In the Meet the Observer column this month we meet National Observer Paul Harle, who alongside his observing duties, is also Chairman of LAM.
When did you start riding?
I grew up in a very remote part of rural Oxfordshire where there was one bus a week into the big city and so you either waited to drive a car at 17 or went with a 50cc at 16. My father was a Chief Inspector in Thames Valley police and in his words "had pulled too many silly idiots out of hedges" to allow me to get a bike, so I was to wait until I could drive.
Little did he know however that because all my friends had bikes and they were forever chopping and changing them, there was always a surplus of "wheels" and as stupid as it seems now, and it was bloody stupid, we used to go everywhere on them. I remember going to see Ghostbusters in Henley upon Thames, on an MTX 125 I part-owned (had paid for the petrol and the k+N filter to get that extra half BHp) and someone stole it whilst I was at the film. I had some explaining to do when I rang home and asked to be picked up!
I then went the car route before taking a job which had very odd hours and bouts away from home and fell away from bikes and it wasn't until 1996 that I left my job and actually had the freedom to get around to taking a test, which I did and bought a shiny yellow and black TDM850. I met Jane in 1997 and at the time she worked for a company called RSS (Rider Support Services) and knew a lot of the Big London franchises such as Frontiers and Hamiltons in Streatham which was very handy because when Suzuki launched the Hyabusa, I had to have one (I don't know why) and Hamiltons happened to have one from a guy who had bought it but found it too powerful for him.
So, I decided I would buy it and I was told that if I was to own the fastest production bike in the world, I needed to go and learn to ride (ME LEARN to RIDE - I had been riding since I was 16 how dare you) properly. A compromise was reached and because we lived in Tadworth by then, I was taken to Banstead and the rest was history.
How long have you been an Observer?
I started my advanced journey with much kicking and screaming back in March 2000 and with the help of Huw Pritchard pretty soon realised the Hayabusa wasn't the bike for me - I still hear Huw now "the bike is riding you, you are NOT riding the bike"; the trouble was we had just moved into our house, which had been built in 1969 and left in 1971 and we had no money to change bikes at that time. In late 2001 I had to have a shoulder decompression to correct an old injury which kept me away from anything physical until early 2002, when fortune came into my life in the shape of a mistaken order by Motorcycle City, who instead of ordering 20, 2002 Honda Fireblades, they ordered 200 and Honda wouldn't cancel the order. Wednesday MCN, full-colour spread brand new Honda FB, just £5,222; so straight down there and bought a black and silver one and got some money back too!
This bike transformed my ride, that and a few observers, Huw, Mark Speed, Chris Dyson and Simon Matthews and I passed my advanced in November 2002. Things were a little different to the thorough process the IAM/IMI have in place now and I can't remember who initially approached me, but I was asked to consider becoming an observer and I said yes. I passed my observer Test in Norfolk 2003 and have been a regular in the group since then. I was asked to consider becoming a Senior Observer in 2010 then a few things happened now lost in the depths of LAM past, but concurrent to that the IAM changed the way Senior Observers were trained and made the position into a National Observer which was a formal qualification accredited by the IMI, that was launched in December 2012 (I think) and I passed one of the hardest tests I have ever undergone on a motorcycle and the system of motorcycle riding in August 2013 (I would have passed earlier but I did a very stupid thing that was an instant fail!)
What does LAM mean to you?
Well, I am currently the Chairperson of the group so currently, it means sleepless nights over the number of passes and what can we do to keep everyone happy! Matthew Porter kindly published what LAM means to me when I was running for Chair in 2018 and it means so much because it is so much. The biggest mistake people make is to try and make it their version of "something" and that's because they miss the point, LAM is not and can never be one thing; at its very essence it is a road safety organisation, but it is so much more. It's been the place I have made enduring friendships and where I hope to make many, many more. It's a place of knowledge, merriment, mirth and I hope a place where no question is ever considered a stupid question. LAM has the longest of memories; fill your bike up with diesel 25 years ago, I can guarantee people will still remember. I hope it is a welcoming place a place where someone can go from wobbling out of the Horseshoe on their first assessment ride to go on to conquer not only their test but the Stelvio Pass or that last corner at Thruxton. LAM is a place that has given me the tools to ride a motorcycle safely and to a degree of proficiency I know I would not have had it not been for people willing to help me understand the system and its correct application and most of all it's an arena that allows me to continually develop as a person and as a rider.
What is your favourite route?
