It is all very macho at Metropolis, the vast motorcycle and scooter emporium across the road from the MI5 building on London's Albert Embankment in Vauxhall. Vast railway arches play host to several showrooms, a parts-and-service department, and the all-important Scooter School, which is where I found myself one sunny Monday morning at 8.30am, ready to take my CBT - that's Certificate of Basic Training to you and me.
I recently purchased a black Piaggio Vespa ET4 125cc scooter as a way of beating London's congestion charge (scooters are exempt), and to speed up my travel around the capital. I was quite surprised to find out that I had to do any training at all, because I have a full driving licence and have been motoring for more years than I care to remember.
However, to legally ride a scooter with an engine above 50cc you must do a full day's work to obtain your Certificate of Basic Training, which qualifies you to drive for a two-year period while displaying L-plates. After two years, if you haven't taken your theory and full practical motorbike test, you have to do another day's training to renew your CBT and keep within the law.
The atmosphere is all oil and leather at Scooter School and that doesn't do anything to calm my nerves. My only previous scooter experience is riding pillion around Rome about 10 years ago, which was exciting because it was Rome and the cool thing to do. But faced with big biker instructors in leather - who wouldn't look out of place in the neighbouring arch, which houses London's underground gay club, Crash - my legs turn to jelly and my mind goes numb.
My fellow CBT'ers are a mixed bag. Several are 17-year-old Jack-the-lads who have clearly been careering about on mopeds since they climbed out of their prams, a couple of male stockbroker types in their 20s, in neat cords and puffa jackets, a Sloanette caterer called Polly, who is wearing a bright pink parka complete with pink fluffy hood, and me.
Scooter School is a motley arrangement of plastic chairs and tables, its walls plastered with white charts etched with T-junctions and roundabouts. Big red L-plate signs are everywhere, just in case we should forget where we are. The day begins at 9am sharp, with two hours of road theory and lots of questions and answers. I'm hopeless at the Q&A. When asked: "What's the most important thing to look for on your tyres?" I say "grip," but of course the correct answer is "tread". And then I am asked: "What's the first thing you should do when approaching a Give Way sign at a junction?" "Look to see if anything is coming," I meekly pipe up. Wrong. Apparently, the first thing you should do is look in your mirror to see what is behind you - and then you should slow down. You get the picture?
Onwards and upwards. At 11am we are given bright yellow bibs with "rider under Instruction" written on them - although I'm sure in my case the instructors are thinking "idiot under Instruction" - and we walk through the back streets of Vauxhall to a large playground belonging to the Lillian Baylis School, which will serve as our practical training ground. We are split into groups. My schoolday memories flood back - I was always the last person to be picked for team sports - and now I'm the last person to be picked for what is obviously the slow learner group. The 17-year-olds are in the top team, and Peter, our instructor, is landed with Polly the Sloanette, one of the stockbroker boys, and me.
We are allocated bikes, which are so much heavier than I had imagined. Pushing them from the corner of the playground is exhausting. Peter talks us through the basics - right-hand brake for the front, left-hand brake for the rear etc - and after about 10 minutes we finally get to start riding our scooters around a circular track. At first I can't believe how difficult it is just to keep my balance, and I slowly wobble round the playground in great embarrassment.
Then it starts to go horribly wrong. I get my right-hand brake muddled with my left, and when we begin to negotiate bollards and approach mocked-up junctions I fall to pieces completely. I can't turn corners, I can't get above 15mph, my emergency stop is indescribably bad, and I nearly come a cropper. I'm a total and utter scooter disaster. After an hour of humiliation, Peter tells me if I don't shape up I'll never make it beyond the playground, so I vow to buck up and try to find the confidence I need to imitate the 17-year-olds, who are zooming around like little Barry Sheenes.
We all lunch together at the local greasy spoon, after which we graduate from the playground to the road. By this point the youngsters in the A-team are so skilled that they whiz down to Canary Wharf and back - which is a considerable distance - and learn all about the complexities of lane filtering. Us in the B-team don't get beyond the sleepy side streets of Vauxhall and by the end of two hours I never want to go on a scooter again because I've found it all so demoralising and exhausting.
Surprisingly, Peter passes me and I ride home on the tube proudly clutching my CBT certificate. I get on my own scooter the next day and begin to ride around the quiet backstreets near where I live. With a little practice each day I steadily improve, and now I can't believe I ever found it so frighteningly difficult. I love my scooter. I use it every day and can negotiate traffic with the best of them. And it is just so fast. I can get from Islington to Covent Garden in six minutes flat, a journey which would take me at least half-an-hour in the car or on the bus.
My next challenge is to take my driving theory test, which you have to pass before you can book your practical bike test. In London, the waiting list for theory tests is three weeks, and for the practical is up to six months. I'm about to book now, so that I can become a proper little easy rider.
To find out where to take your CBT, theory test or practical motorbike test near you, contact the Driving Standards Agency (0870-010 1372; www.dsa.gov.uk). A theory test costs £20.50 and a practical bike test costs £48. The cost of the CBT varies between £70 and £100 at approved training centres.Reuse content