There is a cure for the summertime blues.
It's the best way to give the kid in you a break. It's the most fun you can have on the road. And it's legal -- well, as legal as you want to be.
Let's be honest: biking comes with risks. But safe riding habits can help eliminate danger and make two-wheeling a rewarding lifelong pastime -- and so no one should consider riding without completing a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course. MSF classes incorporate both classroom instruction and rigorous road training on MSF-supplied small-displacement (250cc) beaters. (Call the MSF at 800-447-4700 for a class near you.) Some states underwrite MSF courses, and insurers often discount rates for MSF graduates.
At one time motorcycles made for unreliable transport, but advances over the past thirty years have made street bikes dependable and sturdy. Properly maintained, a good one will last 80-100,000 miles nowadays -- "Heck, even poorly maintained, a good four-cylinder bike should go 50,000 miles," says Keith Patti, a former mechanic and sysop of Compuserve's Motorcycling forum. Once you've learned, what you'll want to ride depends on what kind of riding you want to do. A new rider is best off with a used smaller motorcycle (old 400-500cc imports can be had for about $1000) to get comfortable with. (And if you're thinking about starting up Uncle Dave's old Suzuki in the garage, be sure and have a mechanic look at it -- the battery, carburetors, and most importantly tires will need maintenance.)
If anything qualifies as a generic motorcycle, it's the all-purpose "standard," designed neither for lightning speed nor for the long haul -- but usually serviceable for either. Standard motorcycles, which trace their lineage to the machines designed by the great English motorcycle companies after World War II, achieved a sort of perfection in the early 1970s with what has become known as the "Universal Japanese Motorcycle" (UJM) first exemplified by Honda's four-cylinder models in the 1960s. "These bikes opened up motorcycling to countless more people than in the past," according to Patti, "because they had a reliability that was new -- until then, you had to be your own mechanic."
Brother to the standard bike are Cruisers, designed just for that. With backswept handlebars and a lot of trimming, they are meant not to go fast, or long distances, but instead to be seen (and often, heard). The classic cruiser -- and to some, the only one -- is the big-bore V-Twin motorcycle built by Harley- Davidson. Known as "Hogs" -- as much for the snorting cacaphony of the fabled Twin as anything else -- Harleys are more popular (and pricier) than ever, thanks in part to the company's near- mythical return from collapse in 1981.
If you want a new Harley, be warned: it's a seller's market -- for the moment, anyway. Listen to one Harley rider's story: "I bought a '93 Sportster new and paid sticker price for it. A year and a half later, I traded it back to the same dealer for $500 more than I had paid originally, and he resold it for $1000 above the current price of a new one." Many experienced riders agree: a novice rider's first motorcycle should not be a Harley -- even the Sportster is a handful for a newbie.
Sportbikes are designed for speed; chrome and comfort are dispensed with, and instead, engineers incorporate the latest track-tested developments in design and materials. Sometimes called "crotch rockets," in reference to the racers' forward-bent position, sportbikes come with lots of responsive, slick-handling horsepower, loud colors, -- and high insurance rates.
Unfortunately there is no legal way to run these beasts even at three-quarters speed on the street, so if you want to air out the intake on your Ducati, Kawasaki Ninja, or Honda's CBR600 -- find a racetrack. It's possible one of a number of racing schools stage classes at a track near you -- and many organizations sponsor regional events classed according to rider ability and type of motorcycle -- including vintage-races featuring old-bike fans replaying such hotly-contested matchups as the Honda versus Triumph racetrack battles of the mid-1960s.
Touring motorcycles are big-displacement, big-framed, heavy-duty machines, proportioned for all-day riding as well as luggage. Perhaps the most popular of these is the Honda Gold Wing, a 1500-cc behemoth available with such options as floorboards, FM radio/cassette/CB, cigarette lighter, and reverse gear; but other manufacturers have made fine touring bikes (BMW, which really invented the touring bike, has a fiercely loyal following). There are countless models that fall under such hybrid categories as Sport/Touring or Standard/Touring. (Since they frequently never find a niche, certain of these types of models can drop in price -- such as Yamaha's discontinued TDM 850, a dualsport-standard, still available at a bargain from many dealers.)
Motorcycle tourers are perhaps the most devoted of all cycling enthusiasts, simply because no other vehicle so rewards the love of the open road. A motorcycle trip is a scenic adventure --sun in your eyes, nothing between you and the surroundings (except, if you're smart, your helmet) and the giddy, keen intoxication of piloting your scooter across hundreds of miles of isolated (and preferably twisting) roadway.
Of course a serious motorcycle enthusiast will discover the countless byways the sport has to offer, such as the pleasure of tinkering -- with parts designed for access, working on a bike is relatively easy.
Finally: join the American Motorcyclist Association, which aside from furnishing government relations work on behalf of riders, offers members such advantages as trip-routing and emergency roadside towing, as well as various bike-related discounts (1-800-AMA-JOIN). "Our biggest time was during the gas crisis in the 70's," says Bill Amick, the AMA's publicist, "but at 210,000 and growing, we're doing just fine." Whatever else you do -- as motorcyclists like to say, keep the shiny side up.