Falling off a motorbike doing 30mph hurts. A bit. Especially if you’re wearing an army surplus parka rather than the armoured leathers you see around you. What hurts more is having to shrug it off and fence the banter of the hairy-arsed bikers who are supposed to be teaching you to drive.
“I bet you’re glad you wore your brown trousers,” one had said when I’d skidded to a halt a few minutes earlier. It took me a while to get what he was on about, I hadn’t really noticed I’d done anything so stupid I should have been scared.
At around a quarter to eight on a Thursday morning I’m huddled around an instant coffee, no milk, in a portacabin behind a disused greyhound track. I’ve been sent here almost in disgrace for performing an emergency stop too well - so well that the bike stopped more quickly than I did, leaving me skidding across the asphalt, hole in jacket, hole in arm. But I’m alright, I say. I have my driving test in an hour.
Two years ago, when I - in a particularly low-horsepower bit of a mid-life crisis - bought a scooter I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’d always wanted one and had bought an original Vespa to “do up” about 10 years previously. I never managed to get it started and it followed me through two house moves as nothing more than an ornament in the shed before I sold it. The traffic situation around Oxford was the perfect excuse to try again; I bought a decent looking bike from eBay. Then I tried to find out how to ride it.
The rules of the road have got a lot more complicated since the Quadrophenia boys rode down to Brighton; then, you could just ride. Now you need to get a CBT (compulsory basic training) certificate before you can put L-plates on. And you get those in a car park or wasteground, because you need to be somewhere you can ride without hitting other traffic. And in my case you get that by riding an actual motorbike with gears and a clutch for the first time, because you’re not allowed to ride your own easier, automatic gearboxed, scooter on the road to get there.
I never quite got the hang of the gears, which you change with your foot, nor the clutch, which is done with the left hand and that’s why when confronted with a real reason - a group of cyclists pulling out without looking - to pull up sharpish, I come a cropper. I pull both hand brakes in tight; one isn’t a brake, it’s the clutch. The front wheel stops, the back wheel keeps going. I hit the deck. It seems to be impossible to fail the CBT, though, as once back on the road I get my piece of paper entitling me to ride for two years.
Two years later, having pootled around town trying my best to look as much like Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday as you can when leaning into the wind on the A34, I realised I needed to take my driving test for real.
The problem is that the whole world of the motorbike is geared for those that like black, speed, leather, grease, and - well - motorbikes. You won’t find a scooter test, or scooter instructors, so you have to deal with the traditional enemy: the rocker. I had a fair idea that I could ride to a decent standard, but no idea what the actual test process was. So after some research I booked on a crash course and the three tests I needed: a theory test, and what they call Module One and Module Two. Mod one is on yet another car park, around cones and including that emergency stop. Mod two is much more like the car driving test I took when I was 17.
I pass the theory test at the second attempt, in a modern office block in the centre of Oxford. Being too old to have had to take a separate theory test before, I have no idea what I’m doing. First time out I get 50 out of 50 in the highway code, but somehow fail the computer game hazard perception section. I didn’t see this bit being difficult at all.
Next time I press long and hard at almost everything on screen and pass, despite being told that I’ve “clicked inappropriately” on some of the questions. Whoever made them can’t live round here; old ladies on their pushbikes are one of the most hazardous hazards I’ve perceived.
The instruction days are long, and cold, and in a car park. By some sort of cultural osmosis they are rather macho, people young enough to become experienced motorbike riders, young enough to want to teach people for a living, are very into what they ride. They like motorbikes, they like the tang of petrol and the open road, they like all-in-one clothing. And they are all seemingly called Rob.
My helmet is a cause of much sneering hilarity: because it is old-fashioned, a semi-sphere, and has separate goggles. Because it looks stylish, rather than the luminous alien of a wannabe tobogganist.
“I wouldn’t wear one,” says one instructor, probably Rob. “Why did you choose that type?”
“Because it fits under my seat,” I say. And it does, which is a bonus. What I don’t say is, “because I’m a mod”. And what the dull wits don’t notice is that there is something actually hilarious about my “lid” (all things have a macho slang here). In between me buying it when I first had a scooter and me actually having a scooter to ride, the white with a central black stripe style became synonymous with another wearer - the Crazy Frog.
I do learn a lot though, there’s a great deal of stuff about riding a bike that you don’t pick up on your own. I really hadn’t ever considered the difference between the two brakes and when to use them, nor did I really know where to check the oil. However, I can’t get the emergency stop right.
