How to Stay Riding

Live long and ride on

I have this somewhat alarming vision of a future, probably not too distant, where I’ve become old and decrepit but am still riding a motorcycle. My vision, strength and reflexes are failing, which is bad enough. The horrifying part is that I’m surrounded by a sea of fellow AARP members who are at least as infirm as I am, but as they travel in the cocoons of their cars, they don’t realize it. They’re quite sure they are still safe, and aren’t about to hang up their phones just because they’re out in intense traffic.

Our vehicles are almost synonymous with our freedom. Giving up driving is like putting one foot in the grave. Even people with clear signs that they should not be driving are not willing to turn in their licenses. I was at the DMV recently to replace a lost driver’s license and overheard two older women talking. It seems one of them was blind in one eye, and she was there to memorize the eye charts so she could pass the vision test when she came in to renew her driver’s license a few days later.

I don’t know if I’ve encountered her on the road yet, but dodging seniors who change lanes into me seems to be something I’m doing more and more frequently. I attribute that to their loss of peripheral vision and inability to turn their heads as easily to look around. The good news is that these are not people who make rapid lane changes. They aren’t any more inclined to signal than anyone else, but at least they move over gradually so you can get out of their way. It also seems to me that stories of accidents where an elderly driver stood on the throttle, thinking it was the brake, have become more common.

Lots of people are talking about the older-rider issue. But, like the weather, almost no one is doing anything about it. Everyone talks about how older riders are involved in a bigger portion of motorcycle crashes, but no one has done the research to determine if we old farts are over-represented based on the miles we ride. In 1980, the median age for motorcyclists in the U.S. was 24. These days it’s about 42. But the overall population is aging, too. No one seems to know if older riders are riding more or less.

How to stay riding despite old age
As you age reflexes, vision, and muscles tend to start to become less responsive. These tips might help to staying on the road a little longer.Illustration by John Breakey

Nature's Way of Telling You to Get Out of the Gene Pool
Still, it's reasonable to assume that aging does impair your ability to ride a motorcycle (and drive a car). It actually starts in your 30s, when your body begins to lose muscle at about 10 percent per decade. Your strength and endurance taper off. Your metabolism slows down, so alcohol doesn't move out of your system as quickly. Arthritis or other issues may make you less flexible. Your hearing suffers, too. A quarter of people over 55 and a third of those over 65 suffer some hearing impairment. (Those rates are probably higher among those who've ridden with loud pipes or without a helmet or earplugs.) Some people's cognitive functions start trailing off relatively early; others seem to stay sharp into their 80s or later.

Your vision starts to change at 40. Your eyes become less flexible as you age, so you may need reading glasses, and it will also take longer to focus on that turn ahead when you look up from reading the instruments. Older eyes take longer to recover from bright light, and glare causes more problems. Older eyes don’t see as well at night; older folks need four times as much light to see as well as a 25-year-old in reduced light. Peripheral vision and depth perception suffer, too. Laser treatment can allow you to correct some aspects of vision, but it won’t return the optical flexibility of youth and may cause “starring” at night.

Theoretically, all this should mean that we fogies crash more as our age advances past the half-century mark. However, we apparently also drive less, and perhaps more cautiously, so even though our overall driving record isn’t as good as that of folks in their 30s, it doesn’t begin to really turn sour until we hit our 80s. It seems impossible that I could live to be 80, but then there were plenty of people who were flabbergasted when I turned 30.

What's an Old Guy to Do?
You could try not getting older. A lot of people are doing that, but it really doesn't seem to be working out. Personally, I have accepted getting older, but I refuse to mature. I have long since accepted that there are motorcycles I now enjoy riding that I once viewed as stodgy and that the sorts of bikes I once considered ideal are no longer fun to ride.

