#278 Live Long and Prosper : Older Riders

Getting a little long in the tooth are we? Feeling as though you’re not quite as steady on two wheels as you once were? If that’s the case, but you’re reluctant to let go of the lifestyle, then three-wheelers may not be the best alternative. Try this instead: ride lighter, ride more

I remember reading on the internet (so it must be true) that the age at which drivers are least likely to be involved in a crash is 55. Before that, the impetuosity of (relative) youth, less accumulated experience, and higher testosterone levels presumably account for the higher accident rate. After 55, the slow deterioration of faculties takes over: slower reaction times, poorer eyesight, mental confusion, muscle weakness etc.
Given that the oldest baby boomers are now 65 and the youngest around 47, how is that going to play out among motorcycle riders? It’s generally recognized that motorcyclists are starting to ride later in life; that many former riders are returning to two wheels in their middle-to-late decades; and that the median age of motorcyclists on the road is increasing. And so, statistically, is the fatality rate among bikers. Isn’t that what you’d expect?
Well, maybe. I’m sure the geezers of the Westcoast British Motorcycle Owners Club are pretty typical of riders of our certain age, given that most of us also own at least one modern bike of cosmopolitan manufacture. And what we all have in common is that we ride less than we used to. We also ride more cautiously and conservatively.
There are exceptions, of course. One of our members rides to wherever the North American Norton rally is each year on his Commando, and generally takes the Longest Distance and Oldest Rider awards. This year, the rally was in the Catskills in New York State; so he rode his Commando there and back from Vancouver. He’s 79.
The rest of us are finding that our personal cost-benefit analysis keeps shifting toward increased “cost,” in terms of discomfort from aging joints and old injuries, falling self-confidence, reduced strength and shorter endurance. I’ve surprised myself in the last year or so by my reluctance to tackle a relatively shallow shale slope on my DRZ400, and in finding a full-size bagger (the Victory Cross Country) almost more than I could deal with at low speeds. Not long ago I would have said there wasn’t a bike made I couldn’t handle: now I’m not so sure.
So if older riders ride less, that skews the statistics, meaning the risks of riding increase far more per kilometre ridden. So is it safe to leave your driveway? Should you forsake your ride for four wheels? How about a trike, or one of those BRP Spyders?
One very experienced motorcycle test rider told me a trike horror story that decided me never to even ride one (if that’s the correct term). Taking both hands off the bars to zip up his jacket, he experienced an instantaneous tankslapper so violent that he was unable to get his hands back on the bars, and had to slow the rig using the hand parking brake. Fortunately, he wasn’t going that fast and was able to stop safely.
Motorcycle steering geometry designed for single-track operation doesn’t lend itself very well to an extra rear wheel, which allows the rig to yaw, and the subsequent side loads to act directly on the front wheel. It’s why cars have positive caster, rather than the negative caster (trail) of a motorcycle or bicycle. And a trike is not a motorcycle, even if it does provide something of the “motorcycle experience.” I’d rather drive a sports car. Really.
The Spyder at least offers a stable platform with two front wheels set up to steer in accordance with sound engineering principles, and—with the traction control off—can rip some pretty entertaining burnouts, too!
But it’s still not a motorcycle, as many licencing authorities seem to agree, requiring a separate driving test for three-wheelers and sidecar rigs. Which brings me to this. Sidecar outfits suffer most if not all of the handling disadvantages of a trike, and add a few of their own. A sidecar “combination” will severely bite the novice pilot who forgets that the momentum of the third wheel can completely override steering inputs. Properly set up and in the hands of an experienced operator, though, a combination can be quite safe, and does at least have extra carrying capacity.
So what to do as the aging process takes its toll? Well, you could ride a smaller, lighter bike. I know that goes against the grain in North America, where chrome is king and cruiser bikes have been bulking up like a Sumo wrestler. But if what you really want to do is ride rather than parade the parking lot of a strip mall Starbucks, a 500 or even a 250 will do nicely. No, it won’t have the “presence” of a 400-kg boulevard bruiser, nor will it shred your eardrums: but it will get you from Abbotsford to Brampton just as capably. And cost a lot less, too.
More good news. It’s also been shown that the more you ride, the less likely-per km-you are to experience a collision. So riding more makes you safer. A refresher course or an advanced riding program at a good training school can’t hurt either. The more you know, and the more you learn how to deal with emergencies, the safer you’ll be.
Me? I turned 61 this year, and I just bought a 140-hp, 250-kmh naked sportbike. But at least it’s relatively small and light …