Quite a long time ago, our colleague Dick Henneman did a BikeSafe course run by the Met Police from the Ace Cafe. He thought it was rather good, and you can read about it here should you wish. I mention this simply to show that BikeSafe isn't new to the MBT team, Though it was actually fifteen years ago that we last wrote about them...
Anyway. Like quite a lot of you I suspect, I've been riding for a while and I suppose I've come to the conclusion that I'm OK at it. I've got a fair bit of experience, and at the time of writing I haven't managed to kill myself or anyone else so I reckon I'm ahead of the curve. My problem is that I feel I've stopped learning. Not, I stress, that I have nothing to learn - I'm nowhere near that arrogant - but just that I've dropped out of the learning mindset. Maybe I've just decided that I'm as good as I'm going to get. So when the opportunity to do Bikesafe came up I didn't hesitate. The last training course I did, with Rapid Training back in the last century (really) was enormous fun apart from anything else, and this promised to be similarly rewarding, Bootom line - it's a day playing on a motorbike for no other reason than that, which can only be A Good Thing. I plumped for an out-of-town course as frankly a whole day of riding in traffic was going to be far less fun than a hoon around the countryside.
It's worth mentioning now that this first part was written before I did the course. I wanted to set the scene and it seemed fairest to do so with an open mind.
So, having set the scene I can now tell you that I signed up with BikeSafe Surrey, who operate out of the Police Federration offices in Leatherhead, a few minutes off the M25 (if you like that sort of thing) or a bit further from some delightfully interesting roads if you prefer. And you should prefer...
After a glorious few days, the appointed Saturday dawned grey and slightly drizzly. Typical. An early departure saw me arriving at the office around 0830. There were already a few of us there, as well as an interesting array of liveried police bikes, BikeSafe is a national scheme so although this course was run from Surrey there were officers from Sussex there as well, meaning that bikes ranged from the ubiquitous R1200 through a Yamaha FJR1200 (the last one on the force, as they've been phased out in favour of the aformentioned BMWs) to a Ducati Multistrada provided specifically for traning but still liveried up. Looked good, too.
After some friendly banter and the inevitable peering at everyone's bikes we went inside for coffee, nibbles and to sort out paperwork. We needed to be able to produce licences and insurance certificates, which I guess is reasonable though I still get nervous handing my licence to a traffic policeman for some reason... Formalities done it was into the classroom for a meet and greet and some basic lessons. After the round the table introductions, which mainly showed that we came from all walks of life, had all sorts of different experience and rode all sorts of different machinery we got to a bit that made my heart sink. The cynic in me said we'd spend ages sitting around in a classroom being patronised and having the party line trotted out at us constantly. The cynic was mercifully completely wrong. About as wrong as possible, in fact. Not only was there no patronising at all, but the presentation was totally interactive, delivered with humour and panache and was really interesting. No, I didn't learn anything new in it, but that's because all the elements were practical, sensible things that you either learn in a nice safe classroom envirnment like this or you store away as you slide down the road or bounce off a car. Honestly? I prefer this learning method. It hurts less.
Something I should add here and make really clear. This is not rider training. The effect may well be the same, perhaps even better. But it's not training. It's an observed ride (or I suppose more accurately a series of observed rides) with feedback and the opportunity to improve yourself. There's no radio contact, no instruction, no actual training. That's important because of the law. Which, funnily enough, the Police are quite keen to remain within... So if I mention or imply training anywhere, please just take it as me mis-speaking and move-on.
One of the things that really leapt out in the classroom session was that different people, even ostensibly similar ones, have vastly different perceptions of what's safe, what's reasonable and what's bloody daft. Most of the daft bits we were shown were very obvious and were universally panned. But some of the grey areas of what's reasonable and what isn't inspired some good debate. And I do mean debate as well - no problem at all if you want to challenge perceived wisdom or even question something that's being said. It means you're thinking about riding rather than just going on your gut, which is definitely recommended. And our hosts managed to get just about everyone actively participating, which is always a challenge.
