Older Riders Returning to Motorcycles & Touring

The average age of a motorcyclist is now 48 and is trending higher. In comparison, in only 2001 the average rider’s age was 40. 

And interestingly, over 80% of motorcycles registered have either a windshield or saddlebags/racks or both installed.

These stats indicate a growing segment of mature riders that are enjoying some motorcycle touring.

Since I am a life long motorcycle enthusiast, and “older” I was interested in finding out more about the realities of older riders and motorcycles. This, especially when I read some very sensational article titles (click-bait). According to the headlines; just being older and getting on a motorcycle is as risky as it gets! My gut said, there’s more to this story, it’s not adding up. For certain when I compare my youthful “riding style” versus today, there’s definitely a huge difference in approach and risk tolerance. A useful fact is that this difference is reflected in insurance rates for one thing. And the insurance business is based on facts, not headlines.

In this post, I explore perceptions, myths that surround the mature motorcycle rider, as well as the reality. I also look at how to approach returning to motorcycles if you have been away for a while. And for those who never rode, I suggest the best ways to get into touring world without breaking the bank or any bones.

I have been “away-and-back” several times from actively riding in my life. Each time “back” had different challenges, mostly due to my age and changes to what I considered fun. To be sure I am overqualified to speak from a mature point of view – being well above the current average age of 48.

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The Headlines Scream – It’s an Epidemic!

When you Google the subject, “older motorcycle rider safety”, you will be informed that there is an “epidemic of injuries and deaths.” befalling this aging group of adventurers. When you dig in deeper reality becomes a bit more nuanced.

Yes, there are more total injuries and fatalities in the “older age” brackets, but at the same time, this demographic has grown in proportion to the overall population of motorcycle riders. Applying arithmetic, it would make sense. If a subgroup gets larger you would expect them to be represented in any statistics to a larger degree. The absolute numbers would also go up. But that doesn’t mean that relative numbers (percentage) would have increased.

However, there is a basic fact that the older bodies are not as ready for physical interactions, aka crash if it does happen. As you can imagine the older you get the more risk of injury f you do have a mishap. But on the other hand, the more mature the sensible and safe you tend to ride (having learned first hand that the ground is very hard).

There is no study that I could find that looks this directly. But the stats available point to two opposing realities. That is, younger riders are less safe riders, and older motorcyclists suffer greater potential injury the older they are. This is a logical reflection of human development and reality that we all experience.

Some facts that enforce these two realities,

  • Males in the 16-19 age bracket have 300% more accidents than those above 20 years.
  • Riders under 40 are 80% more likely to have a fatal accident versus riders above 40.
  • Those in the 40–59 years group have a 200% higher rate of hospitalization, with more severe injuries than those in the 20-29 bracket when in an accident.
  • Riders over 60 years suffer 300% higher rate of hospitalization, with more severe injuries than those in the 20-29 bracket when in an accident.

And interestingly – an estimated 40 to 60% of motorcycles are classified and used for touring, only 13% are involved in reported accidents. This relatively low number is regardless of the rider’s age. Considering the number of miles racked up by touring riders the average “incident” per mile traveled is also likely lower than average.

It seems safe to conclude that older touring riders are statistically safer than most. But, and this is a big one – if involved in an accident the older body just doesn’t do as well, and the chance of injury is higher.

Of course, there is always room to improve your odds avoiding a crash, and doing better if you get into one. Regardless of age or the category of motorcycle riding, you may be in.

First by avoiding accidents. Above all, this should be on every rider’s mind – all the time. Stop and think about it, be serious and complete – what can I do to improve my riding approach and be safer? And, what am I doing that is unsafe? (my Number One answer is – speeding / going too fast for road & traffic conditions).

Safe riding techniques, refresher training, maintaining your motorcycle properly. Knowing your limitations is important too. My night vision has never been great, So, I have my policy is to avoid riding at night if I can. And particularly not to ride on weekends after dark, when general traffic is more likely to include impaired drivers. I also try to avoid “rush hour”, or heavy commuter traffic – Friday evenings being the worst, in my opinion.

