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Wednesday 13 April 2011

Advanced riding masterclass!!

On Sunday evening, I got home completely knackered and immediately after having something to eat and drink, fell asleep in the armchair!  The reason for the exhaustion?  Stress, combined with riding nearly 2 1/2 hours  to Auckland, spending close to 3 hours under the watchful eye of the Chief Examiner for the Institute of Advanced Motorists, then riding home again!  Rarely has a day ride been so exhausting and last October's 1000 miles in 21 hours ride in the annual Grand Challenge event was far easier in terms of stress.

Before we get into what happened, let's go back a bit....

In February, I made a post entitled Putting my money where my mouth is.  It was about 2 main things...
  • The need for all riders to either periodically upskill or re-skill as a major contributor to staying safe.  There's nothing like a formal external assessment of your abilities for a sharp reality check! It's also particularly valuable for ahem... those of mature years for the reasons detailed in recent posts about ageing riders. Embarrassingly, my last formal advanced training course was in 2003 and I'm now 63.
  • Being retired and having time to put something back into the community (the motorcycling community in this instance), becoming an advanced instructor would be a way of achieving this provided I have the ability and temperament to make the grade. Even if I can't, it's still going to be good for me personally.
Time has passed since that post but I've been quietly checking out options and also having on-going dialogue with eminent motorcycle author and presenter David L Hough.  Here's what I've been up to.

There were 2 basic options in my mind:

The first was becoming a licensed instructor under government regulations.  This involves having my driving licence officially endorsed as an instructor by completing written course work under the NZ Qualifications Authority which governs formal learning in the country.  At the end of it, there would be a practical assessment of my riding capabilities. Most of the learning was how to teach motorcycle skills at a basic level so it didn't meet didn't meet my personal requirement of upskilling.  Furthermore, the course material was designed to teach learners and those riders requiring refreshers.  It seemed to be mainly for motorcyclists wanting to set up a commercial training business which I didn't want to do anyway.
Another option  was with the Institute of Advanced Motorcyclists, a UK-based organisation with an autonomous branch in NZ.  IAM has a considerable reputation in the UK, and also funds worthwhile research into motoring and motorcycling issues.  It also has a strong voluntary component for acquiring and passing on skills which ticked one of my boxes in wanting to put something back into the motorcycling community.

Friends of mine, Dylan Rogers and his wife Jo, are both IAM Observers (IAM term for an instructor/examiner) in the UK.  We've had some lengthy conversations  and Dylan kindly provided an outline of how the process works over there.  Here's a prĂ©cis of his words:

To be an IAM Observer you will need to pass the IAM Advanced Mototcycle Test to become a Full IAM member. In the UK some advanced courses such as police Class 1 will enable automatic membership. 
  • An initial assessment with an IAM Observer from an IAM group local to you
  • As many rides as required to get you to 'test ready' standard (typically 6 to 8 rides with an IAM Observer)
  • The definitive guide to advanced riding techniques 'How to be a better rider'
  • Membership of your local IAM bike group, with invitations to group events
  • Full preparation for your Advanced Riding Test
  • Your Advanced Riding Test undertaken with a qualified examiner
  • An IAM Advanced Riding Certificate on passing the test
  • 12-month membership of the national IAM.
So then you have your IAM ticket and the next step is enrolling with your group and training to secure your Observer status.

This approach appeared to be exactly what I was looking for.  A programme with real teeth, where my ability to meet the required standard was by no means assured.  The learning would stretch me, and then some!  So that's it then... a voluntary component and rigorous, exacting standards - count me in to see if I can measure up!

I filled in the expression of interest on the IAM website, clicked SEND and sat back.  In due course, Philip McDaid, the Chief Examiner; got in touch and gave me a brief run-down.  We were soon to depart for S-E Asia on holiday so left it at that for the time being.  Last week after getting back, Philip and I spoke again .  There was instant panic when he said he could fit in an Observed Ride 4 days hence and could I come up to Auckland? All the excuses came bubbling up... haven't ridden for over 3 weeks, am I good enough - the whole 9 yards!  Along with those feelings also came that delicious, churning feeling of anticipation in the stomach.

