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Archived Blog - April 2010 to August 2011

14th February 2010 - The Times they are A-Changin'

It's been quite a while since I last created a blog entry. 2 months in fact. The shock of returning to normality has been, well, quite staggering. Normality is always a relative term, and in my life, normal usually involves a lot of different things. This time has been no exception. We've had the excitement of Christmas, new grandchildren (the gorgeous twins Izzy and Becky), a new bike, the snow, Tracy's boys staying over, Carlie going back to Uni and now we're about to put the house back up for sale again.

In addition, I've been trying to determine what I want to do now that the big motorcycle adventure is over. I've a few ideas, but until they start to crystallise, I'm going to keep them to myself. You'll be able to read about them here, though, as and when they start to happen.

One thing I will reveal is that I've resigned from my job with Lloyds Banking Group and am currently serving my 3 months notice period. It's part of a bigger plan to have a better quality of life, but it does feel rather scary at times, knowing that I won't be receiving a large deposit in my bank account on the 23rd of each month as I do at the moment.

As Bob Dylan so aptly put it, "The times they are a-changing"...

20th March 2010 - House for Sale

I guess it's not too surprising that whilst I was able to easily find time to write the daily blog during the Trans-Am trip once I've returned home and back into the thick of working life, I can't find the time any more. Or the inspiration to sit down in front of a computer screen and pour out a flow of words describing the events that occurred since the previous day. Days blur into one another, and whilst each features something unique, they lack the wide variety that only travelling can really bring.

So please accept my humble apologies for leaving you devoid of my ramblings. I will try harder, and as life becomes more interesting - which it inevitably will very soon - then perhaps I'll find the inspiration to write more frequently once more.

In the meantime, life goes on. I'm getting closer to the day when I finish my traditional working life, at least for as long as we can survive off our savings. I leave full time employment at the end of April. That's going to be a shock to the system for sure, but I am really looking forward to it. No more early mornings catching the train to London, squashed into a tiny seat unable to breathe let alone get the mountains of work that passes through my inbox done. No more seemingly pointless meetings, no more frustration at the time it takes to get anything done, or the endless people that need to be "consulted" in order to make something happen. But also no more intellectual challenges that stretch my knowledge and test my powers of reasoning. No more laughs with those colleagues who really do make me feel like continuing despite my desire to spend my time elsewhere. I'm going to miss some of the people quite a lot, whilst others not a bit. But I've made my decision, and the future looks much more interesting without the 50 or so hours a week work steals from me. Just hope we can manage without the steady income that selling my soul for the last 30 years has brought in...

But I won't know until after I've left how it really works out, and as with all plans I've ever made, the only thing that seems certain is that it won't be quite as planned... but as always, it will probably turn out better than expected!

Meanwhile, we have put our home up for sale. We're still no closer to finalising the compensation claim, which we are reliant on in order to commence the "Good Life" dream, but putting the house up for sale is a start. If you're in the market for a beautiful 4-bedroomed family home with spectacular views, then you could do a lot worse... and at just £175k it's a real bargain... details here.

We did think we'd sold it a week ago when we had a lovely couple and their 2 daughters round to view it. They fell in love with the house, then the following day went to see another that had a larger garden and a garage (the 2 things our home lacks) and bought that instead. Fools.

As for other news, well, I'm doing something really exciting next week, but exactly what you'll have to wait until next weekend to discover... I should get round to updating the blog over the weekend, as I'm sure I'll have something worth writing about!

20th March 2010 - Time to start a new blog

Wow. My website hosting company has stepped in to fill the void left by Google when they stopped their Blogger service from posting blogs to websites hosted elsewhere - which is how I'd previously managed my Blogs. So much for progress...

Anyway, this is all new, so bear with me while I get it working. If it proves easy to use, who knows, perhaps I'll even get back to my writing. I'd like that, as I actually enjoy producing this drivel...

Useful new feature - get notified when a new post has been loaded...

If you've found yourself here, then you obviously have a lot of patience, and must keep coming back from time to time to see if I've bothered to update the Blog. Well, now you no longer need to keep coming back and having your hopes dashed when you discover my sloth-like tendencies. Now you can create your own "reader account" and get notified by email when I've woken from my slumber and posted something... just select "create account" on the left, login and away you go. Try it and let me know how you get on...

But what about the lost buttons?
Fear not. Just click "Home" above and you'll go back to the JustOneMoreMile website.

While you're there, why not check out the new Trans Am Gallery on the gallery page... lots of my favourite pics from my favourite trip... Enjoy!

27th March 2010 - Going back to school

Before I start explaining exactly what I mean by "Going back to school" I need to apologise once more for my tardiness in posting Blog entries, and also for the cheating by posting this one retrospectively. I've done that in order to at least keep the post close to when the events transpired, and also to enable me to post a later post with the latest news. So, without further ado, here's the post that I should have written 2 weeks ago...

Back to School

This week has been very different from a 'normal' week, even by my standards. I've been back to school. Not a normal school, but one of a type I last went to in November 1990. When I was taught how to ride a motorcycle. Only this week, I've been learning how to teach other people how to ride motorcycles, or more accurately, how to conduct "Compulsory Basic Training". Yes, I've started preparing for my new life when I finally escape the clutches of corporate existence and do something I enjoy. I'm starting the process of becoming a qualified Motorcycle Instructor!

What this entails is fairly complex and is tied in to the way that the motorcycle licence system works. Put simply, before anyone can ride a motorcycle on the road, even with L-plates, they need to complete a course of "Compulsory Basic Training" (or CBT) and achieve a suitable standard, after which they are issued with a CBT-Certificate (DL196) that validates the provisional entitlement on their licence and allows them to ride a 125cc bike on L-Plates unaccompanied. They can then work towards passing their motorcycle test. That bit gets more complex if you're over 21, as then you can take the test on a "big bike" (over 46.6bhp) under the "Direct Access Scheme" (DAS) and ride a bike of any size/power, as opposed to taking it on a lower-spec bike and being restricted to 33bhp for 2 years.

In order for someone to be able to teach you to ride, they need to be qualified and licenced to do so. This is where my training comes in. First, you can train with a single school (or "Authorised Training Body") and when they are happy with you they can apply for a licence for you allowing you to teach CBT at their school (so called "Down Trained").Or you attend an assessment at the Driving Standards Agency (DSA) centre in Cardington near Bristol which if you pass you will become licenced to teach CBTs and also train other instructors (and you can then open your own school). The latter is the route I'm going down, as it will allow me to train at several schools as and when it fits in with my hectic schedule, as well as covering me for when we buy the smallholding and move out of the area.

And so it was that on Monday I rode over to West Pennine Motorcycle Motorcycle Training in Darwin near Blackburn on a cold and blustery morning to begin a week's training. They had kindly sent me copies of various DSA publications including the latest Highway Code (which I'd read several times preparing for my RoSPA test last year), the Official Guide to Learning to Ride (which outlines the licencing requirements and structure of the CBT) and the Official DSA Guide to Riding (which I've not actually read....) as well as a CD with practice Theory and Hazard Perception tests on (which is great fun, but infuriating when I don't get 100% on each test!). I thought I was pretty well prepared, but I hadn't anticipated the format the "training" was going to take...

It started with us (there were 2 of us sitting the training, myself and a guy called John who turned up on a Hayabusa!) being introduced to Steve, our trainer. He ran us through the requirements of becoming qualified and then outlined how the course would work Basically, he would run it as though we were on the 2-day Cardington Assessment, with him playing the role of the assessor and us playing the role of potential instructors (one instructing, the other supervising as at Cardington you have to pass as both). It proved to be a very uncomfortable way to learn. For each lesson, we'd be given our roles (instructor or supervisor) and then Steve would drop into his role-play in the same way the Cardington assessor would - pretending that he was a guy who only rode a bicycle, had never ridden a bike or driven a car. After each lesson the supervisor would be asked for his views and then Steve would drop into his assessor persona and tell us we'd failed. And then what we'd missed or done wrong. Rarely did we "pass", despite preparing as much as we could. As an example, at the start of the 2nd day, I was given the "Equipment and Clothing" lesson, where the instructor covers... well... clothing (there's a separate Helmet lesson). I'd prepped the night before and was feeling fairly confident. After 30 minutes of questioning Steve about the clothing he wore on his bicycle and drawing out the differences he needed to consider for motorcycle clothing, I drew the lesson to a close, feeling pretty smug. I'd done what I considered was a good job. Only I'd not mentioned that wearing tee-shirts and shorts was a no-no. Which is in the "bible" (the "Learning to Ride" book). And so needs to be covered. Damn...

Tuesday was spent covering Elements A and B which are classroom and bike-familiarisation lessons and don't actually cover riding the bike, and all the lessons followed the pattern above. It was a stark reminder that despite having been riding for 20 years and having passed both the IAM and RoSPA Advanced Tests (and ridden from Alaska to Argentina) I was still a novice when it came to teaching CBT. And this is what I want to do to earn money in the future...

Things improved immeasurably on Wednesday, when we actually had someone who wanted to do their CBT and Steve could demonstrate how it should be done. Young Matt (18) is a chef at a pub near Clitheroe (The Red Pump Inn) and had been given an old KH100 by a friend (the bike being a full year older than he was!). We watched with great interest as Steve took him through the lessons we'd covered the day before, and double-checked he didn't miss anything, using the chance to ask questions and make notes of some of the techniques he used to get his points across. When it came to Element C, which is the Practical on-site Riding which involves a series of manoeuvres in the car-park, it was fascinating to see how Steve gradually took Matt from being unable to balance properly right through to doing confident emergency-stops and u-turns. With Matt exhibiting good control we covered Element D (preparing for going out onto the road) very quickly as time was running out, and then kitted up with radios before heading out onto the road. With John and me riding at the back but able to hear what Steve was saying, Matt turned left out of the training centre and into the traffic and immediately seemed to lose all confidence. It was terrifying watching him wobble along the road with cars trying to overtake - the only thing that was keeping him safe was Steve's constant instruction through the radio telling him exactly what to do. Talk about real responsibility...

After a couple of hours riding Matt was much more together and doing reasonably well when we arrived back at the training centre. Just before the centre is a mini-roundabout and on the approach there was a red car emerging from the housing estate to the right, which seemed to come to a stop before the roundabout. Matt went straight on, just as the car also went round the roundabout, completely failing to give-way. Fortunately he was lucky and got away with it, but it shook him up a bit. Matt realised immediately what he'd done wrong (failing to give-way) and back at the centre was crest-fallen as he thought he'd not get his certificate. John and I chatted about what we'd do, neither of us happy that we'd sign him off to ride on his own given that mistake. Steve chatted to Matt and made sure that he was happy that Matt had realised his mistake and so learnt from it. He then issued him with his certificate and explained to us that it had been borderline, and he'd only issued it because Matt had immediately recognised his mistake and was convinced he'd not make the same mistake again. Deciding on when to issue the certificate and when not to (i.e. when further training is necessary) is a fine balancing act, as it carries huge responsibility (once they have the certificate, they can ride on their own on a 125cc bike on L-plates with no supervision at all).

