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November QuickThrottle Column

Seven years ago this month I wrote my first Road Signs column for QuickThrottle magazine. It's been a wonderful experience and I'm flattered and  honored that the publisher, Mike Dalgaard has let me spout off and annoy the readers of the magazine for these many years. This month however marks a transition -- Mike sold the magazine and we have a new publisher. Welcome to Michael Cupp who takes over with this issue. He says that things will not change, (except for my column photo -- they requested something "with my shirt buttoned") and to keep doing what I'm doing. So I will... And here is my column for November...a look at the changing demographics of the sport....
Everywhere around it seems there are signs reminding me of my advancing age, especially when I watch TV. I turn 56 later this year and I realize I’m still on the “not so old” side of the equation, especially among the riding community. But nonetheless, I’m getting to the point where I’m closer to the eligibility ages for Medicare and Reverse Mortgages than I used to be, but thankfully not old enough yet to make the “walk-in-tub” and “stair-lift” demographic. Hopefully that will be another twenty years or so.

But like I said, in the motorcycle community I’m still a bit of a “youngster”, or so I’m constantly reminded. Looking over a number of marketing and demographic studies, it seems that more than half of the motorcycle riding community is age fifty and older, and nearly half of that group is age 60 and older. So is it any wonder that Harley-Davidson’s giant cruiser bikes are nicknamed “Geezer Glides”?  Revisiting my HOG chapter friends, it seems the older they get, the bigger the bikes get. But not me, I still seem to be a bit of an anomaly riding a bagged-out plain Dyna and a Nightster as my main rides. I’m not sure I ever will go the route of the full-fledged half a car with all the creature comforts locomotive sized bike – or if I do I will be dragged kicking and screaming.

But what does our aging demographic hold for the future of the sport? The Motorcycle Industry Council reports that bike sales last year were half as many as a decade ago when they were at their peak. Yeah, we had a major recession in that time, but car sales have rebounded while bike sales have not.  Bikes for most folks are a discretionary purchase. For some of us they aren’t – it’s a lifeblood – we have to have a bike. Like the Harley motto – we live to ride. But for most people it’s a luxury, and not for when we are young and just starting out in life, even if we grew up riding. Bike manufacturers targeted that older market, and pretty much won us over. But that generational timebomb of geezers on glides doesn’t bode well for the future of the sport or the industry. Younger riders are not flocking to riding classes or to motorcycle dealers. Is it time to sell that chunk of Harley stock that’s sitting in my IRA I wonder?

I’m not selling. Not just yet anyway. Harley’s been around since 1903. They know what they are doing. Have you noticed the trend in Harley’s marketing these days? It’s pretty much all geared towards younger riders on smaller bikes. Giant baggers are out as the major focus of marketing, and smaller, blacked out Dynas and Sportsters and Softtails are in. The Sturgis demographic is getting less of the marketing dollars and the Coachella demographic is getting more. For those of you in the Sturgis generation who don’t winter in Palm Springs, Coachella is the three-weekend giant music festival in the desert each winter that attracts virtually every millennial in the United States to come party --  and for those of us who winter in the desert to flee.

Harley’s entry into this market, which came out in 2010, is the Street 500 and Street 700. And just like Cadillac changed its marketing and styling and even bragged “this isn’t your Grandma’s Caddy”, these little Harley’s are a far cry from the Geezer Glide. They even come in cheaper than the old “entry level” Harley, the venerable Sportster. I had a chance to ride a Street 500 this winter when I dropped a friend off at the Harley riding school. I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun to ride and a great bike – even a bit more zippy than my beloved Nightster. The other major manufacturers all came up with similar new models aimed squarely at the urban millennial generation too.

So why am I not seeing more of these bikes on the road? These are perfect rides for those herds of Amazonians wandering around downtown Seattle these days, and would be ideal for zipping up to their overpriced small apartment on Capitol Hill after work, and then out and around Mt. Rainier on the weekend. Sales stats for smaller bikes, with engines 600ccs or less increased nearly 12 percent in the past couple of years, while the giant bikes increased only 7 percent. They sell well in Europe, where small motorcycles and scooters are what most young people drive every day as opposed to cars. Car ownership in Europe is less than in the US – it’s prohibitively expensive over there, and public transportation abounds – two things lacking in the US. Although we are rapidly approaching the sky-high costs of Europe, especially in Seattle with those damn Sound Transit fees. I’ve said it before, if policy makers are serious about reducing car miles traveled, they should encourage motorcycles and scooters. It fits the “green” thinking and the lifestyle of the millennial, who if they adopted in droves, would make a serious dent in traffic congestion. But that’s another story for another day.

It remains to be seen if these new little rides will lure new riders to replace us old geezers as we slow down and stop buying our glides. I hope it does. We need new riders to breathe new life into this sport. Lets just hope there are still roads for them to ride on and explore when they do. Maybe multi-day cross country excursions on big rigs, or what my Harley sales friend Vik calls “Harleybagos”, are over, and quick day trips are going to be in. It fits the millennial lifestyle perfectly.

Meanwhile I’ll be watching for the vendor lineup for the Coachella next year. If Harley’s smart they’ll bring their Sturgis tent to the desert this Spring. About the same time I’ll be loading up the Dyna and riding off somewhere to escape the crowds and traffic those weekends. If they do that – start marketing to the Coachella crowd like they do the Sturgis crowd -- I’ll know the future generation of our beloved sport is safe and secure and not to sell the Harley stock in my IRA.

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com 

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