Ever wondered why you don't ride a motorcycle? It's not because your mom says they're dangerous. It's because no one's ever demonstrated their advantages to you in a way that matters, then offered you the one you want.
Damon asked me to write this article after I'd spent 20 minutes on IM explaining all this to him. Again. It's probably the third time I've had to do that with him alone, and something I've done countless times for other casual enthusiasts who don't get why bikes aren't more popular. This isn't intended to be negative or anything, it's just stating the great unstated caveat when it comes to the American motorcycle industry.
Your average American sportbike rider. Sick belt, brah.
The Problem Is Motorcyclists: Here in the US, bikes are cheap and credit is cheaper. Combine that with our overwhelming need to overcompensate and you create a market that sees motorcycles as toys. And who wants a practical toy? Instead of nice, sensible transportation, we all want 200mph death machines or idiotic cruisers with extra chrome conchos. And the motorcycle industry is very happy to comply, selling you GSX-R1000s by the container load, all at 0% financing.
And, guess what happens? We all go out and kill ourselves. The Harley idiots (pictured) are all drunk, all the time and refuse to wear helmets. The sport bike tools think their chin strap beards and bright white sneakers endow them with a professional athlete's riding ability and buy those GSX-Rs as first bikes, then quite predictably run them into the first tree off the dealer lot. And, it turns out that being a professional athlete in, say, football, doesn't make you a professional athlete in motorcycling. So those high profile, low intellect types hit those same trees, creating even more negative press.
There are a few guys who get it of course. You can spot them riding around in their Roadcrafters, with tool rolls strapped to the back of their immaculately maintained sport tourers and adventure bikes. But all the rest of riderdom is so annoying that the few in the know put up barriers to outsiders, don't encourage new riders and don't attempt to reform the knuckle draggers. Then, we're subject to the same legislation, the same attitudes, the same unavailableness of good bikes, so we're just as bad as everyone else.
The Problem Is Baby Boomers: Something funny started happening in the 1980s. A whole generation of middle class white men decided they wanted to start buying bikes. This had nothing to do with the motorcycles, mind, but more to do with the sudden availability of credit and the unprecedented buying power it gave them. Every year, until everyone realized that was an enormous scam in 2008, motorcycle sales increased.
And the kind of bikes that were being developed and sold changed to suit them. If you owned a small general contracting firm and a nice man at the bank suddenly told you you could buy any motorcycle you wanted, would you want a nice little runabout or the HOG with the most tassles ever squeezed on two wheels? Bikes got faster, got more gadgets and got more expensive and way heavier as a result. No longer was it desirable for a motorcycle to be light and simple and good, it had to weigh at least 500 pounds, go at least 150mph and be FUCKING EPIC. Of course, that also made them more expensive than ever before and essentially ruled out the potential for an owner to maintain it themselves. Or for women, short people or the uninitiated to ride them. Not being sexist, promise, buthave you seen how tall the seats are on most bikes?
The Problem Is The Industry: Every year bike sales increased. Man, the industry was doing a really good job, huh? We should totally keep doing exactly what we were doing and everyone should get a raise, right? If the Boomers are the ones buying bikes, we should focus totally, 100 percent on them and totally forget to introduce riding to a new generation or to use this opportunity to expand the appeal of motorcycling, right? Right? If you stick your head out in motorcycles, it gets lopped off. So damn right! Someone promote that young man, he's a real go getter.
And an even bigger whoopsie when it came to writing riders their death sentences in return for a monthly finance payment. Where, in most of the rest of the world, governments have imposed tiered licensing for motorcyclists, requiring them to work their way up to riding the big, dangerous bikes, America has always been a total free for all. Here, a 16 year old can perform a couple U-turns in a parking lot on a scooter, hitch a ride from Mom to the local Suzuki dealer and walk out the same day with a Hayabusa. And he can ride it legally without a helmet in most states. Rather than impose any sort of self-policing, education or reform, the industry just averted its eyes, pretended like it wasn't happening and kept selling those 'Busas to anyone with a death wish.
Yeah, it killed a lot of people, but this is America, dammit, and that's our god given right. Trouble is, it also ended up impacting the bottom lines of motorcycle makers. No, not through lawsuits (the industry's always been good at protecting itself from those), but by failing at customer retention. The margins in motorcycling have always been so slim that getting one extra sale that month has always been prioritized over retaining that customer for life. You know, selling him multiple bikes over a decades long riding career rather than just that one he killed himself on.
And it turned out there wasn't an endless supply of people lining up for new Gixxers. Even with 0%, they now fill dealer showrooms several model years deep.
To understand the bike industry, you have to understand that it has two parts: the manufacturers, most of which are in Japan, and the American importers, most of whom are in Orange County. With a decent number of sales of very expensive motorcycles, the American market had been something of a cash cow for those manufacturers. Combined with Western Europe, we were the consumers buying the really exciting new motorcycles, the ones Honda and Yamaha and Suzuki and Kawasaki were excited to be making. Then, the economy collapsed. Or, at least the part that moved motorcycles in the US and Europe. Sales practically stopped, the American importers didn't have a freakin' clue what to do, and so the Japanese concentrated elsewhere.
