Wheel alignment

Friday 4 February 2011

What's age got to do with it?

The title is just one word different from Tina Turner's classic song, but a whole world of meaning away!

A few days ago, I had an email from David L Hough in response to the recent Speed doesn't kill, stupidity kills post, plus other posts on motorcycle safety. If David's name doesn't immediately ring a bell, he's an eminent American author on motorcycle safety and skills (see Wikipedia entry) and I felt somewhat humbled and a bit over-awed that someone of his eminence had bothered to get in touch with an average Kiwi rider.  However, I felt a bit more comfortable when he said that on reading some of my blog posts, it was clear that I'd been thinking about my age relative to riding a motorcycle, which is perfectly correct.

 David L Hough

By way of background, he mentioned that was 73, had travelled over a million miles by bike - an incredible pedigree!  He went on to say that 3 years ago, he'd had an accident on a BMW 1150 GS in a remote desert area of California and as a result of that and presumably considering his own mortality;  now rides a Can-Am Spyder.  He went on to say that the mean age of motorcyclists in the USA is increasing, indeed accelerating.

David asked what, if any, thoughts I had with respect to increasing age and its impact on my riding.  Part of this enquiry was whether I had a plan for the next 5, 10, 15 or 20 years. I thought that the topic was both interesting and relevant, especially as motorcycles have progressively switched from cheap transport for impoverished young people to more of a lifestyle choice for riders of all ages.  In terms of ageing, I guess the term is pretty broad as we're all ageing as part of the natural process and I have no difficulty including returning riders after raising a young family or establishing a career etc.

I retired at 60 to enjoy life whilst my wife and I enjoyed good health.  Not long after retirement, I was undertaking a short-term consultancy job for my old company and I'd been to a conference on their behalf.  I used my Blackbird and on the way home, had a walking-speed accident when my foot slipped on gravel when turning round on a narrow road.  The fairing crash knob hit my leg and it suffered internal bleeding.  My fault entirely for failing to notice the gravel.  The 2 months away from riding and hobbling around gave me plenty of time to ponder the future.  I'm completely passionate about riding and must say that giving up never entered the equation but what to do?  The Honda CBR1100XX Blackbird I'd owned for 8 years was a little tall for me (I'm 5' 8"), especially with its raised ride height to improve handling.  The centre of gravity was also quite high.  This lead to some degree of instability when manoeuvring at low speed or parking.  As I aged and lost a bit of muscle tone, it became more noticeable.  It was also exacerbated by road cambers in the area where we now live and also the off-cambers around our house which is on the side of a hill. 

The answer was to get a lighter, lower sport-orientated bike with good ergonomics.  More difficult than you might think.  I still wanted handling and performance but the number of bikes with a seat height of around 800mm excepting cruisers are in the minority.  The other obstacle was to put it crudely, "little dick syndrome"!  I was used to riding the Blackbird hard and fast with my riding partners, most of whom are younger than me.  I honestly felt that getting a smaller bike would be akin to losing a bit of my manhood.  Ludicrous, but that's how I felt.  To cut a long story short, subsequent ownership of the Triumph Street Triple has been a joy on all counts and a smart move.  It's rejuvenated my motorcycling enjoyment.  Incidentally, you'll find more detail about all this in my blog posts from about 12 months or so ago, including a photo of a rainbow-coloured leg!

However, I thought I'd share other relevant bits of the discussion with David so far in case others have been thinking about the subject and might wish to articulate their thoughts.

Old dog, new tricks!  Yours truly (centre) with great mates, having successfully completed the Southern Cross round NZ in 5 days endurance ride in 2005

Chronological age is clearly going to have a bearing on fitness to ride in terms of physical condition, mental attitude, reaction time and so on.  However, such factors will have such a huge variation between individuals that age itself will have little relevance across the board.  Skill level certainly will have a major bearing. In the recent post on advanced situational awareness coaching, one forum respondent asked what was the point of him wasting time in undertaking any advanced training when all he wanted to do was cruise slowly on his bike and not bother anyone.  It sounds like he missed the point that good situational awareness is applicable at all speeds in terms of keeping you from harm.  Now coming directly to the point, any skill (or physical activity) if not regularly used diminishes, probably more rapidly as we age.  This is why I'm a strong advocate of refresher training, particularly as we get older - probably the most important consideration of all.  Not only is it beneficial for its basic purpose, but I suspect that it could also be a good personal "honesty" indicator with respect to whether you can cope any more.  Incidentally, I now try to cycle regularly too to keep up basic fitness levels!