Now we'd seen for ourselves what the process of CBT is really all about and what responsibility the instructor carries, it was evident why the Cardington Assessment is so serious. Once qualified, not only can you issue certificates that unleash novice riders onto our busy roads, but you can also train and request licences for others to do so within your own training school.

Thursday and Friday continued in the same vein as Monday and Tuesday, but this time without John. We don't know why, but he phoned to say he wouldn't be completing the course. Perhaps the realisation of the responsibility he would carry as an instructor was too much. Perhaps it was just that we hadn't actually ridden our bikes much. Perhaps it was something else entirely. Whatever the reason, it meant I got to play instructor to Steve's gormless bicycle-riding trainee as we ran through Elements C, D and finally E. I got to teach him to ride as he played at not knowing. I did OK, and learnt some valuable lessons from my mistakes (and I made a good few). I also got to practice giving instruction through the radio as he played dumb out on the road. Which required every ounce of concentration and effort I could muster, trying to watch what he was doing, correct his mistakes, keep him safe and all the time keeping my eye on the road and managing my own riding. But it was exhilerating and enjoyable and felt very real.

At the end of the week, Steve said that he felt I'd done very well, and he was confident that I'd learnt enough to get through the Cardington Assessment if I took what I'd learnt away and prepared properly. Which is what I'm going to do. I've sent off an application form for an assessment date, which won't be for a couple of months yet. In the meantime, I'm preparing my own training notes and thinking about what I've learnt every time I'm out on the road, whether in the car or on the bike. I'm also trying not to bore Tracy with it all... and no-doubt failing miserably

12th April 2010 - Mojitos and Guinness

Every once in a while I get chance to go out and play with my friends. The last week has seen me doing just that, with some of my friends from the Trans Am trip...

Aaron, or "Mojito Man" as he became known, is American and lives in Tampa, Florida. But our little mini-adventure didn't start there, instead it started in deepest, darkest, wettest, South Wales. Lucky Aaron is shortly to undertake another trip with our friends from Globebusters, as he rides with them from London to Bejing. But first, he needed to come over to the UK to check his bike was ok and to hang-out with his brother, Dustin, who is in the military and stationed in Germany. The original plan was for Nick and I to join Aaron and Dustin on a short European jaunt. Only that didn't look like it was going to work, so we skipped to plan-B, which was a hastily arranged trip up through Wales and across to Ireland.

So it was that on Good Friday I loaded up my bike and headed off to Wales. Initially the weather was ok, not too cold but at least not raining. Then I got into the hills and it started raining hard. Determined to make good progress and to try and get to Globebusters' HQ before everyone had got bored and left, I kept up my pace, revelling in once again riding my bike further than to work and back. I arrived just after 3pm, some 4.5 hours from leaving home. Not bad, but it's only 190 miles. No sooner had I pulled up in the car park at the back of the unit than I was engulfed in a bear-hug similar to the one in Ushuaia as Aaron expressed his pleasure at seeing me again. Nice. Soon I was surrounded by those oh-so-familiar faces: Nick, Kevin, Julia, Jeff and Richard. And reminiscing over the good times. I also met Dustin, who had ridden up from Germany on his 1998 Honda Fireblade. Boy, was he in for a shock over the next few days!

We hatched our plans and then changed them again to allow Aaron to get a new exhaust for his bike so he could fit his Metal Mule panniers (same as mine), which meant Nick had to return home to get his bike and then set off early in the morning to collect the exhaust. Dustin also needed a new rear tyre, so Saturday morning was already accounted for. Friday evening naturally included some fine pints of Brains bitter and some mojitos at Richard & Karen's house, where we also had some excellent Mexican food and a damned good chin-wag. Aaron and Dustin stayed in the pub whilst I got the spare room. The following morning we congregated at the unit and Nick arrived with the exhaust, which we left Jeff to fit whilst we went across the road to annoy the guy at Touratech, and when Dustin arrived we were good to go. Once again saying our goodbyes the 4 of us (Aaron, Dustin, Nick and me) set off on our little adventure. I'd planned a route up through the Brecon Beacons and into North Wales on some varied roads (the really narrow, bumpy ones being a particular favourite of Dustin's as his bike was not really suited to them). The weather was glorious and the scenery the match for anything we'd seen during the Trans Am, with the rolling hillside a golden brown in the early afternoon sun.

We rode on and up to Betws-y-Coed, one of my favourite biking destinations, and enjoyed a (very) late lunch of fish and chips in the cafe. Aaron avoided the mushy peas - his experience of them in Columbia seems to have failed to develop his taste buds. Once refreshed we rode the last few miles to our overnight stop. I'd booked us a night in the fantastically named Welsh town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch which is just over the bridge on the Isle of Anglesey and we arrrived in good spirits around 6pm. The receptionist at the hotel obliged our curiosity by recounting the name of the town (and no, I still can't say it properly!), and then it was a quick shower and into the bar for some well earned refreshments. Also staying in the hotel was a group of 4 Irish Harley riders (from the "Celtic Thunder" chapter of the Harley Owners Group) who turned up resplendent in Harley-branded clothing from head to toe and who were still in the bar when we called it a night.

The following morning over breakfast we learnt that one of the Harley riders that he has the only complete collection of 150year-anniversary Harleys outside the Milwaukee musuem (including the Ford F150 pick-up)... and most of them have never been ridden... I've nothing against people collecting things (after all, I have an original Fireblade that won't get ridden much!), but sometimes you have to wonder whether the cynical marketing machine has duped people into considering some things real investments when they probably aren't (anyone want to bet there's a 175-year edition Harley available in 23 years?).

Sunday dawned bright and cold as we rode out of the hotel car park and immediately got lost. The main road we'd crossed onto Anglesey on went directly past the hotel, but there was no slip road onto it. Eventually the sat-nav came to our rescue and we were on our way, now behind the Harleys instead of in front of them. The short run to the ferry at Holy head was uneventful apart from a bit of wind (not THAT sort!), and soon we were checked in, then riding on board and leaving the bikes to be strapped down. We'd managed to get the faster ferry, so the crossing was mercifully short (just 2 hours) and we managed to while away the time doing very little. Once off the ferry at Dublin City port we rode the very short distance through the chaos of Dublin traffic to the hotel (Best Western Ashling, and very good too!), where we put the bikes in the underground car park and went exploring. On the ferry Aaron had asked if we'd tried to contact Finn, the Irish journalist (and production editor of the Irish Sunday World tabloid) who'd joined us in Santiago. I'm more than embarrassed to say the thought hadn't occurred to me, so while we were wandering round Dublin Aaron managed to get his number and arrange for him to join us later.



After a spot of sightseeing we found ourselves in a bar on the outskirts of the Temple Bar area supping Guinness and watching the wierd life come and go (weird as in goth-like - it was like stepping back into the 1980s).



Finn turned up with a couple of mates all carrying crash helmets... he'd been out test-riding the new BMW S1000RR sportsbike for his paper, the jammy git. His mates were on bikes equally as exotic (Aprilia Tuono and Ducati 1098S). We tried to hide our jealosy but failed miserably...



While Finn went to drop the bike off and get changed, we went to another pub he'd directed us to, where Nick and I enjoyed some more Guinness, Aaron giggled like a girl (he'd been on the rum again) and Dustin went to take some photos. When Finn arrived we gave up the drinking and went to a lovely bistro for some food, which was accompanied by some mojitos and red wine. Well, we can't stop drinking for too long, we are in Dublin, after all! From there it was one more bar before old age and alcohol got the better of us and we crammed into a taxi back to the hotel. Naturally Nick and I had to have a nightcap, and realised we were talking complete crap so quit and called it a night.

The following morning's full Irish breakfast was most welcome, and soon we were back on the bikes and following some rough directions Finn had given us to some great biking roads. I'd programmed the "route" into my sat-nav and soon found myself leading our small group down a single-track road covered in loose gravel. Woo-hoo, Ruta 40 all over again! Then I remembered poor Dustin who was at the back of the group trying to keep his overladen Fireblade on the road. He really does need a GS...



The rest of the day was spent riding great roads down to Blarney Castle so the guys could kiss the stone (I declined, having done it in 2006 when over here with Colin). It was blustery and getting more overcast as we turned back North and rode to Limerick, where I'd found a hotel for the night, thinking Limerick sounded like a good place to stay overnight. It wasn't, as the town itself isn't very picturesque, but the hotel was superb. As we pulled into the underground car park, though, we noticed a strange noise coming from Nick's bike. It sounded like the gearbox was on its way out, clunking and grinding as though it had a terminal case of metal fatigue. Oh dear. A few phone calls and he decided to leave to the morning before calling Emergency Rescue (the BMW equivalent of the Thunderbirds). Fortunately the restaurant was excellent and took his mind off things, although I don't think he had a particularly good night's sleep as when I tried to go to the bathroom around 4am I found him sleeping on the bathroom floor (he said it was my snoring, I think it was worry).

Tuesday morning started with another good breakfast before Nick's recovery truck turned up and off he went to the BMW dealership in Cork, leaving Aaron, Dustin and me to set off to ride the "Ring of Kerry" a beautiful 280Km loop from Killarney round the west coast.



 It took us a while to get to Killarney (Dustin doing a more than passable impression of Late Guy), and then we stopped for lunch about 25 miles into the loop when Nick called. The dealer had checked his bike over and concluded there was nothing wrong, the old "they all do that, sir" phrase being used to further placate him. With the reassurance his bike wasn't about to blow up, he said he'd set off and catch us up. Which seemed reasonable as it was a beautiful day and we fully intended to stop regularly and take photos. Which we did.



Then Aaron and I stopped at the top of one hill after a particularly bumpy stretch of road and there was no sign of Dustin. Not for 5 minutes. Or 10. After 15 we headed back down the road, fearing the worst. We found him riding out of the small village we'd ridden through and he explained he'd lost his gloves. Late Guy has a new rival. Once regrouped, we filled up with fuel and continued on our merry way, now convinced Nick would catch up with us very soon. We stopped again in Sneem for a drink and waited for Nick. He arrived eventually just as we were enjoying an ice-cream and re-united we rode on up to Moll's Gap as the weather turned worse and the rain came. Another beautiful, narrow and bumpy road to test Dustin's riding skills whilst the 3 of us on BMW's finest rattled along at a fair old pace. So much for sportsbikes... on roads like these, the GS (in any guise) is just about perfect. The views when the clouds parted were stunning too...





Back in Cork we made our way to the hotel as the sun came out once again. I'd lucked out once more with my hotel-finding, a large Edwardian country house for less than £40 each including breakfast... A taxi into Cork and some more Guinness followed by a decent curry saw the evening out pretty well.