Honda sells 19 million motorcycles a year worldwide. At its peak, the American motorcycle market accounted for 1.1 million total bike sales a year. Now, that's under 500,000. Harley sells 250,000 of those (because classic rock just won't die), Honda's the next biggest at 125,000 or so, and everyone else is orders of magnitude smaller.
All of a sudden, sportbikes don't sell and, try as they might, Harley's success can't be emulated by the Japanese. Kawasaki logo's just never looked as good on a bandana.
That's not to say Harley doesn't have its own problems. It's courted such an ornery old customer base that it's had to create a giant lie around its new electric motorcycle — the Livewire — claiming it's a prototype intended to "test customer reaction" rather than an imminent production model going on-sale shortly. The Motor Company has been equally unsuccessful at convincing young Americans to ride as the rest of the motorcycle world.
Add all that up. Millenials were never engaged by the motorcycle industry. The guys who should be buying bikes all got killed or scared off. Boomers don't have credit anymore and are aging out of riding anyways. Motorcycling desperately needs a new audience, but it lacks the ability to talk to anyone who didn't grow up racing motocross (bro!), doesn't have the product mix anyone wants to buy anymore, and the parent companies can't be bothered making the bikes newly-impoverished Americans might be interested in buying. Why would you, when this country only accounts for .66% of your sales?
That's why we get fantastic little learn bikes like the CB300F that cost the right amount and perform the right way, but are styled for Southeast Asia, not American tastes.
The Problem Is America: So we've identified that the vast majority of motorcycle consumers here are idiots buying bikes on cheap finance deals before promptly killing themselves. We've identified that the American arms of the motorcycle companies don't know what they're doing and that their Japanese colleagues can't be bothered to help. That's not a great start, but it gets worse.
One of the problems is the American Motorcyclist Association. They're supposedly our lobbyist group, fighting for our rights. But, instead, they just try to get helmet laws repealed. You know, because ensuring the certain death of your peers should they crash (which they will, since you don't like tiered licensing or any other effectual safety measures) is totally cool and totally good for motorcycling. They even hopped on board with that Obamacare Death Panels bullshit Sarah Palin was spinning for a while there, back in 2007 or so. You know, because motorcyclists who aren't taught how to ride and don't wear safety gear don't need healthcare, not at all.
The other problem is that America as a whole has some really big transport-related problems and they don't see motorcycles as a solution. Even though they've been an effective solution elsewhere. Hey, we are exceptional. A study conducted in Belgium showed that if just 10% of road traffic switched to motorcycles, congestion would fall a total of 40%. That would practically re-invent transportation in most American cities. If a quarter of road users switched to motorcycles? Kiss congestion goodbye altogether. But, instead of using the obvious answer staring us in the face, we grasp for fantastical new ideas like Elon Musk's Hyperloop and Google's Self Driving car. Why solve a problem with what you've got when you can just throw piles of money at it instead?
As Americans, and due to many of the reasons identified here (but mostly the idiots), we've become incredibly biased against motorcycles. When we hear that word, we see squids attacking a Range Rover on the West Side Highway or pathetic old men vibrating their way down the highway in assless leather chaps. We don't see sensible personal transportation, an honest good time or someone saving all of us time on our commutes by taking active measures to bust congestion. And none of that creates a viable future for motorcycling in this country.
A Glimmer Of Hope: Throughout all of this, there's one company that's shifted its focus towards the American market. A big part of that is because their traditional market — Europe — has been hit harder by the economic crisis than we have, but also due to a clever re-think about what their brand could mean to a wider consumer base.
Ducati only makes 44,000 motorcycles a year — not even a drop in the bucket of the global motorcycle market — but sells a quarter of those in the US. The last few years have seen product development shift away from focusing exclusively on out-and-out sportbikes (formerly most popular in Europe, back when they had jobs) and towards a diverse array of products catered to high-end, western tastes. The Diavel cruiser is one obvious example, but the new Scrambler is generating interest away from traditional motorcycle circles too.
In another positive sign, it appears as if the Scrambler is going to be an entire sub-brand of stylish, fun, affordable bikes with light weights and reasonable performance. This is just the first. Just the thing for new riders and exactly the bike Americans want today.
And Ducati doesn't appear to be sacrificing its core values while broadening its appeal. The Panigale isn't just the fastest Ducati ever made, it's the mostest sportbike currently on sale. It's also starting a massive push into the Chinese and Asian markets, even opening a factory in Thailand. All that while building one of the most recognizable brands in the world (doubly impressive with such limited sales) and while maintaining a clear differentiation from its competitors. The Panigale might compete in the same category as a CBR1000RR, but occupies an entirely different and entirely superior tier within pop culture, all while attracting a higher quality of consumer, one that's more likely to wear safety gear, pursue skilled riding and, well, not kill themselves. And riders not killing themselves is a two-wheeled future we can get behind.
Will you ever ride a motorcycle? Well, it's one of the most life-affirming, time-saving, downright awesomest things you can do, but the people trying to sell you motorcycles would never tell you that, which is a shame.