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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 February, 2005, 08:43 GMT
The deadly middle-age crisis

By Stephen Evans
BBC North America business correspondent

It transpires that there can be a nasty little side-effect to the male mid-life crisis.

Mary Anne Hobbs presenting a series about motorbike culture
A deadly dream of freedom, power and reclaimed youth

It was meant as a syndrome involving men in their forties or fifties indulging in nothing more harmful than the odd tattoo, or dressing in clothes that seem ridiculously young.

But it is actually turning into cases of premature and ugly death.

In the United States there's been a surge in fatal accidents involving motorbike riders aged over 40 - the so-called Bambis; Born Again Middle-aged Bikers.

The figures show that the number of those who died has tripled in the last decade while deaths among younger groups have barely changed.

For those aged under 30, the number of deaths actually fell.

Rusty bikers

It seems that part of the reason is that men are rediscovering their youth without realising that the under-powered machine of their twenties has turned into a rocket with a seat on in their fifties.

Learner bikers
Re-mounting a bike after 20 years can be done with no training

According to Cathy Rimm who runs the Motorcycle Rider Education programme in the state of Maine, there's been "a definite increase" in men in their forties and fifties getting back into motorcycling.

"They haven't ridden in 20 or 30 years, so their skills are rusty. Motorcycles have changed, and they're getting bigger motorcycles. And they're getting on without a refresher course".

It's a picture that is mirrored on the West Coast too. Mike Mount of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation in Irvine, California indicated that older riders should recognise the realities of their older bodies:

"In our experienced-rider courses, we do take into account the way your body changes, that your reaction time will change and that your eyesight will change. There are changes older riders should make."

Born-again bikers

Part of the problem is that the law does not usually assume that you're starting from scratch if you re-mount a bike after a 20-year gap. There are no requirements to take the tests that are imposed on complete novices.

BMW 1200
An emphasis on speed, power and the right look sells bikes

The American picture is replicated in other countries. In the UK, it's estimated that about one-and-a-half million people have motorbikes, but the number of those aged over 25 has doubled while those aged under 25 has fallen.

Part of the reason is demographic. The fathers of the 1960s are now emerging back into a world without children.

And the cost of bikes and, perhaps more importantly, the leather gear which accompanies them is so high that it's a luxury for those on higher salaries.

The result is a profile, perhaps a little exaggerated, of a middle manager who plays golf and rides a powerful bike, what the tabloids call "balding funsters" or "baby-boom bikers".

Disaster

Some bikers feel there's a conflict in the industry over how to pitch the product.

Charlie Boorman who rode around the world on his bike
Wearing bikers' kit appeals to many middle-aged men

An emphasis on speed, power and the right look sells bikes, but doesn't underline the extent of the dangers.

As the British lobbying organisation, the Motorcycle Action Group, told legislators: "To ride a modern sports bike after only 10 to 20 hours of instruction seems to be a recipe for disaster."

Muscles get older; eye-sight gets weaker; machines get more powerful. But do we realise? There's no fool like an old fool.


Are you a Bambi? Tell us about your experiences.

The comments below reflect the balance of opinion received. This debate is now closed.

Okay, I admit I fit this category. The label "Bambi" plays into the idea of being young and frivolous again.

A new group name, although I am not sure it fits a biker!! Who doesn't want to retain something of a lost youth, or earlier lack of cash?

At 46, I have just bought a Fireblade, which is certainly the most responsive bike I have ridden.

It is a weekend-only bike, and no commuting and no wet weather use. Rider education, training and car driver bike awareness are very poor in Texas but there are many private rider training events available. My plan: continual training, be sensible and have fun in the good weather.
Graham Ferguson, Houston, Texas

I think this is another attempt to give a slap in the face to the biking fraternity. There are individuals who drive cars who are just as old as motorcyclists. Why are they not singled out as well?