I don't have a long-term plan other than to keep riding as long as possible.  This isn't just a blind faith option, simply a statement of intent as I love it so much.  Switching to a Street Triple with its lighter weight meets current requirements perfectly.  I'm not opposed to owning a cruiser with their low C of G and correspondingly low seat height - it would certainly entice Jennie back onto the pillion.  Maybe I ought to give one a try.   Maybe an English classic or the modern equivalent.  So in short, although I don't have a clear plan, there are some options when the next stage comes. Have done a fair bit of roadcraft training but have never done a coached track day yet so at 63 years of age, that could well be addressed this year!

Mental attitude, or call it a love of life if you like is probably as important as any of the other factors.  I've had a number of other strong interests at various stages of my life including sailing competitively at national championship level but motorcycling is the only interest that I've been enduringly passionate about.  It would certainly leave a big hole if I was to give it up BUT.....!!!!  To have no interests is to wither and die.  Living on the coast, we have a boat and go fishing regularly.  Jennie has a tweaked open-top sports car which is huge fun to drive and should I just be restricted to driving a car, something like a Lotus 7 replica might be sufficient to keep the juices flowing! We also enjoy travelling.  What I'm saying is that I do have some fall-backs for when the time comes to give up motorcycling.  Life is for living and I'm not the sort of person who could currently just sit around, waiting for God! 

Honda Blackbird-engined Lotus look-alike
The perfect weapon after bikes?

Sooooooo......  to finish off with some of David's questions, are we capable of making honest judgements about our fitness to ride? What are the measurements or tests to determine whether you are fit to ride? Is a crash an indication you aren't fit anymore, or just bad luck? Do you give up riding just because your knee, ankle, or back have chronic problems? Or do you stay off the machine when your body is complaining, and ride only when it allows you to? And, most importantly, if motorcycling has been your primary interest in life, how do you deal with your interests waning?  Food for thought for a fair percentage of riders perhaps.

Update:  http://geoffjames.blogspot.co.nz/2011/02/ageing-motorcyclists-follow-up.html

Also, I finally found a training programme with the Institute of Advanced Motorcyclists (IAM) that has raised my competence beyond what I thought possible - literally a life-saver.  To read a synopsis:


  1. Geoff:

    I met David Hough a couple of years ago at the Soundrider motorcyle rally in the Gorge in southern Washington. He is an elequent speaker and gave a talk on traction dynamics. He was also at the IMS: seattle motorcycle show in Seattle in December.

    You are right about riding experience and diminished abilities as we age. For now I seem to be okay on my 'Strom but eventually I will also have to move down to a lower more agile machine such as a Striple so I can feel younger, like yourself

    bobskoot: wet coast scootin

  2. Geoff,
    Excellent post! You've made some points that have caught my attention.

    Last spring I met one of the guys I grew up with for dinner. We hadn't seen each other for many years. We use to ride around on Honda 50's as teenagers and his dad use to ride too. His dad rode to work faithfully everyday and rode into his 70's. So I asked my buddy how his dad knew when it was time to "hang it up." He said his dad dropped it at a stop light one day. That was it, he rode it home and sold it. There must have been other signs that he had but that incident "broke the last straw." My friend said, "You'll know when to stop."

    I fully agree with you on the fitness aspect. That's great that you regularly cycle for fitness. I use to be a runner then switched to cycling. Now I'm an elliptical guy due to bad knees. Leg strength and cardio fitness, in my opinion, help improve a person's ability to handle the bike. And I think a regular exercise program extends a person's riding years in spite of the aging factors.

