Learning to ride: tackling your CBT

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The CBT (or Compulsory Basic Training, to give it its full name) is a day’s tuition that most of us will have to undertake before heading out on anything two wheeled - it’s essentially the bare minimum of training you need to safely practise riding on the roads ahead of taking your full motorbike test. 

Hilariously, when I did mine aged 32-years-old, I was twice the minimum age of 16, and had been driving a car for nearly that many years, plus pedalling for many more.

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I assumed all that experience on two wheels and four would be an advantage, and in some ways it was, but in many, many more it absolutely wasn’t. You may have noticed that this is becoming a bit of a theme.

What is the CBT?

Cornering on the Honda CB125R

We’ve covered this comprehensively before but to recap, there are five elements that you can break down into three main activities – wobbling around at low speed in a car park, learning theory in a classroom, and then taking all of that out onto the road with an instructor. 

If you’ve got eight minutes spare and want to laugh at me doing the former then my efforts have been immortalised in a video, where I commit loads of newbie errors like leaving my indicator on after a turn, putting both feet down when stopping and using about 9,000rpm to pull away. 

Anyway, if you’re anything like me (I watched about a dozen videos and read as many articles on the CBT before the big day) then you’re here to get an insight into what is quite a mysterious process, so I’ll put your mind at rest by stating outright that the CBT is not a test, you can’t fail it (although you can be asked to come back for more training), and your instructor won’t be expecting Michael Dunlop levels of natural riding ability.

What are the classroom sessions for?

Here you’ll be taught about all the equipment you legally need and the stuff you don’t legally need but should have anyway. On that point, you might not have all your own gear yet, and while the centre I used (Wheels Honda in Peterborough) had a stock of clothing to borrow, I took my own gloves and boots because I figured it was worth having familiarity in the bike’s main contact points.

You’ll also head back into the classroom before the road ride to discuss lane positioning and what the main hazards are, plus the legal things you need like insurance, an MOT and L plates. I suspect this is also a chance for the instructor to gauge whether you’re going to be a liability, or worse, a bit of a weapon, when faced with actual traffic.

We spent a while chatting about the main cause of a crash (rider error, not other people) and how to deal with mistakes made by other road users. Remember that you have two ears and one mouth for a reason during this bit.

This brings me neatly onto what I think is the most important lesson I learned that day, and it’s something that still echoes around my head while riding now – it doesn’t matter that it was your right of way when you’re in hospital.

When you drive a car you exist in an ecosystem where (almost) everyone follows the rules and it’s so unusual for them to do otherwise that you start to give less concern to potential hazards like other road users waiting at a give way line, because you can be fairly sure they’ll give way. This is not how you ride a motorbike.

I’d already got a sense of this from riding push bikes on the road (when it’s rarely your right of way, even when it is your right of way) but it’s worse on a motorbike which is barely more visible and likely to be travelling at higher speeds. So the car at the junction should stop, but that’s assuming the driver has seen you – if they haven’t and drive into you, then the lines on the road aren’t worth the paint they’re drawn on with.

What about actually learning to ride?

This is the fun bit – or the funny bit depending on your outlook – and starts with a chat about basic maintenance and how to check the bike over for things like flat tyres or low fluid levels. Just like my pre-mountain bike rides, you use the ‘M’ test (draw a line from the front wheel to the bars, back down to the middle of the bike, then up to the brake light and back down to the rear wheel) to help locate all the things that need a once over before you head off.

Then there are some basic manual handling skills off the bike; how to move it around and put the stand down, why you shouldn’t grab a handful of brake with the bars turned (spoiler alert, it’ll fall over) and how to get the steering lock on and off. The weirdest bit for me was (and still is) the fact I can’t pick the front or rear wheel up to make tight turns like I do with my pedal bike. Even now I catch myself pulling on the seat strap while manoeuvring into my garage. This doesn’t work.

Low speed manoeuvres next, but first you have to get your head around setting the gas and finding the clutch’s biting point, made more complicated for me by the fact the lever is where my push bike’s rear brake is located, while that has been moved to a numb-feeling peg by my right foot. Also weird is the length of the levers – my bike's are one-finger pull, the Honda CB125R’s need a whole hand.

Adam initially struggled with the gear shift

It’s worth taking your time with this part before moving on, because working the gearshift and bite point and getting your head around how quickly the engine revs up are all vital pieces of the puzzle, and you’ll find the later exercises like doing a turn in the road or a figure eight much easier with the early lessons committed to muscle memory.

Coming to a stop and working out the timing of putting a foot (or both) down on the ground was also alien – on my mountain bike I can balance while stationary with both feet on the pedals (called a track stand, and even after lots of practise, I’m still crap at it) while doing the same on a motorbike would end up with it on the floor, because once it starts to lean sideways it’s a hard thing to rescue.

Still, at least my balance when moving was good thanks to my previous experience on two wheels, except for when it came to turning, when I quickly learned I was leaning in the wrong direction. To get my mountain bike around a tight right hander, I tip it over to the right and put all my weight on the left pedal to push the tyre’s knobbly shoulders into the dirt. You do the opposite on a motorbike, leaning into the turn. This still sometimes catches me out now.

Balancing the front and rear brake is something that would be unusual for most car drivers but again it’s something I’m used to. That said, my usual technique of leaning hard on the front brake for big stops and dragging the rear to avoid speeding up on steep downhill trails wasn’t particularly transferable, and required a bit of finesse on a motorbike. This isn’t helped by the fact the rear brake lever feels like an on off switch and doesn’t give as much feedback as the front brake lever.

