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OPINION

EICMA highs and lows: The ‘Niken looks mean’ but ‘Where is the future?’

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It’s been a week since the end of the 2017 EICMA Milan Motorcycle Show and now that the dust has settled we’ve got a chance to look back and examine just what it all really meant for motorcycling in 2018.

This has been the third EICMA in a row for Motofire and it in-fact marked our third proper year in existence; Well done us, etc. But almost certainly of more importance than Motofire becoming a *thing* is the impact that these shows have had on motorcycling within this time.

So what – if anything – made 2017 special? Steve & James from Motofire both had very different experiences of this year’s show…

James – The view from the ‘new’

I have been attending motorcycle shows for a number of years but this was only my second visit to the EICMA show in Milan – my first time was on a whim in 2014 while on a short city break in Milan and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

This year I was ready, but the visit was a very eye-opening experience for me – mainly because attending as a member of the press meant that I was able to get stuck in early and be there on the press days, waiting for the unveiling of the new motorcycles from the manufacturers at the same time of the rest of the world.

EICMA was predictably very busy during the press days and this just added to the excitement and anticipation of the new machinery for me. Throw into the mix the enthusiasm of the Italians for anything two-wheeled and the EICMA show is my personal favourite of all the shows I’ve ever been to – and this makes for a very entertaining time.

A whole host of motorcycles were shown off to the press across the first two days of the show and whilst some caught my eye there were others that I really didn’t understand.

It is great to see the boundaries of motorcycles been pushed further and further, with the lead taken firmly by the three wheels by Yamaha. Their live show on Monday evening was a bit underwhelming as they unveiled updated motorcycles rather than anything actually new, but then – suddenly the show peaked – as Valentino Rossi rode on to the stage on the Three-wheeled Niken. This bike looks mean!

I really fancy a go on the Niken, that entire grip could add up to a fine handling machine in the wet or the dry and I’m eager to see how Yamaha can fit this into their current range of bikes, but I really hope that it will be a success.

Kawasaki launched their new fleet on Tuesday morning to a very large crowd, the size of which did surprise me; especially considering what they were launching. Some 125’s were teased but were delayed until late 2018, some other bikes were unveiled (Ninja 400, ZX-10R SE, H2 SX) all of which didn’t really excite me massively, but I guess I can understand the appeal.

And then the show ended with the Z900RS Café, which – being honest – was an anti-climax.

Kawasaki has joined the Modern-Retro club rather late and this shows with the new model. If I’m being kind I would say that the new Z900RS doesn’t actually look that bad – apart from being a slightly fat bike, but the Café variant just looks tragic. It’s just trying way too hard. The headlight cowling looks out of place, to this untrained eye at least, and the lime green paint job is really very suspect. Still this Z900RS Café is a canvas just waiting to be customised, so these features can be whipped out and replaced I suppose, as the customer desires. But who’s going to spend nearly £10,000 on a bike just to have to change it?

Okay enough of negative cynical thoughts, now it’s time for something positive and exciting.

Looking back on the EICMA show, only two motorcycles (well three actually but I’ll explain) really caught my eye.

Firstly Husqvarna are a brand I’ve never really been too fussed about in the past, but this changed during their unveiling of their new motorcycles. Amongst the Svartpilen 701 Concept, Vitpilen 701 and 401, the Svartpilen 401 really stood out to me! There isn’t much difference between both 401 machines apart from a few styling tweaks and the lower bars on the Vipilen model but the Svartpilen differs with black paint with yellow accents and silver spoked wheels and just looks brilliant. The fantastic urban detailing and low weight of 150kg will make this a riot to ride in the city, I’m sure of it!

The 373cc engine may only have 44hp but you will be charging through that 6-speed gearbox in no time at all. I’m genuinely excited about the Svartpilen 401 for when it will arrive in dealers in March 2018 and I’m really, seriously considering one as my personal ride.

And then there was Royal Enfield.

They have really upped their game in recent years and their sales figures only go to back this up. So there was a lot expected of their new ‘twin’ machine and the unveiling of both the Interceptor and Continental GT came with a rapturous applause from the crowd on the Tuesday afternoon. If Royal Enfield are to be believed, these new bikes are actually 98% new, which is impressive in and of itself, but nowhere near as important as that new 650cc twin engine. With 47hp on tap from the air and oil cooled parallel twin engine – which sounded amazing in the promotional video – both of these bikes look absolutely fantastic! It’s the right mix of new and old.

The styling is straight from the 60’s thanks to the big 7″ headlight, Monza style fuel cap, wire-spoked wheels and quilted seat. And don’t forget those chrome twin pipes and tear drop fuel tank. I love it!

