Originally published in Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly #168 August 2015
All Rights Reserved © 2014 Thomas W. Day
Coincidentally, I had two very different conversations about motorcycling in the same week from over-60 riders who had pretty strong opinions about their motorcycle future. This may seem like a pretty pointless subject, especially if you are under 40, but motorcycle demographics are rapidly aging and our mode of transportation and recreation is coming to some sort of turning point in the United States and a few other first world nations. The average age of US motorcyclists is increasing by 2-4 years every 5 years (depending on who’s statistics you believe). In the last 15 years, the number of over-50 riders has increased more than 250%. Unfortunately, that group of 60-and-older riders is 250% more likely to end up with serious injuries than their 20-to-30-year-old counterparts. “Middle-aged” riders don’t fare much better. 40-60 year-old riders, were 200% more likely to suffer serious injuries than the younger group.
There are a variety of suspected reasons for these dismal statistics, including deteriorating skills, vanishing physical capabilities, inexperience and overconfidence, and the fact that older riders too often pick motorcycles to enhance their fading self-image rather than for practical and realistic motivations. Regardless of “why,” older motorcyclists are less safe for a variety of reasons than younger riders and there are a whole lot fewer young riders than in previous moments in motorcycling’s history. That decision day is coming for us all and this past week made that uncomfortably clear to me.
First, one of my oldest friends called and started the conversation with, “Do you know anyone who wants to buy a Goldwing?” Thinking he was giving up on being a ship captain and had decided to return to a normal motorcycle, I made a joke about the question. His reply was, “No. I’m serious. I’m done.” After more than 40 years on two wheels, he had made the decision to pack up his riding gear and move on to other pursuits. All of his reasons were sound: three years of shoulder surgeries had reduced his upper body strength and confidence below his comfort level, his wife no longer wanted to ride with him, he wasn’t riding enough to maintain his skills, his local riding friends had all cashed in their Harley’s for boats, planes, and RVs. Other than admitting that I would regret not having taken more advantage of our years of riding together, I had no valid counter-argument. I put feelers out for anyone who might be in the market for a well-maintained Goldwing and that is that.
Another friend, who has been riding fewer years and tends to ride bikes that are more vintage than competent came by the house a few days later to show off his new, current-technology ride. On the way to my place, he’d had a couple of near-misses and was pretty agitated about the state of Minnesota driving skills. An ABATE member, he went on a rant about how right-of-way laws still needed to be more aggressive “to get the dumbasses off of the road.” I expressed my dislike for the concept of prison sentences for unintentional acts, which suddenly put me with the enemies of motorcycling on the “other side.” No problem, I have spent my whole life on the wrong side of every argument; depending on who I’m arguing with, I seem to be on every side of every argument humans have. I am the most radical liberal-conservative-middle-of-the-road person most of my acquaintances know.
The rest of the conversation was one-sided. Lots of ranting about how “people need to pay attention to those ‘Start Seeing Motorcycles’signs” and how loud pipes make up for driver distraction and incompetence. You might guess that I was pretty uninvolved in the whole “discussion” by that time and just wanted to get back to cleaning my garage and digging the New Mexico sand out of my WR’s crevices and crannies.
The two schools of aging motorcycle thought appear to be “it’s time to quit” and “the world needs to be a safer place for me.” I totally sympathize with the first group and am amazed at the second. Oddly, the “safer for me” crowd often sees itself as being all-American, tough guy, independent individuals. They are brand-conscious, pirate-posing, anti-AGAT (or any real motorcycle gear), and group-riding characters whose self-image is practically the polar opposite of what the rest of the world sees when they lumber past, deafening anyone within a couple of miles of their parade. As best I can tell, their riding defense system consists of a whole lot of denial. Old people (me included) are famous for denial tactics, but reality has a nasty habit of putting a mirror to anything you try to ignore too long. Deteriorating riding skills, lost physical capability, and arrogance are a poor combination on the road.
I can feel that “No. I’m serious. I’m done” moment creeping up on me at accelerating speeds. I have been riding since the mid-1960s and I have nothing left to prove as a motorcyclist to myself or anyone else. I have no delusions about where my skills are going or where my physical capabilities have gone. I past the “it’s all downhill from here” moment about twenty years ago, optimistically, or thirty-five years ago, practically. I can’t remember when I last believed that I could “do anything I want to do.” I’m pretty much at the point of being happy just to be able to do an occasional thing more-or-less the way I wanted to do it. Things like brushing my teeth or putting on laced boots or lowering myself into a chair without falling the last few inches are on that list. I do not have any delusions that my presence on the highway creates an obligation for the rest of the world. They aren’t out to get me. They don’t even acknowledge I exist. The weaker, fatter, slower, dumber, blinder, and shorter I get, the more clearly I can anticipate hanging up the helmet and going shopping for a Miata convertible. I hope to not repeat my father’s model and stay on the road until someone has to take responsibility for me and forcibly revoke my driver’s license. I hope I’m as smart as my friend and start purging the motorcycle collection and equipment before I wind up in a hospital bed. I’ll keep you posted on how that all works out.