A tale of two wheels

Last month, unremembered by all, my motorbike licence turned 21 years old.  As small tribute to my 21 years (mostly) sunny-side up I present a tale from when it all started.

The tale of Ronnie and the CBT

In 1990, in an effort to reduce casualties amongst new motorcyclists, the government introduced the CBT (Compulsory Basic Training).

Like the old Part 1 Motorcycle Test that it replaced it took place off-road (think “private car-park”, not “Junior Kickstart”) and was a test of basic motorcycle competence.  Unlike the part 1 it had to be taken before riding a bike on the road with L-plates, and included a short on-road section at the end, assessed by a certified instructor.

So, on a bitterly cold morning in February ’95, I joined 8 or 9 other prospective bike pilots to take my CBT.  The company running the course offered a “guaranteed pass”, which meant that for about £100 you got loaned a bike for the day, got the instruction and test and could redo the whole thing if you failed, as often as you needed to pass.

For most people this meant doing it once, on the mighty workhorse of the bike instruction industry, the Honda CG125.

Good points: Cheap to insure, 120+ mpg, maintenance so easy it can be performed by a drunken lemur, not powerful enough to wear out tyres – ever, has the correct number of wheels for a bike.
Bad points: Every single thing about it not listed above.

One person didn’t have a CG125…that was Ronnie.

Ronnie didn’t drive, so had decided he wanted a bike to go to work on. He’d signed up for the guaranteed pass CBT then walked across the road to a bike dealers and bought himself a brand new bike.  Specifically he’d bought himself a pink 50cc Honda.

The salesman who’d sold him the bike had, apparently, afterwards crossed over the road to the training place to ask, “Who the hell was that guy? I could have sold him anything!”. This being presumably why he’d decided to sell him something that was otherwise unsellable and may have been cluttering up his showroom since the relief of Mafeking.

The day I did my CBT was Ronnie’s 7th attempt at it.

Up until that day he’d never even been deemed competent enough to take the road-based portion of the test.  Today that was going to change!

It was obvious during the day that Ronnie was not a natural motorcyclist; at one point our instructor called us over, we all rode over and stopped…Ronnie stalled his bike. The instructor slowly walked round the bike, looked at the clocks and said, “Ronnie, you’ve done 78 miles on this bike…they’ve all been in this car-park, and you still don’t know you have to pull the fucking clutch in when you stop!”

Such japes aside, we finished the off-road portion and the instructor went along the line of us, telling us that we were fine to go onto the road for the final part of the test.  He left Ronnie until last.

“What do you think, Ronnie?” he asked.

Ronnie hung his head, sadly, and replied, almost by rote, “Maybe next time?”

But our instructor had other ideas.

“Nah, fuck it! You’re getting better, let’s take you out, eh?”

As quick aside about the road portion of the CBT, the rules are that the instructor can only take 2 pupils at a time out onto the road, and they must be in radio contact.  They do a loop of a few miles, riding pupil-instructor-pupil and, halfway round, they swap who’s at the front, so the instructor gets to observe both of them riding.

In mention this, because the next thing that happened was the instructor took me to one side and said, “You seem to know what you’re doing. Do you mind going out with Ronnie and starting at the back, so I can keep an eye on him?”

I was fine with this so we set off.  Ronnie clearly wasn’t a driver, because at every junction we waited until there was nothing in sight before he’d pull out.  This meant slow progress, but not a CBT fail.

Then we got to Blaydon, world-famous in the North-East as the titular destination of the Blaydon Races and, since July 1st this year, the constituency of both the shadow secretary of state for Scotland and the shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland (it’s just one MP, but he’s got two jobs, for…reasons).

Specifically we arrived at this roundabout in Blaydon.

blaydon roundabout

It’s a big roundabout, it’s a busy roundabout and it was getting on for 4 in the afternoon, so traffic was starting to get heavier.

I heard the instructor’s voice in my earpiece, “OK, Ronnie.  We’re going straight over, so get in the left-hand lane and watch out for traffic from the right.”

Then we waited and waited and waited. Eventually, when the nearest car was about 4 miles away, the instructor yelled, “OK, it’s clear Ronnie.  Go!  Straight over.”

With the buzz of a hair-dryer in Kamikaze mode Ronnie revved his little 50cc bike, launched forward onto the roundabout, ignored the straight on exit and carried on round the roundabout.

The instructor, while checking it was clear for him and me to follow Ronnie, was offering more instructions, “You’ve gone the wrong way, Ronnie.  Don’t worry, we’ll take a detour – come off at the next exit.”

Ronnie managed this and found himself at a mini-roundabout.

“OK,” says the instructor, “Just go straight over here when it’s clear.”

“When it’s clear” turned out to be quite some time later, but eventually we couldn’t see any other traffic and Ronnie buzzed away from the line, onto the roundabout…and turned right again, the instructor and I followed him.

At this point in the story four very important factors come together:

Factor 1: Ronnie doesn’t really understand the mechanical side of riding a motorbike at all; throttle, gear, clutch…these are all just words to him.

Factor 2: Up until now all of Ronnie’s riding experience has been in a flat car-park.

Factor 3: Ronnie is riding a motorcycle with a very small engine and very little power.

Factor 4: Thanks to his improvised directions, Ronnie is now riding up a very steep hill.

Because of factors 1 & 2 it’s Ronnie’s belief that you start off in 1st gear and then just keep changing up gears.

Because of factors 3 & 4 this belief is going to be challenged.

Up the hill the three of us headed, in single file.  We had an initial burst of speed while Ronnie was still in 1st gear, but then he started changing up gears and we got slower.

And slower.

And slower.

Eventually I was in 1st gear and starting to slip the clutch, more optimistically Ronnie went for another up-shift.

His bike came to a dead stop in the road. Ronnie, unable to understand why he had stopped or if his bike was going to suddenly start going again didn’t even put his feet down. Instead he sat there, perfectly still, for a second before physics took over and the bike keeled over to left, depositing poor Ronnie on the pavement.

The instructor dismounted, checked Ronnie wasn’t hurt, picked up the bike, parked it by the kerb, removed and pocketed the keys and instructed Ronnie to wait there, until he came back with the van to pick him up.  Then he and I went to finish off my CBT.

That was the last time I ever saw Ronnie.  The training school went bankrupt a few years later, possibly owing to their huge financial gamble of guaranteeing Ronnie that they could get him through his CBT.  I do wonder what became of him after he was left on that hill in Blaydon and I hope that he’s enjoyed at least some of the happiness I’ve derived from motorbikes over that past 21 years.

All the best, Ronnie, wherever you are.




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