Sunday, April 22, 2007

London Bikers Brighton Rideout

Some weeks ago someone in the forums at London Bikers suggested a ride out be organised for less experienced riders, including learners. Jim, as usual, was soon persuaded to lead, and did his usual excellent job of organising. The Stig and I were quickly on board. A ride from Box Hill to Brighton on the back lanes was planned, and large numbers of riders were signed up, including a large contingent of experienced riders of larger bikes who would act as corner markers and tail gunners.

The day dawned bright and clear is the cliché, but this really was bright and the sky was blue and almost cloudless! The Stig and I set out nice and early for the 11am rendezvous at Rykas café at the foot of Box Hill. When we got there at 10.15 others had already started to arrive and we set to having a late breakfast including Rykas’ legendary hot chocolate.

By 11 nearly twenty bikes had turned up and Jim gave a short briefing of how he expected everyone to behave, safe overtaking, looking out for people coming from behind etc, and the duties of corner men etc. It was a shame that a greater number of smaller bikes didn’t turn up. The ride was aimed at 125s and the like but in the end the only small bikes were two Vespas and a CBR 125.

Once we were all mounted up we moved out. Jim had picked an excellent route. Whilst some of the roads were potholed, and some had patches of loose gravel or dried mud in the middle of the road, most of the first section was windy country lanes, with very little other traffic. The corner marking system worked very well, with us using a third man drop off as Huskyteer on her Vespa ET4 was riding as number two to set the pace as her bike was probably the slowest and would be most affected by the poor roads.

The Stig and I rode a little way back but corner markers on faster bikes were regularly able to get back in front of us to keep up the supply of number threes to drop off. After about 40 minutes we pulled up outside a pub for a short break, and to ensure all was working well. I was very impressed, everyone seemed to be working well together, all the corners were well marked, riders of larger bikes were happily accommodating the smaller bikes and taking over corner marking whenever one of us ended up number three. And the big Hog at the back made spotting the tail a breeze!

I was very impressed with my 125, it was coping well with the surfaces, taking the corners easily, and was cruising a 40-50mph with no effort at all. The Stig was also very pleased with the comfort and handling of her X9. Not all were so happy though. One rider who had only passed her test and moved to larger bikes had a minor spill at a nasty hill start on tight junction on a gravel-covered road. Fortunately all that happened was that bike stalled and slipped from under her. Neither she nor the bike were seriously hurt, but the spill meant about a dozen bikes immediately in front and behind her stopped. Not good when the intercom and telephone links we planned immediately broke down.

I and some others went on ahead to try and link up, but things got worse when I saw someone at a corner and thought he was marking it. Instead he just wasn’t sure which way to go. Whilst I discussed the route with him, others turned up until there were four or five bikes. We settled on the most southbound route and tried to catch up with the front of the ride. By now Jim had stopped, and all the corners were marked, but he was in Cowfold, about five miles ahead of where the incident occurred. Fortunately, once the corners were marked, the bike and rider were checked over, and everyone moved off again, we soon gathered in Cowfold, and set off again.

Jim’s route took us across some lovely countryside including the meadows of the Adur Valley, before a 690 foot climb to the car park on Devil’s Dyke for a last break and a 99 (thanks Kay!) before dropping into Brighton.

The traffic in Brighton is never much fun, but we managed to get through it OK and found just enough bike parking for us all on the seafront when we arrived at just before 2pm. Some went off to do their own thing, but most of us headed straight for some shaded tables outside a seafront fish and chip restaurant. I know there is no reason for it, but fish and chips always tastes better at the seaside, and we were not disappointed.

After an hour refreshing ourselves, Kay, who had originally introduced The Stig and I to London Bikers, and Huskyteer decided to make their own way back, as they had people they had planned to meet up with, whilst the remainder of us set out to spend some time chillin’ on the beach. Some played some energetic looking Frisbee, whilst other’s paddled. Most of us just had a good rest!