Acceleration and dizzying corner speeds don’t seem nearly as important as they did when I was roadracing. These days a bike can make a favorable impression just by having a comfy seat and pleasant riding position. As long as I can still lean into corners and feel the wind flowing over me, a motorcycle that works has become more attractive than one that has a more emotional appeal. Many motorcyclists will be able to ride more and longer if they take a pragmatic approach to motorcycle choice.

Pick a suitable motorcycle: A big, heavy motorcycle, especially one that carries its weight up high, may cease being an option because of strength or joint pain. The fact that you've ridden a liter or larger motorcycle for the past three decades doesn't mean you actually need one. You can cross the country in comfort on an 800cc or smaller bike. Some riders turn to trikes or sidecars, but in my opinion, these create at least as many problems as they solve.

Useful technology: We already have available technology that can help compensate for some of the issues facing aging riders. Wider-angle mirrors can reduce the need to turn your head. The technology that reduces sportbike weight can be applied to other types of bikes. Automatic transmissions have been used sporadically in motorcycles, and their acceptance seems likely to increase as customers age. Antilock brakes have tremendous potential to allow riders who have trouble modulating brakes to make controlled panic stops. (You'll still have to be able to support your weight under braking, however.)

Know Your Weaknesses
You can gauge and improve your abilities with educational programs for "mature" drivers. AARP, the Auto Club and some senior centers offer classes and on-the-road training. These can teach you how to spot areas where you might be slipping and how to compensate for them. They are usually quite inexpensive, and many insurers will give you a discount on your auto insurance for completing one of these programs.

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation (www.msf-usa.org) offers a Seasoned Rider Module, designed to be used by clubs or groups or in rider-training courses. It includes a 13-minute DVD, a facilitator guide and props for several learning and self-assessment activities. You can buy it for $50 from the MSF site. AARP has all sorts of self-assessment tools and suggestions for keeping your mind and body sharp on its Web site (www.aarp.org), many of which are free to anyone.

Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll?
Retirement is no time to relax...or get complacent. If you intend to have a long and happy life on the road, you'll have to fight for it. Fortunately, most of the strategies for keeping your mind, body and abilities sharp are kind of fun, and the adjustments you'll need to make to your riding style are probably minor.

Stay in Training: If it has been years since you have taken a rider training course, the Experienced Rider Course will almost certainly improve your skills and understanding of motorcycling. I have never heard a rider who took the course say anything but positive things about it or that it didn't improve some aspect of motorcycling for him or her. You'll ride away with greater confidence.

Exercise: Walking a couple of miles a day is beneficial to both the mind and body. Strength training can help maintain the muscles you need to hold up and operate your motorcycle.

Use Your Brain: Making your brain stretch a bit seems to be the best way to keep it sharp. The AARP Web site offers numerous suggestions for retaining mental ability. I'm using my mouse left-handed right now.

Leave a Margin: As vision and reflexes erode, you can compensate by giving yourself more room for error. I am learning to tailgate less and slow down sooner as I bear down on 60 years of age.

Don't Drink Before a Ride: As you age, this may come to mean no nightcap before a morning ride.

Ride More: This is more theory than science, but there does seem to be some basis to the idea that "You don't stop riding because you get old; you get old because you stop riding." Motorcycling (like sex) seems to provide stimulation to various parts of your mind and body that many other activities miss. I have certainly met lots of "seasoned" riders who say that motorcycling keeps them young.

Back in my teens, when I was just starting to drive, one of the appeals of a motorcycle was that, when I screwed up, I was going to be a risk mainly to myself. In the family Impala—a huge aircraft carrier of a car—a moment of carelessness could kill a whole family or two, but a mistake on a motorcycle would probably injure only me. That concept has been rolling around my mind again, because, if my driving abilities taper off, I’ll be less of a hazard to the rest of the world on a motorcycle than in a car. Put another way, if I can’t manage a motorcycle, is it responsible to be driving a car? Plus, by then gas will probably be pushing $20 a gallon and with Social Security in doubt, who will be able to fill up a car?

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