Chris Harris Learns to Ride a Motorbike with BMW
We're big fans of Chris Harris and his ongoing automotive adventures. Yet the Harris Monkey has recently taken on a motoring challenge of a completely different type: learning to ride a motorcycle.
We’re big fans of Chris Harris and his ongoing automotive adventures. For the uninitiated, here’s Chris putting the i8 through its paces:
Yet the Harris Monkey has recently taken on a motoring challenge of a completely different type: learning to ride a motorcycle. His reasoning is actually kind of fascinating, and very out-of-line with they way most people tend to think these days. He’s learning to ride a motorcycle so that he can build experience about them and actually have an educated experience about riding, being a rider, and we can only expect, the machines themselves at some point. Novel concept right? Go and experience something before forming a point-of-view about it. Sounds like a great approach, and one Harris learned from his school days.
As a practical demonstration of the popular mantra ‘know thine enemy’, my A-level English teacher’s approach to his agnostic beliefs was extreme, but robust: he could quote freely from the King James Bible. “You cannot possibly claim to understand the opposing viewpoint unless you have an excellent working knowledge of the subject.”
He had a point, and an enormous brain. His voice has echoed in my brain for many years now – mostly when I see people on motorcycles. As a car driver, it is not possible to express opinions on motorcycling without being on the receiving end of significant abuse. I have my thoughts on how the majority of bikes are ridden, and how a tiny minority of bikes are ridden – you can probably guess what those are – but I figured I can’t really express them until I have followed the example of my English teacher.
Harris actually leveraged BMW’s UK-based motorcycle learning program, Direct Access to start his learning and licensing, and he underscores the advantage of an OEM like BMW making this kind of training available:
So on Saturday and Sunday I did my CBT with BMW (one of the advantages of being an established car brand is that newbie Billies like me will instinctively trust you), as a part of a direct-access course over the coming weeks. It was extremely thought-provoking and mostly enjoyable.
Yet what I found most fascinating was the way his riding education and fresh experience out on the bike altered his perceptions. In particular, the notion of cars as “the enemy.”
After an hour riding around cones and proving you have the basic skills to operate the machine, it’s out onto the road on a 125. These first few miles are really potent, and I think many people will have their perception of riding permanently shaped by them: the feeling of liberty is compelling, the noises, the smells: the exposure to the wind. But it’s also terrifying – a Jaguar XF no longer looks like a friendly blob of exec-saloon. It looks like a Sherman Tank aiming to drive over you. You view the world in the conditional tense: what if…
It’s this relationship between cars and bikes that I want to investigate during the Direct Access process. From the very beginning you are taught that, as a motorcyclist, the motor car is something to be wary of.
For me, this is the most divisive aspect of the CBT course: the message that by default a motorcyclist has to assume that every other vehicle is a potential threat. Of course, it’s the only sensible way to approach a situation where a human body is protected by nothing more than clothing when surrounded by tonnes of metal, but as human beings we naturally amplify emotions and what begins as a perceived threat quickly becomes The Enemy.
I’m particularly interested in his apparent discomfort with this tension between the very real danger of riding and the relationship that forces with other road users. This is something all motorcyclists know all too well, and his resistance to it is something I’m very curious to see evolve as he does more and more riding. Is it truly just the unfortunate reality of the situation, or is there some way for motorcycle riders, with all our naked vulnerability on the road, to be able to feel less threatened by cars?
In a practical sense, I don’t see how that can really happen, yet at the same time I can say that in my own riding experience, knowing that cars are your biggest hazard doesn’t provide a sustained tension as much as they simply become structural obstacles that have to be accounted for in riding. That sense of tension is something much more palpable to new riders, and that’s probably a good thing.
In the long run, however, I find it’s not useful to personalize the hazard that cars present even though “ride like they’re trying to kill you” is the most common way to frame the hazard cars pose. It’s a useful construct for brand new riders, but one they have to be able to evolve beyond. Otherwise it just isn’t any fun. Cars have to become like trees that move. They don’t have intent, but you have to respect the hazard they present and be ready to take action on your own.
I must say, I’m impressed with Harris taking this on with what reads as quite a bit of sincere curiosity and humility. He’s taking to it as the start of a learning adventure, and I have to applaud him for that. It also bodes well for his experience that he’s starting off with rider training, rather than just hopping aboard the nearest sport bike in his local parking lot. His takeaway is rather interesting.
The CBT confirms what we already know: that nothing fosters sympathy for fellow road users like cross-pollination. Hire a van for a weekend’s house-moving and the next time you encounter some poor sod limping past an HGV in a Mercedes Sprinter, you will be less hasty to take issue with his middle-lane occupancy.
If every car driver had to take a CBT, they would be far more sympathetic to the vulnerabilities of the biker, and they would be much more observant of the general road environment. But there has to be reciprocity, and the notion of the car driver as ‘The Enemy’ does worry me. Equally, there’s the thorny subject of the quality of the bike riding on display – but after a lowly CBT, I’m still not qualified to say anything about that.
The empathy-for-your-fellow-motorer angle is one I think many of us on two wheels have felt very strongly. Most of us are much less likely to reach for our mobile phones from behind the wheel once we’ve been nearly bowled over by some jackhole in an SUV responding to text messages. I think many of us are also much more apt to look twice before turning and follow the rules of the road — hoping that by example, we can avoid running over one of our fellow riders and model better behavior to our fellow drivers.
In the meantime, at least he started his riding experience on good bikes. For those outside the UK, BMW does offer riding courses in other markets, including the USA, including off-road riding coursework. Wherever you start riding, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of rider training. You’ll have a lot more fun down the road if you get off on the right foot.
Check out Chris Harris’s full beginner’s riding experience over at PistonHeads.