When John Wilmot asked me to help run Star Rider training at Market Harborough it was the completion of our original purpose. When we began the Leicester Phoenix RAC/ACU training scheme it was supposed to be based at Market Harborough which was a gap in the county training map. When we had our instructors ready we began at the Cattle Market in Leicester on a temporary basis and the scheme became permanent there. Starting in Market Harborough fulfilled our original task.
There were two motorcycle dealers in the town at the time. Dave Toogood had just taken over the Harborough Bike Centre on St Mary's Road and Tony Wilkins had left Ken Ives to start his own business on Northampton Road.
The training centre was in the grounds of Robert Smyth School on Burnmill Road. I assisted Tony Pullen running the centre. Tony was a craft teacher at the school and operated the Two Wheel Teach In programme for pupils. He was a great guy and very easy to work with. Tony was from London and had been part of the original Ace Cafe days. He was a dyed in the wool biker with a positive approach to all problems. For example, he visited all the local manufacturers and asked them to stop tipping their waste materials until he had picked out the things they could make use of in craft lessons at the school.
Our instructors were a group of keen young motorcyclists recruited from the crowd that hung round the bike dealers on a Saturday morning. They were all fresh from school. Although they didn't have a great deal of motorcycle experience, neither did they have any preconceptions. They had already learned to respect Tony who had recently been their metalwork teacher. They shaped up very quickly and formed an excellent team.
When Nic Green joined the centre he went through the Bronze Instructor training and I checked him with trainees at Corby. It was the first time I had seen a completely new instructor work through the Bronze Star course exactly to the manual and keeping perfectly on time. I was more than a little surprised that it worked. Perhaps with a different trainee it might not have been so successful but I had no reason to fault either Nic or the manual.
The dealers were keen to sell their motorcycles and the availability of (free) training must have been a selling point for the many housewives who we welcomed to the Bronze Star course. Learning the basic skills of balance and control sometimes took several weeks. If the dealer could not collect and redeliver the moped the following Saturday Tony would lock it away on the premises with his Two Wheel Teach In machines. We never put the extended training through the register. We just let the person practice at their own pace under the watchful eye and guidance of an instructor. One lady took several weeks to become confident enough to ride her motorcycle home. We would let her ride the bike across the school rugby field and hold our breath whenever she headed towards the goal posts. When she eventually had the courage to ride it home one of the instructors volunteered to accompany her. Later he related that at one point she rode onto the grass verge, round a road sign and back onto the road as if nothing had happened.
A month or so later her husband turned up to do our Silver Star training. He explained that his wife was OK with her moped but whenever it rained or for almost any other reason, she would prefer to take the family car and relegated him to her moped. "As I'm going to have to take to two wheels I traded the moped in for a proper motorcycle and my missus spoke so highly of you I came for a refresher course." That happened more than one time and I'm sure it pleased the local dealers.
It wasn't just the ladies who had problems absorbing the new skills. Younger people often turned up unprepared for the amount of effort and concentration required. When they donned their new helmets we would ask them where their gloves were. "I don't like gloves" they would reply innocently. We always kept spare gloves ready for the third and fourth hours when their fingers were beginning to blister from the clutch and throttle.
At the end of the training it was a routine to offer to ride with them to a service station to make sure they could put petrol in correctly. It was an excuse to ride with them when they went onto the road for the first time. On several occasions the new rider would pull up at a give way line and wait for the main road traffic to clear then drop the clutch and stall the bike. At that point the instructor would move his own bike right up to the back of the trainee as they panicked, kicking the bike in gear and forgot all the safety procedures they had practiced. With the engine finally running they would wind up the throttle and feed out the clutch to ride out into the path of newly arrived traffic - only to have an instructor heave their back wheel up off the ground. When they looked back to see what was holding them the instructor could say "Calm down and do it properly. Look for the traffic!"
One trainee turned up to take the Silver course on a very ropey FS1E moped (Fizzy) after enrolling at the Leicester centre. We went through the introduction and theory part of the course and then told him we would take him for his first road training next week if his bike was made roadworthy. He insisted the Leicester instructors had told him his bike was alright. "No they didn't" we said confidently. That was the good thing about knowing all instructors were trained to exactly the same system.
Market Harborough Star Rider had a high Bronze to Silver conversion and the highest completion rate for the Silver Star. That was very much due to the enthusiasm of our youthful instructors who made the training fun for everyone. Furthermore, if a trainee didn't turn up one week we would take the other trainees to their house and knock on the door, either to get them out of bed or to let their mum know they were playing hooky!
The most harrowing experience I ever had with a trainee was after a Market Harborough Bronze Star course. His parents turned up at the centre just before the end of the course and asked how he was doing. We advised that he should practice on quiet roads before tackling traffic (and signed him up for a Silver course). His parents asked me to ride home with him to be on the safe side. At the end of the course we set off for his home which was out of Harborough. We made our way towards Burnmill Road along the school drive. At the main road the trainee pulled up and looked right, left and right again. A car was approaching him up-hill from the town on his right. There was nothing coming into town over the brow of the hill to his left. He waited until the car from the right had passed, dropped the clutch and stalled the bike. He pulled in the clutch and restarted the engine. In the meantime two cars came over the hill to his left.
View Larger Map. View from school to left, over the hill out of town.
The second driver looked down Burnmill Road towards town and, as there was nothing approaching, he overtook the lead car. I wasn't quick enough to grab the trainee. He took another glance to his right and screwed it left into Burnmill Road in such a wide arc that he went between the two cars. He than continued homeward as if nothing had happened while both drivers did emergency stops and got out of their vehicles in disbelief. I followed the trainee and his parents followed me.