    I find that my interests wax and wane, which when I look back on that verifies to me not to put too much stock in my interests. They come and go. There is more to life than my interests. I know riding a two wheeler will come to an end one day. Those Can-Am Spyders sure are nice!

    David Hough's "Proficient Motorcycling" is a must read for every rider. Very informative. Ride safe, Geoff!

  3. Another good post to give people something to think about. I too cannot think of a life without bikes. I have however given a lot more thought over the last few years to the sense in rides like the GC - I've got the bug and think I'll continue to enjoy doing big distances in a day but I think the time is coming where I'll pass on the GC (maybe not this year though :-)).

    I'm a tad younger than you and I'm not ready to give up the Connie yet but I am definitely considering a smaller engined adventure bike to replace my sportsbike. I've decided that I do want to slow down a bit and enjoy some more varied riding so am looking forward to it (soon).

    Incidentally, should I get to decrepit to throw a leg over the Connie, something like the Can-am Spyder is something I've definitely thought about...

  4. I have two of David's books, and need to get the third. Great stuff there. When I have to give up two wheels, I think I'll go for a Shelby Cobra. :)

    Good post, and some tough questions. We also bicycle. First off it's a passion, but it's also so we can (hopefully) continue to be active for a long time.

    I think you said it best: to have no interests is to whither and die. I'm at my happiest (and most obnoxiously focused) when I have a pet interest to obsess over.

  5. Geoff
    I suppose that as age takes over your faculties you could resort to an old man's bike such as a BMW K75 classic with low seat. I have one for sale that could be shipped to NZ (no problems with driving on the left either).

    I have read some of David Hough's stuff and he normally talks sense so what on earth was he doing riding solo across a desert? Charlie and Ewan had a 10 strong back-up team!

    Best wishes, N

  6. Bob:
    From my first contact with David and from reading a number of great articles he sent me, I'm seriously impressed with his pragmatic approach and ability to get to the heart of the matter. I re-read your second paragraph carefully as I initially thought you might be pulling my leg about moving down to a Street Triple when you you were incompetent to ride a V-Strom ;-).

    Good points you make. I'm still not sure whether some people know when enough is enough and take whatever course of action is appropriate. I think that was what David was getting at in his correspondence.

    I can't jog any more either due to bad knees but cycling is great, and good for me too. The trick is not to make excuses for not riding and finding something "more pressing" to do! I find an iPod has helped when on the bicycle - something I never do on the motorbike!

    You're being over-generous when you say that you're a "tad" younger than me, but thank you anyway!!!! Entering the GC last year was mainly a test of whether I still had the mental and physical fortitude for a fair challenge and now that's been answered, I honestly don't know at this stage whether I'll do another.

    You have the same taste of me in cars!! I'm not passionate about cycling, but I certainly enjoy it. I'm trying to persuade Jennie and some friends to do the south island rail trail. It's an old railway route through stunning countryside which has had the tracks ripped up and turned into a cycleway.

    Nah, that would be going back through the check-valve having owned the 1000cc brick! Now where did I say that David rode solo across a desert? Have you lost concentration due to age ;-). Time for a bicycle perchance to avoid being a nuisance on those clogged UK roads :-)

    Best wishes back!

  7. Nikos:
    I humbly grovel and offer apologies - you clearly knew more than I did!

    I loved my brick, despite its idiosyncrasies! It would still be stepping back though. The F800 and variants are nice though, if not a little expensive!

  8. Geoff

    No need to apologise or grovel!

    I hear these super scoots are good - most of the membesr of the UK BMW Club seem to be in their 90s and ride these things!

    Have a great weekend (or is it Monday alraedy down there?), N

  9. Geoff, my friend, you constantly amaze me with your tackling off topics that float through my head.

    My Dad recently decided to sell his motorcycle. I feel like it was a good choice on his part, and he has said the same several times, but I an tell that it took some of the wind out of his sails to give up that chapter of his life.

    When this all took place, I quietly thought to myself, what would I do when I reach his age if I experience some of the health issues he has went through the last several years.

