Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Two Wheels Good

Not exactly what you'd call cool. Me and my learner's vest and my Honda CB500.

Only a biker knows why a dog sticks his head out of a car window.
-- Author Unknown

I just obtained my Czech motorcycle driving license, and my first thought after successfully negotiating the difficult slalom course of testing and riding and studying was, if they have to do through all of this to get their licenses, why aren't Czechs better drivers? Why do they transform into insane maniacs once they get behind the wheel?

Even Czechs will admit that Czechs are horrific drivers. Aggressive. Careless. Discourteous.

Ironically, the Czech state system for getting a driver's license is strict and unforgiving, or at least I thought so as I attempted to get a license to ride the most powerful class of motorcycles.

I had a motorcycle when I was a teenager -- a Bridgestone 100 -- which I only rode in the fields and on the trails in the country around our house, never on the roads. I'm not sure what happened to that old thing, and I lost touch with motorcycles once I headed off to college.

I hadn't been on one in 30 years, save for a romp around Santorini on a moped in the late '90s.

I'm 47 now and, like many men my age, as I sense the steady approach of Death, I feel the urge to do those things I've always wanted to do but never got around to doing.

And what better way to hasten the approach of Death than to ride a motorcycle in the Czech Republic, where, I've been reminded many times, the police refer to motorcyclists as "organ donors" and where five cyclists were killed in separate accidents around the country on one horrific day a few months back?

I've personally passed three crashes involving motorcycles in the past month or so in Prague. My gut tells me, however, that the majority of crashes involving motorcycles in this country are the fault of the cyclists themselves.

I see a lot of bikers doing some crazy shit out there.

As someone once said:

Most motorcycle problems are caused by the nut that connects the handlebars to the saddle.

I thought about getting my motorcycle license in the United States, but it seemed too much of a hassle, involving classes and such that would take a lot of time and a lot of money.

But I was also put off from getting my Czech license by rumors I'd heard that, if I failed my motorcycle exam, I would somehow also lose my car driving privileges. (My U.S. license, plus an International Driving Permit, suffice over here).

I was assured that this was not the case by Ondřej Horázný, who runs his own driving school, or "autoskola," on Ondrickova 9 in Prague 3, near Jiřího z Poděbrad. Horázný offers instruction in both English and Russian.

Horázný's humble school near Jiřího z Poděbrad.

I figured I'd spent way too long talking about getting my license. It was time to start doing something about getting my license.

I signed up for my classes in early July. The total cost for the lessons was 13,000 CZK (about $750) and involved something like seven 1.5 hour lessons, most of which were spent on the bike, with an instructor riding on the back. One 45-minute lesson was devoted to the mechanics of the bike.

My instructor was a grizzled guy named Marek, whose English was a bit, shall we say, broken. We spent our lessons doing exactly what I hope not to do when I get a motorcycle of my own -- that is, riding around the crazy streets of downtown Prague -- dodging cars, trams, tram tracks, buses, pedestrians, and negotiating the crazy system of traffic laws, most notably the default "right-of-way" law, which does away with stop signs and traffic lights in many situations in favor of a system in which, if a street is not specifically marked as the main road, drivers must always yield to cars entering from the right, even in a situation where it seems obvious that you should have the right of way because you're on a main street.

If the street you're on isn't marked with a yellow diamond, however, you're not on the main road, and you've got to remember to slow down before every cross street coming from the right.

In the United States, of course, traffic lights or stop signs or yield signs govern almost every intersection, and if you're on a smaller road and entering a busier road, you're expected to give way to the larger road. Basically, you've got the right of way unless you're told that you don't.

Not so in the Czech Republic.

It was great to be back on a motorcycle after 30 years (despite having to ride around wearing a bright green vest sporting a big L on it), and it all did seem to come back to me -- the gear changing, the leaning into turns, the stopping and starting. I did forget to turn off the turn signal quite a few times at the beginning, however.

We were riding a Honda CB 500, equipped with an odd, extra set of handlebars with brakes for the instructor in the rear. Kind of embarrassing, frankly.

I didn't kill anyone, least of all myself, or Marek. The lessons all went pretty well, and served to remind me why motorcycles are so much fun, even if you're just riding around the city. Motorcycles give you the rush that you get on a mountain bike going fast downhill. Except on a motorcycle, you have that feeling all the time.

The lessons successfully completed, it was now time for my state exam, which would consist of a written portion of 25 multiple-choice questions; a driving test with a state magistrate riding on the back of the bike; and a technical test, in which I would be asked two questions about the mechanical functions of the bike.

I was given a copy of the Czech Road Traffic Act, a thick tome full of obscure rules and regulations, all conveniently translated into fractured English for me. It is an intimidating volume.

I was also given an equally thick copy of a booklet containing all of the questions that could potentially be asked on the written exam. That would have been reassuring, except for the fact that there must be 500 questions in there, and there are lots of doozies, such as:

When regulating the traffic by light signals signal with the simultaneous signalling of red and yellow lights "Attention!" means:

a) Warning that operating the traffic with light signals will be finished.
b) The duty to stop the vehicle in front of the light signal device because the signal "Stop" will follow.
c) The duty to prepare for continuous driving.

