Fancy being safer, quicker and smoother while riding your bike? Who wouldn’t, right? But how best to achieve that goal?
There’s any number of training options out there these days, aimed at folk who’ve already passed their full motorcycle test, but are looking to take their riding skills to the next level.
You can spend time with RoSPA or IAM instructors completing their various advanced riding courses on the road, or you can explore more extreme bike handling techniques on race track-based schools. Some folk even plump for off-road training schemes, and learn their skills there.
I’ve had a go at a few of these over the years, with varying levels of success. But I’ve never tried the Bikesafe scheme – a police-backed initiative to reduce motorcycle accidents across the UK.
It’s been up and running for about 20 years now, and is a bit unusual, inasmuch as it isn’t a traditional training course. Rather, it involves a bit of classroom learning, followed by a rideout, where your riding is assessed by an advanced police motorcyclist.
You receive feedback throughout the day, and at a final debrief, where the Bikesafe instructor focuses on the areas he or she thinks you need to work on. The idea is that, armed with this information, you can improve your own riding, and then maybe go on to complete some advanced training – like the RoSPA or IAM schemes mentioned above – that improves the areas identified for improvement.
Devitt Insurance works alongside Bikesafe, providing ten per cent discounts on policies for riders who complete a course, as well as sponsoring the actual courses themselves. And so when the firm asked me to go along to check it out, I jumped at the opportunity. Because the truth is that most of us don’t put much effort into those goals once we’ve passed our test.
I’m probably fairly typical amongst, er, older riders, in that I survived by a sort of ‘sink or swim’ method.
There wasn’t a lot of post-test training available in Scotland the late 1980s and early 90s when I was learning my two-wheeled trade; I picked up my skills by experience, reading the odd feature on better riding in magazines, and from the ‘baptism of fire’ provided by working as a motorcycle courier in Glasgow for 18 months.
Nowadays, I’m a bit of an old dog in terms of riding. But ‘you never stop learning’ is a maxim I try to live by. So I couldn’t turn down the chance to have a proper professional assess my two-wheeled skills, and maybe teach me some new tricks.
I register online, the nice Bikesafe people send me some links to safer riding videos to watch in preparation for my big day out, and I give my old Yamaha Fazer 600 a proper wash and polish, so it won’t look too shabby against the gleaming BMW police bikes.
The day kicks off bright and early at the excellent Bike Shed café in Shoreditch, which is one of several locations used around the capital. Usually when I’m visiting the Old Street venue, I take the Tube, ironically (because I’m usually there for a few beers with chums).
But today, of course, I have to take a motorbike – part of the Bikesafe deal is that you bring your own wheels. Now, my Fazer is a great little bike, but it’s not ULEZ-compliant, meaning it will cost me £12.50 for the pleasure of schlepping up town – not a great start.
I’ve not ridden into central London since before the pandemic, and the experience hasn’t got any better. Apart from that ULEZ charge, there’s a blanket 20mph limit across much of the city, there are far more ‘segregated’ cycle lanes than I remember, reducing space for filtering, and neither the traffic jams nor the road manners have improved one iota.
But the sun is out, I’ve still got my old courier-honed urban riding skillz, and before I know it, I’ve arrived at the Bike Shed, waved into the motorcycle park out back, and met with a wall of high-viz yellow bikes and people. The place is, of course, packed with coppers, here to run the Bikesafe course.
I grab a coffee and say hello to everyone. They’re a nice bunch of folk, though there is a glimpse of the traffic officer within, when I realise they’ve already checked my bike’s MOT status.
I’m asked for my licence and insurance, before I have to demonstrate that my headlight, brake lights, indicators and horn are all in good order. It all makes perfect sense of course, but it did put me a little bit on edge…
An hour or so of safety videos and chat follows, and I’m nice and relaxed again. The presenter talks us through some basics about hazards, cornering, observation, road positioning and the like – a sort of mini-IAM course on fast-forward – before explaining the housekeeping for the rideout.
The numbers are good today, meaning that I get a police rider to myself (sometimes they work with one instructor to two pupils).
I have a quick chat with my allotted guardian for the day, Matt (not his real name, he asked to remain incognito), and he takes me through the plan.
There are no intercoms used on Bikesafe courses – everything works via simple hand signals – and the rough plan is to leave Old Street and head east towards Essex. The first part of the ride will obviously focus on my urban riding skills, with a look at more open, rural, riding later on.
We set off, and I try to ride as I normally would, as the instructors have asked us to do (they can’t critique your usual riding if you don’t see it of course).
But it’s impossible not to try and be a bit more cautious, and dial down how you normally ride. Even so, with the hectic traffic around Shoreditch High Street, I lose touch with Matt, and have to pull in and wait for him to get past a massive truck.
No worries though – you’re never going to lose a police rider, even in town, and with a quick hand signal (not that one), Matt takes the lead and I follow him out of the traffic jam.
Once clear, he waves me in front again, and we head out through east London.
It’s quite a stressful ride at first: you’re having to watch in your mirrors for indications to turn right or left at junctions and roundabouts. You’re (perhaps over-) thinking about your riding.
And of course you have the usual warzone-style hazards of riding inside the M25 to cope with. Nevertheless, we make it to the first stop – a petrol station near the M11, and I have my first bit of feedback.
It’s not great: Matt reckons I’m a bit risky in terms of making overtakes and filtering. I tell him about my time as a courier, and the bad habits I probably picked up back then, and accept that they probably need looked at a bit. On the positive side, my levels of machine control are good, with nothing really to pick up on there. Yay!
The next 45 minutes or so are much better. We ride through some small towns and villages, before hitting some excellent twisty country roads.
Here, we’re looking at cornering, overtakes and road positioning more than the sort of grim hazard avoidance we were doing through town. The sun is warming the Tarmac up very nicely, and I’ve grown used to the sight of the fluorescent BMW R1200 RT and white ‘Police’ helmet in my mirrors.
Next stop is a lovely village café, where you get plenty of time to decompress, grab some lunch, and have a longer chat with your instructor. Matt seems happier now that we’re out of town: he’s got some good tips on my observation and positioning for overtakes though.
I tend to sit a bit close to the vehicle I’m trying to pass, where sitting further back would give a better view, especially when you’re sitting behind a big van or truck. Apart from that, and some thoughts on hazards at junctions, he’s complimentary again about the bike control and cornering parts of my riding.
Lunch over, and we have the final accompanied ride of the day, back to the first petrol station stop, where the day ends. Thankfully, we’re not heading back into town: people generally live outside central London, and stopping by the M11 makes the homeward journey easier for most folk.
This is the best part of the day as it turns out: having been down the roads already, I’ve got a bit of an idea where we’re going, and have totally adapted to having a police bike with me. The traffic is light, conditions are perfect and I have one of the best rides I’ve had in a long time.
For the final full debrief (which is also emailed to you later), Matt is positive and helpful again. He’s still got reservations about my town riding, but seems to be more than happy with my machine control and overall riding abilities.
I head home, through a logjammed London, feeling okay about my riding, and with some concrete areas to work on to make it even safer, quicker and smoother. What more could you want from a day out on the bike?
*The Bikesafe course costs just £65 for the day, not including lunch, and there are courses run regularly through the year, across the country.
You need to supply your own bike, which has to be fully road legal, with an MOT if needed, and insured. Make sure to wear appropriate riding kit for the conditions forecast, and turn up with a full tank of fuel.