Five lessons for new riders

Dispatches from a tentative learner

HAVING spent a couple of months on the road as a beginner, I thought it might be time to share a few initial thoughts and lessons learnt.

Article originally written January 2013, updated July 2013

I suppose all of the below could be filed under 'common sense' but I am fascinated by how quickly real-world experiences confirmed existing assumptions I had about riding a motorbike.

So as part of my ongoing series on the process of going from no wheels to two, my five lessons to remember for beginners...

1. Assume you haven't been seen!

My big one relating particularly to car drivers. I am constantly staggered by the activities people seem to think they can undertake behind the wheel of a car. It seems to be tactily accepted that an Englishman's car, as with his home, is his castle. Drinking cups of coffee, playing with their iPhones, arguing with the missus, picking their noses. I genuinely wonder if they realise people can see them through all that nice, clear glass. They certainly don't realise they can see out, which is why I have quickly learned to assume that I have not been seen by any driver. A healthy mistrust of the abilities of car drivers has already kept me a healthy distance from the action on a couple of occasions, when the brakes are slammed on and the horns start blaring it's best not to be anywhere near it.

2. Keep your distance from cyclists!

Cyclists, particularly in London, are an extraordinary group of road users. They dive for gaps that I would not even consider on my motorbike. They fearlessly change lanes without so much as a sideways glance. The concept of a red light is widely and unashamedly ignored (I'd like to spearhead a movement to enforce bans on Boris Bike users who do this, in flagrant violation of their terms of use). They do that ridiculous wobbling thing at lights so they don't have to put their feet down which means that when the lights do change, they lurch suddenly to the left or right, before heaving themselves back on course while other road users are forced to swerve around them. My big lesson from this has been to always remember lifesavers when pulling away from lights, because often a cyclist will simply keep going at an upcoming red light and attempt to come in front of the stationary traffic, all well and good until that traffic is moving off earlier than they expect. Scary. 

3. Look ahead!

I have learnt that the best way to avoid trouble and react to changes around you is to know they are coming as far in advance as possible. In my first few nervous rides I occasionally found myself unprepared for an arising situation and having to react quickly and uncomfortably as a result. Lots of road users, bike and car, don't seem to look far enough ahead. Motorcyclists, for example, will often emerge from traffic to pass it without knowing where they are going to re-enter the fray, in my extremely short time I have seen a good number of bikes stopping suddenly in no-mans-land because there is a hazard and no way to fit back in. Car drivers are even worse - a classic is approaching an empty roundabout, no traffic on it or approaching it, stopping at the line, realising that this is the case, then moving off in first gear. All could be avoided by keeping your eyes on the road ahead...

4. Pay attention to other riders, but don't copy them blindly. 

Being a very novice rider there is still a huge amount I have to learn about the road, and in a situation where I might be tentative it is always helpful to see what another, experienced, rider is doing and benefit from that experience. On the other hand, diving into gaps and changing lanes without thinking about your own situation is very silly. A ride across London such as I am now undertaking most days involves countless decisions, and I view other motorcyclists on the road as 'advisors', who's decision-making can inform (not dictate) my own. It really is very foolish to just do what somebody else is doing without thinking about it for yourself, but a number of times I have avoided trouble because the actions of a more experienced rider with a nose for it has inadvertantly alerted me to the danger.

5. Be constantly aware of the road surface.

Things like drain covers, which are of relatively little concern to car drivers, can be a real hazard on the bike. Grip can disappear and on an icy day they are little more than death traps. This applies to all sorts of things. Piles of wet leaves, sand from a cement mixer next to roadworks, the list goes on. After a bit of a skid on a drain cover I quickly learnt to avoid, or if totally unavoidable, stay as upright as possible over such hazards. You cannot expect to ride blithly over slippery things and expect them not to affect you. 

So, Visordown readers, what would be your advice to me and to other learners? What do you wish somebody had told you when you were first starting out?

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