Or how about these gems:

You are an A1-subcategory driving license holder. Can you ride a motorcycles of 125 cm3?

a) Yes, but motorcycles with output of up to 11 kW.
b) No the cubature was not exceed 50 cm3.
c) Yes and not depending on the engine output.

Sudden front wheel skidding resulting in the fall of a motorcycle can be prevented:

a) By accelerating to increase the output that is transmitted to the rear wheel.
b) By releasing the front brake before banking the motorcycle.
c) by increasing the brake power on the front wheel with the front brake lever.

Study for and taking the test was one of the most stressful things I've ever done.

I studied a lot (including a helpful online version of the test, in English, that the school offers), and showed up at the ungodly hour of 7:15 a.m. at the school, as instructed. Where I sat for the next two hours in a classroom full of other students, waiting to actually take the test. Very frustrating. (Orazny said something about it having to be this way because of the time needed to get all the necessary paperwork organized, but that seems a little much, to be honest.)

I was finally called in to take the test (which I think cost another 850 CZK, or $50) with the help of a translator (1,000 CZK, or $60). I had 30 minutes to answer 25 questions. Anything less than a score of 85% means you failed.

Since each question needed to be translated, it took all of the 30 minutes for me to complete the test, and I ... failed.

Yes, I failed.

I had missed four questions. I was devastated. I was angry. Very angry. With myself, and with the system. I would have to come back and take it again. (As I understand it, you can take it as many times as you can within six months.)

In the meantime, I had to pull myself together to take the technical and driving parts of the exam.

Some 45 minutes later, I was called into a room and sat before a stern-looking state magistrate, who held out a pack of cards, face down. I was to choose one card, on the other side of which would be a technical question about the bike that I would have to answer.

The question I chose had to do with the difference between two-stroke and four-stroke engines. I mumbled something about the fact that the petrol and oil are mixed together in a two-stroke engine, while in a four-stroke engine, they are separated.

Seemingly satisfied with that answer, the magistrate asked me another, something like, "If it's not mixed in, how is the oil in a four-stroke engine distributed throughout the engine?"

I winged it on this one, and said something about the oil pump.

"Excellent," he said, in Czech.

Whew. Dodged a bullet on that one.

I then had to wait around another 2.5 hours for my driving test, since the instructor was busy with some dudes who were trying to get their licenses to drive city buses.

I left for lunch and came back at 1 p.m., only to be told that we couldn't do the driving test since it had started to rain, and the state instructor isn't allowed to ride on a motorcycle driven by a novice in the rain.

I would have to come back the following week.

So ended one of the most stressful days of my life, and I was only one-for-three.

I came back the following week, on a sunny Tuesday, and took my driving test, which I passed easily -- 10 minutes or so of tooling around the streets of Prague. I hardly noticed the guy on the back.

A few days later, I had my rescheduled written exam (an extra 100 CZK, or $6, plus another 1,000 CZK for the translator). Again, I showed up at 7:15 a.m., and again I had to wait until 9 a.m. to actually take the damn thing.

And you know what? I passed, with a score of 92%.

I have never felt so relieved.

I had done it. I felt -- and still do feel -- a real sense of accomplishment.

I've now applied for my license, which should arrive in about two weeks. In the meantime, I'm looking for a motorcycle to buy.

I'm interested in buying a cruiser bike, something like a Honda Shadow, as opposed to a sport bike like the Honda I trained on.

A Honda Shadow.

The good folks at Motorbike Ventures in Prague are giving me some help, as I try to find a bike that's a good fit.

I can't wait to get my motorbike out on some of those rolling country roads that I mountain bike on.

I just hope I can stay clear of all of those crazy Czech drivers who somehow managed to make it through the same grueling process I've just completed.

And I need to see about a sidecar for Daisy.

Oh, want to know the answers to the three test questions above? It's C, A, and B, in that order.


  1. When you accelerate down the street at night I am sure all the people whose sleep you disturb - this can lead to heart disease - will give thanks that you prevailed in your heroic struggle to obtain a license.

  2. I don't plan on doing a lot of night riding. And empty country roads -- not city streets -- are more my thing -- whether I'm on a mountain bike or on a motorcycle.

  3. Well done Grant, a very amusing insight into the vagaries of the Czech licensing system. I had to read that first question for a five times before I understood what it's trying to say. Stay safe and watch out for those loonies on the roads!

  4. Hello Grant Podelco:
    I have a very fine BMW K75S for sale in about 2 months. Low KM good very good condition. You can sms me at: 605-419-289. Anthony

  5. Hi, Guy,

    I still can't believe the "right" answer to that first question is actually correct, but that's what the answer book said. I don't understand it myself.

    I will watch out for the loonies on my motorcycle just as I watch out for the loonies on my mountain bike. I just won't be able to go off-road like I can on my bike. Damn!

  6. Hi, Anthony,

    I'll be in touch. I'd like to take a look!