Most cars these days also carry a great deal of power and can be mistreated in the wrong hands. If you wish to even up the balance perhaps anybody who hasn't ridden a vehicle for more than twenty years should take a re-test or maybe when they reach a certain age.
Richard, Solihull

I am a young man myself, nowhere near my mid-life crisis, but how come in your report you failed to actually acknowledge the fact that these ¿hooligans¿ can also go out and by a fast sports car after driving the family Volvo around for 20 years? Your report is totally biased, and once again the BBC carries out discrimination towards motorcycle riders.
Chris Eagle,

No, I'm not a Bambi - but I know who killed Bambi...
Zoltan, Budapest

There is a learning curve but I find it has nothing to do with physical ability - more attitude. Most 40-50 year old men who are able to afford a new bike are very successful in life. The conclusion that because they do well in their field it translates to anything they might try is flawed - it always comes down to attitude
Mark, Bethesda - United States

The article takes a piece of statistics and weaves an ill-thought and illogical piece of cheap journalism out of it.

1. It associates middle-aged men buying motorcycles with a "male mid-life crisis". There are plenty of other reasons why such men might do this, including increasing leisure time, disposable income, and better health at this age.

2. It suggest that the 40/50 year old body is not as able to cope with riding a bike. I know from personal experience of the significant numbers of men in this age group who "race" successfully that this isn't true.

3. The picture editing is awful! The bike captioned with "an emphasis on speed, power and the right look sells bikes" is a BMW - no one's idea of a fast, powerful and fashionable bike. And the picture captioned with "dressing leather appeals to many middle-aged men" is of Charlie Boorman who a) has been riding bikes continuously since a lad, and b) isn't actually wearing leather!

[The picture caption has been changed to reflect the material of Mr Boorman's jacket].

I expect this sort of cheap filler journalism from the tabloids, but not from the BBC.
Neal Champion, United Kingdom

Briefly I was a Bambi. That is until I wiped out in my very own neighborhood on my bike. I ended up in a lady's front yard with dislocated ribs and "road rash" all over my body (I had no protection, not even a helmet). Today I drive a full-size Ford truck.
Rick Thompson, Dallas, TX

I resumed biking aged 56, after 20 years abstinence. It took a while to recover the sense of balance needed to push a Harley, particularly at low speeds. I rode accident free for ten years.

Not incident free, however. Thoughtless and dangerous behaviour from car drivers was common. Once I was nearly swept off my bike by a car door opening as someone parked and left the car. Only luck and reflexes saved my skin. The worst, however, was redoing the test and getting the Harley to slalom between cones - a manoeuvre I never needed in real life. I made it, but it was the only challenge to what was left of my skills.

Finally I gave up and sold the bike, with some regrets. Fear was a factor. It was fun while it lasted, and there are few equals to a ride on a perfect day without traffic on a good bike. But, sooner or later, it is smarter not to ride than to ride forever.
Paul Spencer, Key West, USA

Always on the fringe of bikes since my late teens, as in your article, economics dictated that I didn't actually get around to taking my test until the early '90s. Luckily, I then fell in with another like minded rider, we improved each others riding, and then decided to take the IAM motorcycle test, via a local club. Probably the best money ever spent, to take me out of the statistics, and socialise with like minded people. I don't think I'll ever kick the habit of riding.
Araf, Dover, Kent.

My experience is that ludicrous, unbalanced, poorly-informed and downright lazy journalism like this is all too common. I do, however, expect a slightly higher standard from the BBC and normally that is the case. I'll regard this nonsense as a momentary lapse on your part.
Jim Scullion, Ayr UK

Training for born again bikers has only got to be a good thing. Instead of compulsory courses, I think that courses linked to worthwhile discounts on insurance for born-agains is the way forwards. Limiting the power to a 33bhp restricted bike would also be good, for a year or so after getting back on a bike, would also be an alternative.

