Going Mobile

Can't shake the 'Easy Rider' fantasy? Try touring the world by motorcycle.

By PERRI CAPELL
Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
December 20, 2004; Page R7

As vacations go, riding a motorcycle for 66 days from Shanghai across China and Siberia to Germany would seem more challenging than relaxing. But when Norm Smith, age 77, completed the trip last spring, he found himself wanting more.

"When I met my wife and it was time to go home, all I wanted to do was turn around and run the whole thing backwards," says Mr. Smith, a retired sales manager from Washington, D.C. "It would have been fantastic."

The idea of seeing the world from the seat of a motorcycle is attracting growing numbers of Americans age 50-plus. Such tours -- whether brisk one-week trips in Europe or excursions across Asia that can last two months -- offer riders an experience rarely found in more traditional travels.

"There is so much freedom," says Elizabeth Beach, 80 years old and founder of Beach's Motorcycle Adventures Ltd. in Grand Island, N.Y. "You don't look at a mountain or lake through a side window of a bus, or train or car. You can smell things, see 360 degrees around you, and hear everything."

There is also the camaraderie. Jim Russell, age 56, has been on 27 group motorcycle tours since 2000 and is planning to take six more in 2005. "I've met a lot of people in my life, but they're all business acquaintances," says Mr. Russell, chief executive of a parts company for go-carts in Kansas City, Mo. "Now I'm meeting people I like to spend time with."

At times, the tours are challenging. Riding a motorcycle hundreds of miles a day requires stamina and a willingness to brave the elements. The costs, meanwhile, can be substantial: averaging about $3,000 to $6,000 for a single person. That said, riders who venture overseas -- and older participants, in particular -- say they often come away with a sense of accomplishment.

"At the end of the day, you are entitled to bragging rights," says Skip Mascorro, founder of MotoDiscovery, a tour operator in Spring Branch, Texas.

If you have been nursing the idea of taking a bike tour overseas, these guidelines should help.

Experience Counts

Unlike most vacations, motorcycle tours usually require a fair amount of experience before you start. Taking a 40-mile ride every other Sunday on suburban byways in the U.S. isn't going to prepare you for tackling Europe or Asia.

"Don't launch on an 11,000-mile trip across Siberia because it sounds romantic," says Mr. Smith in Washington.

Helge Pederson is the founder of GlobeRiders, a tour operator based in Shoreline, Wash. The company's approaching Silk Road Adventure will take riders on a 53-day trip from Istanbul, Turkey, to Xian, China. This journey requires more strength (the bikes weigh about 600 to 800 pounds), endurance and self-confidence than typical tours on paved roads -- particularly when crossing numerous borders and riding in developing countries.

"It's an elite group that chooses to commit to 50 to 60 days on the road," Mr. Pederson says. Travelers "sometimes decide it's way too overwhelming to do this."

Admittedly, Mr. Pederson's organized rides tend toward the extreme. But even operators of more sedate tours probably will ask about your riding experience when you reserve a trip, and it isn't wise to exaggerate. You'll be the least popular person in the group if you need to ride slowly and end up holding back other riders.

"We can't teach you," says Werner Wachter, chief executive of Edelweiss Bike Travel in Austria, who says the minimum amount of riding experience needed for a tour is 5,000 miles. "We've had some people come with no experience, and we've tried to accommodate them, but sometimes they end up riding in the support van." (Most tours include support vans to carry luggage and riders' partners, who may get tired of riding on the back of bikes.)

Beginners determined to go abroad are better off starting with easier trips, such as Edelweiss's Best of Europe, which takes riders through flat European countries before reaching the Alps. Jerry Spillman, 69, a retiree in Redwood City, Calif., took that route for his first bike tour. He and another beginner on the trip rode together, he says, adding that "otherwise we might have held up the whole group."

Finding a Tour Company

A number of companies in the U.S. and overseas specialize in motorcycle tours. Start by identifying a continent or country where you wish to travel -- and the best company to take you there.

The motorcycle-touring community is small enough for travelers to easily find out which company best fits their needs. Consider several criteria: How much experience does the company have in that region? How long is the trip? How many guides will be along? What do other customers say about the operator? Do you want luxury travel and a shorter riding day? Or do you wish to ride long distances, never see the guide and arrive at your hotel late in the day?

