Monday, February 18, 2013

Getting in gear

"The transmission on this thing is kind of fubared," I say, trying to jam the bedraggled Yamaha back into first gear.

"Well, give it a bit of time, Chris, I'm sure it will come to you," says the bloke stuck watching me stall out the 125cc bike as I attempt to do circles in a car park.

He doesn't believe me. But then, why would he?

Kick, kick, kick. Clutch out, clutch in, clutch out. Roll back, roll forward. Kick, kick, kick. Finally, the neutral light goes out and I return to the all-important task of perpetually turning right.

"See if you can get it up to second in the straight, Chris," he shouts.

I am doing my CBT –– Compulsory Basic Training –– the first step in the prohibitively complex process of becoming fully licensed to ride a motorcycle in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The CBT is shaping up to be very much like the whole of the licensing process I went through in Minnesota when I was 18 years old. In that process, I was required to watch a film, then listen to a dude with a mullet explain the benefits of wearing leather before being led out to a parking lot and explained the bits of a motorcycle. Then I drove around some cones for half an hour and was handed a piece of paper saying I was legal to ride.

In Britain, this is just the beginning. There are several more steps after the CBT: at least three days more training and four tests.

Paul, my instructor, has already spoken to me on the virtues of wearing a helmet and protective clothing. He's not keen on leather. A large man with just a slight lilt in his accent that reminds me of Matt Baker, but with the Welsh valleys habit of incorporating into every sentence the name of the person to whom he is speaking, I get the sense that in a more social situation he might be disparaging of motorcyclists who prefer leather, might suggest they suffer from some kind of fetish. No such sentiment has been actually spoken by Paul but I still feel silly for having shown up wearing a leather jacket.

On the positive side, he did commend me for my extensive knowledge of the Highway Code.

I have been going around in circles for roughly 30 minutes, in a car park that is no more than 50 metres in length. I struggle to accept that there is actually enough space to get into second gear before needing to drop back down to first for the corner. After stalling the bike half a dozen times attempting to downshift I decide I will just get the damn thing into second and keep it there.

"Very good, Chris. Up to third when you're comfortable," Paul shouts.

For those of you playing along at home, the gears on a motorcycle are manipulated by your left foot. You pull in the clutch with your left hand and move a little lever up or down accordingly with your foot. Bafflingly, the gears go like this: 1 N 2 3 4 5. (Many bikes have a sixth gear) Because the transmission on the bike I'm riding is awful, I am occasionally mashing it into neutral when I downshift. This isn't a terrible thing, but the high revving that results from throttling up when I think I'm in gear is, I know, communicating to my instructor that I'm an idiot.

I decide to go with the trick of simply keeping it in third. I am now whipping around the car park in a tight circle that make me think of the Cage of Death that was a requisite part of circuses when I was a boy. 

Paul signals for me to stop. I bring the bike to a halt roughly 6 feet away from him, still having not yet adjusted to the shorter stopping distances of a motorcycle. He has me get off and asks that I simply watch as he demonstrates emergency stops.

"Oh, sugar," he says as he putters the bike toward the end of the car park. "These gears are a mess."

I feel tremendously vindicated.

Paul allows me little time to revel in this victory and has me guess how much distance he'll need for an emergency stop. Again I gauge it based on how much space I'd need to stop my bicycle. I overestimate by roughly 10 feet. The hard stop throws the transmission forward and Paul struggles to find neutral.

"Bit of a trick, that one," he says. "We had someone drop it the other day. Have to get it looked at. But if you want to hop on, Chris, and give the emergency stop a go."

I ride the bike to a corner of the car park, turn around and come at Paul as fast as I can. He stands there like a matador and raises his hand, signalling me to stop.

I stop. Hard.

"Looking for control here, Chris," he says. "We'll give it another go."

I do it again with lesser chaos. It was after this part they gave me my motorcycle endorsement in Minnesota. In the car park of Whitchurch High School, however, Paul just sets up some cones. I do figure 8s and slow cornering and pretending to check for traffic. After a few minutes of this we have our fourth tea of the day, and Paul bolsters my confidence by complimenting my sense of balance. I sign a piece of paper I don't read but that I am certain absolves 1st Class Rider Training of any and all responsibility should I get myself killed. Then we head out onto the road. The actual road full of actual cars.

