Livewire - a specific design.
Introducing the motorcycle built to cruise Wall St.
I must give our friends in Milwaukee kudos for slogging through and delivering what (in part) has needed to happen for some time. How does the most famous motorcycle marque in the world begin to re-shape it’s brand and product range in a way to appeal to new and different riders? It takes a significant shift to make this sort of change. Ironically with bikes that don’t shift. Four years ago when Harley first pimped Livewire prototypes globally (arguably the most collectible modern motorcycle) and made a huge (sometimes sponsored) splash with every moto outlet and damn near every non-endemic media outlet, they were doing far more than dipping a toe in the new product waters.
To understand the gargantuan task you have to look at the recent timeline that includes sales trends, said Livewire prototypes, heavily revised traditional models, the stunted announcement of the Atla partnership, a new line of liquid-cooled bikes percolating in the future, opening a studio in Silicon Valley, shifting production capabilities, absorbing tariffs and early flaunting very globally-styled concepts all point to the significant efforts being made to rebound sales and draw in converts to the brand. It’s been a rough 1/2 decade.
The larger issue of increasing the volume of riders in the next decades will fall on products such as Strider Balance Bikes, Stayc, and who knows what other new brands in that space. Harley would do well to co-op that sub 8-year-old world of potential new riders, but that would not reduce the immediate sting of the downward sales trends, and the scrutiny of motorcycle enthusiasts, dealers and those on Wall Street enthusiastic about one thing only - profits.
H-D have stated that the Livewire is just the start of more production electric bikes as we cruise into 2022 - but the Livewire’s most critical mission is to triumphantly cruise down Wall Street with enough fanfare and attention to show investors and financial influencers that they are serious about changing the product range and brand (note the blue bar and shield logo associated with the CES presentation) and thereby refresh the stale potato soup they have served up for decades. H-D is an icon of American freedom, community and vast American expanses. For generations it was a dream product to own, to make into your own ride and to chalk up desirous analogue experiences. But that gen is getting way old, the next was ignored, and their kids are as familiar with motorcycling as a bowl of Quisp. Motorcycles can be a great tool to Instagram your analogue awesomeness.
There IS a generation ignored by Milwaukee and by the industry in general - that being my Generation X. We were treated as a collateral gain to the boomers, but the opportunity for today’s 50 year old whose kids are set free into the world is immense - and an electric scooter, small motorcycle, or power assisted hybrid bike is enticing. Accessibility to the fun of 2 wheels can be increased from the current 3% to 4%…yeah, motorcycling is that small in the US population. There are two major factors that Harley can lean on to draw in a generation that invented the modern internet, but grew up climbing trees and riding bicycles.
While the buzz (n.p.i.) was about Livewire the true energy (p.i.) for me are the smaller concept drawings and full-scale models that have been presented. 1) Harley has access to consumers like no other motorcycle brand in the US with dealers every 100 miles on major interstates. With the ability for an electric bike to have enough range to zip about town, cruise out for a coffee or divorce court, or ride to the volunteer charity gig etc - they have a great op in front of them. 2) The ability for electric motorcycles to be speed / acceleration limited via Bluetooth (as is my Zero FX) is an IDEAL scenario for older new riders, training schools and for dealer demos. Yes they will need to get these product OUT of the dealerships - AND train dealers nohow to be profitable with these new customers without alienating HD loyalists. Aligning with brands cooler than Panasonic is critical. (yeah yeah…they had the booth already I get it). Ok - so there is more than two factors.
Lastly (for now) - the true power of these smaller electric bikes is to be an addition to the fleet with the existing big-twin posse. Once you ride an electric motorcycle you will “get it”. I have said many times that my Zero is not the bike I put the most miles on - but it is the one I turn on the most. Many riders will appreciate the ease of use for short trips, and choose to gas up for the overnights etc. Pushing the message that adding to your fleet is the cool thing to do…that’s the path for loyalists. More can still be better.
