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Hogwash? New electric Harley-Davidson agenda is an aggressive, market assault




Harley-Davidson is in trouble.

After several years as a stock market darling, returning regular dividends and steadily climbing upwards, the company hit serious roadworks in 2017 with crashing sales and quality issues that culminated in one of the largest recalls in their history.

Business media went crazy as Wall Street analysts appeared on talk shows decrying Harley-Davidson’s inability to capture new and younger customers, while the motorcycle press ran the usual puff pieces about the new 2018 models. It’s been a confusing situation for the past six months.

Here are the facts: in 2017 Harley motorcycle sales were down 6.7% worldwide, and almost 9% in the US, while revenue was down 20.4%. The company announced the closure of it’s Kansas City assembly plant and laid off 800 workers. Those are not good numbers, especially when most of the brands that actually compete with Harley-Davidson products (think Triumph, BMW and Ducati retro roadsters) posted flat and even increased sales.

But lets put that into context. In the US the overall motorcycle market shrank about 6% and the reason is clear and has been discussed many times before. The average age of new motorcycle purchasers is well over 50, and newcomers to motorcycling are going to Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha and KTM. Youth, women and previously reticent men who finally make the leap onto two wheels simply don’t find Harley-Davidson products as compelling as others, and price is a factor.

Harley-Davidson is a company I begrudgingly admire because they have a terrific management team that knows how to make money better than any other motorcycle brand.

What’s interesting is what Harley-Davidson is doing about it. They are moving swiftly into the electric motorcycle space.

Traditionalists may scoff, while others are getting to their keyboards to write angry, dismissive letters. But here are two other facts. The day after the Kansas City plant closure the company announced that the Livewire electric Harley was scheduled for a market launch in 2019. And one month after that Harley purchased a stake in Alta Motors, a San Fransisco area electric motorcycle company that has developed its own drive system with lots of patents.

Harley-Davidson is a company I begrudgingly admire because they have a terrific management team that knows how to make money better than any other motorcycle brand. I say begrudgingly because at the same time they have milked the whole “rebel-cruiser” cow dry at the expense of new product development and common sense. If current trends continue, the fat profits from high-margin bikes like the Electraglide will be gone by 2025, and Harley could shrink by half.

The writing has been on the wall for a decade, and the 2008 economic crisis, and Harley’s close call with bankruptcy, really should have been a wake up call. Although not widely reported the Harley finance arm HDFS was so over-leveraged that it threatened to collapse the whole company, and only an emergency loan guaranty from the American government saved the Motor Company. They shed Buell and MV Agusta and prepared to launch the Street 500 and 750 entry level line. It was good planning and brilliantly executed at the back office level, but the new bikes failed.

The Street family were not the sales bonanza Harley hoped for, and shareholders should be furious. How did the world’s most iconic, heritage-rich motorcycle brand fail to capitalize on the greatest boom in entry-level heritage motorcycles in history? BMW, Ducati, Triumph, and yes even the Japanese outsold Harley in the under $10,000 retro bike market.

Harley’s move towards an electric agenda is a serious course correction.

The Street suffered because Harley management didn’t let design do it’s job and insist that the bike be made it as cheaply as possible in the hopes that it would penetrate the India and China market, which it did not, because middle class Asians with disposable income don’t want condescending, low-end products with luxury brand names. The Street looks and rides like a knock-off 1985 Honda Rebel, except without the original’s ease of use and legendary reliability.

Harley’s move towards an electric agenda is, by contrast, a serious course correction and shows how aggressively they want to move the needle. It also indicates how well they read the market. If my straw poll at the motorcycle shows this winter is any indication, even the die-hard cruiser biker is showing electric vehicle acceptance.

Where only a few years ago crowds derided electric cars and motorcycles, the tattooed and H-D shirt wearing faithful spoke with me about the inevitability, even desirability of EVs. Amazing products like Tesla cars certainly helped make that attitude shift, but also an acknowledgment by many baby boomers that perhaps their perspectives were becoming obsolete.

Harley-Davidson knows that they are facing a double blow on the immediate horizon, the of loss of the market zeitgeist, and the 2020 deadline for stricter European and California emission standards. The pushrod, air-cooled V-twin era is over. And no one understands that better than the leaders in Milwaukee.