Our final morning together was again bright and sunny as Nick and I said farewell to Aaron and Dustin (they were staying in Ireland until Friday). The ride from Cork to Dublin was pretty dull after the beautiful riding of the past few days, but I wasn't complaining. I'd dropped straight back into the routine of travelling once more, simply loving the feeling of riding from place to place and seeing the world change as I rode through it, even if it was only subtle changes in comparison to the changes I rode through last year...

Another short and pleasant ferry crossing deposited us back onto the mainland and into a massive traffic jam that spanned the whole length of the M56 from Chester to Manchester. At least we were on 2 wheels and could squeeze past the bored-looking car and van drivers. Most at least saw us coming and created a gap, and the few dickheads who tried to close the gap and prevent us getting past were soon frustrated as we got by then regardless. We parted company somewhere on the M56 as Nick headed home to Oxford and I rode on home. Great to see them, sad to see them go... must arrange something similar very soon...

Thursday and Friday were more "normal" as I didn't get out riding, but stayed at home and prepared some of the ingredients for Saturday's feast. Whilst I'd been travelling with Aaron on the Trans AM, I'd made the mistake of mentioning that I love to cook, Thai food especially. He immediately invited himself for a Thai feast, and naturally I was delighted to oblige. On Saturday he went to see Late Guy, so the invitation was extended further, and shortly after 4pm 3 bikes rolled up my drive and into my back yard. Once the guys were settled in their guest rooms and changed out of their bike clothing we gave Aaron the mojito ingredients and the evening got underway... the food seemed to go down quite well too, as I stuck to a reasonably familiar menu of Spicy Sausage, Son-In-Law Eggs, Tamarind Chicken wrapped in Lime Leaves followed by 3-Flavoured Fish, Chicken and Chillies with Basil and Thai Green Beef Curry... Tracy had cooked a couple of excellent sweet desserts to follow, after I'd told her about our American friend's unbelievable appetites and sweet teeth... It was a great evening....

Finally on Sunday I had to say goodbye to them again, this time riding part of the way South before sending them off with a good route plotted out for them to follow. Saying goodbye was just as hard as it had been in Buenos Aires... let's hope I see them all, and get to ride with them, again soon... and that Aaron returns safely from his London-Bejing adventure, which starts on Saturday 17th April from the Ace Cafe in London...

25th April 2010 - Are you sitting comfortably?

Well, I wasn't. My new BMW F800GS has a seat that gets really uncomfortable after an hour or so in the saddle. I'd got used to spending many hours sat on a bike during the Trans Am, so knew it wasn't a case of my backside being too sensitive. Rather than ride over to Oxford and grab the Airhawk seat pad off El Monstro I decided to try and find a more permanent fix. The Airhawk works exceptionally well, but it does make the bike feel a bit "remote" as you are effectively sitting on a small cushion of air rather than on the bike's seat. So it was time to try an alternative. I searched my favourite web forum (ukgser.com) and discovered there was a guy in Huddersfield who has a great reputation for modifying motorcycle seats. A quick look on his website www.tonyarcher.co.uk and I had his phone number, and after a quick chat I was sold - his recommended approach was to fit a "gel pad" into the seat - it wouldn't be quite as comfy as the Airhawk, but should at least reduce the pain of a long journey...

I arranged to go over and see him on Saturday and so rolled up outside his little workshop, where there was a beautiful old Triumph parked up. The walls of the workshop were covered in old posters of Triumphs and BSAs, and even old Ace Cafe posters. There was an old car waiting to have its interior refurbished, and Tony was stood at his workbench surrounded by motorcycle seats. Looking every inch the cross between classic British craftsman and old-school biker, complete with home-grown tattoos... Before long he had cleared space and was ready to work on mine. The process is shown in the photos below...

First, remove the staples holding on the original seat cover:



Then position and measure round the gel pad...



Then, cut out the foam from where the gel pad will go...



Then, cut down and reshape the block of foam removed, to leave room for the gel pad...



Then refit the foam, with the gel pad on the top and cover the entire seat with a thin layer of new foam to leave it smooth...



Finally, reattach the original seat covering and staple back into place...



The end result looks exactly the same as before, and the very slight increase in seat height from the extra thin foam layer isn't noticable. What is, though, is the extra comfort from the gel pad. Gone is the sensation of sitting on a wooden bench. Now the seat is softer and more compliant, and transmits a lot less vibration through to my aging backside. I've only ridden a relatively short distance so far, but already I'm pleased with the result. Hopefully I'll get chance to go on a longer ride soon to put it to the test, but for just £60 (as opposed to a replacement "comfort seat" costing way over £200) it's a bargain...

Also this last week I've had the first of my leaving work celebrations. A fairly quiet affair in Halifax, as most of my Halifax-based colleagues are attending my London leaving do on Tuesday (so they can stay overnight at the company's expense!) there were one or two faces I was really glad to see. Especially Sue and Christine, the two unfortunate souls who had the onorous task of trying to keep me organised when they were my PA a few years back (Sue was my first ever PA and her patience was often called into play!). They bought me a lovely leaving present to remind me of them...



Isn't it cute?

Next week is my last week at work, then Tracy and I are off to Kefalonia for a short break, assuming that the volcano doesn't erupt again...

8th May 2010 - Greek for a week...

And so it was that Friday 30th April came at long last, and I performed my final act as a member of the corporate rat-race. I emptied my personal belongings from my company car, and handed the keys over to the nice man from the car leasing company, who then inspected it for damage, gave me a receipt and drove away...

When he'd gone I did a pathetic little dance round the front room, rejoicing in the fact that I now no longer had a car... or a job... or any income. Perhaps the insanity is finally getting a hold of me at long last...

Tracy was sure that I would be feeling “odd” but I wasn't. I was just relieved that I'd finally reached the point I'd been looking forward to all those years ago when we decided to go round the world, when I would hang up my “smart but casual, corporately-acceptable, same-as-everyone-else” shirts and chinos and know that the following day, week or month I would not have to put them on again unless I chose to. Ok, so I'm not heading off round the world, but I am heading into the unknown of another adventure, one which I genuinely have no idea where it will take me. Sure, I've planned a few things, such as trying to qualify as a motorcycle instructor and hoping to get the funds together to buy a smallholding, but as I so often say, plans are just a vague idea of the direction to head and the expected stops on the way...

The first of which for Tracy at least was Keele University, as she now had to take Carlie back, her large collection of belongings too big to fit on my bike... That meant I got to stay at home and clean the house, which I was more than happy to do, as we wanted to leave it clean and tidy in case the estate agent wanted to show someone round whilst we were away. To mark the end of one lifestyle and the start of the next, Tracy and I had booked a week's holiday in Greece (hence the title), or more accurately, on the Ionian Island of Kefalonia, just off the west coast of Greece. We'd booked a villa in the peaceful town of Trepezaki, with its own pool. With a couple of good books to read and a decent weather forecast it looked very promising indeed.

The flight was, as they always seem to be, very early. Getting up at 3am on the first day of my new life wasn't quite what I had in mind, but getting up early to go to somewhere new is much more motivating than getting up to catch the red-eye train to London, so I wasn't complaining. After a short drive to the airport we checked in our luggage and grabbed a coffee and croissant for breakfast, and didn't have to wait too long to board. The plane was half empty too, which made for a reasonably pleasant 3 hour flight to the small airport on the island. I say pleasant flight, which it was for me, but I think some of my fellow passengers may have disagreed as I woke myself up snoring at one point!

At the airport we were met by the local representative of Greek Options who gave us the all-important map and introduction to Greek life (vague instructions like “don't put the toilet paper in the toilet, use the bin provided”). A short stroll to the car hire place and we were kitted out with our wheels for the week, a left-hand drive (naturally) Fiat Punto. Luggage stowed in the boot, and with me sitting on the wrong side and Tracy confused as to where the steering wheel had gone, we kangaroo-hopped out of the car park and up the hill, whilst I tried to get my right hand to change gear. I soon got the hang of it, which is just as well, as the roads towards the villa were tight and very winding, but thankfully free of traffic. But it was hard to concentrate on the road as our surroundings were so beautiful. The sun was out in a pale blue sky as we climbed up the mountainside in a series of switchbacks, passing beautiful little villas painted in pastel shades of pink and orange and yellow, or dazzlingly brilliant white, with cascades of flowers tumbling from railings and trailing down garden walls. The mountainside was covered in small deep green trees interspersed with huge white rocks and dotted with yet more villas. There was hardly anyone about, this being the May Day Holiday (celebrated here on the 1st of the month regardless of which day of the week it falls on), but we managed to find a mini-market open where we could get some initial supplies to see is through the day. Some tuna, pasta, tomato and basil sauce, a rotten onion (replaced at a later mini-market with a fresh one), water, wine and beer. Before long we had found our way to our villa, halfway up the hillside and in a secluded location surrounded by olive trees. A short dirt road and we were parked up at our front door, the key in the lock clearly showing we were expected. The 3 other villas in the row were unoccupied and didn't have their keys showing, so clearly we were going to have the run of the place. And what a place. The villa is small but airy, with a small kitchen including a cooker (electric, sadly!), fridge (into which the beer and wine quickly went to cool down), dining area, double bedroom and small bathroom with shower, basin and w.c. Out back is the balcony with a table and chairs, looking down over the swimming pool and distant views towards the coast below. Just perfect...

That afternoon we took a short drive round to familiarise ourselves with the local area, before returning to our hide-away where I rustled up dinner using the ingredients we'd bought earlier. Sat out on the balcony chatting in the early evening sunshine whilst the birds sang their evensong was a perfect way to end my first day of freedom...

Day 2, Sunday, and after breakfast we went for a drive round to explore the southern coast of the island. By now I was getting used to driving the car whilst sat on the wrong side and changing gear with the wrong hand, so could spend a little more time admiring the view. And what views. The road to Skala clung to the side of the mountain high above the sea affording fantastic vistas, the bright blue sea contrasting perfectly with the deep green hillsides and bright villas. Once again the weather was perfect, the sun beating down from a completely cloud-free sky warming our bones and driving away the Winter blues. How I wish England still had the summers of my youth... As this is the very start of the season the resort towns of Skala and Poros were almost empty, with just a few of the tavernas open, and the beaches clear of the hordes of sunseekers that come here in the height of the summer to bake in the heat. There were a fair number of roadworks along the coast road, half of which seemed to have disappeared completely to be replaced by sandy potholes. The little Punto clattered and banged its way through them as I tried my best to avoid the worst ones whilst also avoiding the oncoming local traffic, the warnings of the quality of Greek driving still ringing in my ears. When we arrived at the port town of Poros it was lunchtime, and never one to knowingly miss a meal, we stopped at a taverna on the quayside and took a table as much in the sun as possible. Now, we had read something about how the Greek's like to eat, ordering a few appetizers and sharing them, so rather than order a main course, that's what we did. We ordered a plate of fried mushrooms, some grilled sweet peppers, a Greek salad, some fries, a plate of calamari and some fried shrimp (which the waitress told us were very small as it was still early in the season). When the first dishes started to arrive we realised our mistake – the appetizers, which we'd expected to be the size of tapas, were in fact, huge. And covered in olive oil and oregano. But the mushrooms were delicious, as was the salad, and when the shrimps came piled high on a plate they were just perfect. The calamari was good too, albeit still in very large chunks rather than nice, small rings, making it a bit chewy; the sweet peppers were not so much grilled as drowned in oil, so they didn't get finished. Stuffed, we decided we needed to start heading back to the villa so we could rest and recover from the feast, and so that's what we did, with a short stop at another mini-market to get some more beer.