Integrating electric motorcycles into the consciousness of existing enthusiasts while not alienating prospective riders is the pathway. Harley-Davidson is the brand that could do this in the most compelling way. Yamaha started by bringing in Power Assist Bicycles this year. KTM has a spiffy E-Ride available. However our friends at Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Indian, Ducati, Triumph and even Royal Enfield, had better lean in before Harley tears past Wall Street, and finds it’s success on Main street - again.
P.S. - I predict there will be a few new traditional air-cooled bikes announced soon to placate those who still fear inevitable change. But for now - I want that electric mountain bike looking thingie really bad. And the link for the FIRST Livewire - here you go: https://www.motorcyclenews.com/news/2016/june/mcn-plus---picture-story-harleys-original-live-wire/
Howdy friends- long time no chat.
The truth is the whole GAS thing started to feel heavy. I got little support, and I failed one friend who was going to help as I was overwhelmed with the tasks ahead. I'm embarrassed by that failure e and I hope she forgives me. I know I am not here to "fix" this industry - but I had hoped that the ripples GAS caused would come back in the form of some sort of action.
I'm guilty of not waiting long enough. I don't know HOW many times i have been aghast as the glacial speed of change within bigger companies. Insane. After GAS got rolling I was called by exactly two motorcycle companies to discuss the project - both are electric motorcycle brands. None were current major OEM's. One Japanese OEM has even barred any reference of GAS, it's initiatives or ideas. Now after months and literally THOUSANDS of downloads of the GAS report - I am seeing evidence that we have had an effect. Despite few admitting to it.
Here is the truth - it hurts. The truth hurts. But it is through a process of CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM that we will all get better - including me. When you go on a group ride and one bozo is f@cking it up for the rest - you WILL intervene to set them straight. At a track day and instructor with a suggestion is met with appreciation, not walled off and ignore (unless that rider sucks at learning). THAT is what will elevate motorcycling. Getting better together through constructive criticism.
I'm happy to say that GAS is still getting attention - that the news media has been calling me and that I have tried to embody the passion and excitement for motorcycling that I feel is needed to authentically elevate our industry. Maybe this is causing issues at your work - or some fear that i can't pit my finger on. Whatever. Let's talk and elevate motorcycling together.
I have seen it happen to "old timers" in the industry. They get burned out then just try not to rock the boat till they retire. This boat needs some bailing - if you can't handle swinging a bucket, do us a favor and find your life raft somewhere else. There is real work to do here.
See you in Sturgis my friends. Man do I love motorcycles and motorcycle people. That I'll never lose.
Published in the Feb 2018 Issue of Backroad Magazine (written Dec 12, 2017)
Thanks for the opportunity to talk to your audience Brian and Shira!
Give a Shift for motorcycling - An open letter to the readers of Backroads Magazine
Hello. You have distinguished yourself as an enthusiast simply by having this printed magazine in your hands. Brian and Shira are enthusiasts who write for enthusiasts and share your passion for riding. As the former PR manager for Victory Motorcycles and Indian Motorcycle in the past decade, I had loaned them test bikes, and talked about story ideas. They get it - but the truth is, there are fewer of us who “get it” these days.
Overall motorcycle sales and participation are hitting a very rough patch because of many factors despite there never being a better selection of motorcycles available. There are fewer potential riders daily, and while the industry is working on the problem in a relatively private manner, there needs to be a public intervention that calls on all of us to elevate riding. Spoiler alert - there is no silver bullet to fix this. It will be many smaller efforts that will stem the losses and increase positive attention towards motorcycling.
Manufacturers and the aftermarket as well as the Motorcycle Industry Council (the industry reporting and advocacy group sponsored by members) are doing what they can - but we have some real problems. The lack of a public conversation drove me to bring together a panel of equally frustrated industry buddies and riding enthusiasts. What I thought would be a group of ten or so grousing over a couple six-packs turned quickly into something much bigger. I had dozens of people ask to be on the panel and hundreds fill out an associated survey. Clearly this conversation needed to happen.
I formed the “Give a Shift Roundtable” to talk through some obvious stuff, but there were lots of new ideas and most importantly: some solutions. The power of the GAS Roundtable was to get together diverse, insightful and enthusiastic riders to have an anonymous conversation. 25 magazine editors, writers, OEM PR people, aftermarket industry reps and committed enthusiasts made up the panel. A fully anonymous transcript, summary report and a bonus industry report by well-regarded trade writer Guido Ebert can be downloaded at https://spaces.hightail.com/receive/SdhSlwwnDH.
