Aug 24, 2018

Ancient History, Current Situation

Guido Ebert (ex-MMM editor, current freelance writer) wrote an article for Give A Shift titled, “Motorcycle Sales in the Slow Lane.”  That November, 2017 analysis concluded with “Ultimately, the way it looks right now, the U.S. Motorcycle market could – in a best-case scenario – remain largely flat in coming years. But, despite core enthusiast riders continuing to make desired purchases, a great percentage of the potential motorcycle-buying public will continue to feel impacted by economic stressors, the market will continue to experience an aging owner demographic, and no prominent influencer for major growth appears readily apparent.”

Damn, and Guido is an optimist.

New MC SalesI am inclined to suspect he is right, though. This chart, to be really useful, should include another decade back. In the early 80’s, motorcycle hit a collection of snags that made it seem like motorcycles were about to go the way of the dodo. In 1980, there were 112 fatal motorcycle crashes in Minnesota. That was the peak year for both fatalities and injuries (2,728). By 1982, dealers were folding, manufacturers were stuck with a couple of year’s production sitting on showroom floors, and the national economy was sluggish. All of that happened again in 1988 (Remember “It’s about the economy, stupid?”).

MC by NationMotorcycle sales aren’t just going down in the USA, though. Brazil was a little late to the runoff, but for the rest of the countries documented in this chart 2007 was the beginning of a fairly substantial downturn in motorcycle sales. Australia and the UK seem to be the only countries that have shown any sort of serious uptick in sales since the Great Recession. The US sales have continued to decline since the 2016 end of this chart and nobody seems to be predicting a comeback any time soon. The 90’s downturn was about a decade long, so this moment could also turn out to be temporary.

fotw915The reasons, or excuses, for motorcycle purchases are thinning out, though. In the 80’s and 90’s, for all but the most radical sportbikes and a few gas spewing cruiser models, we could always pretend we rode motorcycles to save money on fuel. When gas was $1.25/gallon in the 80’s that was a close argument. When gas was $3.50 in the 2000’s, it would have been a more winning argument but car economy really took major leaps about then keeping the operational costs close. Likewise, for most of the time I’ve been riding a new motorcycle was dramatically cheaper than a new car. In 1973, I paid $500 for a brand new 125ISDT Rickman, for example, but my new Mazda station wagon cost $3,000. Today, you have to look deep into manufacturer’s lineup to find anything that is even a little cheaper than a car. A not-legal-in-California Suzuki TU250X costs $4600 and a Nissan Versa S costs $12,000. The low-ball Versa S gets 39mpg (highway), comes with A/C, an entertainment center, decent storage and reasonable comfort, front wheel drive and manual transmission, and a 3-year warranty. Some dealers give you a Versa S just for buying a more upscale Nissan SUV or Titan pickup. If you are looking at a motorcycle with comparable road-worthiness, you’ll discover your purchase price and fuel economy is neck-and-neck with the Versa. So much for an economics argument.

If an economy argument won’t be a seller for potential future motorcyclists, what will? While “adventure” or “freedom” is something that most motorcyclists list as their motivation for riding, most riders are anything but adventurous and pirate parades are more likely demonstrations of human herding instinct than some kind of weird take on individual liberty. Sales of “adventure touring” bikes have been disappointing, with inventory of 2016-2018 Honda Africa Twins, Yamaha Super Teneres, and assorted KTM and BMW bikes stuck on the showroom floors. Cruisers are still selling, but not at all briskly. Small bikes that should be iintroducing a generation of kids to motorcycling are failing to attract any serious attention, regardless of vintage or modern styling. I’m not seeing a bump in interest from Millenials or whatever the next generation of kids is called at the moment. I think that is a problem.

