Jul 06 2014

At Long Last

Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 7:14 pm

Three years of bike training finally came to an end last week with me passing module 2 of the test. My last blog post about this was just after I resumed training after winter but now it’s all done. I did the theory test last year, which was pretty straightforward thanks to lots of practice from a DVD with questions and their own version of hazard perception clips. In the official version a couple of the hazards were sheep in the road. The quality of the videos was pretty dreadful: almost as if they’d been recorded by pointing a camera phone at a TV playing a VHS video.

The motorbike practical test comes in 2 sections: module 1 is off-road manoeuvres that consist of manual bike handling (push it from one parking bay to another), a slalom, a few figure 8s, a U turn, a cornering exercise at 30 kph, an emergency stop at 50 kph, and a hazard avoidance also at 50 kph. The two 50 kph exercises are done with a speed measurer to make sure you hit the minimum speed, and all of them are around coloured cones like the ones they use to mark out indoor football pitches in leisure centres. It took me 2 attempts to pass mod 1. The first time I failed because I went over the white lines for the U turn and because I locked the back wheel during the emergency stop. 2nd time I passed with 3 minor faults: during the hazard avoidance I only hit 49 kph, and when I moved off after stopping I stalled the bike and forgot to check observations. However I was so relieved to get through the emergency stop just before that I didn’t really care too much.

After that I was pretty exhausted and wasn’t entirely with it riding back to bike school so they told me I needed to do a bit more training before I could do mod 2. For this they had me using the Wakefield test centre (where I’d done mod 1) as a base so the instructors could show me round the test routes. After another 2 half days training they told me I was ready to do the test and  they’d get me an appointment booked as soon as they could. I had my last lesson on the Friday morning and they rang me that afternoon for a test on the following Tuesday. However this would be at the Bradford Thornbury test centre, not in Wakefield. Despite this I went for it anyway: good to get it out of the way if I passed, and there’s a 10 working day cooling off period if you fail, so the sooner the better. It’s not very far from where I live so I spent last weekend riding over to see where it was and finding out a bit more about the area. It’s part of the same Mid Point complex where the Leeds/Bradford Odeon cinema is and where there’s a very strange triangular roundabout. Because of that and a few other things Bradford Thornbury test centre has one of the lowest pass rates in the country. No pressure then!

Test day came and I made sure I got to bike school nice and early. We needed to get some petrol on the way and then we went up from Hunslet to the test centre via the outer ring road. Unfortunately we didn’t get full speed on the way there because the person who was leading us didn’t want to overtake a couple of slow lorries. Once we got there we went for a quick ride round, and then he had his test. I went out for another ride with our instructor, partly to get a bit more knowledge of the area and partly to give me something to do other than sit and wait. When we got back the first bloke had completed his test and was looking stony-faced because he’d failed. Bad luck: he’d locked his back wheel for a few inches when stopping and failed for not being under full control.

Then it was my turn. The examiner checked my documents and then led me out. I had to do an eyesight test (reading a numberplate from a distance) and answer 3 questions, about checking brakes and fluid levels, and what to do about pillions (“a local taxi number is…”). I told the examiner that I have dyspraxia and that I needed instructions to be clear and given in plenty of time, and he told me that they would be. The test is to see how good you are at riding, but normally when you’re out you know where you’re going, so I think this would count as a reasonable adaptation.

On the road and we rode around Bramley and Pudsey. I knew to expect  being asked to pull in for hill starts and behind parked cars so these weren’t a surprise. I’d also been warned about the examiner’s trick of waiting until something was coming and then telling you to pull away when it was safe, so I watched out for that well. During the independent riding bit (“turn left at the end and then follow signs to Bradford, then for Leeds”) I stalled when I was pulling away from some traffic lights, so I knew that would count as a minor. At one point I was waiting for lights to change at Dawson’s Corner roundabout where I could see from a clock on a building that the test was nearly over, and hoped I hadn’t made too many faults. Back on Stanningley Bypass, through Pudsey town centre, and back to the test centre.

Off the bike, back inside and waited for the examiner to finish off his paperwork. He took me and my instructor into a private room and then said “Congratulations: you’ve passed”. “Excellent!” I had 7 minors altogether: 3 for not pulling away smoothly and a couple for not checking observations. Earlier my instructor kept telling me to keep an eye out for unmarked crossroads so I was surprised that I’d seen one that the examiner hadn’t.  Anyway, it was done. I swapped my provisional licence for a certificate and I’ll get a full licence through in a couple of weeks.

