Sound Familiar?

Bloomberg just published an essay titled, “The Motorcycle Industry Is Dying.” Not a new concept and much of their analysis has been seen here first, but it’s slightly comforting to see some one else get it. The article puts a lot of weight on the new Honda Rebel 500 and I have to admit that is entertaining. I rode the Rebel 250 for the first time in a MSF class a couple of weeks ago and it is awful. There is nothing about that motorcycle that would have enticed me to get into motorcycling.

“Honda’s Rebel is the latest entry in a parade of new bikes designed for first-time riders; almost every company in the motorcycle industry has scrambled to make one. They are smaller, lighter, and more affordable than most everything else at a dealership and probably wouldn’t look out of place in the 1960s—back when motorcycling was about the ride, not necessarily the bike. They are also bait for millennials, meant to lure them  into the easy-rider lifestyle. If all goes as planned, these little rigs will help companies like Harley-Davidson coast for another 50 years.” Good luck with that daydream.

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I personally can’t imagine anything other than a hoard of electric bikes in the $5,000-territory that will turn the motorcycle economy around, but power to them for finally waking up and discovering Boomers are dying off. “A motorcycle is a picture of discretionary spending, and they can be tricky to finance even in a healthy credit market. Even now, with the stock market on a historic bull run and after the U.S. auto industry posted its best year on record, traffic in motorcycle stores has stayed slow. In 2016, U.S. customers rolled off with 371,403 new bikes, roughly half as many as a decade ago.”

Too little, too late has been my analysis for the last decade. This author sort of agrees, “The problem, however, with this sudden industry pivot to younger customers is that it may be coming too late. For years, it was too easy to just keep building bigger, more powerful bikes.“ It was easier and Boomers were dumb enough to buy into pretending that 60 was the age of midlife crisis. Ride down WI35 and look at all the Harleys out on the front lawns for sale. It’s over boys, now what are you going to do? One problem with a lot of these little motorcycles is that they aren’t as energy efficient as many cars. If anything makes motorcycles a purely recreational toy it is lousy fuel economy.

It could be a bigger trend than motorcycles, though. Driving, in general, has lost a lot of appeal to practically everyone.

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It’s a Dirt Bike Habit

caveman

All Rights Reserved © 2015 Thomas W. Day

One of my least favorite excuses for poor street bike motorcycle skills is “it’s a dirt bike habit,” as if I’m too stupid or inexperienced to know what works off-road. Ok, I grant that I’m not that bright and there are a world of things I don’t know about riding a dirt bike, but I’m pretty sure I know more and ride better on or off-road than an over-18 newbie who needs to take the MSF Basic Riding Course to get a motorcycle license. (A subject for a whole different GwAG rant.) Face it, if you were good you’d just ride down to the DMV, take their easy little test, and get your license. But that doesn’t stop a certain portion of the folks who take the Basic Rider Course from explaining away all of their awful habits with “it’s a dirt bike habit”; habits that have been formed from experiences as diverse as riding on the back of Dad’s ATV to mountain biking.

The things that get blamed on dirt bike experience are 1) clinging to the front brake lever with one or more fingers as if it were a lifeline, 2) sticking a foot out any time the bike leans more than two degrees away from vertical, 3) superstition, ignorance, and terror of either the front or rear brake use, 4) staring at the front wheel as if it were about to fall off at any moment at the expense of having the remotest idea where the motorcycle is traveling, and 5) any number of weird and uncontrollable throttle hand positions. There are lots more dumb things that, supposedly, dirt bike riders “all do,” but I’ll leave the list at five for the purposes of keeping this short and minimally pissed-off. 

