I finally committed myself into taking up biking 10 years ago knowing that it was now or never. Some 30 years ago, during my Army service, an opportunity had arisen to attend a one week course in Aldershot so getting my licence at a time when I was in-between postings abroad. Fast forward almost 20 years before I would next ride a 125 of indeterminate origin in Wau, Western Barh el Ghazal, South Sudan. This was at the time of transition to independence and I hared around a circuit in the heat and dust with a couple of colleagues for some much needed recreation while puzzled Dinka tribesmen looked on as their children chased along, shouting ‘khawajat, khawajat!’ Thus my enthusiasm to get riding again was rekindled!

That was in 2010 and I had long since retired from active service. So I took the plunge and promptly bought an unseen BSA C15 that caught my eye on an online auction site and was delivered to my front door when I got home in 2012. I was, to all intents, a total newbie and I arranged a three hour session with a riding school based in Basingstoke who turned up on an adventure bike that dwarfed mine. I couldn’t start my C15 (the penny was beginning to drop) and the instructor suggested it was the type of bike which, way back when, I’d have asked a mate if his mum wouldn’t mind warming up the battery in the oven before we set out for a ride! Undeterred he suggested I follow him to the school in my car where he would fit me out with something more appropriate. The rest, as they say, is history and through a process of trial and error during the next three years I miraculously survived, changing bikes twice more but was struggling to understand what it was all about until one rainy Sunday in the spring of 2015 three bikers stopped outside my house for a break and I took the opportunity of walking across to join them. They looked wary at first, possibly suspecting that I was about to ask them to move on, but soon realised that I was simply curious. One of them produced a TVAM card et voilà! Dave Simmons came round a couple of weeks later to size me up and I then had the good fortune to be allocated Simon Hanlon as my Observer, who by dint of both his skill and encouragement, by night and day, through fair weather and foul coached me to pass my advanced test.

I had to take a break during this period when I found myself travelling again to work for 18 months in the British Embassy in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. It wasn’t realistic to continue developing my riding skills in that environment where a ‘mondele’ in a vehicle, let alone on a motorcycle, can be vulnerable on roads when anything goes and things have a habit of unexpectedly kicking off! I brought back two AK-47 bullets as souvenirs that came uncomfortably close, both of which I was able to retrieve; one that impacted the wall outside my bedroom window one night with a loud bang and the other from the golf bunker I was in when all hell was let loose between two rival political factions in the middle of town one Saturday morning. On the plus side this led to a great opportunity to get to know other players in the competition during a lockdown of several hours in the clubhouse once we had managed to hard target our way back across the course for shelter!

A steep learning curve seems an understatement looking back and during the process, in support of Simon’s teaching, I also decided to throw myself into everything that TVAM could offer through the various training activities as well as Thruxton skills day, St. Crispin’s observed rides and 3Rs to Wales together with a multitude of group and T-runs where I would make new friends and be met, mostly, with supportive encouragement and wise advice which I would soak up.

As with any new venture you expect there to be bumps in the road and maybe I don’t fit the persona of a typical biker although I have found it in general to be an inclusive and broad church bonded by a common passion. It did come as a surprise, though, when one Observer I barely know made his prejudice clear by announcing in front of me ‘There are too many public school voices here’! Whilst I well know that this is not representative I believe that TVAM deserve better than this. I AM SAFE provides a comprehensive checklist on a rider’s fitness; you would hope that tolerance towards others was a given.

I think, after a further three bikes plus a wardrobe that has expanded exponentially, that I have now found my ‘comfort zone’ and although not to everyone’s taste (what bike is?) she does everything I need, providing fun, reliability, performance and range together with a belt drive! Not helped by the pandemic interregnum, combined with a couple of health issues, I realistically accept that bike time is no longer on my side so ambitious dreams of continental expeditions look more likely to be confined to Wales and the Isle of Wight. But that, together with some lovely rides in this part of the country, is fine by me; I am just grateful to be able to do it. I have also tried to give back something where possible supporting on occasion the toy run, ABC and as a GSR which is a win-win benefiting the role play ‘Associate’ as well as the TObs.

So I am indebted to TVAM/IAM RoadSmart for coming to the rescue and opening up a new world and community as an alternative to fishing or golf. It has also provided both physical and mental benefits as well as concentrating the mind with the occasional adrenaline rush reminiscent of looking into the dark void of night as the cargo ramp opens preparing to free fall parachute from a C-130 Hercules at 20,000 feet! And my driving has also received a long overdue wake up call to put it mildly! It may be a case of an old dog and new tricks but I have yet to get my head round mastering bike satnav; ironic from an airborne pathfinder in a past life. So, for the time being, I will count on trusty companions as well as a map and prismatic compass for backup!                                                 

Peter Mills

First published in Slipstream March 2023