By the time I had my first motorbike, I had spent at least 9 years of my life on two wheels, pedal-powered. I was fortunate enough to grow up in Norfolk, with plenty of space to cycle around in, nowhere near so much traffic on the roads as there is now, and a society that thought nothing of letting 11 year old kids cycle all day all over the place without supervision.
As a consequence, I learned the essentials of 2-wheel roadcraft very early on. Perhaps I always had a bit more imagination than my contemporaries, since I was always acutely conscious of how vulnerable I was on a bicycle. That was a healthy attitude to foster, because it led to sensible self-control, without spoiling any of the potential for fun and freedom that cycling gave me. I learned, almost by osmosis, the fundamentals of road safety- visibility, positioning, cornering, filtering.
When I say “learned”, I don’t mean I always followed those fundamentals- what kid does? There is a saying in aviation that all pilots make mistakes- the trick is not to make the mistake that kills you. Much the same applies to both bicycles and to motorcycles. I certainly made mistakes, a couple of them serious.
One fine example was when, aged 11 or so, my mate Pete Lusty and I were cycling down the main road in town towards the cross roads and traffic lights. No cycle helmets in those days and as I recall, I was also decked out in a particularly dire pair of striped strides and a checked shirt. Being on my faithful 5-speed racing bike, and going down a significant hill, I naturally had my head down and my arse up, pedalling like fury, trying to hit the 30mph mark on the highly optimistic speedo I had fitted to the bars.
Quite simply, I wasn’t looking anywhere near where I was going. Some atavistic instinct made me look up, just in time to register two things; the lights were red, and the traffic had stopped, which meant the boot of a bright orange Mk1 Escort was about 10 feet ahead of my front wheel. There was no hope on earth of stopping. I hit it a resounding smack, flew sharply over the bars and can still vividly remember seeing the chrome T-bar boot handle coming up towards my face.
The next thing I remember is lying on the kerb, blood everywhere and watching a lump the size of a duck egg developing in the corner of my vision, over my right eye. How I avoided putting an eye out, I shall never know. The boot handle had broken my nose and I had two deep, parallel gashes above my left knee, where the sharp edges of my water bottle carrier had ripped it open on the way over the bars. The amount of blood on show was impressive. The ambulance took me to hospital in Yarmouth, where, having established that I could still count the number of fingers held up and wasn’t actually oozing brain material, the duty doctor told me to go home on the bus, so I did.
Can you imagine the furore if that happened now? Serious head injury, 11 year old kid, no-one with him, give him sixpence for the bus fare home and call the next patient? I was lucky, and still have the notch in the bridge of my nose and the scars on my knee to remind me.
Other spectacular nasties involved hitting diesel and smacking my teeth into the road before any other part of my anatomy (still have the false front tooth); miscalculating the ratio of distance/pedalling ability and whizzing onto a major roundabout in front of a 40 ton artic (the poor sod driving must have had a coronary- I know I nearly did); and overestimating the friction co-efficient between Raleigh tyres and wet Norfolk leaves. In many cases, I discovered to my cost how important it was to wear gloves.
None of these errors killed me, although any of them could have done. The point is that they were all entirely my fault, I survived, and I learned from them. By the time I had powered wheels, I was half-way to a safe riding style because of those lessons.
Having spent 8 years or so riding motorcycles, including across a lot of Europe, I then spent what was probably the best £80 or so of my life qualifying as an advanced motorcyclist. I was living in digs in Cambridge and was lucky enough to have a motorcycle policeman next door, who persuaded me to take the course. It was hard work, both theory and practical riding, but it was worth every moment. I attribute my continued survival, with not one incident involving another vehicle in 26 years, to the system of motorcycle control taught on that course.
Advanced riding is not about speed; nor spectacular cornering; nor out-braking everything else. It is about one thing only- control. Control involves smoothness, anticipation, positioning, all of which lead to safe riding. Those things in turn depend on probably one crucial input, which is observation. Of all the things that I wish I could give to some of the riders I see around me, the ability to observe is the most vital. Observation is so much more than just seeing or paying attention. It involves a complete mental approach to riding the bike, which focuses not just on where you are going, or where you want to go; but on everything going on around you- the bike itself, the road surface, the weather, your speed, what gear you are in, your position on the road, the physical layout of the road, what is ahead of you, what other traffic is doing, pedestrians, animals, even things you cannot see but can anticipate from other information.
The list is endless and continually varying. Safe riding is not a group of static rules you can learn, then apply regardless. It is a constantly changing, evolving, fluid process, born out of the very action of riding and being aware of your surroundings. It is a very difficult thing to describe, but unmistakeable when you see it in action. More to the point, it is highly obvious by its absence. In my line of work, I have dealt with many serious motorcycle accidents, some fatal, all avoidable. I cannot recall a single instance of a biker being injured where there has not been something he could have done to reduce the risk of the accident happening, but didn’t.
It is a hard thing to have to point out to a badly injured fellow-rider that their injury compensation is going to be reduced because of shortcomings on their part. Still worse, to have to tell them that, for the same reason, they have no realistic chance of getting compensation at all. Worst of all, to have to watch family and friends try to come to terms with the knowledge that the death of someone they loved was partly his own fault.
I still ride and I still love it. I had no qualms about going back to motorcycles after a break of 20 years, even though in the meantime I had married and had a young son. I know my own limitations and my own abilities and I take care never to exceed either. My wife and son have to take it on trust that every time I ride out, I shall be as careful as I know how, apply the knowledge and experience that I have, and that by doing so, I shall minimise the risk of anything happening to me as much as is humanly possible.
No-one goes through life, even in the most risky of activities, without making mistakes. The trick is not to make the mistake that kills you. If you do nothing else on your bike, get an advanced qualification and follow what it taught you every time you ride out. If you do, it will save your life someday.
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