A New Bike For The Older Rider

Purchasing A New Bike for The Older Rider.

Ah, the joys of living to a ripe old age. Or at least riper.  I just turned 69, a fine number for a figurative waving of a middle finger to all the well-meaning folks who told me I’d kill myself when I started riding motorcycles almost a half a century ago.  500 plus bikes ridden many hundreds of thousands of miles later, I can say “Oh yeah?  Tell that to the right knee I screwed up back when I thought I could play basketball.”  Or something like that.

However, the piper must be paid.  Aging will have at least two effects.

For one thing, your tastes change. For a long time I wanted to own the fastest bike I could afford, and I wanted to look fast.  I was never was as fast as I wanted to look, but the ego must be served.

I’ve now been there and done that. I’ve owned bikes with almost 200hp  (Kawasaki ZX 12R), a bike that was a thinly disguised superbike  (Muzzy Raptor) and ridden thousands of miles on a BMW K1300S, BMW S 1000RR, and many other high-powered bikes.

I’ve ridden to the edge of my limited abilities several times, and have been fortunate to pay the price for exceeding them only once.  That was in 1969. A self-induced accident destroyed my first bike, a 1965 Yamaha 250cc YDS3 that deserved a better fate. The separated collarbone was a small price to pay for the lesson that adrenaline and enthusiasm do not trump physics combined with a lack of experience and common sense. 

I’ve noticed in the past few years that very seldom am I trying all that hard any more, but with increases in experience and some training I’m about as fast over distance as I ever was.  But much safer.  And more relaxed.

As a younger rider, I was willing to put up with some discomfort to enjoy all this. A Muzzy Raptor has a suspension similar to granite unless you’re traveling over 85 mph. A BMW S 1000RR is comfy as far as super sports bikes go, but still requires a crunched up position with the knees tucked up high. As you age, the dictates of performance bikes begin to pall, just as your body is less willing to adapt.  Eventually, the wear and tear of the years takes a toll, even accounting for the days at the gym each week that keep me in relatively good health.  The first sign of old age is the physical where the doctor sums up a complete physical with the words “You’re in great shape, FOR A MAN YOUR AGE.”


Which gets us to the physical aspects. In the past year my right knee, a veteran of two operations, has gradually been evolving toward the status of a problem. Most of the little things that keep things sliding smoothly inside have been removed or have eroded away, or evanesced, or something.  It’s not likely to get better.  The occasional Aleve keeps the swelling at bay. 

An artificial knee may be out there, but who knows?

A few years ago I was having a lot of trouble with my left elbow. Swelling, a lot of of fluid, etc. After having it drained, twice, an MRI was taken. I’d severed both tendons in my left elbow, without ever being aware of it. I have nothing more than a couple of weak guesses as to when and how this occurred. Oddly, the elbow problem seems to have gone away. I have no idea why. But it might come back.  Surgery could repair it.  Maybe.

Your results will differ, depending on how much punishment you’ve meted out to the physical abilities you were born with, but we all share the fact that aging is going to take a toll.  You can’t predict when or what the cost to you will be, and in some cases what you did to create the problem will be a mystery.

The effect of my knee has been that at times riding my Speed Triple has given me pause. On a bad day I’m not completely sure that when I throw my leg over the seat and straighten up the bike my right knee will not crumple and send me and the bike crashing to the ground. Hasn’t happened, but the thought is there.

What to do?

Be mindful of what you’re doing when you get on the bike for one thing.  But still, it is a concern.

Some time ago I began to think along the lines of getting a bike that I could ride for as many more years as possible with fewer concerns that physical issues would get in the way.  Something with a lower seat height that weighs a bit less than my Speed Triple, for instance. I did not want to get a “slow” bike necessarily, or a cruiser. 

Here we shall pause to consider personal taste. In this country, motorcycles are in the majority purchased as a matter of personal expression.   They are, to some extent, toys.  What’s your passion?

What got you interested in motorcycles in the first place?  For many it was a father or older brother or some other relative. In many cases, the motorcycle they rode, and perhaps gave you a ride on, became imprinted on your brain and that, for you, will define “motorcycle” for the rest of your days.

There are thousands of people, for example, who consider a Harley-Davidson to be the only “real” motorcycle. Back in the 1960s Honda sold several million motorcycles to people who would not allow their son or daughter to ride a “motorcycle,” but a Honda was OK.

This is why you so often hear comments from people who are otherwise intelligent to the effect that they cannot understand why some people like fill in this space with any brand or type of motorcycle.  The reason is, almost invariably, that they have never ridden one of “those.