The report outlines five focus areas including: 1) Products are great, but desire is fading, 2) A considerable threat in an autonomous vehicle future, 3) Female (and correlated youth) ridership must be increased, 4) Motorcyclists must self-promote, 5) Dealerships lag behind current retail trends and methods. Read through the report for more details and if you REALLY want to be a fly on the wall for a very smart conversation, enjoy 60 pages of the transcript from the three-hour conversation.
So here is a suggestion for you, dear reader and rider. Take point four above and make it your own - be the best ambassador you can be. Invite people to explore motorcycling with you. Don’t have a “ladder” approach to push newbies into bigger bikes - be excited about small bikes. Evaluate a used bike for them. Answer dumb questions without judging or pushing. Bring them to a dealership. Bring them to a couple - including one you don’t usually go into in case they have different moto-taste than you. You may learn something yourself!
I hope that the Give a Shift Roundtable helps define how you, your dealer, your riding group and even this magazine can help swing ridership into a positive direction. Choosing to ignore the issue or be complacent about what is a truly great activity for family, friends and our future is a road to nowhere. A ride we may enjoy now, but a future we can avoid.
When I was with Victory I had the pleasure of introducing the Victory Empulse TT for the media. Yes - it was a re-branded Brammo, however with MANY QC upgrades and the power of a decent dealer network…that was shortly there after dissolved. Bummer that. However getting exposed to Empulse TT was a game-changer. In my positioning overseeing PR, and thus the press fleets for Victory and Indian, we found ourselves in Sturgis for the Black Hills Rally annually. In a world of “potato mashers”, straight pipes and often in hot and sticky traffic jams, it was the electric motorcycle that we all fought for out of the fleet of cruisers, baggers and touring bikes.
Running the countless small errands, cruising over to the Buffalo Chip for a concert, skipping the gas lines was so much simpler on the quick, lithe and silent bike. Not sitting on top of a hot internal combustion engine was a major bonus when it came to arriving is style. Gotta say - I loved zipping past baggers and cruiser sleds and answering the snarky “is that thing even ON?” question by firing through the intersection as soon as the light turned green. Typically, the now neutered hard-ass / smart-ass would pull back up in the lane next to me….just out of eyesight. They knew better than drag race for pinks - I knew better than challenge them to an endurance race. Born to be mild indeed.
After Victory shut down, I tried to pick up a now discontinued Empulse TT for myself - however I believe there were MANY savvy Polaris engineers who understood how great the bike was, and were able to snap them up at fire sale prices. Lucky bastards… So the e-moto bug has stayed with me ever since, and a recent visit to a great local motorcycle dealer had me staring a a nearly new ZERO FX 3.3. According to Ed, the co-owner of AF1 Racing in Austin TX, and a ZERO fan, the bike was traded in by a guy who loved the experience but wanted to upgrade to the bigger platform. I was the ultimate benefactor of that sale and struck a deal. I find the FX ideal for zipping through my small town, throwing it in my Ford van as a sort of dinghy and finding excuses to go ride in the middle of the day. I even know where I can plug in at my local diner while enjoying a coffee - scoring my free juice on the side. (See what I did there…yeesh.)
On a visit to the ZERO factory to meet with my friend Mike Cunningham, the US National Sales manager, I was offered the loan of a 58 mile new 2018 ZERO DS. I had not ridden the larger framed ZERO much before, only getting to test-ride one for competitive product testing years ago. I was eager for a 100% charged loaner, and a solo ride without company witnesses! On a Sunday Morning at the factory I was handed over the keys to the bike, with a much-rehearsed warning to not get cocky with the throttle in sport mode - especially coming off the line. 110 ft-lbs puts the DS in the same territory as big-bore v-twins, but with a fraction of the rotational mass to damp the power, and far less tonnage to propel. As the owner of an Indian Springfield, an Aprilia SXV 450, a KTM 1290, and a fully de-restricted FZ-09, I am familiar with the dire consequences of whiskey throttle and power. But I heeded the caution and cruised the town in ECO mode to get familiar.
