After some blood, sweat and almost tears I have finally passed my motorbike test and received the much coveted Swiss 'Töff' licence. This site is a goldmine of useful information for so many topics (as well as a hot bed of tremendous bitching), but I didn't really find that much information about the route to two wheeled motorized freedom when I was searching, so I thought I would share my experience.
Although I am over 25 years old, I decided to apply for the A beschränkt licence (i.e. limited to 25kw) on the basis that it can't be a bad thing to gather some experience on a relatively 'low' powered bike before potentially moving on to something terrifyingly quick. Particularly, as after 2 years of holding the A beschränkt licence you automatically become entitled to receive the 'big' licence anyway. Also, as I am not the biggest chap seat height and bike weight was a factor. All sensible stuff I am sure you will agree, unless you ride 'big' bikes in which case you will no doubt have already written me off as soft. I know this as I read it on the face of my Father-in-law who rides a1600cc chopper despite being the same size as me.
Initially, I decided to go for a Kawasaki EN 500. I picked up a nice one for CHF3800 second hand. It has a low seat height and it is a relatively lightweight bike for a cruiser, which according to the internet world made it an ideal beginners bike for the vertically challenged rider interested in exploring Swiss mountain passes at a leisurely pace. On the whole I think that was true but I must admit that I never got to grips with the bike on the low speed manoeuvre front. I am not particularly mechanically incined but it appeared to me that the slow tick over speed, combined with being somewhat top heavy made it quite challenging. I dropped the bike at least 3 times practicing the manoeuvres, fortunately causing little damage. I did manage to snap the clutch lever on one occassion, but I ordered a new one over the internet for about 9euros so it proved not to be an expensive mistake.
At this point it is maybe worth saying something about the manoeuvres that must be performed on the test. This varies by canton but in Aargau these consist of low speed riding (15m, straight line and walking pace i.e. 3km/h); figure of 8s (again at walking pace and as narrow as possible) and the famed emergency stop. Another notable feature of the test in Aargau is the fact the examiner rides pillion. You lucky people in Geneva and Bern don't have this pleasure!
Anyway despite tips from the my driving instructor, I just wasn't comfortable with the manoeuvres and eventually decided to change bike. I opted for a new Kawasaki Ninja 300. A completely different style of bike but it proved to be a good choice. It was a world easier to ride, much more nimble, balanced, with a super easy 'slipper' clutch and ABS. The driving instructor agreed that it was much better suited to me and with very little practice I was 100% comfortable with the manoeuvres.
It is also probably worth mentioning something regarding the process for obtaining the licence. First you need to apply for a learner's licence, then you have 4 months to do a 12 hour compulsory course (Grundkurs), then you have 12 months from completion of the course to pass the test. The Grundkurs is a formality and I did mine in Zurich out of convenience as is it was close to work. I did it on the EN500 and despite the aforementioned general issues I didn't have any problem with the course as you pretty much just need to turn up and there is no test. The first 8 hours of the course are basic motorcycle training and the last 4 hours are specifically focussed on cornering (kurvenfahren). In theory it should give you the skills to pass the test but the reality is that you will need to take at least a couple of lessons as there are a number of seemingly secret rules that you won't find out on the course and must be observed to pass the test. Things like double shoulder check on the motorway. Typical Switzerland really in that respect.
Following the course I rode for a few months on the EN500 and did a couple of thousand kilometers. I regularly practiced the manoeuvres and despite the difficulties I decided to have a crack at the test as it was October and would soon be the end of the test season (there are no tests in winter due to the obvious seasonal hazards). I booked an appointment, which depending on time of year might mean waiting between 2 to 6 weeks, and at this point decided to have a lesson. I should add that at this point I was oblivious to the existence of the secret rules.
My lesson was a bit of a wakeup call as my instructor told me that I wasn't ready for the test based on my dodgy manoeuvres. I hadn't realised quite how slow and controlled the low speed manoeuvres would need to be performed at and I had also never ridden with a pillion, which upped the difficulty level considerably.
As I had already booked the test, I decided nevertheless to go ahead with it but made a tactical decision and rented a Yamaha S Max (giant scooter) on the basis that I had no chance on my bike. It was a bit of peculiarity that I could do the test on an automatic, but this was because I wasn't doing the 'big' licence and the largest scooters meet the power output requirements for the A beschränkt licence. I also liked the fact that it had ABS which takes some of the skill out of the emergency stop. My instructor agreed that on the giant scooter I would have at least a chance.
