The story of a Returned Rider: How the second time can be even better

Consider a pastoral valley around 45,000 years BCE. Early spring. Late afternoon. Just about brew-thirty, in fact, after a strenuous day of hunting the wooly mammoth.

"Look at those Stupid Old Rock Bangers over there," says Grok to his buddy Korg, gesturing to some newly neighboring Neanderthals. "One should always hit the little rock with the big rock, not the big with the little."

"[Expletive deleted] SORBs," says Korg, in agreement. "There goes the neighborhood."

Stereotypes. They've been around since humans divided themselves into the first two groups, Us and Them. This behavior has carried right on down through the Ice Ages to the present day, where we have such motorcycling stereotypes as Squids, Road Pirates, Half Asstronauts and RUBs, among others. Stereotyping is generally frowned upon by politically correct society, but sometimes one realizes that the stereotype hits you, fair and square, right between the eyes. There is no use in me protesting or getting offended. I am a Returned Rider.

Stereotype, demographic, market segment — label us as you will, the motorcycle industry knows about, thinks about, and worries about us RRs. First off, the industry wishes we didn't exist at all, because before evolving into a Returning Rider one must first degenerate into a Former Rider. A motorcycling hiatus can last years or even decades, and that costs the industry what it considers to be a fair share of each Former Rider’s disposable income. That's a lot of potential executive bonuses gone unpaid.

camping trip on a CB550-4

How riders become former riders

Why do some, mostly middle-aged, motorcyclists stop riding for a significant period, or even for good? I posted the question on a motorcycle forum, and the answers fell into three main categories.

The first reason is money, and if the motorcycle is perceived as a luxury or toy instead of the primary mode of transportation, it is easy to see how it can or must be sacrificed when hard fiscal reality throws a wrench into the spokes.

Social pressure. The second main reason for a motorcycling hiatus is disapproval from others. This is usually, but not always, safety related, as the naysayers express some degree of certainty that the biker will sooner or later come to an ugly, screeching-of-metal, scrape-him-off-the-pavement end.

Only the individual rider can decide between love of motorcycling and the opinions of loved ones. Some may face only mild negativity, while others are given the stark choice of "motorcycle or me." Some choose the motorcycle, others the me, and those who knuckle under become Former Riders who may, some day, with changes of attitudes or relationships, mutate into Returning Riders.

Risk. It's the third main reason cited for leaving motorcycling, and in this case it’s a threat assessment made by the rider himself. Some have a crash, others a scary near miss, and still others simply decide that factors such as crazy traffic and distracted drivers tilt the risk versus reward ratio too far in the wrong direction.

young familyMy experience involved a little of reason three and then reason two. My wife and I had a great time riding two-up while dating and as a young married couple. I joined the Navy, got orders to Japan, and my own personal risk assessment led me to believe that sooner or later I would go splat riding a sport bike in Japan on the "wrong" side of the road.

So, after three bikeless years, we returned stateside and my wife soon saw me perusing the classified ads. (Explanatory aside for Millennials:  "classified ads" were like the craigslist part of something called a “newspaper.")

Our discussion went something like this:

"What are you doing?" asked Beloved Wife, eyeing me suspiciously.

"Shopping for a new motorcycle," I replied.

"Who's that?" she demanded, pointing to a very small person who had followed us home from Japan.

"That's our son," I answered, getting a bad feeling about the conversational direction and tone.

"What's he going to do while you're out racing around on a motorcycle?"

"He can ride on the back with me."

"Like hell he can."

My wife had been perfectly happy to ride pillion at silly speeds around South Texas, but in Momma Bear Mode would stand for nothing of the kind with her cub. Furthermore, she expressed the bedrock-certain opinion that, given my current position as sole breadwinner for our still-expanding family, I shouldn't be on a motorcycle, either.

F/A-18 pilot

And I agreed with her. I know there are those for whom doing without motorcycles is like doing without air, but it turns out that, as much as I hate to admit it, I'm not one of them. I love motorcycles, but I love my wife and kids more, and my job at the time as a fighter pilot was inherently risky enough without adding to the chances of leaving behind a widow and young children.

