A Skill for Life and still smiling.

Following on from my previous blog: Miles of Smiles, my IAM adventure has continued.

At my Advanced test last year, I was asked what I was going to do next. I believe my answer was ‘keep learning’. I believe I have done exactly that, and I know the learning journey will continue for many years to come.

It’s all in the timing, it seems. I was asked by Gordon who is a member of Tayside Advanced Motorists, if I was going to carry on to Observer training. I wasn’t sure, and said so, suggesting that I still needed to work on my riding skills before venturing into Observer training. His advice to me was not to wait, to get on with it, now.

Ultimately, it was never going to be my decision, even though I felt ‘slightly’ ganged up on… was it all team work between Gordon and Rory?? After all, Gordon handed me the ‘Motorcycling bible’ this time last year. You have to be invited to Observer training. Strangely enough, the very next day, I got a phone call from Rory. Rory Colville was my Observer last year and not surprisingly I have been picking his substantial brain ever since. No one could ask for a better mentor, committed to ‘saving lives’ and into the bargain, a walking, talking dictionary. Apparently, a possible trainee had opted out of Observer training and Rory asked me if I wanted to think about taking the next step in my training. I don’t think it took me very long to agree.

The process for the training started in the winter… though, now, in May it’s still snowing! ‘COT’ – Communal Observer Training involves three IAM groups; Kingdom of Fife, Tayside and Forth Valley groups. Leading the way were Martin, Rory and Kenny. It all starts with well structured classroom sessions. The only drawback for me, was having to leave my nice, warm garage at 7am in the morning to be in Kinross for 8.30. The really GOOD thing though, was the roads were always quiet. For the first few sessions, it was a car job. The amount of snow and general conditions where I live were slightly dodgy.

From the word ‘go’, it was a lovely warm, friendly atmosphere. The training was well structured and superbly thought out. Don’t get me wrong, some of it was really tough, and some of it to start with I really struggled with. The theory involved a massive tool kit of subjects that you need to know as a potential Observer. What was really strange, my riding improved with the theory work. I tried as much as possible to ride in the winter, and found myself feeling completely gutted when I had to take the car! The other advantage of riding in the winter, when it comes to the start of the motorcycling season, you are miles ahead (literally) of those who have perhaps parked up their pride and joys in the garage. Riding in the wet / damp has never been so much fun!

The ‘stuff’ I had bother with was the ‘technical’ things. I am not a ‘technical’ person, in the slightest. My job role in the business is HR, Training and Development, with Coaching thrown in for good measure. When I teach Food Hygiene, and it gets to the ‘science’ stuff, for example, explaining what a ‘spore’ is, I make it really simple. I can explain things, just don’t ask me to understand it. I wasn’t terribly skilled at sciences at school. In actual fact, I remember my Chemistry teacher being boiling mad when I was unable to recite the Reactivity Series. I was publicly shamed in the classroom. So, being marginally mortified, I went to work, I went back to my boarding house and during our nightly prep (2.5 hours, Sunday – Thursday) I memorised the Reactivity Series. I can still do it now. When I stood up in the classroom, and recited it, and he said well done, I said I’m not finished yet. I then did it from bottom to top for good measure. I never pursued any science, however, I found out then, that I have an ability to memorise things when I need to. Just as well really!

Back to the subject in hand. There are a heap of things that you have to commit to memory – the most important one, being IPSGA – Information, Position, Speed, Gear and Acceleration. That’s easy, it’s been in the grey matter since 2005 when I did my car training. It’s different though when you have to be able to break it down for guidance purposes. Then it becomes a different beast. Understand that it’s used for everything, for driving a car or riding a motorcycle, no matter if you are in a car park, out on the open road, or manoeuvring around a hazard, IPSGA is the lord and master of the advanced motoring world.

There’s other stuff though, lots of it. It was presented to us by an amazing group of guys. Yep, I was in the minority all the time, not that I was fazed by this in the slightest. Nothing better than a group of blokes to make me happy. To mention as many of the other Senior Observers that were involved: Martin, Rory, Kenny, Ian, Brian, Lindsay, John, Gordon and of course Roddy, who instructs at the Police College at Tulliallan. We, our group of trainees, were truly honoured, having such experienced people passing on their undoubted wisdom.

