My Story: A Woman’s Journey to Joy (Riding)

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Rewind back to April 2010. Not very long ago in relation to time itself, but in the world of a Learner Rider, 18 months can feel like an eternity. 

After paying out almost £1000 a month to keep various cars on the road, my husband turned to bikes.  He tried the push-bike thing for a while, saving the planet and all that.  But, having a Father and two brothers who were ‘proper’ bikers, I knew what was coming.  Personally, I was against it.  Everyone knows someone who knows someone else who had a friend of a friend who died on a motorcycle.  Thinking back, it never occurred to me that for every motorbike accident someone had heard of, they’d probably heard of two or three car accidents.  I had turned a car upside down, myself!

I devised a cunning plan to deter him:  If he was doing his CBT, then so was I.  He called my bluff. We were booked in the very next day.

Walking nervously to the training yard, I still couldn't picture myself on a motorbike. I definitely couldn't get the damn thing off its centre stand.  I don't care what you say - it DOES require some upper body strength and it's NOT just technique. Ask my two brother-in-laws. They couldn't do it either. 

With a little help (OK, a lot…) I managed to get the bike off its stand and tried to familiarise myself with the controls.  It was all back to front!  Braking with my hand and changing gear with my foot?  Bizarre.  I seemed to get to grips with it before my husband did, though.  Not only was I the only female in the training yard using a motorbike - the other girl was on a (toy) scooter - but I was the only potential female biker in my husband’s family and, save a cousin in Canada who did motocross, I would be the only biker in my own family.  I had to impress:  The competition was on.

As I circled around the training yard in second gear, hitting such high speeds as 10mph, I caught sight of my husband swearing into his helmet and kicking himself for being rubbish.  Or maybe he was just trying to kick-start the bike.  I was definitely better at this than he was.  I started picturing the brand new Yamaha Midnight Star that was waiting for him in the garage at home as my own…

As the morning progressed, we mastered riding in circles, attempted figure of 8s, managed to look the right way at pretend junctions and ballsed-up U turns. Throughout the morning, my confidence on the bike grew, but I couldn't get my head around riding the thing on actual roads.

Just before we were due to head out onto the road, we were given another safety briefing where I was reminded once again that I was wearing the wrong kit (jogging bottoms, trainers, borrowed jacket with zero protection, hoody and an over-sized stinky helmet that probably wouldn’t survive a slap in the face).  I admit it all got to me and I thought to myself "why am I doing this?" It was my husband’s bike in the garage. I had nothing riding on this (excuse the pun); why would I risk my life on the open road?  I almost bottled it. When I voiced my concerns, everyone was really supportive and encouraged me to go out.  Then young scooter girl said "if I can do it, you can!" That did it. She couldn't even drive! The competition was back on.

At some point amidst the wind, rain and dodging of parked cars, I started to enjoy myself. I got up to 40mph on a national speed limit road and the instructor told me to keep pushing the speed. Nothing had ever felt so fast! I think I got it to 50mph before bottling out. In my defence it was raining and I hadn't quite figured out the visor function of my helmet. Rain hurts your eyes - even at 30mph!

We got back to the training centre just in time to see someone drop their bike out of the slalom exercise.  Those big 500cc bikes looked scary and heavy.  I had enjoyed the CBT, but I told my husband there was no way I’d ever want to ride anything bigger and was happy to be a ‘pillion pixie’.  I think his exact words were "Just you wait."

Learning to Ride
Out of nowhere, just before Christmas 2010, I decided I wanted a motorbike.
I have to admit that my husband was right. He knew I'd want a bike of my own once I'd ridden around on the back of his for a while. He had passed his test in late August and I’d found it increasingly annoying when he didn't feel like riding when I wanted to go out.  In February 2011, I found Brad:  A Yamaha Dragstar in sparkly black and chrome; cruiser style and big for a 125cc.  I found the lower seating position a challenge, but told myself it would make me a better rider by improving my slow speed technique.

Michelle on 'Brad'

Still, at this point in my riding, I didn't even consider having proper lessons or taking my test. I was happy with Brad and my husband was teaching me all he had learned.  We set out cones in a local car park and I practiced slaloms (easy), figure of 8s (tricky, but I made them look like deformed snowmen) and U-turns (impossible).  We went on short rides around the estate and I started to feel confident.  There was a hint of desire for more power, but once I got onto national speed limit roads and realised Brad had a bit of a kick in third gear, I was satisfied.

We installed Bluetooth helmet comms so we could talk to each other on the road and my husband would ride behind like an instructor.  Sometimes he’d let me follow; this gave me some freedom from being watched and also let me watch his road position.  There were arguments – ADI instructors know what they’re doing when they don’t give the learner a microphone – but the comms were invaluable, especially when I ran out of petrol.

