An Englishman learning to ride in Italy

Published: 11 July 2010

Once the idea got into my head of riding a motorbike again, no matter what fears I had, and there were plenty, I still wanted to do it.

It was just a case of finding how to do it. I still had a UK licence as you are not obliged to change it until it expires. A driving school in Alba told me I just needed to exchange my UK licence for an Italian one, do a simple bike test and the road is mine.

If only it were that simple...

The estimated time for exchanging my licence was 4-6 weeks. We usually say that for Italy you need to times anything by 7 to get the truth.

I bought my Moto Guzzi Breva 750 in the Spring hoping I would be riding it in the summer. 8 Months later my licence finally came. To get things started I had to go and pay for the strangest medical, it was in Alba.

About 40 people were crammed into a tiny doctor’s waiting room, all waiting for the compulsory medical examination for a new licence or renewal. I was a little worried. Bad eyesight, somewhat out of shape, hearing diminishing. You get the picture.

After about 35 minutes I was told to go see the doctor. He was laid back. Even another Italian would say he was laid back. The office was extremely dark and he reclined way back in his big leather swivel chair.

He had a few different colour pens on his big oak desk, he pointed at one and asked in English ‘What is the colour?’ I said ‘Verde’. ‘No!’ he replied, laughing ‘It’s a green’.

He then shared his opinion, something he apparently gave considerable thought to, that women that have some weight are far more desirable than skinny women, that he didn’t like skinny women and if I agreed. I did, I wanted my licence!

‘Can you see the wall chart?’ I could, he gave me the all clear.. ‘Next! Hey, you like-a the fat woman?’

I was more than a bit angry with the school in Alba for taking so long to get my licence – a big part of the wait was their fault – so I went to a school in Canale.

A family business, run by the glamorous mother (not too fat!) and the two sons, Tony and Federico. Both nice lads that probably will get years of telling funny stories from me learning to ride again.

They saw I needed lessons, not to learn to ride properly and safely but so I could pass the test. I had to go for another medical to get what is called the Folio Rosa – Pink Slip – as anything could have happened since the last medical 8 months before.

For this one I had to go to the hospital in Canale. I was greeted by a plump young dottaressa (female doctor). I was tempted to ask her for her cell phone number as I knew a doctor in Alba that might like to meet her but I wanted my licence so kept quiet.

She spoke better English than the doctor in Alba, which was a shame as I have nothing funny to write.

She was much more thorough. She told me all the places she had visited in the English speaking world, asked if I had ever had any dangerous diseases, had I got AIDS and could I see the chart?

Then it was off to the school, wait a week for the Pink Slip (I think they said it would be 1-2 days).

I could then ride, without passenger on any motorcycle for 6 months but would have to take the test within that time, otherwise I’d have to have another 2 medicals. The urgency to pass had just got greater.

If you read my previous blog you’d know I hadn’t ridden for 25 years. I remember reading ‘The Perfect Vehicle’ written by Melissa Holbrook Pierson, an American woman that decided to start riding a motorcycle and was terrified the whole time.

I understood how she felt, but like her, I was determined to enjoy it, eventually. For the first lesson I had to follow the Fiat Panda driving school car, with Federico onboard.

He was watching me in his mirrors (that’s why Italian cars have mirrors!). Every now and again he’d pull over and give me some tips – keep looking in your mirrors was one bit of advice.

He encouraged me to make my head movements exaggerated so the examiner would see it. He reassured me that after the test I wouldn’t have to bother with mirrors at all – presumably, unless I became a driving instructor.

Then it was on to the fruit market to go around the cones. This I found difficult, the figure of eight.. Federico showed me how easy it was.. thanks! Then I tried again, and again. ‘Don’t worry’, he told me, ‘keep practicing’.

The next day I went out and bought 8 mini cones, practiced and then dug out my Haynes ‘Learner Riders’ manual to see if I could get some useful tips – Ah, use the back brake, not the front, the front snatches so upsets your balance!

Why didn’t I remember that? That was it. Easy! Shame Federico didn’t point that out to me… as my instructor.

The next time out was with Tony. I liked Tony. He talked a lot and seemed to moan a lot. We had much in common. He loved bikes but had given up his weekend trips through the Langhe to the regular meeting point of all bikers, Montezemelo Langhe.

He had a Honda CBR600 but gave it up when his wife got pregnant – babies and bikes don’t go.

He talked about his favourite Ducatis, that Jenson Button wouldn’t win the F1 world championship (he did go on to take the title) and that Victoria Beckham should shove off back to England if she makes negative comments about Milan (the people of Piedmont hate the people of Lombardia of which Milan in the principal city, unless a foreigner criticizes it then they defend it. I can’t imagine someone from London defending Manchester.).

The next time and last time was also with Tony. It was test day and I had very little idea what to expect, or really what I had to do. It seemed too straight forward.

Where do I give blood, what medical do I need, who do I pay? Too many questions greeted with Italian calmness

I forgot to mention that although I had my brand new Moto Guzzi I had to use the school’s bike. A worn out Kawasaki ER5.

The gearbox was much easier than my bike but the brakes and clutch were terrible. The clutch lever had been broken off twice by careless students dropping it - so fed up with buying new levers from Kawasaki they had grafted one off, well, I don’t really know, a lawnmower?

It was curly and had a big knob on the end. It made controlling the clutch considerably harder.

Anyway, I followed Tony in his Punto to the fruit market, driven by a girl about 18 years old. We waited and waited.

Then Federico pulled up in another Punto. In the car was another 18 year old girl that looked 12 and a grumpy man, the examiner.

I was told to go around the cones – slalom, figure of eight, stop, accelerate in a straight line into 2nd then stop – perfect!

Then the 12 year old got into the driver’s seat of the Punto, Tony disappeared, the examiner took my licence and pink slip and got into the back of the Punto and Federico into the passenger seat.

I was told to follow the car back to the school – about 8 minutes away. From his back seat position the examiner occasionally looked to see if I had fallen off and looked forward to see if the 12 year old was aiming the car properly.

We arrived back at the school and I was given my licence back. No one told me what to do next. I was invited back into the office, then waited.

What next? When’s the test? After about 25 minutes I realised this wasn’t my original licence, it was a new one and showed I had passed.

So, after medicals, months waiting and lessons that weren’t really lessons at all I finally had my bike licence.

After 25 years, once again, I had that feeling of a bike underneath me and the sense of freedom you can only get with a two wheeled machine.