I have to say though, I did have moments of doubt in my abilities. Not so much the theory, but the riding side of things. Thankfully, a wee run in the winter *read – baltic conditions*, so brutal, that I had to give Rory an extra pair of socks… made me realise that I had increased my skill level. A lovely learning day with Gordon and Rory, round my favourite roads.

The training continued. I can’t remember how many 6am alarms I went through on a Sunday, to go to training sessions. That doesn’t matter, they were all fantastic and as much as I had a weekly ‘whine’ on Facebook (or was it?), I couldn’t wait to get to the training sessions. We did scenarios, where we had an ‘Associate’, and they had a problem that we had to coach them through. It was all part of the quality training that we got. It was verging on uncomfortable with a room full of trainees and our mentors, to try to talk through them. Always use IPSGA. It’s been good practice though, life is real, we will face challenges I am sure, and guaranteed, there will those who think that ‘they are right’, perhaps don’t listen to reason and we are just speaking a load of clap-trap. Ultimately, we have a support mechanism in the group of awesome ‘seniors’ who gave to us their knowledge during our training. So, when we have a ‘difficult’ Associate, we have a fall back of wisdom.

Then it came to the ‘road sessions’. The weather had *cough*, improved slightly. It was still the same early start. Even better. Riding my wee bike on roads that I love, early in the morning. Who could ever complain? Not me! One of the first sessions, I believe we all got soaked to our respective knickers. Oh well. I still had a great big grin on my face!

It included a slo-mo day which worried all of our group. Why should we have worried, with a fantastic group of Senior Observers to teach us? It was great fun. As much as slo-mo makes everyone nervous, it was yet again a great learning curve. The ‘big boys’ made us work hard, but on the other hand, you couldn’t help but learn.

It’s only now, down the line, that I realise that my hubby has been so incredibly patient. He did have a whine this week though, about not being able to take me out for Sunday lunch. Oh well, we have lots of time to do that. He has been so supportive in my journey and has been fascinated with my progress. Our life has changed and we now have some fantastic chats about riding motorbikes which, to be honest, I haven’t been able to have with him up to now, with confidence. Quality chats. Sunday lunch is a priority on my agenda. Ed is ‘slightly tempted’ in doing the free Ridecheck that’s on offer. Right on. Might have to speak to Rory about that one.

The road work was just great. To start with the group were split up and were allocated a senior, which changed during the day. That in itself was very intelligent, you are getting different styles of feedback and different ‘mistakes’ as they demonstrate riding to you. We would be acting as the Observer, whilst the senior was in front, making some errors that we had to pick up on. At each pre-arranged stop, we had to give them a debrief. This was a bit daunting, given you were standing in the middle of a group of folk rather than on a one-to-one basis, as you would be with an Associate. Following a principle of ‘build a bridge and get over it’, we soon got over our nerves. There was always feedback from the assembled company, some good, most constructive! How can you fail to learn with all this attention?

On my first ‘taste’ of Observer riding , as mentioned above, was when I had to give Rory and extra pair of socks…. For the first time, I was in the observing position. I was following Rory round the Kinlochleven loop. An awesome road, one of my favourites. I was quite nervous, not knowing whether I was going to be able to keep up with the rascal. I don’t think I did too badly. I kept up, which is all I was concerned about. All of a sudden, I had that EUREKA moment, when I realised I could do it. Boy, that was a fine moment and I don’t think I will ever forget it. Half way round, after a cuppa (essential), Gordon led the way. He was taking left-handers sticking to the white line…. There was a line of 3 cars came round a corner, the third one was the local bobby. OOPS. I have to confess I had a PMSL moment, wondering what on earth went through the police driver’s head!

The one thing that really impressed me, was the way the seniors are able to ‘act’ safely. They know that they need to teach us, and have the skill to be able to demonstrate ‘bad’ riding for the benefit of the trainees is awesome. Ultimately, the acting that they do is still safe(ish)… but it does focus your mind following them. Needless to say, when we stopped for lunch, we had a bit of a laugh about finding a police vehicle during the loop. Often, the road is completely empty! Sodding typical.

Lunch stop

Lunch stop

I had a marvellous day, even though it was a tad cold. From Castle Stalker, the above picture, I led the way back to Tyndrum. I won’t say what Rory said before we headed off, other than, “Right, give me a figure of 8!” As mentioned in a previous blog, I think I very unsubtly said, “Piss off.” I was knackered and brain fried by that point. The thought of cocking up a figure of 8, wasn’t attractive. We had a lovely ‘progressive’ ride home, and I got feedback – in the middle of my own Filling Station.

