Pensioners Adventurers

Sixty-four-year-old Brit Geoff Dickson is known by neighbours as the ‘Wells Angel’ owing to him hailing from Wells in Somerset, and his penchant for Harley Davidsons. His hog is one with a twist though—it’s actually a spruced-up mobility scooter replete with chrome forks and handlebars and an oversized central headlight.


The $11,500 beast may be limited to a top speed of 6.5km/hr, but that hasn’t stopped the easy rider from being pulled over by cops who have mistaken it for a real motorbike ambling along the pavement. “Just because you are old and disabled doesn’t mean you can’t be cool too,” Dickson tells the Daily Mail. “If you’re still young at heart and you need a mobility scooter then you should get one like this.”


As for more traditional two-wheel riders, there’s a growing trend for older former bikers to get back on the saddle and also for seniors to take up motorcycling for the first time. They’ve been nicknamed ‘born again riders’. In the UK, over-50s account for around a third of motorbike sales, well up from the 17% of the previous decade, and such is the growth that a couple of years ago Saga, a travel and insurance company that caters to seniors, bought motorbike insurer Bennetts that specialises in classics like Harley Davidson. Over 40% of its customers are over 50 and the most popular rides are sport bikes or tourers.


“People who are riding for enjoyment tend to go for a racing bike, something that they can enjoy the thrill of,” Stephen Latham, head of the National Motorcycle Dealers Association, tells the Guardian, “or they go for the ‘cruiser’ market such as the Harley Davidson or Triumph where riding is more about companionship.”


Editor of Bike magazine, Hugo Wilson, adds that the balance is shifting because it’s also becoming harder and dearer for youngsters to get a motorcycle licence. “I think riding a motorbike is very liberating,” says Rob Farmer, 52, who had his first bike at 17. “I’m not a speed freak… It’s a big social thing. My friends and I meet up, go for rides, travel to places in the summer. You just meet a lot more people on the way who probably wouldn’t talk to you if you were passing through in a car.” And it’s not just men, more and more women are getting the biking bug, too.


In New South Wales, between 2005-2017, the number of licensed motorcycle riders aged 50-85 rose more than 90% to more than 300,000—around half of the state’s biking population. Break it down further and the stats are even more startling: a 207% increase in riders aged 65-69, and a 196% increase for 70-74-year-olds. (Alas, between 2007-2016, it also led to a 54% increase in fatalities for riders aged over 50, and 80% increase in serious injuries. Around the world, statistics show older riders to be far more prone to major motorcycling accidents.)


According to the US Motorcycle Industry Council, 39% of the nation’s riders are aged 51-69, rising to nearly 60% in the state of Wisconsin, one of whom is multiple Harley Davidson owner Jim Heppe, 65. “I am going to keep riding as long as I can,” he tells the Detroit News. “I believe that when you quit, you get older a lot quicker.” He’s been known to have covered 1,300km in a single day.


Of course, history’s coolest senior rider hailed from Aotearoa. Invercargill’s Burt Munro was 68 when he travelled to the USA to set the world speed land record on his Indian motorcycle across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1967. That record of 184mph still stands today for an under-1,000cc motorbike with a streamliner, the feat further immortalised in the film, The World’s Fastest Indian, starring Anthony Hopkins.


There are plenty of older Kiwis continuing Munro’s passion—albeit at a more leisurely pace. Having reviewed 2,000 bikers in New Zealand’s Pro Rider database, Karel Pavich discovered more than a third to be over 50, and a little under a third to be women. “I’ve been riding for decades,” she tells the AA, “and there is no question that the fun, the freedom, the exhilaration of riding a bike in a beautiful country on fantastic roads is really, really hard to beat.”