As soon as we got back to bike school I took the L plates off my own bike and posed for the traditional photo:


(Yes, I know I need to lose some weight)

Getting rid of the Ls means I can ride on motorways. A 125cc bike isn’t really up to a long journey at 70 mph but I’ve since done the length of the M606, and it’s quite handy being able to use the Leeds Inner Ring Road instead of the zillion traffic lights on the Leeds Loop Road. Some time fairly soon I’ll be upgrading to something a bit bigger. I’ve had a look around and something like the Honda CBR, or Yamaha XJ or FZ6 series seem OK as long as they’re not too expensive to insure.

So, that’s it for the mandatory training. There are various schemes like the Enhanced Rider Scheme and the police Bikesafe scheme that are designed to improve your riding style once you’ve passed, but I don’t have to do any more training unless I want to. I found it hard work getting on with a car with gears so I never got round to taking a car test. It also took me a while to get the hang of bike gears, but at least I could get my own low powered bike and get in plenty of practice. It’ll be interesting to see what I get up to once I’ve got a bigger biker that can cope with motorways,  but I’ve already found that not having to rely on public transport means it’s easier to go where I want rather than where the bus or train goes. Pudsey and Headingley really aren’t far from Horsforth, but you wouldn’t know it if you had to catch a bus there.

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Apr 17 2014

Bikes (cont…)

Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 1:39 am

Now that work has calmed down a bit, the weather has got better and I’ve got some spare cash, I’ve restarted my bike training. The motorbike licence classes changed just over a year ago so there are now four different ones:

  • AM – lets you ride a moped with a top speed of 45 kph (for people 16+)
  • A1 – 125cc with max power of 11 kW and power/weight ratio no more than 0.1 kW/kg (for people 17+)
  • A2 – 35kW max power and power/weight ratio no more than 0.2 kW/kg. You can ride a restricted bike but the power of the derestricted version must not be more than double the restricted version. The test should be take on a bike of 395cc or higher, and a maximum power of 35 kW (for people 19+ or people with 2 years experience on an A1 bike)
  • A – lets you ride any bike, but must do the test on a minimum 595cc bike with at least 15 kW power (open to people over 24, or over 21s who have held an A2 licence for 2 years)

Complicated! The other change was that you can no longer move from one class to another by holding a licence for 2 years. If you want to upgrade from A1 to A2, or A2 to A, you must do another practical test on a bike for the category you want to move up to.

Personally I’m doing direct access for a full A class licence. I’m getting plenty of miles in on my current bike but I’m starting to outgrow it. As I get more experienced I’m getting more confident at riding at higher speeds. My bike tops out at about 60mph on the flat, or 45 – 50 ish mph going up hills. That’s OK on smaller roads but there are plenty of national speed limit roads that I use regularly. It can be excruciating being stuck behind someone that won’t go over 50 mph on a 70 mph dual carriageway and I can’t overtake them because I don’t have enough speed. I’ve tried it a couple of times and it can be embarrassing, not to mention potentially risky when I move back to the left hand lane and I don’t have enough space to leave a safe gap. At bike school they’ve got me learning on a Suzuki SV650. It’s about the same weight as my current bike, but at 55kW it’s 5 times more powerful:

Suzuki SV650

As for the bike training, I’ve done a day and a half since I resumed this year. You do a day or half a day at a time, more like an intense car driving course than the traditional couple of hours a week of car lessons. Of course there’s no such thing as a dual control bike: instead the instructor rides behind you with a radio on a separate bike. A day’s training usually consists of a mixture of manoeuvres at the training centre followed by on road training. Because the instructor can’t control the bike they won’t let you on the road until they’re happy with your handling.

My bike school is just behind the Crown Point Centre in Leeds so you have to go more or less straight on to the somewhat meandering roads around the M621 in south Leeds to go anywhere else (of course learners aren’t allowed on the motorways themselves). I understand the training routes are intended to teach you how to deal with things like fiddly junctions and other awkward bits, but it does feel a bit odd going out without knowing where you’re going, and suddenly turning off the main road to go down a side street and emerge from a junction that no one in their right mind would use unless they had to. The A61 is a nice easy way to get from Wakefield to Leeds and goes past the bike school, so naturally we turned off a little early so we could go through Belle Isle and along its main road, which looks like where Leeds council decided to use all the spare paint they had left for traffic calming.

During one of the lessons we rode over to the test centre in Wakefield. If you look at the diagrams for the mod 1 test it looks pretty small, but on the ground it’s a lot bigger.