If you do get in an accident and go for a tumble, appropriate protective gear is the next line of defense. There is no getting around it, to be protected you need to be wearing it. My rule – if I am riding I am wearing my gear, no exceptions.

I review protective gear later in this post, but the most obvious item is a proper use of a safety certified helmet. And wearing it properly – not just sitting on your head, loosely strapped on. The often overused concept of “freedom” comes to mind, but having a serious head injury will overly impact your freedom too. Not to mention the misery that could be placed on your family’s freedom if they have to take care of you, possibly for decades to come. Or attend your untimely funeral. The evidence is clear – DOT approved helmets reduce the risk of brain damage and death significantly – wear one, all the time you are riding.

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Memories and Reality

After a long winter away from the open road the first day out always seems fresh and new. But after several years away this may seem more than just new, it could be overwhelming. A lot has changed even in the past decade, and the longer you’ve been away the more your skills have degraded, there is no getting around it.

A personal example – I always enjoyed off-road dirtbikes, and this was my “gateway drug” into the motorcycle world, so to speak at an early age. I was Ok skill wise, not a pro but could handle myself. Flash forward, went back to school, had kids, and so on. And then, not being in the dirt for at least a decade, or two I decided to go back, with time and enough money now available.

When I was a “kid” (at least much younger), I always dreamed of a faster machine, but couldn’t afford too much. So this time I probably overcompensated and picked up an incredibly powerful and Honda CR250 (a full racer ready motocross machine). I put on an approved spark arrestor and headed to the woods.

It was great for a while for sure. But I found the older body was not up to the stress. A few hours ride took days to recover from. I had to admit my skills were not up to this racer either. Out of control and just plain scary could describe some of my experiences with this bike. The tipping point came when another older rider gave me a pro tip – “just take a handful of aspirin before each ride”. That was obviously a really bad idea and made it clear that this segment of the sport was for a younger crowd. Although it was a blast for sure, I had to sell it before it killed me. The old body was not up to it, and it was overpowered for the intended use.

On top of that, I didn’t seem to “remember” all the work it took to load and unload the trailer, mix gas clean the bike off and do general maintenance. I am sure I did this all, back then too, but it seemed like more work than I recalled.

I was not ready to call it quits, however. I figured the bike was the problem, So next step, I got big bore four-stroke (Yamaha XT 550). Far less radical, and I could put both feet on the ground at the same time. Once again it was fun, but the stress and effort to ride was a lot. I also realized that my perception of nature had changed significantly. Ripping through the woods on a very noisy machine didn’t fit my view of the world.

If there’s any lesson to learn from this story, it’s the longer away you have been the greater the likely clash between memories and hard cold reality can be. My fond memories of youthful dirt biking met the realities of less flexibility, energy, and change in appreciation for the outdoors.

Over Confidence & Attitude

One of the most ironic and dangerous results of taking a beginner’s motorcyclist safety course is some student’s potential overconfidence, actually making them less safe! They may have navigated around a parking lot, on a very small motorcycle and did a minimal road loop, but they truly lack real-world experience. They believe that since they took a safety course they know enough to be safer, just because.

A returning motorcycle rider can fall into the same overconfidence trap. The years have passed, things have changed, you have changed and you need some adjustment time and practice to be a good rider once again. A winning attitude is that of respect for the sport and full understanding of the risks involved. Let’s face it, the risks in motorcycling are well above the average pursuit. Approach with some level of humility and fear, and have confidence in your ability to re-learn, adapt and to keep learning.

100% Newbies

I transitioned to a street bike after many years riding a dirt bike, and I think it helped me be a safer rider. Not because I went slower or followed safety rules (remember being 18?) – no, because I had experience with the dynamics of a motorcycle and how the rider’s inputs affected them. These are transferrable skills for first-time street riders.

I will admit there was one aspect that was literally a hard lesson to learn – street bikes on gravel are not like dirtbikes on gravel! So, just treat gravel like it was ice when first encountered on a street bike.

This is why I recommend that absolute first-time amateur motorcyclist starts on a mild-mannered, non-racing dirt bike, or dual-purpose (enduro for the elders reading this). Learn the basic motorcycle riding skills in a safe off-road area, at lower speeds, without car drivers to worry about.

