5 Tips from an Aging Sport Bike Rider

Graham and Dan. I'm not saying their old, but where is their hair?
Graham and Dan. I’m not saying they’re old, but where is their hair?

Note: This article pertains to all types of riders. So, please read on.
What happens to sport bike riders when they get old? Most people think of sport bike riders as young men in their 20’s or 30’s. A lot of people don’t consider that sport bike motorcycle riders are often in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, or even 70’s.
It’s  assumed that those crazy riders on their rice rockets are young, testosterone laden young men. And this stereotype has some truth to it, since the attitude and ergonomics of sporting machinery suggests a fast and young lifestyle. But, many older riders do keep a sportbike in the garage if their body can handle the demands on aging bones, muscles and soft tissue.
A lot of sport bike riders move gradually to more upright machines with less demanding ergonomics and softer power delivery. But, if you look around at any sport riding gathering, track day, or even club race event, you’ll see that the median age is what is often considered over the hill. You’ll also see that these elders are often some of the most skilled riders on the road and the fastest on the track.
While the hair beneath the helmet may be gray, the desire to express mastery at the handlebars is as strong as ever. I’m not speaking for all sport bike elders, just the ones I know who keep at least one high-performance bike in their stable for those days when the back is feeling okay and the passion for a rip requires a razor-sharp tool.
Ken-smile
I’ve got a few more years behind the handlebars.

At 57 years old, I’m now qualified to speak from the perspective of a once young road racer and sporting street rider. Thankfully, I happen to have a slim physique, which makes me able to climb onto a sport bike with relative ease. I am also of average height so high rearsets don’t bother me. This makes riding a sport bike possible.

Pull up a Chair, Son

There are a lot of things I could share about aging. But, there are a few notable observations I think are worth mentioning.

1. Ride Smarter

Tony, Ken and Graham. Older than many, not as old as some.
Tony, Ken and Graham. Older than many, not as old as some. Yes, this is the photo “borrowed” by whoever made that video that went viral.

When I’m on a motorcycle, I can step back and evaluate whether the speed I choose to ride matches my mood and personal limits, as well as the limits of the road or track, the weather, etc. While there are times when my inner squid emerges, I am much less prone to riding beyond the limits. I am closer to the edge of the risk:reward ratio than when I was young and felt invincible. Now, I ask myself whether riding a certain way is worth the possible aggravation.
Top photos © Ken Condon
Bottom photo © Annalisa Boucher

2. Ride more Efficiently

How is it that I can get through a two day track day event riding multiple groups and still get up the next day and go to work? I see a lot of track day riders many years my junior pack up halfway through the afternoon because they are too tired to go on anymore. How am I able to do this? It’s not because I’m in great shape.
It’s because I’ve learned to ride efficiently. This means hanging off the bike only as much as necessary to achieve the goals of keeping the pegs off the pavement and the tires in their sweet spot and perfectly loaded for maximum traction. It also means being relaxed as much as possible. Not only does this help my stamina, it also allows me to feel the tires and chassis so I can “listen” to the bike as it tells me how much traction I have.

3. Change Behavior

Getting old forces changes in behavior. At some point you have to recognize the fact that the mind, eyes, muscles and stamina are not what they used to be. Everyone is different, but from my experience, the rate of decline seems to accelerate once you pass 50 or so. This means I have to pace myself. I am more aware of the need to warm up my body for a few laps just like I do my tires.
The possibility of getting hurt is present no matter what age, but what may be a simple injury, quickly healed, can turn into a long, drawn out healing process if you are older. Riding smart and wearing really good personal protection is important for minimizing those injuries.

4. Stay in Shape

I’m not in bad shape, but I’m not in great shape, either. I walk almost every day, but I used to run. I lightly stretch when I need to, but not as often as I should. I have never smoked and my vitals are good. I guess I can say I’m in pretty good shape for my age.
Even so, I suffered a freak health issue a while ago that I’m lucky to have survived. Thankfully, I can still manage a full day of street riding and both days of a two day track day event without much trouble. Staying in shape is harder as you get older. Weight gain is a real problem for many. Weight can creep up on you slowly. Five pounds may not seem like much, but if that happens every year for 10 years, you’re looking at a whopping 50 pound weight gain that will be tough to get rid of.

