IN 1998, there were 6.5 million motorcycles on the roads. Now there are more than 10 million.
In early spring it is a like a highway hatching. In the summer it becomes a swarm. By winter, these two-wheeled speed machines, their crackling sound, and their idiosyncratic and colorful riders have all but disappeared from the roadways. Who are these people who seemingly place life and limb at risk?
They come in all shape and sizes, male and female, old and young, rich and poor, married and single. Their common denominator is that they have a bit more of the risk factor built into their makeups than the general population, though they do not necessarily see it that way.
Needless to say, riding a motorcycle is more dangerous than riding in a car because you are simply more exposed. Many motorcycle accidents occur at intersections with someone running a red light. In a car, you are more likely to survive. Additionally, inattentive car drivers don't often see motorcyclists, particularly when swinging into or out of driveways. Then there is gravel, grease, and oil on the road, 18 wheelers, thunderstorms, potholes, dogs, raccoons, and above all else, deer to avoid.
Given the dangers, why do they ride?
The first reason is a sense of freedom. Basically, you are astride an engine, unencumbered. You are not boxed in by metal, glass. You have a clear view in all directions. You have great maneuverability. You are free from cell phones, the radio, immediate problems, and other people. You are set apart, away from it all. Nothing is holding you back, you just go.
The second reason is thrill. The Dodge Viper costs $85,000 and goes 12.2 seconds in the quarter mile; the Kawasaki Ninja ZX14 costs $10,600 and does the quarter in 9.7 seconds. There are a 155 bikes on the market today that go faster than the Viper, most under $10,000. Quickness in passing vehicles is far superior to most cars; in cornering there is no comparison. A surge of power comes with the flick of the wrist, which is more exciting than pressing the car accelerator. And the element of danger is always with you. You are 9 inches from the pavement, you have weather and sudden challenges to contend with, so your senses are very much alive and responsive, as the machine is to your touch. You are very focused, in the moment, and that is thrilling.
The third reason is community. Bikers on the road wave or nod to each other, much like drivers of the VW Beetle did back in the 60s. If you are a biker driving a car or a motorcycle, you will typically stop and help a biker in need. Then there is Sturgis, S. D. At bike-rally week in early August every year since 1938, more than a half million bikers from all 50 states and many foreign countries camp, eat, listen to concerts, watch outdoor movies, party, and ride together. Annually, there are hundreds of other rallies, many to raise money for charities, but Sturgis is the granddaddy of them all and a great social experience.
The fourth reason is the cool factor. People who may not think of themselves as particularly cool in real life, feel cool on a bike. Then there are the really cool. I will never forget seeing this attractive young woman with dark glasses in a small town in Colorado, riding a Harley, full black leathers with silver buckles and cycle boots, her startling red hair flowing out from underneath her half-black helmet, her long legs on high pegs, roaring down the center of the street. She turned heads. Potbellies in most circumstances don't turn heads, but on a bike, the potbelly, the bald head, beard, and tattoos all can be cool.
The fifth reason is that motorcycling is fun. It is fun to be creative with what you wear, how you dress your bike, and fun simply in the act of cleaning, polishing, and maintaining it. And of course there is great pleasure being in the wind, shifting gears, tapping the throttle, bearing down on another vehicle, zooming by, being one with the machine. It is fun not being in a moving box, but rather being really in your surroundings. You notice the sights and smells more.
The sixth reason, more popular these days, is saving money. In the average car or light truck you are lucky to get 25 miles to the gallon. On the average bike, you will get 45 mpg, and in many cases, a lot more. You can get a good used bike 65 percent cheaper than a good used car.
Some people ride for other reasons, such as testing your butt. You can become a member of the Iron Butt Association (IBA) by riding 1,000 miles in 24 hours. There are presently 20,000 members world wide. Every other year there is the Iron Butt Rally (IBR, aka the Big Show or the Butt), where participants attempt to ride approximately 11,000 miles in 11 days. The ultimate endurance test is doing the 100CCC, that is, coast to coast to coast in 100 hours. Needless to say, not many have met this challenge.
To conclude, to "ride on the wild side" appeals to all sorts, and once they do it, most will continue to enjoy the sense of freedom, thrill, and joy that comes with motorcycling.
Phineas Anderson, retired head of Maumee Valley Country Day School, rides his Honda Valkyrie 5,000 to 7,000 miles a summer.