    When I was a younger man and racing stock cars, I continued to say as long as I could get my leg over the top of the door and slide in the window, I would race stock cars. Well, I can still get in and out of one, but I gave in up 10 years go. Not due to health or fitness issues but due to the enjoyment vs investment was not playing out in my favor.

    Riding motorcycles has filled the void that was left when I exited racing. So, I know if the day were to come that I would have to make a choice to stop riding, it would be difficult.

    I believe if I were to have to give it up due to balance issues, I would seriously give a cam-am spyder or a Harley Trike serious consideration.

    My wife lightly hinted at a Trike last week as she cannot handle riding on a motorcycle as the leaning causes her anxiety fits. So who knows, we may eventually end up with one so we can ride together.

    Thanks for getting me thinking more on this subject. It is good to have the insights of someone "up the road a little piece more" that is considering these thoughts.


  10. Interesting subject. I'm only 53, but the idea of "having a plan" I'll happily address. Because I don't have one. Because I don't think you CAN have one. You don't know what life will throw at you. Cancer, arthritis, car accident, any of that can happen. You can only hope that your health holds out for many years and that you realize when its time to get off. I guess at some point a lighter, smaller, lower bike will be called for, maybe one of the big super scooter, but beyond that I can't imagine moving down to a three wheeler of some sort since they can't do anything better than a good running Mazda Miata can do.


  11. THe post and comments have been a very interesting and thought provoking read, as always! I am only 42, but I admit I have thought about what would happen if I could not ride any more, or if age finally takes it tolls. To be brutally honest It is not something I really wish to think about. I have always been one to cross a bridge when I get to it.

    Interesting point on fitness though. After my marriage broke up, I weighed 118kgs, when I brought the bike , it was one of the most mitigating factors in losing weight...........yes it is true........I hated being uncomfortable and not being able to move properly on the bike, plus constent back aches. I lost 18kgs, in the process and it has made riding so much more enjoyable. I have maintained this weight, or there abouts for the last 4 years.

    Great post Geoff. Food for though for all of us.

  12. Allen:
    We aim to please, haha!

    My wife likes trikes too but at present, I'm a bit indifferent to them, simply because I haven't given them much thought. At present, a wickedly light sports car wins over a trike. I feel for your Dad if he still has regrets, but if he's found something else to stir the passions, then that's just wonderful. With your view on stock cars, I was the same with drag bikes. To take the next step would have financially killed me!

    I totally agree that you can't plan for life's surprises, but IMHO you CAN actually do something. You can stay reasonably fit and you can make sure your skills are top notch - both will stand you in good stead both now and as you age. Interesting you should mention the Miata as my wife has a MazdaSpeed-prepared one and it's one of the greatest thrills to be had with your clothes still on :-).

    Thanks for dropping by!

    Will have to admit that until I started getting the odd aches and pains associated with ageing, it didn't really cross my consciousness at all. The Striple is just fine at present, so the plan is to stay reasonably fit and to continue honing my skills.

    Sincere congrats on the weight loss, that's one hell of an achievement! BTW, I'll be at the Pukekohe Classic races tomorrow if you're still planning on being there.

  13. Geoff, this is a most worthwhile topic and one I’ve been forced to think about lately as some of the injuries from my misspent youth are now coming back to haunt me!

    My plan to increase my odds for a lengthy future of motorcycling is evolving, but slowing down a little, stopping more frequently on longer rides, paying attention to my hydration, paying close attention to tyre pressures and checking the mechanical condition of the motorcycle prior to every ride are all small individual pieces of the “jigsaw” - but I believe that they come together to stack the odds towards sustaining a long and enjoyable lifetime of riding.

    Clearly minimizing or avoiding injuries as one ages is important. To that end, some of my other strategies include always wearing the best gear that I can, (including a back protector as I've had back injuries in the past), riding with mature, like minded riders and avoiding commuting in the city are also parts of my overall strategy.

    Some research that I’ve read indicates that the trajectory towards frailty is accelerated by injuries and major illnesses. Often as people age, traumatic bone fractures or major illness will drop them 2-3 rungs down the ladder towards frailty, of which they will typically only climb back up 1 rung, even with good medical care.