The training continues. I think I had maybe one free Sunday from the moment I started COT training to the current day. No wonder Ed was slightly irritated at me. A couple of weeks ago, I got a last minute invitation to RTT, which is ‘Regional Training Team’. Our region, 6, covers the whole of Scotland. On writing this blog, I realised that due to not previously having been involved, I wasn’t completely aware of the ‘aim’ of RTT. So, I emailed our walking dictionary and asked:

“Our function is to find good observing practices across our region (Scotland) and disseminate them.” (That confirms the ‘walking dictionary’ description.)

There had been a few folk that had dropped out, so, the COT trainees got the chance to go along to the police college at Tulliallan. I got the text to start with, asking if I fancied some training on the Sunday. *Note to self, remember to confer with Ed first.* Of course I said yes. Then it was suggested that I should find out more about the day. That didn’t stop me, I still said yes. It was brilliant. I had a great time, and I know that Bobby (fellow trainee) and I realised after the day with the ‘big boys’ we were ready for our road exams. I think, for me, was the fact I was comfortable explaining things, where as other people maybe weren’t so comfortable. Fraser, from EDAM, the Edinburgh group was in the same group as myself, having met Fraser on previous occasions, it was lovely to listen to his very calm approach when talking to an ‘Associate’. I learned a lot from him. Our instructor / mentor for our group was David Morrison. David was my examiner for my advanced test last September. I have to say, I got lots from the sessions, David helped me heaps, and made me feel much more confident in my abilities. We played around in all sorts of set ups. Circles, figures of 8, slaloms through cones, and even the police slo-mo course, which I have to say, I can’t wait to do again. I kept practising until my brakes were stinking, or was that my clutch? I didn’t do a sniff test, maybe I should have. It was probably more likely to be the clutch. Poor Marc’s clutch failed on the dual carriageway on his way home! It was an education, a fascinating experience and felt very, very honoured to have the ‘last minute good luck’ in being invited along.

The whole journey has opened up all sorts of doors. The opportunity to meet like-minded folk, who all want to promote safer riding. It’s nice now, being recognised when I turn up for events, whether it’s for a social or a training event. It’s brilliant when my fellow IAM members make a point of finding me when they visit the business. Thanks lads. I say ‘lads’, because up to now, it’s been a fairly male-dominated environment. I can say with confidence that it’s some of the best laughs I have had in ages. I look forward to meeting the lassies down the line.

So, we had our final road session with the COT group of trainees. In the meantime, our team of seniors had asked us to attend some ‘theory’ lessons. Right-oh. Bobby, a fellow Forth Valley trainee and I met at Rory’s house. It was stunning weather when I left home on the Wednesday night. Off to my flat in Edinburgh, day in town on the Thursday, then off to Rory’s for a theory session. I was soaked. My gear was hung in the garage, with 3 buckets underneath to catch the drips. Bobby and I spent about 4.5 hours of quality time. I totally admire the dedication that these people give. Never forget that we all do this for nowt. It’s a charity after all. We do it entirely for the benefit of others, to help save lives. It’s certainly been my own on a couple of occasions! It was still lashing with rain when I left. It took 2 days to dry my gear.

Do you ever know if you are ‘ready’ for your final road exam? Strangely, even after all the numerous self-doubt moments that I had, when I was heading toward my assessment, I was not in the slightest bit nervous. Yes, there were occasions when I thought to myself, “Good god, can I do this?” I think the best part for me is knowing how to train people, it’s what I do at the end of the day. If I am not able to ‘coach’ people, in the skill of being safer, after all the training I have received,then there is something far wrong.

In the interim, my best buddy, Gayle, has a new bike. We have been out for a couple of runs now. She has a natural ability to read corners, but is still a bit upright in them, which I will help her with, eventually. The first run we had, she went in front, to Lochearnhead. When we stopped, thankfully, the road was quiet, so I made use of the A85 to show her the correct road positioning, and positioning for safety. The second run, she hadn’t been out on her bike since. I turned up, it was the night before my exam. I rode part of my planned route, and knowing she was going to be home, I opted for going to see her, instead of getting myself stewed up in my route for the next evening. It was fantastic, she had remembered everything I had explained to her. The eureka moment for her was doing a hill start in Callander on her back brake. We sat together at the traffic lights on the slope, and I talked her through what I wanted her to do. I have never seen a wider grin, filled with pride at her own achievement. That’s all I needed to set me up for my exam the next day. Sorted. It gave me a massive feeling of pride too. Thanks to the COT trainers for getting me to that moment.

