Full-Throttle Therapy: Hooked on the Open Road, Older Riders Leave Stereotypes in the Dust

Ron DeLacy
By Ron DeLacy September 15, 2009 09:54

Jack Gingrich rides near New Melones Reservoir/Photo by Ben Hicks

You never see a Harley-Davidson parked outside a psychiatrist’s office.
— Anonymous

Jack Gingrich doesn’t have a shrink.  Instead, he has owned dozens of motorized two-wheelers – from the dirt Hiawatha Doodlebug he delivered newspapers from as a 9-year-old in Marysville to the two Harley-Davidsons that now, 59 years later, take turns grumbling away from his Columbia driveway.

At 68, Gingrich, a retired heavy equipment operator, is pretty sure that the motorcycle bug is with him for good.

“It’s what I do – I ride motorcycles,” he says in a voice that seems to have hair on it –  a loud and burly voice, one that fits a veteran Harley rider as much as his two armloads of tattoos do. “Riding is the only thing that keeps my sanity. I just love it. If I never owned another car in my life it’d be fine with me.”

At first glance, especially if he’s aboard the latest of six Harley choppers that he has pieced together from assorted parts, you could mistake Gingrich for a caricature outlaw biker. He’s large. He’s loud. He has tattoos. His helmet isn’t very big. Has he been drinking?

Well, yes, but that was a quarter-century ago, before he gave up booze for good, he says. And the only motorcycle club he ever joined was a clean-and-sober one.

And as for the tattoos, they’re hardly gang-related: wife Chris’s portrait, daughter Emily’s initials, a symbol of destiny from the Book of Runes, et nonviolent cetera.

Gingrich is hardly alone as a law-abiding senior citizen on two wheels. If you remember when motorcycles were strictly the purview of the young and restless, it’s only because you’re old enough to remember it. Today, when you see a motorcycle pilot leaning into a Big Hill Road curve or a Highway 108 bypass on-ramp, he or she isn’t necessarily on drugs. He or she could be on Social Security.

It could be Tom Cornett, 66, a retired electrician and former Columbia saloon concessionaire who hasn’t ridden his 1978 BMW R80/7 recently only because the gams are still a bit sensitive from double knee-replacement surgery in December.

“But I’ve gone out and started the bike twice,” Cornett says. “I’m chomping at the bit, getting ready to ride again. I love riding and I love living in an area conducive to it, an area where you can jump on a bike and have nothing but wonderful roads. Twisties. I love the twisties.”

Like Gingrich, and like any other rider you’re likely to ask, Cornett considers motorcycling an indulgence in freedom and stress release.

“I’ve always called it my mental floss,” he says, citing a favorite flossing – a three-month ride 25 years ago through various western states and Canada.

“Only one night did I pay for a room,” he fondly recalls. “Otherwise, I either stayed with old friends or met new ones, or I camped in campgrounds or city parks or off some dirt road in some nowhere place.”

Cornett hasn’t ventured as far as his friend Barry Hillman, the 62-year-old Condor Earth Technologies co-owner who rides a Honda Interceptor to work and a BMW 1150GS to, oh, like to Alaska a couple years ago.

Hillman doesn’t ride it on water, though, so he rented a motorcycle in Germany when he rode into the Arctic Circle, as far north as you can get on European terra firma, there to slide on snow in June, enjoy some incredibly long days and short nights, and join the International Polar Bear Society.

“On a motorcycle you have the opportunity to see places you probably wouldn’t go to in a car,” Hillman says. “And you can get there faster. There are times when the double-yellow lines seem to fade.”

Not that he recommends speeding, mind you. And he’s a big believer in motorcycle safety courses like one that he took about 12 years ago.

“They teach you some good, solid techniques that you need to know,” Hillman says. “Like using the front brake properly, how to brake with both brakes, how to corner properly, making sure you look through the corner.”

Even with those techniques, there are obvious risks involved in motorcycling, and around here among the most serious ones are animals – especially deer. When they dart in front of you along Italian Bar Road or Ferretti Road or Mountain Ranch Road, they don’t mean any harm and are presumably trying to avoid it. But they can kill you or at least scare the bejesus out of you.

