Ask a motorcyclist about the hazards of long-distance touring and you'll hear in graphic detail about mouthfuls of bugs, raindrops like buckshot, bone-chilling wind and the constant menace of auto drivers.
But ask about the rewards and even the macho types start babbling about the curves of a country road, invigorating gusts of fresh air, the chance to really appreciate nature unencumbered glass and steel barriers.
So why don't they ride bicyles? "We're not doing it for physical therapy," one explained. "We just like fresh air. We're into nature, sun and the smells . . ."
Then there's the romance of it all. "When you roll up to a country store, the kids come out and look at your bike, people ask where you're from. You're an adventurer coming into their lives." The camaraderie among bikers is part of the appeal. One, reminiscing about a cross-country trip a few years back, talked about the instant friendships that spring up on the highway - and evaporate as quickly as they form. "You're bosom buddies for 50 or 100 miles, and then his turn-off comes and you wave goodbye. You'll probably never see him again, but you know somewhere out in the world there's a guy named Greg on a Honda who's your riding buddy."
Touring seems to attract a more wholesome type of cyclist than racing. Pick up a cycle tourist magazine, Rider or Road Rider, and you might think you were reading Family Circle. Myths you may have harbored are debunked by letters to the editor from retirees, housewives, married couples and students. "It's a family recreation sport," says Shirley Ferguson of Road Rider. "These people use their motorcycles for vacations like most people use their cars. The husband has his bike, the wife has hers, and the kids climb on the back."
Fall is prime time for vrooming around back roads, when the air is crisp and clean (well, cleaner) and the scenery is at its peak. But before you pack up and head off for Skyline Drive, make sure you and your motorcycle are properly prepared. You should have complete confidence in your ability to repair your bike. If it breaks down on 195, there's no gas station nearby that knows how to fix it up, and the nearest parts shop is 200 miles away.
Excess weight is another danger, It's tempting to load up a big bike with every new saddlebag and cargo box on the market, but overloaded bikes "will affect braking distances and stress on nearly all components from bearing surfaces to the spokes in the wheel," according to Rider Magazine.
There are fancy ways to find out if you're carrying too much weight, but they require an advanced degree in math. A quicker and easier way is: load up the bike, drive down a straight road and take your hands off the handlebars; if the bars start to shake, you're carrying too much weight.
Even allowing for weight, you don't have to rough it. Touring bikes can be equipped with everything from CBs and stereo tape decks to sidecars and trailers that fold out as combination bedroom-dinette sets. And a fairing is a good idea. That's the windshield-and-fiberglass affair that fits across the front. Some die-hard cyclists complain that without the wind in your face you might as well be driving a truck, but with a fairing you don't have to wear a face shield. And it adds cargo space.
Understandably, keeping warm is a concern and ads in the touring magazines attest to this obsession: ads for goose-down face masks, electric hot suits, chaps and vests that plug into the bike's electrical system, thermal underwear ("Laugh at the cold!"), breast plates and socks, Adam's apple warmers, 92 different types of gloves.
And don't forget to allow for the physical limitations of the human anatomy. Pace yourself accordingly. Cycle magazines dwell on that part of the anatomy that obviously takes the most wear and tear. But motorcycle entrepreneurs have solved that too - for $29.95, a squishy but guaranteed softer-than-leather "Travel Ease Water Cushion" - a waterbed for your seat.