Diary of a Rookie Rider
By Ellie Portch - 01 Dec 20
Dear fellow Rookie Riders,
This is an honest account of my first, slightly tentative, steps towards becoming a “proper biker”. I hope it reassures other learners, that you are in good company when it comes to battling a new-found fear of double decker buses, potholes and dropping the bike!
Hopefully this article will help draw together a community of Bike Shed rookie-riders, because there’s safety in numbers and because taking the ride with others is way more fun than going it alone.
So please, read on, have a laugh at my expense and get in touch to share your own new rider experiences.
I took my CBT in November 2019, and as life experiences go, I would describe it as “decidedly average”. To summarise, I wobbled around some orange cones in a school carpark before being allowed to hit the mean streets of Dalston, at rush hour. It was dark, freezing cold and the rain came at me sideways. I negotiated cars, traffic lights, pedestrians, cyclists, other scooters, motorbikes and buses - I mean, how big and scary are buses, and why had I only just noticed this?!
I managed to come away with a pass certificate, which I was pretty chuffed about, but I certainly didn’t feel confident enough to jump on a 125cc and start zooming around London on my own. In fact, after the CBT I let nearly ten months roll by before getting back on a bike, but during this time, a few significant things happened…
Firstly, I received lots of encouragement from my Bike Shed colleagues and friends. Here’s the thing about bikers that I have discovered. Far from being an intimidating bunch, they are invariably friendly and always enthusiastic about anyone interested in bikes or learning to ride. For any aspiring or new riders out there, I would encourage you to chat with the often hairy, but rarely scary bikers at the Bike Shed. Absorb their energy and enthusiasm for bikes and riding, because honestly, it’s infectious!
The second thing that happened was a trip with Vikki and Dutch to the Motorcycle Live Show in Birmingham. There I met the lovely team from Herald Motor Co. and had the chance to sit on some of their 125cc models. It’s worth noting here, that I am not a small human, there is a full 6 ft of me. A few of the Herald bikes are definitely too low for me, but when I sat on the Maverick 125cc it felt perfect. Not only is it a great looking machine, which appeals to my vanity, but off the pedals my feet were just about flat to the ground, which made me feel less like I might drop the bike. When Dutch came over and gave his nod of approval, I knew I had found the right one.
Sadly, not long after the Motorcycle Live Show, the entire world ground to a halt as Covid-19 turned 2020 on its head. This put the brakes on my learning, but it did boost my enthusiasm for riding when I saw the Bike Shed community rally together across the country to deliver life-saving PPE, Oximeters and Covid-19 tests to people in need.
By the time Bike Shed re-opened on the 4th July, the sun was out and I was feeling ready to start riding again. When Bike Shed Stew offered to give me some friendly new-rider instruction at a Bike Shed Members camping trip in Wales, I needed no persuasion.
CAMPING - DAY 1
On the morning of the first day of camping, I woke up with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. That day, if all went to plan, Stew would be giving me the CBT I had wanted / needed from the start. I just hoped he wouldn’t turn out to be too much of a task master…
It was a chilly morning, but when I un-zipped my tent and poked my head out, the sun was rising over the Welsh fields and the fresh air hit me in the face. It was a pretty spectacular start to the day and it felt good for the soul to be out of London for a moment. I won’t deny that the thought of learning to ride in a private carpark next to the campsite’s farmhouse was far more appealing than negotiating the gridlocked roads of London. The only traffic I’d get here (I hoped) was the odd donkey wandering about.
After a big breakfast with the rest of the members, I was buzzing from their excitement about a day on the road and after they made a noisy departure, it was my turn to jump on the bike.
I should mention that it wasn’t only Stew who took a day out to help me on my bike. Oli Tennent (@olitennent) Bike Shed Member and professional photographer, also put aside his time to take some snaps of me in action, so it’s thanks to him that we have some great rookie rider shots to accompany this article, including an embarrassing moment of me on the tarmac!
A bit more about the bike that I am learning on. It’s the Herald Maverick 125cc; the same model I sat on at the NEC show and that Dutch gave his nod of approval to. It’s a great-looking bike, retro in style, with a scrambler vibe and mine has a sassy matt black tank. It’s a million times sexier than the old 50cc scooter I did my CBT on and as noted previously, it doesn’t feel big or bulky and it’s tall enough for me. For shorter learner riders though, Herald also have some great smaller models, like the Classic 125cc. Check out their website - www.heraldmotorcompany.com - or follow them on Instagram - @heraldmotorco - to take a closer look.
Stew started me off with the absolute basics, instructing me to grip the handlebars and hold the bike upright, feeling the weight of it as I stepped over and around the front wheel. He then had me to push the bike around the car park in circles, first left then right, all before I had even sat on it or started up the engine.
To the experienced, or even relatively new rider, these will sound like boring tasks, but after lock-down my biceps need some work and the bike felt much heavier to me than it looked! Starting in this way made me feel comfortable handling the bike before I had to attempt getting it into any gears.
Stew ran me through the basic mechanical workings of a manual bike, which was really helpful for me as a new rider. It’s good to understand why the clutch needs to be pulled and the throttle released to change gear, rather than just being told how to do it with no context.
