This question that I keep thinking about is, Am I just too old to ride a motorcycle any more? Should I find something else to do? The question is nothing new as you’ll see below, but here it is again. After all, motorcycling isn’t like golf, if you hit it out of bounds you don’t just take a Mulligan. Chances are, there’s a more serious price to pay. Yet, for those of us who ride, it’s a passion that’s hard to shake off for too many reasons to explain here. I’ve been riding since I was 15 and its still a central part of my life. Go figure.
My riding ability has gone downhill ever since I quit racing in the late 1970’s. The first thing to go is confidence. Just about any athlete will cite a lack confidence when he/she is having a bad day. Confidence on a bike means knowing that no matter what situation you find yourself in, you can handle it. Confidence in attacking corners. Confidence that I could beat anyone, anywhere, anytime. Confidence I could ride any bike, any where.
The next thing to go is the size of your balls. Fear slowly enters the picture. Going into a blind corner is no longer a manageable challenge, but rather a pull-up-your-pants and hold your breath leap into the unknown. Then thoughts previously unheard of start to creep in, “What happens if right now — in the middle of this corner — the rear tire deflates?” What the f___? What had been a youthful “need for speed” becomes a fear of speed. Keeping the throttle twisted as long and hard as possible is no longer a joyous pursuit, but rather a test of will power most often not met.
A lack of confidence combined with an increased sensitivity to risk should make for a safer motorcycle rider, no? Unfortunately it almost has the opposite affect.
Next to enter the picture are one’s decreasing physical skills. Quick reflexes become incrementally slower. Eye sight is fuzzier at speed. What looked like slow motion at 100 mph when young now comes rushing by in a blur at 65. Muscles ache after just a couple of hours of riding, and it’s harder to pick up the bike when it tips over and things heal slower.
I’ve been doubting whether I could still ride for decades. Even in the beginning when KR “persuaded” me to buy my first street bike shortly after we moved to LA from NYC I wondered. It was the first time in fourteen years I’d ridden a bike since I stopped racing. I remember thinking in one of our earlier trips to Mexico, “I can still do this! It popped up again after Full Moon (first internet company) went south around the turn of The Century. I rode my bike up to Laguna Seca to attend the GP motorcycle races. Laguna was the scene of my best race and I wanted to see what racing was like after so many years. Simply put, it was light years ahead of when I stopped. Now, street bikes had morphed into Sport Bikes as powerful as full racing machines of decades past. Riding home on Highway 1 along the coast between Big Sur and Jagged Point, I kept getting passed by all these faster, younger riders on their superbikes brushing past my wimpy Honda PC 800. I was feeling pretty damn old as bike after bike wizzed by. Then I grew a pair, and thought “F— this!” and proceeded to keep the next group of sport bike riders behind me for ten solid miles down the coast. They couldn’t figure out how to pass a lowly Pacific Coast. Wow, I wasn’t done just yet!
By 2008 I’d been off a bike for years when Karen and I decided to ride to Colorado to attend our first Horizons Unlimited adventure riding meet-up. By this time, we’d been all throughout the Western US, Mexico, much of Canada and Alaska on our bike, yet wondered how we compared to the real adventure riders who were members of HU Unlimited. After our first HU weekend, KR and I looked at each other and said, “We can do that!” and started planning our Around the World Motorcycle Trip that we’re still (kinda) on.
In 2010 I went to South America to chase the Dakar Rally for the first time. It was 14 days of riding every kind of road and surface following the race as it charged through Argentina. I was with a group of very experienced riders, on an unfamiliar bike that was larger and faster than I was use to. This time I was all-in and ready. Over the next 14 days I was among the fastest, most skilled riders. More often than not, I found myself at the head of the pack as we rode though the Andes.
But I couldn’t shake one guy. No matter how fast I went, he’d eventually catch and pass me like I was going backwards. Now, this guy was good! It turns out he was also 67 years old and by far the best rider of the group. I got to know Chuck a bit. He was a retired BART employee that loved riding bikes. It was much more than love as he was a constant student of how to ride better. He studied everything he could and practiced various techniques every week. He made me feel like the true amateur I was. He was the oldest among us and he was the fastest. Maybe there was still hope?
In 2016 Karen and and I went to Europe to ride NVII for five weeks. We shipped the bike to England and then spent the next five weeks riding through Spain and Morocco. In the years prior we’d already ridden through much of South America, Europe, Nepal, Vietnam and Guatemala. Yet, the old self doubts kept coming back. Then one night we were having dinner in Valencia and met an American who was riding his bike in Spain with a bunch of younger sport bike riders. I don’t remember the how or why of his trip, but the conversation is still vivid. Steve, who was 70+, described how he was not only keeping up with them, but could occasionally out pace them! I stopped worrying and concentrated being the best rider I could be.
I write this post from South Africa after a few days into our SAMA motorcycle tour and am refreshed with hope once again. Before coming, I was again worried that I was too old to keep doing this kind of thing. Most of my friends have stopped riding and I was questioning what kind of acid I’d been dropping to think that I should still do this at my advanced age. And then along came Darrell, our motorcycle tour guide. Darrell is about my age. “I’ve been riding a bike every day for the past 50 years” and it shows. Yesterday Darrell took us on a 200 mile ride through the mountains on roads surrounding Kruger Park. I followed him as he gradually went faster and faster, and before I knew it we were riding between 80-120mph for long stretches at a time. As we entered a sweeping right hander, I’m thinking, I can still do this. I was born for this! No more errant thoughts of all the bad things that can happen on a bike, but the joyous feeling of going fast and being in total control.
Maybe I’m not past use by date after all?
I guess this could be our last m/c trip. I don’t want it to be, but time may sweep by the “Use By” date. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.