From Bikes to Trikes
By Jim Boles
Older riders, what type of motorcycle are they looking for? The purpose of this article is to start a dialogue, share information and educate motorcycle and accessory manufacturers about the needs of the older rider or the rider with physical limitations. Due to the Motorcycle Safety Improvement Plan1 there have been many recent articles about the accident-prone aging rider. However, further study of this issue has shown that the accident rate figures parallel the large number of baby boomers moving into their middle and senior years. So, the older riders are not more likely to have an accident on a per capita basis. If motorcycles could be modified to accommodate these riders, significant safety issues would be addressed, a large marketing opportunity can be realized, and we may get better motorcycles in the process.
Effects of Aging
"While many older riders reported being generally unaffected by physical changes, most were aware of declining capacity. The most common categories of problems were strength, endurance, vision, orthopedic problems and reaction time. Awareness of diminishing strength was usually presented in terms of being less able to pick up a fallen bike or to hold up one as it was falling over. A few riders expressed the need for a lighter or lower bike than they would otherwise prefer."2
This rider is anyone who may need some modification to a stock bike to continue to ride comfortably. They may be older and experiencing some of the physical effects of aging or have an injury that makes getting on and off taller seats difficult.
As I visit motorcycle shops, scan dozens of web pages, read magazines, and talk to fellow riders, I am finding frustration with most of the motorcycles available. As riders adjust to aging, the first step is to modify their existing bike by installing lower shocks, cutting down the stock seat or purchasing an aftermarket seat. Many then turn to cruisers for their low seat height, but the heavy weight can be a problem. Also, unless the cruiser is a H-D, BMW, Moto Guzzi, or Triumph there is a certain amount of old road-dog pride lost when the motorcycle veteran turns up on a small Japanese bike.
Stan roared up to the BMW Rally on his Yamaha Cruiser, his old Harley was at home with a carburetor problem. He slowly lifted his leg over the V-Star's low seat and explained to onlookers, "It's all that I need. I looked at bigger ones but this is enough." A Yamaha V-Star did not have much credibility at this gathering of BMW enthusiasts, but most knew that Stan had owned many bikes including BMW's but he couldn't ride them anymore, they were too tall. A few minutes later Len pulled in with his Goldwing trike and easily slid off the low stable cycle. His BMW twin was for sale; even with its lower seat it no longer felt as safe.
The measurements given by manufacturers will only give you an idea of how a seat may work for you. The width of the seat, suspension and floorboards also are a factor in getting your feet on the ground. The best way is to get on the bike with your weight on the seat. I know of three BMW owners who have replaced stock rear shocks with short custom shocks that resulted in a taller seat height than with the old standard shocks. Why? The older original shock, no doubt worn, was lower than the new lower shock, with the rider in the seat. One bike was sold, one has the old shocks back on, and one is too tall for the rider.
I have seen seats quickly modified by vendors at shows. Part of the stock foam is cut away and replaced by a gel insert, and the seat is then put back together with the original cover. The seat can be lowered .5" - 1". The whole process may only take two hours. These services are also available by shipping your seat. Corbin and other seat manufacturers offer lower replacement seats.
The Perfect Motorcycle
As we all know, there is no perfect motorcycle for all purposes, so what are these riders looking for? First, they want access to existing new Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Suzuki motorcycles, especially standards and the dual-purpose bikes. They are light and fast, the cost is right, and the benefits of new technology are there in the brakes and handling. These bikes don't fit at present because they need an adjustable seat, adjustable suspensions, adjustable handlebars and levers (BMW has the right idea with its line up of adjustable seats, but they need to drop another 2 inches). The passenger's seat needs to be on the same height as the rider's seat; those high passenger seats do nothing for balance and contribute to top heaviness.
Second, they would like Japanese and American cruisers that are lighter in weight. The seat height is great, the ride and performance are improving rapidly, but most cruisers are too heavy. The older rider is looking for the same type of bike that many experienced riders want, young and old, male and female. There are some current bikes available that could be a good choice for this group:
I am hoping that this article will encourage riders to add suitable bikes to the list.
Cycle Scoots and Scoot Cycles
Have you seen the new large Honda and Suzuki Scooters? With automatic transmissions and easy highway speed, they can ride two up with maximum weather protection and little effort. Many of the older riders, especially those with physical limitations, such as a bad back, have been riding the Honda Helix, a 250cc automatic scooter that easily cruises at 65, sold in the U.S. since the mid-80's.
My look at the future shows a blending of the scooter and the motorcycle. Are you ready for a 100-hp scooter/cycle like Vetter's Defiant, with automatic transmission, very low seat height, low weight, and a big Harley engine? How about the Suzuki Burgman scooter with its 650cc twin cylinder engine, 5-speed push button automatic transmission, and over 100-mph top speed? Look at the new Honda FSC 600 Silverwing scooter; displacing 600 cc it will easily cruise with most motorcycles. Or Dan Gurney's scooter-like Alligator motorcycle with its lightweight and low seating position.
Put a Honda Goldwing (which is almost a scooter now) on a strict diet, reducing its weight to 500 pounds, add an optional automatic transmission, and you would have a perfect motorcycle/motor scooter. I don't know what to call it--a cyclescoot, a scootcycle? There have been some scooters and motorcycles that have had characteristics of both, with some automobile features as well, such as the Honda Pacific Coast. The Moto Guzzi V1000 Convert was a standard Moto Guzzi with added features and an automatic transmission. Honda has made several motorcycles with automatic transmissions. These include the 750A (a four cylinder bike from the 70's), and a 400cc twin. Both Moto Guzzi and Honda offered a similar bike with manual transmission, so there was an option. There are many good sources for possible new and used motorcycles. Web sites listing bikes for the new rider (like this one), women's' motorcycle magazines and web sites, and the Complete Idiots Guide to Motorcycles.3
Many of these older riders have ridden the biggest and the best, Indians, Harleys, Brit. bikes and BMW twins. The thought of riding a little bike or a scooter is not attractive yet they do not want to give up their hobby and sport. The ideal bike would be a lightweight (375-490 pounds) motorcycle with a low center of gravity, good handling, a smooth and powerful engine, a low adjustable seat (26-29 inches), good passenger seating, and adjustable handlebars, foot controls, and levers. And let's throw in easy maintenance and reasonable cost.
Experienced riders would like to stick to a familiar brand of motorcycle because of loyalty, a dealer, or a group they ride with. Ideally, all companies should have models with the characteristics discussed in this article. Is this too much to ask? It must be, because I don't think such a bike exists. If there are bikes out there with these characteristics, let's hear about them.
1 The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, June 2001.
2 Francis D. Glamser, Older Motorcyclists: Continuity or Change? Department of Anthropology and Sociology, The University of Southern Mississippi [revision of a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Mid South Sociological Association, Jackson, Mississippi, November 1999]
3 Editors of Motorcyclist Magazine with Darwin Holmstrom, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motorcycles, Primedia Enterprises, Inc., 2002
Copyright 2002 by Jim Boles. All rights reserved.