I failed the test almost instantly during the short ride to where we would first do the manoueuvres. Having never had a passenger on the S Max I found that I needed to almost slide off the front of the seat to get a foot down (what with being a short arse) and immediately had to fight with the weight of the bike and passenger to keep it upright. I completed the manoeuvres with no problem but at this point the examiner told me that for me the test was over as I was unsafe. I was allowed to follow him and the other person doing the test around the remainder of the test though, which proved to be good experience. It is also worth mentioning that I received a bit of a grilling regarding why I was riding a hire bike and only had a photocopy of the vehicle registration documents. Having been put on the spot I lied and said that my bike was in the garage due to dodgy brake. Probably not the best lie as I was then quizzed whether I had practiced with the scooter and specifically whether I had practiced the emergency stop. Despite my best reassurances that I had indeed practiced with the bike, it wasn't a great first impression. I understand that it is not uncommon to hire a bike for the test so it was a bit surprising to get a hard time.
Anyway having failed the test I went back to the drawing board and it was at this point that I researched other bikes and discovered the ninja 300. I bought the bike in January and thanks to some unseasonally mild weather could begin riding it almost straight away. I did about 1500 km on the bike and booked another couple of lessons. After the first lesson the instructor said I was much improved and ready for the test, which I booked for 13th May.
On the day of the second test it tipped it down with rain. I don't normally ride in the rain as it is generally a miserable experience even with decent wet weather gear. Again the manoeuvres were fine and I was glad to have ABS for the emergency stop. However, I made two school boy errors and conclusively failed the test. First mistake was an aborted overtake attempt. I was stuck behind a tractor doing about 27km/h and was conscious that if I had a safe opportunity to overtake I would need to otherwise I would get spanked for being too cautious/defensive. I saw an opportunity and decided to overtake, did all the necessary signals/checks and pulled out and then instantly noticed much further down the road (difficult to say exactly how far) a car come round a corner, I aborted the overtake and signalled back in, with plenty of time to spare. Nevertheless I was told in no uncertain terms that I shouldn't have tried to overtake, as it was a 50 zone. The examiner was right, it was really a case of pressure of the test situation making me do something stupid that I wouldn't normally do. The other mistake was riding over a man hole cover on a bend. I obviously know that this is dangerous thing to do in the wet and the annoying thing was that I knew that in this particular long sweeping 80km/h corner that there were a number of covers to avoid. However they are all in different positions across the road and with it tipping it down, I didn't see one until the last minute. I stood the bike up as much as possible, but even still the bike slipped a bit. Probably shit the examiner right up (I know I bricked it) and it was definitely an eye opener as to the dangers of riding in the wet. I couldn't complain but it was frustrating to fail as my instructor had told me that I was one of his best students.
This did put me in a bit of a precarious position though. It meant I only had one attempt left to pass the test without the igmony of having to go for a pyschological test. Notably, the my teacher also had to book me in for the test to confirm that I was indeed ready. In reality it would probably have been very tight time wise (and likely impossible) to squeeze in fourth attempt, before my learner licence would expire. On top of this was the embarrassing situation of having to explain to mates that I had again failed my test. Particularly as I have an awful track record at driving tests. It took me 3 attempts to pass my driving test (14 years ago in the UK, when I was 17 years young) and it became a source of much banter. It is slightly off topic but the first attempt was an almost flawless drive with I think only two minor mistakes but one major mistake (pulling out at a junction - similar thing to the overtake really, exam pressure and doing something I wouldn't ordinarily do), the second attempt might be characterised as 'pengate'. At the start of the second test the examiner gave me his pen to sign my name on a form. I duly signed and returned him the pen. He then gave the pen back to me and asked me to return it the way I found it. After a moment of some confusion I put the pen lid back on the nib end of the pen and passed it back. Thereafter, I was a bag of nerves and failed the test. What a monumental cock he was! The third time my instructor was so amazed I had failed the previous two attemts she actually insisted as coming along as a passenger. With some relief I finally passed.
That was all off topic but perhaps relevant to understanding why I hate driving tests. It is the only exam I have ever failed and, as explained, a tremendous source of banter for my friends to this date. In fact I am dreading seeing them the next time I go back to the UK as I will have to confess to my never ending incompetence.
Anyway third attempt was again lucky. This was despite it being Friday 13th, which I was informed by my instructor before the test was also a full moon. I have since learned it was in fact some sort of super full moon, having passed particularly close to the earth.
It was a beautiful day for the test. I had a lesson immediately beforehand which was fine if not a bit exhausting with the heat. Plus I didn't mention that my instructor, Dirk, was a giant Dutchman. A very friendly and patient giant Dutchman mind you. Despite being a bit of a challenge as a midget to carry a giant passenger, it is perhaps the best practice. Some of the examiners (or Experten, literally experts as they a known in German) are quite porky. In fact the first two 'experts' I had were quite notable porkers.