I still managed a few kangaroo jumps around the carpark at first though. The Maverick has a lot more kick than the little 50cc scooter I took my CBT on, and it took me a while to suss out the sensitivities of the clutch, the throttle and the brake. Inevitably, I ended up on the floor, but thankfully it was only once and was more of a gentle topple, than a dramatic crash and luckily Stew was on hand to catch the bike!
After the initial bike-drop (which I am told is a right of passage), I got moving pretty quickly and began to master the most important lesson of biking and one that Dutch had advised me on months ago - “look at where you want the bike to go, and it will go there”. It sounds simple enough, but when you are a rookie rider, you tend to look at the stuff you DON’T want to crash into, i.e parked cars, pot-holes, fences and, in this case, Stew and Oli too. Brave men indeed.
In the end, no cars, motorbikes, donkeys or humans were damaged and within a couple of hours I was negotiating tight u-turns and cruising up and down the road changing gears like an absolute pro…or at least, I got into third gear and hit a high speed of around 25 miles an hour, but it felt pretty epic to me!
We took a break when my confidence levels felt relatively high, and over lunch Oli remarked on the great weather and suggested we take a short trip down to nearby Llangorse Lake to get some more shots.
When we got there, Oli took some very poser-ish shots of me with the bike, much to the amusement of a few local teenagers, and then we positioned the bike in front of the rolling Welsh hills, with the sun starting to dip in the sky. It was a surreal moment when a group of horses galloped across the green towards us, passing the Maverick as they went.
Stew asked me to hop on the bike and ride up the road towards Oli for another shot, but instead I kept going, swinging into a right turn and riding off into the distance, finally hitting fifth gear in the process! Eventually I turned around and rode back towards them. They were both cheering and hopping from one foot to another, and I realised that they were just as excited as me by my progress that day. It was a good feeling.
At the campsite, the other Members came back from a strong day of riding and everyone wanted to know how I got on. My response was the same each time...”it was really bloody great, but I’m knackered and I need a beer!”
CAMPING, DAY 2
On the evening of the first day, one of our lovely Bike Shed Members gave me some earnest advice. “When you’re learning to ride a motorbike Ellie, don’t ever do anything you don’t feel comfortable with. Don’t get pressured into riding on a day you don’t feel up to it, and don’t ever ride faster than you feel you want to go. Trust your instincts and take it at your own speed”.
I woke up on the second day before light, freezing cold in my tent, and feeling pretty tired. The previous day had been so much fun, but also quite exhausting, with an early start and an overload of information to process. I wasn’t sure my concentration levels were up to avoiding potholes, donkeys and stationary vehicles for a second day in a row. I thought about the advice from the night before and decided to trust my instincts. I stayed off my bike that day, and it was definitely right call.
“You’re the perfect pillion”. I swear those exact words come out of Bike Shed Stew’s mouth at the end of day two. Apparently, there is a skill in this part of biking too. Not wriggling around in the seat or whacking the front of your brand new Shoei helmet against your rider’s is apparently very good form. I didn’t even realise I was doing a good job at it, but the truth is, I really didn’t want to scratch my new helmet!
Jokes aside, as a new rider, the key to enjoying being on the bike, whether learning to ride, or riding pillion, is to feel as safe as possible. Making sure you have all the gear (even if you have no idea) and making sure you trust the person you are riding pillion with are essentials. I had absolute confidence riding with Stew, so I didn’t feel nervous or anxious and the result was an incredible day of winding through the beautiful Welsh countryside and taking in some spectacular views.
Admittedly there was an element of “ignorance is bliss” when I happily agreed to head off road with the boys for some trail riding. For any budding, or new riders, this means slipping over rocky terrain, launching into deep muddy puddles and sliding along gravel paths on two wheels. It’s not for the faint hearted! Despite a couple of dropped bikes (thankfully not the one I was on) everyone came away un-scathed and had an absolute blast. It would seem that muddy puddles are fair game at any age and not just for kids!
Riding pillion that day was a really positive experience for me as a new rider. It allowed me to relax and enjoy the ride and it gave me the chance to understand the capability of the bike, especially around tight corners, which to my untrained eye looked impossible to get around without falling off.
Most importantly though, it gave me a taste for the adventure and freedom that riding can inspire and reminded me what a strong community biking can create. Stopping at points along the route for photos and a bit of banter, jumping off to help lift a dropped bike or two, catching a bite to eat for lunch in the sunshine to talk about, well...bikes (I mostly listened!). Simply put, it was great fun, and later the well-deserved beers, delicious food, sunset and stargazing all helped to round off an awesome day with friends on the road. I am already looking forward to the next camping trip, when hopefully I’ll be riding my own bike with the group and launching myself through those muddy off-road puddles!
If you are a nervous but determined new rider, don’t be shy. Get in touch with the friendly team at the Bike Shed for tips on getting started and to meet fellow rookie riders. And, if you want some further encouragement, keep following my progress on Instagram! @bikeshedmc @rookieriderdiary
Photography by Oli Tennent (@olitennent)
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