If you have never driven in Britain, the basic rule here is: PAY ATTENTION TO ALL THE THINGS. There are roughly 32 million cars in this country, squished into a space smaller than the state of Oregon (population 3.9 million) and driving through towns and cities that, for the most part, were laid out long before anyone even imagined a car. Maneuvering the country's narrow roads is a challenging and stressful experience. Especially so when you are sitting on an unfamiliar and mechanically touchy motorcycle, and have the slightly Matt-Baker-sounding voice of God echoing through your skull.

I have jammed a radio earpiece into my helmet so I can hear Paul's instructions as we move down the road. His voice is calm, soothing, but equally unnerving because, you know, it's in my head. Having long been one to toe the line of sanity, I am quite used to having voices in my head, but generally they are aware of one another. In this case, Matt Baker God doesn't seem to be listening to what everyone else in my head is saying. It's off-putting.

"Cyclist on left. Empty cars. Old lady peeking from behind car on right. Oncoming car slowing, possibly planning to turn left," says the highly-tuned Safety Voice in my head.

Because I cycle to work every day, I've gotten really good at quickly identifying and assessing the various hazards on the road.

"OK, Chris," Matt Baker God says pleasantly. "Coming to a built-up area here. What's that elderly woman going to do? Mind that silver car, where's it headed? The cyclist, Chris. Eyes on the cyclist."

Matt Baker God is identifying all the things I've seen already but in a different order. Because he is inside my head, I can't help assuming he has heard the other voices already and is now identifying new aspects of the hazards. Perhaps the old lady is armed, or the cyclist on fire. My adrenaline level cranks to 11, my eyes dart around fearing I have missed something and that a very hurty collision is imminent. No. Nothing new. In the confusion I make an awkward downshift.

"Nice and easy, Chris," says Matt Baker God. "Coming to a stop now, Chris. Remember: ABC."

British people love speaking in acronyms and Paul has spent the day offering me a hearty alphabet soup for which I cannot remember the significance: OSL-PSL, PINS, BOLT, and so on. I am now past the point of even considering trying to recall the meaning of ABC (1) and simply bring the bike to a lurching halt 10 feet short of the line.

"Drivers are easily confused, Chris," says Matt Baker God. "Stop that short of the line and they're liable to try to come 'round you, which can be very dangerous."

It goes on like this for an indefinite amount of time. Matt Baker God's perception of the world is oh-so-slightly different enough to add more confusion. When he tells me to turn "just past that tall tree," for example, I temporarily get lost in an internal discussion of what qualifies as tall amongst the four equal-sized trees ahead of me.

At a roundabout, I spot a woman completely unaware of my presence. Almost by accident, I honk at her, which emits a pleasantly surprised kind of cheer from Matt Baker God.

"Clever use of the horn, Chris."

I get lost in the immediacy of my actions –– assessing and responding to all the things, doing whatever Matt Baker God tells me –– and become wholly unaware of my geographical position. Eventually I find myself being directed into a McDonald's car park in a boxy retail park. I have no idea where I am; I can't even guess.

"We'll get something to eat here, Chris," says Paul. "Sun's out. Want to sit outside?"

Any time the sun shines, the British insist upon pretending it is summer. It is 7C (44F) and I am physically shaking from cold and adrenaline; I would very much like to sit somewhere warm and close my eyes for a moment. But because I have trained myself to simply respond to Paul's voice I nod in agreement. I buy MgNuggets and fries and consume them in greedy handfuls. This is the first time I have eaten at a McDonalds since 2005. I have missed out on nothing in the interim 8 years.

Lunch over, we get back on the bikes and head out.

"I'm just going to let you ride, Chris," says Matt Baker God. "Try to remember your routines. Relax. Enjoy riding."

We reach a section of country lane, then out past some fields. I push the little Yamaha to 55 mph, which is about all she will do. The throttle is rolled all the way back. The wind blows cool through my helmet. The gas tank is cold against my thighs. The cantankerous machine I have been swearing at all day melts away and now I am just gliding past rolling green. There is no real sense of controlling a mechanical thing; it moves almost on the power of my thought.

The great cliche occurs: I feel free.

We turn onto Thornhill Road and head down, into Cardiff. My heart sinks a little because I know we are on our way back. Soon we are heading into Whitchurch Village and Matt Baker God is directing me to the car park of Whitchurch High School.

"A very good ride there, Chris," says Paul after I cut the engine. "I'm quite happy with that."

We go back inside the no-heat classroom and he fills out a piece of paper. He shakes my hand and that is it. I have my CBT; I am licensed now to ride a 125cc motorcycle –– under certain restrictions –– and free to carry on toward becoming fully licensed. There's a long way to go yet, but I know it'll be worth the effort.


