Even though he is facing double hip-replacement surgery, Bill Smith is more than happy to struggle out the door each morning, limp past his brand new P.T. Cruiser and grimace as he hops aboard his Honda motorcycle.
Then he is all smiles. With the price of a gallon of gasoline so high and no hint of an impending drop, commuting to work on two wheels has never made him happier.
"I'm very conscious of gas prices, and I make every effort to ride my motorcycle to work rather than use my car," said Smith, 58, a banker who works in nearby Glens Falls and has logged more than 73,000 miles on his 8-year-old motorcycle. "I can save a lot of gas."
These days, Smith has a lot more company than when he first began riding in the 1960s. The U.S. motorcycle industry, spurred by the impressive success of Harley-Davidson, has grown steadily in each of the last 11 years, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.
This year, it is booming.
"Sales are at an all-time-record high, all brands, all styles," said John Wyckoff, a longtime industry consultant who regularly calls 60 dealers a week and says all are running 10 to 50 percent ahead of last year in sales. "It just took off like a flying goose."
According to MIC, a not-for-profit national trade association based in California, sales of new motorcycles rose to 996,000 in 2003. Overall, the association's latest estimates show the industry generating more than $20 billion in consumer sales and services, including about $7.5 billion in retail sales of new motorcycles.
Chick Hancock, a Harley-Davidson dealer in Albuquerque, N.M., initially feared an oversupply when Harley announced it would increase production 8 percent this year. "Even with horrendous weather in the East, things are looking good."
The news is good even for motorcycles that have not been ridden in a while.
"People are looking for cheap transportation, fuel economy, that type of thing," said Frank Wal, who works at trade shows for BMW. "You're seeing a lot more motorcycles being sold that probably sat in the garage the last two or three years. It's putting a lot more bikes on the road."
And in the repair shop.
"We have seen quite a few bikes being pulled out of garages and repaired," said John Tilton, who has operated a motorcycle repair shop for 28 years in Syracuse. "We've been running two to three weeks behind in major repairs."
Greg Warne, who works for a publisher in Orange County, Calif., has parked his Ford Expedition in favor of the newest Suzuki scooter he is testing on his 32-mile commute to work. And despite nagging fears -- he always pauses for a cigarette to contemplate the most treacherous leg of his daily journey from Norco to Irvine -- Warne plans to make the trip on two wheels a habit.
"It's been an eye-opener," said Warne, 54. "The money savings is considerable. Everybody I talk to, anybody that's commuting, is interested."
Warne figures between gas and taking toll-free roads, he can save more than $6,000 a year riding instead of driving, but it is not only a matter of money to him. With the more maneuverable scooter, he gets through traffic faster.
"I had no idea what getting an hour back five days a week would mean," Warne said. "I feel like I have a fuller life."
According to census figures, there are approximately 120 million commuters in this country, but only 158,000 of more than 6 million registered motorcycles are regularly ridden to work.
During the oil embargo of the early 1970s, high gasoline prices and shortages in the United States led to an increase in motorcycle sales as automobile drivers sought alternatives.