It is true that riding off-road and, especially, racing off-road is a different animal from street riding. There is no life-threatening situation in a motocross or enduro where you have to worry about maximum braking horsepower. That is one of many reasons why dirt bikes have wimpy little brakes that barely seem functional in street riding situations. Mostly due to my riding style, skill limitations, and attitude, when I raced off-road I was more inclined to lift the front wheel and ride over obstacles and downed riders and bikes than I was to hit the brakes or try to avoid those obstructions. That is simply not a survivable option on the street. On the road, in any given week of commuting, I would be surprised if I didn’t seriously exercise my motorcycle’s brakes at least twice out of necessity and I have a long-established habit of working on my stopping and avoidance skills every day. You have to be able to stop quickly or be ready to offer up the girlyman excuse, “I had to lay ‘er down” when you explain why you are on crutches for a whole riding season. I hope it’s obvious that four fingers are stronger than one or two. It might be less obvious that regularly practicing braking with all four fingers does not limit a rider to exclusively using four fingers every time the brakes are used. You can always consciously choose to only use one finger or two in appropriate braking situations or when hanging on to the bars in precarious (as it is in off-road situations). I always argue that it’s better to have to think about using a less effective braking technique than it is to automatically select the low-power option in an emergency. I could be wrong about that, but it’s still the argument I’d present to any new rider hoping to ride safely for a lot of years.

Clinging to the grips while you are also trying to use the throttle, clutch, or brake precisely is another “dirt bike habit” that is ineffective, unnecessary, and dangerous on the road. I am referring to those riders who are unable to use more than a couple of fingers for braking because they are afraid of losing their grip on the bars. Braking in particular puts a lot of force on the palm of your hand and you are not likely to be bumped loose when you’re applying maximum braking forces. However, if you are really that insecure about loosening your grip on the bars, the chances are pretty good that you’re going to crash sooner or later. When you do, those fingers you’ve allocated under the levers are likely to get crushed when the weight of the bike smashes the lever ends into the ground. 

A few moments on YouTube will demonstrate the difference between the riding techniques of great off-road racers and street racers (search for Valentino Rossi and James Stewart on-board camera views, for example). The road racer hand movements and throttle application looks almost in slow motion compared to the off-road racers. Steward, Dungey, and Carmichael drop the hammer on the throttle like they have no use for anything between full off and full on. Likewise, off-road one finger clutch and brake use is common because you are hanging on for dear life and taking a pounding, physically, for every inch of travel. The street is a different environment. Speeds are higher, traction is more predictable, acceleration and deceleration forces are dramatically higher as a result. Road racing is physical, but it is a substantially different sport. Rossi, Stoner, and Marquez are much more tentative in their use of all of their controls. It’s not accurate to say the road racers are altogether smoother than the off-road pros, but their on-bike movements are considerably less sudden.

The foot thing is just silly in pavement situations, especially on a dry parking lot at speeds that barely require shifting to second gear. At 150mph, Valentino Rossi might stick a leg out from behind his fairing’s air-pocket to add a little drag before entering a high speed corner and James Stewart might plant a speedway-style boot in the apex of a tight corner, but you do not need to pretend you are in either of those situations in typical street conditions. Stick that basketball shoe into a warm chunk of asphalt and you may find your shin trying to occupy the same space as your thigh bone when you discover how much traction those Nikes can grab. More importantly, if you are sticking a foot out to help steer your street bike around a tight curve you are most likely putting your weight on the highside of the bike, which forces the motorcycle to lean further than necessary and a greater lean angle can mean you are working with a smaller tire contact patch and unnecessarily high side forces. And, of course, you look like a total douche to any experienced motorcyclists who may be watching.

Maneuverability is a motorcyclist’s only weapon against the forces of four-wheel evil, four-hooved devils, and two-legged idiots. Stopping or slowing quickly is just one aspect of maneuverability, but if you can’t do it you’re pretty much a set of streamers dangling from your bike’s handlebars. Regardless of what your father, boyfriend, goofy neighbor, or Rush Limbaugh told you, using either brake aggressively and with skill is not a dangerous activity. In fact, if you can’t use your brakes, riding is dangerous.

MMM October 2016

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Grom Idiocy

In case you EVER feel bad about yourself or your riding skills, bookmark this video and no matter who you are you’ll probably be reassured. These Honda Grom nitwits are a whole new level of incompetent.

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The Death of DP?

Hard to know, but it’s harder to find people who think off-pavement riding is even interesting, let alone worth risking life, limb, and savings on this kind of adventure. All of the economic reasons listed are valid and likely contributors, but I think the biggest problem is the price of motorcycles vs. competitive means of transportation.

