Born-again biker to Observer

By Keith Miller

Rewind to July 2012. I was awaiting nervously for the delivery of a newly purchased 650cc Kawasaki Versys from a well known bike dealer in Newcastle. My first bike in over 20 years! Yes, a born-again biker! I was nervously excited. Could I actually ride again? Would I be safe? Would I make a fool of myself?

The van arrived, the friendly driver greated me with a big smile and an even bigger handshake. “Welcome back to the fold Keith. You will love the bike.” He wheeled the gleaming machine into my garage, explained the controls and left. I stood there looking at my purchase. I was anxious.

Ninety minutes later I rustled up the courage to ride the thing, having taken ages to put on the new, alien protective clothing and triple checking all was in order. So how did I get myself into this situation? What on earth persuaded me return to biking? How did I resolve my worries and concerns?

Let’s go back to the start of my biking ‘career’. My journey began on my eighteenth birthday with a 125cc Honda trail bike. I passed my test six months later and used it every day for transport as well as for fun. Through a joint friend, I was introduced to the pleasures of trail riding along the very muddy green lanes of Sussex and Surrey. I then joined the local Croydon MCC and enjoyed the dark art of off-road riding on a regular basis. We spent weekends away in Wales exploring the trails. These were some of the best days of my life.

I then entered trail bike trials and attempted my first Enduro. I liked the speed and thrills of Enduro and it became my passion until the mid nineties. A KTM 250cc water-cooled, pukka Enduro bike was my final machine. I rode many centre and national Enduro races in the 80’s and even had a go at motocross and beach racing at Redcar in the early 90’s. Beach racing was fun until I crashed into a fellow North-East Enduro Club member and broke his leg. I felt dreadful about it. I was mid thirties, recently married with children on the agenda. It was time to be sensible and hang up my boots. I retired and sold the bike. That was the end. Or so I thought ...

Fast forward 20 years. I watched 'The Long Way Round' (who hasn’t?) and really liked the look of adventure bikes. Never having owned a ‘proper’ road bike, something that looked like an off-road machine appealed to me. A seed was planted. Two years running, friends stopped off en route to Scotland on their adventure bikes. I could not take my eyes off them. (The bikes I mean!) Then the Hairy Bikers did a series called 'The Hairy Bikers Bacation' in which they toured Europe on KTM adventure bikes and baked cakes, etc. in lovely places. They baked a chocolate cake at the top of the Grossknockler pass in Austria. The views were stunning. I was hooked. I was going to get to the top of that mountain on my very own biking adventure! Easy peasy?!

Not! I had to convince my wife. How could we afford to run a bike? What about the danger? What about the riding gear? Endless questions! Eventually she gave the go ahead. A biker pal here in Newcastle kindly guided me around the motorcycle shops, explained the new-fangled riding gear and eventually I bought the Kawasaki Versys. We agreed a delivery date. I was there! Yikes! It was really happening.

Back to motorcycle delivery day. Eventually I got the courage to get going. It started first time. I had expected to stall the blighter and was surprised when I was able to set off okay. I had only intended to ride fifteen miles but ended up doing fifty. It put a big smile on my face! I was back!

I went on loads of day rides to practise. The tyres had much more grip than I had expected, the brakes were so powerful and the engine superb and nippy. I wobbled around corners and stopped at roundabouts. I was nervous about overtaking and filtering in heavy traffic. My cornering was appalling; cars were regularly on my tail which made me anxious. I was afraid that I would lock up the brakes and skid. I was not used to tyres actually gripping as I had only ever used off-road ‘knobblies’ in the past! Basically, I had to learn to ride a road bike safely and in control so that I could enjoy the riding.

My pal gave me some tips as he’d learned on a couple of courses. That helped but I needed more. Much more. I wanted to tour Europe with my wife as pillion and to be as safe as possible. The reality was that my road riding skills needed to be worked on. A lot! How would I do that? What could I read? What training was available? I had no idea. None!

Then I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Another pal recommended IAM advanced training. Having been through the IAM Roadsmart training his riding was safe, smooth and impressive. Having decided to try it, I applied online, paid my fee and awaited contact from my local IAM group.

I soon had a call from Michael who had been allocated as my IAM Observer. He lived up the road from me. What a bonus! We agreed to meet the following week. He was patient, knowledgeable and very friendly. He listened carefully to my concerns, explained IAM methods, answered my questions and we agreed a plan of action to get me to advanced road test standard. He made an initial assessment by following me as I rode to Morpeth and gave me feedback on what he had seen. To my surprise, I was a better rider than I actually thought.

Our subsequent sessions built on my skills and added more that I needed. Sometimes I followed him to watch his techniques. What a great rider he was (and still is). I wanted to reach his level and was hungry for as much information as I could get.

What about my cornering? We worked on that for three sessions. I really did need it and regularly went out to practise on my own. I read the IAM literature and revisited the Highway Code. I was on a mission!

Surprise, surprise my cornering improved greatly. My braking became controlled, road positioning improved, speed regulated, and observation skills enhanced. I felt confident and my riding became smooth and progressive. Cars were no longer tailgating me. I felt much safer. My wife felt happy as my pillion. Result!

After eight sessions and many practice rides, I was finally ready for the IAM advanced riding test. Yikes, it was really happening. I swotted, I practised and guess what? I passed. I was a happy bunny! The NAM Chairman presented me with my pass certificate at a club night a few weeks later. My photo taken. I was well chuffed!

But what next? Yes, I had passed the IAM test, but I could still improve, couldn't I? I regularly attended the NAM club nights and got to know some of the other members. NAM is a big club with over 250 very friendly members. I started riding regularly with my new motorcycle pals, so my social life improved too! We watched each other to pick up tips and give feedback which was great. I also arranged a follow up one-to-one session with an Observer to see if I had slipped into any bad habits. The club organise regular ride-outs, so I attend as many of these as I could. These allowed me to follow and watch more experienced riders which also helped. There were skills sessions, both classroom-based and practical, including slow riding, braking at speed, swerving, etc. All very useful. My training continued and still does!

In 2016, the opportunity arose to apply to become a volunteer IAM local Observer. I applied as I wanted to give something back and help others through their IAM test. I took a written theory test with several others and conducted a demonstration ride with a Senior Observer. I was accepted on the team, fully trained, took the observer test and was eventually signed off as a qualified observer later that year. I now help other bikers improve their confidence and skills up to advanced test standard. To get other riders through the test is extremely rewarding and it has improved my riding too! Again, the learning journey continues!!

So, what about that mountain in Austria? Did I get there? Am I touring? Is my wife involved? Did the IAM training make a difference? Am I a confident and safe rider? Yes, to all of those! We rode to the top of Grossknockler Pass in June 2015 safely on my new, bigger adventure bike. I felt a massive feeling of achievement. Riding 2200 miles over the two weeks on demanding and tricky mountain passes confidently had been my aim. And I had made it! My wife loves riding pillion, trusts me fully and feels safe. We have now been on 4 European tours and 3 Scottish tours with Norway, France and Spain planned for 2019!

Thanks To IAM Roadmart, these adventures have become a reality. Go on give it a go. See you there at the top of that mountain. And treat yourself to a piece of chocolate cake when you get there! You will have earned it!!!

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Photo restoration by Danny Holmes.

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