    Unfortunately I often spend far too many hours on my work and use that to justify being lazy with my fitness. This is something that must change.

    Clearly my next motorcycle needs to be lighter and have a lower centre of gravity, however, I want my wife to be able to enjoy trips pillion with me as well so the range is limited. I realised after corresponding with you last year that I had better scrub the Blackbird off my list of potential purchases.

    I will continue to ponder this topic Geoff, however, there are some guys I’ve met recently who say they are riding faster and better now that they’ve retired because they don’t have a whole lot of work related junk in their heads! One 67 yr old left me gobsmacked with his speed and prowess over a four day ride on highly technical roads and in some challenging weather conditions. His approach just seems to be to ride like how you feel like at the time!

  14. Hi Jules!
    If I may say so, that's an incredibly comprehensive post which shows both the level of your thought on the topic, plus your healthcare profession!

    Your "incremental" approach adding up to a big total safety sum is an excellent idea - bloody nice work!

    Thanks too for the heads-up on injuries - hadn't realised that.

    With respect to fitness, don't be fooled that it's work stopping you and all will be well when you retire! I was fortunate that the company gym was near my office so used to use it at lunchtimes. During retirement, I've got into a cycling routine but still play mind games with myself, looking for an excuse to do something less strenuous! At present, I'm a good boy and it definitely pays off.

    There are a few bikes which might fit your criteria without having to resort to a cruiser if your interest is more sporty at present. Bay way of example, there are several Bonneville models which may fill the bill. Good performance, handle 2-up well, fairly light with low seat height and a range of luggage accessories. I may well explore this option in due course. Of course, you'll have to dodge the insults of your Commando-owning mate! Here's a link to some with luggage:

  15. Geoff - Lots of food for thought there.

    Although still a relatively healthy youngster (61) I have started to notice some small incremental challenges creeping in to my riding skills. Actually not so much on the "riding" part as the slow speed manouvering around parking lots, or backing up a 300kg motorcycle into a slightly uphill parking spot. So I have had to embark on a targeted fitness plan to strengthen and tone those muscles prior to the riding season - something I'd never had to do before.

    I've also become much more conscious of the fact I take longer to heal now than I did, and so am a bit (just a bit, though) less spirited on the twisties than 20 years ago. But still it's no less enjoyable.

    So with a combination of increased awareness of my limitations and a bit of training I expect to be riding and enjoying it for at least 10 more years. And if some of that has to be on 3 wheels, so be it. Still beats a car.

  16. Great post Geoff. I think that age has a great deal to do with riding and how and what someone rides.

    In my case, I wish I had of started at an earlier age. When we are younger we don't have the healthy dose of fear I seem to have as I turn 40 this year and I think my skills would be greater if developed at an earlier age.

    Having said that, as my skills improve as I age, I hope to still be riding until I am unable. Who knows, maybe we'll all be in little flying machines instead of riding in another 25 years.

    Thanks for the info and insight.

  17. Canajun:
    It's that insidious, incremental creep which is most worrying, especially when you try to do something and you suddenly become aware of your limitations. Most impressed that you have a fitness plan. You also mention 3-wheelers. That topic has cropped up time and time again in the forums I made some posts on in the last few days and yesterday in Auckland, I rode past a Can-Am dealer! A signal perhaps for the future?

    Thanks for your thoughts! Interestingly, I rode to Auckland yesterday with a near-neighbour I hadn't ridden with before. Similar age to me, decades of experience and an ex-racer who only returned to bikes last year. All that experience of his showed up within 15 minutes of setting off - had absolute confidence in where he was going to place himself, when he was going to overtake and so on. A joy to ride with.

    Hope your flying machine wish comes true, that would be cool. They might want to add a force field at the same time - I'd like that!

    Thanks so much for all the valuable insights - I'll publish David Hough's thoughts in a couple of post hence; well worth reading and pondering.

