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.”
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’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.
“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.