgeshire. It was a VFR800, by the way. Best bike in the world. Buy one.". The System isn't about being a superman, it's about rigorous application of sensible principles. Sometimes it's reasonable to open it up, and let the bike off the leash ("Open the taps - Game On!"). Sometimes the hazards of the road demand caution ("If in doubt, bottle out."). The System helps you know, from moment to moment, which applies.
The instructors are well aware who causes most of the problems for the sane motorcyclist, and they'll tell you all about it. Sometimes the examples are fictional: "Ah yes, Mrs Miggins. Lives in a little cottage on a bend in a busy road, behind a tall hedge. Her cat is ill and she has to get him to the vet. Do you think she's waiting in that gap in the hedge, look left, look right, look left again, pull out? Not bloody likely.". Sometimes they're not: "My personal record for following a mobile 'phone user? 2.6 miles. Young lady in a Peugeot, chatting happily away. I'm sitting behind her, I'm moving around, I'm pulling alongside and falling back. Finally she looks up and it's 'Oh dear, I'll have to call you back, a Policeman's waving at me'.".
We are left in no doubt as to who's likely to cause any accident in such a case, but we're also left in no doubt as to who gets the broken legs when Peugeot meets motorcycle. Is it fair that we have to strive to compensate for the shortcomings of other drivers? No. Is it sensible that we should do so? Absolutely.
Nothing they teach is hugely novel; nothing ran against my common sense as a rider. This is, of course, good. Had they suggested that The Infallible Aid To Cornering was singing This Old Man round all left hand bends, and Nessun Dorma round all right handers, I'd have ignored the rest of the course. Instead, they bring together lots of disparate "best practices" as a system. Once you systematise your method of riding, it's a lot easier to see where things are missing. In my case, I have a fairly common fear of the left-hand side of the road; practising more right-hand bends should cure this, and I'll be able to take them both quicker and safer.
Neither Neil nor Simon gets paid for giving the course. They don't even get time off from work to do it. They do it in their spare time, possibly because they don't like putting dead motorcyclists in bags as a day job. This keeps the cost down; although it varies from county to county, mine cost less than thirty pounds. For that, I got six hours of classroom tuition in a small group, free copies of the Highway Code and the Police Motorcycle Roadcraft Handbook, a one-hour check ride with debrief and a free Bikesafe sidestand plate (ooooh!). Police tea was 20p a cup. With the exception of the tea, this is good value by any standards.
Our group was about as varied a group of motorcyclists as you could hope to find. We had a seventy-year-old who'd only been back on two wheels for a few years. We had a Ducati rider, who took some ribbing ("Oh, it's raining. Did you have to walk here again? You should sell it and get a VRF800. Best bike in the world."). We had BMW riders (me), we had 250s and 600s and literbikes. We had riders with 20 years of riding experience, and riders with barely three months. From tattoos to filofaxes, if there was such a thing as a typical Bikesafe participant in that classroom, I couldn't begin to guess what he or she looks like.
So I'm extremely glad I did the course. I'd recommend it to anyone who rides a two-wheeler (see http://www.bikesafe.co.uk/ for more details). And having survived my check ride, do I have one final message from the course to leave you with? Absolutely; it is this: the VFR800 is the best bike in the world. Buy one.
Tom looking at police bikes in the garage, before his check ride
Tom setting out on his check ride, with Neil following
Tom still being followed by Neil
Dave being debriefed by Simon after his check ride
All content © Tom Yates / Dave Amann 2006