Finding freedom on two wheels

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Barbara Ruben

When Linda Crill was widowed six years ago, she tried to follow the advice of friends on how to move beyond her grief. They encouraged her to focus on eating well and getting lots of exercise and sleep.

Crill started bicycling up to 120 miles a week, sleeping nine hours a night, and “eating more holistically than Whole Foods.” None of it helped.

“I was still miserable 18 months later,” said Crill, who is now 62 and lives in Reston, Va. “I finally blew up one day and said, ‘I’m an overachiever and it’s not working.’ I thought, what is the most extremely opposite thing I could think of to all this advice?”

So Crill bought a BMW touring motorcycle, and within a month joined a group of bikers on a 2,500-mile ride along the Pacific Coast.

Despite her initial feelings of utter terror at riding in rush-hour traffic — not to mention riding up the steep ramp of a ferry boat in Vancouver and on a road that suddenly deteriorated to hazardous, tire-spewing gravel in California — Crill became a convert and found a way to recover joy in her life.

“When I’m riding on back roads…you don’t let your mind just wander like in a car. You’re constantly there. That’s what so many of us like.

“The joy of motorcycling isn’t to get somewhere. It’s to enjoy the ride,” Crill said. She’s also made many new friends on her trips through the U.S. and Mexico.

An added bonus of taking up motorcycling was that her daughter thought she was cool. “My daughter was in college and at the age where many people don’t want to bring their friends home to meet their parents.

“As soon as they found out I went motorcycling, all of them wanted to meet me. I became sort of a status symbol for her,” Crill recalled.

Crill, a former executive coach, writes a blog about her experiences called “Blind Curves” (www.blindcurves.com). Recent entries have titles like “Welcoming the voice of fear,” and “First aid for lost passion.”

The online blog has brought her many fellow travelers and interested readers, and has led her to compile her many stories into a memoir she hopes to publish soon with the title Blind Curves.

Motorcycles go mainstream

There may once have been a stereotype of motorcyclists as “toughs” or “hoodlums,” but that has changed as motorcycles have become more mainstream means of transportation and recreation.

Since 1998, 1.25 million American households have added a motorcycle to their family’s vehicles, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. And Harley-Davidson reports that their average rider today has an income of $80,000 to $90,000.

With their “who me? I’m not getting older” mentality, it’s not surprising that baby boomers make up a majority of motorcyclists. Today, boomers outnumber younger motorcycle owners two to one.

And though motorcycling is still primarily a male sport, more women are joining them on the road. According to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, more than 4 million women in the U.S. know how to ride.

Gaby Rudderow rode a small Honda motorcycle through college, business school, and even to work as a young adult. But when she got married, she was convinced to sell her bike.

“My husband…didn’t like that I rode. I was very upset by that, but I told myself, ‘I’m going to have children and I’m not going to be riding because it’s dangerous” and my children depend on me, said Rudderow.

So Rudderow, now 58, took a 26-year hiatus from riding. But once her four children were grown, she couldn’t resist the lure of the road and bought a new motorcycle in 2003.

“You don’t smell honeysuckle and barbecue and chimney smoke from a car,” she said. “The leaning into the curves and the wind are just indescribable.

“And the things you see from the motorcycle — scenery, bridges, valleys, rainbows, sunrises, sunsets — you don’t see that from a car,” said Rudderow, who lives in Crofton, Md., and works for an architect who also loves to ride.

In 2004, Rudderow rode on her own from Maryland to a family reunion in Quebec. Over the past eight years alone she’s ridden more than 140,000 miles, earning several awards for her high mileage from a national group for female bikers called Women on Wheels. Rudderow is the director of the group’s local chapter, called Capitol Cruisers (www.capitolcruisers.org).

Like Crill, Rudderow has enjoyed meeting people on her rides. “When you stop, everybody you meet is interested in what you’re doing. When there’s other people on motorcycles, you’re family even if you don’t know these people,” she said.