Getting on the bigger bike after zipping around on the much smaller FX (mine only has one of the twin 40 lb battery packs) took some re-adjustment. The center of gravity is much higher, and the additional weight is more than adding a passenger to the smaller bike. Lifting the bike off the kickstand feels heavier, but not unlike my 1290 after filling its container ship sized gas tank. The DS, like the KTM, feels hewn out of one chunk of awesomeness. Respect is not just a side-effect, it’s mandatory.
This unit came with the accessory windscreen and the useful but gawky GIVI top-box. I prefer saddlebags for a lower CG and cleaner aero - but being able to toss the helmet and gloves in was cool. However, it sure does ruin the lines of the bike. The ZERO branded windscreen was super easy to adjust and apparently is a great help in the aero dept on the bike. It smoothed the airflow and was easy to get out of the way when corners got tighter. Though it does not synch with a dual-sport style, I may pick one up for my FX - especially in cooler weather. The FX is sort of made to break the rules anyway.
Sunday was a chance to cruise the Santa Cruz coastline and visit the town. The last time I was here was on a sidecar trip down the coast with my now-deceased father. It was a epic ride for us, and something we talked about until his last week alive. I dropped a memorial coin in the ocean - I’ll know it’s there next time I get to ride by. I rode away from that spot with only the sound of crashing waves. Respect and quiet go hand-in hand.
Following some casual meetings on Monday I had a chance to go on a longer trip on the DS. Where to go? The legendary Alice’s restaurant and cup of coffee called my name. Route options featured a rip up highway 9 from Scotts Valley to hwy 35 aka Skyline Road. Alice’s is a bay-area motorcycle go-to spot I had also visited with Dad and many times prior. The ride up in ECO mode was smooth and calculated. Better to return with excess energy than to start praying for a place to plug in along side of a rural highway. Alice’s was about 28 miles away in a straight line - 45 on the road. Roughly 1/2 the projected range of the full charge given elevation changes. Factor in cool weather and many 55mph stretches and I rolled into the restaurant with 55% battery capacity remaining. Perfect! Heck - I even found an extension cord laying near a TESLA roadster parked by the entrance - what greater gift can an e-rider ask for?
I smugly plugged in as the Gods of electricity clearly intended for me to. Tesla guy and I offered a nod to each other. The Battery Brotherhood recognizes, Yo. I enjoyed a warm cup of coffee and indulged in a massive chunk of coffee cake. I could afford to burn off some calories as I had stupidly chosen to leave my sweater behind at the ZERO office. Despite the top case. Despite the storage capacity built into the fuel cell area. So much for being the smartest guy on the road. I trotted out to the bike to see how much free electricity I had gained courtesy of my bogarted connection…erm. None. Apparently a high-impedance gap curtailed my purloined power ploy. In other words - the other end was unplugged. Dang. I am an idiot.
So I as I zipped up my kit, and got back into Black Stormtrooper mode, a different Tesla dude, a new owner of an S35, eagerly chatted away about the bike - I enthused that he needed to add one to his garage too. He said he didn’t know how to ride and I went through the ease of operation. (Mike, you can send the commission check directly to my bank.) I’ll say that I’ve always been a motorcycle advocate, but being on ZERO engages a whole new interesting conversation - and it’s refreshing to add how easy it is to ride. A much longer conversation with a typical ICE motorcycle or even the Empulse TT with its seemingly redundant transmission. Yes they stood there and listen to me creep away. I am a Ninja. I am the wind.
So with just over 1/2 the charge remaining I headed back towards Scott’s Valley. Knowing that 1/3 of the route was mostly downhill, I had no real fear of using all my jigga-amps, though I watched closely as the capacity meter ticked down, the projected range stayed about the same - benefit of the downhill sections and the regenerative technology. Sport and Custom modes were set to full torque, and I started to go faster and push the bike more. Including a particularly lurid push on a shaded cold damp tar snake - the front tire then stuck and the extremely rigid chassis and quality suspension sucked it up without further drama. My confidence grew - as did my wariness of CAL-DOT’s insidiousness. Riding with my weight forward increased the feel on the front end. I may have broken the 45 mph speeds limit a time or two. Or three.