To get some practice in I’m going out riding by myself as well. These rides are a fair distance, up to about 50 miles. I live just by the Leeds outer ring road so that’s a good place to start. Unlike the training routes these do have some kind of logic, even if they are just loops. One I did last week was out to Shipley, Keighley and Skipton, and then back home along the A65 through Addingham, Ilkley, Guiseley and Yeadon. Another was along the northern part of the outer ring road to Garforth, and then back through Woodlesford to Hunslet, along to Armley and home along the southern part of the outer ring road. I’m familiar with Squires bikers’ cafe in Sherburn in Elmet and I’ll almost certainly be stopping off there at some point over Easter.

These ride outs also give me a chance to get the hang of longer rides so I can do more than just buzz around Leeds. Over the May Day bank holiday weekend I’ll be riding over to a rally just outside Market Weighton on a bike fully laden with camping gear. That’s about 50 miles from me. Having just a CBT certificate means I’m not allowed on motorways so I have to investigate other ways to get to places. In a lot of cases the old pre-motorway trunk routes are still there but are a lot quieter than they used to be. No one in a hurry would use the A62 to get from Leeds to Manchester, especially the weird bits through Huddersfield and Oldham, but there’s nothing to stop you and I’ve done it a couple of times. Upgrading the A1 to motorway standards meant having to leave parallel roads for non-motorway traffic. It follows the route of the old Roman roads of Ermine Street and Dere Street so in places it was the only road around.

What happens next with the bike training is that I go back to the Wakefield test centre on a Saturday to practice the techniques for module 1. Now I’ve seen where it will take place I know what to expect. This session is booked for the 10th of May, and if that goes OK there’s a slot available for me to do the actual mod 1 test on the 12th. Mod 2 comes after that and is the traditional on road driving test, but there’s no point booking it until I’ve passed mod 1. Hopefully I’ll get through it all before the end of May.

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Dec 08 2013

Riding On

Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 6:38 pm

Been a while since I last mentioned anything about bikes (or posted at all!). That was at the end of August when I’d just got the new bike. Since then I’ve done about 1500 km over various rides including the A62 to Manchester and the A64 to York. I’m still on a provisional licence so motorways are still out, but the dualled bits of the A64 between the A1(M) junction and York itself are probably pretty similar. A couple of weeks after I got the bike I also rode over to Squires bikers’ cafe on a sunny Bank Holiday Monday. Visiting my mum and introducing her to both the bike and the one piece suit was fun:

Bike and suit

Most of my riding is around Leeds, and I have to say that the inner loop road is a serious pain at times. The inner ring road has motorway regulations despite having a 40 mph speed limit so I’m not allowed on there. The inner loop is designed for clockwise travel, which is fine if you want to go that way round but not ideal if you want to go the other way. There are bits where you can go anticlockwise, but I’m sure they were designed by whoever did the store layouts at Ikea where it’s mandatory to go past a surfeit of tealights and couples having slow motion arguments about soft furnishings regardless of where you actually want to go.

Bike training is now on hold until Spring when there’s more daylight and I’ve got a bit more money to pay for lessons. At £160/day it’s not cheap, but at least I’m now on 600cc bikes.

Apart from getting used to the thing on the road, there’s also the biking culture to get into. I got involved with Leeds MAG because I used their website to find out about bike parking spots and I thought it made sense to get to know them and meet people who know far more about bikes then I ever will. Since I joined in July I’ve been to a few socials, both organized by MAG and by some of the other local bike clubs. (There’s a big difference between MCC clubs and MC ones. The MC clubs are the outlaw ones like the Hells Angels, Outlaws and Blue Angels. MCCs are bike clubs that are open to more or less anyone, but like most clubs they do have procedures and entry requirements).

I’m at a very early stage so I’m just getting to know people and find out what’s what. I can tell already just how important the bike scene can be to people’s lives. It’s very similar to the combat sports/martial arts scene (which I’ve been somewhat neglecting) but hopefully with less of the physical violence. A contraption that can go at high speeds with only a tiny point of contact on the ground is inherently dangerous so it’s not surprising that most bikers (me included) know people who have been killed or injured in accidents.