Day 3, Monday, and we had a visitor. Janice, the Greek Options representative popped by for her scheduled visit in the morning, and we quizzed her on where to go and what to see, mindful that we can't really sit still for days on end as neither Tracy nor I like being still for very long. When she'd left we had our week roughly planned out, or at least we'd identified a few things we wanted to do even if we hadn't put them in any particular order. First on the list was to head to the very northern tip of the island to Fiskardo. But before that, a little bit of history. Kefalonia is situated at the juncture of 3 tectonic plates - Eurasian which includes Italy, northern Greece and the Balkans; Turkish-Hellenic which carries southern Greece, the Aegean, Turkey and Cyprus; and the African Plate which supports most of the southern Mediterranean. Which means it is subjected to frequent and sometimes devastating earthquakes, as the plates collied and push against one another. In August 1953 there was a massive earthquake which destroyed much of the island, including the capital Argostoli and the towns of Lixouri, Sami, Skala and Poros. The north of the island, though, appears to be attached to the rest by a fault-line, so was largely spared, leaving Fiskardo and Assos the best places to go to see the island as it was before the quake.

The drive north took us past Argostoli and high up into the hills that rise straight from the sea, the road clinging to the hillside half-way up affording fantastic if slightly vertiginous views down to the water as it winds its way north. At one stage it headed inland slightly and on a short straight we saw our first pedestrian for several miles, an old chap ambling along who turned to face us as we approached. Giving him a wide berth I had to swerve even more to miss him as he stepped further into the road, holding his hand up in the International “HALT!” sign. I slammed on the brakes and came to an abrupt halt, wondering what the old boy wanted. Tracy wound her window down and he babbled something in Greek. “We're English” we both shouted in unison, adopting the classic British tactic of shouting at the locals so they would understand us. “Greek” he needlessly replied, before babbling on again. I caught something about “mille metre” and recognised he was now trying to communicate in Italian. Realising he simply wanted a lift a mile or so up the road I told him to get in (in broad northern English) and he clambered in the back. About a mile up the road he shouted “arretez” (or something like that) and I stopped, he clambered out and then offered “me casa... café?” which we politely declined before heading on our way. Stopping at his house for a coffee would no doubt have been an experience worth writing about, but the conversation would have been somewhat stunted, and to be honest, I think he was just being polite and doubt he really wanted two gormless tourists cluttering the place up.

Soon after dropping him off we found ourselves driving on a windy mountain road high above some spectacular looking beaches - including this one, Myrtos beach, which is much, much bigger than it looks from way up here!

When we finally arrived in Fiskardo it was getting close to lunchtime, and we were glad to park the car and get out for a wander. And what a jewel of a place we'd found. The small fishing port of Fiskardo was bathed in warm sunshine, the bleached stone of the quayside reflecting the heat upwards as we strolled out from the narrow shopping alley into the port proper. Around the quayside were a number of tavernas with endless rows of empty tables and chairs laid out ready for the season to start. As we are here so early in the season, we had the place almost to ourselves, and chose a bar on the basis of it having the most comfortable looking seats, not because it had one free table. No sooner had we sat down than we were served with the cold beer we'd ordered. I bet this place is completely different when full of hordes of holidaymakers but just now it is so quiet and peaceful it really is paradise. We toasted our freedom again, and ordered lunch, then sat chatting and watching the fish swimming in the crystal clear water and the fishing boats gently bobbing up and down. Relaxing? Oh, yes!

Lunch was superb, a crisp tuna salad for me, and a toasted sandwich for Tracy, but with a long drive back I avoided a follow-on beer, knowing that one leads to two, leads to three and then trouble. After lunch we took a stroll around the town, bought a couple of postcards and the inevitable fridge magnet, and then headed back to the car park. With the afternoon now almost gone we abandoned our ambitious plan to go to Assos, saving that for another day, and headed back to the large supermarket at Argostoli to get some more supplies before heading back to the villa.

Whilst we sat in the early evening sun drinking ouzo (well, I did, it's like Pernod but not as nice), we heard the clanking of cattle bells close by and went to investigate. Out the front of our villa there was a small flock of sheep and goats, chomping their way through the low-hanging leaves on the tree under which I'd parked the car, whilst the tanned and leather face of the shepherd watched, leaning on a tall hooked staff of the “Mary had a little lamb” kind. We exchanged smiles whilst I grabbed some pictures of his animals, before retreating into the villa once more.

Day 4, Tuesday and another beautifully sunny day here in Kefalonia. After yesterday's long-ish drive we decided that today we'd try and avoid our addiction to travelling and simply spend the day relaxing by the pool at the villa. Which proved to be quite easy, as the sun was quite warm and we both had books to read...

We did pop out briefly to get some supplies from the shop for our healthy lunch of tuna salad, and of course to replenish our diminishing stocks of cold beer and white wine. The local wine, made just over the hill behind our villa is called “Robola” and is a dry white and quite palatable. After our healthy lunch the afternoon was much like the morning, as we soaked up the heat from the sun and read our books. A perfectly relaxing day.

That night, though, Tracy felt the earth move. Or more accurately would have done, if she'd woken up in time. When Janice, the rep, came to see us, she mentioned that there had been a small earthquake (tremor, really) on Saturday night, but neither Tracy nor I had felt it. In the middle of Tuesday night I was woken up by the bed shaking. Initially I thought Tracy had a dose of St Vitus' Dance, but she was asleep. The earth was most definitely shaking, so I woke her up, by which time it had stopped. Good job she's got a sense of humour, that's all I can say...

Day 5, Wednesday and what has happened to the sun? Did we wear it out yesterday by absorbing too much of its heat? Ah, well, at least it's only overcast and not raining. And it's still relatively warm!

Our plans for today are to get out and explore. Neither Tracy nor I are capable of sitting still for days on end, preferring to get out and about and explore the island. So we jumped in the car and drove back up past Argostoli and then taking the turn off to Lixouri just past the point we'd dropped our suicidal hitchhiker off a couple of days before. Kefalonia island is almost split into 2, with a large peninsula hanging down on the west coast, attached to the main island by a short stretch of land north of the capital. It was across this stretch we now drove, the island taking on a different look as the huge hills gave way to more gentle rolling hills with pasture-land between them and the sea. Turning right we headed up to the north of the peninsula and a remote beach marked on our map. This turned out to be remote indeed, with just the one road leading to and from a small horseshoe-shaped inlet that wasn't so much beach as a place for the local fishermen to come ashore for a while. Heading back south and then across the hills that form the backbone of the peninsula and onto the western-most edge of the island the scenery changed again, back to rocky mountains moulded by millennia of waves crashing against the rocks to form several beaches, some of which have been turned into tourist resorts, but this being Kefalonia these are pretty low-key, and others just left as shingle-covered beaches ideal for playing pirates on...

Janice had told us about a fantastic and unique Taverna on the beach at Vasta, so we set off to try and find it. Bear in mind we had no GPS and the only map we had was a very large-scale one from the car hire company. Several wrong turns including a few miles on dirt roads later we eventually found it, nestled in its own spot right on a sandy beach looking out over the Med. It must be quite a spot in the height of the season, but now, there was just one other family there. Oh, and a family of ducks.

Sat at a table with our seats on the sand we ordered some food, this time resisting the temptation to order too much. The “king size fried prawns” sounded good, and they were. Both good and king sized...

Suitably full once more we drove back down the coast and round the southernmost tip of the peninsula and then back up to the town of Lixouri which gives its name to the peninsula. Like the capital Argostoli the town was completely destroyed in the 1953 earthquake, and so has been rebuilt in the same style as the other towns on the island, the buildings all painted in pastel shades and constructed from concrete giving them the look of lego houses, all straight angles and smooth surfaces. A quick drive round failed to reveal anything worth exploring at length, so we drove to the dock and waited for the ferry to arrive. We could have retraced our route by road, but the promise of the ferry for the measly price of 8.60euros was too good to miss. The wind had picked up and the crossing looking like it might be interesting, and as the ferry pulled into port it listed heavily one way then the other, which caused Tracy to look a little green and we'd not even boarded yet. As it was, whilst there was a fair old swell and a lot of wind, it wasn't a problem and we laughed whilst re-enacting the “Top of the World” scene from Titanic on the empty upper deck whilst our fellow passengers sensibly sat in the indoor cabin or stayed in their vehicles.

Back on dry land it was a short drive back to the villa where we rustled up some more pancakes so we could exploit the fresh lemons that had fallen from the tree (honest!) outside our villa. Delicious...

Day 6, Thursday thankfully dawned bright and sunny again, and we had another day's exploring ahead of us. With the port of Sami our initial destination, where ferries from the Greek mainland bring large numbers of tourists to the island in the high season. This involved driving across the mountain passes and past the island's most famous monastery, Ag Gerasimos, and past the Robola vineyards which cover a valley between the 2 mountain ridges.

On arriving in Sami we explored the port, watching the fishermen repairing their nets, before choosing one of the many cafés to sit and enjoy a Greek coffee whilst sat watching the world go by.

Finally we managed to drag ourselves away and we drove up the hill at the back of town to look at the ruined "acropolis", which turned out to be just a few shaped rocks piled up and with modern scaffolding holding them in place as the site is restored. But we did have some excitement on the way up as we saw a large snake slithering across the road...

A little further up the hill from the acropolis was the ruins of an old monastery, with a spectacular view down over Sami from the old bell, which was suspended between 2 sticks and irresistable (hope the locals didn't think there was a service about to start!)...

After that excitement we headed just north of the town to the underground cave of Melissani. The cave is entered by boat on the small lake that runs through the cave, the first part of the journey in blinding sunlight since the roof of the cave collapsed many years ago. As the boats edged gently into the gloom of the cave we marvelled at the strange shapes made by the stalactites hanging from the walls and ceiling, and then our boat was turned round and we were padded back into the sunlight. Well worth the 7euro entrance fee.

