The Craigslist ad was for a mint-condition 1997 Honda ST1100, with an aftermarket seat, a tall windscreen, and new tires. I saw from the background in the photos that the bike was parked in front of a house just around the corner from me.
I’d had an ST1100 just like it, and although I wasn’t in the market for another one, the next time I walked my dog I went by there and saw the bike in the driveway with a FOR SALE sign on it. I stopped to look at it and the seller came out.
“It’s a great bike,” he said, thinking he had a fish on the line. “Big, fast, and comfy.”
“Heavy, though, too, right?” I said. “My old ST1100 weighed just under 700 pounds with a full tank of gas. That’s the main reason I don’t have it any more.”
His face fell. “Yeah, that’s why I’m selling it.” He leaned down and patted his knees. “I can’t hold it up if it starts to tip over, and if I dropped it I’d need to call someone to help me pick it up.”
“How long have you had it?”
“A couple of months. I just got back into bikes after about 30 years. Maybe I waited too long.”
Or maybe he just bought the wrong bike. That happens more often than you’d think, mostly because, as Tolstoy once said, “The biggest surprise in a man’s life is old age.”
It sure surprised me the day I realized I could no longer tolerate even the moderately forward-leaning riding position on my Honda VFR800 without severe back pain, and sold it to a younger, more limber friend.
The same story plays out every day. You used to ride bikes back in high school or college, maybe an old Triumph Bonneville or your dad’s Harley. Then you got married, had a family, sold the bike, and the years rolled by while you inched along in commuter traffic and dreamed of the rides of yesterday. Maybe it’s only been a few years; maybe it’s decades.
Now, the kids have grown up and moved out, maybe you’ve retired, and the memory of those days on the motorcycle keep coming back. Or you decided to say screw it, you only live once, and it’s time to get back on the horse again no matter how old you are. You have the time, and the money, and there’s nothing stopping you from walking into a dealership and writing a check for the bike of your dreams.
But the dream can quickly turn into a nightmare if you fail to recognize a few key facts before you endorse that check.
First, and duh, you’re older than you were the last time you rode. And you don’t have to be that much older to be at a greater risk. Motorcyclists over 40 represent an increasing percentage of motorcycle accidents and fatalities. Several studies have shown that the severity of injury, length of stay in the hospital, and mortality were all higher compared to younger riders by as much as one-and-a-half to two times.
Decreased reaction time, age-related vision decline, the side effects of medications, and the tendency of older riders to buy large, heavy motorcycles all contribute to the disproportionate injury and death rates.
These sobering facts make wearing the best safety gear not just a good idea, but the only sensible way to go. At typical street speeds hitting the pavement often does more damage than the subsequent slide, so it’s important to wear a riding jacket and pants with impact-absorbing padding—called armor—in the elbows, shoulders, back, hips, and knees to help lessen the damage done by a sudden meeting with the road or a fender. Round off the ensemble with gloves with retention straps at the wrists, and ankle-high boots.
I’ve long been a fan of Aerostich riding gear. It’s made of tough Cordura nylon and comes with large armor pads where you need them. The shell is backed with Gore-Tex that breathes but doesn’t let water in. Everything in Aerostich’s catalog looks like it was made for industrial use, but don’t let that put you off. It works. If you need more style with your protection you can easily find it in products from Alpinestars, Firstgear, Dainese, Klim, and others.
Medical science is lot more advanced than it was just 30 years ago, but the brain is still largely a mystery, a big gray meatball full of whatever makes you you.
Head injuries are a major contributor to fatalities of motorcyclists of all ages. Even if it’s not a legal requirement where you live, get a helmet and wear it every time you ride, not just on longer trips. And make it a real helmet, with ECE, DOT, or Snell certification, not one of those cereal bowls with the “Helmet Laws Suck” sticker like the wannabe badass bikers wear.
