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To avoid the dangerous road ahead, stop selling bikes to bikers & start selling motorcycles to people

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So much has been written about shrinking motorcycle sales last year. In pubs and bike shops the common theme is shrinking new bike registrations and the piling up of unsold new stock.

Ink has been spilled trying to find the reasons underlining the crisis, while industry representatives spin the numbers of their respective corporate sales reports to boast, or excuse, performance.

The numbers are stark. By September 2017 US motorcycle icon Harley-Davidson saw new bike deliveries fall by nearly 7%, greater losses than the overall market shrinkage of about 3%. According to the Motorcycle Industry Association in the UK new bike sales have collapsed by nearly 15%. Dealers are hurting, and indicators are that as the final 2017 tallies will be worse still.

As a former senior designer and longtime product planner in the motorcycle industry, reading these missives frustrate me almost as much as the bad sales news itself. One writer on MotoFire pointed the finger squarely at the greater motorcycle community and it’s myopic culture. He was right, but equally guilty are the professionals representing the manufacturers in the US and UK, who lacked the vision to see past the present moment and plan for the future.

For the entirety of my career in Europe the bosses at Yamaha, Aprilia and others towed the line, saying that there was no market for small displacement motorcycles that offered a premium experience.

For three decades starting in the mid 1980’s, US and UK motorcycle markets were each utterly dominated by one type of bike. In America the air-cooled, v-twin powered cruiser made up more than half of new motorcycle sales while in Britain fully faired sport bikes were the bread and butter of the industry. Both the US cruiser and UK sport bike demographics were populated mostly by middle-aged men, and nurtured a culture of aggressive exclusivity. They were testosterone-soaked boys clubs that looked down their noses at other types of motorcycle. Small, modestly priced or entry-level models were openly mocked, as were those who rode them.

It can hardly be surprising then, that even during the boom years between 1995 and 2008 the average age of new motorcycle consumers climbed steadily upwards while remaining almost entirely male. Newcomers to the sport, while not actively discouraged, were not exactly welcomed by the fraternity, with many dealerships hardly making any effort to stock and sell alternatives when fat margins and volume sales were to be had with the big bikes.

Manufacturers were completely complicit in this behavior as well. For the entirety of my career in Europe the bosses at Yamaha, Aprilia and others towed the line, saying that there was no market for small displacement motorcycles that offered a premium experience. Entry level, they said, meant basic, low spec vehicles aimed at commuters, deliveries and riding schools. The Yamaha MT-03 that I designed in 2003 was originally intended to be just such a commodity motorcycle. It took many in the team lots of time to convince the project leader that the market was hungry for more.

 

The disconnect between sales and product planning was a chicken-and-egg situation. Product planners and marketers looked at past and present sales data and said there was no demand for smart and affordable bikes because the sales were not there. But the sales were not there because there weren’t any smart and affordable motorcycles available for sale.

For more than a decade, what the industry marketed as an entry-level sport bike or cruiser meant heavy, old technology nails like the Kawasaki GpZ500 (Ninja 500 in the US) or the Suzuki 650 Savage. With derivative styling forced onto low seat proportions, and offering weedy performance on the road, they were rightly dismissed by the motorcycle community which turned off many would be aspiring bikers.

Models that offered authentic style and performance at near entry-level prices like Harley-Davidson’s 883 Sportster or the Aprilia RS250, on the other hand, required commitment. They had the chops to win credibility from the fraternity, but that same cred intimidated beginners not fully committed to motorcycle culture. In any case, both were too much motorcycle for novices, the Aprilia for it’s searing performance, and the Harley as a consequence of weight.

Added to this was a media frenzy that did it’s best to portray motorcycling at its most extreme. From television programs glorifying biker gangs, to chopper build-off reality shows starring rowdy men, to adventure touring specials featuring celebrities getting stuck in the wilds of Siberia, the old image of motorcycling as a dangerous activity done by misfits was further cemented in the public’s mind. While this surely attracted some to buying a first motorcycle, it completely turned off most others.