A new rider will not only learn the basics, and practice until your reactions become second nature. The goal is to develop a fluid riding style. When you reach this level your awareness can be focused on the surrounding environment – anticipating risks, and driving defensively. Just as important, you experience first hand what not to do and the consequences of doing it.

The newbie will no doubt experience a few crashes, but will be much better off because of them. They should ultimately develop respect for the motorcycle and the hard ground in a relatively short period of time and in a much safer environment.

Taking a rider skills training course is also recommended. There you will learn directly from an experienced trainer, and get some saddle time, but it is however limited. For example, a typical 3-day safety course will have you riding for 2 of those days. Hardly enough, in my opinion, to then be released on to the streets, as a truly “safe rider”.

Fitness

The first place to start is an assessment of your current state of fitness. How physically active are you now compared to the good-old-days of motorcycling freedom? Just the act of sitting down for too many hours a day, at work, in the car or just couch surfing will do it. With the internet everywhere, it’s more tempting than ever to watch the world through a screen. In fact, I can’t even recall how I got through a whole day – in the pre-internet world!

Of course, your reaction times and agility will never be the same as when in your prime. But you can adjust and compensate for this with wisdom, experiences and less intensity out on the road (aka defensive driving). If the years have been hard on you it’s not a great idea to buy an adventure bike and head off to Alaska, as an obvious example.

This is way too personally specific to go into any specifics here. Just be aware, as humans do, the majority of us tend to overrate our skills and abilities. And we are all aging.

So, give this your full consideration, maybe a checkup with the doctor and begin an exercise program. Getting back into motorcycles is all about enjoyment and happiness, moving up a notch in physical fitness will add greatly to the fun factor. If you need an excuse to get healthier – this is one of the best one I can think of.

Riding Skills

Any skill that is built up over time will degrade if not practiced and exercised for any extended time spent away from it. Adding to this, moving into middle age usually means a natural decline in motor skills, reaction times, endurance, dexterity & flexibility. The proof is in front of us – do you see seniors battling it out on the racetrack with young upstarts at any professional events?

Fortunately, there is a base skill set you will never forget, a kind of muscle memory. Like riding a bicycle, the basics of balance, steering and pedaling become ingrained. The challenge is then how to get the needed practice in a safe way, while you gain back and tune in the needed skills. The obvious answer is to get on a motorcycle and ride.

Of course, each person has a unique situation. The challenge is to honestly evaluate your specific skills, abilities, experience.

Are you older and never been on a motorcycle? Just be aware that it is a scientific fact that the majority of people overestimate their abilities, in every aspect of life. This phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Dunning Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE) recognizes that it is typical for people to overestimate their abilities & skills. Along with an unjustified level of confidence in these abilities and the lack of awareness that we are being this way. This can lead to dangerous situations when it comes to motorcycling, an activity that can be very unforgiving.

Understanding that DKW is real, and understanding that you may not be aware of it is a start. The most effective to deal with DKE is to literally challenge assumptions in the safest and most controlled way possible.

This may be enrolling in a hands-on safety training or refresher course or starting slowly with low-intensity rides, or even getting a dirt bike and learning the basics there. Again, everyone is different and each plan will be suited to you.

To combat DKE is the start slow and to practice. While you do, take note of your skills versus what your perception was of those skills. You could ask others for their feedback too. Don’t forget that there are some good books and videos training as well.

This can apply to people who have been continuously riding. Come springtime it pays to approach your first ride with the same approach. After a long winter, you should a need to take it easy until you are dial in again.

Bigger, Faster, Better

Motorcycles have always had high power to weight ratio (PWR), in other words, they are fast. And they have always been faster than most cars on the road at anytime. In fact, I ‘ve read that in the 1950’s it was standard police procedure in the UK to not to chase a motorbike. So, even way back then the low horsepower heavyweights of the day were speed demons.

Today’s machines are far more integrated and have substantially more power across most categories and engine sizes. Touring motorcycles have generally got heavier requiring more power to move the increased bulk.