We were keen to develop our instructors as a team so we organised a number of activities. Ian Sharpe went through all the courses with us including the Gold Star training and was part of the group. He borrowed canoes from the MH Guides and we went on a weekend trip on the Grand Union Canal from Market Harborough to Saddington. It poured with rain from the start and I didn't want to get too wet so we put the canoes into the canal under the bridge near Great Bowden Hall. I no sooner sat in mine than I did a kayak roll. Not a full one - just 180° - so much for not being wet from the start!
I became an advanced motorcycle instructor and took riders out on Gold Star training including most of our instructors. I was taught advanced riding instruction by a gnarled old Black Country police rider named Jack Tinsley. The rumour was that when Jack took you on rides and stopped for a discussion, you would only pass if you could get your helmet off before Jack had his pipe alight. We took turns riding at the front with Jack on our back wheel, there was no shaking him off. On one training day with Jack I went on my 175cc NVT Rambler which struggled to keep up. Towards the end of the day Jack asked who knew the way back to the centre at Groby Community College and I eagerly volunteered to lead. This was long before the A46 Northern Perimeter road was built and the return route went from Anstey to Groby via Gynsill Lane, a road I knew well. Knowing there was a double hairpin at the bottom of the hill in the middle of Gynsill Lane I wound the Rambler onto full throttle and threw the bike left and right with its trials style clearances. Behind me the other trainee instructors were all over the road in surprise at the bends. Jack was tucked in so close to me he could have been glued there. Back at the centre Jack said "I saw that crafty glance over your shoulder at the others."
When Steve Foster and Roy Crofton-Mann joined the team these mature riders also helped to develop the team skills and spirit. Steve Foster arranged for the instructors who were off duty to be trained by St Johns Ambulance. We used the portacabin classroom next to the training area. The St Johns instructor came in one of their ambulances. At the time two of the instructors were off duty because of injuries. Steve had twisted an ankle that required him to use a crutch and someone had a wrist in plaster after a break when playing badminton. We finished our first aid training as the parents were arriving to collect the trainees. Their faces were a picture at the sight of an ambulance and several bandaged people limping about!
Steve also arranged for us to make a presentation about Star Rider training to local Round Table members. We hired a pub room and provided a hot supper. We kept our talk short and to the point. Every member of the team had a slot to introduce themselves and say a couple of sentences about a particular aspect of training. It was well received and boosted our instructors' confidence and pride. We were given space at Round Table Carnival events where we improved local awareness of our training.
We provided all of the local councillors with a folder of information on motorcycle training in their area so that they could make informed decisions on matters affecting motorcyclists. We also attended the local MP's (John Farr) surgeries to keep him informed about developments in motorcycle legislation and to enlist his support. At this time the Two Part Test was being introduced. We asked if he was in touch with any other motorcyclists and he said just one, a local MAG member.
Market Harborough is on the Leicestershire border with Northamptonshire. In fact the River Welland was the border at one time and the town was in two counties. It was inevitable that we had trainees from Northants and trainees from Harborough who bought their motorcycle in Kettering or Corby. Therefore I sent letters to all the dealers in Northants letting them know about our centre and offering training to their Market Harborough customers. As a result of this initiative I was called to County Hall where Peter Clay told me that Northants County Council had complained about poaching after their local dealers asked "Why doesn't Northants offer this standard of service?"
Steve Monk, who was an instructor from the beginning of the centre, eventually took over as Chief. At about the same time Star Rider decided to change the way that courses were funded and charged to the dealers. The old system was very simple but dealers, who had other business to worry about, still found it difficult to understand. The new system would only compound their difficulty and we were apprehensive about its effects. Star Rider HQ in Solihull called a meeting with Chief Instructors to introduce the new system and I persuaded Steve to take me along as Assistant Chief for Market Harborough - Steve was always up for a good fight anyway!
I told John Wilmot about my concerns and said I would raise them at the Solihull meeting. I think he must have passed this on to Star Rider HQ because they were expecting me. Doctor Andrew Clayton began the meeting with a very brief outline of the changes and then turned to me and said "I believe you have something to say, Ben!" That took me off-guard so I replied that I did indeed have something to say but that I would put my questions at the end when the new system had been explained. I then tried to figure a way out of the ambush. I cast around for a friendly face but the room was packed with Star Rider chiefs passionately loyal to the organisation. The back of the room was lined by Star Rider staff. I couldn't see Bob Chambers but Jack Tinsley was there. Eventually the Star Rider speakers had thoroughly explained the complexities of the new system and Andrew Clayton once more turned to me. Falteringly I began to air my misgivings about the new system and could hear the hostile undertow of the other chief instructors. Suddenly Jack Tinsley's Black Country brogue boomed from the back of the room "You'm only come 'ere to make trouble! We've consulted hundreds of people about these changes and none of them have mentioned problems." Thank you Jack. When the cheers for Jack had subsided the room was deathly silent. "I've come here because this is the proper time and place to air my concerns. I'm glad to hear that so many people have been consulted, Jack. No doubt many of them are here now. Chief instructors, raise your hand if you were consulted!" Everyone looked round at each other. No hands were raised - but then they began to rise to question the wisdom of replacing a simple system by something that would be a damned nuisance to everyone.
The Council sponsored Dave Taylor to do his riding display and safety talk around county schools. Star Rider instructors were also invited to attend events to introduce local training schemes and answer training questions. This is how we met Dave Taylor and arrange to visit his off-road bike park for a weekend. We rode and trailered off-road (or semi off-road) bikes through Dartford tunnel to his park and were allowed to camp overnight in his grounds. This was just another of the enjoyable team building activities that we shared. This was the event where Roy Crofton-Mann broke his nose. The run to Snowdonia when Roy and Ian Sharpe wrote their bikes off and broke their legs is told on the Dropping It page.
Too short a time ... too long a tale!