Mirror, signal, petrol: how to keep going during your motorcycle L-test

by Jill Boulton

It’s 20 years this year since I bought my first motorcycle, and just a little longer than that since I passed my L-test, in November 1997. At that time I was working as a journalist at the legendary Northern Echo newspaper in Darlington, County Durham. Like all journalists, I loved a freebie so I jumped at the chance of free motorcycle lessons, which led to me taking my test in November 1997. An incredible 20 years ago this week, The Northern Echo published this article about my L-test, with this picture of me ‘shopping’ for a new bike, which showed I had a lot to learn about finding the right ‘look’ … !

Mirror, signal, petrol

(First published in The Northern Echo 13/01/1998)

Jill Boulton

THE day of reckoning dawned cold, wet and windy, and it was with some trepidation that I rode the trusty Yamaha SR 125 from its home in Yarm to Darlington to prepare for my motorcycle test.

Those heady, sunny days of late summer, when the Yam and I had shared such fun, were suddenly put into stark perspective. The many carefree hours I had spent astride the machine were now insignificant compared with the enormous task that loomed ahead.

The road to my driving test had been a long and difficult one. First, I had had to pass Cleveland Motorcycle Training Scheme’s proficiency test – not a prerequisite for a date with the examiner, but necessary for insurance purposes if candidates are to hire one of the course bikes for the test, and an excellent, thorough grounding for the novice rider.

I failed the test first time – for not revising my maintenance knowledge and for failing to obey two signs during the road test: one which advised me of the legal speed limit, and another telling me to stop. Stop, I was told by instructor Malcolm, does not mean that you slow down to 3mph, look both ways and then proceed – it means stop.

I tried to convince myself that mistakes like this are positive learning experiences: do it once, and you are unlikely to do it again. Or so goes the theory.

The following week, about ten of us took a trip from our course centre at Conyers School, Yarm, to Hartlepool. On my return to Yarm, I was congratulated on having passed my proficiency test, and presented with a graduate badge and certificate. I felt as proud as the day I passed my cycling proficiency test.

The weeks before the real test were ones for learning many lessons on the road. I once borrowed another course bike for some practice, and instructor Jim and I went for a spin. Trainees are taught to check their machines before ‘blasting’ off (brakes, lights, steering, tyres) but in this instance I omitted to check the fuel tank for petrol. I promptly ran out on a hill.

“You won’t do it again," said instructor Peter when I was pillioned back to base by Jim after pushing the bike up the remainder of the hill.

My nervousness increased as the hours before the test dwindled. Soon it was time. I parked the SR next to a BMW I guessed belonged to the examiner – a good move, I thought – and ventured inside the test centre. Before long, the examiner had fitted my helmet with an earpiece so I could hear his instructions and off we went: me on my tiny 125, quaking in my boots, looking like a cross between a lollipop lady and a down-and-out in my fluorescent bib and waterproofs; he, tall, smart and authoritative on his BMW.

“How are you getting on?" he smiled when we stopped after a few minutes’ riding. I jumped. Why was he being so nice? “Er, okay, I think, but I’m very nervous," I replied, nervously.

“Well, if you’re not nervous you wouldn’t be normal," he said – and with that I relaxed a little, and off we went again.

The rest of the test was a blur of nervy and jerky riding, apart from one memorable incident: I ran out of petrol and had to use the reserve tank.

Fortunately, we had already stopped and so the highly embarrassing oversight on my part was not dangerous, but Peter’s words had come back to haunt me.

As I left the test centre with my pass certificate, two men outside the bike shop White Bros asked me how I had got on. I gave them the thumbs-up.

“Well, smile then," they said …