Easy Rider

Even if you've never ridden before, it's high time to experience the joy of motorcycling.
Author:
Publish date:

Richard Greene flew commercial airplanes for 37 years, and today he operates a successful flight school in northern New Jersey. Three years ago, he retired as a captain for American Airlines, and with that transition he had an epiphany. "I never saw the world from the ground," he said. "All I did was fly."

At age 60, Greene's desire to see the world from a different perspective took him in a new direction. Around that time, a trip to Bermuda introduced Greene and his wife Christine to mopeds. He enjoyed the mode of travel so much that he bought a moped as soon as they returned home.

But he soon found that the moped could not fully satisfy his desire to see the world from the ground, so he then took the next step -- buying a

Harley-Davidson

(HDI)

motorcycle.

It was official: Richard had become a biker. But truthfully, tall and distinguished as he appears, he doesn't exactly look the part. Then again, many riders don't.

"There are a lot of strange ideas about motorcycles, but it really is a classy endeavor," says Greene, who with his wife rides year-round whenever their schedules and weather permit.

Christine Greene, who is also certified to fly and runs the flight school with Richard, started riding motorcycles around the time her husband did. She agrees that it is an ideal way to travel.

"You see the world differently, and it makes you feel more alive," she explains. "The grass is greener, your senses are heightened, yet it's relaxing."

The Greenes are among a growing number of Americans who are experiencing the exhilaration of motorcycling.

While the image of a free-spirited, antiestablishment rebel on a bike may still exist in our collective consciousness, the motorcycle demographic has changed.

Nowadays, when you peek underneath his or her leather-clad exterior, the biker you see may be a pilot or a lawyer, a man or a woman, a twenty-something or a Baby Boomer. What they all have in common is passion for the freedom and adventure that have long characterized motorcycle riding.

A Zen Experience

Carol Dworkin of Morris County, N.J., first felt the lure of motorcycling two years ago.

She had never ridden a bike in her life, but Dworkin, a purchasing agent in the fragrance and flavor industry, was dating a man who owned one. After taking her first ride with him, she was hooked. The relationship didn't last, but her love affair with motorcycles had begun.

"I thought I was in love with him, but it turned out I was in love with his bike," she said.

After the breakup, Dworkin, who has an affinity for museums, classical music and antiques, bought a motorcycle of her own and took riding lessons. Now after long and often stressful days at work, she says she has found the perfect outlet to help her decompress -- she straps on her helmet, climbs on her motorcycle and heads home.

"Riding is a very Zen experience," she said, "You need to concentrate on the road and focus on getting the bike to go where you want it to go. You're totally engaged in what you're doing."

Ready to Ride?

Could there be a motorcycle in your future? If the journey excites you more than the destination, the answer may be yes. There are models, sizes and price tags to accommodate every lifestyle, as well as a vast range of riding clubs and endless places to go.

When you're ready to ride on your own, consider a starter bike that is smaller and lighter than other models.

Richard Greene's first bike was a Harley-Davidson Sportster, which weighs about 550 pounds. Today he rides an Ultra Classic Electra Glide, which, at 800 pounds, is the biggest touring bike Harley makes. Christine learned to ride on a small

Honda

(HMC) - Get Report

, and has since moved up to the Harley Sportster that was her husband's first bike.

Dworkin's first motorcycle was a small Suzuki, and now she rides a Kawasaki Vulcan 800 Classic. "My current bike is about the same size as a Harley-Davidson Sportster. Most women I know ride this size," she said.

As you explore the various makes and models of motorcycles, check out all the options. Body and engine types, color preferences, chrome accents and accessories are among the choices, allowing you to customize as little or as much as you want, depending on your budget.

For example, the base price for Harley's Ultra Classic Electra Glide is just under $20,000, but with upgrades, Richard Greene's bike cost him close to $40,000. Before you go to a dealership, a visit to most of the major motorcycle manufacturers' Websites will allow you to virtually build your machine from the ground up and see the corresponding cost.

If vintage bikes excite you, check out the

Antique Motorcycle Club of America. With 40 local chapters across the U.S., the club provides opportunities to ride, exhibit and find parts if you're restoring an antique motorcycle (by the club's definition, over 35 years old).

Riders who want a new bike but crave a vintage look can purchase a new version of an old classic, such as the Triumph Bonneville, billed by the company as "the classic speedster of the Sixties."

Safety First

Before you hit the road, a motorcycle safety course should absolutely be on your agenda. Dworkin took a two-day beginner's safety course and believes it was well worth it. "In the morning there was a book and a test, and in the afternoon we were on bikes and practiced things like riding over obstacles, downshifting, turning in tight places, and stopping short," she said. "It prepares you for a lot of different experiences."

Safety courses are easy to find. A good place to start is the

Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), a national nonprofit organization sponsored by major motorcycle manufacturers.

The MSF RiderCourse is offered across the country. In more than 20 states, completion of the RiderCourse allows you to waive some portion of the motorcycle-endorsement test and may make you eligible for discounts on insurance premiums. Most rider-safety courses for beginners are offered for a nominal fee and motorcycles are provided; advanced safety courses are available for more seasoned riders.

Now Hit the Road

Once you get your bike, where do you want to go? Investing in a global positioning system can lead you to the nicest rides, whether near or far from home. "We tell our Harley GPS 'no highways' and it takes us along back roads," says Christine Greene. "We're pretty conservative, and just like to go out and take it easy. Washington, D.C., is the longest trip we've taken so far. We plan to ride to Vermont this year, and hope to go to the

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and the Blue Ridge Mountains some day."

A growing number of riders are enlisting the services of motorcycle-tour operators such as

EagleRider Motorcycle Rental, which provides bike rentals and guided tours in the U.S. and Europe. If you wish to plan your own trip, pick up a book like the

AMA Ride Guide to America: Favorite Motorcycle Tours in the U.S.A.

, by Greg Harrison, which offers maps and narratives of 36 trips you can take across America.

Don't want to ride alone? Join a club! Motorcycle clubs offer the opportunity to take all types of trips with a group of your choosing. There are clubs catering to diverse lifestyles and backgrounds, such as family-oriented, women only and military vets, among many others. Websites like the

American Motorcyclist Association and

Motorcycle Clubs Index can help you find the right club to accommodate your needs.

Anne McDarby is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. Her professional experience includes work as a newspaper reporter and editor in northern New Jersey and more than 15 years in health care public relations and marketing.