Jan 4, 2021

“Anybody Can Ride One”

My wife is a morning television addict. We live in a rural area with no over-the-air television available and I’m too cheap for cable, so she watches the late night talk shows in the morning. The irritating noises coming from our living room inspired a hunt for the best noise-cancelling, Bluetooth, in-ear monitors so that I could avoid the morning squawking noise of Seth Myers and Jimmy Kimmel’s dry sarcasm that makes the awful seem even worse. Sometimes she is so inspired by what she sees that she is compelled to “share” it with me. This morning that interruption was inspired by a Kimmel interview with David Letterman. Apparently, Letterman bought Regis Philbin a Vespa scooter under the assumption that “everybody knows how to ride a motor scooter.” Like so many folks on Harleys every summer weekend around the nation, it turns out that assumption is idiotic. Of course, Philbin crashed after traveling a few feet on the scooter. "He could have been killed. He actually could have been killed. The last night before he retires he comes over, and I kill him," Letterman said with a laugh. "... Nobody checked him out on it, because the assumption was, A, anybody can ride a scooter. And B, certainly Regis will ride a scooter."

Back when I was still teaching the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety classes, in 2011, I wrote a Geezer rant I titled “#101 It's Not A #&^%#@ Wheelchair.” I summed up my irritation in that essay with, “My generation seems to have created a lot of people who think the laws of physics can be influenced by money, the legal system, and by a heartfelt ‘I wanna.’ Velocity and acceleration (up or down) are ruthless. Gravity is insensitive to your brittle bones and inflexible joints. You don't get special consideration on the highway simply because traffic is moving ‘too fast’ or you can't muster up the courage to make the bike stop or turn (or keep up with the flow of traffic). Other highway users expect you to ‘drive it or park it.’ Being handicapped on a motorcycle is often fatal.” Almost always, in fact. I don’t know where “anybody can ride a scooter” comes from. Sure, they have small flat wheels that almost balance themselves, but that doesn’t help at all with turning, stopping, or being aware of traffic and hazards and figuring out what to do about those hazards in an emergency.

While my wife was taking a break from her morning television routine, she was reminded of my father and his “scooter experience,” which actually was an electric wheelchair. He’d been house-bound for several years by the symptoms of progressive myasthenia gravis, failing eyesight, and CHF. My step-sister thought it would be good for him to get out of the house and she, Medicare, and the VA bought him an electric wheelchair. For a couple of days, he was like a kid with a brand new motorcycle. He rode that thing around his neighborhood, to the local grocery store, and had a great time. My step-sister, on the other hand, almost had heart failure watching him blindly (literally) barrel through busy intersections and head-on into traffic without a clue that people were dodging him and freaking out at the sight of an overweight old man in an electric wheelchair in the middle of the road. Eventually, some technical issue came up with the wheelchair and he went back to watching his big screen television and 14-hours-a-day of Fox News propaganda. It could have been as simple as the battery being run down, my father was that technically inept, and nobody showed him how to use the charger. When he died, a couple of years later, the wheelchair looked brand new. He proved that it isn’t true that “anybody can ride a wheelchair.”

In the late 1970s, we were living in a small Nebraska town and a friend, the drummer in a band I’d been in, decided he wanted to buy a motorcycle so he could ride with his friends. I was a dirt-only motorcyclist at the time and had been for 15 years, but I helped him find a good buy on a barely-used Honda CX500 Deluxe, gave him a little instruction about how to ride the bike, convinced him to buy a helmet, a decent leather jacket, some boots, and gloves. And off he went. The friends he wanted to ride with were an assortment of cruiser wannabe-biker types with a couple of actual hardcore bikers—prison tats and criminal records and all. None of the be’s and wannabes wore any actual motorcycle gear and they quickly convinced him to dump the helmet, boots, gloves, but he could keep the jacket for cool days. They also “helped” him install ape-hangers and disable the front brake, partly because the stock brake line wasn’t long enough. Not even a whole month into this experience, he flew off of the road in a mild turn, plowed through a barbed-wire fence, and tumbled almost 100’ before he ended up in a tangled heap in a corn field.