Well, so many of the good ones out of Banstead are now 40 mph but if you can get out to Shere from Dorking and then over to Kirdford there are some great roads around there. My personal favourites are mostly on the way to or in Wales - B4000 to Lechlade is amazing (even better when with LAM friends) then B4077, A44 and then any road you like in and around Wales. I spent many a time on the Black Mountains in Brecon and the Upper Chappel, Lower Chappel route to Rhyader and then my secret route to and from Barmouth are all favourites. I was lucky enough two years ago to head to the Isle of Man with Norton, Simon, Aidan, Steve Davis, Steve Pratt and some other Lamkins and to be able to ride the mountain a few times. I think on a motorcycle any road is a good road as long as you know how to make safe and legal progress. For me riding a bike is like a game of chess and hazards are the opponent's pieces which I need to take at the appropriate time in order to win the game.
What is your number one safety tip?
Plan your ride and ride your plan. Always lookout for the UFO that has just landed in the road! It may never happen, but you should always have part of your plan allowing for that. Use the system. There are natural bike riders who can ride fast and safely all day long and make it look effortless. I am not one of those people; I am passionate about advanced riding because I know the system works because, without it, I would be just another middle-aged guy on a bike. Plan for what you can see, Plan for what you cannot see and plan for what can be reasonably expected (UFO) and if you find yourself in a state where the information is coming at you too quickly and you cannot process it - SLOW DOWN.
What is your number one tip for passing the test?
Come along with an open mind for learning. You may not agree with what you are being told, but I guarantee there will be elements within the advice that you can take on board and develop as your own. Practice, please don't just turn up for Pot Lucks and do nothing in between. My biggest piece of advice is not to spend an age getting to test. Commit to the process and don't have 60 ORs, you will have had 30+ observers all adding ingredients to your ride. Find your ride and your rhythm and take what works for you don't try to become someone or something that is alien to your core. Yes, you will get some fantastic advice but store it up and make it part of your plan but don't try to please everyone, you will only dilute the rider you really are.
What is your favourite piece of riding kit?
Oh my god - if you could see in my garage, I make Helmet City look like the pasta shelf at Tesco during the COVID-19 breakout! I am going to go with a heated seat, gloves, insoles, top anything that is heated really. I can do miles in the rain or in the sunshine, but the one thing I like to be always is warm; you are just safer if your blood is flowing to your brain rather than to your core in order to keep you warm. Yeah, heated clothing, oh and of course the Unicorn Poncho and Peppa Pig hat!
What is your favourite bike?
For me, it has to be any of the real blades (true FirebBlade aficionados will know what I mean). I loved every single one of them that I owned. They were, to use a Guy Martin expression, "proper" with no electronic aids that you could throw around the track but easily go on a two week holiday to Scotland on. If something went wrong, you could fix it, electrics, engine and suspension. I even changed the exhaust system. I love technology and I love the way technology makes for safer riding but I do struggle with the NASA manuals you get these days just to change the bloody clock.
What has been your best or funniest moment on a bike?
So, so many. I have two - one OR related and one on the way to an OR. I was out with an Associate once who wore glasses for reading and after POWDERs we saddled up and left Banstead and headed over to Betchworth where I watched his glasses fly out of his pocket and land on the verge on the opposite side of the road. Noting their location, I stopped the ride and told him his glasses had fallen out, but I knew roughly where they were, so let's turn around and get them. We did this and I stopped him just by the lost spectacles and he nodded, pulled over, side stand down, foot down and crunch, he dismounted exactly on top of his finest Vision Express. Oh how we chuckled. The second is funny now, but at the time, I can see the serious side of my actions. On the way to Banstead, I stopped for fuel at the BP on the 217 (Kingswood) where I filled up my bike and went to pay; the chap at the counter said something like £10 at the time, which I thought was relatively expensive for fuel, but it was Kingswood after all, so I paid and left. As I approached the bike, I looked at the receipt and bugger, it was diesel. No need to panic, I thought I knew what I would do, and so I pushed the bike away from the pumps, popped the rear seat (like the boot on a Volvo Estate, so spacious was that of a 954 FireBlade) and retrieved (which I no longer carry) a mini K-bar knife, which I held in my hand as I marched back into the shop, helmet on knife in hand, in my head to buy a jerry can and ask for some hosepipe BUT in the kiosk guys mind - to rob him of his takings and obviously to murder him. The look of absolute horror on his face - I laugh now, but at the time, I was lucky not to end up Tasered. Anyway, once I had explained I wanted to buy this can and please could I have some pipe because I was an idiot and had filled my bike with diesel, we both saw the funny side and he lowered the shotgun from my face.
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Wurth Chain lube in Belgium.
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