The New Leaders Of The Pack

Back in 1975, I borrowed $700 from my Dad and bought a used Kawasaki motorcycle. Like others of my generation--I was 20--I found a bike brought a sense of freedom that four wheels just couldn't deliver. But after a couple of years, I sold the machine, went to work, and forgot about the thrill of two wheels, horsepower, and an open road.

This spring, the old itch came back. Motorcycling is enjoying a resurgence, thanks in large part to returning riders who buy into the whole experience--bike, clothing, and accessories. In 1994, enthusiasts purchased some 300,000 new bikes, up almost 5% from 1993. And sales this year are expected to grow by at least that amount.

Things have changed since my riding days. You no longer choose a road bike just by color or engine size, as makers now offer distinct categories of specialized cycles. Sport bikes are lightning-fast, race-bred machines easily capable of triple-digit speeds. Sport-touring models feature high-tech engines and great handling but readily carry a passenger and saddlebags for comfortable, long-range travel. Standard motorcycles forgo aerodynamic bodywork and deliver all-around comfort and performance. Touring bikes are big--built for cross-country adventures. And cruisers, the largest-selling category epitomized by classic Harley-Davidsons, are constructed with wider saddles, higher handlebars, and a lower, more comfortable rider position.

For returning riders or newcomers alike, a safety course ought to be a top priority before making any purchase. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation (800 447-4700) offers beginner, intermediate, and advanced riding instruction around the country, with prices ranging from $50 to $200. The one- and two-day combination classroom and road courses are supported by local dealers who provide bikes and certified instructors.

Once you're ready to roll, you'll have a dizzying choice of models built in the U.S., Japan, Germany, Britain, or Italy. Japanese bikes, led by Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Suzuki, boast brilliant colors, rocket acceleration, and precise handling. The Honda VFR750F ($8,699) is a sport bike that delivers rock-solid Honda reliability and quality without rattling your molars.

TOP-DRAWER. BMW imports a full line of bikes, and this year introduces the R1100R Roadster ($9,990). The Beemer sports a new, multivalve Boxer engine that delivers plenty of torque through a low-maintenance shaft drive. The bike handles nimbly on back roads or highways, thanks to a sophisticated chassis and suspension. Optional antilock brakes ($1,200) give the R1100R rider confidence and safety. Fit-and-finish is top-drawer, as is the complete line of BMW clothing and cycle accessories. Another plus: BMW reimburses new bike buyers for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course.

If you've always wanted a Harley, be prepared for a waiting list for some models. Since recovering from severe financial problems in the early 1980s, the Milwaukee company has its act together and sells almost every bike it can build. Twenty H-D models are available with dozens of genuine Harley accessories to guarantee that yours can be one-of-a-kind. Most Harley shops carry more leather than Cher could wear--a genuine H-D leather jacket with insignia goes for around $450. My favorite Hog is the FLSTF Fat Boy ($13,425). It's powered by a huge, two-cylinder engine and sports disk wheels, two-tone paint, and lots of chrome. It ain't high-tech, but head out of town on a Fat Boy and you're king of the road.

Triumph, a venerable British bike that disappeared during the 1970s, is back, with new models suited for high-speed sport riding. And the screaming red Italian Ducati enjoys a loyal following for its mix of power and panache. Give me any of these bikes, a helmet, a leather jacket, an open road, and a full tank of gas, and in no time, I'll happily motor back to my youth.

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