Revenge of the yuppie bikers
Hell's Angels are the stereotype. But when Gerard Gilbert went to learn to ride a motorbike he found a bunch of affluent male professionals, like himself
There are about 15 of us learner riders huddled in the common room of the CSM motorcycle training school - happily, most are clad in the sort of gear that would attract admiring glances at a jumble sale rather than at Brands Hatch. The school is based in the car park of Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium, a place, as it happens, where over the years I have surely thrown away far more than the £399 cost of this "Super" five-day course.
The idea is to learn to ride a motorbike safely, and then, with any luck (although this is not guaranteed), to pass the motorbike test - all in a matter of days.
The course is in two parts - one day in which to pass the Compulsory Basic Training certificate (undertaken in the empty car park), without which you cannot to take the bike test, and without which riders with a licence issued after 1 December 1990 cannot progress on to public roads. The rest consists of three consecutive days honing your skills, and one day nervously downing cups of tea in a caf near the test centre - awaiting your date with destiny, or Mr Stokes, as my examiner turned out to be called.
This week's intake is exclusively male, with an average age in the early thirties and with largely white-collar jobs. The managing director of a movie special-effects company, an engineer on the Jubilee Line extension, a freelance in the video business and a bloke from Pinkertons make up my group.
There's nothing unusual about the maleness of the company - we're talking motorbikes here - it's the age and social status of the assembled men that challenges the stereotype of biker as a reckless 17-year-old boy- racer, or an ageing Hell's Angel. In fact, young bikers are a dying breed, as it were, forced on to four wheels by prohibitive insurance costs and an industry geared up to the more affluent biker. Meanwhile, gridlocked commuter traffic, cheaper parking costs, and, in some cases, a middle- aged desire to revisit their lost youth, are driving many thirty and fortysomethings on to two wheels.
The basics of equipment covered, we go out to the car park to meet our trainer bikes - either Honda CG 125s or Honda MTX trail bikes - properly restricted to prevent us from getting too carried away. Not that there was initially much danger of that. Told to practise our emergency stops, most of us come to a sedate halt from a timid 10 miles an hour. But Darren, who looks like a Visi-goth cousin of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers' Freewheelin' Franklin, but turns to be an excellent, demanding teacher, is having none of it - and we aren't allowed to progress to weaving around traffic cones or practising turning at imaginary junctions until we've all made emergency stops from at least 30mph.
The two semi-mythical bogey-figures, it transpires, are "Pedro the Pizza delivery boy" (forever scootering up on your inside as you go for that left turn) and Volvo drivers, who, protected by broad acres of bodywork, are prone to manoeuvre into your path without indicating. I don't have the heart to tell Darren that my other car is a Volvo - and that is exactly what I had done the previous summer. Fortunately, that particular bike- rider had been unhurt.
With CBG certificates in hand, we are allowed on to the open roads, and given a change of instructor - a woman, begad, by the name of Sian. Togged up with a one-way interbike radio system - so that she can give out directions and a gentle stream of sarcasm - we are Sian's until the end of the course, following her Triumph Trident on our weeny Hondas like ducklings behind the mother.
The next day we drive out of the anonymity of south London suburbia and into the open countryside that leads to Box Hill on the Surrey Downs - the beauty spot that also acts as a Sunday lunchtime gathering spot for bikers. This is the first taste of what biking is truly about, the physical closeness with your surroundings being exhilarating instead of merely frightening. It also serves as an introduction to a whole new community, to which the mere riding of a motorbike gives instant access, although I wonder whether the new breed of "yuppie bikers" would be so enamoured of this dedicated brotherhood. (Two months into being a biker myself - yes, I passed my test - and I think my scepticism was misplaced. "Bike talk" turns out to have as many endless possibilities as football).
The meeting point at Box Hill is a fast-food restaurant called Rykers, where you also have the chance to run your eyes over a large selection of other people's bikes. To stop us getting too starry eyed, Sian relates the tragic tale of a former student, a policeman, who went straight out from passing his test and bought a Ducati 1200. He was dead within two days.
Changes to the rules mean that from next year, riders will be able to learn on any size bike they choose (currently the limit is 125cc). There will be nothing to stop you going straight from tootling around a car park on a Honda 125, to having your first experience of road traffic on a Ducati 1200. Except, that is, your common sense.
There are 40 CSM schools throughout the country. The Wimbledon branch is on 0181-879 3330
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