Chris on a Bike – The Early Years.
By Chris Rhodes (aka SilverChris)
“Mmmm – approaching 45; what’s left to do before the pipe and slippers really do come begging.
Bungee jumping – done it
Free fall skydiving – done it
Scuba diving – done it
Explored rain forest rivers while floating downstream on an inner tube – er, yes done that too."
It was the hungover flight back from the Monza round of WSB that provided the answer – ride a bike! To be fair, my exposure on bikes had started many years before and there are photos of me in existence sitting on the back of my father’s sidecar combination circa 1959/1960. The next time I came across a bike was at 18 when I left home and moved into a flat with friends, both of whom rode Hondas. One even had a brother with one leg shorter than the other (an altercation with a Triumph Bonneville). However, apart from the odd pillion, I never ventured on to 2 wheels myself. And that’s how it stayed until May last year, 2 months before my 45th birthday.
I blame it all on GSE Racing. If it hadn’t of been for their persistent good hospitality in dragging me along to various WSB rounds over the last couple of years, this may never have happened. Within hours of landing at Heathrow, I had registered with any internet site that promised that a second hand 125 was within my grasp. It must have taken all of a day to decide what I wanted (a Gilera DNA 125), and how I would pay for it (that re-mortgage slush fund would be useful after all). To cut a long story short, by the Saturday after Monza I was the proud owner of a shiny 6 month old Red DNA.
One problem (or rather several) – I had no CBT and didn’t even know what one was if truth be told, no helmet and no protective equipment. Well, the last two were easily solved (yes, the slush fund again) but the CBT took a bit of hunting around. Fortunately Kent and Sussex Rider Training came to the rescue with a CBT for which they had a vacancy for the following weekend. All being well, the Gilera would be in my garage within a week. Saturday soon came and I presented myself at Kent & Sussex’s luxurious portakabin in Tunbridge Wells bright and early. Apart from one other “mature” gent on a scooter (a policeman re-newing his CBT), the rest were nearly all young kids or as I saw them, potential hooligans just waiting to really test that sewing machine motor on two wheels.
After the usual briefings and demos it was time for me to climb on to this fearsome two-wheeled beast – some of you may know it better as the Yamaha SR125. The day flew by and an afternoon out on the road in the company of another learner and our patient instructor Richie, soon had me confident that this definitely was the best thing I had ever attempted!
Driving my newish SAAB home, clutching my CBT, didn’t seem nearly as much fun as riding at 50mph on the trusty 125 and I couldn’t wait now to pick up the DNA. A quick ride home in the semi darkness on a windy downhill dual carriageway and there I was at home – my bike and me! Now don’t get me wrong, the DNA is great fun to ride and performs well (you can coax 70 out of it – downhill), but I just did not realise how hard this bug would bite me and I knew, within days, that riding at this level was not enough for me and I had to move on.
The next step was simple enough – 2 more days on a 125, followed by DAS and my test. Holidays permitting, I would be in possession of a full license by end of August – tops. Think again. The 125 days were brilliant. 6 students and Kat our instructor let loose on the roads of Kent and Sussex – I shall remember fondly Pongo the 18 year old boy racer, christened by Kat for his fetching dalmation ears so cleverly attached to his lid! The Theory too was a breeze – 33 out of 35, not bad but I did put the hours in with the books. DAS and test booked for last week in August. Now for the real fun – look for the big bike!
Buying a new car had been easy compared to this. So many manufacturers, so many models. What was it to be – sports, supersports, cruiser, street bike, off road. The first though (and this probably is an age thing) is what could I sensibly afford to insure and what would I be least likely to kill myself on? That ruled out Fireblades, R1s and 6s, GSX Rs and anything ending in an i. Cruisers – no, not me. I couldn’t image growing the facial hair or resting my feet on the front wheel nuts. Off road – I would have enough trouble staying on it thank you. This led me squarely to about four realistic contenders – the SV650, the Fazer, the Bandit or the Hornet.
Not having too many biker friends (one wanted to sell me his VFR 800) I found it hard to get good advice and this is where MCN and its website proved invaluable. With a great database of reviews and comments from owners, I gradually whittled my choice down to the SV and the Hornet. I must confess that at this stage, such was the dearth of my bike knowledge, a lot of this just came down to looks. (The Bandit appeared a bit dated and I hated the black pipes on the Fazer – that is one ugly bike). Also found the Hornets Nest – the photos in the gallery helped my choice somewhat!
The final choice was made for me really by the levels of pre-sales service I received from the various dealers I went to. Without fail, all the Honda dealers were friendly, professional and helpful. Even though I had no licence (yet!) I was treated with respect and courtesy. None stood out more than Chambers of Rochester – a real family business. Not only did they have the bike, but also the deal was good (including a sensible trade in for my DNA). A provisional test ride was booked for the afternoon after my test – how the Gods must have despised my arrogance in being so presumptuous.
The DAS day, to be fair, was no more than OK. 3 months of riding a twist and go had taken its toll and my clutch control was, at times, dire. Out of 30 U turns attempted, probably half would have been failures on the day. The weather forecast for my test day was brilliant – sun. I woke up – cloud. I drove to the test centre – rain. Not the start I wanted. A quick word on my mental state. I had been so wound up by the thought of getting my new bike, I almost blanked the test out and in the waiting room I felt no nerves – just empty. It showed in my riding; 13 minor faults but more damaging, 2 majors and a failure. No problem with the U-turn, it was just the rest of my riding that wasn’t up to scratch. Poor planning, poor observation. It was like I had prepared to fail. – I couldn’t even feel disappointed. No thought of giving up though – another one booked for 2 weeks time – this time!
Good weather, good warm up – good test – up until the U turn. Foot down and failed. 7 other minors. This time I really was gutted. What did I do now? I blamed the DNA – if only I had gears! Dave, the owner of Kent and Sussex Training offered me some free hours on the Yamaha 125 just to get me back in the swing of gears and clutch control. Well, that must have helped, because, third time lucky and with only 4 minors I passed! Cause for sirens, champagne, klaxons and anything else that would make a noise.
Within an hour I presented myself at Chambers, Rochester to pick up a shiny silver faired Hornet – all ready and waiting for me. I rode home grinning and haven’t stopped since! It has now been all of 5 months since I got that most important certificate in my hands. I have covered approximately 2000 miles in the sun, wind and rain – and no, I haven’t yet got my knee down, but then again, nor have I come close to coming off.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I would have done things differently had I been starting again. I would have done CBT first – when I did it I had never even ridden a bike before yet I had already parted with hard earned readies for my own! Would I like riding even, what sort of bike would I like? I would definitely have bought a geared bike – I am convinced this would have led to me passing sooner as my clutch control was one of the main issues in all my test faults – I would also have saved myself nearly £300 in test fees and bike hire. However, that has not prevented my from already fitting a hugger, a fender extender, a double bubble screen, bellypan and my latest pride and joy, a Scorpion race can. They said biking was dangerous – so far it is – to my wallet!
My only regret is not doing this years ago. I am now determined to wring as much fun out of this as I can. I would like to thank everyone who has helped or encouraged me. Ricky at GSE for planting the seeds of an idea, Dave, Richie, Kat and Sean at Kent & Sussex Rider Training, and Ian at Chambers, Rochester. Last but not least, to my better half, Suzanne who has been a tower of strength, even during the bitter days of failure!