Despite their age, they ride with gusto

Posted: Tuesday, September 30, 2003

TIVERTON, R.I. Benjamin ''Ben'' Lewis hops on his '89 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide motorcycle, and in the blink of an eye, swings the nearly half-ton machine off its kickstand and upright as if he were a gymnast mounting a balance beam.

''I know a lot of younger people who can't stand this thing up,'' Lewis says with some relish.

At 82 years, Lewis could be rocking on the front porch of his baby blue wood-frame home just up the hill from an Atlantic Ocean inlet, with his girlfriend, Doris, who's 20 years his junior, at his side. But he keeps on riding to destinations far and wide.

He's been to about every major national park, and his pictures and logs are proof that he's rambled through the continental 48 at least once over. Last summer, he scooted with a partner to Nova Scotia, Canada a trip of some 2,000 miles, or the equivalent of traveling from St. Louis to San Francisco.

The trim, tattooed Lewis is part of a growing number of folks who are spending their golden years grinding pavement on a motorcycle rather than in an RV. Sales of motorcycles to people 50 and over nearly doubled, to 19 percent, between 1990 and 1998. It was the most pronounced growth spurt of any age category, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council in Irvine, Calif., and makes older riders the second largest buyers group, behind the 40-49 age group.

Older bikers shun cars like the plague. They almost spit as they refer to automobiles as ''boxes,'' describing these drivers more or less as zombies who focus solely on getting from point A to B.

By contrast, motorcycling offers a visceral interaction with the environment, older bikers say, where sights, smell and sounds pelt the senses all at once.

''It's sort of an elixir, a soothing feeling, like taking a Quaalude,'' said Al Ashukin, a 64-year-old who owns the Honda touring model Gold Wing and runs a motorcycle accessories store in Warwick. ''It's just your thoughts, your bike and nature, you're all one.''

The graybeards and grandes dames come in all shapes and sizes. Some are flashy riders, some are herky-jerky; others are boring but technically flawless. They are intelligent, and thoughtful hardly fitting the popular image of the rough-and-tumble Hells Angels of yore. The common denominator is they share a passion. They tinker with the tailpipes, paint their helmets, nickname their toys, and admire them lovingly.

It's 8 a.m. on Saturday at Rhea's, a bed and breakfast in Middletown, and about two dozen bikers are eating breakfast at a long table and swapping tales. The camaraderie is real, and heartfelt in this graying gang they call ROMEO Real Old Motorcyclists Eating Out.

One story that never ceases to entertain is ''How Ben Lewis Turned His Bike On A Dime.'' Jon Elwell, a 61-year-old Harley rider who described Lewis as ''everybody's monument to life,'' remembers it as if it happened yesterday.

It was about 12 years ago. Lewis was in a Seekonk, Mass., restaurant parking lot, and had just peeled away from the group. Someone signaled to him and Lewis, in one deft motion, spun the machine around. He completed the 180-degree turn in the space of a bike length.

''He just pulled the plug, threw that thing on its side, and laid on the gas,'' Elwell says, his green eyes alit. ''And, I just stood there in awe.''

Many of the stories that morning deal with nearly running out of gasoline a common predicament since motorbikes can get as few as 80 miles per tank.

Lewis remembers when he and his friend, Arthur Raposo, were traveling in South Dakota one weekend five years ago. Raposo was on fumes when they found a pump, but the station was closed. The bikers sat, and waited. After some time, a man and his wife came by. ''Can we get some gas?'' Lewis remembers asking the locals. ''Station's closed until Monday,'' the man told them.

The pair pleaded. The husband shook his head, no. Finally, the lady said: ''Follow us,'' and the couple led them to their house and a drum of fuel. Raposo filled up, and, in a fit of glee, enthusiastically hugged the wife.

''I'll give you the gas,'' the husband said, ''but I won't give you my wife.''

Most motorcyclists are men. Still, women make up a sizable share. In 1998, there were 3.2 million female riders, out of 19.1 million total, meaning one out of every six bikers was a woman.

Bonnie Kiefer is one of them. The 62-year-old is an admitted tomboy, who played rugby as an adult and worked as an engineer for Hughes Aircraft in Fullerton, Calif., before migrating to Rhode Island four years ago to take a job with defense contractor Raytheon.

Kiefer bought her first bike 12 years ago. It was a sporty little number, an apple red Honda 600cc Shadow with pinstripes.

''I had to go by it four times a day, to look at it, sit on it,'' Kiefer said.

Her younger sister had a different opinion. ''She just said, 'My sister, the hood,''' Kiefer recalled.

Kiefer ran into a mountain on her first ride. She cried when she saw a dent in her fuel tank. But she got back on, and hasn't looked back since.

Kiefer was in Vermont in fall 2001 when she converted to a Harley. She took a spin on Elwell's bike, and shrugged after she finished. Elwell figured his friend was not impressed.

He pulled into a motel and there was Kiefer, standing next to him, annoyed. ''She said, 'Goddamn you, I got back on that sewing machine,''' Elwell recalled, describing Kiefer's opinion of the soft, nondescript purr of her bike. ''And, that was the end of it.''

Enshrined in her garage is ''Pegasus.'' It's Kiefer's Harley Road Glide.

The 900-pound touring bike is painted purple and has all the accouterments: purple-colored fairing, purple tassels from the handle bars, a mud flap with the silver, winged horse and a ''Pegus'' vanity plate. The chrome gleams. The leather is smooth, tender to the touch. Not a smudge anywhere.

''I want to look good out there,'' she explains.

Motorcyclists love their accessories. At Russ Hampton's Harley-Davidson store in Warwick, shoppers can find just about anything with the Harley seal even more so as the Milwaukee company commemorated its 100th anniversary Aug. 28-30.

Harley Monopoly board game, Harley birthday cake candles, fishing lures, furniture, home bar furnishings, and of course, gobs of attire.

All salespeople wear Harley clothes. The staff drinks coffee supplied in Harley coffee pouches.

What sells well? Hampton is asked. ''All of it,'' he replies.

Last February, Lewis was in his car, on his way to Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Fla. He hadn't even left Rhode Island when a car smacked him from behind. For one of the few times since he was 15, Lewis couldn't ride a bike.

It wasn't age that sidelined Ben Lewis. It was lousy luck.

Lewis vows he'll ride again, as soon as his head quits hurting. His friends have no doubt about that, either. He lifts small weights for his arms, and does rowing-like exercises to keep his legs strong.

Like other older bikers, the man with the diamond stud in his left ear concedes little to age, and he doesn't expect to quit riding anytime soon.

''I don't feel old,'' he says without boasting, ''and I can keep up with the best of them, I tell you that.''

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