It’s Not A #&^%#@ Wheelchair
by Thomas Day
I’m on Wisconsin Highway 35, heading south, trapped behind a train of slow moving RUBs (Rich Urban Bikers) on overpriced garage jewelry. Usually, this experience is inspiration for a detour. I’d jump a curb and drive across an old lady’s lawn to get away from listening to potato burps. This time, however, the parade was weirdly entertaining.
The guy immediately in front of me had to weigh close to 500 pounds, was barely five feet tall, and stood on his tippy toes to touch the ground from his twenty-four-inch seat height. As Jabba the Hut’s little brother wobbled off with the rest of the parade, I wondered about the logic behind calling motorcycling a “sport.” As soon as I could see around the human obstacle, I passed him and the rest of his parade and rode on thinking about how the “sport of motorcycling” has changed in my lifetime. What kind of “sport” has sportsmen who couldn’t lift anything heavier than a jar of mayonnaise, run faster than a one-legged hippo, or jump over a sliding dime?
For my 100th Geezer column and my upcoming 63rd birthday, I find myself reminiscing about my weird-assed motorcycle history. When I was a kid in the 1950s and 60s, I hardly ever saw anyone on a motorcycle who wasn’t a kid. A rider in his 30s was an “old guy.” The majority of riders were self-taught. The 70s were American motorcycling’s boom years. Trials, motocross, enduros, speedway, cross-country, desert racing, drag racing and road racing were all flush with riders and spectators. There were more brands of motorcycles imported into the US than there are designer clothing labels today.
In the 80s, the motorcycle growth bubble burst loudly. Honda’s “You meet the nicest people” marketing campaign dissolved into wishing and hoping for customers without providing them any realistic motivation to buy. Harley’s yuppie “bad biker” image morphed into the only game in town and nothing much has changed since. Still, every long-term rider I knew took riding skills seriously and considered motorcycling to be something of a self-preservation-oriented competitive activity. Even thirty years ago, in southern California I rarely saw anything resembling gray beards or blue hair on a bike. It was still mostly a young man’s sport.
In the 90s, I began to run into middle-aged men and women who, suddenly, decided they’d “always wanted to ride a motorcycle.” I’ll admit that I was hanging out with a dorkier class of people those years; I moved from California to Colorado and from the music industry to the medical industry. Again, my personal experience does not mirror the national demographics. I directed several of these mid-life-crisis critters to motorcycle training classes. I tried to help them learn to ride, but they weren’t particularly athletic (to say the least) and my “go as fast as you can, until you fall down, then don’t go quite that fast the next time” motocross instructor’s advice didn’t seem appropriate. Kids fall down, whine a little, get back up, and learn something from the experience. 40-year-old men and women fall down, bawl like babies, and sue someone. However they learned, not one of the new riders I met during that period is still on two wheels. They bought a motorcycle, were disappointed that their new toy didn’t make their butts look smaller, discovered it wasn’t an efficient way to meet the opposite sex, and moved on to cosmetic surgery or religion. I lost contact with most of them when they left motorcycling.
For the last decade, I’ve been teaching MSF classes. As usual, I’m not recording accurate numbers or monitoring statistics, but it seems to me that the average age of the beginning motorcyclist has jumped another decade. It’s not unusual to have six to ten fifty-five to seventy-five year old students in a Basic Rider Course. It’s not unusual to hear that many of these wannabe riders have already bought exactly the wrong kind of first bike, are insanely proud of their new Village People outfits, and are sporting a bowl “helmet” that barely covers their bald spot. As the song says, “It’s not unusual to be wrong at anytime.”
Kids, with athleticism and durability on their side, will happily start out on a 200-350cc dual-purpose bike or sport bike. The geriatric crowd seems to think they’re going to make up for lost time by jumping on a bike that an experienced and talented rider would think twice about test riding on a closed course. The majority of younger new rider-students are considerably less arrogant about the skill of motorcycling. They are often better students, better listeners, more patient with themselves and the exercises and more likely to be able to tolerate the physical demands of motorcycling (the “sporting” aspect).
A few of the learning-challenged not-young characters fail the license exam. However, most pass and they swagger-wobble out into the world imagining that they have the necessary skills to maneuver their 1000cc-plus, 800-pound-plus motorcycle in urban traffic. If the BRC were an 8-hours-per-day, five-day-a-week, six-month program, it wouldn’t be enough time to prepare many of these people for actual riding conditions. What they are asking from the program is the equivalent to taking a couple of afternoon lessons to become a competition snowboarder. Maybe not at the X-Game level, but at least at the level where they could quickly board down a hill, slip a rail, and make it over a couple of desk-sized jumps without falling. The insulting implication is that these newbies expect to obtain the hard-earned skill and judgment of their instructors in a couple of short sessions.
Most of my generation hasn’t learned much in the last decade or more. They are sometimes capable of using their bankcard at an ATM. If they are computer users at all, they rarely do more than prowl eBay and forward chain letters. They don’t read much. They only listen to music that was recorded thirty years ago. They don’t exercise and they certainly don’t play any sport (unless golf, bowling, or poker is a sport). They haven’t been in a classroom for decades. The last time they “worked out” was shoveling snow from their sidewalk when the snow blower broke or the neighborhood kid was sick.
Most younger people have recently exercised all of the necessary mental and physical skills. Most important, as far as their motorcycling survivability is concerned, they haven’t been polluted by whatever influence is making old people want to own 900-pound cruisers. When they are so infected, younger people might rethink that silly plan. A critical fault in aging is inflexibility. That’s a fatal fault on a motorcycle. Like lawyers and doctors, we’re all “practicing” motorcyclists. This isn’t something you just get and keep, without exercising unnatural habits and complicated skills.
My generation seems to have created a lot of people who think the laws of physics can be influenced by money, the legal system and by a heartfelt “I wanna.” Velocity and acceleration (up or down) are ruthless. Gravity is insensitive to your brittle bones and inflexible joints. You don’t get special consideration on the highway simply because traffic is moving “too fast” or you can’t muster up the courage to make the bike stop or turn. Other highway users expect you to “drive it or park it.” Being handicapped on a motorcycle is often fatal.
Years ago, a comedian friend of mine had a bit in his routine that asked, “Why are there (insert explicative here) handicapped parking spaces at a racquetball court?” I’m trying to get him to add a routine that starts with “A motorcycle isn’t a (insert explicative here) wheelchair.”