Aug 22, 2018

VBR 4 and Beyond: Reflections on Now, Then, and the Future

IMG_9466What makes a guy who started the whole textile riding suit business tick? As you’d expect, it’s complicated. Andy Goldfine really only wanted to make Aerostich Roadcrafters; the company’s posterchild product intended to make daily commuting on a motorcycle practical, fun, comfortable, and safe. As he said during a talk at the Very Boring Rally (VBR4), he started the Riderwearhouse retail and mailorder business to be able to support the 3-4 Roadcrafters the company would make each month. Being a retail store businessman was a long ways from a dream Andy had for himself.

vbr4 crowd35 years later, Andy and his company are throwing a party for the people who kept the company alive after every other motorcycle clothing company in the world copied their designs, moved production to the 3rd world, undercut Aerostich’s prices and quality in equal percentages, and out-marketed Aerostich’s Whole Earth Catalog style to a couple of generations of riders who get most of their information from Google searches and make most of their major purchases from “Word of mouth” has devolved into Yelp and Google reviews by strangers with undeclared motivations and relationships and minimal information of value. If you look closely at the audience for this VBR seminar, you’ll see a lot of bald and/or grey heads, which is pretty much what motorcycling in 2018 resembles: lots of geezers with grudges.

It’s easy to imagine the end of motorcycling. I do it all the time. However, when I was talking to another rider about my first Aerostich I was reminded of the fact that motorcycling looked pretty doomed in 1983 or 84 when I  bought that first Roadcrafter. The California dealers were vanishing. In 1984, there were loads of brand new 1980-1983 motorcycles still on showroom floors. In fact, in late 1983 I talked the owner of a 1982 Yamaha Vision 550 down from his once-reasonable $2200 asking price to $1,000 because the local Yamaha dealer was dumping 1982’s for $1400 and new 1983’s for $1800. Two years later, I bought a like-new 1983 Vision for $1,000 with the same argument. I sold that 2nd Vision in late 1991 in Colorado for $2200 to a guy who drove all the way from California to buy it.  By then, the industry was in yet another motorcycle recession and new Japanese bikes were stagnating on showrooms once again.

It’s easy to imagine the sad current state-of-affairs is a predictor of the future, just like when people imagine current inflated house prices are going to last forever. The only thing experience with the past has taught me is that I am pretty good at guessing when crashes will occur and I suck at predicting bull markets for anything.

People in the industry want to blame Millenials for the current crisis. In Eric Brandt’s article, “Analysts are Wrong about Why Millennials Aren't Buying Harleys,” he wrote, “This all reminds me of a fascinating story Bob Lutz told about the Chrysler Imperial in an interview with Popular Mechanics. ‘That was the source of one of the major arguments Lee Iacocca and I had,’ Lutz said of the Imperial. He said Iacocca showed him the car and asked what he thought. Lutz responded saying it looked ‘aesthetically, 10 years old the day it comes out’ and went on to criticize the vinyl roof, the fake wire wheels, and the opera windows. Shocked, Iacocca responded saying ‘you might not like it because you’re too young, but by the time you’re 65, you’ll like a car like that.’ What Lutz says next applied to the Imperial then and it applies to Harley-Davidson now. ‘I won’t because my generation admires high-end European cars. You like [the Imperial] because when you were 40-years-old, that’s what American luxury cars looked like.’” Harley isn’t the only company to cling to what worked 30 years ago, but there is going to be a hole in one or two generations’ knowledge of what motorcycles “looked like” and someone is going to fill it.

Aerostich’s riding products have changed substantially, while hanging on to the functional concepts that attracted me and thousands of riders to their gear. Their quality standards have only become more refined and stronger over their 35 years of production and invention. There is only one model of what motorcyclists look like and it is the variations on Aerostich’s Roadcrafter and Darien riding suits. In 30 years, if today’s younger riders are wanting to look like motorcyclists from their 20’s and 30’s, they are going to have to be wearing Aerostich gear. Every other brand is a cheap imitation, even if they aren’t cheap.

Here’s hoping Andy and Aerostich will keep doing what they do best as long as they want to be doing it.