On that note, I found the gearshift very hard to feel under my left foot at first, and put this down to being new to the sensation. It was only when I mentioned it to my instructor that he realised it was bent inwards slightly – when it was pulled straight it was much easier to use. It’s definitely worth flagging anything you find uncomfortable up, because it might not just be down to a lack of experience. I’ve since adjusted the gear lever on my motorbike (using spanners!) to better accommodate my comically large feet and the difference in ease of use is marked.

So my takeaway advice for this section of the CBT is take your time, don’t be afraid to mention anything you’re finding difficult and if you’ve spent a lot of your life riding push bikes, try to pretend like you haven’t.

And then you head out onto the road?!

Adam hits the road on the Honda CB125R

Yes! In what felt like barely enough time to get over the fact motorbikes don’t have seat belts (genuinely a really weird sensation) we were out on the actual road with actual cars on it. My first impressions? How fast 30mph feels on a bike, and how much more I was looking around – forwards, backwards, over my shoulder, and into the eyes of drivers waiting at give way lines.

Riding a motorbike feels like operating a piece of mechanical equipment – you might think that’s an odd observation but if you drive a modern car (especially an automatic) you’ll know how far away from the actual process driving has become. It’s essential to take enough time to allow the various procedures of changing gear or braking to a stop to become second nature, or you’ll spend all your cognitive capacity thinking about them and there won’t be any spare to concentrate on looking for hazards. 

To ease this process we started out on a quiet corner of an industrial estate before venturing further, and even then it was a slow build-up of residential roads and urban streets, rather than going straight in at the deep end. 

Weirdly, with good tuition it all sort of slots into place quite quickly, and before I knew it I was negotiating roundabouts, merging with 70mph traffic on a dual carriageway, and leaning into a pretty brutal crosswind blowing over the flat fields of Cambridgeshire. 

If you’re nervous about this part then here are some words of encouragement - after watching the video footage from my instructor’s camera it’s pretty clear how hard he was working to keep me safe. Constantly moving around behind me to ensure drivers could see us and nudging me in the right direction with his intercom - it might feel like you are on your own on the road but the reality is very different. 

And that was that - after a very full-on day I was given my CBT certificate and left to try and remember how to drive a car, something that all of a sudden felt like a much easier process than it did that morning.

Learning to ride: from MTB to motorbike

First published on 28 February 2020 by Adam Binnie

Adam poses with his mountain bike and the Honda CB125R

Learning to ride a motorbike is a challenge weirdly harder than the sum of its parts. If I can ride a mountain bike and drive a car with a manual gearbox (obviously not at the same time) then surely it’s not a huge leap to combine those skills on something like this Honda CB125R. Surely.

If you’ve been through this process already, you won’t need to see me wobbling around a car park to know just how wrong that assumption is. If like me you’re hoping to upgrade from pedal-power to petrol, trust me, you’ll need to forget nearly everything you already know about bikes.

I've been on two wheels for about as long as I’ve been able to stand, from balance bikes to BMXs and then mountain bikes – crap ones from the 1990s, heavyweight downhill sleds of the 2000s and modern day do-it-all enduros. Bikes have featured since the day I denied my parents that sepia-filter moment of teaching me to ride without stabilisers by bombing past our house on my older friend's bike, straight into a hedge. I’ve been looking for bigger and bigger hills to crash on ever since.

What sort of bikes do you ride?

It’s only ever been mountain bikes really – I’ve got nothing against roadies but my idea of riding involves finding thrills on steep gradients with roots and berms and jumps, plus if you go to the right places, a van to drive you back up to the top again. I am properly, monotonously obsessed by this, to the point of boring anyone who’ll listen to tears about my last ride. But even so, I’ll acknowledge that push bikes are seriously flawed by the need to pedal.

Decisions, decisions! But we all know which one Adam should be choosing...

So, I suppose then it’s with some inevitability that I would eventually want to ditch leg power altogether and get a motorbike licence. My Dad’s ridden big bikes his whole life, often daily as a means of getting to work, so it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.  
My first time riding a motorbike was oddly similar to my first driving lesson – in that a large part of it was spent faffing about trying to balance the clutch and gas to move off without stalling.

This is harder than in a car because if you get it wrong you might fall off. There were other struggles I’ll get to later, but my main take away from that experience was that contrary to popular belief, it appears you actually can forget how to ride a bike.

What are you strugging with?

It’s the little things that catch me out – not the fact that my rear brake is now foot operated, and the lever that would normally pull it is the clutch – but moments like when I pushed this Honda into my garage and to help make the 90 degree turn I tried to pick the back wheel up. Or once when I forgot what I was doing and stood up on the pegs while going over a big speed bump. 

Every now and again though my fear levels drop and I realise I’m enjoying the ride - my heart rate is racing not because I’m pedalling hard but because this is brilliant, this is exactly how I thought it would be, this is like flying.

Adam's already realised riding a motorbike is by far the superior pasttime

I think this is because just like riding my mountain bike and exactly not like driving a car, motorcycling requires you to move around, side to side on the seat or ducking down between the dials to breach 55mph in a headwind. The latter may well be a 125cc thing, but either way, you don’t so much feel part of the process but the entire process itself. 

Plus it sounds good, this one-cylinder mini-bike that has about as much power as my lawnmower somehow sounds more emotive than most new cars I've driven; they're getting so refined they don’t feel like machines at all. I know that’s a weird thing to complain about. So let’s end there before this becomes entirely too existential.

In the next instalment I’ll go into what to expect from your CBT and theory test, which, because this blog is a bit like a Quentin Tarantino film, I’ve already done. Spoiler alert.

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Adam Binnie

By Adam Binnie

Avid MTB rider and learner biker. New Cars Editor at Bauer Automotive. Likes a burger.