I could have shown you a picture of my motorbike lying on its side in the car park, but that might have been too brutal…
“It’s not for everyone, the Advanced Rider Course,” my examiner was saying as he helped me recover the Honda 750NT from its prone position in a corner of Morrisons’ huge car park on the outskirts of Kendal. “It’s rather demanding and does tend to shred the ego…”
He’s a very decent man (let’s call him Paul), this examiner of would-be graduates of the UK’s Institute of Advanced Motorists (and Riders). I had known him less than sixty seconds and could tell that he had both integrity and humour – but, as examiners must – a determined and steely nature.
I could see in his eyes a certain degree of concern that his latest charge had begun their examination with an early arrival (tick;) a pleasant and informed greeting (tick); and had then transformed their attempt to put the Honda onto its centre stand – for stability – (tick) into a bruised horizontal motorbike lying on the wet tarmac with a good number of Monday’s shoppers staring on in confusion…
“Let’s pretend it never happened,” Paul said, kindly. “You sure it’s okay for you to carry on?”
It was. There were two scrapes along the exhaust and the rear brake pedal had been adjusted inwards… but it still worked. The wind deflector on the right handlebar had been ripped at its main juncture with the handlebar. If one could be colder than I already was that was going to be my fate on this dark, January morning.
“Do you fancy going up Shap?” Paul asked reasonably, as though I had a choice in this matter. My face conspired to look enthused. Storm Brendan was arriving with a vengeance as we put in our earplugs, under-helmet balaclavas and thick winter gloves. Paul watched me mount my iron steed. I think he’d decided to wait before getting on his own bike… in case I dropped it, again.
Mercifully, I didn’t, and within minutes we were headed into Kendal’s infamous one-way system. Time for me to show off – sorry, demonstrate – my ‘filtering in traffic’ skills. There weren’t too many opportunities, but I managed to steal a march on a few cars and inserted myself in front of them with a peacemaking wave of the left glove.
But then came Shap… You may already know of the celebrated Shap ‘high road’ – otherwise know as the old A6 link to Scotland. It’s twenty miles of Cumbria’s most extreme and barren terrain and boasts the second highest road summit in England. Before the M6 motorway formed its wonderful link with Scotland, going over the ‘Shap Summit’ was the only way to get there – except the train. Winter saw heavy snowfalls and the winding beast of a road was populated with giant truckers’ cafes – several of which were used as temporary shelters in savage winters like that of 1963, when Shap was closed for days and sometimes weeks at a time.
I was winding up the A6, flowing to right and left, matching the changing visibility ahead with the contours of the road, watching as the speed limits changed up from thirty, to forty to sixty – the maximum for a ‘National Speed Limit’ road in the UK – unless it’s a dual carriageway. Sixty is not fast on a motorway, but on wet tarmac in a ‘switchback’ landscape, it’s very easy to overdo it and find yourself in danger.
But managing that had been what I had been taught for the six months of the course; as my two highly-skilled supervisors showed me a completely different way of being aware of the road ahead – and its opportunities and dangers…
Getting into that climbing ‘flow’ gave me time to think… about Jinxi. She’s my ‘spirit of 13’. You see, thirteen has always been my lucky number – really! Anything that comes up with a thirteen is grabbed by me, immediately. Jinxi is the mysterious ‘spirit’ that seems to engineer the benefits and their cost when I try to collect on my lucky thirteen. They usually materialise – but I also have to deal with something else, first.
Today was (and still is at the time of writing) the 13th January. It’s dark, cold and threatened by one of the worst storms in recent memory coming at us from the Atlantic. I’d like to blame the fallen Honda on the winds… but they were only just beginning.
No… the fallen Honda was Jinxi’s work.
Now, the air was getting colder and wilder and seemed to wrap itself around me, trying to breach the suddenly-inadequate textile riding suit and thermals. There’s an inner battle at these moments, when you’re cranked over at a steep angle at nearly sixty miles per hour and your life hangs on the acuity of those beautiful Michelin rubber things that are managing the tarmac for you.
I know the road well – having recently had a strong sense of intuition (Jinxi?) that it would be used by Paul in the real test. I knew he liked how it combined twisty mountain roads with sudden speed changes… and left you feeling very exposed and dependent on your own resources. It’s a tough and often brutal landscape, but, thankfully, this part of the test was only going to take an hour… a very long hour.
About fifty metres behind me, Paul was watching my every move, and checking I had understood the route.
The edge of Storm Brendan had definitely arrived by the time I pulled onto the M6 slip road to begin a short motorway section of the test. The bike started to shake in the side wind and I felt my arms go tense. This is a mistake, but it’s very hard to fight as you start rocking at the side of enormous wagons thundering down towards Tebay at the end of the descent from the Shap summit. And this rocking is now taking place at seventy miles per hour… with just two wheels and an engine underneath you and Storm Brendan behind.
Suddenly, the thought of Jinxi didn’t seem so funny.
Paul is, of course, far more experienced in these conditions than I am. If it’s windy I avoid motorways on the bike. On the test you have to take what comes. I was to pull off the motorway at the Tebay service for a review of progress so far. I could tell Peter was happier with my pace on the A6 than the motorway, but didn’t dwell on it. My last assignment at the motorway services was to perform a U-turn in a narrow width to simulate a road. I had practiced this the day before – ironically at the back of Morrisons’ supermarket – and so had little difficulty.
Then it was back on the motorway for a final, blowy, two miles before exiting at Tebay and joining the snaking Appleby road back towards Kendal. Like most keen bikers, Paul’s preference was for ‘the twisty stuff’, the secondary benefit of which was that the stone walls and hedgerows reduced the savage buffeting of the winds.
I knew that Paul – like all the IAM supervisors I’d met – liked to ‘make progress’. This is a euphemism for going as fast as is safe within the allowed speed limits. I knew I’d not done well on the motorway – I later confessed to him that I had actually been frightened by the wind’s intensity. I had to recover some points towards my total and the only way to do that was to ride like a thing possessed – but safely! Wasn’t that the essence of what I’d been taught for the past six months?
We arrived back at Morrisons, exhilarated and without incident. Peter got off his BMW smiling. “I enjoyed the pace of that” he said, giving me a look that had some hope in it.
A visit to the toilet was essential before we sat down with a hot drink in the cafeteria and reviewed the results of my ride. Motorcycle helmets are bulky things and supermarket toilets are tiny. The only place I could find to store mine was upside down in one of the sinks. As the opening photo shows, it was good fit and utilised one of the few contours that would hold the unwieldy yellow object. Satisfied that it wasn’t going to roll off anything, I turned to wash my hands in the second sink. The water flow was triggered by a sensor and I smiled at the effective automation.
Jinxi was smiling, too…
As I turned to the hand-drier, I could hear that my tap had failed to turn off. I looked again at the sink I had used. Nothing… But in the next sink along, the tap pointed down at my upturned helmet was busy filling the sink’s yellow occupant with tepid water.
There was no point rushing. I stood and marvelled at the deviousness of the familiar spirit of mischief. When it had finished its flood, I picked up the helmet and gently inverted it, emptying a substantial quantity of water into the sink.
Jinxi had enjoyed a busy day. I collected our drinks and returned to the table to see that Paul was halfway through filling out the form that would become my verdict…
Did I pass? Jinxi had done her work and I had paid my dues on this Monday the thirteenth. Later, standing at my now dirty and scraped bike, I swung the sodden helmet onto my head and, water tricking down my scalp and into my jacket, started the Honda.
In my waterproof pocket was tucked a small blue and white card.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.