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Boomers Swell Ranks of Aging Bikers

November 16, 1998

MONTEREY, Calif. (AP) _ It’s a typical day at the California Superbike School.

Young racer wannabes are stuffing themselves into fluorescent leather suits, eagerly awaiting a chance to climb aboard the two-wheeled missiles that accelerate quicker than any production car and can top 150 mph.

Mixed in with the youngsters at Laguna Seca Raceway just outside this resort town on the California coast are several riders who ...

How to put this?

They’re geezers. Gray hair. Or no hair. Bifocals. Guys who should be flailing at golf balls, not hugging motorcycles and dragging their knees around asphalt corners at escape velocity.

Don’t tell that to Barry Ellman, a 53-year-old vascular surgeon from Scotch Plains, N.J., who’s been riding for 35 years. He’s seen the damage a lapse in concentration or a dozing motorist can do to a motorcyclist, but he still loves to ride.

``As a doctor, I’ve seen a lot of terrible things happen to people,″ he said while awaiting his turn on the track. ``I’m going to have as much fun as I can.″

Bob Cole, 50, is a fireman in Santa Clara. As he tucked shaggy gray hair inside a helmet, he said he has ``always had a need for speed, the adrenaline rush.″

``I love bikes, I still feel like a kid, and I don’t see any time I’m going to slow down just because of age.″

So, are bikers really getting older?

Keith Code, who runs the riding school, thinks so. In that over-50 group himself, he says the average age of students has risen from 24 in the early 1980s to 37 now.

``Baby boomers are the biggest group in the population now,″ he said. ``The kids are gone, disposable income is up, and when they get into bikes, they want to do it right.″

Bill Wood agrees. He’s the managing editor of American Motorcyclist, a monthly magazine published by the American Motorcyclist Association for its 225,000-plus members.

``Yes, there’s no question about it, for better or worse. Our surveys have indicated that our membership’s average age is now about 44,″ Wood said.

``What we have seen is not necessarily people starting out for the first time,″ he said. ``We’re seeing re-entry riders, people who had motorcycles as teens or young adults and got out.

``Now, their kids are in college or married. And they are in a position to enjoy some of the recreation they enjoyed a long time ago.″

Other details of the AMA’s survey: The average member is married, has attended college and has a household income of more than $63,000. Seventy-five percent paid for their bikes in cash _ no mean feat when even the most basic machine can cost $5,000 and top-of-the-line touring bikes are pushing $20,000. Some 91 percent are men.

The most noticeable trend _ the average age of riders has gone up 5 1/2 years in the last eight years.

Another trend _ more and more women are behind the handlebars, as shown by membership rolls of the Harley Owners Group, a 15-year-old club sponsored by the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. in Milwaukee, with chapters around the world.

``Once upon a time, HOG was predominately a male-oriented group, but that has really changed,″ said Harley spokesman Chris Romoser. ``What we are finding is members are coming from all parts of the demographic scale. Ten years ago, only one in 100 new Harleys were sold to women. That’s up to one in 10 now.

``One way we look at it, our lives are so time-compressed, a motorcycle is something you can take a half-hour vacation on,″ he added. ``That appeal of independence and freedom is universal.″

Nelson Powell is another riding doctor, a head and neck surgeon at Stanford University Hospital who admits only to being in his 50s. Powell, wearing high-end leathers in orange and gray, drove to the track in a vast blue and tan motor home. He often uses it to take one of his more than half-dozen bikes to a track, although today he’s riding one of the school’s machines.

``I love to ride things that go fast,″ he said, ``but I like to do it in the safest possible manner. I go to schools and I learn to ride with professionals.″

Powell is unusual in that he does most of his riding at schools or open track days. He owns a small fleet of exotic imports that can’t be used on the highway, like the Italian Aprilia, and he uses them to test himself against race courses.

``I don’t think much about crashing any more,″ he said, ``but I’ve learned never to get rid of the fear.″

He’s going to keep riding, that’s for sure.

``I’m not the kind of guy to hit a golf ball and then spend an hour looking for it.″


EDITOR’S NOTE _ AP Writer William Schiffmann, 53, rides a Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide.

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