Born to be mild

Author: James Patrick Kelly ’72

Every year some 5,000 Americans die on motorcycles. For 57 relatively sane years, I had absolutely no chance of becoming one of them.

But last summer I took a detour to the wild side and decided to buy my first bike. When I confided this plan to people, it was like a scene from the holiday classic A Christmas Story. Whenever young Ralphie mentions the BB gun he wants for Christmas, people tell him, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

So it was with me and my friends. I was invariably warned that I would meet certain doom by being flattened by an 18-wheeler or in the unforgiving embrace of a bridge abutment. And I could see the unspoken conviction in the glances they exchanged: midlife crisis.

Well, maybe. I am not the sort of person you would pick to be a biker. I’m an easygoing science-fiction writer. Even the thought of getting a tattoo makes me queasy. Weed-whacking in the garden is my idea of a rowdy weekend . Until recently my recreational locomotion was all pretty much muscle-powered: I jog, bicycle, snowshoe and kayak.

Why a motorcycle now? Like any good citizen of the 21st century, I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint. Because I live on a dirt road at the bottom of a hill you could ski down, I need an all-wheel drive vehicle during the long New Hampshire winters. But I don’t need one to go to the post office on a sunny spring day or the library in October.

Alas, it turns out that motorcycles are not as green as I had hoped. While they are about twice as efficient as cars in converting gasoline into energy, efficiency has its price: bikes emit more oxides of nitrogen and smog-forming hydrocarbons than cars. But they do give off less CO2, because they use less fuel per mile. In my case, much less. The bike I chose, a Honda Rebel, averages more than 70 miles to the gallon.

Before I bought my bike, I signed up for motorcycle-rider training, because I’d read that 90 percent of riders involved in crashes had no formal instruction. The 15-hour, three-day course was based on a curriculum developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Most of it involved on-the-bike training in the parking lot of a hockey rink. These were my first-ever motorcycle rides. I was so nervous that I dumped my loaner bike on the final test. This meant automatic failure.

I was uninjured, the machine was just fine but my pride had suffered a crippling blow.

Perhaps I should have taken this as a sign to cut short my career as a biker. Instead it stiffened my resolve. I needed to be able to look at myself in the mirror and not imagine loser tattooed on my forehead. You might say this was a guy thing, but it was actually more of a writer thing. In 1980, I put 500 rejection slips into a box and stored it in my attic. I’ve sold pretty much everything I’ve written since. I don’t accept rejection.

So I bought the Rebel, got a learner’s permit and spent many more hours practicing in parking lots before I got my license. And I’m thinking now that my spill might someday save my life.

One thing my instructors emphasized again and again during the course was how dangerous riding can be. And it would appear to be getting more so. Over the last 10 years motorcycle fatalities have increased about 100 percent, adjusted for the increase in new riders. Meanwhile, deaths of motorists have fallen to an all-time low.

In a study published earlier this year, the Gannett News Service analyzed the most recent available federal accident reports. Here are some stats on motorcycle fatalities that got my attention: 42 percent weren’t wearing helmets; about 90 percent were men; half of the riders killed in 2006 were age 40 and older, and nearly a quarter were older than 50.

Apparently I’m not the only Baby Boomer to be lured by the promise of great gas mileage and the romance of the open road. According to a recent article in The New York Times, many new motorcycle buyers are “middle-age or older men who rode when they were young, gave it up as they raised children and have recently gone back to the bike. ‘They think they still have the same reflexes,’ said James Port, the safety agency’s deputy administrator.”

Ouch! But the grim statistics are not entirely due to Easy Riders chasing their lost youth. Consider two ominous trends. In 1995, Congress repealed penalties for states without universal helmet laws. It is now legal in 27 states to ride with your brains — if any — waiting to be exposed to the elements. Also, motorcycle manufacturers have ramped up the horsepower on today’s bikes. The popular Suzuki GSX-R1000 tests at 160 horsepower. It will go from 0-60 in 2.5 seconds, fast enough to maim or kill the incautious Peter Fonda wannabe. My Rebel, by contrast, is rated at 17 horsepower and strolls from 0-60 in a leisurely 12 seconds.

Because my biking experience began with an accident, I’ve become a cautious rider. I wear the biker equivalent of body armor, and I’ve covered my helmet with reflective yellow strips. Watch out for me, please! It’s rare that I hit 60 mph, but even zipping down the road at 45 is a breathtaking adventure. There are no seat belts or bumpers or airbags, no impact-absorbing hoods or steel-reinforced doors.

Riding my bike is different from driving my car precisely because I’m aware that I’m in constant — if low-level — jeopardy. There’s no time to plot my next story or listen to NPR. I have to be present on the bike, strain my senses as far as they can reach. And that’s a thrill, I now realize, that has nothing to do with 70 mpg.

So maybe my friends were right. If this is my midlife crisis, I’ve embraced it. Besides, if I’m at midlife, that means I’ll live to be 114.

James Patrick Kelly is a science fiction writer who has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. His most recent book is The Wreck of the Godspeed.