The Aging Rider

Charles Fleming
by Charles Fleming

From the back of the pack to the front (and back again)

I rode in the desert for the first time in the spring of 1969. I was fourteen, and I owned a 100cc Bridgestone. Although I had spent some time on a friend’s Hodaka and had done some trail riding on a 50cc Suzuki, I wasn’t prepared for the experience. On the wrong bike, with the wrong tires, wearing the wrong gear, I fell and then fell some more, and hurt myself in places where I didn’t even know I had places.

The guys leading the ride helped me pick up my bike and straighten out the things I’d bent. They gave me pointers, and said things I mostly didn’t understand, like, “Don’t get cross-rutted,” “You gotta steer with your feet,” and “When in doubt, throttle it out.”

I felt clumsy and scared, humiliated by my lack of skills, and ashamed to be the guy at the back of the pack who was making a fool of himself and slowing everyone down.

But I couldn’t wait to go back.

Photo by Jim Cunningham.

By summer, I was racing that Bridgestone. A year later, overcompensating, I bought a friend’s Maico 360cc. For the next couple of years I rode that beast in the desert and raced it at Baymare and Indian Dunes before switching to a more manageable CZ 250.

I gradually added skills and upgraded my gear. Viking boots. Webco leathers. Bell helmet. Jofa mouthguard. Torsten Hallman gloves. When I fell down, it didn’t hurt as much.

And I didn’t fall down as much. Within a year or so, I was a good rider. I wasn’t at the back of the pack. I was in the middle, or at the front. Friends and I spent long spring and fall days, and sometimes entire winter weekends, riding the Antelope Valley area that was known as Bean Canyon. We raced at Mammoth, and Pozo. We rode Cal City and Kennedy Meadows and all over Baja California.

Gradually I became the guy who was watching out for the new guy. My little brother had taken up dirt bikes. I introduced a college roommate to riding.

Then came the interregnum of career, marriage, parenthood, and building a home. My garage gradually emptied out, until there were no motorcycles at all.

When I returned to the desert in my 40s, after more than 15 years away from the dirt, I often found myself riding with men who had not ridden since their teenage years, or who had never ridden off-road at all. I was the guy in front, helping the guy in back – picking up the bike, bandaging up the skinned elbow, advising on better protective gear, and saying stuff that probably didn’t make any sense.

In my 50s, when I started riding adventure motorcycles, and taking them off-road, this continued. I met all kinds of riders who had KTM Adventure bikes or BMW R1200GSs, and they all said the same things: “I want to ride off-road but I don’t know where to go,” “I want to ride off-road, but I don’t have anyone to ride with,” or, “I want to ride off-road, but I don’t want to get killed doing it.”

So again, I became the guy who was leading the newbies, showing them where to go, how to equip their bikes and how to ride them safely.

But time marches on, and it marched all over me. I had hip replacements on both sides in the late 1990s. Then I had a series of spinal surgeries in the mid-2000s. Then, in quick succession, I separated my right shoulder in a fall, broke my left collarbone in a fall, had a third hip replacement (refurbishing the original one), and two violent hip dislocations. And two skin cancer surgeries. And two hand surgeries. And two eye surgeries. And a hernia surgery.

Each one of these medical interventions kept me off the bike a while – and off the bicycle, the tennis court, and the snowboard – and required a period of rehab. Each time, I fought back and came back. But each time I came back a little weaker, a little warier, and a little more conscious of my own fragility.

So now, I’m not the fastest guy anymore, or the strongest, or the youngest. I’m in the middle of the pack some of the time, or at the back of the pack. I’m not scared, and I’m not so clumsy, but I’ve slowed down. And I’m not enjoying the riding any less.

One of my younger brothers (who rides) recently told one of my other brothers (who doesn’t) that for years he was scared that he was going to kill himself trying to keep up with me. Now, he said, he’s scared that I’m going to kill myself trying to keep up with everyone else.

I’m lucky enough to be riding motorcycles on the road and in the desert in what is now my 53rd year on two wheels. This past year I did a six-day off-road tour of Iceland and a 3,000-mile solo ride from Anchorage to Portland, Oregon. This weekend I’ll be in the desert, riding trails I first rode in 1969. It’s surprising to me, still, that I find it exciting every single time.

So I’ve come full circle, from the back of the pack to the front and back again. And this is just as it should be, the proper trajectory of a life of riding. I’m happy to ride sweep until the end of the trail.

Photo by Chris Day.

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Charles Fleming
Charles Fleming

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  • Mad4TheCrest Mad4TheCrest on Jan 19, 2022

    Timely, well-written piece. My riding has been almost exclusively on paved roads, sometimes for commuting but mostly for fun. For a while in my twenties my bike was my main transportation, but bikes were more general purpose then (or I was more adaptable). I don't think I'd go that route now. For the past twenty years I have lived a dream riding life on SoCal roads, but fires, the pandemic, and general neglect of the roads has sullied that dream a bit. Still, I ride on hoping for better conditions to return. I even bought a new race replica sportbike even though I know it's wildly impractical, maybe even a bit painful, for a rider my age (my first bike was a year-old 1969 Kawasaki 90cc). But I haven't stopped loving the technical beauty and enjoying the sheer pleasure of a good ride. A friend, now gone from well-lived old age, rode well into his 80's, and did so fearlessly even though he'd been a trauma doctor on life flights picking up the injured from these very roads, and so knowing the potential dangers as much as anybody. My wish is to emulate him and ride as long as I can do so safely, which I hope is for a good few years yet.

  • Edward O'Brien Edward O'Brien on Jan 21, 2022

    I'm in the same place. Still, I like the 175HP street bike sliding a knee when it's clear. I use the anti-wheelie setup and leave all the electronics turned on.