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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.


London’s ‘tax on bikes’: Keeping my trusty Yamaha will cost an extra £3k a year!




My Yamaha Fazer’s days are numbered and this saddens me.

*Small disclaimer* this is going to be another London-based, complaining type of article but please stay with it.

If you own a pre-2008 registered Motorcycle and use it in London then this will be a handy read.

In just over a year’s time, the ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone) will come into affect in London. This means that any motorcycle registered before 1st July 2007, will be taxed £12.50 each day to ride in the Centre of London and this new tariff applies 365 days a year! Unlike the generic congestion charge that only applies during the working week and hours.

Motorcycles contribute less than 1% of the nitrogen oxide emissions in London but for reasons that nobody seems to have reasonably explained, this is being ignored.

The London Mayor, Sadiq Khan has decided that ALL motorcycles that aren’t Euro 3 compliant are killing children and wiping out eco-systems (Not direct quotes from Khan but you get the idea). And so now, all bikes will need to meet Euro 3 regulations in order to avoid this daily, get-rich quick scheme.

The new rules, which will commence from the 8th of April 2019, will – without a doubt – have a huge impact on commuters and couriers. Those unlucky enough to have a doomed Euro 3 bike (and yes, this includes my beloved Fazer) are now faced with the outcome of a decision that is completely out of their control.

The Mayor will be forcing those riders who want to keep riding to fork out for a newer, bike despite the decent economy figures most bikes achieve – my ‘99 Fazer will easily reach 50mpg without even trying and is probably more economical than any Eco Hybrid four-wheeled vehicle.

If I were to keep my Fazer after this Ponzi-esque scheme begins in April 2019 then it would cost me an additional three grand a year. Three grand a year above and beyond the cost of my bike ownership… Just to ride into London. At this point the train becomes a more attractive option – at least financially anyway.

Which it would seem to be something that the Mayor wants. But at a time when the trains are already buckling under the strain of millions of passengers that it struggles to handle. Why?

All of this puts me in a difficult position, because I really don’t want to sell my Fazer. It has been an unbelievable workhorse and has never let me down. I’ve owned it for three years and bought it exactly for the task of commuting into the city. Twenty Thousand miles later, it still runs like a dream and still has the same chain and sprockets fitted to it, that it did on the day I picked it up. Maintenance has been incredibly easy and the Fazer has only required a set of new tyres and brake pads in the three years of ownership.

I completely understand that exhaust emissions are bad for everyone, but it really does feel as if Khan is fighting the wrong battle here. He needs to visit any Mainline London Station and see all the vehicles waiting outside.

99% of the vehicles outside of public transport stations are buses or Black London cabs all with their engines idling; this is where the emissions issue lies; not with a small capacity motorcycle zipping through traffic rather than being the actual traffic.

These dirty diesels throw out enough black soot and muck to embarrass an Eighteenth century coal-powered locomotive. There are bigger fish to fry but sadly Khan is focusing on the Plankton.

Sadly, I feel that this is only the beginning too. Because once this has taken effect it will most likely expand to further regions of the capital.

And then, after this, who knows? Other cities may well follow suit and copy London’s dim-witted view.

Soon to be for sale:
1999 Yamaha Fazer, Well-maintained and in very good condition. Will P/X for any bike post 2008 registration with luggage space.

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First Ride, First Crash: A tale of two riders & two wildly different life paths




The “S” Turn, River Rd., Latham, NY

Two friends, one life-changing ride.

Technology is amazing. With the help of Google Maps and Street View, we can see a turn that almost killed my friend and I. Nothing has changed in over 25 years. I get chills seeing this view.

I haven’t thought much about that ride with my friend Matt all those years ago. I survived my only serious motorcycle crash unscathed. Matt, however, lives every day with a constant reminder of that ride. Oddly, this 5-minute journey and subsequent crash put Matt on the path to become a registered nurse, and made me a lifelong motorcycle rider.

The year was 1991. I was eighteen years old, and I lusted after a blood red Suzuki Bandit 400: a hot bike that never sold in any numbers because it only made 39 horsepower. My mom saw that I was determined to get a motorcycle. Although nervous, she relented and agreed to help me finance the purchase. The caveat was that I needed to buy my own helmet. Her excellent strategy was to delay the bike purchase by first having me get a good helmet. I saved all my funds from my lifeguarding job and purchased a very nice helmet for the time, a Shoei X-8 Waney Gardner replica. My first real sport bike helmet… sick!