And so we come to the financial crisis of 2008, and the steady decline that lead us to today. The Baby Boomers aged out of the new motorcycle buying market, and the aforementioned lack of investment needed to attract new, younger and more diverse people into motorcycling acted together to bleed out
the market.

Since 2010, the industry has seen the wisdom of importing small, cool and affordable motorcycles from the far east, which has helped a lot. Honda was first, bringing the Thai build CBR125R to the UK, Canada and eventually the US in 2012, which promptly became one of the best selling motorcycles in those markets. This success led the way to the revival of cheap and cheerful motorcycling, so that today’s consumer is almost spoiled for choice under 500cc.

Manufacturers have to stop selling bikes to bikers, and start selling them to people

Millennials, women, novices and many Generation Xers who may have wanted to ride but never stepped in before are all ripe for persuasion. But the damage is done, and it will take a lot more than terrific hardware to recover. The way motorcycles are portrayed to the general public, the way and place they are sold and serviced, as well as the stories and reviews produced by journalists, need to change with the times.

Motorcycling can be what it is today to those of us who love it the way it is, but it must also become something more to the public at large.

60 years ago, Honda transformed the motorcycle universe by democratizing the type with the Super Cub. There had always been entry-level motorcycles before it, but the whole Super Cub concept was born of the need to make motorcycles clean, safe, easy to use, friendly and fun to everyone. As the American Honda ad campaign “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” led to the explosion of new riders in the US, so too must go the industry as a whole at the present time.

Manufacturers have to stop selling bikes to bikers, and start selling them to people. The already captive audience who read dedicated news sites like MotoFire and watch MotoGP have to stop being the focus. Literally no one cares about radial brakes, big piston forks or bullshit marketing speak like “mass centralization”. To win the next generation of motorcycling public we need to demonstrate that motorcycles are gateway drugs to attainable feelings of independence and safe thrills.

It will be hard, requiring a massive top-down image makeover, but it has to get done. Because nothing less that the future of motorcycling in the US and UK are at stake.

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Michael Uhlarik is an international award-winning motorcycle designer with 19 years of experience creating bikes for Yamaha, Aprilia, Piaggio, Derbi and many others. He is a veteran motorcycle industry consultant and part-time industrial design lecturer. He is based in Nova Scotia.

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One Year On: Remembering Nicky Hayden

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The news that Nicky Hayden passed away was devastating to the whole of the motorsport family.


This article first appeared on Motofire on May 22nd 2017. We’ve republished it here today to commemorate the anniversary of Nicky Hayden’s passing.


Nicky was a champion to his core; from the way he raced to his fierce devotion to his family and the way he made time for everyone. He fought for every single position on every lap of every race and never once gave up. He was firm, leaving no room for doubt on track, but he was always fair and he was one of the hardest workers you’ll ever know, even in a world that includes nothing but riders who push themselves to the limit constantly.

In every way, Nicky was a shining star; images of his tear-stained face when he won his championship in 2006 will forever be ingrained in the collective MotoGP memory, his joy was so tangible that you could have wrapped yourself up in it. And that was Nicky, always inclusive. Whether it was a quick-witted remark in that wonderful Kentucky drawl that we’ll miss so much, his easy manner that made him a friend of everyone who knew him or the way he never turned someone away when they wanted a photo or an autograph. Nicky came from a racing family and he became an integral part of an even larger one.

Losing anyone is always heartbreaking but the loss of a rider when they were out training, doing something as everyday as cycling, makes Nicky’s death at just 35 years old even harder to comprehend.

Nicky holds a place in the MotoGP Hall of Fame, his status as a Legend firmly cemented long before he left for World Superbikes. But he holds something even more valuable; a spot in the collective heart of the entire motorcycle racing family.

His accent will forever raise a smile, at least for me, and his own superstar grin will now bring with it an indescribable sadness. But remember Nicky as he would’ve wanted; that fierce big-hearted champion who pushed himself and everyone around him to be their very best and as that young man who brought so much joy and who left us far too soon.

My thoughts are, of course, with all of the Hayden family, Nicky’s fiancee Jackie, his friends and his teams both past and present.