Eek - no place to hide now!!

Thought I'd better shake the rust off so a couple of days beforehand, rode about 120 km south of us to a dealer I was buying a car from.   Concentrated hard on all the advanced techniques previously learned and rode like a complete plonker - trying way too hard and the result was very dispiriting.  On the way back, just relaxed and things came naturally again - phew!  Another pleasing, relaxed ride when I went out for a 2 hour run the following day.  If only I can hold my nerves in check tomorrow!

Riding to Auckland on the big day was an enjoyable affair in good weather and although I don't ride or drive a lot in dense city traffic, it wasn't particularly difficult to start controlling my environment and also avoid the idiots who hadn't a clue.  Arrived intact and fresh at a riding partner's place for lunch and catching up with him and his family and another mate, plus the fact that their home was close to where I had to meet the examiner; all helped to keep me on an even keel!

The meeting venue was the car park of one of Auckland's Institutes of Technology where Philip was conducting basic skills training to novice motorcyclists as part of his normal commercial business. The IAM training as previously mentioned is an unpaid voluntary process, so it was great that he was could fit me in so quickly.

Basic skills training for learners in Auckland

Philip came over and introduced himself, saying he'd only be a few more minutes, then we'd get on with the job at hand.  I also had the pleasure of meeting another senior IAM member, Wayne Holden from Hamilton.  After a licence check, Philip wanted to observe my core handling skills and techniques before heading out on the road.  Slow speed riding and hard, controlled braking were fine.  He then had me doing elliptical circuits of the car park, followed by riding in tight, ever-decreasing circles and picked up a fault!  I wasn't lifting my head and turning it sufficiently (right angles or thereabouts) to look where I wanted to go a decent distance forward.  As soon as I did that, the turns were much tighter and a lot more controlled.  A good result before even leaving the car park!! That's one simple example of why refresher training is so important to correct the inevitable erosion of skills and to learn new ones.

Now it was time for the observed ride.  Philip explained that it would be measured against the general criteria used for police motorcyclists - in other words, some pretty exacting, measurable standards. "But don't worry", he says, "We just want to see where you are now".  Lovely guy he may be with an instantly likeable manner, but I'm desperately trying not to show a bad case of nerves caused by not wanting to let myself down.  He tells me to ignore his position on the road as he'll be moving all over the place watching what I'm up to. Even gets me to remove my tail pack so he can get a full view!

Philip equips me with a radio receiver, checks that it's working and we're off for some observation riding in the built up urban areas of Auckland.  About 5 seconds out of the institute of technology and into the traffic, first bloody mistake; wouldn't you know it.  Concentrating so hard on situational awareness that I forget to cancel my indicator and Philip's voice comes through the earpiece to remind me.  About 2 minutes later, I repeat the mistake...... what a muppet!  Philip says later that he's a little lenient for the first few minutes to allow the observed rider to settle in to the process- phew!  We work our way through town, down mainstreets, through backstreets, up and down gradients and through it all, I'm being watched for position, hazard awareness and a multitude of other factors.  Sticking to the posted town speed limit as a demonstration of bike control is quite difficult on a bike like the Street Triple with slightly snatchy fuelling off idle but I drop it a gear lower than I normally would and the engine braking is vastly improved by raising the revs.  Now I'm starting to relax a little!

Next, we head onto the urban motorway which runs to the north-west of Auckland.  It's unusually busy for a Sunday and some lanes are stopping and starting at one particular off-ramp, calling for some slow speed handling and good positioning to get forward observation and make progress.  Not quite the straightforward run I was expecting from a motorway, but felt quite comfortable nonetheless.  Although we're sitting smack on the posted speed limit, there's cars charging past, cutting lanes without indicating and so on but with reasonable positioning and awareness, it's not an issue.  Taking control of your environment really works!