It’s Pink. I am secure in my Manhood.

I figured if I got the helmet, a motorcycle was sure to follow; that is the thinking of a teenager.

My friend Matt, on the other hand, had better luck and connections. A family friend hooked him up with a used 1977 or 78 Suzuki GS750 with mag wheels, perfect.

The Suzuki GS750 was a poor answer to Honda’s excellent-selling CB750, a bike that is regarded as the pinnacle UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle). Never selling in great volume, this copy was a heavy, slow-steering beast with poor brakes. Look at that one small front disk to stop that monster!


Life-changing decisions of youth are often made casually without much thought.

Matt got the bike in the spring and his girlfriend got him a very expensive leather jacket. Ironically, he wasn’t wearing the jacket when we crashed. I did not see a lot of Matt that summer but I knew he was riding frequently with his girlfriend. Taking a passenger with only 2 months experience? More teenager ‘thinking’.

The first time I saw the Suzuki GS750 in person was two weeks before school started. My first thought was, “That’s big!” The bike was a beast, and well over 525 lbs. with fuel. In a 1977 article Cycle World described it as a “very well-balanced bike with excellent handling.” I question the lucidity of the author. This was probably one of the worst bikes a beginner could own, second only to the 1000cc version.

My Suzuki Bandit 400 never materialized. “Maybe next year!” said my mother. It never did. I got my helmet and I wanted to ride. One Saturday afternoon I said to Matt, “We should go for a ride.” I asked, “Can you do it?” Matt lived near River Road in Latham, NY, which runs parallel with the Mohawk River. “Sure, I ride with Michelle all the time. We’ll go down River and be back in five minutes.”

Matt let the beast rip. I had to hold on as the analog dials swung past 60 mph and 7,000 rpms.

Life-changing decisions of youth are often made casually without much thought. In that moment, I had pressured Matt for a ride knowing he might not be up for it. A big red flag should have gone up for both of us. Matt wanted to show his motorcycle chops, and I wanted the wind over my new helmet, no matter what. “Let’s ride!”

I do not remember the ride out from the house but I do remember the turnaround, as Matt bogged the big GS750 at Lock No.7 Rd. My extra 75 lbs. of weight was causing the old Suzuki’s clutch to have fits. Our helmets smacked together. “Hey, it’s new!” I yelled, feeling pissed about the sloppy shift. To make up for the embarrassment, Matt let the beast rip. I had to hold on as the analog dials swung past 60 mph and 7,000 rpms. The noise from the wind was coming in loud now. My visor was open. I closed it, and I could really hear the engine. It sounded great. A late 70’s inline four in full song – magic! We were much faster coming back, and I knew that the S-turn lay ahead. Matt had once mentioned that he found this turn “tricky.”

A quarter mile from the house the turn begins as a long bend to the left, setting us up for the S-turn. At 60 mph in a 40 mph zone, we were hustling the bike to our doom! Truthfully, this turn is diabolical for even the most experienced rider. The road abruptly drops down just before the start of the turn. Guardrails pop up on both sides of the road, narrowing your perception. The road itself physically tightens to make it over Shaker’s creek. The heavy woods on either side cast the turn in darkness as you dive headlong into the unknown.

The speed, the weight, the shit front brake, the experience of the rider, and 170 pounds of first-time passenger had sealed our fate. Death lurked ahead.

I remember Matt never even applying the brakes as we dropped down into the turn in the late afternoon sunshine. The motorcycle squatted – probably from bottoming the suspension – and Matt simultaneously laid the bike over. We disappeared into darkness. The lazy Suzuki GS750 held a beautiful line; it was exquisite! The locked-in feeling of speed I could never replicate on my BMX bike captivated me. I had leveled up! I had just experienced and felt my destiny. This one turn made me a motorcycle rider, despite what happened next. Coming out of the darkness, I looked ahead to see the road rise and turn to the left. It looked like we had effectively entered a grass-strewn dead end street. Immediately, we arrived at the end.