Sticking with their heritage, the old aesthetics are mixed with new modern features and really bring these motorcycles into the twenty-first century; fuel injection, Euro 4 compliance, slipper clutch, 6-speed gearbox, ABS brakes and Twin Coil-over shocks at the rear make for a very capable everyday motorcycle.

It’s hard to choose a favourite between the two but for me the Interceptor just wins it. Those higher braced bars, upright riding position and cruiser style look makes the Royal Enfield Interceptor my favourite motorcycle at the EICMA show – by a long way!

 

Steve – The rejective perspective

I’m pleased for James, I really am. Seeing bright, young eyes getting all excited at the thought of new machinery is exactly what the motorcycle industry needs. And he’s absolutely right about the enthusiasm oozing from the Royal Enfield contingent at the show. It was an absolute joy to see Sid Lal and his team behave almost like a family at a naming ceremony… All excited at the new baby and full of pride and hope for the future. It’s retro sure… But it’s honest.


If only the rest of the industry could muster up the same enthusiasm.

I’m being serious here… This year’s EICMA was such a disappointment for me it’s hard to fully express how sad and upset I feel about this past-time and mode of transport that has captured my soul. Remember when Barack Obama became president of the United States and how exciting and thoroughly new and invigorating it felt? Now cast your mind back to last year when Donald Trump was sworn in to office. That feeling bubbling under your stomach as he raised his right hand… That feeling right there, is what I’m currently experiencing with the motorcycle industry. Something isn’t quite right.

At here in Europe at least.Whilst the rest of the world look to two-wheel transport as the solution to most individual’s travel problems, and – with a few notable exceptions – congestion issues, here in Europe we concentrate on bigger, more ‘blingy’ versions of the same machines we’ve been spitting out for years. Want an MT-09? Here’s one with SP sparkly bits on it! Ducati’s V4 Panigale rightfully took much of the Italian marques’ praise. But who needs a Multistrada with a 1260cc engine? And launch control?!

Husqvarna at least are looking to the future and trying to spread out the range into new arenas, and they should be applauded for that. It’s true – as many naysayers are umm… saying – that these bikes are probably 3 years too late in the delivery schedule, but the fact that we’re even getting an urban commuter bike that looks remotely close (aesthetically at least) to something that’s been designed in the 21st century should be continually applauded. The Svartpilen 401 that James likes was first shown back in 2015! But they really do look beautiful and if I can afford a Vitpilen 701 I’ll be considering a purchase; especially because I know that it’s a ‘finished’ looking bike and that I won’t be too eagerly flicking through any accessory catalogue.

Yes, that was a jibe at you Kawasaki. I’m afraid that a range of leather jackets and a clumsy attempt at dining out on your heritage doesn’t cut it. At least not for this observer.In principal the Z900 Café Racer should be right up my street. I’m serious. I started my love affair with motorcycles at around the same time that the Bike Shed began their blog and put on their first show. If there is any bike that I should be excited about, it’s a retro-looking café racer with dropped bars and a bikini fairing. But this is a motorcycle pitched for the landscape in 2018 and things have moved on. It feels old – not just in its retro vibe – but by modern, millennial-aesthetic standards. Five or six years ago it would have been beautiful and provided a real rush of blood to various regions of my body. Now, it just feels like a grand jump towards a bandwagon that’s already leaving town.

 

 

So where do we go? Well, with the exception of an electric Vespa, there doesn’t appear to be much new technology on the immediate horizon. Despite companies like Gogoro disrupting the industry in South East Asia, the European market seems content on hedging its bets and playing some weird, tranquillising game of patience. The danger of that of course is that if you wait too long, someone else will come up and take over your area of the market.

But it shouldn’t take too much to reinvigorate things. Just take a cursory glance at what Indian Motorcycle are doing compared to Harley-Davidson.

To the outside eye, both of these companies could be seen as being virtually identical; both trade on heritage, both trade on big ol’ cruisers and both have a healthy stack of t-shirt designs that they would love to sell to you. But only one company has the positive momentum and what appears to be the vision to see them relevant to the new markets that motorcycling has to attract to survive. And it ain’t the Bar & Shield brand.

I’ve made no attempt at hiding my desire for an Indian FTR750 for the masses. I have no idea if it will sell and I don’t have a degree in market economics or any motorcycling related field to back up this ‘gut feeling’ of mine, but it seems like a bike just perfect for the market right now. Flat Trackers are popular, yes. Heritage-styled bikes are all the rage still – just ask Ducati and Yamaha – and a smaller capacity engine from Indian would be amazing for both domestic commuter markets and foreign lands alike. But it’s the style of the thing that resonates more than anything.