Honoring veterans

Not only local motorcyclists, but hundreds of thousands from across the county roar into Washington each Memorial Day weekend for the Rolling Thunder gathering. 

Begun in 1988, the annual event is the trademark activity of the veteran’s group, intended to draw attention to the issue of U.S. prisoners of war and those still missing in action.

This year, more than 250,000 motorcyclists — mostly veterans, but also family members and veterans’ advocates —are expected here, and on May 29, members of the group will ride from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in what they call a demonstration ride.

“Demonstration weekend is unbelievable. It’s overwhelming,” said Murray Hall, of Accokeek, Md., who has ridden in Rolling Thunder since 2002. In fact, he bought his motorcycle after watching Rolling Thunder on TV for years.

Hall retired from the military 20 years ago. Now 60, he is president of the Rolling Thunder chapter for Prince George’s, Montgomery, Charles and St. Mary’s counties in Maryland.

According to Hall, the average age of the riders who have been with Rolling Thunder since it started is 60-something. “Every year you see less of the guys you saw the previous year because their health doesn’t allow them to continue. Some have been affected by Agent Orange.

“You’re there to support the MIA/POW issue, but you’re also there to support those guys who have given their all to be there year after year. [As long as] I have my health and strength I’m going to be there with them,” Hall said.

While Hall enjoys recreational riding, he said that the Memorial Day ride is like nothing else he’s ever experienced. “People set up lawn chairs, and they’re out there cheering and waving [at us]. It’s a touching moment,” he said.

“I’ve talked to guys and encouraged them to attend, and I tell them, ‘You’re never going to feel anything like it.’”

In addition to the Memorial Day ride, local members of Rolling Thunder hold cookouts with wounded veterans at Walter Reed throughout the warmer months and volunteer to assist residents at the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home.

Among them is Brie O’Neal, 50, who had ridden motorcycles when she was younger, and is now saving to purchase one of her own.

“Working in D.C. in the late 1980s, I used to go down to Memorial Day activities. I heard this huge noise [from Rolling Thunder] and wanted to see what was going on,” recalled O’Neal, who lives in Silver Spring. “It was just thrilling to see so many motorcycles come together for a single purpose.”

She still attends each year’s events, but finds even more fulfillment in her ongoing participation doing volunteer work with veterans.

“It’s amazing to see what I’ll call our more mature members with the young men and women from Iraq. It’s beautiful. And I love going to Charlotte Hall, dancing with the World War II vets,” she said.

Safety is paramount

Motorcycle riding may be popular, but it can also be dangerous. That’s why Crill, Rudderow, Hall and O’Neal all emphasize the importance of safety while riding.

The statistics can be frightening. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that motorcyclist fatalities have increased for every age group, with a larger increase in the 50-and-above age group.

Similarly, the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) found that the number of motorcyclists 45 and older killed in crashes in Michigan nearly quadrupled from 2001 to 2005.

 “As people age, their bodies become more fragile and their chances of dying as a result of a crash increase,” said UMTRI researcher Lidia Lostyniuk.

To help hone riding skills, the Motorcycle Safety Foundation offers courses. A list can be found at www.msf-usa.org.

Crill has taken a number of classes. “I’m a strong safety advocate,” she said. “I really think so many motorcycle accidents are unnecessary if people had the training.

“So many people think, there’s nothing to it, you just get on and ride. [But] every hand and foot is doing something different. The left hand is your clutch, the right hand is your throttle, but behind the right hand is also the brake. The right foot is another brake. The left foot is moving your shift up and down.”

Rudderow sees it this way: “People who don’t further their education and skills are always going to be beginners, no matter how many years they ride.

Rudderow works to update her safety practices because she wants to keep riding for a very long time.

“When it’s in your heart and it’s in your soul and it’s in your very being to be on that little machine, it’s just indescribable,” she said.

Carol Sorgen contributed to this story.