  • HONDA XR650L: $6690
  • KAWASAKI KLR650: $6599
  • SUZUKI DR650S: $6499
  • HUSQVARNA FE501S: $10,599
  • BETA 500RS : $9799
  • KTM 500EXC-F: $10,399
  • BETA 430RS: $9699
  • HUSQVARNA FE350S: 10,399
  • KTM 350EXC-F: $10,199
  • SUZUKI DR-Z400S: $6599
  • HONDA CRF250L: $4999
  • YAMAHA WR250R: $6690
  • YAMAHA XT250: $5190
  • SSR XF250: $2999
  • SUZUKI DR200S: $4499
  • YAMAHA TW200: $4590

Maybe these prices look reasonable to you, but for a kid looking for a recreational vehicle he/she might ride for 3-4 months a year, 3-4 times a week, this is nutty money.

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Creating A Baseline

caveman All Rights Reserved © 2016 Thomas W. Day

In my Geezerdom, I’m always trying to find baselines for measuring my decline. My daughter is fully on-board with my concerns and she’s recommended putting black throw rugs around the house because, apparently, old farts will mistake black carpets for bottomless pits and that is a tactic used to keep dementia patients in their rooms. Sooner or later, I’ll end up trapped in the bathroom and that will be the winter my wife escorts me to the front door during a sub-zero blizzard and sends me on some sort of grocery store errand.

Like the Minnesota drivers’ license “exam,” the nation’s motorcycle competency test is a low-bar baseline evaluation. While it is true that you don’t need to be “perfect” to pass the license exam, you will need to be able to perform every one of those simple skills perfectly to stay alive on the highway and in traffic. Living in tourist town Red Wing provides me with plenty of evidence as to why motorcyclists are thousands of times more likely to die per mile travelled than cagers: most motorcyclists barely contribute more to the direction and speed of their vehicle than do handlebar streamers. It’s a Village People clown show out there, folks! Nothing about being able to take a low speed left-hand turn and stop with the front tire in a box is demanding in any way to a competent motorcyclists, regardless of the bike. Nothing about weaving through some widely spaces cones and making a right hand turn should confuse or confound a half-decent motorcyclist. Making a moderately quick stop from 12mph in first gear is not complicated. A 12 mph “swerve” around a huge fake obstacle ought to be second nature. If anything on that test baffles you, either your motorcycle or your skills are totally out-of-whack.

This season was my “decompression and re-evaluate” year for my career as a motorcycle safety instructor. Since 2000, I’ve taught twelve to thirty basic and intermediate riding classes a year, but this year I signed up for only four and two cancelled. Other than a trip to the Rockies in July, I didn’t do much riding this year, either. My usual 12,000 to 20,000 miles a year has withered down to about 3,000 so far this year. I’m retired, so commuting to work is no longer a habit. That accounts for about 6,000 miles a year gone from my Cities’ routine. Leaving the 88dBSPL noise level of my old Little Canada/I35E home took away substantial motivation to “get away from the bullshit,” too. Most summer mornings, I can sit on the back porch with a cup of coffee watching the hummingbirds and listening to mostly nature. There isn’t much that I feel the need to get away from here. If the second half of this summer is much like the last couple of weeks, I might get in more bicycle than motorcycle miles in 2016.

I started this season out like I have every year for the last 15, with a couple hours of practice time on the class range at Southeast Tech. My spring habit since I started teaching safety classes has been to do the usual beginning of the season maintenance stuff, then ride to the range and go through the entire sequence of course exercises until I can do it all comfortably. In Red Wing, after that bit of practice I head south and drop off of the pavement for 100 miles or so of gravel roads and lightweight dirt bike practice and go home. This year, I went through that routine three times before my first Red Wing Basic Rider Class (BRC), which cancelled due to a lack of students, and once more before my first Intermediate Rider Class (IRC) in the Cities. We talked about that a bit in the discussion portion of the IRC and a couple of students said they’d consider adopting my springtime season-tune-up routine and at least one thought it was “way unnecessary.”

On the way back home, I thought about the ambivalence or resistance many riders have toward any sort of competence evaluation (something that should be, but isn’t, a part of the Intermediate Rider Course). About the time I got to Hastings and into some motorcycle traffic, it became fairly obvious why many motorcyclists would resist a serious competency test and regular skills evaluations. After watching my father’s driving skills deteriorate from barely-competent in his prime to life-threatening by his eighties, I have become a firm believer in regular (every 3-5 years) re-licensing skills tests for over-60 drivers who want to cling to their driving privileges. I’d drop that number to 50 and up the testing interval to every two years for motorcyclists. Since motorcycle, car, and truck licensing is mostly about putting butts on seats (selling vehicles) and has little to do with actual highway safety, we all know that won’t happen. That resistance to reality and health cost-containment has nothing to do with my life, though.