Even if it arrived in a Scout derived, 1200cc form, the heady mixture of style and Wrecking Crew-like fun, all underlined by the classy Indian heritage that Polaris have managed to recapture seems tailor made for the end of this decade. Like a bubbly mix of both Royal Enfield’s genuine, retro honesty and Husqvarna’s future-looking cool, the FTR1200 custom concept bike was the highlight of my 2017 EICMA.

But it’s only a temporary peak on a graph that is looking perpetually low for motorcycling in the western world. Maybe next year there will be a two-wheeled revolution? But with incestuous marketing and PR teams in control of a lot of the purse strings here in Europe, I fear that the real revolutions on the horizon, like Honda’s self-balancing marvel, Yamaha’s Motoroid concept and Gogoro or Go-Jek’s disruptive business models will be left for the rest of the world.

So whilst they’re all riding around in the future, we’ll most likely get another sportsbike in race replica colours, teased by a racer that’s only famous within an ever-dwindling community of old men.

For the love of motorcycling, I’m seriously considering moving to South East Asia.

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OPINION

Skills Deficit: We’ve forgotten how to ride!

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To add to the already glutinous amount of opinion with regards to the coming perfect storm of motorcycling’s demise, I would like to mention one more possible problem. It is the simple fact that today’s new riders cannot ride!

What I mean to say is they do not have any transferable “skills.” Manufacturers like Honda and Yamaha have recognized this “skills deficit” and are subsequently developing a self-balancing motorcycle, and a crazy three-wheeler, the Niken. When I first saw the Niken, I thought, “Who the hell is that for?”

To quote Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the motorcycle industry understands that motorcycles are “dangerous at both ends and crafty in the middle.” Compared to horses, they require a minimum of physical skills; in particular, one needs coordination and a good degree of balance and confidence.

How can the industry make motorcycling more manageable? The industry is trying to solve the problem of coming generations raised on computer games and smart phones instead of riding bicycles.

How could a generation raised playing video games lack the ability to keep all balls juggling at once? They must have the hand/eye and foot coordination to administrate throttle, clutch, brake and shifter, so what is the problem? Like a thunderbolt, I realized it was the act of riding a motorcycle itself.

“Can’t you ride?!” Millennials have no experience!

Those helicopter parents placed their kids in plastic bubbles, never letting them get out there to be a kid. These sheltered children never developed any riding skills whatsoever. This is the generation expected to save the motorcycle industry? We are in real trouble.

Motorcycles are “dangerous at both ends and crafty in the middle.”

Previous generations of kids in America and the world consistently followed the same path: we get a tricycle, then a pedal bike (with training wheels) and we never looked back.

As we got older, next came dirt bikes, then street bikes. A progression of skills learned as children makes us capable of handling most street situations on a motorcycle. This agogi of childhood bicycling taught us balance, lean, acceleration and deceleration. It was a right of childhood. Even the ability to change a flat tire and wrench on our pedal bikes cannot be underestimated, as it led to the shed tinkerers.

Millennials, and now Gen Z, were shortchanged without these essential childhood experiences.

I grew up under a canopy of green with a sea of rich brown earth

Growing up in my neighborhood, kids were everywhere. During our two months off for summer, there was stuff to do (outside) every minute of the day. The boys all had BMX bikes and we rode everywhere. Any summer day we would go to someone’s house and build BMX trails all morning, and ride them after lunch. I grew up under a canopy of green with a sea of rich brown earth to build, reshape, tear down and build again. Designing the layout of our trails, engineering and planning the height of the jumps (how much cubic earth it would take); can anyone say S.T.E.M.? We lived it everyday building BMX trails!

My generation was also fit; this constant travel by bike around town to parks, streams, hills, and abandoned buildings was all adventure, all the time. We rode all times of the year, night and day. We practiced jumps, skids, endos, and wheelies. We rode in sand, dirt, mud, gravel and on wet grass. Years of riding bikes in the streets with our future nemesis (the automobile), we became experienced. Crossing busy roads and predicting at an early age what car drivers would do became second nature.

My steed, I miss you!

I rode a 1987 GT Pro Series (TEAM MODEL) everyday of my life until I got my first girlfriend.

“Millennials, and now Gen Z, have been shortchanged without these essential childhood experiences.”

