TALES FROM THE YEARS SPENT POLISHING
Chapter 3: Testing Times
Learning to ride a motorcycle for the first time is a strange and frightening experience. Unlike a car you have no one by your side to advise you or pull on the brake! Letting out the clutch without stalling or lurching forward came first, then manoeuvring around bends in first and second gear, then came third and fourth gear and after a few days I was ready for the real road. I ventured onto the A41 and rode the mile or so to Berkhamsead not yet attempting 5th gear.
With enthusiasm my confidence grew and soon I was doing quite long rides and enjoying the power in my hand. The first night ride I made as I left the town lights I panicked. How could anyone move at more than running speed in just the light of a headlamp? I returned back to civilisation in second gear.
A good lesson to learn was that brakes do not guarantee stopping. After applying my front brake rather too hard on a wet greasy road, it flung me ignominiously down on the seat of my pants with the engine screaming and shoppers running to help me up. I became very wary of weather conditions and got to know all the local man hole covers and ruts in the road.
I put in for my bike test as soon as I had mastered the controls, after all, exciting as a Crusader sports was, I didn't want to be on a 250 for ever!
The afternoon of my test arrived. I took an hour off work in Watford, full of confidence. A dour looking middle aged man appeared with a clipboard. He was wearing a trench coat and a chequered flat cap. He surveyed me and my gleaming machine with a distinctly disapproving stare.
First I was asked to read a Ford Anglia number plate a few yards away. I did without hesitation, so far so good I thought. I crawled round the pre-set route making grotesquely exaggerated arm signals and screwing my head round to look over my shoulder in a most theatrical fashion.
Mistakes were made however. I was told that when the examiner held up his newspaper I was to do an emergency stop. His paper waved at me from so far away I was sure that this could not be it. I cogged down a couple of gears, did a superb slowing down signal and came to rest at the kerb by his side. With dead eyes he just put a mark on his clipboard sheet with a flourish and waved me on.
I was somewhat mystified as to what had happened to the dramatic emergency stop that all my friends had told me about and which I could do admirably, stopping on a sixpence leaving a streak of black rubber on the road.
Finally I was asked a few Highway Code questions which I answered well. I did make one technical error over stopping distances which a more humane examiner could have encouraged me to get right. I knew my stopping distances, there was a little formula, double the speed and add on half which seemed to work. For example 30 mph doubled=60 add on half of thirty 15 gave 75feet. On being asked the stopping distance for 50mph I replied briskly 125 yards instead of feet. The examiner gave me another steely grey stare and muttered "That's one devil of a long way!" He made another mark on his board and it now crossed my mind that I may not have passed.
When he asked me the 'fail' question that all my friends had told me about 'What vehicles are not allowed on the motorway' I knew I had not got it. I reeled off horses, bicycles, vehicles 50cc or under, steam rollers, pedestrians and the all-telling learner drivers.
After delivering the bad news the examiner pulled himself up to full height and tracing a finger round my Ace bars said "I don't know how anyone could control a motorcycle with handle bars like these". I got the message.
Some changes would have to be made before my next attempt at the test. I didn't want to waste money on new handlebars just to create the right impression so I went to the local breaker's yard and bought a pair off a rusted old Matchless for just a shilling. With these fitted and wearing a suit and tie and goggles around my bare head to complete the subterfuge, I set out once more to try my luck.
The day was fine, once again I had taken a short time off work and I had certainly sorted out the yards from the feet in stopping distances.
All was set for success, then fate struck! Hair line fractures opened in my old rusty handlebars and they decided to expire! One side of the bars complete with twist grip fell off in my hand. Unbalanced, the bike crashed to the ground on its side. I was dumped onto the seat of my best suit trousers. Like the violence in a Clint Eastwood film, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. My bike went veering off into the path of an oncoming coal lorry. I travelled straight ahead, my backside getting hotter and hotter with the friction as I tried to slow myself down with my hands. Eventually both boy and bike came to a halt. My trousers were ripped to threads and my rear end smarted from its ordeal.
The real agony was yet to come, my cherished Enfield was wedged under the front of the lorry and made groaning noises as the driver slowly reversed back off.
The coal deliveryman was a real knight of the road. A motorcyclist himself he smiled and said things were not so bad. If we had skidded in opposite directions I would now be waiting for an ambulance.
He and I humped the bike into the back of the coal truck and back at the depot he phoned my firm to tell them what had happened and not to expect me back that afternoon. After cleaning up a bit he took me in the sidecar of his Panther sloper combination to the motorbike shop. He bought me a pair of new sensible bars and we spent the rest of the day beating out dents, straightening the footrest and the ball ended lever and generally putting things to rights. I often, even 50 years on, think about his kindness. I don't know his name but he represented a breed of driver that seems few and far between these days. He was kindly, unassuming and generous of heart.
On the third attempt I tore up my L-plates and immediately went to Kings of Oxford to look at big bikes.
- Tony Sheppard