A wedge of Honda Pacifc Coasts
Photo taken by an unnamed IPCRC member
*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat 3/28/2006
Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Couey
It’s tempting. Even big motorcycles can average better than 30 miles per gallon, while scooters can average better than 60 mpg. Practicality aside, motorcycles are just plain fun to ride.
I’ve ridden the better part of 20 years and well over 250,000 miles, the memories of which still bring plenty of smiles. Knowing the benefits that riding has accrued to me, I encourage people to entertain the possibility of purchasing a motorcycle or scooter. However, it’s important that folks go into this purchase with their eyes wide open.
If you are a new rider, and even if you have some past experience, the rider safety courses offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation are extremely valuable. Over the space of a few days, you will learn skills that would otherwise take years to acquire on the road.
I will never forget the reaction of one veteran biker. At the end of the course, when he was called up to accept his certificate and card, he said, “I thought this would be a waste of my time. In fact, I learned things here this weekend that the school of experience couldn't teach me in 25 years of riding.”
MSF has two levels, the beginning Rider Safety Course, and the Experienced Rider Course, designed for those who have at least two years of riding experience. All insurance companies convey discounts to MSF card holders. To find the schedule and location of courses, contact the local riding association or any motorcycle shop.
PART 2: WHICH BIKE TO BUY?
Deciding which bike to purchase should be a carefully thought-out process. There are several factors to consider, such as budget, how the bike is going to be used, and the experience and skill of the prospective rider. Motorcycles come in several different liveries and price ranges ranging from $4,000 to $30,000. For reference, here’s some basic information on types of street-legal bikes:
Scooters: Usually small to medium displacement (less than 250cc). They have automatic transmissions, small wheels and a “step-through” type frame. Gas mileage is usually excellent, 50 to 80 mpg, and maintenance requirements are minimal. They are mostly intended to be in-town bikes. Although the larger ones will go 70 mph plus, on the interstate, their light weight makes them vulnerable to the wind gusts created by large vehicles. In the developing world, particularly Asia, scooters, along with their cousins the mopeds, are the primary means of personal transportation.
Examples are the Honda Silverwing, Suzuki Burgman (which comes in 250, 400 and 650 cc engines, respectively), and the classic Italian lines of Vespa and Piaggio.
Dual-Sport/Adventure Tourer: This is a type that combines off-road capability with street riding. They are built “tall” and can be identified by the combination of the high fenders and ground clearance characteristic of the off-road bikes, along with the equipment required by law for on-road operation. Examples include the BMW R1300GS, Triumph Tiger, and the Kawasaki KLR-650
Standards: Also referred to as “naked” bikes because of the lack of body panels. These bikes cover the entire power spectra, ranging from entry level machines, such as the Honda Nighthawk 250 all the way up to the “hooligan” machines such as the legendary Yamaha V-Max, and the Ducati Monster. The mid-range of these machines (around 500-750cc) is a good place to start, if you’re a new rider. They are among the least expensive of the street bikes and are also very affordable to maintain.
Cruisers: This quintessential American design has become the most popular model in the world. They are characterized by a naked appearance, with long, low frames, a lot of chrome, large, fat tires, and wide, deeply dished, and heavily padded seats. They are usually powered by a V-twin engine with long, chrome exhaust pipes emitting a low, rumbling sound. These bikes can be heavy, some weighing in at 700 pounds. Also, their long wheelbase makes them somewhat less than nimbly maneuverable. Engine size can range from Honda’s 250cc Rebel all the way up to Triumph’s mastodonic 2300cc Rocket III. Other examples of this type would be most of the Harley line, Honda’s Shadows and VTX models, Kawasaki Vulcan, Yamaha Star, and the Suzuki Boulevards.
Sport Bikes: These machines, patterned after professional racing bikes, can be readily identified by their sleek profiles, bright, vivid colors, the bent-forward position of the rider (the handgrips will be lower than the top of the gas tank) and the characteristic moan of their high-revving engines. These are dangerous machines for the novice rider because of their tremendous acceleration and high-speed capabilities. They are exhilarating machines for experienced riders for those very same reasons. Some examples would be the Honda CBR’s, the Ducati 1098, and the two fastest production bikes, the Suzuki GSX-1300 Hayabusa and the Kawasaki ZX-14, both capable of 189 mph.