What's it like to be on the outside looking in; to be an apostate rider who has not yet rejoined the congregation? I have to believe that if riding motorcycles ever struck a chord, then the yearning to return must always be there. I know I longed to ride during the 20-plus years of my hiatus. I pricked up my ears at the sound of a motorcycle engine, turned my head to watch one roll by, and walked out of my way to stand and contemplate a ride. Long-suffering Beloved Wife endured me tearing my hair and rending my garments for all of those years.

Typical dialog during my own personal Former Rider Dark Ages:

Whining Husband: "Look, that guy has a motorcycle."

Beloved Wife: “Hmm, yes."

Whining Husband: "His wife lets him have one."

Beloved Wife: “Wow, she must really love him."

In case you’re wondering, after Beloved Wife and I finished launching our kids out into the world, I finally became a Returned Rider. She morphed into a Returned Pillion, then a New Rider, and is now a Fairly Experienced Rider who admits to being a BMW snob. We now have four bikes and share them between us. Yes, there can be such a thing as Happily Ever After.

track day

It’s not too late to become a Returned Rider

Former Riders, allow me to bear witness that motorcycling is both as good as it ever was and better than ever. The bike still comes to life with the press of a button or kick of a lever, and it still wobbles a bit as you ease out the clutch and retract the landing gear. Yes, it’s just like you remember — the growl of the engine, the surge of the bike with each upshift, and the wind still buffets your helmet as the speed builds and the edges of the world begin to blur. 

You still pick a line for the upcoming curve, rev match as you downshift, tip in, make your apex, and shift your weight to set up for next curve. You’re on a marvelously exhilarating self-guided ride through space and time that most current sad souls think can exist only in the past, the future, or the movies.

Wheelie U.Yes, Luke Skywalker on his Speeder has nothing on a Current Rider who can arc through cities, deserts, and forests just by getting off the couch, gearing up, starting the bike, and leaving the driveway.  A motorcycle is more expensive than a movie ticket, but movies don't give you wind in your hair, bugs in your teeth, and experiences that come in through your gut.

And the risk? Well, dear Former Riders, I think a strong case can be made that motorcycling is, or can be, significantly safer than it was in a prior riding life. Eyesight, reflexes, and hairline may not be what they used to be, but you've (hopefully) left any Squiddish tendencies behind you along with your youth. Distracted drivers and road rage are real, but drunk drivers are less common. The gear is vastly improved and advances in the modern motorcycle itself, such as ABS and traction control, help prevent you from crashing in the first place. Not to mention training courses and books to dust off old skills. In addition, self-help through training courses, online videos and books can not only help bring you back up to speed, but make you a better rider than you were before.

Is there risk still? Of course, but without risk life is little better than a video game. Playing poker for toothpicks is pointless. There has to something meaningful on the table.

I can no longer walk into a pickup basketball game and kick butt for a few hours. Never again can I hold my newborn child, pitch batting practice to my Little Leaguer, or watch my daughter's middle school play. The Navy no longer wants me as a fighter pilot, skiing is just about done, and Beloved Wife and I aren't newlyweds anymore. But, by golly, I can still swing a leg over a motorcycle, fire it up, and launch my own personal Skywalker Speeder. With a twist of the wrist my bad shoulder, bad knee, and thinning hair are banished and it’s just like back in the day — only better.

track day

Meanwhile, back in the Pleistocene epoch

Korg tosses the last well gnawed mammoth bone on the pile and gulps brew from his gourd.

"Hey, there's a SORB over there called Lem who's banging on something called a 'wheel'."

“You know,” Grok replies, draining his gourd and belching, “I used to ride wheels, before I got married and Little Grok and his 13 sisters came along. Does he hit the big rock with the little rock, or the little with the big?"

"Mostly he smashes his fingers and yells a lot. Let's bring him a gourd and go check it out.”

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