Soon, we're into the outer suburbs with a mixture of different road types, varying speed limits and multiple potential hazards.  Approaching an intersection, I make another mistake.  There are road works for a few tens of metres leading up to a junction with a 30 km/hr temporary speed restriction. I'm concentrating on the junction itself and the uneven road surface; either missing the sign entirely or mis-reading it.  Can't remember exactly how it happened but I enter the restriction about 10 km/hour faster than I should have done.  Philip draws this to my attention at the first debrief stop shortly afterwards and I'm mentally beating myself up, despite him saying that the rest of my riding has been really good against the criteria. A lot of bikes have been coming the other way from the Kumeu area and waving.  If anyone reading this was one of them and thought that the Street Triple rider being followed by a red Honda Pan European was a stuck-up prick for not returning the wave, let me apologise here and now - I simply didn't have enough spare brain cells left to raise a hand!

We're now in the countryside down narrow, twisty lanes and apart from not having travelled in this area before, I'm completely at ease as it's not unlike my home territory of the Coromandel Peninsula, complete with the usual range of motorists who cut blind corners!  Manage to make good progress (i.e. not dawdling along) and follow Philip's directional instructions until he calls a brief halt.   He says that I'm making good use of speed on the rural roads and my positioning for maximum sight lines on corners is good (unusual for a first-timer apparently), although I could use even more of my side of the road where it's safe to do so and to take up that position earlier than I'm currently doing.  He then says he'll take the lead for a short while as he thinks I'm now in the position to benefit from watching him, whilst listening to his commentary.

This is the part of the story where the "Masterclass" bit of the title comes in!  When I haven't ridden for a while, I sometimes talk out loud with respect to hazard identification which helps to dial back in - maybe 10 or 15 seconds in every minute.  Philip is from another planet in this respect.  His commentary is darned near non-stop, crammed with all the observations he's making, both front, rear and sides.  Some of the things he's observing are a mere dot on the horizon.  He's still making observations and giving feedback whilst cranked right over on tight bends, for heaven's sake!  Above everything else, it's his unbelievable situational awareness which shows just how far I have yet to progress to be right on my game.  I then take over for more country riding, trying to put into practice what Philip has mentioned and when we stop; he's complimentary that I've taken it on board.

Time is getting on, so Philip leads back to Auckland to where we started from, again giving a masterclass of riding skill and commentary.  Not entirely without incident though!  Coming off the motorway to the urban roads, we follow a taxi and then Philip moves to his right to begin a turn.  I've noticed that the taxi driver's head is swivelling all over the place and don't feel happy so roll off the gas a bit and next moment, the taxi changes lane without indicating and barges in between us.  There's a very good case for trusting your instincts!

Philip, completing the observed ride checksheet

Philip goes over all the items we've discussed again and as I don't ride on motorways with merging roads or anything similar too often, he reinforces the need for good quality shoulder checks at traffic merge points.  He then congratulates me on the ride, gives me a personal action plan, an IAM application form for associate membership and a reading list in preparation for the next steps to becoming an IAM Observer.  Although today has just got me onto the first rung of the ladder, I'm unbelievably proud to have simply got to this stage - there's still so much to extract and digest from the ride (which incidentally, has been one of the greatest riding days of my life, errr.... now it's all over!).  I thank Philip yet again and depart for the haul back to Coromandel, much of it being in the dark with some showers to make conditions interesting.  Interestingly, negotiating the lunatic traffic, a bit of rain and twisty conditions on the Peninsula in pitch black seems pretty straightforward after what I've been through and learned, which is of course, the whole point of it all.  On arriving home, I gulp down several glasses of water, grab a quick bite to eat and promptly fall asleep in the armchair as previously mentioned - that's stress for you!