Being an instructor gives the opportunity to pass on what you've learned.
Being an instructor provides an opportunity to pass on what you’ve learned.
photo: © Annalisa Boucher

5. Keep Your Skills Sharp

There is a real danger in complacency. It’s easy for veteran riders to assume they don’t need to maintain their mental and physical skills. After all, they’ve survived this far. This perception leads to diminished skills, which can lead to a crash.
Motorcycle riding skills are perishable. So, keep those skills sharp! Practice in a parking lot, attend a safety course periodically, and ride a track day or three. It’s also good to read about riding technique. Even if you already “know” the material, reading about a technique brings it into your consciousness.
And for you older folks returning to riding, GET TRAINING! I know you may know how to “operate” a motorcycle, but that’s not enough to ride safe and smart. You need to update your mental software and learn things you may not have known before that can literally save your wrinkled ass. I recommend taking the Basic MSF course, followed by an advanced training course.


Bonus Tip: Share Your Knowledge

I’m grateful that I can share knowledge that I have accumulated over the years to help people like you ride better and smarter. But, another benefit to writing and teaching is that it makes me a better rider. I constantly think about my riding, which keeps my skills sharp.
A lot of really fast, experienced riders can’t explain how they do what they do…they just do it. That’s fine, but thinking about the physiology and psychology of riding a motorcycle well makes a rider’s knowledge and skill indelibly deeper and accessible when you need it.
Oh, and don’t assume you know what you are talking about, even if you are “fast”. Learn the physics and language of communicating the complex concepts of motorcycle riding before you claim expert status.

How Much Longer?

At some point, we all must hang up our helmet for the last time. In my case, that appears to be several years away. I can still do things I did when I was younger, it just takes more effort. What are your experiences with aging behind the handlebars?
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Guest Writer: Rider As Passenger

Jeannine has been a passenger since she was very young.
Jeannine has been a passenger since she was very young.

Finally! My daughter, Jeannine has submitted her first post. She has so much to contribute, being a longtime rider, recent MSF RiderCoach, track day control rider, industry professional, and of course my daughter.
Let’s see what Jeannine has to say about those times when she finds herself on the back of a bike, instead of in control behind the handlebars.


Being on the back stirs thoughts and feelings when you're a rider yourself.
Being on the back stirs unique thoughts and feelings when you’re a rider yourself.

Ever since I became a licensed motorcyclist, riding on the back has been a challenge because I’m not in control, eek! I also wonder what being on the back says about me as a rider to the general public. Although these are generally taken as negatives, I’ve learned that there are benefits to spending time as a passenger.

Control

Riding on the back of a motorcycle, especially as an educated rider, means giving up a lot of control. For starters every motorcyclist knows the risk of swinging a leg over, so what about accepting the risks when someone else is controlling the handlebars?
When you get on the back,  you better be willing to trust them to make decisions that will protect both of you. When you look at the helmet (hopefully) in front of you, can you say you trust them with your life? If not then get off.
Especially as a rider, giving the control to someone else is the ultimate display of trust, something many people aren’t willing to do. It seems the more educated about riding you are, the more trust is required to get on the back. Ever see a girl jump on the back with some guy she just met? She probably has no real understanding of the consequences. There are only a handful of people I am willing to ride with and each has thoroughly proven their abilities, both through raw skill and the risk-evading decisions they consistently make.

Ken follows Jeannine on the track early in her riding career.
Ken follows Jeannine on the track early in her riding career.

What does it say about me as a rider?

The stereotype is that women and kids ride on the back. As a female rider, something tells me I don’t want to succumb to those expectations. If we pull up to a gas station and people see me on the back what will they think? It doesn’t likely cross their mind that I too am a competent rider. Imagine the look we get when passenger and rider switch!
Even as a rider I am often mistaken for a guy and I DO enjoy proving them wrong. Just the other day someone told Dad “That’s a really nice bike your buddy has”, imagine his surprise when the response was “That’s actually my daughter”. Although I have learned to care less about the opinions of the public, it’s always an itch in the back of my mind.

Is the passenger missing out?

My short answer is no, you are simply experiencing the ride differently. Imagine all those phenomenal views that you can’t fully absorb while you’re also paying attention to the road. On the back you can actually look around without having to worry about the oncoming car or the upcoming hairpin turn.

