Hello, Moto

For Michigan's 553,000 motorcycle enthusiasts, April showers bring more than just May flowers. When the stormy skies finally clear, "It's all barbecues and motorcycles."

That is according to rider Dale Chilton. Known as "Dale Daddy" in some circles, Chilton starts riding earlier in the year than most. No matter the temperature, once the threat of inclement weather has lifted, Chilton hits the road on his 2006 Suzuki Boulevard.

"I start as soon as the snow's all done and there's no chance of getting caught in a storm on the way back from work," says Chilton, 38.

At 800 cc engine -- a little less than half the size of a 2.0 liter Volkswagen Golf engine -- the Boulevard isn't the biggest cruiser on the market. But it offers great styling, a powerful ride and great gas mileage -- about 60 miles per gallon, says Chilton, who uses the bike for his four-mile work commute.

Runs in the family

Though Chilton didn't buy his first motorcycle (a 1986 Kawasaki ZL600) until 1992, he's definitely a veteran rider. The Michigan native started riding dirt bikes "as a kid" and kept it up through high school. Fortunately, he found guidance from an unconventional source -- his grandmother.

"My grandpa and grandma both had Enduros in the 70s," Chilton says, referring to a type of bike used for both off-road racing and street riding. "When I got to 5th or 6th grade, I could ride my grandma's." 

Motorcycle aficionado Jeremy Pyne had no such luck.

Even though his parents were avid riders, Pyne, 31, had never been on a motorcycle until nine years ago.

"My mother and father were riders in the '70s before they started having children," says Pyne. "My father even raced dirt track back then. They have all sorts of stories about riding to the Upper Peninsula. You would think that I grew up with motorcycles, but that didn't happen."

Pyne, who grew up in Cedar Springs, says he had wanted to buy a motorcycle since graduating from high school, but "hadn't really found a good way to learn and buy one." That changed when he met Matt Vanderwoude, a local rider who frequented the diner where Pyne worked at the time.

Vanderwoude was selling his motorcycle so that he could buy parts to fix his father's 1976 Honda Goldwing. Pyne bought the custom Honda CM400 two days after test-driving it in a mall parking lot -- his first solo ride.

"It was a small starter bike but still… scary experience sitting on top of a two-wheeled machine and zipping through the parking lot," he recalls.

Even scarier? Solo ride number two: riding his new motorcycle home alone in traffic.

"Actually for the first month, I backed up traffic on most of my rides because I was being cautious and wasn't ready to go 60 down the road."

Risky business

This 'buy a motorcycle first, learn to ride it later' approach is not exactly recommended by Steve Lick, coordinator for the State of Michigan's Motorcycle Safety Program and Program Manager for Grand Rapids Community College's Motorcycle Safety Program.

"Ninety-two percent of people involved in crashes learned from a friend," Lick says. "So they obviously miss a lot."

There's a lot to miss. According to Lick, safe riding requires mastery of over 200 different skills -- proper cornering, braking, and swerving techniques, recognizing and avoiding obstacles, staying in your lane...the list goes on.

"The main things that most people miss are head turns going around corners," says Lick. "By physically adjusting your head, you can change your path of travel. Your hands follow your eyes, and your eyes follow your head."

In addition to leading novice riders in 17 skill-building exercises, Motorcycle Safety Program instructors also help students understand the mechanics behind the motion.

"We structure our class a little differently than other programs," Lick explains. "We start with how all the pieces all interact with each other. Then we work with friction, how the power is transferred."

Currently offered in four Michigan counties, the Motorcycle Safety Program is subsidized by a grant from Secretary of State's Office. Five dollars of every licensed rider's endorsement fee goes toward the grant. But demand for training consistently outpaces program capacity, a factor that keeps prospective riders out of the course. Even if you don't get into his program, Lick still "strongly encourages" formal training with a private provider, which typically costs $150 to $450.

Whatever you do, don't ask your significant other to teach you, Lick advises.

"We always tell people: don't try to teach someone you care about how to ride a motorcycle. For $25 bucks you can give us all that problem," says Lick.

"It's broken up several relationships," he adds.

