Opinion: Not the last ride yet

There was a fascinating opinion piece in the Washington Post on the weekend, written by the former governor of Indiana who thought 2018 would be his last season of riding a motorcycle.

“An increasingly aggressive lobbying campaign by the five Daniels women (‘Really, Dad, don’t you think it’s about time?’) had persuaded me to call it quits,” wrote Mitch Daniels, who’s 69 now and has been riding for almost 50 years. “I sold one of my two Harleys and made plans to donate the other, which is too much of a custom keepsake for eBay, to a friend’s collection. But — Guy Story Trigger Warning — at the last minute, standing in front of the waiting trailer, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Down went the garage door, and I sneaked back in the house, reinstated the registration and insurance, and started working on my spousal and fatherly alibi.”

Mitch Daniels on his Harley Low Rider. Photo courtesy Examiner.com

Good for Mitch! I’m assuming he’s healthy and still capable of riding a bike safely, and if so, it should be his decision alone to keep riding or not. These days, of course, the riding demographic is getting older as seniors hang onto their bikes and young people find it costly to get started, but that also means motorcycling is more forgiving of older riders. Brakes take less of a squeeze to work well, and tires don’t skid; mirrors are more forgiving of those too stiff to shoulder-check; Can-Am Spiders and Harley trikes let you keep your feet on the pegs at a standstill.

A decade ago, I met a former motorcycle shop owner named Bill who had developed such severe Parkinson’s he could no longer ride his motorcycle, so his family built him a custom Harley trike to compensate for his lack of balance. He let me ride it on his long rural driveway, which doubled as a gravel airstrip for his other passion of flying, and it was a seminal moment:

Bill backs his Harley trike out of the garage, ready for Mark to go for a ride.

“Bill’s watching from behind,” I wrote at the time, “and I’m acutely conscious of being careful, but it’s hard not to relax as the speed builds and the trike drops into second and even into third gear as the runway blurs past. The road approaches too soon, and I slow down to turn around, looking up to see Bill standing there in front of the garage, watching me as his wife Bonnie has been watching him. I ride back toward the house and the speed builds again, and somewhere halfway, at around 40 miles an hour, I feel sure that if I lifted back on the handlebars, the trike would rise, leaving the gravel and heading up through the few wisps of cloud, breaking free from the ground and all that holds to it. There’s no gravity, and I can fly, free of limits, free of pain, free of everything, free to be just me. It’s going to get better now. And I look ahead and see Bill watching, and I know that he knows this feeling and longs for it and craves it and refuses to ever let go of it. And I know that he never, ever will.”

Bill died a few years later but Bonnie told me he never gave up on riding. When it all became too much, near the end, his family drove him around in a side-by-side. Motorcycling has a way of hooking you in.

Over the years, I’ve met riders in wheelchairs who pilot their bikes from a custom-built sidecar, and riders with no feet who adapt their bikes with hand controls. I’ve met plenty of riders who’ve had to re-sit their driving tests because they’re past 80 years old, and who want to keep riding for the sheer pleasure of it. But Mitch Daniels’ reasons for not giving up on riding were especially thoughtful.

Mitch Daniels on his bike. “It’s a stress-reliever,” he once said.

“Even as America became a nation of flyover air travel and interstate highway travel, motorcycle riding remained a pastime that took you on old roads and into small towns, where you were apt to meet people from geographically distant parts and socially distant backgrounds,” he wrote in the Post.

“There are fewer and fewer organizations, activities or recreational pursuits through which Americans of very different stations meet one another on equal terms, with entirely common interests. That fact of modern times is not, some of us believe, a trivial factor in the cultural estrangement now afflicting our social and political life.”

He’s right, you know. There are motorcycle clubs for every special interest, but when it all comes down to it, we all share a common passion for travelling on two wheels rather than four. When we meet to talk about our motorcycles, they’re a way to bring us together and combat the politics and stereotypes that drive us apart. If we let them, they’ll let us break free of everything. One day, all of us will take our last ride, whether we know it at the time or not, so we’d better make the most of what we have while we can.

5 thoughts on “Opinion: Not the last ride yet”

  1. Well, Mitch Daniels is a fellow who has a big job with a lot of responsibility, at age 69, (He is President of Purdue University) and no doubt can use a few relaxing hours riding around on his favoured motorcycle. I gather he is doing a good many positive things, especially for the students down there at Purdue. Reducing tuition costs is one that I hear of. He has always, I gather, been a guy who was not an elitist, social highbrow, but took everybody as he found them. I gather that some years ago he was being sought by some politicos to run for President of the USA but he went to Purdue instead.
    Everybody needs a hobby, and motorcycling, besides being a good form of personal transport, is one of the best ways to leave the cares of the workaday world behind – even if it is just for a few hours in the saddle.

  2. Excellent article Mark and very thoughtful responses. 2 weekends ago on the road from Campbell River to Gold River, BC my sister and I stopped at a rest area and chatted with a nice man who was riding a CanAm. When he got off the trike, he got into a wheelchair, amazing. Hand controls on a trike. Yesterday I rode solo from Nanaimo to Long Beach, BC. Got down to the beach and made a new friend who has been riding his whole life and is now elderly and retired. I think riders have more in common with each other than we have differences. I love riding and I will quit when I am dead. That is my “retirement” plan as well. If I can’t ride (or do one other special thing) I may as well be dead anyway. Cam

  3. If at some point I become unable to hold a bike up (after trying lighter bikes) or control it safely I will then give up riding (and probably driving too, in the latter case). Not before. Unless your reaction times have gone completely to crap or you just can’t physically manage it any more, why give it up? Just because you’re “old”? Old is a state of mind, to a large extent, and its when you start thinking that you’re old and decrepit that you actually will be.

    Don’t get me wrong, I know that not everyone ages so gracefully, and sometimes there are real physical or mental reasons why one might need to stop riding. But if you’re basically healthy, stay in shape and keep doing what you love! Yeah, I’m only 51 so far, so we’ll see how it is for me in 10 or 20 years, but as long as I’m physically, mentally, and financially able, I don’t see myself giving it up.

  4. Trikes are great for the ageing rider. It’s a mystery to me why do you even need a trike or motorcycle licence to own and ride one? Easy peasy.

Join the conversation!