Being a passenger can be a terrific learning experience. photo: OnTrackMedia. http://otmpix.com

Learning

While sitting behind another rider, pay attention to how they handle traffic, negotiate curves and anticipate hazards. Use your time on the back to improve your own riding. It doesn’t mean you have to, or even should, handle a situation in the same way, but take advantage of the learning opportunity. Ask yourself if you would do something differently and then analyze why and how your strategy might turn out better.
Have you been a passenger lately? How does it feel?


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Schooling the Public

This what people see that prompts them to ask "Aren't you hot?"
This is what people see that prompts them to ask “Aren’t you hot?”

I thought it might be fun to share a sampling of statements I hear often from Mr. and Mrs. Non-riding Public, along with my usual response. Perhaps these statements are familiar to you, too. And maybe your responses are similar to mine. Whatever.

#1: “Aren’t You Hot?”

This is directed toward the fact that I’m wearing a jacket, riding pants, gloves, etc. This question often makes me scratch my head, because I assume that people understand the concept of wind chill factor and can imagine that the gear I have on is perfect, not only for comfort, but also for protection.
Yeah, they don’t seem to understand that riding gear is a compromise. Even the best vented gear can be hot even at speed, but I won’t ride without protection. Grasping that concept seems a bit too difficult for Mr. and Ms. Public without some patient education.
My response: “Not once I’m rolling over 30mph.” “Besides, I need the protection, just in case”.

Loud pipes are the result of riders who want to be loud.
Loud pipes are the result of riders who want to be loud.

#2: “I Don’t Like Motorcycles…They’re too Loud”

This usually comes up in conversation at parties when I disclose that I am a motorcycle rider. I can fully understand the non-motorcyclists’ reaction to obnoxiously loud pipes. Even as a career rider, I am annoyed and barely tolerant of loud motorcycles. Imagine the lack of tolerance Mr. and Ms. Public has for riders who invade their peace and quiet.
My response: “I don’t like loud motorcycles either.” “Do you know that motorcycles aren’t loud when they are ridden out of the showroom?”
Stunned silence usually follows as they try to comprehend that someone would take a perfectly good (quiet) motorcycle and make it obnoxious…on purpose.
I get it. A motorcycle that makes no sound seems to lack a visceral depth that most riders value. But, personally, I’ve come to value not invading others’ auditory space with my exhaust, so I keep my street bike exhausts stock.
I recently rode an electric “Zero” motorcycle and I can tell you that the total lack of engine sound did not take away from the awesome performance and  unique experience of this torquey, fun machine. I contend that excessive noise detracts from riding enjoyment, rather than enhances it.
And then there is the “Loud Pipes Save Lives” theory. While I understand that loud pipes can get attention, making a bunch of racket is NOT a reliable way to get people to avoid you. Lane position and other strategies that allow you to be SEEN are much more effective ways to avoid a mishap.
Besides, sound is directional, so exhausts pointed rearward are of little benefit when the most likely collision scenario involves an approaching vehicle turning left across your lane at an intersection.

Yes, motorcycling exposes us to risk, which is why we wear protection.
Yes, motorcycling exposes us to risk, which is why we wear protection.

#3: “Aren’t Motorcycles Dangerous?”

This question needs no explanation, except that people who ask are implying that because it is risky to ride a motorcycle, that I must be a person who exercises poor judgment. These are often people who value safety and therefore distance themselves from risk…at least things they deem risky, which is most likely things they don’t understand.
Not everyone who asks this question is afraid of risk. Sometimes they are just responding to a preconceived notion of how dangerous motorcycles are. This deduction comes from horror stories heard from acquaintances and from sensational news reports. We all have prejudices based on indirect knowledge and assumptions. These people are simply reacting to what they think is the truth.
Unfortunately, it is true that riding a motorcycle is dangerous. So, how do I respond?
My response: “Yes, riding a motorcycle isn’t for everybody. If you’re not a person who is committed to being as skillful and conscientious as possible, then you probably don’t belong on a bike.”

I guess I'm not a real biker...I have no tattoos.
I guess I’m not a real biker…I have no tattoos.

#4: “Where are Your Tattoos?”