When I was at Tulliallan, I had to guide Fraser, as my ‘Associate’, to be able to do slo-mo in a straight line. Given, another Observer had gone first, so I was second fiddle. After my explanation, which was far from being perfect and I got some cracking feedback, the comment was made, “It’s always easier for the second person to correct their instruction techniques.” Bollocks, not wanting to sound cocky, Fraser, you got what I would have said to an Associate. That was me, not influenced by anyone. It gave me the best confidence boost that anyone could ask for, even with Fraser acting the goat! 😉

Leaving Tulliallan, I was sorted.

In the meantime, things were challenging at work, I knew that I was on the verge of being ‘fried’. It’s a difficult thing to explain, however, there had been some HR issues that were proving awkward. I knew, and recognised that if I didn’t take time off, my kettle boiling system was about to explode. My whistle was on the verge of over-boiling. I chose to take the Monday and Tuesday off. Tuesday was my road exam. In the meantime, fellow trainee, Jim had passed his exam. I was next, then Bobby and Sean. Our group of trainees were just great, we all get on a storm, and I hope when we have all passed, that we all keep in touch and share experiences. A fab bunch of lads. Sean in particular, shares a professional passion for coaching, and I totally ‘get’ his style of approach.

So, the pressure’s on. Jim has passed his exam. Now it was my turn. It was a lovely warm evening, the sun was shining, the sky was blue. What more could you ask for? I arrived early. Really early. I read over my crib notes so often, I had them off pat, just like the Reactivity Series. I did use them though. How can you be ‘relaxed’ when you know you are going on a run with a serving Police Officer. Luckily, Roddy is a cool bloke, he immediately put me at ease, however, after a good while sitting in the sunshine, I was so chilled out, I was nearly falling over. Thanks for that, Roddy, you did a grand job of helping me get off on the right foot…. or should that be the left foot? Once the structure of the session was explained, and I gave my ‘new Associate’ bit, showed him my map, made sure he knew where he was going and, most importantly he was made aware that he had to obey all traffic laws. Choice, really, considering he’s a copper! That bit, thankfully, I read on my crib sheet before we headed off, and it reminded me of the really important bit.

We went from Callander via Thornhill to Dobbies in Stirling, giving him instruction to stop there for our first debrief. I was slightly concerned, given Roddy’s skills that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up, however, I did advise him that there was gravel on the road on certain parts of the road (having ridden the route in advance). I would like to say it slowed him down. Not.

The advantage of stopping at Dobbies, was the markings in the car park. The place was closed, so we had the car park to ourselves, well seen I hadn’t been there for a while, when did Lakeland get in on the act? I was able to use the appropriate markings to demonstrate positioning and also being able to discuss the effect of lumpy white markings on the road. All good. So far. I remember all those months ago, in a Stirling car park having the same thing done to me. At that point in my training, being a bit green, I don’t think I could have navigated my way around 10 spaces without putting my foot down.

Next, a run through Stirling. Nothing too stressful (for me), but enough to assess Roddy’s town riding. OK, I missed an observation, however, I think I pretty much cracked the rest. After that, I had to give a demonstration ride. So, I had to ride in front of my ‘Associate’ and show them how it ‘should be done’. When I discussed the run, Roddy questioned my route, wondering if it was too far out my way for getting home. Nah, not bothered. The biggest mistake I made was choosing Powmill as my finish point. Why? Nae phone signal. I had to ride to Crieff to be sure I had a signal to phone home. ET. Ed had been worried. As for the COT seniors, I understand there was a bit of ‘chat’, wondering if anyone had heard from me. Sorry, boys, I prioritised my phone call. Unlike when I passed my exam with David. The first person I called after passing that was Rory. That went down like a lead balloon with the other half.