I have never considered my motorcycles to be an important part of my self-image. I don’t name my bikes and I don’t identify with any brand’s lifestyle bullshit. My motorcycles are transportation first and last. If I’m not using my bikes to go places, I’m not keeping them. The only things I’ve ever hoarded have been tools and microphones. The microphones are mostly gone with the retirement move and downsizing and I re-evaluate my tool ownership with every declining aging phase. If I haven’t used something in the last year, the next step is Craig’s List or eBay or the garbage can. Ideally, when I die the only thing my kids will have to worry about in an estate sale is getting rid of a bed, a few dishes, towels, and an empty house. So, like that dementia-test black throwrug, I needed a go/no-go evaluation tool for when it’s time to hang up the Aerostich. Lucky for me, I had one already laid out and it was totally familiar: the MSF’s BRC course.

I’ve already said that I consider the BRC to be a lowest-bar standard for the skills needed for riding on the street. However, for my own self-evaluation I need it to be a little more demanding. Likewise, I already had a self-test routine established. I just need to write a scorecard for the test. The first day of the BRC is mostly about introducing a motorcycle to newbies, but exercises 6 (a small 2nd gear oval), 8 (offset weaves), & 9 (quick stop from 2nd gear) demonstrate actual riding skills. Likewise, all but the lane-change and obstacles exercise from the second day’s BRC exercises 10-16 are useful evaluations. A more practical obstacle is a reasonably tall curb that I have to navigate from a 45-degree angle, so I added that to my spring warm-up. So, every March from here out I’m going to go through the old routine but after an hour or so of practice, I’m going to run through every one of the nine BRC exercises and the day I can’t do all of them “perfectly” (no cones hit, no lines crossed, fast enough, and clean enough) the bike goes up for sale and I’ll fill the space in the garage with a small convertible. I might buy a trials bike, but that will be the end of my street riding days.

Of course, your mileage will probably vary. In fact, I’d bet most of the riders I see in Red Wing couldn’t pass the Minnesota license test in a dozen tries. If you think that has no correlation to your riding skill or survivability, you are statistically very likely to join the ranks of the “dead wrong.”

MMM September 2016

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Motorcycle Death Spiral

This is turning into a record year for me. I scheduled only five MSF/MMSC classes for the season and all but one (so far) have cancelled due to lack of student interest. My local motorcycle dealers are pretty much giving up on the sales season, too. Our Victory/Indian dealer is stuck with a bunch of Victory blimps and hasn’t committed to Victory in anything resembling the same financial resources as in past years. They are hoping Polaris sales of 4-wheel farm vehicles and snow machines will turn into a viable business. The local Honda/Suzuki/Yamaha dealer barely bothers with a show salesperson on the motorcycle floor. If you are there looking at a bike and ANYONE is out on the lot looking at boats or 4-wheelers, you’ll be abandoned faster than an empty beer can at a frat party.

The Boomer hippobike bubble is done. The only “hope” the blimp manufacturers (and dealers) bhave of clinging to a business model is through slippery finance games. Harley is fooling Wall Street with its floor planning scheme, but that will soon collapse like it did in 2008.  When Harley goes, so goes Polaris and Indian. Harley’s desperate attempt to get in on the Ducati sale will probably mean that HD will pay too much, if they win the bid, for the Italian brand and that will just add to the company’s downfall. (Remember, “we lose money on every sale but we’ll make up for it in quantity.”) The Big Japanese Four gave up on the US market as a serious motorcycle business in 2009. They have far bigger fish to fry in functional economies. where small motorcycles are still a viable means of transportation.

It feels like 1982 all over again, but this time there may not be a comeback.

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Perspective Is Everything

A lot of motorcyclists apparently see this incident as being a justified action by the biker. I’m not convinced. It could be that the car driver intentionally attempted to hit the bike after the biker threw a temper tantrum and kicked the car when it crossed into the HOV lane. It could also be that the car driver simply panicked when his car was kicked and screwed up. Either way, the biker should be charged for hit and run and, probably, assult with a vehicle.

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