Now, I’m going to wipe away the tears and watch Valencia 2006 again. I hope you join me to remember Nicky Hayden; a champion, a gentleman and a star that can never truly be extinguished.


This article first appeared on Motofire on May 22nd 2017. We’ve republished it here today to commemorate the anniversary of Nicky Hayden’s passing.

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Custom of the week: ‘V09’ BMW R80 by Vagabund Moto

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BMW AIRHEAD CUSTOMS are like AC/DC songs: after a while, it’s hard to tell them all apart. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the style is usually pleasing to the eye.

But no one could ever accuse Vagabund Moto of following a conventional formula. Their approach is unique and their bikes buck the mainstream trend. So it’s ironic to learn that the owner of this razor-sharp R80 asked Vagabund to replicate the style of a custom R80 they finished two years ago.

Not surprisingly, builders Paul Brauchart and Philipp Rabl weren’t keen on the idea. “We don’t like to remake bikes we’ve done before,” Paul tells us. “So we suggested sketching out a concept that related to the V05—while adding some special parts.”

Paul and Philipp do their wrenching in a workshop in Graz, Austria, and do as much work as possible themselves. “We’re trying to stay a two-man operation for as long as possible,” says Paul. “We’re good friends and perfectionists. It’s hard to think about trusting someone else, or giving up our awesome workshop relationship.”

The pair started out with a relatively fresh classic tourer: a 1992 R80 RT with only 25,000 km on the dial. And thanks to BMW’s historically good build quality, there wasn’t much engine work needed.

“We took apart the engine and carbs, checked everything, and replaced the not so good parts. And then blasted and painted it.”

Getting the striking Vagabund ‘look’ meant ditching the bodywork though, apart from the fuel tank—but even that’s not quite original. The back end of the tunnel has been closed off, where the gap would normally be blocked by the bulky OEM seat.

Just behind it is a svelte new perch. Vagabund designed the tail hump digitally, then got it 3D printed. It means they could pack a ton of detail into a small space—from the multi-faceted upholstery by Christian Wahl, to the sculpted recess under the tail that hides an LED back light.

Everything sits on top of a custom-made subframe, and the main frame’s been liberated of any unneeded mounts. The rear’s now propped up by a new YSS shock. The wheels are stock, but the rear’s clad in a pair of glass fiber-reinforced plastic covers.

Up front, Vagabund shortened the forks by 60 mm, milled and powder coated the lower legs, and added a pair of fork boots. There’s a custom-made top triple clamp too, playing host to an integrated Motogadget speedo.

The handlebars are from LSL, and have been trimmed down. They wear a Grimeca master brake cylinder, a Domino clutch lever, and custom switches in a 3D-printed housing. There’s a small headlight out front, and a pair of Motogadget bar-end turn signals.

The rest of the bike’s been treated with equal consideration. It’s sporting a set of Continental ContiRoadAttack tires, K&N filters, and a Supertrapp muffler attached to the modified stock headers. And then there’s that striking livery, quite unlike any other we’ve seen, and expertly applied by Graz neighbors i-flow.

But it’s what’s missing that’s just as important: there’s no mess of wires vying for your eye’s attention. The bike’s been totally rewired, with a new diode board and two tiny Ultrabatt lithium-ion batteries, hiding under the tank.

“It’s very important to take care of every cable and braking line, and so on,” says Paul. “Even the handlebars are as clean as possible. It’s one of our biggest jobs to do a totally minimalist wiring setup, and we put a lot of work into parts that nobody ever sees.”

Despite the sano approach, this BMW is completely street legal in Austria. On top of the usual lighting, there’s a license plate bracket at the back that holds a pair of tiny Motogadget turn signals—with just the right amount of visibility to check legal boxes.

“It’s really difficult,” says Paul. “Every light has to be ECE-approved, and has to be mounted at the right angle and position. We have to examine all our builds and every point of customization with a civil engineer before we‘re able to (hopefully) pass the vehicle license authority.”

Titled ‘V09,’ this BMW leaves us thunderstuck. It hits the mark with its stance, proportions and finishes—so we’re counting it as another win for the Austrian duo.


This article first appeared on Bike Exif; It’s republished here with permission.

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