Motorcycling is dangerous. Check.
Riders endure sweltering heat and brutal cold. Check.
At 50 mph, raindrops sting like BBs, bugs strike like bullets. Check.
Headgear, comically bulbous, ruins hairdos. Check.
What's not to love? Let's ride.
According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, more than 23 million people operated a motorcycle in the United States in 2003. Around 6.6 million actually owned a motorcycle. Their average age: 41 - up from 32 in 1990. Today, about 10 percent of operators are women, up from 6.4 percent in 1990.
What's the draw?
"When we look at our motorcycle-owners survey data about why people purchase, the top three reasons that people purchase motorcycles are No. 1, fun and recreation; No. 2, enjoy the outdoors; and No. 3, for relaxation," said MIC spokesman Mike Mount.
R.D. Bingo Fournier, a motorcycle salesman in Gaithersburg, was 35 years old before he learned to drive a car. Before that, he did all his driving on a motorcycle.
For Fournier, 38, motorcycling was a lifestyle choice more than a transportation option.
"I just liked it all. I liked the long hair, the tattoos. ... I liked the freedom that it had," Fournier said. "Especially because growing up, I was a pretty heavyset kid. So I never felt the most agile guy in the world. But it seemed like the guys on the motorcycles, no matter what size they were, they were just agile. So it just made me want to ride."
Laura Mooty, a 48-year-old part-time administrative assistant at a church in Fulton, a real estate agent and a licensed funeral director, decided to add motorcycling to her life resume after talking to a group of bikers during a vacation with her husband in North Carolina last year.
"They were just so friendly and so willing to share stories about where they've been and what kind of a drive they've been on," said Mooty, whose husband, Paul, also decided to become a biker. "It was just really exciting to hear the enthusiasm from these folks. And we just kind of started talking about it more and more."
Motorcycles are synonymous with danger and freedom, but a less-known aspect of motorcycling is its appeal to the social animal. From organized rallies to casual encounters at restaurants, gas stations and scenic overlooks, bikers tend to flock. Like the Mootys, new bikers find their rides are vehicles to conversations with people they might otherwise never have met.
"You can't be an introvert and own a motorcycle," Fournier said. "Because no matter where you are, you stop and talk to people."
Along with fun, freedom, fellowship, the thrill of a lingering outlaw image and gas mileage on many models approaching 50 mpg, another draw for would-be bikers is that it's now a lot easier to learn to ride and get a license without first investing in a bike.
On Oct. 1, 1997, a change in state law offered a license waiver to any rider who passed the state motorcycle-safety training class. Rather than having to take a written and later a riding test at an MVA facility, students who pass the 17-hour class receive paperwork that entitles them to a new driver's license with a class "M" endorsement that lets them operate a motorcycle.
With that change, the lines for motorcycle-course registration "got nutty," said Philip Sause, coordinator for the state Motor Vehicle Administration's motorcycle-safety program.
Last year alone, the state issued 6,000 training-completion certificates that allowed bearers to drive motorcycles.
It's not unusual to have summer classes filled by January or February. At Elkridge Harley-Davidson, where Mooty and her husband, took the class, the next-earliest opening is in October.
For Mooty, the course marked the first time she'd ever operated a motorcycle.
"I'd been very excited about it, and yet I know just from statistics and stuff like that it's probably a little dangerous. But I got on the bike and discovered it's not as bad as I thought," she said. "It did literally take my breath away. It was spellbinding, absolutely spellbinding."
The Mootys' class ended Sunday with a riding test that Paul Mooty passed and Laura Mooty just missed passing. During the test, her bike stalled, and rather than regrouping and restarting, she recovered and kept going but her bike crossed a white boundary line, and she was disqualified.
"My spirits were crushed, absolutely crushed," she said. "Because I pulled off all the other tests flawlessly."
She's scheduled to retake the test, and she said she expects to pass this time. "I know where I made the mistake and I will definitely not repeat it. I want my license yesterday and I want my bike yesterday."
Eager to join the biker ranks, Mooty nevertheless said she will not indulge in a longtime biker tradition: getting tattoos. One must draw the adventure line somewhere.
"I might get more body piercings, though," she said.