A Bike Odyssey – a journey on two wheels

by Kevin Williams

Sometime in August 1975, aged 19, I got mobile.

I’d spent a year out between school and university and cycling to work when the railways were on strike had convinced me there were easier ways to get from A to B than bicycles. With a university place beckoning in central London, I also needed a way of getting around in the city, as well as something cheap to run and easy to park.

A motorcycle was the obvious answer.

My first option was the Honda CB175 twin but the dealer had just sold the last one and the model had been discontinued. Although I could legally have ridden one on L plates, I decided the CB250G5 was just a bit too big to learn on. So £329-worth of my savings later I was the proud owner of a brand new red CB125S, fitted with a rack and front and rear crashbars..

My father rode the bike home from the dealer, who was Paul Smart in Maidstone. Used to the ‘wrong way round’ set up of old British bikes, my Dad’s progress into the Maidstone traffic was punctuated by a shriek from the rear tyre as he tried to change into gear with the rear brake, and a howl of anguish from the engine as he switched feet and pressed down in search of third and instead went straight back to first!

Paul Smart looked at me and winced.

Mind you, I didn’t do much better when I got on the bike for the first time. There was nothing much advertised in the way of training in those days. I was vaguely aware of the RAC-ACU training scheme, but it ran at weekends and I was too busy playing cricket every Saturday and Sunday.

So I taught myself. Like you did in those distant days. At least I had 20-odd car lessons and two failed tests under my belt, thus I had a reasonable idea of which side of the white line to ride so at least I had a bit of an advantage there.

I recall spending several days revving the engine to bits and kangarooing up and down the drive and then around the estate trying to figure out the clutch and gear changing, before professing myself ready to hit the roads for real.

The crashbars turned out to be a good investment, because I crashed the bike with 498 miles on the clock. Though all that beautiful chrome was scratched, the bike survived undamaged.

What happened? Thinking about it later, when I had stopped shaking, I realised I had no idea how to use the brakes – someone had stopped a bit quickly and completely unexpectedly in front of me – and I had fallen off what seemed like 200 yards behind her! Thinking about it now, I probably had no real idea how to use the brakes for several years afterwards either.

After a couple of months of learning to deal with Kentish traffic, it was time to ride to London. I got lost regularly, and recall going the wrong way down (up?) Drury Lane. A helpful gentleman with a street-sweeping trolley helpfully shouted at me: “Mahn, dis is a one way street.” Well, I was only going one way, wasn’t I?

I survived two years riding that 125 in and around London and sometimes commuting home, gradually getting more and more into the bike scene, buying magazines and reading riding articles and buying some decent kit to add to my Shoei S20 helmet (when Shoei were unheard of over here, it wasn’t cheap at £30!). As soon as I could afford it I added a pair of red leather boots to match my red leather jacket and red leather gloves, but Levis were standard apparel in those days.

I passed my test one freezing November morning at the end of 1976 that year, with the wind howling and wet snow falling. I took it mainly so I could give my girlfriend a lift – looking at the seat on those bikes now, I wonder that it was big enough for me, let alone two of us.

I presented my documents and the examiner grunted miserably at me. He was clearly considering cancelling the test. I looked as keen and enthusiastic as possible to ensure he didn’t. It was the old ‘round the block’ job, with the examiner dashing on foot through alleyways and hiding behind letterboxes in the hope of catching you out.

“Turn right, take the first on the right, up to the end of the road, turn right, take the first on the right and carry on till I tell you to stop.”

I set off, and took the first turning which to my confusion led into a block of garages. A moment later I nearly ran the examiner over as he sprinted out of a narrow gap between them!

“Not that turning, turn right at the ROAD!” he shouted.

Oops. I hoped I hadn’t failed already. Corrected, I went round the block half a dozen times. Then I stopped, turned round and went the other way. He marched slowly along as I rode alongside. Then the briefing for the emergency stop. I listened carefully, went round the block, and did a practice stop on the far side.

I locked the rear wheel and damn near fell off. Heart pounding, I recovered myself and continued round, and braked much less hard for the real thing. And still managed to lock the rear wheel. This time though, I was ready for it, eased off the brake, rapidly recovered the skid and reapplied the brakes.

We were nearly at the end of the test. Back at the test centre, the examiner quizzed me on the Highway Code, and then suddenly he threw in an unexpected question on emergency stop procedure. “How do you apply the brakes?”

Clearly my skid hadn’t gone unnoticed. A nervous wreck, I can still quite clearly remember my answer: “So as to bring the vehicle to a brisk and controlled halt”.

“Yes” he said “but HOW do you apply the brakes?”