  18. Plenty of food for thought there, Geoff. I hate the thought of ever having to give up riding - I've only had 5-6 years of it, and am hoping for at least another 20!

    'Little dick syndrome', fortunately, has never been part of the equation for me ;-) but 'short-arse syndrome' has, and my motorcycle choices have always been limited by my size - but I can see that ageing will limit my choices even further.

    Having always been small and not particularly confident, getting a bike of my preferred style (sporty rather than cruiserish) that fits has always been a big problem, and unless manufacturers recognise and cater to the HUGE market of small riders out there who DON'T have 'little dick syndrome', ha ha, and who want appropriately sized bikes, I'm going to find it harder and harder to get a bike that fits as I get older, creak more (and shrink more, as oldies invariably do....)

    Must start doing something about my fitness levels.

    You've got me thinking with this post - thanks!

  19. Hi Sue!
    Hahahaha - since owning the Street Triple, it's cured my "little dick" syndrome. It goes like hell and in the twisties, it's the big bike jocks that work up more of a sweat than me!

    It was being a short arse that drove me off the Blackbird in the end and seat height was at the top of the checklist when I was casting around for a replacement.

    I'll be posting David Hough's comments in a few days - they're well worth reading.

  20. I am 43 at the moment and don't want to think of giving up riding. My Bird is fine for me at the moment and I can honestly say that there is nothing out there I'd rather have. At just over six foot and weighing in at 19 stone a smaller bike would just look a bit silly! As I get older I do expect things to change, aches and pains due to 20 plus years of working on cars in cold ,draughty garages means that I try to keep myself comy and warm on the bike.
    I think that when manoevering around at slow speeds and in carparks etc. you really have to take care no matter your size. I once dropped my cbr1000f with my mrs on the back and all our camping gear in a pub car park. Loose gravel and a lump of rotten wood being to blame(as well as my inattention).I was only 36 at the time and am quite a big guy so it can happen to anybody!
    In years to come I may have to change what I ride as you have done. I just hope that I can keep on riding for many years to come on whatever I can handle. (Honda CB1000R may just do the trick) Still enjoying your blogs Geoff!

  21. Hi SB - long time no see!

    Haha - at 43, you have no concept of giving up riding due to age and neither should you! Err, all my mishaps with the 'bird were as a result of instability at less than walking pace. Fortunately, never had a "moment" with Jennie on it but there was the odd close moment when she was getting on and off where a leg muscle screamed out in protest!

    Take care mate!

  22. I am 78 and have been riding since 1953, I hope to continue for a few years yet. I am finding that balance and handling when stationary are my main age related problems. Once I am mobile I am in complete control and all is well, I feel 16 again. Last nights ride from Cambridge to Hamilton was a real joy.

    Because of my failing strength and sense of balance,(not when on bike) I have given up step overs for step throughs, my twelth bike is a Suzuki Burgman 400cc scooter. For an old guy nearing 80 it has a low centre of gravity, plenty of performance and is easy to get on.

    Riding is not a problem, moving the bike and
    getting going and coming to a stop is.

  23. Hi Anon!
    That's one heck of an impressive record and can only hope that I can get somewhere close - sincere congratulations! Low speed/parking issues were my problem on the Blackbird. It would be cool to meet you sometime for a chat. I would have suggested the Cambridge Toy Run next month but we will sadly be in Vietnam.

    Thanks for dropping by and stay in touch....

  24. Geoff:
    Great post! Instead of taking refresher courses, become one who coaches them. Very rewarding and beneficial for constantly honing your own skills.

  25. Thanks Phil! I have thought of it. It's true what they say about being retired though in connection with being busy - would have to give something else up to make time!

  26. A relatively young man, at one of my MSF "Experienced Rider" courses, said, "Kids are made of magic and rubber." Old people are made of glass and oxidized milk cartons.

    1. Hahahaha - love it Thomas! Being old and our doctor deciding that I need "old people's" meds like low dose aspirin, I bruise really easily and when my bike fell on me about 10 years ago, I got a massive haematoma on my leg. I'm very careful about not trying to fall off!!!


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