The wild one

At times it seemed the course was simply an exercise in humiliation. Even our Day-Glo yellow bibs proclaimed that we were two-wheel virgins
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"I'm thinking of saving up and buying a Harley," I told Dylan earlier this year, which was a bit rich considering I'd phoned him to borrow some money.

"No, Alix. You're not buying a Harley."

"Why not?"

"Because Harleys are for wankers."

"Your point being...?"

"Alix, only advertising wankers and sad prats suffering from mid-life crises ride Harley Davidsons."

"Could you dumb it down a shade, Dylan? I'm having trouble seeing your line of argument here. I got the bit about them being for wankers..."

"OK, Alix, do what you want. Buy a Harley."

"Hey, that's just what I was going to do! To alleviate my mid-life crisis, see."

"Yeah, whatever."

"Vroom, vroom."


Dylan was right, of course. Having reconsidered, I didn't want a Harley. But I did want a full motorcycle licence, or at least the freedom it entails. Never again would I be subject to the caprices of Greek island bus drivers, nor stranded in some Asian backwater by the errata of exotic train timetables. In future I would hire a big, oily bastard of a bike, and cruise from beach to beach like some pothead knight errant, in true freelance fashion.

Still dreaming of palm-fringed coastal roads, I arrived in Hendon one chilly Sunday morning to start my five-day intensive training, leading up to the full test. So there we were, Keith and David and me. Day one required us to complete Compulsory Basic Training, which involved riding figure eights around two green cones in the windswept playground of a local school. That same afternoon we were out on the open road, closely followed by one of our two leather-clad instructors, Debbie and Aaron, who gave us an introduction to the harsh realities of life (and death) on two wheels, admonishing us via radio receivers inside our crash helmets, along the lines of: "Alix, you are riding like a Muppet. Sit up, and get out of the gutter now!"

At times it seemed the course was simply an exercise in humiliation. Even our Day-Glo yellow bibs proclaimed that we were two-wheel virgins, trainees from North London Motorcycle Training. Not that our inexperience wasn't glaringly obvious as we wobbled across the road, glancing behind at inappropriate moments, over shoulders that were permanently hunched.

The only thing we feared more than the wheels of an articulated lorry was another bollocking from Debbie or Aaron. Both exuded militaristic efficiency, and Aaron had an unnerving habit of humming the theme from the Dambusters through the helmet radio. Unsurprisingly, he had served six years in the Coldstream Guards, rising to the rank of lance-sergeant, or "full bloke", as it is known. It seemed inevitable that he would be the owner of a Kawasaki ZZR 1100, complete with turbo "and something that adds nitrous oxide to the fuel", enabling it to reach the unthinkable speed of 300 mph.

Debbie, too, had a services background, topped up with 14 years of boarding school. "The key to riding a motorcycle properly," Debbie told me, in one of her gentler moments, "is discipline." At that moment, I knew I would fail my test. No matter how I tried, I couldn't put together the necessary sequences with any consistency. A simple right turn involved a NASA-like checklist: "Observation, indicator; observation, road positioning; reduce speed with brakes and gears; look through the junction; lifesaver check over the right shoulder, pull out and turn; observation, cancel indicator."

As our coordination and technique improved, our terror blossomed into disdain for that sizeable minority of motorists who have virtually no road awareness whatsoever, the dickheads who kill pedestrians and road users alike, the ones who talk to their dogs, fiddle with radios and mobile phones, the pillocks who watch girls on the pavement rather than traffic on the road.

David went first, and passed. I found Keith in the local cafe, his face green. I told him not to worry, that if he failed it was no bad thing. Far worse, I said, that they should pass you before you're ready, and then you go out and kill yourself. Keith nodded, finished his tea, went out and passed the test. That was when I knew for sure I would fail, due to the law of averages.

As I sat waiting, I remembered Giannino's advice. "It's really like Zen," he had said. "You have to maintain awareness all the time." But of course. It was a discipline, as Debbie had said, but a meditative, rather than a militaristic, discipline. All I had to do was calm down, just like Aaron had told me, over and again. And if things got a bit hairy, I could always hum the Dambusters theme.

So, did I pass?

Vroom, vroom