(1) Accelerator, Brake, Clutch - the order of things to pay attention to when stopping. After, of course, checking my mirrors.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ability and audacity

I cycle past the Senedd every day. Well, every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. But still, it's kind of a nifty thing. If my life were a film and its producers strangely insistent upon keeping Cardiff as the setting, they would almost certainly have me cycling past the Senedd every day.

It's an establishing shot, you see. Nothing says "This story is set in Wales" quite so firmly as having someone pedal past the seat of Welsh legislative power. Of course, if the film were shown anywhere outside of Wales (or, indeed, in a fair few places within), the significance of the Senedd might not be immediately recognizable. I'm sure Americans would think my commute took me past a really swanky Holiday Inn.

I'm part of the elite 2.3 percent of Cardiffians who commute on bicycle (1), an act facilitated by a relatively temperate climate and a handful of traffic-free cycle routes. One of those routes is the one that takes me past the Senedd -- a roughly 1.25-mile stretch of car-free road connecting Cardiff Bay to Penarth. It is a route that suffers occasionally from inattentive skateboarders and frequently from strong gusts of wind that cut across the bay and Severn Channel, but those things are tolerable given the absence of speeding multi-ton metal boxes.

The other section of my commute, however, requires that I be on the roads: tiny, cars-parked-on-both-sides streets; hectic, there-are-no-rules intersections; and sooty, drive-as-fast-as-you-can city arteries. In Penarth I have to be alert for high-strung parents taking their children to work and drivers who are keen to do everything in their car other than, you know, drive (2). On the roads in Cardiff Bay I find myself dodging buses, white vans, and visitors to the city who DON'T HAVE A CLUE where they are going. And, of course, all of these people have to get wherever it is they are going now. No, now. Right now.

"If cycling conditions remain much as they are across Britain, cycling will remain a very minor mode of urban mobility, practised mainly by a committed hardcore of cyclists who feel able to 'do battle' with motorised traffic," wrote Guardian reporter Peter Walker in a recent blog article.

There is a sense of that in my commute, most certainly. When I get ready in the mornings -- pulling on Lycra, fastening Velcro straps, pulling on a high-visibility vest and clicking the clasp of my helmet -- I am reminded of the ritual of getting ready for a contact sport. I think of my brother when he played ice hockey, fastening all the pads, or myself before a rugby match, taping my ankles, knees and wrists.

On the road, too, my mind clicks in the same way it did when I played rugby, trying always to keep aware of and away from the 15 guys who wanted to tackle me. But getting hit by even the most vindictive prop is still preferable to collision with a Ford, so in the back of my mind there is knowledge that the repercussion for mistakes may be severe.

I have no doubt this is part of why the percentage of bicycling commuters is so low. If you were to ask my mother, for example, to navigate some of my route ("OK, Mom, you just need to zip across these three lanes, hell for leather, and move into this turning lane. When you get there, you'll probably want to not put your foot down because the gaps between cars are very small and you'll need to be able to get going again very quickly -- there will be a large van or truck behind you, which will give you exactly 3 inches of space.") she would patently refuse. Hold a gun to her head and she would seriously consider the bullet.

City cycling produces challenges some people are not willing to take on. It requires ability -- knowing the laws, being aware in what ways those laws are most commonly broken by drivers, and the physical/mental stamina and agility to maneuver through and amongst cars -- but also audacity. A confidence cranked to 11. Arrogance. The power to exude your will over people who can kill you simply by putting their foot down. Anyone who's known me for a while is probably aware that I am fully capable of being a hyper-aggressive ass. I generally try very hard to avoid being such a person, but on the road I find it hard to imagine how I could be anything else and still stay safe.

To that end, I often think it is not just the conditions that keep cyclist numbers low, but also those who are cycling.

There is the attitude, of course. Having spent many years on the fringes of the minority community that is the Welsh-speaking world I have learned that niche groups, communities of people outside the mainstream, are often littered with obnoxious, evangelical zealots. In the Welsh world it's the All-Welsh-All-the-Time hyper-nationalists who are desperate to turn any outsider's action into an affront; in the cycling community it's the people who reference the Dutch in every conversation and seem to place motor vehicles somewhere on the Evil List near Nazism and baby punching.

