Monday November 5, 2012

A number of us in Marlboro keep in touch with an older friend who is having increasing trouble with driving. This is classic and very difficult stuff. Nobody wants to lose mobility, but then nobody wants to cause a crash because of declining driving skills. The trick is to know when to give up the keys. Older folks get a lot of grief here (its seems that 14 elders have managed to crash -- mostly slowly -- into 14 different post offices in Florida in the past few months ... there are now signs advising against this!), but at least some data says they have no more crashes than any other demographic group. Maybe it’s because they mostly creep along, giving the rest of us plenty of time to react. I’m sensitive to all of this because I’m next in this line. I just ain’t what I used to be.

Motorcyclists face the issue a little earlier. Motorcycles are harder to work than cars, they’re big and heavy, and they demand good balance and a number of other raw physical attributes. Aching knees, back issues, arthritis, peripheral neuropathy, fading vision, and a bunch of other age-related junk can really slow a biker down. So I was not surprised when the New York Times recently ran a piece about aging bikers and their rides.

Some just soldier on. I met a 71-year-old guy in Norway who was so badly crippled by diabetes that he could hardly walk. But he was fast, agile and smooth on a motorcycle.


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Others are just plain lucky. Due to some combination of good genes and/or good living, their minds and their bodies continue to hold up, making riding into the sunset that much easier. A third group, however, is making the kind of adjustment that the Times article chronicled in some detail. They are switching to trikes.

Trikes? Yes, you know because you’ve seen them. These are -- mostly -- large motorcycles with one front and two rear wheels. I say mostly, because there is also an alternative, built by Bombardier of Canada, that has two front wheels and one hind one. With either, you still get to pick the bugs out of your teeth (although most of these have big, protective windscreens), you still get to smell a dairy most of a mile away, and you still get to hear the rain pounding on your helmet. You don’t, however, have to worry about putting your old, tired legs down at a stop and hope you can keep the thing from tipping over. Almost as important, on a trike you can put your bony backside on something that would shame most of the chairs in a Fortune 500 CEO’s office. No more torture rack. Ahhhhh! Finally, trikes usually have enough storage space so you can take all the stuff you need (or imagine you’ll need) to circle the globe. Who needs a retirement home, anyway?

According to the Times piece, trikes are selling like hot cakes. Even people in their 50s are getting them. I ran into a guy in Ohio who had traveled there from Virginia to get a very fancy rig that looked like it should have been in the film "Blade Runner." It was built from an elaborate kit. But some motorcycle companies (like Harley Davidson) now make these machines right in the factory. Harley, Honda, and others have seen the graying of their riders. Aging boomers want three wheels!

So what’s not to like? Well, depending on some details, you can pay more than $30,000 for one of these babies. But then, as they say on Wall Street, most of these buyers are in or just out of their "peak earning and saving years." Gone are the destitute days of riding a cheap, rusting sport bike. Plus, if you love to ride, and most of us do, then you just find a way. Who cares if you have to sell the house? A second issue is the weight of these things and the resulting guzzling of gas. A lot of cars will do better. A third concern, and in my view it’s not a trivial one, is that a trike is driven more-or-less like a car. There just isn’t that cranked over lean on corners that is achievable on two wheels. A lot of big cruisers don’t have enough clearance to lean over very far anyway. But many other kinds of motorcycles are built for and thrive on hard corners. Some people will find it hard to give this part of the riding experience up, even some of those withering boomers. 

Aging, we hope, confers a bit of wisdom. This country’s founding fathers decided that anyone who had reached the age of 35 knew the ropes well enough to become president. A lot of people I know would seem to require a bit more time. But by 60 or so, most of us understand that life provides a lot of opportunity for adjustment. Those of us who accept this notion and embrace (or at least tolerate) the sometimes annoying and insistent age-related changes can often get past "Go" for some more time on the board. Those of us who don’t may have to give up the proverbial keys earlier than they might like. For anyone who loves an activity with even moderate physical demands, aging just requires some sort of down size: a stool in the garden, a ski slope with a name like "Summer Breeze" instead of "Avalanche," or a trike for the road.

So is there a trike in my future? Right now I say "no." But check with me in 10 years; I’ll be able to see 80 pretty clearly by then.

Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife and cat.