The next MAG event is a charity toy run. The idea is pretty simple: meet up at a central location, ride as a group, and then disburse toys at a local charity. This will be my first group ride so it will be interesting to see how it goes. I’m sure I’ll be fine but it’s just the thing of doing something for the first time. Finding toys has been tricky as most stuff I’ve found for girls features lots of pink plastic and words like “princess”. I know I’d probably be knee-capped if I gave most of the people I know presents like that, so it’ll probably be something like Lego or a jigsaw. There’s quite a few toy shops near me so it should be pretty easy to get something appropriate.

Next couple of MAG events after that are the fortnightly meeting (with cake! But you’ve got to bake it first. I’m thinking some sort of banana loaf, and a coffee and walnut cake) and then a couple of days later a band at a pub in town probably followed by a curry. Sounds like a good way to end the year before xmas.


Aug 27 2013

Brmm Part III

Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 11:52 pm

A couple of weeks ago I did half a day’s post-CBT bike training on a small 125cc bike. At the end they recommended seeing if I could trade in the scooter and get a geared bike of my own. I had some spare cash that I was planning on spending on an old banger of a bike after I’d passed my test so I thought I’d investigate. I went back to the dealer I got the scooter from and got a pretty good trade-in on another Chinese bike. 2 weeks after the training, last weekend, I swapped this:

On The Scooter

for this:

New Bike

Same power as the scooter but physically a lot bigger. Definitely a lot more my style as well:

On the bike

So what’s it like to ride? Getting it home was a bit of a baptism of fire because I’d arranged to have a lift back. However that didn’t happen and I had to ride back instead. Through central Leeds on a Saturday afternoon during match day. Fun. The day after I did a few circuits round some quiet streets to get a bit of practice. Gear changing was a bit fiddly and I stalled a couple of times, as well as making the engine scream when I accidentally changed down gear instead of up. On the Monday I practiced a few hill starts and on the Tuesday was my first longish ride (c. 11 miles each way) from Horsforth over to the MAG meeting at a pub in Morley, including the 70 mph Stanningley bypass. After a few more practice rides I rode over to CCL Computers on Saturday (dying hard disk to replace; that was fun). I’ve definitely still got a lot of room for improvement, especially knowing when and how to change down gears, but I’m certainly getting there. There’s an art to sorting out the gears with your left hand and foot while simultaneously dealing with the brakes and throttle with the right, which it feels like I’m getting the hang of. Even though it’s the same power and engine capacity as the scooter, having gears gives more control. It also feels good to be getting the hang of slow clutch control and knowing that you won’t stall when you pull out at lights or a junction. I’m afraid to say I’ve also bought a one piece leather bike suit that I’ve even worn in public, but no one batted an eyelid when I walked round the supermarket with it on.

For Bank Holiday Monday I was going to pop over to Seacroft Tesco to see how busy it was after the Leeds Festival, but ended up continuing over to Squires Cafe Bar via the scenic route of missing a turning and turning right instead of left. A bikers’ cafe on a sunny bank holiday was as busy as it sounds, with almost every possible type of bike there, including a couple of trikes, but only about 4 cars. I also wasn’t the only person there with L plates. I know there’s a bike subculture with things like the motorcycle clubs (MCC style rather than the outlaw MC groups like the Hells Angels or the Outlaws) and which I can see myself getting involved in. I joined the Motorcycle Action Group about a month ago because I wanted to get to know other people into bikes and I can imagine joining one of the local MCCs once I’ve got to know people a bit better.

Next steps will probably be booking another half day’s training to iron out a few things on my 125 cc bike, and then preparing for module 1 on a 600 cc+ one. The test classes changed in January, so now there’s no automatic moving up to a bigger bike class after 2 years like there used to be, and if you want to ride a 600 cc+ bike, you have to take your test on one.

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Jul 01 2013

Brrrmm Part II

Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 11:04 pm

Last week I did my motorbike CBT renewal. Good to have it out of the way. Before I did it I was a bit nervous of some of the slow speed manoeuvres, specifically the figure 8 and U-turn, so I practised them on the scooter on the flattish bit of road just by where I live. On the day itself I started off on a Honda CG 125:Honda CG 125

Surprisingly I didn’t get on too badly compared to my first CBT 2 years ago. I didn’t quite have the hang of the clutch but I managed to get through the morning’s training OK, including those manoeuvres. Then came the afternoon, with 2 one-hour sessions of on-road training. Unfortunately the first hour didn’t quite go as smoothly: I had a tendency to let the clutch go a bit too quickly and kept stalling. It also got a bit confusing trying to make head or tail of bus lanes and partly hidden turn-offs on Dewsbury Rd in Hunslet. We agreed that it would be better if I spent the 2nd hour on my own scooter so I could get signed off and then decide what to do about further training. Apart from a couple of bits, which I blame on being tired at the end of a very long day, that went a lot better.