I would also like to see power and or cc restrictions placed on first-time and returning car drivers, because I feel that cars and car drivers have had a far easier time with regards to laws and restrictions than bikers have, and a tonne of metal at 80mph is far more of a danger than 200kg of metal travelling at 80mph.
Mark, Brighton, England

Not a Bambi - middle aged, yes (with the beer belly to prove it). But I am no born-again biker, having done it all my life, and I find leather uncomfortable, except in shoes. Nor do I have a crotch rocket - if bikes could have beer bellies, my old clunker would have one.

We moved to Florida from Britain a few years ago, and I had to take their bike test to get a US motorcycle licence. There was a short multiple choice test that a chimp would have struggled to fail, followed by ten minutes dodging cones in the car park outside. I watched a guy take the "road test". He was about 50, and his wife had bought him a Harley for his birthday. He poleaxed half the cones, had to put his feet down to go around a corner, and snaked Starsky and Hutch style to an emergency stop (he hit the wrong brake, apparently). Astonishingly, he got his licence.

Is it forgotten skills that are the problem, or were these skills never learned in the first place? Please don't throw us all into one pot. There are middle-aged men who just always liked to ride motorbikes.
Nick Pain, Tallahassee, Florida, USA

I stopped motorcycling after 20 years and over 250,000 miles in the saddle because I couldn't take the stress of travelling American interstates and highways amongst the oblivious sheep in their SUVs, blithering away on their Cellies. Would I consider taking up the sport again? Most likely not, what with new Harley Davidsons costing over 75% of a year's salary for me. Much more enjoyable to go potter down my back roads on my 1970's Raleigh.
John, USA

Regarding your story "The deadly middle-age crisis" - there may well be legitimate comment to make on this topic.

However, it will require the services of someone who is willing to carry out adequate background research. This article (together with its grossly out-of context pictures) is so wildly inaccurate that it had me in stitches. What is less funny however, is that it will perpetuate the general ignorance of the non-motorcycling public.

The BBC has a justifiable reputation for high standards. Unfortunately, publishing drivel such as this gives the impression of resting on laurels. Very poor show.
Graham Day, UK

Great article! I got my first bike when I was over 30, just 3 years ago, so I don't apply, but my father? He bought a bike again after 32 years, at the age of 65. It was 61HP Yamaha XJ600S. My father isn't lightheaded, so at first he treated this bike like a volcano, but slowly got "in gear" and now he rides 100HP BMW. He rides slower than I do (which doesn't mean he rides within speed limits), have more distrust for road and traffic conditions, and knows his limitations. That's the key, I think - to asses your abilities and try not to overcome them. We have a saying among us bikers in Poland; "Never ride faster than your angel can fly". Best regards Magic
Maciej "Magic" Sajecki, Warsaw, Poland

I am not a Bambi myself (I'm 31), but I live in the official Bambi state: Florida. Retirement heaven for Americans and for young irresponsible foreign drivers.

Every situations has more than one point of view. The increase in motorcycle accidents can also be related to the poor quality of drivers that Americans are. Driving tests are ridiculous and anyone can get a licence. Drivers to not respect bikers. I myself have been driven off the road on my bike by an irresponsible driver who apparently didn't know that motorcycles share the road with cars.

If you like riding you will do it for life. Some people have to wait until after 40 due to kids, bills, and lack of time. In my humble opinion there are two kinds of people: Those who know the passion of riding and those who will only dream about it. So, GO FOR IT BAMBIs!
Pablo Romo, Miami, Florida, USA

I am 52 and have ridden motorcycles most of my life and still enjoy riding.

The worst thing I see is a group of men go out for a ride and stop at several bars for a drink or two and feel a little wild. Its late in the day and a deer or dog or a car pulls out in front of them and bang. We in the North West have four or five deaths a year from bikers going to fast and hitting deer. When I ride I never drink nor ride with a group that does.
Mark Miller, Spokane WA, USA

Yes I suppose I am. At the gentle age of 50, my main motor squeeze is a Kawasaki W650 (read '60s type Triumph Bonneville without the oil leaks).

