'CBT IS EASY...you can't even technically fail it' - the hollow words of friends and acquaintances rang in my ears like a bin lid dropped down a well.
As I sat astride the mighty Yamaha SR125, poised at the edge of a fast three lane roundabout, it seemed I had made a few errors of judgment (namely; underestimating the challenge presented by the CBT and severely overestimating my confidence and ability). A bead of sweat appeared at my brow. As I waited for a gap, I tried to remind myself of how to move off but as I did so the steps that had seemed so easy, such a short time ago, became garbled. What was I doing here? Who would I blame for dragooning me into this situation when I made my statement to the police?
Rewind 5 hours. I had arrived promptly at 8.15 that chilly morning, flushed with confidence in my Visordown-provided kit as I watched my young comrades shuffle in, bleary-eyed, tracksuited and counterpart license-less. I was absolutely itching to get on the bike.
After a reasonably lengthy kitting up/admin session, and some preliminary health and safety bits and pieces from the instructor, we were shown to our steeds for the day. I fell in love immediately with my retro Yamaha, charmed by its 'characterful' gaffer-taped look.
It became quickly apparent that I was the only person taking the CBT on a geared bike - a competitive instinct began to bubble inside me as I looked around at the scooter learners to the left and right of me. This was a vital moment. Concentrating hard, I set the throttle and eased the clutch out as instructed - I was off! To my blessed relief I began to rumble forward, coming to an easy rest at the feet of my instructor.
An hour later, I was flying. Breezily sweeping around cones in ever smaller circles, laughing hautily at the once elusive biting point and flamboyantly issuing lifesaver checks as if distributing kingly decrees, I thought I had it sussed. For a short time, in a managed, safe, sub-20mph environment - I did.
At about midday, the instructor took us inside the little hut on the edge of the carpark for a bit of a tutorial on the rules of the road - how to deal with roundabouts, junctions, passing parked cars. It was slightly disconcerting - there seemed to be a lot to remember and I didn't back myself to recall, in photographic detail, the little roundabout diagram he had drawn for us when I found myself actually bearing down on a 'road situation'. We'd be going out two at a time, riding two one hour sessions each.
And suddenly, terrifyingly, we were on the road.
It was as if the entire morning had never happened: I was absolutely rubbish. Pawing helplessly at the gear lever with what had apparently become some sort of hideous leather-clad hoof, shifting gears up and down seemingly at random, I lurched down the road with no regard at all for the concept of a gearbox (a jarring but effective lesson in the potency of engine-braking, at least). Staring fixedly at a point on the road about 8 feet in front of me, rigidly locked to the bike in dumb panic, approaching rudimentary features like junctions wide-eyed yet utterly oblivious - I was quite literally all over the shop.
Then came the big roundabout with five exits. Cars were coming around it at what I judged at the time to be no less than three or four hundred mph. Taking my cue from the instructor over the one-way radio, I took a 'gap' (never have I seen anything that I would less happily describe as such) and sallied forth, trundling pathetically towards the inside lane, losing count of what exit I was at, eventually lurching off desperately at what I hoped was the 'fourth exit'. Cars swirled about me like monsoon rains.
By the time we pulled back into the safety of the carpark I'd just about had enough.
I was annoyed at this point that I don't smoke, as it just seemed so apt. My fellow road-goer and I hung about in the carpark walking in circles and shaking out limbs - as though that would help. Our instructor, who had done a blinding job of keeping an eye on us, I thought, congratulated us on an 'overall good' ride, despite some 'control issues'. I was incredulous (especially when I looked over at my trusty Yamaha to see that I'd left the indicators flashing), but heartened. It began to dawn on me - I hadn't stalled, I hadn't crashed, I hadn't even cut anyone up. I'd got away with it - but it was time to go again.
The second ride was fantastic. Something imperceptible had changed completely in that 15 minute break. I felt relaxed, in control, confident. I stopped looking at my feet every time I wanted to change gear. I began to observe. I had stopped glancing furtively around me like a harried fugitive as an afterthought at the last possible moment. Cornering became a pleasure. Shifting gears felt natural as I began to understand what the bike was doing and respond appropriately.
The second time around my nemesis roundabout I didn't even notice where I was until I was halfway round it. It felt great to be on a bike. I felt lithe, maneuverable - more nimble than the unwieldy cars that had terrified me so much last time. When I dismounted for the last time I was genuinely hacked-off that I couldn't have another go, so much was I enjoying just riding.
That feeling was mitigated by the thought that the next time I rode a bike, it would be mine. As the instructor rubber stamped my certificate, I felt a bit more pride than the situation perhaps warranted. I couldn't help but feel that I was now, in a very modest way, a biker of sorts. OK, so I'd only passed the perfunctory sounding 'compulsory basic training', which can't be failed and doesn't entitle the holder to much beyond an asthmatic little bike with no power. But everybody has to start somewhere, don't they?