Some musings
Doing the observed ride itself produced some massive learnings which I'll try and make habitual as soon as I can. It's all about riding to a high level and doing it consistently, not in bursts. Really looking forward to pushing myself further by seeing if I can make it to Observer level, both to raise my own skills and also to put something back into motorcycling after the pleasure I've had from it over 40+ years of riding. Is it worth considering by other riders?  It most certainly is but if you don't want to commit long term to putting the skills back into the riding community as an Observer, then there are commercial avenues to pursue advanced training which may be more suitable.

Earlier in the post, I used the phrase "controlling the environment".  I'm not sure whether this is an adequate description of what the IAM approach does but the training goes way beyond pure bike handling skills into manipulating the environment you ride in to improve your safety and much, much more besides.  This post hasn't described the incredible day I've just had with anywhere near proper justice but at least you'll get an idea of it's impact on me!

Finally, I have some sincere thanks to some people whose influence set me on this journey, although there's still plenty of time to curse them yet!  Often, you need people to give you a nudge to set you on a path and these guys did exactly that. That's why I'm giving some well-deserved public recognition.

Dylan Rogers, UK IAM Observer, for all his encouragement and information about the process and for not letting me off the hook when the resolve wavered a bit.

David Hough, motorcycle author, for all our correspondence and collaboration on strategies for ageing riders to keep riding safely. A great learning opportunity in itself.

Fellow Kiwi blogger Roger Fleming (Raftnn) for him putting his money where his mouth was in terms of  his incredible enthusiasm for upskilling and inspiring me to do the same. Enthusiasm is contagious!

And finally to IAM Chief Examiner Philip McDaid for giving up precious free time to help an old fart from the countryside.  Didn't think it was possible to learn so much in so short a time! A privilege to see just how well it's possible to ride and the fact that learning is a continuous process.

As previously stated, the IAM route might not be suitable or even available to many riders, but I hope the post encourages people to get out and reskill/upskill with an independent assessment of your abilities.  It might just be a life-saver and certainly raises riding enjoyment.

More posts to come as we enter the next stages...

Note:  For a summary of how it all turned out 8 months later after much blood, sweat and tears, click HERE


  1. Congratulations Geoff! A great start. I think that this is the right direction for you.

    A mate of mine is a fan of track days. However, when I asked him how much track day learning can be applied to road riding, he conceded that very little was - namely that the perfect racetrack line, lack of oncoming traffic etc really didn't apply to road riding where the 'perfect line' is most often not possible and there are a myriad of other contingencies to be alert for.

    It strikes me that advanced rider training needs to be held in the context of where riding occurs, namely on public roads.

    Cheers Jules.

  2. Well done Geoff! Awesome post today....a great read, and made me feel like i was there watching you.

    It was good to hear about Phiip's personal commentary as he rides - something I continue to do more and more........ (I even had a conversation with "susan" the GPS lady yesterday)

    All the best with the next stage of the journey....can't wait to hear more!

  3. Geoff

    Talking about nerves and muppet moments , I managed to make a wrong turning within 30 seconds of receiving my initial briefing from my IAM examiner last November. As there were no direct comms (i.e. walky talky) the immediate result was much use of his horn and arm waving. Haha - I still passed! I told him during the debrief that I had got lost during my bike test back in 1876 in Sidcup. I passed then too! What a farce that was - when I missed the left turn (I could have sworn the examiner had said right but that was "no entry") I disappeared off into Kent and the examiner walked back to the test centre in the rain. When I eventually reappeared he was just starting the next test (or maybe the one after that) and he thrust the pass certificate into my hands without a word.

    Best wishes from sun drenched Britain, N

  4. Thanks very much Jules!

    I'm still keen to do a trackday or two as it certainly teaches you about the characteristics of your machine in a fairly safe environment. However, as you correctly point out, things like racing lines on corners don't give you the maximum sight lines you need for a public road environment. You're spot on about training being held in the right environment.

    Thank you Anthony!
    I hope you weren't as stuffed as me from reading about it! Yep, the personal commentary is really worthwhile and I'll be doing more of it. Philip set the benchmark for what's possible.