I'd heard about the Bambis before I went back to bike four years ago so I took a course - compulsory in Japan if you want to ride larger than 400cc. With 50 bhp the Kawasaki has about the same performance as the original Bonnie - tame by modern standards, but enough to leave most cars in the dust. It's just right for a Bambi. I'm not turned on by race-reps & sky-high insurance. And there's nowt like being in the wind.
John Dean, Kobe, Japan

Not all bikers over 40 are Bambis. I've been riding Harleys since I was 20, and I'm 47 now. True, the eyes and reflexes are not as sharp as they were when I was 20, so I have slowed down a bit.
James Prial, San Francisco - USA

Once again an anti-bike slant with no mention of the one most important fact - the majority of accidents involving bikes are caused by car drivers.
Gareth, Barry, UK

Rider education is very important at any age but let us not forget driver education as well. Many times, motorcycle accidents involve an absent minded car driver and no motorcycle education can help with that. I think that it is great when anyone at any age decides to get back into the saddle.
Jacob Madsen, London, England

I bought a motorbike again 2 years ago at the age of 52 after a gap of more than 20 years. The reason was practicality more than anything else as anyone who lives in Paris knows. There are more and more two-wheels on the streets of Paris in response to the twin problems of congestion and parking (although most are scooters, something a true biker like myself would never ever consider!). I use the bike to get around Paris but also to be able to get out of town for the weekend. Coming back to Paris in the summertime the traffic jams often stretch back to Normandy, but with the bike I can just go through them. I'm afraid I'm only a fair-weather biker though, motorbikes are no fun in the rain.
Barry, Paris

I remounted when i was 47 for another 100,000 miles during which I had four accidents.

What that means is twice breaking the same leg, once crushing it (drunk driver T-boned me), two broken necks, a peeled scalp (200 plus stiches), two broken hands, and a lot of broken ribs (the most ever ribs I ever broke at any one time were 14). A lot of fun and some real pain later. I'm done, the bike is gone, I kept the friends. I took up the guitar. It doesn't get my adrenalin going but what's an ol' fart need adrenalin for anyway. Aloha, Ric
Ric Nelson, Hilo Hawaii, USA

I teach the beginner and experienced motorcycle class here in Massachusetts. Approximately half my beginners classes are re-entry riders.

Many of them either taught themselves to ride or had a friend teach them. They have many bad habits. In Massachusetts if you pass the course you don't have to take the road test for your MC license. The course is critical for survival on Massachusetts roads. I can teach just about anyone to operate a motorcycle. But teaching and learning the survival skills is imperative to surviving on the streets. I have never had a student tell me he or she didn't learn some valuable lessons.
Robert Lee, Leominster, Ma., USA

I'm in my early fifties and prior to taking up riding again in 2003 I hadn't ridden since 1975. There is a huge difference between the Yamaha 500cc I road back then and the Honda 1100cc I ride now. Brakes, tires, suspension, lighting are superior to what I had then. It is true that my vision and reflexes are no where near as good as they were then but I try to ride safer. I wear a helmet always and either leather or other protective clothing when out riding. I've taken the very excellent Experienced Riders Course offered here in Maine and have read as much as I can find about riding safely. When riding I always remind myself that even a fender bender may put me in the hospital or worse. Ride Safe.
Gregor, Standish, Maine

I took up riding again five years ago. I personally trained again from scratch. Motorcycle training is far superior now, there is a lot more emphasis on defensive riding than there used to be. The test is a lot harder to pass too. The practical car test however still puts more emphasis on whether the driver can reverse into a supermarket parking space or where the dipstick is, than giving consideration to other road users.

Most accidents on bikes 20 years ago were as a result of motorcycles with appalling brakes, bad design and poor tyres, attempting to avoid the idiot car driver who would say "sorry mate, didn't see you". Modern bikes and tyres can now achieve 300%-400-% better braking in all weather conditions, they do not go 3 or 4 times faster.