In the module one test, you need to get up to 30mph and then stop when the examiner raises his hand. Getting my scooter to go that fast in the space available is tricky, there’s just about enough of a run-up if I go flat out - which makes the stopping harder. I can stop quickly but not safely enough, say the Robs and I don’t get to complete all the practice before the end of the day.
As my test is booked for later that week I arrange a couple of hours’ private tuition beforehand. A different, more gentle, Rob has advice: “Pretend your bollocks are under the back brake handle.”
And then I get it really wrong.
When you come off a motorbike there isn’t much time to think about what you’re going to do. You are going along and then you are lying on the floor, a few feet away from your spluttering steed.
But I get up, dust myself down and manage to pass the test. I’m surprised, but it’s cost me about £300 to get this far so I think I’ve paid my dues. The module two practice day goes without too much incident. It really consists of you and another learner driving round while in radio contact with an instructor; we are in convoy and the biggest problem is not losing the other two. Oh, and trying to get my scooter up to the speeds we are trying to demonstrate on the A roads. Oh, that and putting up with the commentary - the radios are one-way and we can’t talk back: “keep your eyes on the road, I saw you looking at that bird. They should be banned, too distracting.”
When it comes to the module two test a few days later, I think I’ve got it sorted. I’ve got the rhythm of looking in the mirrors, sitting in a safe position in traffic and of the various looks and glances you have to move your head to demonstrate that you’re doing. It’s not enough to look behind you, for this you have to be seen to have looked, although I’m not sure it’s ever covered about what you do if you see what you’re looking for. Luckily, it never really comes up.
The test goes smoothly, around the back streets of Cowley - an area I know well - and we arrive back outside the back door of Oxford United’s ground, which the test centre uses as an office, with me thinking that I might have done it. But I’d not left enough space joining a dual carriageway, enough space between me and an Audi doing 90, in the real world he would just have had to slow down - and I would have got to smile - but in the world of the driving test it’s a “serious fault”, an automatic fail.
And that’s the two years up. Not enough time to take another test. I return home with my fishtail between my legs. But I’ve come far enough to keep going.
The following Sunday I take my CBT again and breeze through it. The hardest bit is affecting a face that says “I know the answer to your question, Rob, but I’m not saying so as to give the other guys a go.”
Then I have to get another test slot; I’m on my own with this and the DVLA website. I spend ages looking at the help pages trying to work out what I should book - the forms are built for motorbikes. Eventually I select what I think is the correct test.
I’m taking no chances and call up the local garage, another place that’s a maze of macho and me nodding sagely at terms I don’t understand. The brakes have been sticking a bit and there’s a rattle from somewhere. And the other day a mudguard fell off - a result of the incident before my first test.
I’m on my way home from work, the night before the test, on the bus when Rob from the garage calls. What he thought was just a new cable needed turns out to be much worse – a sticking disk that meant the back brake was going on too hard. It’s a reason I found stopping quickly too easy. It’s also a reason it won’t be ready for my test. Gutted I go online and cancel, I’ve lost the fee but it’s polite not to leave the examiner hanging around.
Then the garage calls back, they’ve worked late, into overtime, and fixed it. Which would be fantastic if I’d not already called the test off. Another £100 quid, plus £75 for another test. I have to make the next one count, this is seriously mounting up and I don’t think I can go through another day of training.
The test centre is about 20 minutes away from home according to Google Maps, but as I close the front door at quarter to eleven for an 11:16 start I realise that those timings don’t factor in a vehicle with a top speed of about 60mph, downhill. And as I fire up the engine, only two goes this time, there’s petrol to be got as well. This is going to be tight.
I start off in a hurry, only to clunk to a stop after a foot having forgotten to take the security chain off the front wheel. Dismount, carefully pull the chain through the wheel, start again. I make it, just, nerves all over the place.
It goes quickly, I miss a signal when doing a hill start. I can’t see the speedo down a national speed limit road as the sun’s in my eyes. I wobble when starting off at one point for no good reason. It’s up in the air.
“I can tell you you’ve failed, if you’d rather,” says Rob, when I express surprise and thanks. He’s probably unaware that he did the same joke last time. He’s a nice man, and really seems to like his job, carefully pointing out my mistakes — none were enough to stop me passing, but I should watch them.
Out of respect for his love of safe motorcycling I wait until I’m round the corner to take both hands off the handlebars and punch the air.