Suddenly that careful reading of a ‘Pass your Bike Test’ article in one of the magazines supplied the answer:

“front brake first, rear brake second, 75% / 25% front rear split in the dry, 50 / 50 in the wet”.

The examiner grunted and wrote out my pass certificate.

After leaving university, my ‘temporary’ job despatching lasted from 1979 until 1995. I learned one heck of a lot about riding from working as a courier, not least how to do proper emergency stops. As I kept falling off doing them, I went and practised over and over until I could do them perfectly. It took me at least a year to really learn what I was doing, but being a fairly cautious type, I’d avoided any serious crashes that would have sidelined the bike or myself.

After a while, I got to spot the experienced riders. Calm and smooth on the outside, but they cut through heavy traffic like a knife through the proverbial. Keeping moving in jams kept average speeds high, without the need to go ballistic.

Working as a courier isn’t particularly dangerous if you survive the first weeks. MCN reported that Norwich Union had discovered that couriers had, on a mile-per-mile basis, ten times fewer accidents resulting in claims than commuting riders. Couriers did cover around ten times more miles than the average commuter did, so NU only loaded the premiums for couriers by doubling them. Generous.

It’s not surprising. The simple fact is that if you’re to stay upright and unharmed for around three hundred days each year in London traffic, you’ve got to be pretty competent as a rider. To put it bluntly, dropping the bike on a ride out is a pain. You’ve got to get the bike home, and there’s the cost of repairs. To a courier, a bike that’s off the road will mean no work and no work means no income to pay for the repairs or the bills at home. You learn very quickly not to crash. One thing I learned very quickly indeed was that better skills only count if they stop you crashing. No fancy stuff needed – you just aim not to crash.

When I decided I’d finally had enough of working as a courier, I got a job as a motorcycle instructor in early 1996. By 1997, I was one of the first Direct Access instructors in the country, and I carried on working in basic training until the middle of 2006 when family health issues intruded. Also in 1997, I set up my own advanced riding school, called Survival Skills. The training is for riders who, like me, want to ‘do better’, and is based heavily on the risk assessment and risk management skills I developed during my long experience as a courier, and that’s the job I’m still doing.

Since then, I’ve worked with Buckinghamshire County Council and Somerset Road Safety Partnership on rider safety initiatives. Since 2011, I’ve worked as part of a team together with Kent Fire and Rescue Service on the Prince Michael of Kent International Road Safety Award-winning ‘Biker Down’ scheme, and with KFRS at the ‘Ride Skills’ days at Brands Hatch.

This Biking Odyssey has so far lasted for nearly forty years and carried me well over three quarters of a million miles. For twenty-one years a bike was my sole means of transport. Even today, I still use the bike for work, play and for day to day transport.

Along the way, I’ve turned my hand to writing and have published several books on riding. From 2002 to 2014, I had a regular column in the magazine of the Motorcycle Action Group and have been consulted on articles by several of the mainstream bike magazines and more recently featured in an article in the Telegraph. A few years back, I was contracted by the European Motorcycle Manufacturers Association ACEM to research and write the text for a series of cartoons with a safety message that have been published right across Europe in over a dozen different languages – look up ‘Lucky 13’ on Google.

Though my father and my granddad rode bikes, I wasn’t particularly interested in them as a child. I’ve no mental image of their bikes, nor can I recall rides my parents told me I had in my granddad’s sidecar outfit before they bought a car.

So exactly why something I bought as cheap and utilitarian transport should have become such a focal point in my life, I really can’t say. It’s never been about lifestyle or outlaw image, nor have ridden in search of a soul or an identity.

But even before my planned career in science bounced off the brick wall of a recession and I got a temporary job as a courier, I knew I loved riding. Why? Mostly it’s the enjoyment of something I think I do well and have always wanted to do better, and if I’m honest, maybe it’s a little about speed and adrenaline too.

All these years on, there’s still a little red imp prodding me to get out on the bike. I simply can’t look out the window on a sunny morning without thinking, “it’s a nice day for a ride”. Even on the foul days when any sensible motorcyclist would be in a café waiting for the storm to blow over or even sat in front of the TV with the bike in the garage, there’s a buzz about riding.

Looking back, I remember the near-misses and occasional crashes I was lucky enough to survive with only minor injuries. Although I never lost any close friends, others I knew weren’t so lucky. And that’s really why I want to see No Surprise: No Accident work. I want others to look outside and think “it’s a nice day for a ride” and have the skills to be able to enjoy that day without coming to grief and I know we have a way of looking at motorcycle accidents that can help all riders cut the risks.

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