Afterwards I had a chat with the chief instructor about what to do next. What I want to do is a week or so of intense training which ends with me taking the full A class bike test on a 600+ cc bike. However, as he suggested, I need to spend a day or so getting the hang of a less powerful bike so I don’t end up in a hedge when I first get on it. Around Hunslet where the bike school is can be pretty busy so I might also see about doing the training at a school in a quieter part of town. Looking around there’s even a bike school based at an airstrip near York, so that might be worth considering. First step though is passing the bike theory test which is booked for a week on Friday.

Something else I noticed is that the combat boots I wore for the CBT were a bit too chunky to feel what I was doing. They weren’t steel toe-capped but I still had to work hard to feel when I was changing gears. Of course I needed some proper motorbike boots, so I ended up getting these understated things:

Motorbike Boots

I also decided to get a leather jacket that matches my leather trousers, so all this is getting pretty serious. I must get a photo of me in the full kit.

After all that it was quite entertaining travelling back home. There’s a lot of roadworks in South Leeds at the moment while Northern Gas Networks installs a new pipe under one of the busiest non-motorway roads in town, which means all kinds of strange diversions. At one junction I had to pull out into two lanes of traffic. Unfortunately there was a broken down car with a police car next to it (presumably shielding it from oncoming traffic) roughly where the red box is:

Blocked junction

As Google Streetview shows, visibility there isn’t brilliant at the best of times so I had to be extra careful. Plus it was rush hour. Meanwhile White Van Man is beeping away behind me because I’ve been sat there for more than 10 seconds. Unfortunately for him, the second time he beeped, the traffic cop noticed and walked over to have A Word. By then the traffic had cleared so I pulled out, trying not to fall off the scooter for laughing. Result!

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Jun 10 2013


Category: UncategorizedMarcus @ 6:31 pm

So last year I bought a scooter:
On The Scooter

After having to rely on public transport for so long it was good to finally have an alternative. One thing that stands out on the photo is the big L plates. UK motorbike rules are complex and designed to make sure young riders don’t ride powerful bikes immediately. It used to be that anyone over 17 could ride up to a certain power on a provisional licence with no training. Then they brought in a rule that you must complete a CBT course and hold a DL196 certificate before you’re allowed on the roads on your own. It lasts for 2 years and restricts you to a 125 cc bike or scooter with a maximum power of 11 kW. No passengers or motorway riding allowed. However I don’t think a small bike would really be powerful enough for either. There are exceptions but they don’t really concern us here. Interestingly, if you take your CBT on an automatic scooter, you can still ride a geared bike. I phoned DVLA and asked them to confirm this.

Anyway, my certificate expires in July but I want to renew it slightly earlier so I’ve got a bit of time to try and get a full A class licence that will allow me to ride anything before my insurance is up for renewal at the end of August. The bike training place suggested I do my CBT on a geared bike so they can see how I get on and then decide how much training I need to take the full test. This is in 2 parts: off-road manoeuvres and then on-road technique including a certain amount of independent riding where you get told where to go and then decide how to get there. The motorbike theory test isn’t very different from the car one, apart from a few extra questions on things like bike handling and pillion passengers. It also includes the hazard perception element, where you have to work out which fuzzy mass of pixels on a low resolution video might cause some sort of danger.

I’ve already done quite a bit of independent riding, including a few long ride outs to places like Sheffield, York, Manchester and the Yorkshire Dales. The tricky bit is when you end up somewhere unfamiliar and get stuck in the one way system. When I rode over to Mcr I was going to ride down Oldham Road and Oldham Street and round to a bike parking spot on Fountain St, near Pizza Hut. Unfortunately Oldham St was closed because of an unsafe building so I got stuck on Great Ancoats Street and somehow ended up going past Victoria Baths, up Oxford Road past the university and up Sackville St. After that I had to get across a partly-gridlocked bus lane to get to the bike parking. All good fun. Even if I’d been riding in on motorways I’d just have come in from a different direction and probably still got lost. It’s difficult (although not impossible) to have a Satnav on a bike, but road works and road closures make it very easy for them to get out of kilter and it is impossible to have a roadmap on the seat next to you,  unless you’re a London cabbie revising the knowledge and have a map on a clipboard on the handlebars.

So, 2 weeks until I renew my CBT and then hopefully get my full licence within the next 2 months. Wish me luck…

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