For example, a current Honda Gold Wing GL1800 is around 116 lbs (17% ) heavier than a fully touring equipped 1980’s era GL1100. But the GL1800’s horsepower went up a lot more to compensate for the added weight. The new Gold Wing ends up with 25% more horsepower for each pound of bike it has to move. Bigger and faster – no doubt.

So, it’s much easier and faster to reach the limits of road & traffic conditions, and a rider’s skill than ever before. Returning riders should be keenly aware of this new reality, and approach today’s equipment with respect and initial prudence. For the first-timer, the proper selection of your first motorcycle is just as important. Fortunately, a lot of motorcycles now come with computer-controlled power limiters (reducing power to the rear wheel depending on setting selected).

Rider comfort has been greatly improved – achieved mostly by further isolating the rider from the road and motorcycle. The negative side of this progress is the very fact that reduced “road feel” leaves the rider with fewer inputs. This can be subtle. If you have ever had the experience of graduating from an economy car to a vehicle that is more refined and quiet inside. I am sure you had the experience of gradually going faster and faster and without realizing it when you are going way too fast.

Motorcycles are becoming more complex, and at the high end of the touring market, they are getting heavier too. The bulk can be hidden by clever engineering, moving the center of gravity lower. Complexity is OK until comes time to repair and maintain it all. Fortunately, modern motorcycles seem to have become far more reliable, as they inherit technology from the automotive world.

Wrapping this section up – I am in no way pining for the past. I do not miss the rough edges and typically higher vibration levels of bikes from the “good old days”. Just want to get across the fact the across-the-board performance has taken a huge step up, and a new or returning rider just needs to be aware.

Return of Old Faithful

You may have a decent machine in storage that is fit for the purpose. Maybe some cleaning, tuning, and a little refurbing are all that’s needed. Now, this all depends, on how long and how well was it stored away. Just parked and forgotten decades ago, then it will be more complicated.

You will need of course to honestly evaluate what condition your stored away motorbike it is in, and what’s needed to get it road-ready and safe. If your “previously enjoyed” ride is literally a pile of parts, or was parked because of a major mechanical failure a new or newer purchase might be the most economical and quickest path to enjoying the open road again.

I have found that I chronically underestimate the cost and time required to transform an older motorcycle that I have “miraculously discovered” (DKE of the DIY?). I think (and hope) I have been cured of the basket case to road burner fantasy. I blame Youtube, they make it loos so easy. Time after time the reality is that the costs and time far exceeded my first optimistic estimates. I will admit that I ran out of time and interest, as well as the shifting sands of life a number of times now. In the end I just sold off the basket cases to the next eager beaver.

Even if money is no object, time is an important consideration. It will probably take much longer than you expect or plan on, even if you farm out the entire rebuild or refurbishment. This is time that could have been spent enjoying the open road. These two words say it all, tick-tock!

If you do have a suitable motorcycle in storage then do an assessment, determine what is needed, sketch out a plan/budget and get started.

Your tires, for example, are very likely expired and have reached the recommended age limits (I discuss tire age limits, here). If your motorcycle was stored properly and will start up with not too much fuss, then a thorough inspection and standard maintenance are appropriate. I go into depth and detail what to do in my post, Best Way to Bring Your Motorcycle Out of Storage.

Old Riding Gear

If you have a motorcycle stored away you may also still have your old riding gear. While there is certainly nothing wrong with bringing out a classic leather motorcycle jacket, boots or gloves – be aware of your old helmet. As with tires, helmets have a limited life span and the clock starts from their date of manufacture. For more details, I suggest reading my post on helmets here. In brief, if your old “skid-lid” has a manufacturer’s date older than 5 years ago, it is considered expired and not safe. Time to shop for a shiny new one. Aside note – never buy a used helmet, unless you can trust the seller and can verify its condition first hand.

Personally, I never ride without a helmet, boots glove and a sturdy Bristol leather jacket. I considered that a good combination and always felt safe enough.

But I recently was made aware of a pretty gruesome and eye-opening measurement. It’s how long a material lasts while being abraided by a typical road surface. Up to now, I have always worn standard blue jeans, not giving this a second thought. But common jeans provide practically no protect at all if you ever happen to be sliding on the road surface. So I am looking for an upgrade to motorcycle riding pants. They are not cheap, but my skin is priceless to me.