    I was terrified of having no comms and having to watch for indicators but mercifully, we avoided that! Congrats on the pass! We seem to be good at putting pressure on ourselves, haha!

  5. Well I am speechless.....a some what rare occurance. Brilliant post, and so motivating for me. I am chuffed at how well you have done, and yet I am not surprised. It is exciting for me to read stuff like this, just so inspires me. I think the road for me to improve is longer than yours, but hopefully when I get to 63 I will be an accomplished rider. (no insult intended)!

    I laughed about the indicator thing, did the same thing myself....except three times!

    I have decided to ride to work at least once a week to work on my skills and keep my levels up. I am also dedicating a couple hours each fornight to pracstice many of the skills I have been taught.

    You are well on the road to achiving your goals, and I am looking forward to hearing more from you. Lastly, thank you for your kind words, although not required, I have learnt more from you since I have known you than the other way round.

    Great post, one of your best.

  6. Thanks very much Roger, although I'm not sure what's special about the post but really pleased it hit the spot for you. (No insult taken, haha!)

    Like you, I'll be riding on a regular basis simply to practice what I've learned.

    I didn't post the thanks lightly mate, our discussions were a fantastic spur to action!

  7. Congratulations on the first step Geoff! Very interesting read - thank you. You're an inspiration, that's a great goal to shoot for. It must have been nerve-racking being watched in unfamiliar territory. Good job!

  8. Cheers Mike and thanks for the very kind words.
    Trying really hard to lift my game! It was indeed but now having an inkling of what is required, I think the next step will be easier on the nerves, if not in doing the tasks well!

  9. I really enjoyed reading this post. Your enthusiasm jumped out from the screen, as did your nerves and anticipation. The message about re-skilling is an important one as it is all too easy to let things slip. I went on a one day Bikesafe day run by London Police Motorcyclists and spent about 3.5 hours riding with a police biker observing me for the whole time and so I can relate to your initial nerves, but as it did with you, that soon goes away. Congratulations on doing well and I look forward to reading more about you IAM progression as you advance further. In the meantime, keep talking to yourself while riding and looking for hazards – if you are like me, it sure beats my singing while riding!

  10. Thanks Gary! You clearly know the value of re-skilling having completed Bikesafe! Its reputation has spread and they're introducing it in NZ. Probably up and running now.

    I'm not like you in the singing stakes, I'm far worse. Forbidden from singing indoors actually :-(.

  11. Well done, Geoff - I think it takes a brave man to put himself forward for that kind of scrutiny. Your observer certainly put you through the mill, even I'm not that demanding of new recruits, but then my chaps don't have to travel quite so far to see me. I 'spose he thought he'd better make it worth your while! Keep up the progress and keep your chin up, literally! It'll help with your forward observation!
    Best wishes, Jo Mitchell - long suffering wife of the aforementioned Mr Rogers.

  12. Hiya Jo!!!
    Thank you - it was fairly traumatic but you guys did it all that time ago so you'd know! Yes, Philip did apologise when setting a date about the venue but that's really a function of how many IAM members there are at present. Application form sent off, police handbook ordered and now the hard work really starts.

    Really looking forward to meeting you in person this year... along with that other person you're close to :-). I hate to think what Dylan and I are in for when you and Jennie compare notes!

  13. Geoff,
    My helmet is off to you. It is an exciting adventure you have undertaken, and one of which I think you are very worthy. I think you will make a positive contribution to the riding public through the fruits of your labors.

    Your post has encouraged me to get myself back for some advance rider training and upskilling. Thanks for that. I will begin trying to figure out when I can fit it in the schedule.

    Keep up the good work!


  14. Hi Allen,
    Thanks so much for the kind words. Extremely pleased that the post has provided encouragement as it was the same for me by the people I sincerely thanked . And after doing it, we wonder why we let it slide for so long!

    With every good wish...

  15. Whey! Big post, had to read it twice to let the wisdom sink in. I am all knackered just from reading, and I feel like I was riding pillion with you. Congratulations, it sounds like the right step forward for you.
    Thank you so much for this inspirational words. Because of that I picked up a rider training brochure from my lady's motorcycle group meeting tonight.