Really? Yep. This silly question usually comes from the mouths of people who make assumptions about what motorcycle riders “look like” and probably don’t personally know a motorcycle rider, or don’t know a motorcycle rider who does not have tattoos.
The “biker types” get the attention of the general public because they make a lot of noise and go out of their way to look tough with their ink and leather “costumes”. These bikers get Mr and Ms. Public’s attention so that their perception is that motorcycle riders dress the way the loud riders dress.
I challenge the ignorance of stereotypes by looking “normal”. Sure, I have my own costume, but it is that of a rider who embraces a motorcycling lifestyle as a sport, daily transportation, and a way to see faraway places.
My response: “Shut the Hell Up.” Just Kidding. I might joke about having ink in places I can’t show in public and say it in a way that makes them question their assumptions of what some riders look like. And then I walk away.

Three people, three motorcycles.
Yes, women ride their own motorcycles.

#5: “How Do You Get Three People on one Motorcycle or do you have a sidecar?”

This question was directed toward my wife when she, our then 10 year old daughter, and I walked into a restaurant on a family motorcycle trip several years ago with all of our riding gear in hand. Caroline hesitated for a moment in disbelief as she finally realized that the person assumed that women do not ride their own motorcycles, therefore the only explanation must be that we all somehow fit on one motorcycle or that a sidecar was the answer. A woman on her own bike never crossed their mind.
Her response: “I ride my own motorcycle, and have been for over ten years.”


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The Plight of Women Motorcyclists

My daughter, Jeannine recently started a conversation about the plight of women riders that inspired me to write this post.

Daughter and Father
Daughter and Father

FamilyWomen riders are a significant part of motorcycling’s future, but the motorcycle industry doesn’t seem to recognize this. With relatively few young males entering the 2 wheel world, bike manufacturers would be wise to wake up to the fact that it is worth offering greater selection, as well as more R&D and marketing resources for women riders.

What Do You Know? You’re Not a Woman

No, I’m not a female motorcyclist, but I am the husband and father of two accomplished female riders and I consider myself as strong an advocate of women riders as they come.
Jeannine has been on two wheels since she could reach the passenger footpegs and was twisting her own throttle at age 8. Jeannine is now a control rider for Tony’s Track Days and has worked in the motorcycle industry.
My wife, Caroline learned to ride after we were married and eventually became a certified MSF instructor and track day rider.
With this background, hopefully you can cut me some slack for penning this post. Sure, it might be best written by a woman but Jeannine is busy with nursing school. So when I asked her to write it she gave me a look that said “Really? Another thing?”


There are a couple of topics that came from this conversation that got me thinking. One was the often-heard complaint of an inadequate selection of riding gear. The other more compelling topic was the plight of being in the constant shadow of male riders.
First, let’s talk about the riding gear problem.

What Do You Mean I Can’t Get the Same Boots as my Husband?

Jeannine rocks her men's Macna Night Eye riding gear.
Jeannine rocks her men’s Macna Night Eye riding gear.

Caroline wears a men's jacket and pant combo, because they offered the best features.
Caroline wears a men’s jacket and pant combo, because they offered the best features.

Even though selection is getting better, serious women motorcyclists must often settle for riding gear that is a compromise between style and protection. And, from what I hear, women riders aren’t wanting to wear gear that says “isn’t she cute in that pink outfit?”.
Because a lot of women-specific gear has become a bit over the top in the styling department, many female riders choose to wear gear designed for men, which often doesn’t fit right and may even lack the best venting or adjustability. I can’t help but think that the gear that manufacturers offer to women are designed by men who are hunting for what women really want. To be fair, it could very well be that women don’t quite know what they want in riding gear, since their identity as motorcyclists is constantly evolving.
Style is one thing, but a more significant issue is protection. Most women-specific riding gear provides inferior protection compared to gear that is routinely offered to men. Riding jackets and pants may not have the best armor or the most rugged materials.
One of many examples is the selection of Sidi race boots. The most advanced women’s boot offered by Sidi is the Vertigo Lei, which in comparison is middle-of-the-road Sidi boot for men. If you want a boot with all the protection and features of the top of the line boot, you’re plum outta luck, girls.
Here is a great post from GearChic about how to design motorcycle gear for women without being sexist.

Get Out of the Shadows

The second point Jeannine made in our conversation was quite intriguing… and that was the fact that women riders cannot often detach from their significant other who also rides. In the beginning of Jeannine’s riding career, she learned from me and rode exclusively with me (and often with her Mom).
Only recently has she realized that being in my shadow has held her back from gaining a deep level of confidence and being fully immersed in motorcycling. Her trip to Alaska with MotoQuest afforded her the opportunity to ride with a group of male riders, none of whom were her Dad.
This made her more dependent on her skills, knowing that I wasn’t there to take care of her (not that she needs me to take care of her anymore… although she will always be my little girl). With this freedom, Jeannine experienced riding at a deeper level of self-competence.