So can smaller wildlife, like the coyote that Hillman sideswiped recently near the Pickle Meadow Marine base up Highway 108.

“I must have been doing 75 miles an hour, going full-tilt boogie, and he ran out from the side. Why I didn’t go down I have no idea, but I still have coyote fur between the tire and the rim.”

Any motorcyclist who has ridden for a few years can tell you about close calls – or worse. Gingrich has “hit deer and everything else,” once got knocked over his handlebars and into the windshield of the woman who made a left turn into him near downtown Sonora, and was generally rearranged from his split head to his warped front forks when “some SOB ran me off the road” on Highway 49 near Grass Valley.

That was more than 30 years ago, and the dangers are only worse now, Gingrich figures, because of armored bumpers on more and bigger SUVs and trucks often operated by drivers who don’t have the driving skill or the common decency that people used to have.

“Nowadays you have to think that everybody coming at you might try to kill you,” he says. “You have to be on your game at all times, and if you’re not, you’re gonna get run over.”

Staying alert is indeed a key to survival, according to Daryl Hall, a 68-year-old retired sheet metal worker living in Murphys. Other keys, he adds, include preparation (he wears a $500 helmet, $180 gloves, and nearly $1,500 of other protective gear) and experience.

A 2006 study funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration supports Hall’s argument: Researchers looked at 3,600 motorcycle accidents, and found that more than half of them involved people who had ridden their bike for less than 5 months.

Hall is considerably past that stage. A former off-road motorcycle racing champion, he wouldn’t guess at his lifetime street mileage from biking through Alaska, dozens of other states, Mexico and Europe. A friend insists it must be somewhere around a million miles.

“And I’ve never worn a cast,” Hall says proudly.

His closest call, he says, came as he returned from a trip of thousands of miles to and through Alaska. As he approached home on Highway 4, three deer sprang from the woods into the path of his Honda v4 Interceptor.

He was paying attention, so he saw the deer in time to react to their suicidal insanity. One of the deer hit him from the side, but Hall was ready for the jolt. He maintained control of the bike and cruised home with a bent gearshift lever and deer hair stuck in his left boot.

“He had hit me behind the front wheel,” Hall says. “It was the perfect place to get hit if you want to get hit.”

Margo Thomas, 60, and husband Dave, 62, can withstand a side hit more easily than most bikers. For one thing, their Russian-made 2006 Ural doesn’t go as fast as most 750-cc machines. For another, it has three wheels.

“It’s the only rig that comes stock from the factory with a sidecar,” says Dave, a draftsman for Condor Technologies who also owns a two-wheeler, as does Mags Bags owner Margo.

Margo and Dave Thomas with Pip

But they enjoy the more leisurely pace of the Ural, and the way it lends itself to comfort for the whole current household – Dave, Margo and Pip, a 2 1/2-year-old miniature dachshund.

“We can strap her in the back on a one-person bike, but she prefers the Ural,” Margo says. “Sidecars and dogs seem to go together.”

And so together they go, this Ural sidecar family, motoring off for one-day or longer trips – always allowing extra time for “UDF.” That’s the Ural Delay Factor, Dave says, caused partly by a top speed of only about 60 mph and partly by the reality that “wherever you go with a Ural, people will stop you and want to talk about it.”

The Thomases don’t mind the slower speed (“you see a lot more,” Dave says) or the Ural discussions with strangers. These Thomases are social people, organizers of various regular parties from Friday night games on their lighted backyard bocce ball court to Labor Day Weekend Mystery Tours that they’ve been organizing for their biker friends over the past 10 years.

Destinations have included Laguna Seca, Owens River, Walker River and Hope Valley. And this year it’ll be …

“We know where, but we won’t tell you,” Dave says. “We keep it a mystery for as long as we can.”

One thing is certain: It won’t be to a psychiatrist’s parking lot.

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Safety Training Offered

The California Motorcyclist Safety Program trains about 65,000 cyclists per year at more than 120 training sites, including one at Modesto Junior College. For more information, go to www.ca-msp.org or call (877) 743-3411.

Ron DeLacy
By Ron DeLacy September 15, 2009 09:54
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