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Welcome to Paul and Tracy's main blog. Here you can keep track of what we've been up to, and join us on our adventures.

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Friday, March 27, 2009


2 Weekends on 2 Wheels...

It's been a fairly hectic time since my last post way back when... actually it was only just 2 weeks ago, but it seems an awful lot longer!

First, was my weekend escape to BMW Rider Training in South Wales. After the saga with the boiler I was looking forward to getting away and so when Tracy came home from picking up Carlie from Manchester railway station at 3pm, I donned my bike gear and went to get the bike out of the garage. That's when things started to go a little awry - the bike was running terribly and a warning light was shining brightly on the dash. And there were no brakes, as the ABS was not working. Just what I needed with a long ride ahead! Investigations revealed that the warning light was on because the rear stop/tail light had failed, and although it still went brighter when the brakes were applied (the tail light filament glowing hotter) it wasn't right. The engine roughness abated when the engine was warm, and the ABS started working fine when the bike was rolling again (the diagnostic check initially performed on start-up had failed the first time, perhaps a consequence of the other problems). So, delayed by over 1.5 hours I finally set off, via the petrol station for a new rear bulb, just after 5pm. The ride down to Wales was brilliant, though, once I'd cleared the motorway section to Chester and got on the A483 proper. This road is a great biking road, even in the dark, and twists and turns its way almost all the way to Brecon. With the Sat-Nav programmed with the postcode of the B&B I'd be staying at it wasn't difficult to find my way to the gravel drive leading to the house. And what a house. Set in 18 acres of farmland, the B&B is run by a lovely couple called Steve and Mari - and they're both bikers (although she's not yet passed her test). They made me feel instantly at home and showed me to my room at the back of the house, and very comfortable it was too. Tired from the journey down, which had taken just over 4.5 hours including a stop at the chippy for tea, I said goodnight and grabbed a quick shower before hitting the sack.

In the morning I met the rest of the guests over breakfast - Dave, Paul and Gary who were all doing the same Level 3 Road Skills and RoSPA training course as me, and Sherry who was taking her Direct Access and bike test the same week. Breakfast was excellent - naturally a full-cooked affair (Welsh by location, English by chef!) - and when we'd eaten our fill we mounted up and headed to the Industrial Estate where BMW Road Skills are based (in the same unit as Globebusters, as it's also run by Kevin Sanders, opposite adventure bike bling shop Touratech and next door to the BMW Off Road School). Once there we met up with Kevin and Emmett, who would be our main instructors for the 3-days of training and Jenny & Paul who would be also instructing us. As Kevin is also the guy running the Trans-Am trip I'm on later this year, I was pleased when he said he'd be instructing Paul and me, with Emmett instructing Dave and Gary.

I won't recount the whole 3 days training as it would take far too long and probably not make rivetting reading (does this stuff ever do?!), suffice to say that there were many highs (the roads round the Brecon Beacons are a great place to ride bikes, the instruction given was really interesting, my riding improved immensely, seeing Paul follow me down a narrow track whilst I was leading on a BMW R1200RT which is hardly an ideal bike for the conditions, etc) and lows (dropping my bike 3 times whilst performing tight full-lock u-turns and losing my confidence, being brake-tested by a prat in a car who signalled to turn right just as I was lining up an overtake then pulled left and did an emergency stop). But overall, the highs far outweighed the lows, and the perfect weather, great accommodation, superb instruction and entertaining company (Dave was hilarious, Paul 'the knowledge' seemed to have explanations for everything, most of which were on the far side of geeky!) made for a fantastic 3 days.

Then came the 4th day. The day of the RoSPA test...

To put this into some context, 12 years ago I did my 1st advanced training with the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) and passed my test. The IAM test is not graded, and has no re-testing requirement, so once passed, you're an advanced rider for life (unless you get a lot of points on your licence and they kick you out). The RoSPA test, by comparison, is a lot tougher. Both are assessed by serving or former Police Class 1 motorcyclists and are based on the system from Roadcraft (the Police Riders/Drivers manual), but the RoSPA test is graded, Bronze, Silver and Gold, with Gold being the highest level of civilian riding qualification available. It also has a 3-year re-test requirement. An IAM pass is widely considered to be equivalent of a RoSPA Bronze pass, reflecting the tougher nature of the test. Now I don't normally get nervous before a test (never have), but this time I was sh*tting myself (not literally, that would have been an instant fail!). I've always taken pride in my riding, but this was putting it on the line to be assessed against the highest standard I can (I'm too old to re-train in the Police and besides, I don't like the uniform...). And I'd already dropped my bike 3 times in the previous 2 days. Not exactly the frame of mind that's conducive to a quality ride!

We had a road ride prior to the test, whilst Dave and Gary went out for their tests, and that helped settle my nerves. Dave was first on, and passed with a Silver. He looked drained. I got more worried (I'd only ridden a few miles with him, but knew he could ride well). Gary got a Gold - an excellent result, especially as he was the least experienced of the 4 of us. And then it was my turn. I met Tilly, the examiner and introduced myself. He introduced himself, which was hardly necessary as Kevin had told us about him already - he used to instruct for them after he'd retired from the force. Where he was the chief instructor and examiner for all the Police riders in South Wales. Chances of getting away with anything - zilch!

