I learned to ride in April 2005. And May, June, July, August.... you get the idea. My friends mostly know the tragic story, but I'm recording it here for posterity.
Imagine this – a short, slightly-built woman. She's shy, a bit timid and has always been hopeless at tasks that require physical coordination. She can't work up a sweat in an aerobics class. By the time she's figured out how to put her arms and legs in the right spot to do the moves, the rest of the class has moved on to a new step. She can't dance either. She's stiff and unco. Learning how to drive a manual car is one of the great physical triumphs of her life. Got the picture? That's me.
I find myself, one sunny Saturday morning in April 2005, in the ladies' class at Stay Upright, scared but hopeful that by the end of the following day I'll be the proud holder of a learner rider's licence. I've already lined up a motorcycle to buy – a sweet little red Kawasaki GPX250. What an adventure!
An astute reader, especially one who rides a motorcycle, will probably be shaking his or her head right about now. You just know what's coming...
About halfway through the first morning, I've learned how to get on and off the bike. I've got over my shock at how big and heavy the riding school's Honda CB250 is. I've learned how to turn the engine on and off. Now I have to start the engine and ride the bike about 6 metres, to where the instructor is standing. My heart's pounding. My left leg is shaking with nervousness. My mouth is dry.
Somehow (you knew this would happen, didn't you?) it all goes horribly wrong. I crash the out-of-control bike into a concrete barrier, fall off, and learn the first big lesson of motorcycling – even small, low speed crashes hurt!
I get on again and promptly fall off. So I'm 'expelled' from the class, pretty much, and I limp home, a bundle of misery and bruises. Bugger. Motorcycling is harder than it looks.
When the bruises fade, I have another go at it – I may be unco, but I'm also remarkably (some would say 'ridiculously') stubborn. I rock up to my first 'remedial' lesson, and don't even get to turn on the engine. The instructor, a mature man with a bad back, spends the entire lesson pushing me around the riding range on the CB250, while I, for my part, keep falling over. Exasperated, Mr Instructor, whose back is killing him, calls an early halt to the lesson. I'm relieved, but also disappointed. I'd been so certain that I'd be able to ride properly by now. Mr Instructor asks if I have some kind of middle-ear problem and suggests I do some practice on a pushbike, where I'm less likely to kill myself. Once again, I take my bruised ego and shattered confidence home.
A new instructor greets me for my second remedial lesson. (I must've scared the first one off.) He's been briefed about my 'special problem'. He asks me to turn on the engine straight away, and to ride towards him. I can't believe what I'm hearing. Does the guy have a death-wish or what?
The engine purrs, I find friction point and start to ease off the rear brake. My left leg (that's the one that's holding me and the bike upright!) is shaking so much that I know I'm about to fall over, and that wouldn't be good, only 2 minutes into the lesson. I turn off the engine, rip off my gloves and remove my ridiculously expensive helmet which, just now, is looking like a complete waste of hard-earned cash.
“I'm sorry,” I say, battling girly tears, “I'm just wasting your time. I don't know what I was thinking! I'm going home.”
Robert is astounded. “But you've paid for a whole hour! Tell you what, you can just sit on the bike for an hour if you like. I won't watch. Just get yourself comfortable.”
But even sitting on the bloody thing makes me tremble. I feel so demoralised and pathetic – like the world's biggest loser. I climb off before the inevitable happens. By this stage, Robert must be thinking he's got some kind of loony on his hands.
“Let's get a coffee,” he says, “and you can calm down.”
I can't even get a spoonful of coffee out of the jar. The granules keep dancing off the spoon and flying around the room. Robert tries not to stare, and makes the coffee for both of us. I have to hold my cup with both hands to stop it spilling.
We talk about fear and about why I want to ride, (why do I want to ride? Just because...) and when the shaking stops, Robert suggests having another go at getting on the dreaded CB250.
So I mount the beast, which seems to be getting bigger and more evil with every passing second. By the end of the hour I've managed to make it move a total of about 15cm. Robert hasn't made me feel like the idiot he probably thinks I am, I haven't fallen over (although I've wobbled rather a lot, and nearly panicked a bit), and I've agreed to come back for another lesson - that's a Good Thing, right?
By remedial lesson number five I can spend 15 minutes at a time on the bike before becoming overwhelmed, and have managed to reduce the number of falls per lesson to one or two. I've learned how to pick up a dropped bike (a handy – no, essential - skill for someone like me!) I've had lessons in icy wintry weather and pouring rain, all through the long Canberra winter. I've had lessons with just about every one of the instructors at Stay Upright. I can just imagine their conversations. They probably have a book running on how many times I'll drop the bike every lesson. They can't believe I'm still chucking money at them to fall off one of their bikes. I want this so much I can taste it. I salivate like one of Pavlov's dogs every time I see a motorcycle – it's insane!
After remedial lesson number ten (yes, you did read that correctly – number TEN), I haven't dropped the bike for a while, and can ride around the riding range, changing gears and everything! I book in to do the weekend course again.
It's a proud moment in late September when Robert hands me my certificate of completion, and tells the class that Betty has just been awarded the most expensive L-plates in history. I'm in the Stay Upright Hall of Fame – Most Determined Unco Ever. Finally I can get on that sweet little red GPX that's been sitting in my yard for 5 months – hoo-bloody-ray!