Sunday, March 03, 2024

Boise residents riding high on motorcycles

by Katy Moeller
| March 31, 2010 9:00 PM

BOISE (AP) - Just as flowers begin to bloom each spring, motorcycles pop up again on Idaho roads. In more ways than one, Idaho is motorcycle country.

Idaho ranks fifth in the country (tied with North Dakota) for "penetration" of motorcycles - that's the number of motorcycles relative to the population, according to Motorcycle Industry Council data from 2008.

There are 5.3 motorcycles in use for every 100 people in Idaho; the national average is 3.5. Wyoming ranked first, with 7.2 motorcycles per 100 people.

In another study, Boise ranked fourth out of 88 metro areas in motorcycle ownership among adults. That study, published in 2008 by The Media Audit, found that 14.8 percent of adults in Boise own a motorcycle.

That doesn't surprise Ernie Lombard, a 70-year-old Idaho native who got his first motorcycle at 16 and now owns a fleet of about 20.

"It's our roads and open country, our sparse population and the distance between towns," said Lombard, noting that most motorcyclists prefer back roads to freeways. "If you want to experience the open road, there are some wonderful two- or three-day loops in Idaho, Oregon and Montana."

Lombard, a retired architect who has been a member of the Idaho Parks & Recreation Board for 14 years, said motorcyclists also love Idaho's 6,000 miles of designated motorized trails - the most of any state in the country, according to state parks officials. They are well maintained by park rangers and volunteers, Lombard and others said.

"User groups have adopted trails, and the users themselves go out and do a lot of work," Lombard said.

Owners of off-road motorcycles pay a $12.50 annual registration fee. Most of that money goes toward trail maintenance.

Motorcyclists can take dirt roads all the way from Boise to Stanley and McCall, and most of the way to Missoula, Mont., said Jack Struthers, co-owner of Carl's Cycle Sales. Dual-sport motorcycles - which have lights, turn signals, license plates and off-road stickers and are legal for both on-road and off-road driving - are typically used for trips to Missoula, Struthers said.

"I've gone all the way to Canada on dirt roads and trails," Lombard said.

Kuna resident Mark Weaver loved riding motorcycles as a kid and young adult. The 48-year-old computer administrator took a two-decade hiatus, but now he's riding more than ever. He and his fiancee went dirt-biking every single weekend last year.

"All 52 weeks. We're kind of obsessed about it. That's kind of our way of hanging out with friends," said Weaver, adding that many of his friends enjoy fishing, hiking and camping in the backcountry.

Many of the best motorized single-track trails are only passable and open during the summer, but trail systems in the desert along the Owyhee front offer year-round riding opportunities, Weaver said.

Weaver, who moved to Idaho about 3 years ago, said one of the big draws for him was the motorcycle riding terrain - both on-road and off-road.

"Idaho has a large percentage of all-single-track trails in the U.S. forest system, and that's not counting dirt and back roads, like (the road to) Yellow Pine," he said. "I know several people who moved here specifically because of the dirt-biking opportunities."

Weaver, who is president of the Treasure Valley Trail Machine Association, is a strong advocate of keeping trails in good condition for all users. Each year, he said, members of the club spend hundreds of hours maintaining trails.

Registration for off-highway vehicles in Idaho - including motorcycles, ATVs and utility vehicles - hit 135,362 in 2008. That's a more than 45 percent increase over 2004 registrations.

For 14 years in a row, motorcycle sales grew nationwide. But in 2007, sales started to fall off.

Rising gas prices in 2008 helped buoy sales of road bikes, as commuters looked for alternatives to gas-guzzling cars.

"Road sales were way up, but ATV and dirt bike (sales) were way off," said Struthers, whose father opened Carl's Cycles in Boise in 1966.

Of the 1.1 million new motorcycles sold in the U.S. in 2008, 81 percent were on-highway motorcycles, according to industry data.

Falling gas prices last year, along with the sluggish economy, were a double-whammy on sales of on-road motorcycles. Sales for the most expensive bikes have dropped off the most.

"People aren't buying $20,000 motorcycles," Struthers said. "They're sticking with what they've got."

Dealers are hoping the past few years are a speed bump.

"We've definitely had a warmer spring than last year, and that helps sales," Struthers said. "No one likes to be outdoors when it's raining and nasty all the time."

Motorcycle riding has gone mainstream in the past decade, and more women are buying motorcycles, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

In 2008, 12.3 percent of motorcycle owners were women - up from 9.6 percent in 2003.

"I think it's becoming more accepted for women to ride. I don't think women are as afraid of getting on bikes, like they were maybe 15 or 20 years ago," said Struthers, noting his two nieces race dirt bikes.

Another growing segment of motorcyclists is Gen Y - folks generally in their 20s and early 30s now - though baby boomers still outnumber Gen Y by a ratio of 2 to 1. While baby boomers prefer traditional cruisers, Gen Y riders are snapping up the modern, high-tech sports bike, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Struthers said motorcycle touring is growing in popularity among couples, particularly as a vacation option.

"You can get a reasonably good touring bike for $10,000," he said. "If you can't afford to fly around the country on vacation, you can buy a road bike and tour around the Northwest."

Lombard's fleet of motorcycles includes a Honda Trans-Alp (designed for the French Alps), Kawasaki 650 KLR (his favorite adventure touring bike) and a Ducati Multistrada (an expensive, exotic dual-sport bike that looks like a racing bike).

"It's so sensitive, it's almost like it's reading my mind," Lombard said. "I look at the corner and think, and the bike and I just do it together."

Motorcycle registration in Idaho hit a five-year high in 2008. And so did crashes.

There were 678 crashes involving motorcycles in Idaho in 2008, according to the Idaho Transportation Department. In three of the four years prior to 2008, the annual number of crashes was under 550.

Lombard has been in some serious crashes during more than a half century of riding motorcycles all over the world. He's a believer in protective gear.

"You have to dress for the crash, not the ride," he said. "It's not if, it's when."

"I wear all the body armor I can get my hands on," Lombard said.

Ten years ago, he was riding into the Amazon jungle on what was supposed to be a one-way road. He was looking at the scenery after going over a 14,500-foot pass when he collided head-on with a Toyota four-by-four crew cab pickup truck filled with people. The bike went under the truck, and Lombard slammed into the hood and slid up onto the windshield.

"I walked away with a sprained wrist and thumb," said Lombard, who rode that rented Honda XR 600 for another five days. "I put a pretty good dent in the guy's truck."

Lombard said he always wears a helmet, and his regular riding "armor" includes a jacket that has back shoulder and arm padding and protection built into it. His pants have built-in knee protection. When he rides his dirt-bike, he also wears a chest protector.

Struthers said helmets get better every year - they are lighter and have better airflow through them than in the past for comfort and anti-fogging. They come in all colors and designs imaginable, including pink.

Helmets at Carl's Cycles range in price from about $50 to nearly $700.

As for clothing, Struthers said leather has always been the most popular. But for those looking for something lighter, more breathable and waterproof, there are suits made of Gore-Tex and Cordura. Kevlar padding in suits adds an extra measure of protection.

Neck braces are among the newest gear available to motorcyclists who want to reduce their risk of catastrophic neck injury. For those traveling in cold weather, heated pants are available - they plug into the motorcycle battery.

Weaver said he has a motorcycle suit made of Cordura, a heavy nylon.

"It's not lightweight," he said. "My motorcycling jacket is heavier than I'd want to use snowboarding, but it's not egregious."

Information from: Idaho Statesman,