Next on our sightseeing agenda for the day was a trip to the top of the tallest mountain on the island, Mt Ainos which stands at 5,341ft (Ben Nevis, is only 4,409ft). Now, we've not suddenly become keen mountaineers and my days of tramping up high mountains are somewhat in the past (for now!), so we took the road. Which according to the guide book runs out at the edge of the National Park, although from there it continues as one that is “suitable for 4x4s”. Or hire-car Fiat Puntos. After we'd taken a short walk and concluded there was still a fair way to go, we got back in the car and continued on the bumpy dirt road right up to the summit. The little Fiat Punto equipped itself reasonably well, and when we reached a point very close to the top where I could turn round and park, we got out and clambered over a small hill to where the view over the west coast of the island was breathtaking (literally, it was damned windy that high up!).

Walking across the road and up a small hill on the other side afforded a view over the east coast of the island and on to the island of Ithaki, although the heat-haze meant the view was obscured a little...

After admiring the view and convincing Tracy it was safe to scramble up for a look (she doesn't like heights), we got back in the car for the bumpy ride back down the mountain...

Once we'd regained tarmac once more we threaded our way down the mountain to the main road again, only to come across a herd of goats that were lazily wandering across the road and clambering on the rocks at the roadside. They made our attempts to scramble up the rocky hill at the top of the mountain look decidedly poor, as they stood, sure-footed on vertical rock. Wish I could work out how they do that...

Day 7, Friday and our last full day on Kefalonia once again dawned bright and sunny but a little blustery. Taking the advice of the tour rep, we had one last place to visit, the beautiful little town of Assos. Situated on the west coast to the north of the island above the Lixouri peninsula, this little town rests at the bottom of a large hill between the main island and a big rocky outcrop. Atop the outcrop are the ruins of a Venetian fortress which is reached by a road that winds its way steeply up to the summit. Only it's a pedestrianised road, so we parked the car and set off up in the heat of the sun, walking slowly and stopping every now and then to admire the view down towards the town of Assos and it's little harbour.

Once we finally arrived wheezing at the summit, the ruins were almost a disappointment, just a few dilapidated walls gradually being subsumed by the vegetation. But the views were beautiful, and more than made up for the exertion of the walk up. I was also getting ready for lunch, and the promise of the local delicacy, the “Kefalonian Meat Pie” was high on my list. When we got back to the town we chose a likely-looking Taverna by the water's edge and ordered a beer, then studied the menu. No pie. Damn. But I had my heart (and appetite!) set on one, so we paid up and wandered round the bay, looking at the menus of all the other Tavernas before finally finding one that listed the infamous dish. No sooner were we sat down that I accosted the waiter and asked if they had the delicacy, preparing to make a hasty exit and drive over to Sami if they didn't. “But of course” was his reply with a smile, so we ordered another beer and I placed my order for pie, Tracy opting for some meatballs. I suppose I now need to describe the Kefalonian Meat Pie. Well, it's a pie, so it has a pastry crust, and is filled with rice and lamb, the rice quite spicy and similar to a risotto. It's certainly odd, but very nice all the same, and very filling too...

After lunch we wandered through the beautiful little town and found a nice house for sale... what do you think?

Day 7, Saturday and time to get packed ready to fly home. Whilst we've both really enjoyed our break, we much prefer travelling to being in one place, and a week in one place is about all we can stand, so we're ready to move on, even if it is back to the cold and wet of England in Spring. Unsurprisingly we were up early and packed quickly, then cleaned up the villa before loading the car. With over an hour to kill before we were due at the airport we drove up to see St George's castle, which sits proudly atop one of the hills nearby, only to discover it was closed (and doesn't open until June, apparently). So we drove on to Argostoli for a wander across the Dhrapano Bridge, which was originally built of wood in 1813 before being replaced by the stone version that exists today some 26 years later. In the middle is a stone column constructed by the British when theuy ruled the island between 1809 and 1864...

Then it was time for us to drive the few miles back to the airport and hand the car back before checking in for our flight. As the airport is very small we were not allowed through passport control until the flight was almost ready for boarding, which at least meant we could go back outside and sit in the sun for an hour or so. Then it was time to board and fly back home...

26th May 2010 - Putting myself to the test...

Normally when I’ve not updated the blog for 2 weeks I start with an apology, but this time is different. I won’t. I chose to deliberately leave the blog until I’d completed the next major event in my life… the Driving Standards Agency ‘s (DSA) Cardington Motorcycle Instructor’s CBT1 Assessment. A 2-day “exam” which I need to pass to become a qualified motorcycle instructor.

 

If you recall, at the end of March I spent a week on a Motorcycle Instructor Training course with West Pennine Motorcycle Training (see blog entry). So when we got back from Kefalonia I had just 2 weeks until I went down to Cardington for my assessment. 2 weeks to prepare for what, by all accounts, is a very tough test with a very low pass rate (I was told it was as low as 40-45%). To recap, anyone wanting to ride a motorcycle (or moped) has to first complete a course of Compulsory Basic Training (CBT) with a qualified instructor. There are 2 types of qualification, first is known as “Down Trained” and means that the instructor has been trained by a Cardington-assessed instructor within a single Approved Training Body (i.e. the training school) and can work only within that school. The 2nd is the Cardington-Assessed qualification, which as well as allowing the instructor to conduct CBTs and down-train other instructors, allows them to establish their own schools. As I don’t want to be tied to a single school (ready for when we move house), I need to sit the Cardington Assessment.

 

But. Because I’m not “down-trained” I can’t practice by teaching CBTs before going to Cardington to sit the assessment. So I spent the 2 weeks between our holiday and my assessment cramming, preparing notes based on the instructor training, riding around giving pretend radio-instruction to imaginary trainees and watching a couple of CBTs being conducted for real at West Pennine. The guys there were excellent, and Terry, one of their down-trained instructors was more than happy for me to watch his instruction and even listen in to his radio-commentary as he instructed his trainees out on the road. Tracy gave me much needed help and encouragement too, even driving out to a local industrial estate and playing “pupil” whilst I conducted a couple of mock-lessons, up to the point where the trainee would get on the bike (I could hardly ask her to do that bit, even if she could). With a lot of hard work I felt I was as prepared as I could be, and so on Sunday after watching the MotoGP races, I kissed Tracy goodbye and set off down to Bedford where I’d booked a hotel fairly close to the Cardington assessment centre.

 

At 8am on Monday morning I was in reception at the DSA’s massive site at Cardington, booking in. The place was busy with potential driving instructors in suits and ties ready for their own assessments or training as well as quite a few examiners and others. Also there were 2 other guys in bike clothing. My fellow “instructors”. I’ll change their names to avoid any embarrassment and simply refer to them as Jack and John. Both were already down-trained and working as instructors for schools in the south of England with Jack having 18 months experience and John 9 months. They stood to loose more than me, as failing the assessment would see their down-trained licences revoked and they would then have to sit a further re-assessment locally to regain down-trained status – until which time they could not work as instructors. They would also have to re-sit the full Cardington assessment again if they wanted to become Cardington qualified. And I thought I was under pressure to perform!

 

We introduced ourselves and waited until our assessor came. Again, I’ll change his name to protect his identity, and simply call him Andy. He seemed OK, didn’t have 2 heads and wasn’t too scary. Just scary enough, I guess… He introduced himself and we went to the portakabins to get briefed on how the assessment would be conducted. By now the temperature was well into the high 20s and it was clear it was going to be a very, very hot day. The basic structure would be that the 3 of us would be given a number of lessons from each of the 5 elements of the CBT course to conduct as Instructors, and when one was instructing another would be supervising with the 3rd as a “2nd supervisor”. We would be scored on our instruction and our supervision, and would need to pass both to become qualified. The scores would be 1 for “dangerous”, 2 for “unsatisfactory”, 3 for “ok” and 4 for “good”. Any scores of 1 would see us fail, as would 2 scores of 2 on the road, or more than 2 scores of 2 for any section. Andy, the assessor would “role-play” the trainee for each lesson, as a “56yr old, been driving a car for 30 years and wants to pass bike test to go riding with his mates and commute to work”. With that explained, we were given our lessons for the day and off we launched.

 

First up was element A, with Jack going first covering the CBT Overview and John acting as supervisor. I was glad to sit the first one out and get a feel for how it would go. Andy dropped straight into character, his facial expression and mannerisms changing from confident assessor to “dumb trainee”, but with a hint of “boredom” at the more basic information that forms part of the initial bit of the syllabus – the test for the instructor being to make it interesting and engaging. Jack did a good job, and John gave constructive supervisory feedback, exactly as they should. We were off to a good start. My first role was supervising John’s talk on “clothing and equipment from the neck down” (i.e. everything but helmets). Then I had to instruct on helmets, a lesson I’d prepared well for, even cutting Tracy’s old helmet in half so I could explain the construction and how the helmet is affected by a drop or accident. I thought it went well, and Jack as my supervisor made some useful points to build on what I’d said, but didn’t pick up on anything significant I might have missed, so I was confident the lesson went well enough.

 

With Element A (Introduction) done, we moved outside into the blistering sun where we were introduced to the bike we’d be “training” Andy on – a Honda CG125. We were given a few minutes to familiarise ourselves with it, then had a break and moved on to Element B – Practical OnSite Training (Bike Familiarisation). Again we were allocated one lesson each to Instruct and one to Supervise, and I was happy to be given “Motorcycle Controls” to instruct and “Machine checks and use of Stands” to supervise. Again my lesson went OK, and the supervisor made some valid constructive points, but I’d covered all the bases. John gave the Machine Checks lesson and whilst he covered all the points, he confused the trainee as the lesson was poorly structured. He also missed out the stands lesson completely, but remembered after closing the lesson. My supervisory comments were therefore a little more involved, as I had to cover how to structure the lesson more effectively to avoid confusion. But had I not done, I’d have been marked down on my supervision and I needed to pass both instructing and supervising to qualify. Not a time to be “too nice”.

 

Then it was on to the big one. Element C. This is the bit you’ll see if you drive past a motorcycle training school and see the trainees negotiating their way round the cones. It’s the critical element that teaches basic machine control and riding skills (such as observation) before the trainee can go out on the road with the instructor. It’s also the one that I’d spent most time thinking about since the training course, when Steve at West Pennine had put me through my paces. I must admit to being a tad nervous, despite all the preparation I’d done. This time we got 3 lessons each to Instruct and 3 to Supervise. My first was supervising the Gear Change exercise, and again John was instructing. He did a good job, and I gave suitable praise as well as a couple of small suggestions as to how the lesson might be improved (my pedantic nature helping here!). Then I had to instruct the Emergency Stop lesson. Using all the learning from my training, I briefed Andy on exactly how to perform the exercise, referring to how he’d do it in his car, then demonstrated how to perform the exercise before getting him to practice. First time he pulled the front brake hard and locked the front wheel, so we had a further discussion on dealing with a locked wheel before I got him to try again. Next time he pulled the clutch in too early. Third time he pulled it in too late and stalled. Finally I also noticed he was not using the back brake (John tipped me off just as I noticed, which was nice of him as he was supervising and shouldn’t really have told me during the lesson). I corrected this fault and finally got a decent emergency stop. So I made Andy repeat it. Another good one, so I closed the lesson. The feedback I got was constructive but hit the “not using the rear brake” on the earlier attempts as well, but as I’d picked up on it and not closed the lesson until it was done OK, I was happy I’d not be scored down too much.