At the agreed time of 4pm we met up back at the bikes, and Jim offered to lead us back to Godstone, just outside the M25, but further east than where we had started. As Huskyteer had left he needed new pace setter and Jaxster on the CBR125 agreed to do that. I confess I didn’t really want to set the pace, as I quite we enjoyed moving forward and backwards through the group, but as it turned out I spent most of the run in third or fourth place.

After a short refuelling stop, and a tiresome ride through Brighton’s traffic, a couple of chav scooterists who found themselves surrounded b your group, Jim soon had us out on the open road. This time we were mainly on better faster roads than the ride south. I was a shame there was no time to stop at Ditchling Beacon, about a hundred feet higher than Devil’s Dyke, but still the views across the Low Weald were fantastic, as the earlier haze had burned off. The 400 foot drop down the face of the hill was good fun, certainly much more fun than the congestion we found in Ditchling Village. From there it was a mainly straight run north at 40mph until we stopped in Godstone at a little before 6pm. There followed the inevitable long discussion about how to get to the Ace Café. It seems compulsory that any discussion involving London Bikers about how to get from or to anywhere has to involve the Ace Café!

I suggested that as The Stig and I would be riding up the A217 from Reigate to Sutton the others that wanted to go to the Ace could peel off at Burgh Heath and follow the signs to Kingston. The consensus appeared to be that I should lead through Redhill and Reigate. Jaxster and The Stig stayed with me, but somehow I managed to lose sight of all the faster bikes, despite riding strictly to the speed limit. I would have though at least one London Biker would have caught me up! To be honest I wasn’t that bothered as I knew Jim would be familiar with the route. The Stig, Jaxster and myself pulled over just after passing through Reigate, I thought it best to get reorganised before we crossed the M25.

We rode on through Kingswood and to Burgh Heath. Jim and the others split off towards Kingston, and The Stig and I set off for home and got in the door just in time for Dr Who!

I would like to give special thanks to Jim for organising the route and doing his usual excellent lead. Rocketman and Elad for holding the line at the back, Alice and Jaxster for setting the pace, and everyone else for some excellent corner marking deserve special mention. The Stig and I had a really good time, and I hope everyone else did also. I know The Stig and I would we well up for similar rides in the future, I just hope we are so lucky with the weather next time!

More pictures are available in this Gallery.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Chronically Bad Trainee

The day dawned bright but cold. I rode over and completed the paperwork. The CBT took the same course as before with minor changes – first there was the safety and legal requirements lecture, then it was out in the car park for a guide to the bike and then the riding it round the cones.

That was where it all went horribly wrong! Despite driving a geared car for twenty years, I found it impossibly difficult to properly control the CG125 I was given to ride. Whatever I did I could not find the bite point for the clutch, and despite listening to the engine; I found it very difficult to gauge when to change gear.

I was clearly having far more difficulty than the complete novices. I can only put it down to being used to constantly variable transmission, I was even finding it difficult to control the revs of the bike – possibly because on a CVT bike, the transmission system means the revs don’t change much at all. I am also glad it wasn't wet as I am not convinced that I ever used the rear brake other then when doing hill starts!

By now the sun was high in the sky and it was getting very hot. I was melting in my jacket and was very grateful for a break for lunch. I had never visited it before, but was very impressed with the burger and sandwich joint on the edge of Wimbledon Stadium and would recommend it for good value tasty fresh food.

After lunch we had the on-road safety lecture, and having passed the theory, Ray the instructor for this bit ended up asking me not to offer answers to the questions, as I obviously knew all the answers! None of the other students had taken their theory, despite two of them owning and admitting riding their 500 and 600cc motorcycles for many years!

After this each of the two instructors took two students on the road for two hours. Three others and I were left to our own devices. To be honest, I was a bit surprised they intended taking me on the road as I didn’t feel I had got good enough at controlling the clutch and throttle – but they are the experts! I used the time popping home on my Vespa to get a cooler jacket, and then stood around with the others in the sun getting accidentally sunburned!

