Riders line up at the Honda Safety Institute in Barcelona, Spain(Photo: Honda)

Unique institute emphasizes skill to riders of all ages
Barcelona, Spain — The numbers boggle the imagination. There are 2.5 million motorcycles registered in Spain, making it the most bike-mad country on the already biker-friendly continent of Europe. And that doesn't include the seemingly millions of sub-125 cubic centimetre scooters that swarm Barcelona stoplights like locusts alighting upon the plains of ancient Eygpt. Women, men, janitors and bankers all ride two-wheelers in Spain. Ditto for cops, doctors and the occasional politician. Heck, if the little old lady from Pasadena lived here, she'd be wearing a helmet and leathers.

Proper instruction for everyone — no matter your experience level.(Photo: Honda)

It's quite impossible to describe to someone who's never visited the continent quite how mainstream motorcycling is over here, but even I, who visits Europe almost every year for the expressed purpose of motorcycling in a place where "biker-friendly" means superior parking spots at five star hotels, was taken aback by the sheer scope and size of a rider training facility run by Honda on the outskirts of Barcelona.

Of course, rider training is part of Honda's mandate worldwide. Not only is it good politics, but it indoctrinates — er, educates — the young, or at least the impressionable, novice to the wonders of Honda technology. Honda Canada, for instance, has its self-run Junior Red riders program that instructs toddlers in the wonders of dirt biking. The company also donates small motorcycles to various riding programs and schools.

But, nothing compares with Spain's Honda Safety Institute. Here, on the outskirts of Barcelona, the business of motorcycles and teaching newbies to ride them is so huge that Honda has set up its own riding school complete with a pavement course, motocross track, a tricky trials section, a skid pad for cornering lessons and a low mu (that's me getting all techy in trying to say slippery) wet section to demonstrate the wonders of anti-lock brakes on motorcycles (while ABS is a boon to automobiles, it is an even greater benefit to motorcycles; lock the front tire on a motorcycle and you almost immediately crash).

Just a few of the many motorbikes available to attendees of the Honda Safety Institute(Photo: Honda)

Supported by a fleet of hundreds of bikes, the instructors have access to anything from CRF100 mini off-roaders to the latest ST1300s. In between, there are CBR600Fs, a multitude of scooters, and a few trials bikes available for instruction. There's even one of the new-fangled "uncrashable" bikes, essentially a CBR (and a smaller scooter as well) outfitted with outriggers that enables students to experience how quickly a motorcycle crash can occur — say, when the aforementioned front wheel locks — without the tears and road rash.

But none of that is the impressive part. The statistic that captured my attention — and I'm not usually impressed by statistics — is that in the 20 years the Honda school has been operating it has issued more than 174,000 graduate certificates. Do the math and that's 8,700 every year, 800 hundred a month (like everything in Europe, the school is closed in August) and almost 40 for each and every working day the facility is open.

And none of the courses I've seen offered in Canada are as much fun or useful as the refresher course the school's instructors — Marc, Pau and Juan Fransisco — subjected to us before we were "allowed" to test their NC700. Along with the standard emergency braking and acceleration manoeuvres (during which all we very experienced motorcyclists learned a thing or two), we spent a day riding motorcycles along narrow planks (emphasizing balance), slaloming between impossibly tight cones and careening around the track.

David Booth riding the "uncrashable" Honda motorcycle(Photo: Honda)

By far the most edifying experience, however, is the outrigger bikes. Experienced motorcyclists learn to both respect and fear their bike's front brake. Eighty per cent of a motorcycle's stopping power comes from the front disc, yet locking the front tire is almost assuredly a one-way ticket to skidding along on your butt. Indeed, there are entire generations of bikers for whom the front brake was verboten. Even the old wives' tale of bikers "laying 'er down" to avoid an accident is usually just a crash precipitated by locking the brakes. Indeed, for first time owners of ABS-equipped bikes, years of baked-in paranoia makes it hard to trust the new-fangled technology. The first time I tested the ground-breaking 1988 BMW K100 RS, it took me at least 10 attempts before I squeezed the front brake lever hard enough to initiate ABS action. My mind kept saying yes, but a certain nether region, more attuned to pain and calamity kept overruling my right hand.

That's why riding the outrigger bike was so liberating. Freed from the trepidation of sliding along on your helmet, I was able to lock up the front brake and for the first time in my life, and experience a "crash" without the requisite trip to the hospital. As a demonstration of the benefits to anti-lock brakes for motorcycles, this exercise knows no equal.

Honda Spain charges a pittance for its instruction with most attendees paying less than 100 Euros for a day's instruction and the young often paying nothing at all. A cynic might see this largesse as nothing more than a marketing ploy to deliver customers to the company's dealers. But anything that so comprehensively promotes safety to so many budding bikers is to be lauded. And, if the motorcycle business ever recovers here in North America, hopefully it's copied.