Feb 11, 2009

Thinking Bi-Futuristically

The Cycle World International Motorcycle Show is hitting Minneapolis this weekend. Being a media kind of guy, I don't have an excuse not to go and it's usually kind of fun. It's an excuse to bump into old friends, look at the usual suspects of two-wheeled toys, and avoid thinking about five or six more weeks of winter.

Last year, for the second time, I took my grandson to the show and we had a particularly good day of fooling around with mechanical objects. He's 13 this year and will probably be even more interested in motorcycles. None of my kids have been bikers and I don't really expect Wolf to be any different. I think the two-wheeled jones is going to live and die with me. My brother was into it for a while, until a close encounter with a deer demolished his ankle, but he's mostly over it now. My step-brother was a dirt biker and a bragging-rights Harley owner/crasher for a very short time, but he and his son have "grown up" and moved on to big trucks. Like I said, I'm the family's lone two-wheeler and, outside of bicycles, I'm probably going to be the last.

There is some speculation among industry insiders that my family experience is similar to the national trend. As an answer to the often asked question, “Honda has a marketing department?” Honda has dumped the Honda Hoot (apparently, permanently) this year and blamed the economy for the demise. Honda has been making noise about abandoning motorcycles in the US, due to liability issues, since the 1980's economic crash. Yamaha and Kawasaki are about equally enthralled with our low-tech, high maintenance, marginally economic stability marketplace and, if they could find a replacement for the US income, they’d probably dash to it so quickly that there would be a small tornado caused by the vacuum.

I’ve heard off-road distributors describe vanishing youth from those sports and road bike dealers and marketing gurus wonder if street bikes will become a “rich kid’s toy.” The companies who positioned themselves to take advantage of characters who would be willing to spend $30k-$100k on a giant cruiser and now wondering where their customers went. The biggest of the bunch, Harley, is stuck with hundreds of millions of dollars in bad loans after chasing the poor credit risk crowd that is wiping out the housing market. I imagine it won’t be long before we hear that the other companies in this market are suffering similar pains. In the end, the only people who will be buying a $20,000 Polaris Vision will be the guys who handed themselves million dollar bonuses for screwing up their companies and got out before the feds slammed them in jail. That might be a small crowd if those of us who are paying their bills have our way.

Risk is a big topic in the country, too. I’ve listened to several big-time ex-offroad competitors explain why they wouldn’t consider letting their kids ride motorcycles. For a country founded by folks abandoning their homes, history, and security to gamble on a life in “the new world,” we seem to be turning into a caricature of conservative, old-world. Hell, almost every European country is more progressive than the US and if we keep going backwards we’ll get to enjoy hearing China brag about being more contemporary than the United States. Won’t that be fun?

So, I’m going to take in the Motorcycle Show with the thought in mind that I might be the last of a breed, watching obsolete technology fun its course in my lifetime, wondering over what kind of world it will be without risk, adventure, surprise, or even real-world sensations over virtual experiences. Maybe, I’ll even look for something new from the motorcycle industry. That would be a surprise.


Anonymous said...

I too wonder if the motorcycle enthusiasm might have been a one-time, non-recurring affair here - basically one generation who really had a good time on two wheels, and were not followed by any subsequent. The liability lawyers essentially put an end to sport aviation in airplanes designed since about 1950. The early stuff is "all sued-out" now so people are free to manufacture those old Stinsons, Cessnas, Navions, &c and the pottering old late-1930s engines that powered them. But the much-vaunted generation of fiberglass, carbon fiber, tail-first, here-comes-innovation private aircraft will probably never come to be, ever.

My middle son had a modest good time on an old rotary-valve Kawasaki dirt bike, broke his arm on the thing, and thereafter started it every spring for a couple of years before trading it to some friend. The other two sons have never operated a motorbike, to my knowledge. I was perfectly agreeable either way. I never wanted to lose my mind as a Little League parent ("No way! NO dinner for you until you get under a minute-eight on the long course!") but if there had been interest I "had the technology", so to speak. For a number of years I would pack a tent and sleeping bags in the car and with 2 or 3 boys drive off to Loudon for a vintage race and some stiff-making camping that made us all appreciate breakfast at the Eggshell, just up the road. No one said, "I'd like to try that, dad". I had a project waiting in the wings, just in case - a 250 BSA single - but it was never activated.

Instead, the middle son enlists in the marines.


Anonymous said...

The graying of our trials club is a perfect example. The core of it, those who give it life, are solidly in their 50s with some poking around either side of 60. I don’t see enough young blood to keep it going after we trade our trials bikes for walkers.

As a nation we’ve become afraid of our own shadow. Although I only have it as a sneaky way of being able to transfer my massive fortune to the two kids, I’m embarrassed to say I have long-term-care insurance. Can you imagine the pioneers deciding not to cross the prairie because they didn’t have long-term-care insurance?

Good blog today, as usual.


Ps. Might run into you at the show. I’ll be working Saturday morning at the Heritage Museum-AMA booth, and might tag along with friends some other days. It’s like a big family reunion.

Rob Kopp said...

I wonder if some of this concern is a bit of "baby boomer lament." I am in the gap between the baby boom and gen X (b. 1963). I started to ride last year after many years of being an avid bicyclist. I bought a couple of old bikes, took the MSF course, and got my license. Last year, I rode about 5k miles. I love to ride-- it puts a smile on my face every time, even in a cold rain.

I've watched interest wane following the baby boom explosion during the course of my lifetime. When I was in High School, education was consolidating for smaller numbers. When I first went to college, financial aid dried up and nearly disappeared. I am a Minnesota United Methodist pastor, and I have watched our numbers decline significantly in the last decade.

I got my ham radio license in Junior High School, and I have watched that hobby go through decline for most of my life. The waxing and waning of public interest is nothing new. Some leisure activities do disappear, and at times it seems this will happen with ham radio. But...

Motorcycles are too much fun. I can't imagine a time when people will not discover them. With the fuel crunch last year, many people took to the road for the first time. (And there were many who had no business on a motorcycle.) I suspect many discovered that time spent on a motorcycle is quality time.

I wonder if part of what we might be experiencing now is the way motorcycles and motorcycle culture have taken on a nostalgia persona. V-Twin cruisers seemed to be the popular image of motorcycles, and the helmet-less leather clad riders, loud pipes, and the "rebel" Republican Boomers who ride them.

I ride an 82 Yamaha Seca 650 and an 89 Yamaha Venture Royale. I wear synthetics, a great helmet, good boots, and have a good rain suit. I spent as much on clothing as I spent for the Seca. I don't carry the typical image of a motorcyclist (nor a typical pastor probably, although there are many of us on bikes). I've looked over the new bikes, and will be looking them over on Saturday at the show as well. I honestly can't imagine any of the newer bikes being much better than what I am riding for the way I ride. I am intrigued by the ability of EFI to work at higher altitude, but that's about it. I don't think riders like me are even on bike manufacturer's radar. But I believe I am not alone in really enjoying the ride-- and there are many more who would, with proper clothing and the right bike, have a great time riding.

(Disclaimer: The Seca is my nostalgia-- it was the bike I wanted when I was in college.

Rob Kopp

Anonymous said...

"KC" as in Kevin Cameron?

T.W. Day said...

I like the term, "baby boomer lament." We're not going to go "quietly into that good night," are we? Boomers are nothing if not noisy.

I'm not implying that nobody younger than me is riding, but the numbers may not be large enough to support an industry. Especially an industry that depends on large sales numbers to keep prices low.

I was slow to adapt to EFI. Now, I wouldn't ride long without it. You won't believe the difference in cold weather starting and high altitude reliability.