The group of 10 contemporaries I rode with were all skilled riders. Collectively we crashed thousands of times. In the 1980s, kids never wore helmets. Helmets were for American football. I cannot recall any of us ever hitting our heads, not even once! Lucky, or skilled? We were great; we knew how to crash a BMX bike. This instinctive “crash reflex” became natural. You learned it, or you got hurt.

I also know that the skills I learned as a child saved me last summer, as I exited Interstate 95.

Slowing down on the exit ramp, I saw the glint of diesel on the motorcycle line. The turn tightening as I rode the corner, I knew I would cross it as some point! I got off the brakes knowing that one or both wheels would slide as I hit the diesel. I felt the front hit and ever so slightly tuck; then the back hit (now both wheels sliding). I held on without panicking. The wheels immediately regained traction at the same time. I never target fixated or locked up the brakes. The stripe of diesel mercifully ended, and it was over.

How many millennials would have come through this seat-clenching event? A childhood of BMX riding had just saved my butt.

My Generation, X (1965-1985) will be the last traditional motorcyclists with the necessary toolbox of skills that ride honest motorcycles. We should have raised free range children in a manner to mirror our own experiences.

Motorcycling should not need technological trickery to address monumental problems. Mark my words: two-wheel motorcycles will eventually be legislated out of existence as “unsafe.” Congratulations Yamaha and Honda, you are the motorcycle company equivalent of the helicopter parents and contributing to traditional motorcycles’ demise, in an effort to make sure no one gets a boo boo or needs a plaster (band aid).

In trying to keep this next generation safe, you have doomed it for the rest of us. Maybe Honda & Yamaha can give you a participation trophy every time you ride their three-wheeler or self-balancing motorcycle.

Is it 1891? No this is 2018, and if this technological nonsense is the future of motorcycling… I weep for you all.

We are doomed!

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OPINION

When Projects Creep Out of Control

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Is ‘more’ always better?

Back in 2008, after more than a decade working in the motorcycle industry, I finally bought my first brand new bike. Like the kid in the proverbial candy store, I wandering through my local motorcycle dealer with my stomach in knots knowing that one of these shiny, magnificent machines would be mine. And like so many people tilted by emotion, despite years of experience and insider knowledge, or perhaps because of it, I let excitement take over the decision making process. I bought a motorcycle far beyond my needs.

It was not long after taking possession of my Yamaha FZ-1 that I realized my mistake. The bike was technically faultless, the problem lay in that it was not at all what I needed. With a tiny fuel capacity and very firm ride it was a lousy touring rig (especially in Quebec where road surface quality is akin to a bombed out airstrip), but conversely it was too bulky and heavy to flick into corners on curvy A roads. It was bigger, faster, incorporated superior suspension and materials technology than it’s predecessor, the Fazer 1000 I helped develop years earlier, an yet somehow the new package was less motorcycle.

When you ask motorcyclists what they want in a new bike, the answer is always “more”. More power, more space, more features. The only thing they don’t want more of is cost. It makes sense, after all we all want more of a good thing. With motorcycles problems often arise when designers and engineers are tasked with piling on those ever increasing specifications to an existing model. This mission creep can, if not managed carefully by a strong project leader, end with a product so packed with features and high specification that it can do everything, but none of it particularly well.

The 1998 – 2004 Yamaha FZS600 Fazer was a wildly successful motorcycle design. At a time when entry level, middle displacement (500cc to 650cc) street bikes were either extremely basic or used obsolete technology, the Fazer delivered modern handling and performance in a user-friendly package. Featuring the engine and brakes from Yamaha’s YZF600R Thundercat, and a compliant chassis made of steel pipe to keep costs down, the little Fazer sold like mad satisfying a wide array of beginners and experienced riders alike.

With motorcycles the temptation is always to add more performance.

Yamaha introduced a mildly revised version two years later, along with the aforementioned larger, 1000cc version. Honda blatantly copied the Fazer formula of packaging supersport technology into an inexpensive package with the CB600F Hornet. Yamaha saw sales plummet, so along with a dozen other designers and engineers I was brought into a group to create the next, all-beating Fazer.

And that’s when the wheels came off the cart.

A whirlwind tour of European cities took place in which we interviewed hundreds of entry-level 600cc customers. The specification list grew longer and longer each day, as the demands of existing users piled on. More fuel tank range! More wind protection! More cargo carrying capacity! And of course… more power! Always more power.

Back at headquarters, the project leader handed over the design brief. As a very young designer I was confused. The new Fazer would now have an R6 motor. It would feature an all aluminum, Deltabox frame, lightweight R6 rims and a 180 section rear tire. Projector headlights. LEDs. Twin, under seat stainless steel exhausts. The brief read like the spec sheet from a top-of-the-line flagship project, not the replacement for Yamaha Motor Europe’s best selling motorcycle.