Seriously consider a full-face model that protects your face and keeps the wind and dirt out of your eyes. Every crash I ever had landed me face down and sliding on pavement, and left my helmet looking like I tried to French kiss a belt sander. Now I can’t ride a mile in an open-face helmet without getting the jitters. My go-to helmet is a Shoei Neotec modular, with a hinged front chin bar and visor so I can pivot them up and away from my face to talk or eat a snack without taking the helmet off.
I used to ride every day. Since I sold the VFR I’ve ridden maybe half a dozen times on borrowed bikes, and I could absolutely feel the rust flaking off my riding chops. If you’ve been off bikes for 20 or 30 years your skills need a real tune-up to help you cope with the higher speeds and faster and heavier traffic you’re going to find out on the road. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation (www.msf-usa.org) offers a returning rider course.
A weekend of tootling around a parking lot on a small, light training bike will revive some of your dormant skills and teach you some new ones. In some states completing an MSF course counts as your motorcycle license test, and some insurance companies offer discounts to graduates.
Whatever bike you decide to relive your glory days on, get one that’s suited to your physical condition and your riding experience, not the one someone else thinks you should have. If some of your friends are riding big Harleys, for example, and you succumb to peer pressure and get one of your own, you might end up like my neighbor with the ST1100. I recently entered my Social Security years and the two things I look at in a bike are weight, and seat height, both of which should be low.
“Can I pick it up by myself?” is a question a lot of my riding buddies ask themselves as their knees and backs start to give out. Even a light bike is more prone to taking a nap if the seat height is way up in nosebleed territory. A low seat lets you put both feet flat on the ground at stops, while a higher one puts you on the balls of your feet or tiptoes.
Add a handful of gravel or a spot of oil to that scenario and “Can I pick it up by myself?” is no longer just a rhetorical question.
Thanks to some old injuries bouncing around inside me like the aftershocks of earthquakes, I’ve been out of the saddle for a while. But now that my health care is Medicare’s burden, there’s hope on the horizon and I’ve started thinking about another bike. Here’s a highly subjective list of candidates, based mainly on my preference as stated above for low seats and low weight.
I had a 2012 Bonnie and loved it. It did everything I wanted a motorcycle to do, and except for that extra cylinder it had the bare minimum number of parts it needed to work. The new range of Bonnevilles includes several engine sizes and lots of models, and the twin-shock rear suspension leaves room for shorter shocks to get the bike even lower.
Sometimes stupidly dismissed by Big Twin riders as “chick bikes,” the XL series Harleys are among the quickest and best-handling bikes the company offers for any rider out there. They’re not particularly light, but the weight is centered on the bike and relatively low. Like all Harleys they’re infinitely customizable so you can easily modify the seat, handlebar, and footpegs to fit you.
Honda NC750X DCT ABS
Honda’s Dual-Clutch Transmission (DCT) gets better every year and in the NC750X it comes with ABS, which although I’ve never needed might come in handy someday. The “frunk” in the faux gas tank holds everything I carry when I ride so I can leave my steal-able tank bag at home. And it’s a Honda, so it’ll run forever.
Suzuki Burgman 400
Another shiftless candidate, this one a scooter. I’ve ridden big scoots and they provide big hoots. Few things in motorcycling are more entertaining than passing someone on a sportbike on a twisty road on something that looks like a big bug and sounds like a weed whacker. Most of my rides these days are short hops, but I’d happily hit the road for a weekend on the Burgman and probably have just as much fun as on a big touring bike.
The left-field entry in my list of candidates is a Ural sidecar. Sure, learning to ride a hack takes time, and it’s not for everyone. Also, Urals run out of breath at about 65 mph, and the better a home mechanic you are the better you’ll like them. But seat height and vehicles weight are irrelevant, and if you’re having problems with your knees, or some balance issues, that third wheel—and the reverse gear on some models—is just what the doctor ordered to keep you out there in the wind.
The biggest plus for me is my 80-pound golden retriever could come along.
Your picks might be different, so do at least a showroom sit-test on everything you’re considering before you buy. With any luck, you’ll be back on two wheels in no time.
Jerry Smith’s latest book, Missed Shifts, spans a career riding fast bikes and covering the motorcycle industry. You can get it on Amazon here.