Then there is all this gear we're wearing. Oh, for the love of Pete, we wear so much purpose-built gear. Lycra, helmets, breathable windbreakers, Velcro straps, gloves, scarves, special bags, special shoes, lights, reflectors. And the cottonpicking high-vis. The phrases "bad-ass" and "high-vis" are almost never uttered in the same sentence. I hate wearing high-vis, but also can't deny that every time someone moves past my office window wearing high-visibility clothing my eye is automatically drawn to him or her. High-vis is supposed to make me see a person, and against the interminable gray of daily British life it is very effective.

I have to think it's all likely to put off a novice. It creates the feeling that you have to act a certain way, have to look a certain way, and have to spend a certain amount of money before you can even take part.

In the equally small and silly motorcycling world there is the word ATGATT: All the gear all the time. It's a term used for that guy who dresses like he's about to do the Isle of Mann time trial when he goes out to get milk. The ATGATTer's response, of course, is simply to point to his skin and note that it's all there -- a crash is going to have the same effect regardless of destination or intent.

The same is true for bicyclists. Indeed, I have lately been legitimately considering getting a full-face helmet (3). But there's no denying I look like a damned fool. And even if I don't look as silly as I feel, if I were someone trying to promote cycling I'd worry a person would look at me -- or any of the other roughly 9,000 commuting cyclists in Cardiff -- and think: "I don't have all that gear, nor do I have the money for all that gear, so cycling isn't for me."

What all of this means, however, I don't know. The reason I started writing this post was simply to note that I cycle past the Senedd thrice a week, which, as I say, is a kind of nifty thing to have in one's commute. Whether I actually enjoy my commute, and whether I think other people should be doing the same thing. I'm not sure.


(1) A somewhat impressive figure if you consider that Welsh attitudes toward commuting via anything other than car are often quite similar to American ones. It is higher than the UK average but still a good distance from London, where as much as 10 percent of the population -- depending on neighborhood -- uses a bicycle.
(2) Seriously, yo, if you text and drive I have nothing kind to say to you. I don't care how slow you think traffic is moving, nor how good a driver you think you are. I have friends who text and drive and, genuinely, I wish injury upon them. Nothing awful, nothing from which they cannot recover fully, but I think they deserve a very expensive accident that results in a major broken bone and months of discomfort.
(3) Not only would it provide considerably more protection in a collision, I think it would also signal to drivers that I may be insane and should be given wide berth.

Friday, February 1, 2013


At the start of the year I decided I would quit drinking. This was a resolution that was easily facilitated by the fact that I spent the first several weeks of 2013 suffering some incessant kind of cold that just kept showing up again right as I thought I had rid myself of it. I am determined to simply ignore the fact I'm suffering depression in hopes doing so will convince it, too, to go away, but I have no doubt that said state of mind is a contributing factor in my inability to fully recover physically.

Lord, that was a long sentence.

As I say, I'm not so much 100 percent these days, but I have, at least, arrived at the stage where I'm starting to feel my no-alcohol pledge may have been a bit extreme. I had decided to become a teetotaler because: a) I think CM Punk is cool; b) Beer costs money; c) More often than not booze doesn't improve my mood, and, in fact, has on a number of occasions served only to make things worse. Why spend money to be a miserable person who by his actions is unlikely to win CM Punk's friendship? 

But, the thing is: I kind of like to have a drink every now and then.

So, I have come up with seven exceptions to the no-drinking rule. Accepting that I will still only drink in prudish moderation I've decided it's OK for me to imbibe if one or more of the following conditions are met:
  1. I'm having Rioja, shared with Jenn over a good meal.
  2. I'm having port, eating popcorn and watching "Strictly Come Dancing."
  3. I am eating Mexican food or legitimate barbecue (1).
  4. I am outdoors and it is warm enough for me to comfortably wear just one layer of clothing (e.g, a T-shirt).
  5. I am in a situation that involves open flame. I'm thinking specifically of campfires but would make certain exceptions for fireplaces or chimeneas
  6. I am 40 miles or more away from home.
  7. I am watching a sporting event live, or televised if in the company of at least two other people.

All that probably makes it seem that I've not really given up drinking at all, but you'd be surprised. Some of those things are damned tricky to achieve in Britain, the fourth condition especially. The last time I remember it being warm enough for just a T-shirt was 2010.


(1) If you don't know what I mean by "legitimate" it's a good bet I would be drinking water with whatever you think barbecue is. A clue: it does not in any way whatsoever involve sausages bought at Tesco –– not ever.