Touring: This class is split into two types, full-dress and sport tourers. Full-dressers typically have full fairings and saddle bags. Some have top boxes and come equipped with all the comforts of home, including radios and CD players, GPS navigation consoles, plush heated seats and handgrips, and large windshields. Honda’s Gold Wing even comes with an airbag. These bikes are very heavy, starting at about 750 lbs and can be a handful for an inexperienced rider, especially at low speeds. They are also among the most expensive. Along with the Gold Wing are the BMW K1200LT, the Harley Road King, and the Yamaha Royal Star Venture.
The sportier halves of the touring family are the Sport-Tourers. These bikes are smaller, lighter, quicker, and more maneuverable than their full-dress cousins. They still carry saddle bags and some have top boxes, but their milieu is winding, twisty roads where their quick acceleration and high ground clearance allows their maneuverability to shine. Their power is closer to that of the sport bikes, but provide a more upright riding position, increasing visibility of, and for, the rider. Examples would be the BMW R1200RT, Honda ST1300, Yamaha FJR1300, and Kawasaki’s Concours.
Customs: Art on two wheels is the best way to describe these bikes, which are also known as “choppers.” They are long, low, and garishly painted and decorated, usually with a specific theme in mind. The bikes are powered by off-the-shelf V-twin engines and belt drives and come with very long wheel bases and enormously wide rear tires. These bikes are usually intended to be show pieces, and not really intended for actual street use. Today, these bikes are hand-built by builders like the legendary Arlen Ness, Jesse James of West Coast Choppers, and the Teutul family of Orange County Choppers. They are expensive, ranging between $40,000 and $150,000.
PART 3: DRESSING FOR THE RIDE There's no minimizing the fact that riding a motorcycle is a hazardous undertaking. For that reason, it behooves riders to do what they can to protect themselves.
Start with a good-quality jacket, made of either leather or any of the rugged nylon materials out there. Look for one with armor inserts in the shoulders, elbows, and lumbar spine. You can also add a set of pants, again either leather or nylon, also with armor inserts. Gloves will provide a layer of protection for your hands. (Think of it: if you fall over, what's the first thing that hits the ground?) In cold weather, they will also help keep your fingers relatively warm and useable.
Helmet laws are very controversial these days. Thus, the only thing I’ll say is that new riders, until they develop their skills, probably should wear a helmet. The thing is, the helmet doesn't just protect you from the pavement. The world of the road is a place where things are always flying around. Rocks can fly out of a truck bed or be spit out from under the rear wheels. Debris from any number of sources (disintegrating retread tires, for example) can come at you when you least expect it. Once in Arizona, I took an errant ice cream cone in the helmet after it had been flung out of a car by some kids. Summer is a buggy time. Look at your car's windshield after a day out on the road and imagine that being your face. June Bugs, a denizen of the midwest, can be especially startling. I once took one of them flush in the forehead at 70 mph. I saw stars and wore a bruise for a week. Bees, hornets, wasps, yellow jackets, migrating spiders...you name it and they're out there. A helmet with a face shield can spare you the mess of facial bug splat. As for types of helmets, you can choose from a shortie (think of it as a sort of armored yarmulke), partial- and full-face designs. Some, like the Nolan brand, give you a nice compromise, a full-face model with a swing-up chin piece. Helmets also come in two basic shapes, round and oval, depending on the shape of your head. If you have a roundish head, forget trying to squeeze that into a narrow oval design like the Shoei.
You should wear boots, at least those that cover your ankles. As with anything else motorcycle, there are a slew of different types for different applications. I recommend that the ones you choose should either be strapped or laced. Engineer boots, the square-toed type with a single non-adjustable ankle strap, are popular, but remember that in an accident, pull-on boots like those can fly off your feet, leaving them unprotected.
Protect your hearing and your vision with ear plugs, and face shields or goggles. Wind noise at high speeds can lead to hearing problems, especially for the prevalent older group that rides today.
Motorcycle engines and their associated exhaust pipes generate a great deal of heat, which emanates between knees and ankles. Part of the reason for wearing at least long pants is to protect your skin from that heat.
It can be easy, especially during the hot summer months, to forego the gear when riding. Experts strongly recommend the use of safety gear and manufacturers do offer protective clothing that is meshed and vented, while still containing some body armor. Even a minor spill can produce those painful abrasions known as “road rash.” Getting that road rash debrided in a hospital emergency room is exquisitely painful.
PART 4: SAFETY DURING THE RIDE Operating a motorcycle requires a level of awareness and attention well beyond what has become customary in driving a car. You can’t daydream, brood about the bad day at work, or plan your menus for the next week. You have to be completely aware of where you are, what you are doing, and what is going on around you.
