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OPINION

Motorcycle journalism is dead

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I don’t know how much time I have left here so I’m getting straight to the point.

2017 saw a stunning number of magazines close, sold or get reformatted into paid mouthpieces for advertisers. Traditional news media disappearing is old news, but as more and more of the public prefer to get their news and reviews from amateurs, bloggers, and the social media echo chamber, the specialty press is feeling the pain too.

The big international titles have traded hands a couple of times in less than ten years and remain fairly stable, if anodyne. However smaller, quality outlets that I regularly wrote for, including CanadaMotoGuide, Hell For Leather Magazine, MotoFire and Car Design News have all gone through the automotive media meat grinder. The manufacturers struggle to see the value proposition so screw down what they are willing to pay for advertising, so media companies offer them customized content or “native advertising”. It is nothing more than press releases masquerading as original features.

The bulk of what passes for motorcycle journalism today is at best described as ‘entertainment’ in this post-Jeremy Clarkson world, and at face value nothing more than advertorial copy. Regardless of the title it comes printed (or posted) on, most motorcycle road tests are uneducated, editorialized short-form blurbs that say little, and stray even less from well worn clichés. From the amusing personal anecdote or author’s preconception in the introduction, to the three hundred jargon-laden words about the bike to the closing statement meant to invoke discovery of some unexpected delight, these features offer virtually no substance from which a reader may base an opinion upon.

It sounds harsh, perhaps even bitter. But it is true.

The formula is strictly followed because it is easy to write, offends no one, and because cash-strapped editors can farm them out to inexperienced amateurs at a very low cost. Manufacturers like it because they get free advertising that purports to be third party reporting. They do not want serious critique, and they are not afraid of motorcycle press that denounce a product because in this era of zero media advertising revenue outside of Facebook and Instagram, manufacturers can name their own price when it comes to magazine ads. It sounds harsh, perhaps even bitter. But it is true.

I know three major magazines where global manufacturers withheld payment for big advertising purchases (think inside cover, back cover, multiple full page ads…) for months after printing and even had the audacity to demand lower rates after the fact. Most editors are working alone and most contributors work for free or nearly so. Listicles, reposts and press releases are copy-pasted with little original input.

I don’t have any skin in this game so its very easy for me to comment on motorcycle media with the same neutrality that I comment on other aspects of our industry. I write as a freelancer for symbolic fees because it helps give voice to behind the scenes issues that never get reported otherwise. Of course it also boosts my credibility and personal brand to manufacturers who after all are my client base.

If one wishes to succeed one must listen to serious, dissenting voices.

But here is the irony: the harsher and more reality-based my reporting, the more business I get. In the past 18 months my biggest clients came to me after reading some of my less-than-rosy reflections on facets of their business or sectors in which they operated. This comes as no surprise to me, nor should it to any rational business leader. If one wishes to succeed one must listen to serious, dissenting voices. When all the consultants and advisers whisper nothing but sweet flattery you are likely to get clobbered in the pitiless marketplace. The motorcycle graveyard is full of brands that went up in flames believing their own legends.

Motorcycle magazines are in a tough spot and the old advertising revenue model is clearly obsolete. But if the public wants something worthy of the term journalism than it is going to cost money and/or take effort. The only English language motorcycle magazine that made any impact in the last twenty years was the short-lived and contentious Hell For Leather. Started by two friends out of a Brooklyn apartment, it quickly became the most relevant outlet for daily news and commentary. There were no new bike tests because the old media mafia rejected them and manufacturers didn’t know they existed. But after a few ground-breaking exposés and a couple of years of honest editorial that could not be bought, the magazine’s readership swelled to a degree that astonished the incumbent media companies.

What will happen to Cycle Canada and other legacy magazines in the next five years? We shall see, but I do know that there is a large public hungry for articulate, well crafted stories and context about motorcycling that does not lamely follow the formula. Hell For Leather proved just that, but devolved into another also-ran full of low-resonance content after it changed hands because the new owners completely misunderstood what they had and why it worked.

The first entrepreneur with the courage and discipline to break from the old formula will come out on the other side with a business model for motorcycle journalism that works for readers and makes manufacturers work for it, instead of the other way around, because the real gold is in the people surrounding bikes and the stories they share, through the words of talented writers. Everything else is just filler.

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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.

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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