The dual-sport Pirellis are not as confidence inspiring as a 17” supermoto set-up, but honestly, they stick well past my prudent pucker factor on the street. I’ll save my knee-dragging for a track day. This is a very solid bike. Great fun and very capable. Living in Sport Mode for the last third of the trip home, I reduced consumption by using regen, but still wound the throttle to the stop for a few blasts. It’s as addictive as powdered sugar covered coffee cake.
It hit me what the really fun part of acceleration is on an electric motorcycle - it’s completely seamless. A shove of torque smoothly trading off into consistent horsepower and acceleration - I was flashing back to Battlestar Gallactica fighter launch scenes. (Yeah I’m old - so are my references. Google it or something.) Anyone who has ridden a sporting V-4, or an inline six, or a flat six engine would get it - now remove the need to shift and melt it all into one fluid transaction. Its very coolAnd quite thrilling. I rolled back into the HQ with my ride to the airport waiting for me and 16% left on the battery. Life was good.
For me, I believe I prefer the FX as part of my fleet. I use it around my little town, and perhaps someday to explore near a Moab campsite. The bigger bikes are better for commuting in the more traditional sense - and for sure for street police work. I will say that even removing the differences of the electric power vs a gas engine, the ZERO DS is a fine motorcycle. Predictable, rock solid and loaded with quality components. The heft off the sidestand may be a deal-breaker for some. The taller seat height will eliminate many others. The cost when laid out over time and mileage seems quite fair to me - add in the low maintenance, minimal service down-time, visceral thrill of that addictive seamless acceleration, and it could be an ideal addition to your motorcycle collection or your life. That said - you must ride an electric motorcycle even if current limitations might trip your fuse. (sorry) Like me, you might just decided that an electric motorcycle is a perfect tool for some of your moto-needs.
I hope to visit Santa Cruz and visit the shoreline where I tossed Dad’s coin again. Afterall, I have 16% battery I need to use up.
Part 1 - Visiting friends and the factory
I’ve been on motorcycles for three decades and have been involved with the industry for almost as long. I’ve made dozens of enduring friends who share the passion not only for things with two wheels and a motor, but for working in the powersports industry as well. It’s not all first class upgrades and glorious riding - it’s hard work and can be brutally frustrating at times. but those who endure though and make the commitment to stay in powersports are a unique if admittedly flawed breed! And we tend to stay connected.
This story really started with a random visit and a stroll through my local ZERO dealership - AF1 Racing in Austin TX. Long story short - I bought a very lightly used ZERO FX 3.3. A slightly sinister and tactical-looking 250 lb. dual sport model with 78 ft/lbs of torque!). What a blast to ride around my little hometown. I posted up photos and have been enjoying the electric experience greatly. Its a great MOTORCYCLE - not just an e-bike. I’ve become a fan and it’s a great addition to my fleet of bikes, immediately becoming the ideal bike for my around-town jaunts. It’s a mixture of scooter ease, supermoto hooliganism, dual-sport plush, and a dash of “tech-tactical” that I enjoy. I’ve even thrown it in my van, driven 30 miles down to Austin, and used it to stealthily blast around the city for a day feeling all zippity-superior and relentlessly entertained.
One friend along the industry career path has been Mike Cunningham currently of ZERO Motorcycles. Mike and I met when Aprilia was purchased by Piaggio back in 2007 or so. He was the Piaggio Sales Manager and I was one of three or four from the Aprilia / Guzzi operation in Atlanta who was given an offer to stay on with Piaggio. We worked together for a couple years before I decided to split when a particularly prickly Italian Manager got under my skin too much. (That’s another story that will take a couple shots of whiskey to get out of me.) We have crossed paths many times since then mostly at trade and IMS events in our various capacities. It was always a pleasure to see him and connect - but this last visit was exceptional.