In another moment of déjà vu when I booked the 3rd test, Dirk said he would come along as it would make a 'serious' impression. As we waited in the test centre car park for the examiner to descend from his ivory tower on the second floor of the STVA building in Wettingon, Dirk told me to I give him all my documents (licence, registration papers etc), which it transpired was so that when the examiner arrived he could ritually hand them over whilst simultaneously exchanging small talk. I didn't see any money change hands or any nods/winks exchanged but I could see the importance of this ritual. I must admit that as a foreigner, that comes from a country that drives on the 'wrong' side of the road, there did appear to be an air of some scepticism on the first two test attempts. The fact my surname is practically unpronouncable for the Swiss experts also seemed to get their back up. All of the instruction for how the test would be conducted was habitually done in Swiss German. This wasn't an issue for me as my Mrs is Swiss and I generally understand the language well, but I don't know how they would react if you wouldn't understand the language. It is understandable that one is expected to speak the local language but in the more provincial areas I have the feeling that an inability to do so might be met with some resentment. I certainly didn't get asked at any point whether I could understand German and the expert would have had no way of knowing as I nodded along to their instructions.
Dirk wished me good luck and together with one other examinee, we set off. The expert rode on the back of the other examinee first. Just to be clear I don't mean that literally, I should say to be precise that he road pillion
. First we road to one of the two sites where they carry out the manouevres. One is a car park and the other is a side road near a farm. We went to the farm. The other examinee went first for both the figure of eight and the emergency stop. Unfortunately for her, she failed. She somehow put both her feet down and sort of paddled to a finish on the emergency stop and was told that her figure of eights were too wide. She naturally had my sympathy given my previous issues. She was actually dismissed by the examiner at this stage and was told to basically go home. I know a few people that have failed the test at the beginning on the manouevre part and have been summarily dismissed, but as I mentioned earlier I was given the opportunity to tag along on my first attempt, which I would definitely recommend. In fact I have another work colleague, a Swiss, who appears to be a similar specialist to me and has failed his test twice on the emergency stop despite riding a giant scooter (Yamaha S Max - you see where I got the inspiration for my first test attempt). In fact he dropped the bike on his second attempt at 50km/h, breaking his elbow and trashing his bike in the process. I can tell you that made me feel a shit load better about failing my first two tests!
It was a bit of blessing that the other examinee failed so early on as it meant we didn't have to keep stopping for the expert to switch bikes. On the previous test the porkiest of the two experts took great pleasure in getting me to stop on off camber hills so that he could clumsily switch over.
As we set off having completed the manoeuvres the expert shouted in my ear, I bet you have driven up here more than once. I believe he was cracking a joke about my previous failures, but as he was straight faced throughout the test it could have been a simple statement of fact that he couldn't hold back. The rest of the test actually passed without incident. In fact I seemed to spend a large part of the test either stuck behind lorries or waiting at railway crossings. Happy days. After about 30 minutes I realised that we were heading back to the test centre. In a X Factor-esque moment I was forced to stew as the expert took pleasure in delaying giving me the news. I am not overexagerating when I say that he took about three minutes before he opened his mouth, the whole time completely stony faced. First he took off his helmet, then gloves, then jacket, then neck warmer. Then he took out my papers, looked them over for an inordinately long period of time, before finally announcing that 'für mi chasch du fahre' (for me you can drive). What a moment of relief. The torture was finally over and I had somehow got through one of the most gruelling processes of my life, which was no doubt exacerbated by the previous shenanigans back in the UK all that time ago. This is despite the fact that I have in my lifetime taken approximately a bajillion exams, having qualified as a UK lawyer and studied in France for a French law degree too.
Anyway, I hope this gave some insight into what it was like for me and if any of you are thinking of taking the plunge I wish you the best of luck. Also, I can really recommend Dirk's Fahrschule if you are a fellow Aargauer. If he can get me through the test, he can get anyone through it. He really was an outrageously kind, calm and patient teacher with nerves of steel. He speaks very good English, like all the Dutch seem to, and I am eternally grateful for his efforts. Double lessons (90mins) cost CHF180, which I think is the going rate. Website is www.dirksfahrschule.ch
Lastly, in a belated attempt to limit the damage to my reputation, done with this tale of woe, I would just like to reassure you that I pose only a light danger to you all, having never been involved in an accident in my driving career to date (touch wood) and in any event I carry the cantonal initials 'AG' on my registration plates, which as all Swiss will delight in telling you stand for 'Achtung Gefahr' or 'warning, danger'.