Me:  My bike feels funny. 
Him: What’s wrong?
Me:  Well, it sounds funny and feels wobbly.
Him:  You haven’t been on it for a while.  Maybe that’s just you.
{Engine cuts out}
Me:  Don’t just leave me!!!!!  There’s something wrong!
Him:  Ok, calm down.  It’s just stalled.  Start it up again and get it to the bottom of the hill.
{Bad move.  Engine cuts out again at bottom of hill.  I walk it into the car park of a pub.}
Him:  {Trying to re-start the bike} You’ve ran out of petrol.
Me:  Well that’s your fault.


‘Proper’ Lessons.

By the end of June 2011, I’d been riding Brad for 5 months and was getting bored.  I couldn’t get up to speed quick enough – a safety concern more than anything – and let’s face it, L-plates are just embarrassing.  My husband had decided to get a new bike and was checking out the possibilities.  I was so jealous!  He was looking at Triumph Sprint GT’s and Ducati Multistradas while I was left dreaming.  I had to bite the bullet, face my fears and take a lesson.

What was I so afraid of?  I’m ashamed to say that the fact that I am a woman held me back to some extent.  I thought I might be laughed at or patronised, intimidated or ignored.  I also regretted not doing it sooner, when I would have had my husband as a safety net.  My husband assured me that he had found the instructors to be very patient, kind and professional and told me that he thought I was a better rider than he had been on his first lesson. 

At the beginning of July, I booked my first lesson.

Lesson One.

I met the Instructor and he took me and another bloke to the yard.  I remembered him from the CBT day; he’d been the instructor to take the toy scooters out.  I’d only seen him in his helmet – one of those Schuberth ones that open all the way up – and I’d thought he looked like the evil Terminator.  However, in only his glasses, with his messy hair, he looked friendly enough.  He gave us a few tips on using the big bikes then let us ride around the yard a little.  He constantly told me to ease off the throttle, as I was giving it too many revs (he made comments like “I think Michelle still thinks she’s riding her 125!!”) but he commended me on my slow riding manoeuvres.  I guess my husband had done a pretty good job teaching me, as we covered all of the tasks of Module One in that first lesson. 

About 30 minutes before the end of the lesson, he took us out on the roads.  I didn’t feel like I’d done anything too stupid by the end of it, but still felt apprehensive about my ‘report’.  They worked on a scoring system of 3 points for each activity:

1 = Basic CBT standard
2 = Test standard
3 = Better than test standard
X = Serious fault.

I didn’t get any X’s!  My husband was so impressed with that.  Apparently the instructors hadn’t bothered to fill in a sheet for his first couple of lessons because he’d scored mainly X’s! 

I got mostly 2’s, a couple of 3’s for easy stuff like indicating, and got 1’s for U-turns, Hazard Avoidance (I couldn’t get up to speed) and Throttle Control.  In the comment box next to Throttle Control, he wrote “AGGRESSIVE!”  This delighted my husband, Father-in-law and brother-in-law, who all told me I should ask for that sheet and frame it.

Module One.

My second lesson had a bit of a shaky start.  I was fine in the yard, but when it came to pulling out of the training centre, I had a minor collision.  I know what you’re thinking:  What did she hit?  Or maybe:  Who did she hit?  Well, you should be asking:  Who hit her? 

No, it wasn’t another vehicle on the road.  It wasn’t the other learner riding behind me.  It wasn’t even a pushchair/small child/elderly pedestrian/dog…


I had just started to pull away, when I stalled my bike.  My instructor said into my headset “It’s ok; it happens.  Just start it up and pull away.”  I did just that, giving a final check to the right before pulling out left onto the road, then BUMP!  Something hit my leg just as I started moving.  His only words were “Oh!  I thought you’d already gone!”

After surviving lesson two, I was told to book my Module One test.  My next lesson was an hour before the test and during it, I completely forgot how to do Figure of 8’s.  This completely threw me, as I’d never struggled with them.  Yes, they looked like deformed snowmen, but I’d never put a foot down or hit a cone.  Now I was doing both!  The instructor put it down to it being ‘test day’ and I put it down to there being a faring on the bike – I couldn’t see the front wheel.  I swapped bikes and was fine.
I muddled my way through the rest of the exercises, but the speed of the hazard avoidance still plagued me.  I was fine with the emergency stop, but I just couldn’t reach the required 50km/h for the swerve.  The instructor told me that I was closing off the throttle just before the ‘speed trap’, so I should aim for higher than the required speed.  Therefore, if I closed off the throttle too soon, I’d still have a chance of hitting 50km/h.  I had no problem swerving – I quite enjoyed that bit – I modelled my approach on Guy Martin and just went with it.

I pulled up to the test centre a bundle of nerves, but didn’t have long to wait.  Once in the yard, the first task was to park in one bay, get off the bike, and push it into the other bay so it was facing the other direction.  I had found this difficult in practice, but the test yard had been on a bit of an incline.  I managed it with just one slight wobble.

Next, I had to slalom then figure of 8.  I zipped through the slalom (again, using Guy Martin for inspiration) then showed the examiner two perfectly deformed snowmen.

