A shiny new Lexmoto Valiant showed up at the door of TMO headquarters Tuesday – the vehicle my wife will take on her literal and metaphorical journey to earning a full UK motorcycle license. I’m sure many husbands can relate to the fact I am more excited about all this than she is.
READ MORE: What it’s Like to Earn Your CBT
Here in United Kingdom, of course, the first step in the full license process is earning a Compulsory Basic Training qualification, or CBT. (If you haven’t already done that, use this government search to find a licensed CBT course near you) The CBT allows a person to ride a 125cc motorcycle (maximum power: 14 hp) for up to two years, with the restrictions that he or she not ride on the motorway, not carry passengers, and always display those gaudy “L” plates.
Ostensibly this is to allow the rider time to build up his or her skills to ride a heavier, more powerful motorcycle. But the thing is, if you are over the age of 24, you don’t have to spend those two years putt-putting around on a 14hp moto. If you want, you can choose the Direct Access route, wasting no time before heading to the Module 1 and Module 2 exams that stand between you and a full license.
(If you’re not over the age of 24, here’s a handy chart that explains all the different license qualifications and the steps necessary to achieve them)
So, the question that generally faces a person who’s just earned his or her CBT is this: do you buy a 125cc bike and spend up to two years getting comfortable with motorcycling, or do you go all-in and proceed as quickly as possible to full licenship?
My wife is currently pursuing the first option – it’s the same option that was taken by my frequent riding buddy, Cam – whereas I took the second route. With the benefit of hindsight and the ability to see others’ experiences, I thought I’d break down the particulars of these two options, as well as offering my opinion on which is best.
The UK system was designed in the hope people would use its structure to develop themselves into better riders. And, arguably, taking the 125cc route is the way to do that. Almost always a technologically simple single-cylinder motorcycle, 125s are usually light, maneuverable, and relatively easy to understand.
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The bikes aren’t allowed on the UK’s 70mph motorways, but with only the most expensive of the bikes(eg, the £4,199 KTM 125 Duke) capable of reliably exceeding 60 mph most 125 riders will be clever enough to avoid fast A roads as well. So, although it is still entirely possible to cause yourself serious injury or death on these bikes, a well-geared rider stands a little more of a fighting chance.
All these are aspects that speak to a development process that is more relaxed and forgiving. You have space – mental and temporal – to get to grips with each little aspect of motorcycling and perfect it in your own time.
Additionally, the investment is relatively low. The UK market is flooded with Chinese 125s, some costing as little £800 brand new, so it won’t sting too badly if it turns out you’re not actually a fan of motorcycling. That sort of thing happens, after all. And sometimes it happens because a person has forced him- or herself to buy-in too quickly.
One of the downsides to the 125 route, however, is rooted the fact that for most of us expendable income is finite. So it can feel, at least, that spending money on a bike that you’re almost certainly not going to keep (and, if it’s a Chinese bike, that you’re almost certainly not going to recoup a great deal of coinage with) is a misallocation of funds. Why not get the full license and put that money toward a “real” bike?
Also, there are the restrictions, both legal and mechanical, that this route presents. One of the reasons I returned to motorcycling, for example, was an ambition to go far on two wheels. How are you supposed to pull that off on a little machine that claims a top speed of 65 mph?
All in One
I felt desperate to earn my full UK license, and eager to get it as quickly as possible. Additionally, I had actually done a little riding on big bikes (usually my friend’s old Kawasaki Ninja 500), so I figured I’d take to it alright.
It is theoretically possible for you to make the journey from noob to fully licensed rider in the space of a long weekend. Earn your CBT on day one, take your Module 1 exam on day two, and take your Module 2 exam on day three. In certain corners of the UK you’ll find schools with intensive courses that allow you to attempt such a feat.
It’s my observation that such schools tend to operate near a large military base. Feel free discuss what the connection might be there. There aren’t any in the immediate Cardiff area, though, which is fine because the three-day route is risky. Fail any of the exams and the law says you have to wait 10 working days before taking it again. But in order to book them so tightly you’ll have to commit to paying the exam fee.
Instead, I attended a training school and booked the exams one at a time. Fortuitous thinking on my part. I passed the CBT and Mod 1 exams on the first try, but my unfamiliarity with UK traffic laws, bad weather, and inexperience in being on a bike that wasn’t just going in a straight line resulted in my having to take the Mod 2 exam three times before success.
So, Which Route is Better?
According to government data, some 47,256 people took their Mod 2 test last year (the final step toward earning a full license) and only 33,554 people passed. That’s 13,702 unsuccessful attempts. With Brexit looming, I have no doubt the government appreciates the £1,027,650 that those failed tests represent, but I’m certain the folks handing over that money weren’t happy about it. Because it’s not just the £75 thrown away on a failed test, but the £75 to take it again. And, if you’re like I was, you’ll also have to spend big for additional hours of instruction and use of the training school’s 600cc bike for the test.
I earned my CBT in February 2013 but with delays created by bad weather in March and my infuriating Mod 2 failures, I didn’t end up getting my full license until May. I am embarrassed by the amount of money I ended up spending over that time – so embarrassed that I refuse to give you a figure. Suffice to say, however, I could have instead purchased a brand new 125 and still come out ahead.
I didn’t save a damned penny in skipping the part of the journey that my wife is now on. In fact, I wasted a hell of a lot of them.
Meanwhile, the stress of telling myself that I had to earn a full license right away generated an anxiety that exacerbated my unsuccessful attempts. There were mitigating factors – it started snowing during my first failed Mod 2, for example – but I’ll bet I would have been able to handle things better had I come to the exam with a year more riding under my belt.
Failing so many times was soul-destroying – heartbreakingly awful. This thing that was supposed to be fun, that was supposed to give me a sense of freedom and independence and self-worth was causing all kinds of internal hell. I came very, very close to just giving up. I mean, really close.
Thinking about that now makes me feel pretty frustrated. I almost missed out on all the incredible adventures I’ve had since then, because I was trying too hard, too soon to achieve the goal of a full license.
So, as you can probably guess, my advice now for folks weighing their post-CBT options is to get that 125 and enjoy scooting around, building up the confidence and skill that can then be transferred to the weight and power of a larger capacity machine. Have fun, damn it, else you may miss out on having a hell of a lot more fun down the road.
And, dude, you can totally ride far on a 125. Nathan Millward rode from Sydney to London on a 105cc postman’s bike. Clocking up big miles on a 125 simply requires that you be more adventurous and, by extension, have more fun.