Eventually the other instructor, Richard, took me out with one of the other students who we will call Chris. We went up through Wimbledon Village and back down through Raynes Park with Chris and myself taking it in turns to lead. It was much better getting practice controlling the bike on the road, and on familiar roads at that, but I really still did not have the clutch right and was regularly stalling the bike. We rode round parts of Raynes Park and Lower Morden and ended up near New Malden. Richard then realised that one of the CG125’s was hired from a shop in East Hill Wandsworth and needed to be back before they closed. Richard checked were both happy to go down the A3. If I had known how gutless a CG125 was, I might have been less happy! It struggled to do more than an indicated 50mph making it much slower, and certainly much more less willing to accelerate than my Vespa. However, I was able to practice overtaking.

We successfully negotiated the Wandsworth one-way system and dropped the bike off. Richard had obviously decided that I need more practice than Chris so put him on the pillion and I followed him down Trinity Road back to Wimbledon Stadium.

One might think that this extensive ride round South West London means I must have been doing something right, but my throttle and clutch coordination was still terrible, pull aways and gear changes were rarely smooth, and stalling was still a problem and the occasional unintended wheelie was worrying!

When we got back I was given a new CBT certificate as was Chris, and had the chance to talk to Richard about where I was heading. His view was that my riding was OK and that on my automatic he would expect me to need no more than a day-and-a-half training to pass. But if I wanted to pass on a geared bike, then I needed to lock my Vespa away and get a geared bike and do nothing but ride it for a few weeks to improve my clutch and throttle control. Richard has given me a difficult choice as I want to pass my test, and I don’t really have the time to spend riding a geared bike to improve my control.

As for Richard – I must say, this man has the patience of a saint. He was always professional and helpful, and always showed good humour and never fell into the trap of denigrating students who were having problems. Both Richard and Ray are a credit to Elite Motorcycle Training and I would recommend them.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Theoretically Testing

Last summer I had every intention of passing my full motorcycle test. Current law makes getting a full motorcycle classification on your license almost as complicated as possible. Only almost, because next year they are going to make it even more difficult!

Firstly, before you can ride a motorcycle you need to undergo a day’s compulsory basic training carried out by a licensed company. I went through this in October 2005 when I picked up my Vespa.

Then you need to pass a combined theory and hazard perception test carried out on a computer at a designated test centre.

Finally, you need to pass a practical on-road test within two years of you undertaking the CBT and passing the theory test or you have to start again at the beginning.

I originally intended to take the theory and practical last summer, but after buying various training books and CDs work took over and I didn’t have the time to get them done before the summer was over and things got far to hectic to concentrate.

This spring I finally had the chance to think about it again. I booked my theory, and was disappointed to find this would involve waiting nearly four weeks for the first available slot. I had done some hazard perception practice last summer, but discovered my theory book and CD were now out of date as the questions had been reviewed and updated.

So after spending a further wad of cash I had updated products, and set a few days aside for practice. It all paid off on Tuesday when I went to the Kingston-upon-Thames test centre and passed the test. The staff were very friendly and professional, and the whole thing involved no stressful waiting around. It was all a very positive experience and I am pleased to say I had a creditable score, well above the pass marks.

After the test I popped in to see Jim. I knew he was after a set of practice disks for his son who has a less than perfect record at passing the theory test. He was very grateful for the disks and official question book and showed his usual generosity by offering me tea, and cash!

When I got home that afternoon I rang Elite Motorcycle Training who had been recommended to me to discuss options for the next stage in getting a full license. As I wanted to take my test on a geared bike, and have not ridden one except for a few days over quarter of a century ago, they suggested the best thing was to retake my CBT on a hired geared bike and that at the end of the day my instructor would be able to advise me on what else I needed to do to pass the test in the way of training and practice. The fee for the CBT would be knocked off the final price for the training.

When I rang back to confirm the booking they told me they had a cancellation for Maundy Thursday – all I need do was turn up at Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium at 8.45.