The greatest education I received about motorcycles came from the greatest job perk in the history of the motorcycle world. For fourteen years I was encouraged by the management of the dealership I worked for to ride – everything. For the first few years especially I took a different motorcycle home almost every night,  up to fifty different motorcycles a year.  I learned, very quickly, that motorcycles are designed by engineers to fit a particular market segment.  If you ride the bike thinking about who it was designed for, after a while you will “get it” and come to appreciate what the bike can do.  Most of them are wonderful designs, if you take the time to ponder what the intent was in the first place.

The first time I rode a Moto Guzzi I thought it was the strangest contraption ever. Ever control, every action, every movement and even the sound, everything was alien. Sort of like a farm tractor on two wheels.  But after about 20 miles I got it, and after 100 I loved it.  A few years later I almost bought one.

People who have never ridden Harleys think they are slow and rattly mastodons that cannot corner any better than a 1948 Buick.  This impression will be strengthened the first time you ride one, as compared with many bikes that is exactly what they are.  Given time, you will begin to understand the charm.   Harleys taught me the great joy of a ride where you are not trying to go fast, but simply enjoying riding on a beautiful bike and watching the scenery, while listening to a mesmerizing sound that fills you with confidence that everything will be OK.  I think they are linked to our limbic system in some way.  You will feel elated at the end of the ride, even though there was absolutely nothing special about it.

Of course, this is not true of all motorcycles. The 1977 Harley “CR,” which was their attempt at a café racer, looked spectacular and sounded great, but the steering was so slow and heavy I almost rode it off the road. It wouldn’t turn.  I rode a Harley chopper for two days that was so unbalanced to get the huge rear tire to fit that it leaned several degrees to the left while going in a straight line. It did corner well going left, of course, except that it had no ground clearance. Turning right was a wrestling match between ride and bike.  And so on.

The point (hurray – a point!) is that what you think you want may have been formed very early, and you might want to be open to a new idea or two.  Since I grew up in Minnesota (where motorcycles were fairly rare) in a home where nobody cared about motorcycles, my first notions were formed by reading Cycle World magazine every month. Several times.

Cycle World carried many articles about road racing.  Ergo – I wanted to be a road racer.   Of course, I simplify, but you get the point. What bike got you going, and does it still affect your choices?

One of the great benefits of aging is that you learn what you want in a motorcycle and what you do not want, and you care less and less what others think.  Let’s go shopping, and ponder some of our choices.

Cooling:  For decades almost all motorcycle engines were air-cooled, and they still call out to some. They tend to be simpler and lighter, and visually more appealing to many.  The downside is that they have a harder and harder time meeting increasingly stringent noise and pollution regs, especially when combined with the human desires for more of everything, which leads to more weight.

If you opt for water cooling, especially when combined with electronic fuel injection, there are many positives. More power, greater reliability, less pollution, and so on.  Electric fuel injection brings the potential for an entire suite of further electric aids, such a traction control, various engine operation modes, heated grips, cruise control, and more.

So first of all, what do you want your new bike to look like?  Jay Leno has been quoted as saying that a “real” motorcycle is one you can see through, and that resonates with me. A lot of modern bikes have “mass centralization,” which makes a lot of sense from an engineering point of view, but the appearance tends to come to a solid wall of stuff viewed from the side. The simplicity of the appearance and mechanicals of the bikes of your youth will fight with the appeal of modern technology.  Imagine a graph with a horizontal axis of old-school looks on one side and modern appearance on the other, with a vertical axis of cost. This will give you four quadrants, and you can place all the bikes on your “maybe” list into one of the quadrants.

What do you want your bike to sound like? Road tests never cover this, as music appreciation lies in the ear of the beholder. For some the “potato potato” of a Harley V-twin is the only sound they like.  I love the sound of a triple engine, especially with some mild enhancements, while you might prefer the smooth whir of a four or even six cylinder engine. It’s your choice.

Chrome?  Once a feature of every motorcycle, chrome is now used as a trim piece, if at all.  I like chrome wheels and chrome exhausts, and both are becoming rare.

Ergonomics?  Aging often brings a desire for a lower seat height. Most cruisers make this a feature, but I’ve never liked cruisers all that much. As an example of the fickle minds of consumers, the cruiser I liked the most was the Triumph Thunderbird of recent vintage. I loved it.  The first and only cruiser I could imagine spending my own money on.  Nobody else did, and now it is being dropped.

Power, handling, and brakes?   It’s hard to get all three at the same time.  I usually prioritize comfort first, brakes second, handling third, and power last. The reason for this is that almost any motorcycle the older rider is interested in will have “enough” power.  If your motorcycle has more than 100hp, the excess is mostly to prop up your ego. You will rarely use it.

