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What it's Like to Crash a Motorcycle

“Damn it. John Burns thinks I’m a dick.”
That was one of the predominant thoughts going through my head as I slid down a Florida highway at 60 mph back in March.
It’s weird how the mind works. Time slows in a crash. Every tiny image burns into memory, so your brain can replay it over and over and over at night for the next who knows how many weeks.
In the moments before I crashed, I was riding the Harley-Davidson Street Rod along County Road 34 in central Florida. I’m not sure which county. The accident report simply records it as “County Code 61,” but the internet can’t agree on which county that is. Maybe I was in Indian River County; maybe I was in Suwannee County; maybe I was in Flagler County; I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter; I was somewhere. The road passing through that somewhere was long and straight – not the sort of place where one usually crashes – and the weather was perfect.

“My God, I am so happy,” I was thinking. “I am so incredibly lucky to be here – to live t…

One year hence

The day I finally earned my UK license.
Exactly one year ago today, I earned my UK motorcycle license. Traffic to this blog has increased considerably since then (thank you for reading), so some of you might not know the whole story leading up to that moment. In short, I had earned my U.S. motorcycle endorsement in a YMCA parking lot when I was 18, but thereafter done nothing with it. Years later, I became obsessed with the idea of getting a motorcycle to combat the interminable dreariness of British life.

That meant, however, I needed a UK motorcycle license. It's a separate license here, not just an addendum to your driver's license, and thanks to Europeans' love of circumlocutory bureaucracy getting it is much, much more difficult than it had been in Minnesota. Admittedly, the process here instilled in me considerably more riding knowledge than I had gleaned from doing circles on a CG125 and watching Wheels of Tragedy (a). But the unexpected challenge of completing that process was borderline traumatic. 

No, really. One of the reasons I initially decided to pursue my UK license was for the sake of an "easy win." At that point in my life, I had not held down a full-time job in 6 years (thanks for destroying the European economy, Great Recession), my university degrees had turned out to be utterly useless, I was stagnant in literary/creative terms, and I felt socially isolated. I wanted to be able to do something; I wanted an accomplishment with which to boost my plummeting morale.

But instead, I failed my Mod 2 exam on the first try, and again on the second try, and within it all I burned away all kinds of money that I did not have. I maxed out a credit card (still paying it off) and everything was just hell. So, on the one-year anniversary of that great big poopy process finally coming to an end, my first line of thought goes to the questions of "What if...?". 

I am happy that I now have my license; ultimately, I am glad I went through the process. But could I have done it differently? If so, how?

Often I tell myself I would not have gone immediately down the Direct Access route. For those of you playing along at home, the motorcycle licensing structure here is stupidly complicated. Look at this chart and you'll see there are five different categories of license, broken up according to a person's age and what, exactly, he or she is keen to ride. And all of those categories mean testing.

Training often involved lunch at a greasy-spoon cafe.
I mean, sweet baby Jesus on a surfboard, do they go crazy for motorcycle testing over here. If a British 16 year old wants to ride a motorcycle, he or she will be subjected to no less than seven tests before attaining the type of license I now have (b). Because I'm over the age of 24, I was able to "fast track" my way there with only five tests (c). This is known as the Direct Access route.

Either way, though, both routes require the CBT. Compulsory Basic Training is the first step in your motorcycle journey in Britain, and for many people it is the only step. After a one-day CBT course you are allowed to ride a 125-cc motorcycle, and in many crowded British cities that is all you'll ever need. You're not allowed to carry a passenger or ride on the motorway, but otherwise you are free to roam for a full two years before having to subject yourself to the ridiculous testing process.

This, I claim with hindsight, is how I would have done things. I would have gotten my CBT and with the inordinate amount of money I spent training and testing for my full license I would have instead bought a Chinese 125 and spent time getting good at riding. When I felt confident, I would have borrowed a 600-cc bike and taken the test without fuss.

Jenn, however, points out that this imagined scenario is woefully flawed. And she is right. Firstly, I don't have any motorcycling friends in this country; I don't know anyone from whom I could borrow a 600-cc bike for the sake of taking the practical tests. More importantly, the part where I maxed out my credit card by failing lots and taking loads of extra training days was not part of the plan. To say that I should have instead spent that money buying a throwaway motorcycle assumes a Doctor Whovian future awareness.

And I suppose that's one of the main things motorcycling teaches you: to live in the present. To focus on what is, not what could be or should be. Focus on what's there –– that car, that curve, that pothole –– and let go of the things that aren't there.

Another lesson I've gained from motorcycling, or, rather, from my particular motorcycle journey since starting this blog, is that things are attainable. It is actually possible to identify a goal and work toward it. Slowly, occasionally with setbacks, often with compromise, and even more often in ways you don't anticipate, you can get from the Point A of being a guy with no license, no money and no bike, to the Point B of planning a 1,000+-mile adventure to the Scottish Highlands.

Riding to Hay-on-Wye last summer
Both of these lessons I try to incorporate into other aspects of my life. For example, the not-dwelling-too-much-on-a-past-I-cannot-change thing has helped me to shake off some of the deep bitterness I feel toward the Welsh-language community. The persistent-forward-movement-toward-a-set-goal thing means Jenn and I have saved enough money to visit my home state of Texas this summer -- my first trip back to the United States in 3 years.

Three years. That much homesickness leads to madness -- actual thinking-crazy-thoughts madness. But there motorcycling helps again. My stalwart Honda CBF600 SA brings me a tiny sense of freedom on this island of rain, a feeling of being in control of my own self, and an ability to seek out the kinds of places and things that originally made me want to move here.

Over the past year I've become a slightly better rider. I've become, too, a slightly better person. There is plenty of room for improvement in both aspects, but I'm looking forward to seeing what's on the road ahead.

__________

(a) Not really, but we did have to watch some safety films in my motorcycle course in Minnesota. Sadly, none were as amusing as 1960s driver's ed films.

(b) Also, he or she would have to wait until their 24th birthday.

(c) Well, five tests in theory. Of course, in actual fact, I ended up taking seven tests because I failed the Mod 2 twice.

Comments

  1. It's been thrilling seeing your progress - and you've come a long way - over the last year. And I've mentioned before, your passion for motorcycles got me all excited about them all over again.

    Good on ya!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Chris:

    Good for you for setting a goal and achieving it. Yes, you've come a long way, you made a big move to another country with different attitudes and customs, and survived . . .

    I'll bet you can't wait to get to Texas. Have a great vacation

    bob
    A weekend photographer or Riding the Wet Coast

    ReplyDelete
  3. Like Lucky says, "You've come a long way", and it's been a pleasure to read about your progression into a motorcycle rider.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I can't say how or when I picked up reading this blog (but do remember going back to the beginning to get caught up). Amazing that it's been a year - congrats!

    ReplyDelete
  5. great blog, I passed my test in July 2010 on a YRB125, I then rode it for a further 2 years as I was restricted to 33BHP. In july 2014 I upgraded to a CBF600SA just like yours, what a fantastic bike it is. All the best!!

    ReplyDelete

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