Mike took the time to read the GAS report, and dove into the transcripts as well. He was impressed by the work and the inclusion of electric motorcycles. Mike is a true motorcycle enthusiast and has always had an opinion worth listening to. Following some posts on my Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and after reading the first GiveAShift report, Mike was kind enough to invite me out to the Santa Cruz, CA home of countless slightly creepy surfer vans, stunning sunsets and the birthplace of every production ZERO Motorcycle on the planet. He also arranged for me to have a nicely equipped ZERO DS charged up and waiting for me. Arriving early on a Sunday, and having a bike to ride for the day?
(Most excellent ride - more of that in part 2.)
The following Monday was a chance to tour the factory and see the production line. Alas- no photos allowed, however I’ll vouch that the motorcycles are completely assembled in Scotts Valley just up the road from the Pacific Ocean. The tour saw many motorcycles completed and tagged for distribution in the US and across the World. Europe has been a very quickly growing market and the adaptation of stratified licensing their allows for a “learner bike” specification that is an ideal first motorcycle for younger riders to cruise around an E-friendly community. Oh how I wish the US would shift to a tiered licensing system for cars and motorcycles….
The production line tour was also enlightening. It all starts with the battery, which interestedly uses “recycled electricity” with sophisticated banks of equipment that charge, discharge and store electricity to do it again and again for testing. Battery packs are fully assembled on-site and subject to a drenching water test before they are wrapped with a frame and the rest of the hardware we love. The motorcycle builds are not “batched” - any variety of models or colors will be on the line at the same time - essentially being built to order allowing for significant flexibility as consumer and dealer tastes change. This is not unlike how Polaris Industries manages their (much larger) production facilities through they use far more robots and lifts given the many more versions of products the produce.
Given the smaller volumes of production for ZERO, it’s not surprising to see that the build process appears rather manual, however a closer look shows that every critical process and tool is measured and overseen by some computer system. Brake fluid is the only liquid on the motorcycle - and a very sanitary pump and vacuum system fills the ABS system perfectly. Every unit gets a full two-wheel dyno-test that runs through the power output and tests all electronic systems as well as the ABS. The combination of attentive hand-work, computerized tools and back-up, quality testing and the general attitudes of the workers I met (all wearing very cool ZERO branded shirts) made for a sort of “friendly NASA” vibe.
Enthusiasm was on full display before I even walked in. There were many ICE motorcycles parked around the building as well as loads of employee-owned ZERO’s plugged in. Lots of 100% electric cars as well. In chatting with Mike and other managers at the company I see the enthusiasm they have for the products and for motorcycling in general. Stories of working on custom CB 550’s, adventure riding Triumphs and the open jonesing for the next cool thing peppered our conversations. They certainly agree that there is more that can be done with the ZERO brand as well as in the e-motorcycle industry in general. We talked about how HD’s roll-out of their new bike is important for all of motorcycling, and must be done well for positive overall effect on the industry.
Future products are being developed there are well. (Sorry - no scoops here - part of staying in his industry three decades is keeping a dang secret after all.) Announcing new products is always exciting, however the reality of selling what is designed vs answering the dreams for new products is a difficult challenge for any brand. Who wouldn’t love to see a modern single-cylinder Ducati or Triumph, or a hybrid Honda reverse sport trike or a 1000cc V-8 Guzzi? The realities of production planning, development and prototype costs as well as the unseen but mandatory compliance testing required by endless governmental agencies is a daunting task for any brand. And oh-yeah - they need to SELL as well. ZERO and others are in this business to make money and sustain a brand. It’s not their hobby even though it may be your passion. I’m not asking you to take pity on the brands, but know that it’s a very complicated business to be in, and the answer is not always to simply build more or different things. It’s a difficult and expensive task - specially when selling through dealerships is required. Time and commitment works both ways.
The challenges for the electric motorcycle industry are constant, but are worth the work. As more people get exposed to these great machines and feel the undeniable joy of massive torque, quality handling and ease of use, they will gain popularity. ZERO and others are clearly committed to the category but not just from a straight business proposition - but as enthusiasts who understand that every path is not smooth, not every problem is foreseen but must be dealt with, and that they are not only building motorcycles, but they are building the category at the same time.