Operators typically offer a variety of options. You can ride on only asphalt roads, both asphalt and dirt roads ("on-off" road trips), or on mostly dirt roads ("off-road"). Trips that include dirt roads might reach more remote destinations, such as a lodge in the jungle, but they're also more difficult, presenting such challenges as loose gravel, ruts or mud, which inexperienced riders don't handle well.

"We don't look for gravel roads to take," says Ron Ayres, chief executive of Ayres Adventures in Plano, Texas, which offers tours in South America, Africa and New Zealand. "But we take them when there's something different off an unpaved road that we want to get to."

'The Bike is How Big?'

If you haven't been riding a large bike in the U.S., a tour isn't the place to start.

Often, Americans select a large machine for their trips overseas, thinking they'll be viewed as beginners if they opt for smaller models. But in the Alps and other mountain regions -- with narrow, winding roads -- a smaller motorcycle can be a distinct advantage. Even in the best of circumstances, large multicylinder bikes are harder to hold up when you stop and more difficult to maneuver in tight curves.

Mr. Wachter in Austria has heard the refrain all too frequently. "They say, 'I can afford it -- which one is the biggest?' " His counsel is always the same. "I strongly advise not to go with the biggest and heaviest bike."

Tour participants can expect to ride from about 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, while stopping for coffee, lunch and sightseeing. Standard paved-road tours typically include stays at three- or four-star hotels, but in less-developed areas, lodging can be more spartan. In Mongolia, for instance, you might stay in a bed-and-breakfast yurt, says Mr. Mascorro of MotoDiscovery, which offers group tours in Mexico, Central and South America, and Turkey, among other destinations.

"We stay in nice accommodations when we can, but maybe the next day, you'll be at a working ranch in Patagonia," Mr. Mascorro says. Breakfasts and dinners usually are included in the price of the tour, but expect to pay extra for round-trip airfare, lunches, gasoline and alcoholic beverages.

Perhaps most important: Motorcycle tours aren't just about motorcycling. Most itineraries include visits to historical and cultural landmarks and side activities, such as hot-air balloon or jet-boat rides. Rest days for sightseeing in major cities -- whether it's Muscat in Oman or Wellington in New Zealand -- are scheduled.

"You don't want to stay in hotels way out of town, where you can't walk to things," says Howard Bland, 61, a retired partner at KPMG living in Corona Del Mar, Calif. "And make sure you go with someone who has tour guides who speak the language and understand the culture so the trip won't be only about motorcycle riding."

Details, Details

Besides a U.S. motorcycle license or endorsement (a designation that some states use on a regular driver's license that indicates you have passed written and riding tests for motorcycles), some countries require you to have an international driver's license, which you can get at your local AAA. Check regulations for each country on the Internet.

And this is one time to not stint on travel insurance, including coverage for medical evacuations. While Mr. Ayres in Texas asks participants who lack experience on dirt or gravel to take a dirt-riding course in advance, it doesn't always instill good judgment. A 65-year-old decided his skills were so good on a gravel road on one of Mr. Ayres's South American trips that he speeded up, passed the tour leader and then crashed his bike at the next curve, breaking his leg. After the leg was splinted in a local facility, he was airlifted home to Toronto.

"He doesn't blame us," Mr. Ayres says.

Why It's All Worth It

In a foreign country, motorcycles are great icebreakers. Local residents want to talk to bikers and touch the machines. Riding a motorcycle invariably helps travelers meet more people and learn more about local customs and culture than riding in a car or bus.

On a recent MotoDiscovery trip through Turkey, a tour participant offered a ride to a local resident who was walking along a country road, says the company's Mr. Mascorro. It turned out the man had been to visit his sister who had been kicked by a horse. When the tour group arrived in the man's town, they were invited to tea and the whole village came out to visit.

"The bike is the door opener...unlike other styles of tourism," Mr. Mascorro says. "What we do is considered unconventional by other people's standards. The bike breaks down barriers and makes it easier for us to engage them and them to engage us."

Ms. Capell is a senior correspondent for CareerJournal.com.

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