Matt did try to turn the bike and follow the road; he might as well have been wrestling a steer. The gyroscopic effect of the mag wheels and the applied single-pot caliper made the bike stand bolt upright. There were no more steering inputs to be made. Our course was set. The speed, the weight, the shit front brake, the experience of the rider, and 170 pounds of first-time passenger had sealed our fate. Death lurked ahead.

I heard the throttle chop and the brake squeak for one last second. The road moved away to the left, and then I heard and felt gravel as we left the road. Pinging sounds as rocks hit the fender under my seat. I thought, ”Where the hell are we going?” I peeked around Matt’s helmet to see a hill of grass looming ahead. I closed my eyes then something brushed my leg, startling me. I opened my eyes to see Matt was gone.

Sudden impact followed at 30 mph. The GS’s 35 mm forks collapsed along with the mag wheel, melding into the inline four, forever becoming one. A five-foot-high dirt mound unceremoniously halted my first ride. The headstock snapped and the bars kicked right, as my seat pushed me up into the air with the force of an air cannon. My feet hit the bars as I flew over it.

Rising in the air, I reached the top of a parabolic arch as time slowed to a crawl. I looked around in silence, having time in the air to see where I was going to land. The hillside rose up to meet me.

The chest-high summer grass was golden straw yellow, thick and soft. The landing was just as abrupt as the take off. Ripping through the grass, my helmet buffeted with the loudest raspberry I ever heard. Arrested, flat on my stomach, the sound dropped from my ears. In silence, I rolled to my back to stare up at the towering canyon of grass rising above me. Motionless, I was staring at a blue sky and racing white clouds moving across it. Then the sound came back up to full blast. The silence was replaced with a combination of ringing and crickets. I sat up and looked down the meteorite path I created. I knew what lay at the end: my friend Matt and the crippled motorcycle.

His skin looked like fresh hamburger.

I limped to the top of the embankment and saw the motorcycle had tried to finish the turn alone. Bouncing off the dirt mound, it had traveled ten feet back towards the road. Movement next caught my eye, as I saw Matt staggering towards me. Matt had jumped clear as we left the road. “Are you ok?” he asked me. “I’m ok,” I replied. “Are you ok?” Matt tried to speak, but was only able to whisper, “no” as he turned away from me. That’s when I got a full look at his right side – with road rash from ankle to shoulder. I remember white specks mixed in with asphalt and blood. His skin looked like fresh hamburger. “Pick up my bike and bring it to my house!” Matt yelled out, as he staggered towards his home. I did not know what to do. I couldn’t lift the destroyed 500-pound bike alone. I heard a scream in the distance as Matt had rung the door bell and Michele answered.

Two motorcycle riders approaching from the opposite direction both knew immediately what had happened. The first rider was on a beautiful red, white, and blue 1989 Yamaha FZR1000R. They were the riders Matt and I would never be. Stopping, he ran to me. “Hey dude, don’t move. Just stay down.”

The other rider, on a red and white 1990 Suzuki GSXR750, was talking to Matt’s girlfriend who had loaded Matt into her maroon Volvo. “They are going to Troy Hospital. I am going to get there first and let them know he is coming.” The rider succeeded by hitting 140 mph and arriving 5 minutes before the Volvo. The surgical team was ready and needed, as Matt’s injuries were extensive: one spleen removed and in ICU with severe road rash, a fractured wrist and leg. Matt spent almost 3 weeks in the hospital.

In time, Matt recovered, but our friendship never did. Strained from the accident, we drifted apart quietly. I know this event changed his life and set him on a different course. A few weeks after Matt left the hospital I visited the scene of the accident alone. Late in the fading light of an October afternoon I could still make out my landing path of flattened grass. I was shaken to see a telephone pole we missed by 3 feet, as we left the road. I stood and surveyed the scene for a few minutes, and then put it in a box in my mind, kicked it to the deepest recess, and compartmentalised the accident. At least I thought I did.

Last week I turned onto another River Rd., far from Latham. Looking for the address of a birthday party my son was invited to, I slowly said the words “R-i-v-e-r R-o-a-d.” I opened that box.

Matt, I hope you will understand and accept this apology for the mistakes that I made. We should have never taken that ride, and for that I am so sorry.

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