The test itself started well, and I was feeling good until we left a national speed limit road and entered an industrial estate, with a 30mph limit. No problem, I'm used to keeping to the limit and was OK. Until we stopped and he made some notes, then asked me to u-turn. My stomach dropped into my boots. Normally, u-turns don't bother me at all, I've always had good slow-speed control, but the past couple of days had robbed me of my confidence. Dropping the bike or hitting a curb would be an instant fail (an advanced rider should not have a problem with something that's part of the standard driving test!). Heart in mouth I performed the u-turn like a novice, but successfully. And breathed again. Off we set, leaving the industrial estate and re-joining the main road heading in the opposite direction to the way we'd entered. Despite looking frantically I could not see any speed limit signs signalling that we'd left the 30mph limit and so stuck to that. Wrong. I'd missed the signs. I corrected my error at the next roundabout (spotting 30moph limits off each exit gave the game away). Later in the test I also mis-judged my entry to a right turn and cut the corner, entering on the wrong side of the road (which was clear, but it's still not acceptable). So I didn't get the Gold I'd been aiming for - but I did get a Silver, which is a step up from my IAM pass. After the past couple of days I was relieved to have got it all over with, and there's no doubt my riding has been freshened up and improved as a result. Well worth the money. I'll try for Gold next time!

After the test I headed for home, enjoying the ride back in the daylight, finally getting home early evening to join Tracy in our freezing home. Whilst I'd been enjoying the delights of the roads round the Brecon Beacons, the heating engineer had come to fix the boiler, only to discover it needed a part that would not be available until Wednesday (the day after my test). As I couldn't even have a shower before going in to work, I decided to work from home on Wednesday, and as I'd been away for over 2 weeks it allowed me to catch up on the emails and organisation changes that had happened whilst I'd been away. Then the boiler man came and declared he'd been given the wrong part... we gave him a severe ear-bashing and he said he'd be back the following day with the right part. Damn.

On Thursday I had to go into work for an all-day workshop, so I got up early and went in, making use of the gym's showers to rid myself of helmet-hair and a day and night's smelly sweat. I'm sure my colleagues appreciated the effort. I did.

After work, I drove home and got changed into my bike gear again ready for the return to South Wales. The bike still sounded rough on start-up, but I managed to get away around 4.30pm, and this time sticking rigidly to the Sat-Nav instructions took the alternative route to the M56 to Chester, via the M62. Which was a car park. When I finally got to the roundabout leading on to it, and saw the extent of the gridlock, I turned round and headed back the way I know, stopping to fix the rear light again because the new bulb had come loose, resulting in the warning light reappearing. Then I got stuck in more traffic on the way to the motorway, finally getting onto the M60 just afer 5.20pm - a journey that would normally take 15mins had already taken 50 - which didn't bode well for my arrival at the pub I'd be staying at for the weekend...

Once cleared of the traffic, the journey was once again very enjoyable, chasing my headlight down the twisty A483, riding according to the system and making what the police would call "good progress" (with a road that twisty and a 60mph speed limit, it's not illegal...). I finally arrived at the Abercrave Inn just before 9.30pm, having only stopped for fuel once. The rest of the Trans-Am team were all there, looking like they'd been there a while, so I grabbed a couple of pints to help close the gap... Then it was off to bed.

The following 2 days were spent riding BMW's bikes in the forest, being taught basic off-road skills by an expert. The course was a repeat of the one Tracy and I both did in 2007, and comprised learning skills such as how to pick a bike up (I'd already practiced that enough the weekend before!), riding very tight circles stood up (no more u-turn fear for me!), locking the back brake, locking and releasing the front brake (the release being very important as if it's not released quickly, you crash), steep hill descents, hill recovery, steep ascents and riding through mud, water, ruts, deep gravel and other exciting surfaces. The course usually has a few casualties (as Tracy found when she broke her foot) and this one was no exception. Rich had a tumble which resulted in him turning the colour of fresh snow and spending most of day 1 in A&E; then on the 2nd day Greg (who's doing the Patagonia trip rather than the full Trans-Am) had a bad fall which was made worse when his bike slam-dunked onto his foot, breaking it in 3 places (fortunately his trip doesn't start until November, so he has plenty of time to recover). Despite the carnage, the course was excellent and we all had a laugh. I was very relieved to have survived it intact, my cautious approach paying dividends as I didn't fall or drop the bike once - quite a contrast to the previous weekend!

Whilst I was doing the course on Saturday, Bernie, the engineer who works out of the Globebuster's unit had a look at my bike (he'd had a quick look prior to my RoSPA test and got it running a bit better, so I'd arranged for him to have a proper look). The news is not good, as he suspects it is losing compression on one cylinder causing the rough running and the cut-outs (which I now blame for the issues with my u-turns...). Unable to diagnose it further, he did his best and refused any payment. So it'll need to go to the dealer for a full investigation as soon as possible.

Sunday was an altogether different sort of day, as we went through all the paperwork we need to complete before the trip. With my new passport having arrived with lots of blank pages, and an appointment at the US embassy for my visa, I'm starting to get prepared, but still have to sort out an International Driving Permit, bike insurance for the US&Canada and Central/South America, check my vaccinations, and then get my bike to the frieght depot on 4th July for its flight to Anchorage. The meeting got us all very excited, to say the least...

Once more I got to ride home along the A483, this time with a little more caution in case the bike failed (it didn't), getting home at a reasonable hour to a warm house and hot shower... the boiler was fixed on Thursday just before I'd set off south.

On Monday I arranged for the bike to go into Allan Jeffries in Shipley on 1st April, the earliest they could take it, and so have been confined to using the car to get to work and back. The past week has been very hectic, and I'd covered nearly 1,500miles on my bike (not to mention the miles covered on the BMW Off Road School bikes in the forest). I just hope that I can get the bike fixed quickly (and it doesn't cost too much), as using the car is just horrible!

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