Better safe than dead

Even with stellar riding technique, all motorcyclists are very much at risk.

According to the Hurt Report -- named for the researcher, not the subject matter -- most motorcycle accidents happen because motorists "fail to detect and recognize" bikes in traffic.

In Michigan, over 50 percent of fatal motorcycle crashes involve collisions with moving cars. Crash survivors will likely sustain injuries that range in severity from broken bones to spinal cord and brain damage. In fact, motorcycle accidents account for nearly one-third of all traumatic brain injury (TBI) cases that occur in the U.S. each year.

Fortunately, riders can minimize the risk of death and massive head trauma by simply wearing a helmet. Wearing a helmet reduces the likelihood of crash fatality by 37 percent; riding without one increases crash survivors' chances of TBI by a factor of three. Contrary to urban legend and anecdotes, properly fitting helmets do not obstruct peripheral vision, make it harder to hear or snap necks with their ponderous weight.

Despite so much evidence demonstrating the benefits of helmets, a small (4 percent according to Lick), yet vocal minority of Michigan riders is vying for helmet law repeal.

"Their claim is freedom… the freedom to enjoy experiences without being hindered by safety," said Lick, a member of motorcyclist safety association SMARTER.

In a state that recently banned texting while driving: "They feel they have this right."

Proponents also contend that repealing the helmet law will generate $1.2 billion for Michigan.

"They say it will be an increase in tourist dollars, that the five states around us don't have helmet laws and people won't come spend their money in our state," says Lick.

Here's how the $1.2 billion figure -- an estimate lifted from a 2004 Michigan Consultants economic impact study -- breaks down: $54 million from tourism, over $600 million from motorcycle and accessory sales and resales and a whopping $533 million of "ripple effect". Here is an excerpt from the report, which does not seem to factor in health care costs for injured riders, increased burden on public service agencies or loss of life.

If passed, the new legislation would require many helmet-free riders to purchase $20,000 in personal liability insurance—not enough to offset the exorbitant costs of emergency care, long-term rehabilitation and lost wages associated with common crash injuries like traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Michigan offers few public services for TBI care, says the Department of Community Health. According to its report "Addressing Michigan's Public Service Gaps for Persons with Traumatic Brain Injury", many TBI survivors, most under age 45, are sent to live in nursing homes.

The Office of Highway Safety believes repealing the helmet law will, annually, cost Michigan 30 lives and $129 million dollars -- more than twice the estimated tourist revenue.

"The amount of money they are talking about bringing into the state will be eaten up by the catastrophic consequences," says Lick firmly. "I'm wearing a helmet no matter what."

A many-splendored thing

Ultimately, riding safe increases the likelihood of another day to carry on the love affair between man (or woman) and motorcycle. Or motorcycles, in some cases.

"You gotta have more than one. You have to have several," Lick, who seemed completely reasonable during the safety part of the interview, informs me excitedly. "I mean, how many days are there in the week?"

Pyne admits he's naturally monogamous. Though he owns two bikes, he primarily rides his father's 1976 Kawasaki KZ 900, which he spent two years lovingly restoring.

"It had been sitting for 25 years and the engine was completely seized. I ended up finding a bike like mine that had been in an accident but the engine was still operational," he explains.

"I stripped my father's bike down to the frame and put the new engine into it. Then I put it all back together, brought the tank and side covers in for a paint job, and now that is the main bike that I ride."

As in any long-term relationship, Lick says there's always something that riders can improve. He suggests that seasoned motorcyclists check out advanced rider courses to refresh their skills; those with a need for speed can spice up their humdrum rides with racing classes. 

"I have friends who like to ride fast, really fast," says Lick. "They do it once a month on a track, get their fix, and then they're better on the street."

After five decades and thousands of miles, Lick still looks for ways to take his own riding to the next level.

"I've got 50 years in this sport and I'm still looking for new things to learn," he says. "When I decide to stop learning things, it's time for me to give up the motorcycle."

Ruth is a freelance writer and fundraising consultant living in East Hills. She enjoys world foods, travel, crafts and those BBC ocean documentaries. Ruth also has very curly hair.

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved


Jeremy Pyne photographed near Millennium Park