Doing a quick look around online for riding pants – there are some interesting composite material, hybrid designs. You are not stuck with sweaty, squeaky leather pants or even riding chaps (which are always an odd “fashion statement” when away from your motorcycle). I also like the benefits of hard plastic inserts for increased protection typically for your kneecaps.

Things That Have Not Changed

To no one’s surprise – bad drivers are still a problem.

While statistics indicate that alcohol-related impaired driving is on the decline, distracted driving is an emerging problem. Mobile devices and in-car entertainment systems contribute to drivers not paying full attention. Your best defense is focus and awareness, and taking appropriate actions is the best defense. It is your ultimate responsibility to watch out for other drivers, never assume they see you, always keep a safe buffer zone, and be ready to avoid an unexpected or plain stupid move from other motorists.

Touring by definition is a vacation, you are free to choose the road, time and day of the week you travel on. It is the opposite of commuting to an office and having to arrive at the same time every day. You may have a goal to reach a distant location by a certain time or date, but consider adding some slack to your schedule and enjoy the journey.

As mentioned earlier, I prefer daylight riding, on weekdays, and avoid any commuter traffic. On top of this, I avoid dusk, dawn travel – where you are either riding into or out of the sun. Even on low traffic rural roads, it only takes that one vehicle that doesn’t see you, to change your life forever.

The Plan

This topic has so many variables and moving parts it’s impossible to talk about a standard plan, other than high-level steps. But a plan, even a simple one will be a huge benefit. The mere exercise of writing down all the knowns, and steps to investigate the unknowns will focus your thoughts and no doubt bring up things you hadn’t considered.

The relatively easy part of planning is the physical side. Start with your physical condition, your health. Are you ready for some of the extra effort required to ride again? Do not discount this, memories are great but that was a very different person you are recalling, and we all tend to recall the best moments.

You will need a motorcycle – retrieve your old ride from storage, buy used or new (leasing is probably a thing too). You may be able to borrow a motorcycle from a friend or relative. Renting for a weekend, or more is also a good option. Especially if you think you want a machine similar to the one you can rent. Rental costs are minimal compared to buying then concluding that motorcycles are not your thing anymore (depreciation and timing contribute to you losing money).

The harder part of The Plan is the mental side. You have changed, do not discount this. For example, I recently got out on the road one fine spring day and noticed the wind noise seemed incredibly loud. I had the same helmet, same bike, going down the same road – but my perception had changed after a long winter of quiet I guess. Very odd, considering my hearing has degraded for sure, but it was not comfortable, in fact, it seemed downright deafening (switching to a full-face helmet should work fine).

Choosing a Motorcycle

There has never been a better selection of purpose-built motorcycles available new and used. This does make a selection a lot harder, but that’s a “happy problem”, as they say.

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The type and size of motorcycle you select should be directly related to your experience and intended use (and budget too!). You do not necessarily need a fully equipped heavyweight to tour on. If you intend to only roam the backroads and take “local “trips, or you are just trying out touring, something less may do very well. If your current machine can cruise comfortably then maybe adding a windshield and some luggage carrying capacity is all that you need.

There are of course variants of traditional touring to consider also. One being Sport Touring segment. As the name implies a sport touring motorcycle is more oriented towards going faster on twisty roads. The Yamaha FJ series is a good example of the concept, as are many BMWs.

Another currently popular niche is Adventure Touring. This is a mix of road and limited off-roading. These motorcycles are typically larger cc single or two-cylinder designs with semi-off road tires and more suspension travel Their actual off-road capabilities are questionable. They are more suited to secondary, gravel or logging roads since they are pretty heavy to maneuver in true off-road conditions.

For most, straight-up road touring is on the menu.

Different Approaches

Once again, one size can’t fit all. In this section, I just list some ideas of how to approach “getting back” into motorcycles and going touring.

For the absolute beginner – I would not recommend investing in a new motorcycle, there are lots of decent older machines out there. You will be scrapping, denting and potentially dropping this motorcycle. All the more reason to get a used and smaller machine. I recommended a name brand, that can be re-sold without too much difficulty when you are ready to upgrade or move on to something else.

