Co Tyrone nurse Jenna Bresland has a big smile on her face for she’s well on her way to getting her full bike licence. She’s just passed the off road section, better known as the swerve test.
This part of the test has created huge controversy in Britain where some riders have come off their machines while attempt to swerve around a cone. But Jenna, aged 24, took it in her stride.
She admitted to being nervous before taking the test at the government centre at Mallusk, Co Antrim, but once she pressed the starter button on her riding school’s 125 Honda, she concentrated on the task in hand and was fine.
“I was more nervous in the days before the test but my training school had coached me well and in fact laid out a tighter course with the cones closer together than the ones at the Mallusk centre.”
I was curious to see for myself the difficulty of the swerve test and observed it in action.
L riders have to accelerate to just over 30mph before braking and then swerve to avoid a cone.
Has the difficulty of the test being over hyped in some sections of the motorcycling press? Yes. The simple fact is that any rider who has a good trainer will be able to do complete the manoeuvre successfully.
Jenna, who is nursing in Belfast but comes from Artigarvan, near Strabane, is a pupil of RTS, with three training centres, two in Belfast based at Belfast Honda, off the Castlereagh Road, Hurst Motorcycles at Boucher Road, and a third at Larne.
Frank Millar, the owner of RTS, has been training newcomers to biking for many years and obviously has shed loads of experience. “If a trainee receives proper instruction there’s no reason why he or she should not pass the off road section, which includes swerve test. It’s not difficult.”
Frank knows of three incidents in the province where a rider has fallen at the swerve test but the injuries were minor and he’s definite in his view that the test does not demand too much of a novice.
“In one case the rider was still braking while going around the cone. As Jenna said, we put our trainees through a simulated test only it’s more difficult than the official one.”
My own observation is that the test may help a rider to avoid an obstacle lying in the road, that’s all.
A more worrying factor is that the number of people applying for the bike test here has dropped by 76% over the past 15 months, according to Frank. And no one in the trade, neither training instructors nor dealers, knows why.
Frank says that the negative publicity about the swerve test may be one reason but he does not think it is the principle factor. “Last year the weather was terrible and undoubtedly that did not put people in the mood for learning to ride bikes and obviously the recession was another important consideration.
“The simple fact is that we have not been able to come up with any explanation for the drop off in numbers.”
The bike test is divided into three sections, theory, off road manoeuvre and the practical on the road test. At present in Northern Ireland there’s no compulsory basic training but that’s on the cards for the future.
Riding instructors also do not have to be licensed and that, too, will change, hopefully quite soon. I’ve been told of one so-called instructor who followed in a van three riders, all on L plates. The lead rider was also a novice – unbelievable.
When Jenna began to take her course at RTS, the initial instruction was one a one to one basis. RTS charges £35 for two hours and that includes the hire of a bike and insurance.
She’s now preparing for the third part of her test, the practical on the road.
“I’ve seen a Suzuki 650 v-twin I want to buy once I get my R plates,” she says.
She’ll have to have a restrictor fitted to the bike to limit the bhp for two years before she will be legally allowed a more powerful machine.
Was Jenna unusual in being a woman who wanted to learn how to ride a bike? “No”, explains Frank. “About 35 to 40% of our pupils are women. A considerable number of women ride bikes now, a lot more than in years gone by.
“We have seen a fall off in young people, in the 17 to 20 age bracket, coming forward for instruction. These days there are in their mid 20s, 30s and 40s and quite a lot of older people today. We’ve had one man who was 67 and he was returning to motorcycling after many years.”
I asked Jenna what had sparked her interest in biking. “My mother was always interested because her cousin, Geoffrey Downey raced and he competed at the NW200 last year.
My boyfriend, Mark Johnston learned to ride and his father and brother also ride.
“Mark bought me the test lessons as my Christmas present.” I think it’s one of the best presents she’ll ever have for she’s starting out on her biking career with proper instruction.