 

After a break I was supervising Jack performing the “Rear Observation” exercise which he did well (I thought) and so I only had a few minor constructive comments to give. I then had to instruct the U-turn. Now, if you recall, when I did my RoSPA training, I dropped my own bike 3 times performing U-turns, having previously been able to perform them flawlessly. Needless to say, I’d spent a fair bit of time working on how to teach them effectively, and even spent some time practicing them myself. But I was still relieved when I offered to demo it and Andy said he was ok to just have a go. Naturally he injected a couple of faults, which I spotted and corrected quickly. And when I’d got 2 good U-turns I closed the lesson. Jack gave me the supervisory comments which amounted to little more than “very good lesson, nothing really to add”. No point him nit-picking.

 

Finally in Element C we each had a Junction exercise to perform and supervise to demonstrate our OSM/PSL routines (Observe, Signal, Manoeuvre, Position, Speed, Look). I supervised John doing a Right turn from a Major road to a Minor one, and Instructed on the easier Left turn Major to Minor. This exercise seemed to get questioned by Andy as I instructed him to take a full observation before starting signalling, including a right-shoulder check. And a left shoulder check before moving into a left-side road position on the approach and another before committing to the left turn. We even had a debate about this last shoulder-check, but I stuck to my instruction and gave a couple of reasons. It left me wondering if I’d got it right, and I got Andy to run through the exercise a good few times until I was happy. Just before the last run he said he thought I was “nit-picking” (whilst in role as the trainee) to which I responded that the last run was OK, but because of the importance of the exercise and how many poor ones he’d done, I wanted a final good one before I was happy. He did it and it was good, so I closed the lesson. The supervisors’ comments were OK, but I was convinced that I’d probably over-egged it and may have scored my first “2”. Not a great way to end the day…

 

That evening I tried to relax in the hotel, eating in the restaurant before returning to my room to watch the England-Mexico game before trying to sleep. I was still feeling relatively calm, but was getting concerned about the road-instruction ride as I’d had no real opportunity to practice giving instruction and spotting mistakes whilst riding and following a trainee. It was going to be tough…

 

The following morning was cooler, than goodness, as we’d been thoroughly baked being out in the heat of the day before. First up was Element D, a classroom section that covers the essentials of riding on the road before actually getting out there. This is a quick element, with 14 lessons to be conducted in around 45mins to an hour. We each had 3 lessons to instruct back-to-back, and a further 3 to supervise, giving our feedback at the end of the 3 lessons. This time I was first to go, covering Conspicuity (a word I’m convinced doesn’t exist, but basically means “being conspicuous”), Legal Requirements and Vulnerability. I’d prepared materials to use and simply took Andy through the key points, asking questions but fairly rattling-through the material, finishing well within my target of under 10 minutes. The supervisor’s feedback was that it was a “bit rushed” but covered all the key points. I then supervised John covering Speed, Defensive Riding and Rear Observation, my main comment being that he introduced things from other lessons when he could have kept it simpler and restricted to the topic in hand.

 

With that done, it was time for a break before the road-riding part of the assessment. For this only 2 of us would go out with the trainee, one instructing and the other supervising. First pairing were Jack instructing and John supervising, so I stayed in the canteen trying to keep my nerves in check. After around 40 minutes they were back and it was my turn to instruct. For this, I’d been given the scenario that Andy had been with me for the full day, I was happy with his progress, we’d had a classroom session on roundabouts and junctions and done the 1st hour of the road ride before taking a coffee break to warm up (hardly needed on a day like today!). After a short reminder of what I was looking for, we rode around the test centre to start with, where I had to instruct Andy on performing a hill-start, remembering to talk him through how to do it first (as he’d never done one on a bike before). Then out into the roads around the centre, with Andy making subtle and not-so-subtle mistakes whilst I talked him through what he should do and picked up his faults and corrected them. He was quite crafty with his faults – not performing left shoulder checks before changing lanes ready to exit a roundabout, not using his rear brake to slow down at all, looking down, not performing a life-saver before moving out to overtake a parked vehicle, etc, but I was on top of it and spotting them OK. Then we did the emergency stop exercise on the road, after Andy found a quiet spot. Again he locked the rear on the first attempt, leaving a lovely 12ft long skid mark on the road. I asked him what he should have done as soon as a the wheel locked up and he replied correctly “release and reapply”. I then got him to look at the skid-mark and discussed how he’d not been slowing down for that distance as the wheel was locked, to re-enforce the point. Next time he locked up but quickly released and reapplied and did so several times before stopping. A further debrief and praise for his release-reapply reactions and I got him to do it again, this time he did it perfectly and I was happy to move on. Shortly he stopped again and told me we were now into the last 15 mins of the 2 hrs so I told him over the radio that I’d now be quite and he was “on his own as he would be after the training” and only interjected to get him to use both brakes (a fault he kept re-introducing having corrected it). Back at the centre I dismounted and gave him some final pointers on keeping a check on his own observations and use of both brakes as these faults he’d corrected and re-introduced during the ride (so was in danger of dropping back into). I was feeling reasonably confident it had gone OK. Then I got the supervisor’s comments, Jack being perfectly correct in pointing out a glaring mistake I’d made. I’d de-briefed Andy following the emergency stop exercise whilst he was still in the middle of the lane, which was potentially dangerous. I should have moved him to the side of the road first. Whilst I had been checking the road was still clear and nothing was coming (which I pointed out), I had to accept that I’d cocked-up. Damn.

 

All over our lunch break I went over it in my mind. I’d made a stupid, simple error and cocked-up. It was a potentially dangerous mistake and whilst not actually dangerous (had a car appeared, I’m certain I would have immediately moved Andy to the side of the road), it was, in my opinion, dangerous. A score of 1 for sure. And that would result in a Fail.

 

I was disappointed with myself. Convinced I’d failed, I was resigned to having to come back and repeat the assessment. But there was nothing I could do to fix it now, just do my best on supervising John on his ride after lunch and take my result when given it at the end of the day. I finally got my appetite back and could eat, my nerves finally gone as I resigned myself to failure (not something that sits easily with me!).

 

For John’s ride we tried some different radios, as the DSA are evaluating new ones, so he had to contend with “push-to-talk” and not the easier to use “voice-activated” system Jack and I had used. But he dealt with that ok. During the ride I picked up on a few things I would do differently, and one thing he didn’t pick up on at all – during the whole ride, Andy didn’t use the rear brake at all. Not once. Back at the centre, I gave my supervisor’s comments, pointing out the lack of instruction on how to do a hill start (which Andy struggled with 3 times before getting right), a situation I considered to be dangerous that he’d let Andy ride into (moving parked cars on a narrow road), poor rear observations and the missing back brake. Harsh feedback, but I still wanted to pass that element even if I’d failed my own ride instruction.

 

We then had a half-hour to wait whilst Andy went through his notes before taking us one at a time into the portakabin to hear our results. Resigned to having failed, I was happy to let John go in first, despite having the longest ride home, as I wanted to know how they’d both got on. After all, we’d spent 2 days going through this together and had got on very well despite the pressure and the situation we were in where we’d need to effectively point out each other’s mistakes. John came out and put his thumb down. He’d failed. I didn’t have time to find out why immediately, as it was my turn to hear Andy’s verdict…

 

He asked me how I thought I’d done, and I mentioned the lesson at the end of day 1 which I thought could have gone better, and the unforgivable stupid mistake of debriefing in the road after the emergency stop exercise. He replied that there were some things, yes, but that overall I’d passed! I nearly fell off my chair. He’d scored the emergency stop mistake as a “2” as it was “potentially dangerous” but not actually so, as I’d been watching the road. I also got picked up on a couple of supervisory “unsatisfactories”. First was when Jack was doing the rear observation lesson as I’d not made sure he covered the effects of different mirror types (concave, convex and flat) and made sure the trainee demonstrated competence in performing them before closing the lesson. This last bit shows the difference between Cardington and the real-world, as down at Cardington each lesson has to stand-alone, whereas in the real world the rear observation exercise is typically followed by one for which rear observations are essential so any faults in performing them are dealt with then. Jack also scored a “2” for that lesson as he’d not performed it correctly, although he passed overall. Second was for John’s road ride, where I supervised, as I’d also failed to spot that when turning right at a roundabout and changing lanes before exiting Andy had not performed a left life-saver – which is dangerous. I’d not seen it as following Andy and the instructor meant I was almost out of line-of-sight (I should have positioned myself so I could see). Andy had deliberately put in more right-turns at roundabouts to give John more times to spot and correct the fault, but he hadn’t. As he’d also not let Andy perform the exercises on the road (U-turn in his case) without instruction, he’d scored 2 x 2s on the road and failed his assessment, lost his down-trained certification and couldn’t instruct any more until he got re-assessed locally. Tough stuff.

 

But, I’d passed, and I was shocked. I was convinced my one mistake had done for me. It hadn’t. For the record, I scored 3 3s and 4 4s on Instruction (with the 1 2), and 3 3s (one of which I was told was a 2, but is marked as a 3 on the form!) and 4 4s on Supervision (with the 1 2). Overall, some real positives as well as a couple of areas to watch in future.

 

Needless to say I was delighted. I rang Tracy to share the news before setting off on the long ride home, saying goodbye to Jack and John and wishing them both well. I stopped for a coffee on the way home and rang Steve at West Pennine to share the news with him, and to thank him for his tuition, without which I wouldn’t have stood a chance. Money well spent.

 

And there you have it. I’m now qualified as a Motorcycle Instructor and can teach people to ride a motorcycle, issue CBT certificates, down-train other instructors and even set up my own training school. But first, I think I need to find a school to work at to gain some practical experience…

18th July 2010 - So much happenning, so little time...

... to write the blog...

No excuses, just been too busy and haven't got round to writing the blog. Seems keeping a diary is much harder during "normal life" than when travelling... but here goes, a quick whistle-stop tour of what's been happening since the last post.