Just as owning and operating an early generation electric motorcycle takes a unique individual, so does being in the business take a unique attitude. As a now owner (yes with my own money and 100% my own decision) of a ZERO FX I quickly became a fan of the motorcycles and the potential for the category. I have learned to answer the “yeah but how far can you go” question with “How good is your bagger on a motocross track?”. I love the smooth acceleration from dead silence off the line. I enjoy the stealthy hooliganism I have instant access to. I like that I can manage the power output and systems on the bike via my phone. I like having this moto-tool in my shed. And I will continue to have plenty of interest in ZERO.
Good luck to Mike, Sam, and the rest of my compadres over at ZERO Motorcycles. Thanks for the tour.
A View from the North
I was thrilled when Robert Pandya suggested contributing a Canadian perspective to the Give A Shift conversation. As a career marketer, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by this glimpse at an industry pulling together to save itself. But what really had me fist pumping at my iPhone when I heard him speak about GAS on a popular podcast (Motorcycles and Misfits), recently, was that I am a new rider. I may not conform exactly to the picture we all see when we close our eyes and imagine a rookie motorcyclist but, trust me, I am that guy. Heading into my fifth season, it’s all very fresh for me, the joys and the obstacles, the learning and the spending. I am, in a sense, the ghost of the industry’s Christmases yet to come (minus, perhaps, the hooded cloak), and I have a message for them.
But first things first: how is the motorcycle industry actually doing in Canada? The good news is that motorcycle registrations have been climbing, here, rising close to 9% from 2012 to 2016 according to government data. And dealer sales have followed, according to an official industry source; in dollars, motorcycle and accessory sales rose about 16% over the same period. As in the U.S., an anomalous spike in sales about a decade ago may have flooded the market with used bikes for a while, to the consternation of manufacturers and their dealers, but on the basis of the vectors alone, you might conclude that the Canadian motorcycling industry is recovering nicely.
The bad news is, as ever in this vast country, a persistent lack of critical mass. There are fewer bikes in all of Canada than in the state of California and it’s a seasonal business here besides, so the business is actually spread pretty thinly. As a marketer, I look at more sales and fewer dealers as a sign of shrinking margins, something small markets don’t tolerate very well. With absolute sales volumes so low in comparison to America’s, it’s not hard to imagine that selling affordable lightweight bikes excites nobody, even if it means growing the sport. Retailers don’t tend to play a long game at the best of times; stocking a bike with $100 worth of margin in it and 10,000km service intervals must seem like fiscal suicide.
And maybe that’s the best reason for GAS to think about Canada as it plots a course forward. As a volume opportunity, the motorcycle industry should no more dismiss this country than it should, well, California. And we do love our powersports here, all year-round (motorcycling can only dream of being as organized in Canada as snowmobiling is). But more than anything, Canada provides a snapshot of what the future looks like if America’s industry continues to shrink… a place where riders are an oddity, dealerships are sparse, and transportation planners think of motorcycles as a footnote, if they think of them at all.
From that point of view, here’s what Give-A-Shift’s 5-point agenda looks like from the Great White North:
While this statement might generate howls of protest, affordability for millennials is even more of a red herring in Canada than in the United States. Here, that generation is actually earning a little more money than its parents did at the same age (that’s according to our federal tax authority, and it’s not the case in the U.S.). Public subsidies for university and college mean that student debt can be less burdensome, depending on your field of study. And adjusted for inflation, a 300cc standard motorcycle today costs the same as it did in 1970, while the interest rates to finance it are absurdly low. No, when I talk to potential new riders, I don’t hear grumbling about the price of bikes. What I hear, ironically, is shock at how affordable they are, compared to what they imagined was the case. That’s a failure of marketing, not of economics.
What I wonder, though, is how much the real opportunity to generate desire lies in geography. As I’ll touch on later, Canada is an extremely urban country, with a third of the population living in just three cities (for young people, that number is likely higher still). Yet, if I was a young professional living in an overpriced condo in downtown Toronto and lusting after a new Triumph Bonneville, I’d be looking at a journey of 60 km or so to see one in the flesh. For someone without a car, that’s a big ask. Yet it’s easy to understand why dealers, operating on tight margins as it is, wouldn’t dream of locating in the heart of the city, with its choking traffic and sky-high rental rates. It’s a bigger problem than it seems.