Anyway, after the classroom, some more coffee and pastries led us back outside to meet our partner (it's just about always two students to one coach) and the policeman (or woman) who would be looking after us for the day. The short straw went to Steve, a genial Surrey Police rider who was stuck with me and another chap (we'll call him Rob) with a similar length of riding. Introductions were made again, along with a brief summary of what we were trying to get out of the day and some rules of engagement ("We stick to posted limits. 30s and 40s we really stick to") then a briefing of where we were going to go first and how we'd structure the day. The format was simple. Steve would always ride in the middle and we would take turns riding in front. Then we were off.
Bringing up the rear for the first section, I had the chance to watch and learn. The most obvious thing, apart from the bubble of artificially good behaviour surrounding Steve and his enormous flourescent yellow BMW, was the economy with which he rode. No wasted effort, just smooth relaxed progress through the traffic. The first roundabout saw a bit of hilarity (really, actually) as Steve discovered that someone had fiddled with the settings on his bike, so when he gave a gentle toot to attract Rob's attention and get him to take a turn...he actually ended up doing a very loud and rather misplaced fanfare of two-tones and wailer noises. It may not sound much but it was bloodyfunny at the time. Anyway, twenty minutes or so later we pulled over, Steve gave Rob a brief critique of what he'd seen so far and then it was my turn.
Part of the initial briefing (and I'm paraphrasing) says "Ignore the fact that there's a marked Police bike right behind you and ride normally." Easier said than done, which is why I put it in bold, but I gave it a stab and off we went. The first critique was OK. Again I'm paraphrasing. "You can obviously ride a motorbike but you're being very cautious, and I get the feeling it's because of me being here. Try to ride normally." The next session with Rob in front flowed better, and when it was my turn I attempted to, um, make progress in more like my normal manner. It is a very strange feeling to make an overtake which is perfectly legitimate but takes you noticeably above the national speed limit when your mirrors are full of Policeman. It's even stranger getting complemented for it afterwards, but working to get positive feedback from one of the most skilled motorcyclists on the road certainly focusses the attention.
We stopped for lunch and banter - fabulous lunch in a very biker friendly (well it would be) cafe, included in the price of the day - and then spent another couple of hours doing essentially the same thing. And getting faster and smoother as we went.
The day ended back at Leatherhead with another half hour or so in the classroom looking at some rather sobering pictures and using our new-found knowledge to add to our understanding of where it may have all gone wrong. Here's an example of a sobering thing, and part of the reason why schemes like this deserve proper funding, The average cost of a road fatality, according to the Department of Transport, is £2,500,000. Yes. Two and a half million pounds. That's the cost of dealing with the accident and its aftermath plus the loss of the tax and NI contributions that person would have made over the rest of their lives. Kinda puts the cost of the course into perspective, doesn't it. The other thing we need to remember is that everyone who doesn't ride a bike says, when they're explaining that they worry about you, something along the lines of "It's not you, it the other road users who are the trouble." You know what? Statistically...it's you. In well over two thirds of motorcycle fatalities, we do it to ourselves. Much of the time we don't even involve another vehicle, which at least is unselfish of us. That, folks, makes a day out on the bike learning how to reduce your chances of becoming a statistic even better value. A comprehensive debrief and more coffee and nibbles, and that was it.
I achieved what I was hoping for - I reawoke the ability to learn and improve my riding. I also had enormous fun riding on some fantastic roads (anyone who says the South East of England is too busy to enjoy hasn't looked hard enough), had a great lunch and got some really positive critical comments on my riding. I rememberd stuff which I knew but hadn't used for so long it was rusty and truly felt - feel - that I am a better, safer and, paradoxically, quicker rider than I was before the course. Which, to be honest, I didn't expect.
And through the whole day I didn't once hear anyone say "Speed kills."
You can (and should, actually) book a place on a BikeSafe course at www.bikesafe.co.uk. There are courses over most of England and Wales, and costs vary depending on location. But you know what? It'll be fantastic value, or better, regardless. And it may just save your life too.