If you have always been a speed freak, then a Sport Tourer may do you well. These machines can be used happily for just fun, short-distance weekend rides. Many have detachable hard luggage and top boxes too.

I mentioned taking out a rental before. There’s a lot to be said for heading out on a long weekend on a motorcycle you are considering. The extended time in the saddle allows you to really get a feel for the model. These days not only the big Harley FL’s and Honda Gold Wings are available, now Uber has a service that allows people to rent out what they own. I have seen adventure bikes, sport-touring machines as well as small on-off road bikes being offered. Truly a try before you buy situation.

Dealers do offer test ride events. But unless they allow you to roam unsupervised I think they are of limited value. These days you usually see a group of potential buyers on new motorcycles being marshaled parade-style, on predefined routes and at limited speeds. These “test rides” have become slightly more exciting extensions of simply sitting on the bike in a showroom. In other words, very limited for judging how well any particular model will suit you.

Borrow a friends bike. This would need to be a friend that trust you of course. Maybe you can strike a deal, you pay for a new set of tires and borrow the ride for a week’s tour.

From a cost perspective, a 3-5 plus years older motorcycle already has had significant price depreciation occur. It will not only lower priced when you are buying, but the resale value also will be relatively less over these years on the depreciation curve. The trick is to find a well cared for machine that has had proper care and many consumable items recently replaced (brakes, tires and know model issues fixed/upgraded).

I am seeing a lot more used bike ads that are along the lines of “too old to ride”, and more frequently see estate sales popping up. This makes sense since the touring segment generally attracts a more mature crowd. Along with the rise in the average age of motorcycle enthusiasts. This adds up to some serious bargains for the smart shopper.

Insurance

Don’t forget about this little item. You may have a bit of sticker shock, especially if you do not have current motorcycle insurance.

Most, if not all insurance companies don’t care if you are mature and an experienced rider. They want a recent driving record to base your rates on. So if you have been away (have not been insured for a motorcycle), you will likely be paying a hefty premium for at least the first 6 months back on the road.

But once you “prove” yourself (no accidents or claims), your rates will drop significantly. As a mature rider, in a relatively safer motorcycling niche, your rates should be back to “Five Star” once again.

I’ve also discovered that my insurance company, which I was with for a very long time had become uncompetitive. Even with all the supposed discounts, they were much higher than the competition. So don’t take it for granted that any long association with an insurer equals the best deal possible.

Plan B – Exit Strategy

I like the concept of an exit strategy. Let’s say your memories or expectations don’t live up to the realities of touring. Or things change in your life. Maybe you would rather do your touring in an RV, or car, that’s perfectly OK and even likely at some point.

My strategy would be to go with used, don’t overdo buying gear, gizmos and accessories until you are sure touring is going to be something you want to do over and over. I would highly recommend going with a mainstream model and manufacturer. Machines like any Gold Wing, FL series Harleys or Yamaha Venture line are all prime examples, popular and in-demand and fairly easy to resell. These leaders have also known reliability records and their quirks are well documented in the public record (with DIY fixes, and even aftermarket supplied solutions).

Summing It Up

Everyone has such a unique situation I have probably gone into too much detail for many readers. But in summary, the first place to start is evaluating yourself, your experience and your desires, also time and funds available. Make a simple plan, what has to happen first, then what comes next?

Get back into motorcycles in measured steps, maybe a little slower than you expected, but above all do things safely. Take a skills upgrading course if that makes sense for you. Books and videos on the topic are a good option also. Invest in a good helmet and other protective gear, and wear it. Just remember – older riders don’t bounce as well as the young ones do.

Choose your re-entry motorcycle carefully. If it’s one you already have make it roadworthy and do not cut corners. If you need/want another motorcycle always consider its resale from the start.

The common theme is – don’t overdo it, step into it with a basic plan, play it safe. And once you are “back in the saddle” and eager for more, then look at upgrading your ride and gear. Never think you are done learning to ride either, there is always some skill or knowledge that can be improved.