Several years ago, a group of researchers showed a video clip to a group of people. Each one of them was given specific things to look for, i.e. birds, children, pets, etc. In the middle of the clip, an actor in a gorilla suit sauntered through the scene. Afterwards, the researchers were astonished to discover that many of the subjects never saw the gorilla in the video, because they were concentrating on something else. This condition, known as “inattentional blindness,” is very important to a rider. Even if a driver looks directly at you, they may not actually see you. Not surprisingly, the leading cause of car-bike accidents is the failure of the car’s driver to see, and therefore yield to the bike and then pulling out in front of them.
Many states have become increasingly concerned about the growing number of motorcycle accidents and fatalities. Most of those accidents do involve the car’s failure to yield. But rider inexperience also plays a role. If you are purchasing your first bike this year, please consider buying something smaller and easier to handle until your skills improve to the point of making that dream bike purchase worthwhile.
Another major hazard is that multitude of sins I like to call “riding stupid.” While speed and wheelies may be exhilarating, there are simply too many things that can go wrong. No matter how skilled a rider you may think you are, that won’t help you when you find a coal truck in your lane, or a patch of pea gravel on a blind curve. If you want to race, look for a track day. Race tracks are always a better surface than a county road. And you won’t lose your license, or your life doing it.
Studies show that motorcycle riders are older now than at any other time in history. An article in the October 29, 2006 New York Times Magazine noted that in the last twenty years, the median age for motorcyclists has gone from 24 to 41, with 25% of those riders over 50. Within the Harley-Davidson community, that median age is now 50. There are two factors at work here. Baby Boomers have embraced motorcycles as an expression of our refusal to “act our age.” The level of income we enjoy has enabled folks to purchase bikes that may be too big and fast for a beginner. The other factor is age. Our vision and reflexes are worse and slower than they were when we were younger. This means keeping very alert and maintaining space between the bike and the cars around you. It also means the ability to respond quickly to a crisis is going to be diminished. Catastrophic loss of control is a major factor in solo accidents and in many of those cases, the rider was over 40.
Motorcycles require close attention to maintenance in order to continue to function safely. For example, even something as mundane as tire inflation pressure has to be monitored closely. Low pressure is an annoyance in a car; it can kill you on a bike. A flat front tire makes the bike almost impossible to steer, which can only lead to disaster at highway speeds.
Weather conditions can drastically change a bike’s ability to stay upright. As a bike travels down a dry road, the friction between the tires and the road causes the tires to heat up. That heat helps the rubber to grip the road surface better. Rain does two things. First, it puts a layer of lubricant between the tires and the road. Secondly, it also cools your tires, making them less “sticky.” In addition, if it’s a busy road, the first 10 minutes of rain will bring up the oils and grease that have accumulated from cars. As a result, the road becomes very “slippy” until those oils are washed away.
Heat has a dangerous effect on the rider. Because of the constant breeze while moving, riders may not realize the dangers of heat exhaustion until it’s too late. Stay hydrated, using sport drinks because they will also replenish electrolytes. Sunscreen on your exposed skin will save you in the short term from painful sunburn.
In the fall and winter, cold air can be just as dangerous. A temperature in the mid-40’s might feel moderate when standing still. But at 70 mph, the induced wind chill is dangerous.
Wildlife is its own category of hazard. Deer, dogs, even bears have been known to disrupt a rider’s afternoon by suddenly appearing out of the trees and brush along the roadway, especially at dusk. Some people have turned to deer whistles to ease that hazard, but since deer ears have the same frequency range as ours, the whistles' actual utility is suspect.
Riding impaired, whether from illegal drugs, alcohol, lack of sleep, or even cold medicine is just plain stupid, and a recipe for disaster. Be aware of what your limitations are, and look out for each other. When it’s apparent that a fellow or sister rider is in a condition that is beyond safe, don’t be afraid to take their keys and call a cab. It’s far better to be cussed at by an impaired friend than attend a funeral.
For the most part, people who ride consider themselves to be a part of a community, hence that little wave we trade when passing each other. There are a lot of clubs, both activist and just fun, that offer things like organized group rides and charity runs. As a class, riders are very generous people when asked to participate for a cause. And whether you share the road for a few miles with another rider, or group ride from Baltimore to Barstow, you can be assured of meeting plenty of friendly faces.
Motorcycling can be a real source of joy and release, especially for those new to the sport. It will open your senses and emotions to a world you never knew existed. And can be a practical way to reduce the cost of commuting, as well as wear and tear on your other vehicle. Approach riding with the proper mindset, and you too will come to know and love the freedom of the open road.