Aug 21, 2018

Group Posing

All Rights Reserved © 2017 Thomas W. Day

An early June Sunday morning, my spouse decided we needed to take a drive to River Falls, via back, Wisconsin highway patrol-free roads. We have a leisurely route, after escaping WI 35 ticket-free, that will take us to our usual destination pretty stress-free most days. Not Sunday, however. That county road was cluttered with arrogant middle-of-the-road bicyclist obstacles and blasted with a half-dozen pirate parades and a couple smaller groups of lane-challenged sportbike pretenders. The drive, in either direction, was way too tense to be enjoyable.
As I watched one pack of pirate bikers waddle towards us, marginally in their opposite lane and demonstrating no signs of competence, I wondered, again, why people feel compelled to ride in groups. In an Experienced Rider MSF course, a few years back, one of the students described motorcycling as a "social activity," which about floored me. He was, obviously, right, but it had never occurred to me that anyone would pick a vehicle that is clearly designed for solo exploration, minimalist transportation, and general anti-social behavior (Yeah, I'm talkin' about you, Victor.) and imagine it to be the perfect platform for a group activity. A few years later and I'm no less baffled by that realization than I was when I first heard it. So, I kept thinking about it as I dodged the not-so-rare idiots on hippobikes wandering near my lane with their naked, bald heads shining and their wide open eyeballs target fixating on the front of my pickup. I came to a conclusion as to what all this silliness is about, but you probably aren't going to like it.
For most of my life, I've viewed groups of men and boys as being at once homophobic and homoerotic. The badass biker crowd with its freaky gangbanging activities, and attraction to outfits the Village People would have thought were too poncy in the heyday of disco, are clearly dealing with some sexual identity issues. It's not that different from the "gay for the stay" pretence men in prison use to justify their confusion, but it is slightly scarier since these maladjusted characters are out in the general population; at least until the next time they get caught and end up back inside. None of that is any different than frat hazing behavior or the military or rappers and their posse pals or those militia freakshows: guys congregate in packs to keep from having to think about which side of the street they want to walk. 
Obviously, I don't care, one way or another, if people are hetero or homosexual, but packs of stray men are never a good thing. Packs of physically inept, overweight, peer-pressure intimidated men (and equally confused women) on oversized motorcycles are much worse things. There are no statistics that I can locate that account for motorcycle crashes in group rides, but it's hard to find a group ride story that doesn't include at least one nitwit who overshot a corner or ran into the back of another motorcyclist or ended up in the wrong lane. Watching these folks try to hold their place in the "formation" while negotiating curves at speeds picked by the group leader and desperately trying to look "cool" is just a little sad.
And it's all because motorcycle parades are the socially-acceptable way for men to travel in groups on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Several years ago, my brother came to visit and to go with me on a "ride" around Lake Superior. We don't get to see each other much, mostly since he lives in Arizona and I can't think of any good reason to visit that state. So, we travelled on my two motorcycles for almost 2,000 miles. The two bikes get about 50mpg each, so we averaged somewhat less than 25mpg for the trip. He got lost a couple of times because I tend to try to keep 2-3 miles between me and other vehicles, whenever possible, and he has the family tendency to wander off on the nearest interesting looking dirt road to see where it ends up. Overall, it was a mediocre trip and we probably got to spend about 8 waking hours actually hanging out over five days. It would have been cheaper, more fun, and at least as adventurous to have taken my 1999 Ford Escort wagon and I'd have known something about his life since the last time we hung out.
In the early 90s, I was renting a basement room from a friend in Denver and financially and mentally recovering from ten expensive years in southern California, raising two daughters, and starting a new career at age 41. During some holiday break, three friends decided they wanted to drive to California to see the sights while I hung out with my family for a weekend. Part of the motivation was that one of the guys had just restored a 1960's Buick convertible and he wanted to try it out on a road trip. We made it from Denver to Idaho Springs, about 50 miles, before the Buick died. He had AAA tow the Buick back and he picked up my Toyota van and drove it back to Idaho Springs to collect the rest of the group. With nothing but time to waste, we all decided we'd stick with the roadtrip plan, even though the van only had two front seats because I'd hollowed out the back to serve as a cheap camper. If we got stopped, it was a safe bet that we'd be looking at seatbelt violations, at the least. If we crashed in the mountains or at any reasonable speed, missing seatbelts were the least of our problems inside that Toyota tin can.
We drove straight through, taking turns at the wheel, holding down shotgun duties, and sleeping in the back. About 1,000 miles and 18 hours later, we rolled into Huntington Beach, rested, relaxed, fed, entertained, and ready to split up into two groups: me with my family and the other three guys exploring California. They headed for L.A. and Universal Studios and I enjoyed a few days with my wife and daughters. That was one of the best road trips of my adult life and the only actual group ride I've ever enjoyed. Like many families, mine didn't travel together much and when we did it was usually for something miserable like a funeral or wedding. That California roadtrip was the closest thing I'd ever experienced to an actual family vacation.
The next-closest tolerable-to-decent group rides were all of a similar sort. The same three guys and one other were the only motorcyclists I knew while I lived in Denver. One of them, my landlord, was an experienced, talented rider and the other three hadn't (and wouldn't) put 1,000 miles on their used motorcycles or on themselves in their motorcycling "careers." All four of those guys were committed pavement motorcyclists while I was still trying to decide how I felt about asphalt and concrete. We often took Parker Road toward Colorado Springs after work or on weekends. If we were going all the way to the Springs, sometimes I'd take CO67 to Rampart Range Road and the military training road along the the eastern ridge into the Springs. We'd pick a destination and a meeting time and I'd cut out early and head for the mountains while the other guys took the shorter, quicker but less scenic route. Since they rarely hit the road before noon, even though my route was twice as long as theirs, I'd still end up at the end point a little early.
And that's what I'd call a decent "group ride."
However, when it comes to taking a trip on a motorcycle, it still makes more sense to me to do it solo. But then, I'm not worried about what anyone else's opinion of how I travel or who I am traveling with. 

