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PAGE ONE

The Easier Rider:
Baby Boom Bikers
Defect to the Trike

Three-Wheel Motorcycles
Gain a Bigger Following
Despite 'Ridicule Factor'
By JONATHAN WELSH
November 5, 2007; Page A1

One day last March, Robert Lee hit a patch of gravel while piloting his 800-pound motorcycle. He survived the wipeout unscathed, but the retired Linotype operator threw in the towel. He switched to a three-wheel motorcycle known as a "trike."

"At my age, I can't afford to be stranded on the road," says Mr. Lee, a 77-year-old Massachusetts resident who has been riding motorcycles for four decades. Mr. Lee admits he's gotten a "few strange looks" while cruising around in his new method of transport, which has one wheel in front for steering and two in back for power. But so far, he's gotten no insults.

[Go to slideshow]
Dennis and Marlene Henneberg show off their modified Harley-Davidson.

After decades of being dismissed as fringe vehicles, trikes are gaining favor with baby boomers confronting the realities of old age, from knee injuries and arthritis to a diminished sense of balance. Motorcycles may forever symbolize youthful rebellion. But trikes, which sacrifice heart-pounding acceleration and the thrill of leaning into turns for greater stability, are a lot easier to maneuver in stop-and-go traffic.

Another factor is the passenger sitting in back. The heavier the passenger, the harder it is for the rider to balance a traditional two-wheel bike. And "many of these riders are guys with wives who have -- we like to say blossomed -- over the years," says Jeffrey Vey, president of Texas-based trike maker Thoroughbred Motorsports Inc.

Though small, the trike industry -- a cottage business of closely held shops -- is growing fast, turning out 22,000 machines last year in the U.S., up 16% from a year earlier, according to CNW Marketing Research. U.S. motorcycle sales, by contrast, are declining so far this year after more than a decade of steady growth. In the past year, major motorcycle makers, including Harley-Davidson Inc. and Polaris Industries Inc.'s Victory Motorcycles unit, have gotten into the trike business, announcing plans to introduce new models in dealerships.

Harley spokesman Bob Klein says trikes represent an untapped market, one largely made up of folks who are either physically unable to ride two-wheel machines or are scared of falling off of them. "We see trikes as a way of putting more people on Harley-Davidsons," he says.

Some trikes -- especially those meant to entice novice riders -- bear little resemblance to traditional choppers. At this year's motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., one of the country's biggest, Thoroughbred Motorsports unveiled the Stallion, a three-wheeler sheathed in so much fiberglass paneling it looks like a tiny, open-air car. The Stallion also boasts such car-like creature comforts as cupholders, a CD player and even air conditioning.

[photo]
Thoroughbred Motorsports Inc.'s Stallion, unveiled this year, costs $29,995 -- and up.

Mr. Vey, the company's president, says he plans to build between 3,000 and 5,000 Stallions in the 2008 model year and expects that many of its buyers will have never ridden a motorcycle. Base price: $29,995.

As it made its way through downtown Sturgis's streets, which were packed with dyed-in-leather bikers, the Stallion attracted attention -- not all of it positive. "We call that a car, buddy," one smirking pedestrian said. "Why bother?" yelled another.

Trikes have yet to overcome what many enthusiasts see as their biggest downside: what Karl Blaeser, who rides a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy, calls "the ridicule factor." "It's hard for me to ever picture myself on three wheels -- until I retire to a trailer park in Vero Beach," says the 45-year-old information-technology consultant in Pasadena, Calif.

Al Courier, 56, who suffers from stiff knees, says he'd consider riding a trike. But his wife Patricia cuts him off. "His vanity would never allow him to ride one of these." she says. "His legs would have to be chopped off first."

Even physical infirmities aren't enough to make some purists switch. Steve Phillips's leg pain and heart ailments would seem to make him an ideal candidate for trike ownership. But the 55-year-old Phoenix resident says he'd have to be in desperate shape before he'd ride one. "They'll never handle like a motorcycle or give you the same feeling, so what's the point?" he says.

Another downside of a trike is its cost. Turning a motorcycle into a trike requires a lot of hand labor and additional parts. Prices typically start at around $20,000, and many models cost between $30,000 and $40,000 -- about as much as a small luxury car like an Audi A4 or BMW 3-Series. By contrast, a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle can cost as little as $6,695, although a heavily optioned top-of-the-line Ultra Classic touring bike can cost over $20,000.

Plus, most trikes are manufactured by small companies that don't offer warranty and repair service comparable to what large manufacturers provide. Some states license trikes separately from cars or motorcycles, meaning more time at the Motor Vehicles office.

That didn't stop Dennis Henneberg. Last spring the 60-year-old auto-dealership owner traded his Harley-Davidson Lowrider for a tricked-out trike converted from a larger Harley touring model. Mr. Henneberg likes the trike's smooth ride and that its windshield and fiberglass bodywork shield him and his wife, Marlene, from the wind. But the trike's main advantage is that it doesn't tip over easily.

Wearing a stars-and-stripes bandana around his head, Mr. Henneberg says discomfort from a Vietnam War leg wound and the general effects of getting older made it increasingly hard to hold up his heavy bike at traffic lights. The trike's stability allows the couple to relax during long rides, like the 300-mile trip to Sturgis from their home in Loveland, Colo. "It's a lot more comfortable for both of us," says Mrs. Henneberg, who sat in the back.

Togetherness is a common theme among trikers. David and Linda Barthel, motorcycle riders from Sterling, Colo., are too young -- in their mid-40s -- to fit the standard description of trike buyers. Yet they say they want a quieter, more comfortable ride that allows them to enjoy each other's company more than they could in their years of riding separate motorcycles.

"We like to cruise around town looking at other people's homes, chatting about what they are doing with their landscaping -- basically spying on the Smiths," Mr. Barthel says, while browsing the trikes on sale at the Sturgis rally.

But will other riders still give them the traditional motorcyclists' "wave" -- casually sticking a hand out to the side -- as they pass on the road?

"Who cares?" Mr. Barthel responds.

Write to Jonathan Welsh at jonathan.welsh@wsj.com

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