Drive train?  You have at least three choices here.  (I am only discussing street bikes). You can have shaft drive, chain drive, or a belt.  The best compromise of weight and simplicity and efficiency is probably the belt, especially with modern materials that make the belts very sturdy. But, unless it is a Harley, your choice may have either a chain or a shaft. How big a deal is this to you?

Wheels?  I love chrome and spoked wheels, but that usually means tubed tires. How important is it to you to have tubeless?

Ease of cleaning? Not a factor for me. In fact, I LIKE to clean the motorcycle I own. It is a form of relaxation for me that goes back to my first three or four motorcycles.  Sitting out in the driveway listening to the Mariners lose on the radio while polishing chrome is a favorite pastime that comes close to the joy of actually riding.

Some of these categories overlap.  I prefer twin disc brakes on the front end. There are many motorcycles with just one, and the road tests usually point out that one is plenty for the motorcycle in question. I careth not. For me, one front disc looks unbalanced. I want the twin discs for appearance, and excess brake potential is preferable to “enough.”

Time to make your choice!

The Triumph Bonneville has appealed to me for half a century.  I spent my college years obsessing about the joys of the Bonneville, ignoring such practicalities as the dodgy electronics, the extreme unlikelihood that I could maintain it, and of course a chronic lack of funds.  When the “new” Bonneville came out in the early 2000s I had the chance to ride a several of them when I worked at Cycle Barn. Lovely bike, but just a tad low on power for my tastes.  My son purchased a “Bonnie Black” model in 2006 and it served him very well.

Earlier this year I attended an open house at Triumph of Seattle staged to welcome the new for 2016 Thruxton versions of the Bonneville. Spectacular looks, and this bike shot to the top of my wish list. Bars a little low, but I could cope.  Engine has more power, but still not quite enough.  The R model came later, with even more power.  Now we’re getting there.

And then… I was invited to have breakfast with Jim Boltz, the owner of Cycle Barn and the guy who hired me into full time work in the motorcycle business 16 years ago. He’s in the process of selling Triumph of Seattle (which used to be Cycle Barn Triumph) and evidently still consults with the new owner from time to time. So we met for breakfast at a lovely dive a half a block away.

Stuffed to the gills, we walked back to Triumph of Seattle and…  boom.

In the front row, with ribbons around it indicating it had already been sold, a new Bonneville T 120. This has the new 1200cc partially water-cooled engine and fuel injection, amounting to a 30% to 40% increase in both power and (especially) torque.  Now we’re talking.

The new one looks so much like the classic Bonnevilles of the 1960s that both Jim and I stood there for a couple of minutes while the right and left sides of our brains argued. Keep in mind that the ‘60s versions were ones I lusted after for years. Jim owned a restored 1967 when I worked for him that was one of the rare bikes that nobody but him got to ride. Couldn’t blame him.

We both KNEW it was a 2016, and yet it looked so much like a classic ‘60s version. It was weird.  Later I figured out that silver with maroon paint scheme is not actually identical to anything used back then, but so close it could pass for an original.  All by stated intent from Trumph.

I stared at it and started running through the list I’d made of what I wanted.  Lower seat height than a Speed Triple.  Less weight.  Center stand.   Fuel injection.  Longer service intervals (10,000 miles).  Knee pads on the sides of the tank. ABS brakes.  Heated grips.  It had everything on my list, and the looks (to me, and I am the only one that counts here), utterly stunning.

So I came home and laid out my ideas to my wonderful wife. The ups and downs of continued ownership of my Speed Triple which is still a wonderful bike. Plus, we just spent $1300 on new tires and some electrical repairs and various other ills!  Then there were the advantages and disadvantages to the new bike. Like cost.  You’re a fortunate person if you lay out such a list out and hear this response.  “You should do this.”

So I rode into the dealership with a printed list of the many assets of my Speed Triple. Because I know both the old and current owners, I got to skip a sales person (although theirs are perfectly nice) and dealt with the owner. I knew about what mine was worth retail, and about how much he would offer as a trade in.  I knew the list price of the new bike. “Negotiations” might be too strong a word, as the numbers he came up with were pretty much identical to the numbers in my head.

The only downside – no bike.  There are several T 120s in my selected color scheme on order, and several deposits ahead of me. 

Fortunately, one of the advantages of getting older is increased patience.  I can wait a few weeks.

But it won’t be easy.


Copyright 2016               David Preston

About david

I am a 69 year old motorsports nut who lives in Bothell, Washington. After a 31 year career as an English teacher, I segued into a self-created job in the motorsports business. Now retired, I was involved in customer relations for Ride West BMW in Seattle, after almost 10 years of similar work for the Cycle Barn MotorSports Group. I have been married forever and have two grown children. I own, at the current time, a Triumph Bonneville T 120 , a Triumph Thruxton, a Fiat 500S and a VW Tiguan. What else would you like to know?
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