  16. Thanks Sonja, I haven't fully recovered yet either! Great that you're looking at additional training - look forward to hearing all about it. Incidentally, the IAM riding "bible" is the Police Riders Handbook to Better Motorcycling, ISBN 0-11-341143-X, from Amazon etc. Won't matter about which side of the road they're on, it all translates. Have just ordered my copy.

  17. Awesome read! Loved hearing about your ride with Phillip, and you thoughts on the day. I was all nervous for you whilst reading through the post!

    There is something fulfilling and extremely satisfying about learning new skills, and/or improving old skills. Your enthusiasm shines through.

    lol - love your first pic, great self-portrait! And the cones, they have helmets? Were they worried they would get hurt? If I was riding, they should be worried. I leave no cone unscathed. Love the last pic of Phillip, though I must say that expression is a little scary! :)

    Congrats! Looking forward to reading more!

  18. Thanks for the lovely comments Kari!

    How is it that no matter how many times you go to the bathroom when you're nervous, you still want to go immediately before the event starts???? No need to answer that :-)

    Perhaps the cones were being protected from the learner class, hehe.

    If I were Philip, I'd be a wee bit ticked off about that last photo! He really is the loveliest guy, with a soft Irish accent. What really huts though is that the following day, someone stole his truck and 2 learner bikes. I hope they catch whoever did it and chop their hands off.

  19. We never have enough good motorcycle instructors. I hope you stick with it. Rider training is exploding on the west coast of the states and it's not a moment too soon in this age of distracted (cell phone) drivers.

  20. Thanks nwroadrat. NZ's basic training isn't really good enough to develop good survival skills and David Hough tells me that it's similar in the US with dealer-sponsored training. That's why I'm keen to promote higher skills.

    You have a great blog - I love old barns, my valves are always hidden and my wife reckons I'd have the bike in bed if I could get it up the stairs!



  21. I salute you for stepping up. It will be a worthwhile journey. You'll also find that teaching will keep your own skills much sharper than they would be otherwise. You will always be thinking about the skills and will have top of mind awareness.

    As to being nervous when followed by an observer, it happens to a lot of riders. I've followed motor cops on a track to do their evaluations. Several have admitted that their mistakes were because of being nervous knowing I was back there!

  22. Thanks Dan,
    The Institute of Advanced Motorists process was perfect for me - acquire new skills which will hopefully prolong my riding and also put something back into motorcycling on a totally voluntary basis - can't go wrong.

    Absolutely.... knowing you're being observed by the best of the best combined with fear of failure is pretty daunting. I'm sure I'll be more relaxed next time, knowing what to expect now. Now have to get out in all weathers and put some solid work in before my next observed ride.

  23. Hi Geoff,
    Having completed the car IAM test many years (decades actually) ago I have wondered how the observer can fully observe a rider. In my car test I had to give a running commentary and of course the tester/observer was watching me all the time. What the observer could see was if I had checked the mirror, was in the correct gear, had seen a hazard etc. I have watched many riders while in group rides and unless they make a mistake I wouldn't know if they were alert or having a senior moment while on the job.

    Your thoughts on this would be appreciated.

  24. Hi Dennis!
    For starters, I had to remove my pack pre-ride so that the Chief Examiner could see my entire upper body and he told me not to worry about his road positioning as he'd be moving around to see what I was doing. I'm only a raw beginner but it's probably not as hard as you might think. For a given set of circumstances (e.g a bend, following traffic and so on), your positioning relative to the correct position is easy to assess. Similarly, the Observer should be able to see you changing gear, including block changing if appropriate.

    Even though I've only just started out on the improvement journey, I find that I'm picking up faults by other riders and drivers much more readily.

  25. Dennis:
    Forgot to mention that a running commentary during the observed ride through a bike to bike headset is also a fair indicator of what you're up to as well!


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