Motorcycle safety schools see boomer boomlet

Motorcycle-safety schools are ballooning as baby boomers tap into their Harley fantasies.

It's Day Three of motorcycle school. Forget tentative. I twist the throttle and attack the turns.

Riding a 250-cc. Honda Nighthawk and wearing a training helmet as big as cartoon spaceman Kazoo's, I channel Tom Cruise in "Top Gun," racing his slick Kawasaki Ninja against an F-14 on takeoff, soundtrack blaring "[Highway to the] Danger Zone."

On signal, I square up from my lean, stop, and coolly raise my visor. I wait for lead instructor John Vale to call me Maverick. "Mr. Bobblehead," he says. "But only one bobblehead that time." A smile creases his face. "Let's try for zero."

"Bobbleheading" will put you in a danger zone. It breaks a cardinal rule of motorcycling: When cornering, turn your head to face your end point and lock it there. Resist the urge to glance back at the road just ahead of your front wheel or you could end up in oncoming traffic - or against a guardrail.

Instilling such good habits is the sole role of the Motorcycle Riding School at Cycles128 in Beverly, Mass. The school uses the curriculum of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), a nonprofit in Irvine, Calif. Some 1,500 MSF-certified schools around the US trained 300,000 riders last year alone.

These are fast times for motorcycling. In 2003, there were 5.4 million registered cycles in the US - up 40 percent from a decade earlier, according to the Department of Transportation [D.O.T.]. Expect interest to accelerate. An average bike achieves about 50 m.p.g., scooters much more. And if training programs continue to rev up, look for the reversal of another statistic: While last year's overall vehicle fatality rate on US highways was the lowest since record-keeping began 30 years ago, motorcycle fatalities rose 8 percent to more than 4,000, according to the DOT. Fatalities among the over-40 set have soared.

It's not all grownups rumbling around on two wheels, but they represent a growing contingent. At the Motorcycle Training Institute in Miami, the percentage of trainees aged 41 and up stood at about one-third in 1998 and grew to nearly 40 percent by 2002, says Steve Zarbatany, the school's founder. It leveled off, he says, only after a new financial-aid program drew more under-21s, who are required by Florida law to receive training.

Training is not always required of new riders, though a fair number choose it. In 2003, the percent of on-highway operators who took an organized course was 38 percent, up from 32 percent in 1998, says MSF spokesman Mike Mount. In some states, a 16-year-old can take a simple written learner's permit test at the registry and then lurch off a dealer's lot without ever having straddled a bike.

That can work, at first.

"Riding a motorcycle can be daunting at times," says Mr. Zarbatany. "But look at the physics of riding: You're on a gyroscope. It will balance itself to some degree, and that's comforting in that you can master the feeling of riding without really honing some skills."

The trouble starts when the limits of rider or bike are exceeded, says Zarbatany, who projects that his school will train 5,000 riders this year. In traffic, hazards must be negotiated, and fast. "Now you need to have skill, and you need to have knowledge," he says.

Here in Beverly we've had two weekends to lay the foundation for competence. One sunny Saturday brings an intensive, all-day classroom session ending in a written test. The following weekend, in a light rain, come two five-hour days on the riding range.

We are eight novices. Steve Dellarusso has built his own bike, which waits back home. Paul Squadrito plans to buy one, if he passes. Three students are women. June Sheridan has come because of a sobering tale told by a couple she and her motorcyclist spouse met: The couple had been stranded in New Hampshire when the husband became ill and couldn't safely ride. Ms. Sheridan is determined not to let this happen to her - though she says she's generally content to "sit on the back and watch the scenery go by."

"Not me," says Valerie Peters, the wife of a Harley-Davidson rider, her long black hair in a ponytail. "I want my own bike."

For this course, students shell out about $300, a little above the national average. The goal: Pass a final-day evaluation that will replace the state test for a license. Graduates can also claim a reduction in insurance costs. (That, too, varies by state.)

And so we ride, in line - around cones, in figure eights that add the challenge of intersections - "Eye contact!" says an instructor, "let [others] know what you're going to do" - and over two-by-fours, rising up as if we're posting on a horse. Eventually we ride, one by one, into "the box," making tight U-turns at very slow speeds within a painted-line boundary while feeling for the clutch lever's "friction zone," that place where the selected gear engages and power goes to the rear wheel.

For riders, it is all about accepting the counterintuitive. You don't let off the gas - let alone hit the brake - during a fast turn, or the bike will stand up out of its lean and push you wide. Want to slow on a straightaway? Don't fear the front brake: It provides 70 percent of your stopping power.

"Anybody can ride a motorcycle fast and straight," says Vale, a retired patent attorney who says he prefers training first-timers - 60 percent of his trainees - to riders who've had time to develop bad techniques.

Riding well requires close attention to an array of details, including maintaining space between bikes and other vehicles. Good rider behavior is as important as skills. In more than half of accidents where only the motorcycle is involved, the rider is in some way impaired, often by alcohol. Better bikes make the sport more forgiving - experts cite advances in brakes and suspension. Next spring Honda will market an 1,800-cc. Gold Wing with an airbag, a cycling first. Instructors stand united regarding more basic (if not cheap) acquisitions: Don't skimp on gear, and clap on a DOT-approved helmet - it doesn't have to look like Kazoo's - even if your state doesn't require one.

Back in the classroom, just off a showroom full of gleaming bikes, Vale offers a final thought. It's one thing to operate on a closed course with two instructors, he says. But out there - he jerks a thumb toward the window - we'll find a whole new level.

"Approach the street," he says, "in a very cautious manner."

Motorcycle statistics

• Of the over 6.5 million motorcycles registered in the US in 2003, 282,389 were used for primary transportation.

• Of the 129 million US commuters, 147,703 rode motorcycles to work regularly.

• More than 20 million Americans surveyed in 2003 said they had ridden within the previous year. (Off-road riding accounted for a third of that figure.)

• 3 to 5 motorcycles fit in one automobile parking space.

• Motorcycles get 50.1 m.p.g. on average, passenger cars 22.3 m.p.g., light trucks/SUVs 17.7 m.p.g.

Sources: Ridetowork.com, Motorcycle Industry Council

To locate a Motorcycle Safety Foundation school near you, go to www.msf-usa.org, or call 800-446-9227.

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