First, whilst in Kefalonia, I got a phone call from an ex-colleague of mine who is now Chief Information Officer at the Yorkshire Building Society. Seems he'd seen my updated status on LinkedIn (the work-related social networking site) and was having some issues within his team that he thought I could help with. So, rather than going headlong into the motorcycle instruction, I arranged to go and work there on a short-term contract basis. First, that needed us to set up our own company, so now Tracy and I are co-directors of Just One More Mile Ltd, company number 07268815. We have our own accountant, a business banking account (no money in it yet!), and a way of selling our services to anyone that wants them. The first contract was for just over 6 weeks, and was for me to help YBS establish an effective Enterprise Architecture team. For those that don't mix in IT circles, an "enteprise architecture" function is the one that's supposed to ensure that the work done in IT enables it to meet the business strategy, something that's always a challenge as individual projects are under tremendous pressure to do things quickly, which inevitably leads to ever more complex IT systems that eventually slow the business down and prevent it from changing. Think about what would happen if you started building a house without an architect to ensure it all fitted together, and then consider what would happen if you kept on building... for an example, see the world-famous Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. That first contract has just completed, the client is very pleased and I'll be working there part-time (so I get time to do other things) until late October.

Our excitement hasn't been confined to work, though, as we've also celebrated a couple of special birthdays recently. First up was Konnor's and whilst he was at home on the big day, we made it up to him on his next visit up North...



But Konnor wasn't the only one, as soon afterwards we were celebrating the 1st birthday of our lovely cats, Titch and Marmie... they almost managed to blow out the candles as well as Konnor, too!



After the birthdays, and to celebrate our wedding anniversary, Tracy and I managed a quick weekend away in the Yorkshire Dales, staying at the fantastic Black Swan in Masham. This is a really brilliant pub, with a campsite attached, but this being a special occasion we opted for one of their new rooms. Good choice, as the room was great, the food superb and of course, the beer just perfect. We even managed to get out for a walk on the Saturday, heading over the hills and across the valleys to the Druids Temple, a collection of rocks on top of a remote hill some distance from the pub. Built in 1820s by William Dandy, then squire of nearby Swinton, it's a sort of miniature Stone Henge, in a deserted forest. Odd, but well worth the walk and the aching legs (we really do need to get fit!)...





We had to cut the weekend short in order to get back in time to watch England play in the World Cup, but the less said about that the better. I'm not a great fan of football, but love the world cup, despite being disappointed every time... guess I'm just too optimistic!

The next big event was when Laura and Chris wanted to go to York races and we got to babysit our beautiful twin grandaughters, affectionately known as "the Beans". They were just wonderful...



But all this happiness was also tinged with some sadness over the last few weeks. First our next door neighbour Edgar passed away in his sleep. He was a lovely guy who always had plenty of time to chat and who had been a brilliant neighbour, helping keep a watchful eye on the goings on when my kids were teenagers, but who never complained despite their sometimes wild behaviour!

Then last week we lost one of our beautiful cats. Titch, the most friendly, loving cat I've ever known was knocked down and killed outside our house by a speeding car. Tracy called me at work distraught, and thankfully Katie stepped in to help. Marmie is missing her greatly as we all are. Its amazing how quickly pets become part of the family, but if you look at her, I'm sure you'll understand...



Rest in peace, Titch...

But let's not leave my first blog on a sad note. This week I'm off work, as we're heading to court to try and get an Access Order granted to enable us to see Tracy's boys more regularly and without interference from her ex. It's been a hard battle that shouldn't really have been necessary, but sometimes when relationships fail those involved become so bitter than even putting their children first is too difficult. Fingers crossed we should soon have matters resolved and we'll be seeing a lot more of the boys. That really will be something to smile about!


24th May 2011 - Meet Polly

It has been an inordinately long time since I last wrote this blog and for that, for once, I'm not going to apologise. Instead, I'm just going to start writing again and see what happens. With the adventures I have planned for the rest of this year I may just have the inspiration I need to put fingers on keys on a regular basis once more... only time will tell!

It is therefore fitting that the first of these new entries is to introduce Polly.

But first, let me explain. Before the fateful events of 23rd August 2007, Tracy and I lived for the times we would pack the tent on the bikes and head off somewhere, whether for a weekend break or a longer trip further afield. Since then I've been able to continue this passion, but something has been missing. Something that made the trips really special. Tracy. She's simply not physically able to ride, either as rider or pillion, even if the psychological scars would allow her to. Then there's also the issue of living in a tent, which she is not able to do without suffering from significant pain for days afterwards. Now I simply can't give up riding bikes and travelling with the freedom a tent gives me, but I wanted to be able to travel with Tracy as well.

After much deliberation we concluded a motorhome would be just the ticket. With a proper bed to sleep on, a comfy seat to travel in and the added benefit of onboard facilities for when we arrived, we could once again just pack our stuff and disappear on a whim. Our searching eventually brought us to "Polly"...



She's a 1-owner, 2002 AutoSleeper Pollensa (hence "Polly") on a Ford Transit chassis. We picked her up yesterday and had our first night in her just down the road at Barrs Country Park caravan club site at Bury. And to put it simply, we loved it!! We have found a way to start a whole new world of adventures together!

That said, for now we'll have to leave it at that one night away, as tomorrow I head off on my bike on a trip to commemorate the 68th anniversary of Operation Chastise - the Dambusters Raid. I'll be trying to maintain a blog as I go, so why not join me as once again I hit the road?

2nd June 2011 - Dambuster's Tour

Well, I promised to write about my Dambusters Trip and I have. Only rather than post it here on the blog, I've put the story on our "Past Trips" section. You can find it here...

Enjoy!

21st July 2011 - Revisiting childhood memories...

When I was a young boy we used to spend our weekends and school holidays travelling round the country in the family caravan. My favourite place to go was the Lake District, where the caravan sites were surrounded by imposing hills of bright green with jagged rocks scattered across their flanks. "Hills with rocks in" as we used to call them. Here my brother and I would play amongst the ferns - great big ones that provided ample camoflague for our raids on the caravan food supply when mum wasn't looking.

Now that Tracy and I have Polly, our motorhome, we have the chance to get away whenever there is a break in her endless cycle of medical appointments. With yet another operation imminent, we took the chance to escape for 4 nights and revisit a couple of the caravan sites of my youth. First up was Low Park Wood, a site that I don't actually recall staying at, but one that I remember my mum and stepdad taking my brother and sister to regularly. It is just outside Kendal and is on the site of an old gunpowder works, nestled in a large wood owned by the National Trust. On arrival we could see instantly why this site was my mum's favourite - it was peaceful and beautifully situated.


Whilst there we took every advantage of the opportunity to relax, although we did venture out for a walk round the nearby Levens Hall with its deer park, complete with deer and Bagot goats...





After a couple of very relaxing nights we ventured further into the Lake District to the caravan site that I used to love as a kid - Skelwith Fold. I remembered it fondly as it was from here that we used to walk to the nearby pub, the Drunken Duck, for Scampi in a basket. Tracy and I visited the pub a few years ago and were bitterly disappointed to find it had become a "gastropub" complete with extortionately priced menu of posh grub and no "in a basket" choices!

Sadly the site has also changed beyond all recognition. Gone are the isolated grassy pitches backing on to hills of high ferns and dense woods to fuel the imagination of would-be commandos (and grown-ups reliving their childhood) and in there place are a mass of huge soulless static caravans sitting in cul-de-sacs looking like a posh council estate. The site was very quiet, though, with hardly anyone in residence - the calm before the storm I imagine as this was the week before school closed for the summer. But we were not too disappointed as we found a nice spot to park Polly and a fridge full of cold beer and wine, and a cupboard full of food to enjoy!

I even managed to drag myself out for a short walk and the views were as stunning as ever - this one is looking towards the Langdale Pikes, proper "Hills with rocks in" and a view that remains pretty much unchanged despite the passing of time...


1st August 2011 - The next big adventure - The Trans AM Trail

It's been 2 years now since I set off on what was the "Trip of a Lifetime", when I rode my motorcycle from Anchorage in Alaska to Buenos Aires in Argentina via the very top and very bottom of the American continent. It seems like a lifetime ago, so it's only appropriate that I set off on another "Trip of a Lifetime"...

This time I'll be riding another of my motorcycles (yes I know that sounds greedy but you can never have enough bikes in my opinion!) across America once more, but this time from East to West. From Knoxville Tennessee to Port Orford in Oregon, and then down to San Francisco. Not quite the 23,000 miles and 19 countries of my last "Trans-AM", but this one will take me through at least 10 States and over 5,000 miles. The bulk of which follows a route pioneered by an American chap called Sam Correro who spent years trying to find an alternative to crossing America by highway. Not content with just avoiding the Interstates, he went one further and defined a route that avoided tarmaced roads altogether. It spans roughly 4,500 miles and consists of "dirt roads, gravel roads, jeep roads, forest roads and farm roads". Which sounds a lot more interesting and challenging! Details of the route can be found on Sam's website at www.transamtrail.com

The trip was all Aaron's idea. He was one of the guys on the Trans-AM in 2009, who then went on to ride from London to Beijing with Globebusters in 2010 and obviously felt the need for something a little easier this year. For him at least. Naturally I jumped at the chance to join him, encouraged as always by Tracy.

My first challenge was working out how to get my bike over the pond and to the start. I struck lucky with this when I found a guy who organises trips from the UK to ride part of the TAT and who had a trip heading out around the time we wanted to go. With the help of Chris from Unchained Tours I hatched a cunning plan. I would ship my bike in the container he was sending out for his next tour, and then find a way to get it back from San Francisco using one of his many contacts. And so it was that a few weeks ago I rode my BMW F800GS down to Worcester and loaded it into a container with a motley  selection of serious-looking off-road bikes (mostly bright orange KTMs).



Now those of you who followed my last adventure may be wondering why I'm not riding "El Monstro", my faithful BMW R1150GS Adventure, especially after it had survived the trip and was now rebuilt and back on the road. Well, the reason is simple. I've broken the habit of a lifetime and finally listened to the advice of those who know better (namely Chris from Unchained Tours). He said I should take the 800GS because it's lighter and easier to handle. Only time will tell, as I much prefer riding the 1150, even off road...

But back to the story.

With the bikes loaded the container started its long journey on the back of a lorry to Southampton, from where it will be put on a ship across the Atlantic to the US-of-A, where it will be unloaded and once it has cleared customs be transported by road to Knoxville, hopefully arriving on 4th August.



With the bike gone there was some more preparation for me to do. The route is supplied by Sam Correro in the form of a number of marked maps with route instructions supplied on A4 sheets. Aaron bought the set and I volunteered to try and convert them to GPS routes to help us find our way. It was only when I got them did I realise the amount of work I'd let myself in for...



The first task was working out how to read the route instructions, which are supplied in 3 columns of hieroglyphs. These show the next junction and the direction we should take, together with the distance to the subsequent junction. Some even contain the GPS coordinates of the junctions, which enabled me to plot the route in Mapsource using a detailed electronic map of the US and then load the route into my Garmin sat-nav. We'll see how useful that is when we try and follow it...