In the meantime, the debrief at Powmill was two-fold. Roddy was still in ‘Associate’ mode for the first part. Asking questions about my ride. After that, he asked questions about certain scenarios, and ‘what if…’ questions. Again, I wasn’t perfect, but I managed to explain things ok. I think. At the end of the day, Roddy, you are a wind-up merchant. He didn’t tell me if I had passed. He said, quite casually, that he would be emailing Martin. I think my eyebrows raised at that point. He went onto say, he would be emailing Martin to say that there was another pass. YA DANCER! Roddy, I will get my own back. Be afraid, be very, very, afraid. Being a bit of a prankster myself, and being on prank-alert, I have it brought to my attention that you can’t be heard if you are screaming inside your helmet. I wonder who said that?

In the meantime, Bobby passed too. I had a long chat with him when he got home after his test, well done son, great job. The last of our trainees was Sean, he was doing his test on Sunday. In the meantime, I had gone up to Aberdeen. Originally, it was to ‘show’ George at the Crathes Rally – Vintage Cars & Motorcycles (not many of the latter, but the ones that were there were stunning). I opted to go and assist on the IAM mobile display unit. The Aberdeen crew were ‘manning’ it, fantastic to meet them, in particular, Neil and Ian.

George, Dad's baby, now mine!

George, Dad’s baby, now mine!

I know George would have fitted right in amongst the stunning company.

IAM at Crathes

IAM at Crathes

Sean sent me a text, he’d passed. Couldn’t wait, I phoned him there and then. A 100% success rate for the COT team. Thank you, on behalf of Jim, Bobby, Sean and myself for making it all possible. It’s been a marvellous journey, lots of laughs, and even more learning. We all appreciate that there’s much more learning to come. What a great experience it’s been. It’s been a full-on few months.

The accumulation of learning through the months, was evident last night when I left Crathes. I went over the mountains to home. Banchory, Ballater, Braemar… ok, that’s got all the ‘B’s’ out the way. Through Glenshee, Pitlochry, Loch Tay and home. It is written down as one of the finest bike rides I have ever had. Everything came together, all the lessons, the theory, the practice. It even bettered all the miles of smiles through the Alps, and that’s saying something. There were very few cars on the road and it was, well, peaceful. I was able to concentrate on my ride.

Sheep. OK, there’s that patch north east of Pitlochry, where there aren’t any fences. Slow right down. Where there’s a lamb, there’s a ewe. Right enough, when they heard Smoggy approaching, they scarper to their Maaaaaaaaaa.

There's a Smoggy approaching... RUN!

There’s a Smoggy approaching… RUN!

Mike had asked me if I would stop on the way home. I said that I didn’t know, it was all down to how I felt. As it happened, I had to give my whole body a rest. I took a breather at Kenmore. I was glad I did. Every part of my body needed a wee strrrreeeeetch after 2.5 hours of pure pleasure. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a ‘speedy’ ride, I have to say, Smoggy is marvellous, however, he’s not a sports bike, you have to really rev the nuts off of him, but I still love him, he’s perfect for me. The ride was progressive, and safe. Why was it one of the best rides? I know it’s been down to the last nine months (really, only nine months?) of the most fantastic education that you can possibly wish for. The grin was massive. Still, a Ducati Diavel would be nice as an addition to the garage….. At least my feet would reach the ground and both of us could ride it! In my dreams.

In my dreams....

In my dreams….

Thank you to everyone who have made my riding experience what it is now. I look forward to the continuing learning curve; my first Associate. To my fellow trainees, sorry, new Observers, it’s been just great, hasn’t it? I have felt on top of the world for the last 6 days, it was just the boost I needed during a quite stressful time at work. However, for that there’s Smoggy and a good blast in the country.


Apparently now, I do get the t-shirt!

3 comments on “A Skill for Life and still smiling.”

  1. Jim McIntosh says:

    Great read Fiona and well done again on your test pass.
    I had my first session with my first associate on Saturday afternoon and what a fantastic ‘buzz’, already looking forward to the next session, made me realise that our training was worthwhile and it works!!
    Look forward to catching up soon.

  2. Fiona says:

    Go you!! Fantastic that you have your first associate! 😉 x

  3. alistairl says:

    I like this post for a number of reasons – it is realistic about the learning experience and the sacrifices we have to make, but also illustrating the excellent quality of instruction available from a bunch of volunteers across the IAM.

    I’d like to think that like the other guys you too will be able to bring your own spin and direction to observing which will help your associates have a long and enjoyable riding career.

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