I’m Going Riding with The Boys, Have Dinner Ready, Okay?

It wouldn’t be inconceivable to think of a man saying that to his wife (or girlfirend), but can you imagine a woman saying that to her husband? Since most women riders probably have a male partner that is a motorcyclist himself, it is not bloody likely that the woman would think she could ride with another male rider who wasn’t her boyfriend or husband.
What does this mean? It means that a serious woman rider can’t ride with other male riders, lest she be scrutinized as a sort of loose harlot who would rather ride with someone else rather than her husband. To avoid this situation, she must either ride with other female riders (it’s easy to imagine her saying, “I’m going riding with Sheila”), or be stuck riding with her significant other (S.O.).

Yeah, But My S.O. Sucks at Riding

Imagine the conflict that a female rider would have to deal with who is more accomplished than her S.O? I can tell you that the male ego doesn’t tolerate being told that he is not as good as he thinks he is. This is a problem for anyone in this situation, whether male or female, but it rarely goes well when coming from a woman. Just ask Jeannine who is a track day control rider to mostly male riders.

Time to step aside so your shadow casts away from your partner.
Time to step aside so your shadow casts away from your partner.

What to Do?

So, what’s the secret to the harmonious motorcycling relationship? First, if your wife or girlfriend wants to ride without you, ask her why and then listen carefully. If she mentions feeling stifled, encourage her to arrange a ride without you. She shouldn’t need your permission, but she needs your support.
If she says something that suggests that she doesn’t like how you ride, then listen carefully without your hairy ego getting in the way. Be a man of the 21st century and believe that it is possible that a woman can know more and ride better than a male.
The fact is that men weren’t born as proficient riders. If you accept that you don’t know all there is to know, then you’ll be a better S.O.
I can see where this topic could upset some riding couples’ status quo, but I think it’s worth a discussion, with the hope that both partners can reach their full potential as motorcycle riders. There is a lot more to consider around this subject, including the pressure women have from overbearing male partners, the intimidation that goes along with branching out, and the evolution of a self-identity that is more than being the second half of a riding couple. Stay tuned for more. In the meantime, give me your thoughts.
And check out this interesting post from Ride Apart about marketing to women.


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A Family who Rides Together…

The tribe
The tribe

My family is full of motorcycle riders, including my wife, Caroline and daughter, Jeannine. Enter another member of the family in the form of Matt, Jeannine’s boyfriend, who rides a 2008 Yamaha R6s and you’ve got a rolling tribe.
My family didn’t start out as motorcyclists. I believe it was my almost crazy obsession with the two-wheeled sport of motorcycling that caused my otherwise sensible wife, Caroline, to take the MSF course in 1995 and trust me to provide her with the constant flow of  knowledge necessary to survive riding a machine that seems to conspire at every moment to toss you to the ground. A few years later she became a MSF instructor.  (I have been an instructor since 1995).

Along came our lovely daughter, Jeannine, who probably assumed every kid’s mom and dad rode motorcycles. After all, there have been stacks of magazines covering every flat surface in the house since she was a baby.

Well, Jeannine is no longer a baby (but she’s still my little girl), and she is an accomplished rider in her own right. She works for Twisted Throttle, has just returned from a week long dual-sort trip through Alaska, and has become accomplished enough of a racetrack rider that I hired her as a control rider for Tony’s Track Days. Proud, this father is.

Now, she brings a new member to the family. Matt and Jeannine’s first date was a ride, he on his R6 and her on her ZX6R. Love at first sight. I discovered that Matt is a good guy (once I put the shotgun down and gave him a chance). I shouldn’t have worried; Jeannine makes good choices.

Caroline has let riding fade a bit more into the background since her many hobbies take her time and energy. However, there is always energy for our annual family motorcycle ride.
 


This year we went back to one of our favorite places on earth: The Blue Ridge Parkway of Virginia and North Carolina. We love the scenery, winding roads, the people and Will Beers, the owner of Willville Motorcycle Camp. Will is one of us…a guy who decided that he wanted to surround himself with mountain beauty and motorcycle riders who share his passion for the sport.

Enjoy the gallery of photos from our 2013 trip to the BRP and stay tuned for more posts about my motorcycling family.

 


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