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There's more to ATVs than the wheel count

September 05, 2007|SUSAN CARPENTER

My wheels were rolling along, alternately sliding and gliding over sand, rocks and dirt. Across whoops and up hills. Down slopes and around corners. Only instead of two wheels, my ride had four. That's because my ride was an ATV, or all-terrain vehicle.

Why was I riding an ATV when this column has been dedicated to motorcycles? Two reasons: If it's got a throttle, I'm game to check it out. And I'm even more game when that throttle's attached to some sort of phenomenon, which is exactly what ATVs have become in recent years.

Almost 900,000 all-terrain vehicles were sold in 2006. That's more than the number of street bikes and triple the number of dirt bikes that were sold in the same period.

I wanted to know what all the fuss was about, so I geared up for the ATV Safety Institute's RiderCourse, then hit the trails for some intense physical activity that was, by turns, challenging, exhilarating and surprisingly exhausting considering the short distance I traveled -- just 50 miles.

Over the course of two days, I rode four different models. All of them were single-passenger quads in the middleweight range, from 250 to 500 cc. The market is separated in two general categories -- recreation and utility -- and only one of my four was a utility model (the Kawasaki Prairie 360). The others were a sport model (Suzuki Z250) and two recreation-utility hybrids (Polaris Sportsman 400 H.O. and Honda Foreman 500).

Being a motorcycle rider and a car driver, I found ATV riding to be fairly intuitive if completely different. The throttle isn't a twist grip but a button that's pressed with a thumb. Steering isn't a matter of turning the bars but riding "seat off seat" with your body weight positioned into the turn and/or uphill to keep the quad from tipping.

There weren't clutches on the models I tested. They all had different transmissions -- automatic, automatic with a high and low gear selector, semiautomatic with a foot shift, semiautomatic with a thumb shift.

All were easy to use, but that's because I had training. Quads have four wheels, but they don't handle like cars, so training is recommended.

The four-hour ATV RiderCourse is offered through the ATV Safety Institute and the California State Parks Off-Highway Motorized Vehicle Recreation Division. California law requires that ATVers under 18 on public land hold an ATV safety certificate or be supervised by an adult who has one.

Training is free for riders under 16 and is $125 for students 17 and older; first-time purchasers of new ATVs are also eligible for free training. Even so, just 5,300 students completed the training in California last year.

In addition to actual riding techniques, the RiderCourse pays a lot of attention to "responsible recreation" that respects the environment and the rights of people using the same land for other activities, as well as to risk awareness. In fact, the very first lesson in the RiderCourse is a Consumer Product Safety Commission warning that "ATVs may present a risk of death or severe injury," a point that's underscored with a statistic from the 2006 CPSC annual report of deaths and injuries: "More than 2,753 people, including many children, have died in accidents associated with ATVs since 2000."

That statistic was definitely on my mind as I rode the Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area last week. Flanked by two ATV instructors, I was guided along the easy green-dot trails, then the more difficult blue-square trails and one harrowing black-diamond hill that had me standing up, leaning forward, hyperventilating and thrashing my body and my quad as I navigated the rutty, steeply inclined switchback.

It was, to be sure, a rush -- one that tested my limits and taught me exactly what I wanted to know. Why are 7 million ATVs in use in the U.S.? They're quite literally a cheap thrill. Priced from $1,800 to $8,000, they're fun and versatile. They're also risky, so riders should beware and also prepare.


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