These route notes are then cut into strips and sellotaped together to form a large roll (like a till roll), which is then inserted into a roll-chart holder attached to the handlebars of the bike. I bought a cheap roll-chart holder from Sweden, which I then had to modify as this roll-chart reads from bottom to top, not top-bottom as you might expect. You can see the holder in the picture of the bike in the container above, it's that ugly white box thing. The idea is that you read the instructions, check the distance against the bike's trip-meter, and then scroll the chart downwards to reveal the next set of instructions. All whilst trying to ride the bike across rugged terrain without falling off. We'll see how that goes when we start on the trail too...

So with all my preparations done, it's almost time for the trip to start. As usual things at home are chaotic, with Tracy just having come back out of hospital following an operation to insert a replacement disc in her neck (another legacy of the accident in 2007). Fortunately the operation has been a complete success and has not only reduced the pain she was experiencing but also increased the movement in her neck. Had the operation gone ahead when originally intended, her recuperation would have been completed too, but as it is she'll be relying on others for support as once again I'll be off enjoying myself and shirking my responsibilities. And before you ask, yes, I do feel guilty about doing so. Only every time I tried to convince her that I should perhaps cancel the trip I got a right b*ll*cking, so I'm going. And I'm under strict instructions to enjoy myself and come back in once piece, too...

Which as I return just 3 days before Laura's wedding, I think I'd better do so too!

My flight is at 10.40 in the morning. I'm getting rather excited... and who knows, with another trip underway, I may even start blogging again!

3rd August 2011 - Welcome to America!

This morning I woke from another of the really weird but incredibly vivid dreams I've been having of late. The sound of an old car horn honking in the middle distance eventually reached the conscious part of my brain and dragged me from my slumber – it was 6.15am and time to get up. Dizzy from leaping out of bed too quickly I stumbled blindly into the shower and let the warm water bring me round. Today was Day-Zero. The start of another adventure.

Breakfast was a muted affair, as Tracy paced around massaging her aching neck, the pain of last week's operation at least distracting her a little from my imminent departure. But there was steel in her eyes when I once again said that perhaps I should have cancelled my trip. Some wives support their husbands, Tracy goes one step further and positively re-enforces my ambitions. It certainly makes leaving her easier, though I wouldn't go so far as to say it was easy...

The drive to the airport was uneventful, even the ridiculous 40mph speed limit imposed on the M60 due to roadworks (why 40, why not 50 like all other roadworks? What's so bad about these?) didn't delay the moment of our separation. I hate saying goodbye, so I put on my best manly face and gave her a quick kiss, and then waddled across the road carrying my bags whilst she got in the drivers seat, all the time hiding her face from my view. A final wave and a churn of my stomach as I instantly regretted not grabbing the chance for one last big hug.

Check in provided the first moment of minor panic, when the machine refused to read my passport. I'd tried online check-in several times yesterday to no avail, and the self-service check-in had also failed to work, so when the security reader failed to read my passport all sorts of thoughts started bouncing round my head. Had my passport been cloned while I was in Columbia? (though why I thought of Columbia when I'd ridden through Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina since then I don't know!). When had I last used it? The guy called over the supervisor who tried and failed. Was I going to fail before I'd even got my boarding card? Then she swiped it backwards and it worked. Big sigh of relief...

Then I discovered the flight was delayed by nearly 2 hours. But all that meant was less time hanging around Chicago airport (and more time hanging around Manchester).

I then discovered why the American Airlines flight had been so much cheaper than the others. It was crap. The in-flight entertainment, in the form of the films “Rio” and “Star Trek” (hardly the latest box-office hits) were shown on tiny screens hanging down the centre of the fuselage, looking more like one of those weird mirror tricks you get at fairgrounds. But not being able to see the screens was only half the problem, as to listen to the audio you needed headphones which you had to purchase. From the stewardesses who were too busy serving up luke warm coffee. Still, at least I had my Kindle and a good book to read. I'd just started reading “An Idiot Abroad, the Diary” by Karl Pilkington. This is his diary from the hilarious Sky 1 series and it had me laughing out loud, which caused the American couple sat next to me to try and shrink into the outer wall of the plane away from me. Still, more room to stretch my shoulders...

I finished the book before we landed in Chicago, as sleeping was impossible due to the crying baby sat 2 rows in front. Luckily I'd downloaded a couple of other books so had something else to start reading, this time “Riding Man” written by a Canadian motorcycle racer's experience of riding the Isle of Man TT. It's good so far.

On arriving in Chicago I suddenly realised I was enjoying myself. I think it happened when I stepped off the plane into the non-air conditioned walkway and the heat struck me. I nearly fainted. But then I caught myself smiling. That doesn't happen too often, and I probably looked like a loony, but I was struck by the fact that I was off on another adventure, in a far away land, where it was hot and sunny and I'd be riding my bike. I was once again back to being my alter-ego. Strutting through a foreign airport carrying a motorcycle helmet and a BMW bike jacket, proclaiming to my fellow passengers that I was somehow different. I wasn't on a business trip, or on holiday. I was on an adventure. Even the process of clearing immigration was different for me. With my US visa (which I had to get for the Trans-AM as we didn't leave the US by air) I only had to have one hand scanned, not both, and was engaged in conversation that didn't start and end with a discussion about sightseeing. My customs guy asked why I had a visa, then asked about what I was doing “this time”, and then asked whether I'd be riding “one of those noisy Harleys”. To which I naturally replied “of course not, I'm riding something European!”. His guess at a Moto Guzzi was somewhat wide of the mark, though...

The flight to Knoxville was thankfully on time, the aircraft a very small Embraer like the ones I used to catch up to Edinburgh when I worked for the Halifax and we merged with the Bank of Scotland. It was nice to be sat on one with the sun shining outside for a change. It was only a short flight, thankfully, and soon I was reunited with my luggage and outside looking for the shuttle bus to my motel up the road. Rather than wait, I splashed out $10 on a cab which turned out to be a very good idea as the driver told me that the motel I was staying in was where the local crackheads hang out. She made sure I got a room on the side near the front, as those round the back are a bit scary, she said. Welcome to America...

After a quick shower I wandered across the main road to the “Waffle House” where my friendly taxi driver had told me I could get something to eat, and not just waffles. She was right, I could get a burger with hash browns, and a Sprite to drink as they don't server beer. My English accent created a great deal of interest, the younger of the two waitresses even stopped mopping the floor to recount how her uncle goes to England quite often, to train the Queen's horses. Small world, eh?

When I was asked how I wanted my burger I naturally replied “on the rare side of medium rare” which was fine. Only due to a local law in Tennessee, I had to sign the waitress' order ticket to show that I was aware of the health risks... Welcome to America...

Then my Kindle caused something of a stir. The waitress asked what it was. “It's a book”, I told her, showing her the page I was reading. She told me she couldn't read it as the text was too small, so I showed her how to enlarge it. And then how to turn pages. When I explained that I could carry hundreds of books around on it, she marvelled at the technology and proclaimed “Wow, it must be a British thing”. She seemed almost disappointed when I told her it was from Amazon. And American.

With all that excitement, and with the hunger now satiated I paid my bill and went back to the motel, before it got dark and all the crackheads appeared...

4th August 2011 - Waiting for the bikes to arrive...

Well, I didn't get attacked by the crackheads, although a weird Hispanic guy knocked on my window twice and said he was looking for his buddy. The 2nd time I told him that his buddy wasn't here and I was trying to sleep. He apologised again and stumbled off. Coupled with the fact that the curtain didn't quite cover the window, casing a streak of light onto the wall through which various shadows passed, I expected a poor night's sleep. As it was I quickly fell into a deep slumber, even the constant death rattle from the air-con and the roar of planes taking off from the nearby airport didn't stop me. Until 4am, when I woke up. The funny thing about jet-lag is that no matter how tired you might feel, you still feel wide awake. This was one of those occasions. I laid there for ages trying to get back to sleep before giving up and picking up my kindle once more. At this rate I'll run out of books before I even collect my bike.

I did manage to get another hours sleep after a brief Skype call to Tracy, but by 7am I was up and raring to go. I decided that trying to cross the highway to the Waffle Bar was a bad idea on 2 counts. First, the traffic was horrendous. Second, I didn't fancy another surreal conversation this early in the morning, even with the jet-lag. So I walked up the road to another food place where I had a half decent breakfast – after the usual endless questions about how I would like my eggs cooked, whether I wanted sausages or bacon, potatoes or grits, toast or biscuits (and what type of bread), and how I wanted my coffee. Judging by the size of my fellow diners the portions were going to be huge, but mine wasn't, which was a relief.

After whiling away a few hours reading back at the motel, I caught the shuttle bus back to the airport to wait for Chris to arrive. He's the guy that's organised a trip on the TAT for a group and who was kind enough to let me stow my bike in his container. Once he arrived we tried to hire a car so we could drive the 20 miles or so to Townsend and so that he could then ferry his riders from the airport as they arrived. Only it would seem that all the hire cars in Knoxville have been hired by insurance companies settling claims from a very bad hailstorm earlier in the year. At least that was the reason given by the reps behind all of the many hire companies when they explained they had no cars for hire. On did have a car but it was large and very expensive, so we resorted to a taxi instead.

Where we're staying in Townsend, the Riverside Lodge motel is a huge improvement over last night, nestled in a quiet part of this small town in amongst the trees right by the river. It's also next door to GSM Motorent motorcycle hire, where we will be unloading the bikes in the morning. Once we'd checked in I went and bought some cold beers and we sat chatting in the intense heat supping a cold beer. Simon, one of Chris' group arrived on his KTM 690, having spent 5 days riding the interstate all the way from Las Vegas. He's been in the US since early June, riding around and is joining the group to ride the TAT, taking my bike's place in the container for the return leg. He looked very hot indeed and regaled us with tales of riding through Texas and 150degree F temperatures. I gave him a cold beer as I thought he deserved it.

After a quick dip in the pool we went to the restaurant next door, where our request for a table was met by the young waitress proclaiming that my accent was simply gorgeous. I think I should have come here 30 years ago.

For dinner I had a delicious Southern Fried steak, which is a local delicacy of thin steak coated in spicy batter and fried, served with “white gravy” (an onion gravy) and mash. Sadly there was no beer or wine to wash it down with as the restaurants here don't seem to have liquor licences. A massive piece of carrot cake followed, which was clearly a mistake, as I could neither finish it nor move after I'd eaten what I could.

Before retiring to bed we grabbed the remaining cans of cold beer from our fridge and wandered over to Dan's workshop next door, where he was sat listening to music and enjoying a cold one himself. An evening spent supping cold beer, getting eaten by the bugs and discussing bikes, trails and riding followed, but not for too long as Chris' jet-lag was kicking in and mine wasn't far behind. And so off to bed with the sound of the crickets making a welcome change from last night's air-con and airplane symphony...

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