His head injury left him with a speech impediment for the rest of his life and other neurological damage that left him pretty much a very young stroke victim. His legs were broken so badly that there was talk about amputating one or both, but they ended up reassembling him with pins and rods so that he could hobble around on his own. Of course, he was no longer a musician. You have to be able to flex everything in your legs and feet to operate a high hat and kick drum and the rest of his coordination and strength wasn’t up to handling the sticks. So, he’s mostly just been a barfly for the last 40 years, luckily he had a significant inheritance to cover his expenses and to provide him with shelter. Like Regis and my father, my friend (and several of his friends over the next few years) proved that it isn’t true that “anybody can ride a motorcycle.”

The industry, of course, has a vested interest in convincing as many people as possible that they belong on an expensive motorcycle that will enhance their lifestyle and self-image. Unfortunately, the so-called “motorcycle safety” industry is usually directly connected to the manufacturers (MIC/MSF, for example) and their vested interests are all about “putting butts on seats” with minimal interference from actual safety concerns. Thanks to them and their efforts, goofballs like David Letterman are deluded into believing the hype and imagining "that anybody can ride a scooter."


  1. In 1985, I attended Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Phoenix, AZ. My schoolmates tried to get me to ditch the helmet (no helmet law in Arizona at the time). I tried to explain that I got into an accident when I was around 19. Even though I was wearing a helmet, almost got killed. They didn't listen, one of the guys suffered a head injury and that was the end of his school year. He was lucky he survived, was sent home in a wheelchair.

  2. Another great read, Geezer. The biggest problem in the States with motorcycling, apart from blind car drivers, is probably utter newbies hopping straight onto some WAY too powerful "Organ Donor Special". The British had the right idea about easing in new motorcyclists prior to the '80s, after which the various qualifications and mandatory training just got so bizarrely complicated that I no longer quite know what I could legally ride there without a scientific calculator and a handy table of Kilowatt to Horsepower equivalents. Back then new "Learner" riders simply had to take a cursory written test about signage, rules of the road, that sort of thing, but were then limited to machines under 250cc for a year, had to post a big red "L" on a white background placard on the bike to give other drivers fair warning, couldn't carry a passenger unless he or she had a full motorcycle license...those sort of simple and sensible restrictions. After a year or so, the learner could then take the full comprehensive riding exam, pass it, and only then move on to whichever bigger bike they liked, having at least survived long enough to learn how to ride on a sensible bike not designed to kill them at the least misstep.

    You mention that Honda CX500. I always liked those "Guzziesque" things, as did probably thousands of motorcycle couriers, with whom that model was very popular. In fact, I recently even went to look over one of its full tourer siblings for sale, a GL500, also known as a "Silverwing"--a sort of half pint rendition of their big Goldwing. Sadly, we could come to no agreement on price. Still, I'm sure I could have gotten along quite happily with it. I get the appeal of Goldwings, but suspect I personally might be happier on something a bit more "clickable" and less corpulent.

    1. Until the 80's, Minnesota and a few other states also had a tiered motorcycle endorsement system. ABATE and other anti-motorcyclist "organizations" fought that, helmet laws, and wasted taxpayer money on faux-training programs like the MSF's pablum and the result has been carnage on the highways. In my old age, I'm beginning to see most of that death and destruction as reasonable evolution and culling of the herd.

    2. I had a CX500 Deluxe for several years and more than 100,000 hard miles. It was a great bike at the time. In the mid-80s, I had a shot at a Silverwing GL500 for a decent price, but after a few years on a Yamaha Vision and XT350, the Silverwing just seemed oversized, underpowered, top-heavy, and awkward. I just couldn't go back.


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