The slow ride was easy, but the anticipation of the U-turn was making me shake pretty badly.  I took a couple of deep breaths, pulled forward, did my checks and went for it.  My right foot went shooting out to the side and almost to the floor, but I kept it together, returned my foot to its rightful position on the peg, and rode neatly along the white line to a shaky stop. 

Riding around in a semi-circle helped me calm down a little.  Then, I attempted the emergency stop.  I thought to myself “Just go for it!” and with a sharp intake of breath (which I didn’t let out until I was through the speed trap) I got myself up to second gear, opened the throttle full and stalled into the assigned cones.

The examiner walked over to me with a slightly concerned/amused look on her face, which she was trying hard to hide.  She said “Thank you, Michelle.  I won’t ask you to do that again.  However, I do have to tell you that you reached a speed of 62km/h…which is slightly fast.  You only need to reach 50.”  How she kept her face straight, I don’t know.

I cooled it a little for the hazard avoidance and managed to hit the speed of 50km/h spot on.

She brought me back into the office and told me I’d passed.  I was still shaking and couldn’t quite believe her.  I’d received two minors:  One for riding on the white line in the dreaded U-turn and the other for stalling on the emergency stop.  I’m sure the imaginary small child that I missed can forgive me for that.  I was over the moon - no more riding around cones!!!!!


Module Two.

My Module Two test was 9 days after my Module One.  I booked another two lessons, the first of which happened the day before my test and involved accompanying another learner to his Module Two.  The instructor seemed very happy with him and saved all of the criticisms for me (Why was I doing head checks every 30 seconds?  I looked like a nodding dashboard dog!) 

After a quick solo lesson, we went back to the test centre just in time to find out the result of the other bloke’s test:  He’d failed.  We were all shocked.  He seemed to have failed for a silly reason, but only the examiner and he will ever know the truth.  We did the whole camaraderie thing, anyway, and the instructor told him that he should book in another test as soon as possible. 
I was terrified!  When I’d done the Module One test, another bloke had failed his Module 2 at the same time and the lady taking her test at the same time today had also failed.  I told myself that if I failed, it was OK for two reasons:  One, I had no bike in the garage waiting for me and two, everyone else was failing!

On the day of the test, we rode to the centre and my instructor asked me all the questions I might be asked about the bike and carrying a passenger.  I recited the answers and impressed myself that I’d managed to remember them after having just learned them the night before.

The lady that had taken me out for my Module One also took me out for my Module Two, which made me a little calmer.  However, soon after setting off, I turned left at a junction without being told to.  What was I doing???  I had convinced myself that I’d seen a ‘left only’ arrow in the lane I was in, so quickly indicated and turned.  I couldn’t be absolutely certain that I’d seen it, as the road was wet and shiny, but I didn’t want to take any chances.  She pulled me over and asked me “Michelle, can you hear someone else talking in your headset?”  Oh God. She thought I was hearing voices…

After this incident, then convincing myself that I’d missed a ‘lifesaver’, then becoming separated from her by proceeding through an amber traffic light, I told myself that I’d completely blown it.  Instead of giving up, I decided to enjoy the ride.  I took things really carefully; I was riding in the pouring rain and I wasn’t going to put my life in danger to impress an examiner.  I stopped at the stop sign, I noticed the 20mph zone and kept to it and I even managed to avoid cutting the corner at the test centre – something I’d thus far failed to do!

I walked into the centre and told my instructor that I’d probably failed.  I told him about my biggest concern –possibly missing a lifesaver – and he said “Well, you never know.  I’ve heard people say that before.”

She invited me into the office, told me the test was over and said that I’d passed.
I’d passed?  I guess everyone (instructors, husband, DVLA) had been right:  They are looking for safe riders, not necessarily perfection.  I couldn’t believe it when she gave me my report and said “No faults – clean sheet.  Well done!”

My instructor told me to frame the sheet, as after teaching for 40 years, he’d only ever seen around 20 clean sheets.  “You’ve put a lot of men to shame, there!”
As I was now a ‘qualified motorcyclist’, I was allowed to ride home solo.  I cruised up the motorway at 70mph and not one mph more; I don’t want to have to take those tests again!

Bolt Maverick Speedman, ‘Zac’ for Short. 

I’ve bought myself a black and red 06 Reg Kawasaki ER-6F.  It might not be the most original of bikes, but I love it!  So far, I have taken it up to speed on the motorway, cruised along the North East coast road and tested its cornering on some local country roads.  It requires quite a lot of lean to get it round the corners, but I like that!  Maybe I shouldn’t watch so much TT and Moto GP…

I’m looking forward to doing a little bit of touring on it and will be taking it to work some days to impress the kids (and staff) at school.  Most of all, I’m looking forward to turning up to my first ‘Bike Meet’ without Learner stickers on, dressed top to toe in leathers and taking my helmet off to confirm the other riders’ suspicions:  Yes, that is  a woman on an ER-6.

Finally, to Suzi and Guy:  I promise to keep up – let’s go for a ride?

Michelle on Zac - Suzi Perry move over

Husband's new Multistrada 'Monica' with Zac

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Michelle Matthews

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By Michelle Matthews