Sons of Anarchy? Motorcycle riders more likely to be retired boomers

Their first date, a road trip to Truckee in the early 1980s, was on the back of his motorcycle. Then marriage and busy careers kept Mark and Molly Korb too busy to spend much time on his bike, and a minor accident on Auburn Folsom Road left them rattled, though thankfully not injured.

Not until a decade ago, nearing his retirement from insurance sales, did Mark Korb again feel the urge to ride. He heard the characteristic roar of a Harley-Davidson echoing across the golden hills near the couple’s Newcastle home, and that was it.

“The call of the pipes,” said Molly Korb, 58, who runs her own bath and kitchen design firm.

Five years ago, she began riding, too – not on a Harley like her husband, who’s now 71, but on a lighter, more nimble BMW motorcycle.

“This is midlife,” she said, “but it’s not a crisis.”

The math of the motorcyclist is consistent: Research through the decades shows that as the baby boom generation ages, so does the population of motorcycle devotees. Far from the outdated stereotype of rebellion and outlaw living that bikers represented back in baby boomers’ youth, California’s motorcycle riders today tend to be older and quite established in their lives: educated and married, with a median income of more than $64,000 in 2012, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

“We have doctors, lawyers and dentists in our group,” said Mark Korb, who rides with the 130-member Gold Country Harley Riders group.

Auburn’s vice mayor, 58-year-old Keith Nesbitt, also rides a Harley, which can take his constituents by surprise the first time they see him not in a business suit but in his leathers and chaps.

“I’m kind of a nerd Harley rider,” he said. “I’m not the big tough guy. I ride with a small group of friends, and one of the wives calls us ‘The Mild Hogs.’”

California Department of Motor Vehicles data show that baby boomers make up 56 percent of the almost 1.4 million Californians licensed to operate motorcycles, while only 30 percent of Class M licenses are held by people ages 16 through 40. Although the average age of riders across the country has gradually risen from 33 in the late 1990s to 41 in 2009, it’s the youngest motorcycle enthusiasts who still tend to get in the most trouble on the road: Generation after generation, they’re inexperienced, untrained and often unlicensed.

But the aging of motorcycle riders brings problems, too.

The number of older riders killed in motorcycle crashes has doubled since 1995, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even though state and national motorcycle fatalities dipped slightly in 2013, more because of difficult winter weather than a new appreciation for safety, California Office of Traffic Safety assistant director Chris Cochran said retirement-age motorcyclists represent a growing group of riders involved in bad accidents.

“There are more fatalities in the younger group, but it’s a problem for older riders, too,” he said. “Maybe they had a motorcycle back in the 1960s or 1970s, and now that they’re retired, they have more leisure time and more money and they want to rejoin the riding community.

“They tend to think they can just go back to what they did at 22. They don’t feel that they’re invincible, but they have too much confidence. They have too much motorcycle with too little strength and too little training.”

And when older riders are in motorcycle crashes, even fairly minor, slow-speed mishaps, they’re more likely to suffer injuries. Brown University research suggests that motorcyclists who are 60 and older are hospitalized after an accident three times more often than younger riders. That’s mostly because older people – even those who don’t consider themselves old – are more likely to have underlying health conditions.

And the normal aging process can make older riders more at risk, the Brown study shows, because they’re more likely to have delayed reaction time, balance problems, declining vision and decreased bone density and muscle strength.

“When you’re 35 and fall off a motorcycle at 25 miles per hour, you bounce,” Cochran said. “At 75, you break a hip.”

After retired marketing executive Dale Brinsley moved to Sun City Lincoln Hills a decade or so ago, the longtime Harley rider noticed so many motorcycles in his new community that he established a club there. On the second Saturday of every month, the RoadRunners group rides in formation – and carefully minds the speed limit – on tours around Northern California. Once a year, they do a long-distance ride along the coast or to Oregon.

Brinsley first rode a motorcycle when he was 12, in the Indiana countryside where he was raised. Now, at 74, he’s hanging up his leathers and has put his Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic up for sale.

“It’s time,” he said. “We lose members not just because of age but because they have medical conditions. You want to quit before it’s too late.

“That’s what I’m going through myself. My reflexes are really good, but I’ll be 75 in a couple of months. It’s time for the younger guys to take over.”

Trikes – big three-wheel motorcycles – represent a growing segment of the motorcycle market, as an aging biker population deals with aching hips and knees and balance that’s grown uncertain. But Brinsley said the trike is not for him.

“We have a couple of trikes in our club,” he said. “I gave it consideration, but that’s not what I want to do.”

Mark Korb began riding as a 17-year-old back in North Dakota. It was 1961. He liked the freedom of being on a motorcycle, leaning into curves, with the scenery surrounding him as he rode. His wife, Molly, decided a few years ago that she wanted to share the experience with him – but on her own motorcycle. So she took safety classes at Sierra College.

“As soon as they let me turn the throttle on that little bike in class, it was love,” she said. “Oh, yes.”

Not long ago, the Korbs returned from a two-week ride together up the coast into British Columbia. He regularly does organized weekend rides in the foothills with his motorcycle club, which raises money for charity on many of its runs. And she belongs to Gold Country Riders, a women’s motorcycle group.

“People will say, ‘You ride a motorcycle? Do you have tattoos?’” Molly Korb said. “I’m not following the stereotype.”

“Sons of Anarchy,” the popular TV show about a fictional Central Valley outlaw motorcycle group, recycles all the old stereotypes, but the Korbs and their motorcycling friends aren’t having it.

“The show does not represent a good element,” Mark Korb said. “I like to think we’re a good element.”

“This is middle America having fun in their mature years,” his wife said. “If you didn’t know these people ride, you’d have no idea they’re on Harleys.”