You can twist a statistic any way you like, but the biggest one is often missed out; most accidents involving a car and a bike are still due to the car driver. Does anyone at the BBC ride a bike? If so, maybe they should write the next article about the subject, perhaps get a less jaundiced aspect.
Phil, Lutterworth, England

I am not a Bambi, but I am a 53-year-old rider. My kid-gap was only about eight years after 16 years of prior riding.

When I got back on six years ago, I had to go to a lot of trouble to find a small enough bike, one similar to the Triumph 650 Bonneville I had finally retired in the early '90s and which most riders thought was a big bike at the time.

I was distressed with salesmen telling me how easily I could hop onto a 900cc or 1200cc superbike. There is a major gap in the current market between about 250cc and about 1000cc, except for the 600cc sport bikes, which are nothing like the 650s of old. There are very few 400cc-700cc "normal" motorcycles.

I ended up with a 1982 BMW R65 (in 1999), which I rode everyday (to work) for three years until I wanted to move into the modern world of fuel injection, anti-lock brakes, and convenience items such as easily-removable luggage. To get the features and technology I wanted, I had to concede to an 1100cc, which was much bigger than I needed or wanted. I shudder at the thought of a novice getting on this bike.

To all the riders who haven't really been maintaining their skills I say: get a small bike and ride it for a few years before you even think about anything bigger than 500cc. On a related point, my teenage son is anxious to ride, so we have put him on a 50cc scooter to school each day. We have a 125 scooter ready for his next step. It will be years before he touches the 650.
Tom Taylor, Atlanta, GA, USA

I rode a bike for some 10 years as a young man, and only quit when I got "sensible" and needed an extra pair of wheels to carry luggage and passengers. I still miss it, but now I won't go back to two wheels until both my parents are six feet under. The reason: my kid brother was killed 10 years ago at the age of 35 while riding a "road rocket", and if I even looked sideways at a bike in the presence of my mother, 75 years old or not she would kill me herself.

I sometimes think it would be nice to ride again, but the roads are so different now. Too much traffic, going too fast, too close. At least in a car I have a metal cage to protect me.
Bob, Huntingdon, GB

I look like a Bambi. Balding, fat, tatty Harley. But I've had her since 91, done countless miles and have behaved in a totally irresponsible manner. I have leathers that don't fit and my helmet lining falls out. I frequently laugh at po-faced serious motorcyclists. I haven't cleaned her in five years, chrome is just a distant memory. So I can't join the club.
Stephen Spicer, Bath

Interesting that you chose a picture of Charley Boorman to demonstrate middle aged men's liking for motorcycle clothing. He can in no way be thought of as a Born Again Biker, having ridden all his life, and last year completed a round the world Adventure on BMW motorcycles with his friend Ewan McGregor. The jacket he is wearing is thermally lined, Kevlar armour reinforced and designed to be practical while riding long distance, and not for posing as you insinuate.
Peter Clark, Newbury, UK

What your demographic studies reveal is the impact of government policy. It is now impossible for anyone under 25 to own a motorcycle above 125cc and the manufacturers are saving money by making scooters instead of classic 60/70s mopeds.

I can not deny that the machines are awesome today compared with when I passed my test in 1981. Buying a second hand bike for £2,500 will give you acceleration sufficient that were you at the back of the grid at the British F1 GP you would overtake everything before you needed to brake for the 1st corner. And these are specialist cars costing millions.

I returned to bikes (600cc) in 1998. In that time I have had two serious accidents. Both of these were caused by myself and fortunately did not involve other road users. My injuries include plated shoulder and arm, a pinned femar behind the kneecap, two cracked vertebrae, a broken and misaligned collar bone, and multiple broken fingers.

I am prevented from motorcycling under pain of divorce, however. Left to me (foolhardily I can not deny) I would be in the dealership tomorrow getting ready for the spring. Motorcycling is a lifestyle decision and all who chose it readily accept the dangers and learn to mitigate risk, and defy reason.
Joseph Postin, Tamworth UK





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