This is project creep, and it happens when an organization is beset by fear and acts out of ignorance of the big picture. The reasoning behind this phenomenon seems sound: if your opponent has three guys with knives, you better make sure you have six. It makes sense until you discover that you only have enough food for four, and so field six starved, exhausted guys against three strong and healthy ones. In manufacturing history there are hundreds of examples of this, the most famous of which may be the case of the Ford Edsel. It had more of everything than any of its competitors, and yet was so much less car.

With motorcycles the temptation is always to add more performance. After all, motorcyclists are fundamentally sold on the thrill of speed and aggressive handling. The problem is that too much performance makes most motorcycles into unmanageable, sphincter-clenching torture devices. Among our tribe few are skilled enough to exploit even half of the potential of modern bikes, which makes adding high performance to models destined for the rest of us an academic exercise. Of course our egos won’t allow us to admit it, but inside we are terrified of opening the throttle fully mid-corner. So we don’t, and wobble around on large, expensive bikes that not only don’t satisfy, but fill us with regret because we cannot master the objects of our desire.

At the cruiser end of the spectrum, the height of the chopper era saw mature, fully grown manufacturers launch models that were laden with Edsel-like heapings of features. The Honda Rune was presented as the end-all, be-all of the cruiser genre. According to Honda America’s Ray Blank, they “…wanted to set the bar higher than ever, erecting standards that no one else had yet imagined.”.

The result was a seven foot long, 400 kg, six cylinder monster that boasted 50% more torque than Honda’s then flagship superbike.

It was literally the most cruiser you could buy from any mainstream manufacturer, and yet its’ excess was its failure. At $30,000 (US) it wasn’t more expensive than a range topping Harley-Davidson, but the market balked at its bulk and cornucopia of pointless styling. Honda had failed completely to stop the design at some stage and roll it back, asking the team to refocus on what make people yearn to cruise on a motorcycle: the simple joy of sitting astride a large mechanical powertrain suspended between two chunky tires. The Chopper is, by definition, a bike “chopped” down to its basic, core elements. A little baroque styling and flair is cool, but it is not the main attraction.

As an industry, the motorcycle business is not very good at learning the lesson of project creep. The endless fight to produce the sexiest products in the marketplace inevitably drive an arms race that produces some great innovation but also squeezes out lots of poorly conceived motorcycles. If a bike comes out with a strong styling direction that hits the market like a storm, then simply copying it only with a more extreme execution is not going to work. When a competitor eats your lunch, as the Honda Hornet did when it replicated the original Yamaha Fazer concept in 2003, then just doubling down on everything is not going to win the market back.

How did we end up in a place where an entry-level street bike comes with racing style, upside-down forks and a mouse pad for a seat?

The second generation FZS600 (called the FZ6 in North America) that debuted in 2005 with all those crazy upmarket features did well in Europe for a few years, but alienated a lot of customers who loved the original Fazer’s rugged, approachable simplicity. They flocked to the second generation Suzuki SV650S, which was a better Fazer than the new FZ6 (ironically, the Suzuki’s styling was almost a copy of the updated original Fazer). By 2008, Yamaha introduced the FZ6R, a confusingly named but genuine successor to the formula that was simple, cheap, versatile and easy to use. It quietly dropped the over-spec’ed FZ6 Fazer without a replacement a year later.

In the market battlespace, project creep is easily seen in the most hotly contested areas. The 250cc class ballooned to 300cc because Kawasaki needed to edge out the class leading Honda CBR250. Then KTM launched the RC390, resplendent in its superior specification. The new Honda CBR250RR presented this winter is a very far cry from the CBR250 I tested in 2011. In five short years, the baby Honda sport bike went from being what I called “the missing link”, a motorcycle for everyone that the industry so badly needed, to being a mini CBR1000RR World Superbike contender.

I love the look of the CBR250RR, and if I am completely honest I want one rather badly. But how did we end up in a place where an entry-level street bike comes with racing style, upside-down forks and a mouse pad for a seat? I suspect it has a lot to do with looking ahead instead of behind. I’ve seen this show and I know the ending. In five years time the 250cc class will be dead again, because it will have priced itself out of the marketplace.

Getting excited and dreaming of the ultimate motorcycle is the job, but it is also the duty of manufacturers to deliver products people can actually afford and use. The ultimate anything is, as the word suggests, the last of the line. And winning the battle for the ultimate product is meaningless if you destroy the consumer base as a consequence.

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