Aug 20, 2018

Weird Things in the Queue

For the last 20 years that I've written for Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly Magazine, the ideas have overflowed the magazine's interest by a long ways. I built a website with a queue of articles and stories for my editors to pick-and-choose from and the occasional outlier initially would see original life on this blog. Honestly, while the editors might have said those outliers were "ugly orphans" that didn't contain enough reader interest to see the light of publication, I always thought they were the closest to the "geezer with a grudge" concept: me being as pissed off as I often am in real life. So, in my mind, when I published something substantial here I figured it was too pissed off, too radical, too funny, or too weird for publication elsewhere. In other words, my best stuff.

Now that MMM is unofficially a dead letter (the last paper edition went out with the 2018/2018 Winter Issue), all of those unpublished orphans are getting moved up in the GWAG queue. More often than not, I've used the blog as a place to comment on things happening in motorcycling or Minnesota that didn't really warrant a whole GWAG column. A couple of months after MMM published an article, it would also show up here. As of today, I have shifted my backup schedule on this blog to a schedule that begins to empty that queue every week or two until it runs out (as of today, sometime in early 2020. (Yeah, I know. I should find a more productive hobby.)

I hate to see the end of MMM, but we had a damn good run together. We almost made it 20 years together. MMM published my first article for the magazine in October of 1999; "What Are We Riding For." It is still a question I asked myself every day I taught MSF "safety courses" and every time I see a pirate riding a 900 pound hippobike wearing a protective headband and his underwear (or "panties" as my wife calls it).

Aug 12, 2018

Who to Root For?

Harley HalfwitsAs a 60’s kinda guy, it’s weird to be hoping the FBI wins in the battle between our Russian –plant president and the rule of law and something midly resembling patriotism.

I suspect no one is surprised that the biker gangsters are all stacked up behind Trump, even when Trump is attacking the logo they have tattooed all over their grossly abused bodies. But this headline is really trying the bounds of my own biases, “Bikers back Trump in his rift over Harley-Davidson.” This is clearly one of those movies where there are no good guys. I hope they all dry up and blow back to Russia.

“Bikers have been among the groups most loyal to Trump, as motorcyclists in the United States tend to be predominantly working-class men older than 50 and veterans — demographics that comprise the bulk of the president’s base. Trump has embraced that allegiance, saying recently that ‘I guarantee you everybody that ever bought a Harley-Davidson voted for Trump.’” Of course, Trump is bullshitting, as usual. I know more than a few people who have bought HDs and who hate Trump and his Russian owners as much as does the average person with an above single-digit IQ. Still, the fact that this hasn’t drawn much fire just adds more weight to my already generally massive dislike for all things HD.