Maybe that’s why low-volume Tesla, for example, doesn’t display its cars in the same places as it services and delivers them. If I were an OEM in this country, I’d be thinking about this a lot.
This is a global issue, and Canada’s concerns are likely not going to be unique. What may differ here is timing. Autonomous vehicles are not nearly the topic of daily conversation in Canada that they seem to be in the United States, and that’s likely because we know they’re likely still many years away for us. Given the modest size of this market, the lack of a home-grown industry, and our sometimes hostile climate (if you’ve experienced the incessant beeping of a snow-caked parking sensor, you’ll be nodding in agreement), this country is likely to follow rather than lead in the adoption of autonomous vehicles.
In the meantime, as distracted driving eclipses impaired driving as the leading cause of traffic deaths in this country, I wonder if autonomous vehicles might not turn out to be so bad. Either way, Canadian riders will watch with interest as the world figures this out. It just isn’t likely to impact new rider interest here any time soon.
If Women Ride
I suspect this isn’t just a Canadian thing, but I’ll say it anyway: women matter to motorcycling for reasons far beyond the potential sales opportunity they represent, and it’s time we stopped talking about them solely in terms of gear fit and bike size. They make the sport more approachable, more inclusive, more civil and more joyful. Unburdened by the grim male archetypes that laid the cultural foundations for how society sees motorcyclists, women on bikes open people’s minds about what riding means, and how it can be saner, more social, and more fun than Hollywood and your terrified parents ever imagined.
Where I live, the proof is all around. Women are partners in a prominent gear retailer, a local co-op garage and a significant online publisher and riding app startup, here, and a surprising number of this riding community’s biggest personalities are women. In my experience as a new rider, this has helped motorcycling be less tribal and more ecumenical, and that’s encouraged me. I don’t think there’s enough the industry can possibly do for this ‘market’ (note the air quotes). If I were anointed motorcycling’s marketing czar and could only make one bet on the near-term growth of the sport, this is where I’d put my money.
It turns out that there is a Canadian Motorcycle Association, though I didn’t know that until I Googled it while writing this article. I still don’t know exactly what it does, or if I should join, or whether I don’t know these things because the CMA can’t afford to promote itself or simply isn’t interested in riders like me. And that’s kind of the problem. It’s not hard to see that advocacy is something of a gaping hole in the life of Canada’s rookie motorcyclists.
When it comes to encouraging new riders, the need for advocacy may be at its starkest on the matter of insurance. Canada’s small population of motorcyclists has apparently presented a challenge for actuaries looking to price risk, and they’ve solved it simply by adding zeroes to new rider premiums. In my case, with two cars, a spotless driving record and in my fifties, the insurance on my new bikes – including my former Honda CBR250R ABS, which some insurers wouldn’t touch because ‘CBR’ was part of its name – has been nearly $1000 a year. Per bike. I’d hoped that getting my unrestricted license would knock this down a little (we have graduated licensing in my province), but it hasn’t happened so far. I have to believe this has turned more than a few twenty-something riders away from new bikes, and only organized advocacy is going to fix it.
Cities are the other sphere where motorcycling’s lack of self-advocacy can be felt every day, despite being where the fire for riding burns most brightly. Motorcycling has a lot of influence in popular culture these days, mostly thanks to the people grumpy old men on internet forums dismiss as hipsters. These generally young, image-conscious riders remain the best chance this sport has to promote itself to the next generation, perhaps the first in a long time to look with envy at a passing bike or express interest in a wrench. And not only do they ride, they promote it socially, and do it better and with more cultural relevance than any manufacturer. With a potent combination of demographics and trendsetting going for them, cities are where the future of motorcycling will be decided in this country.
It’s odd, then, that motorcycling is so absent from the conversation when it comes to the safety and utility of urban streets. While we look on in awe at the highly effective and organized bicycle advocacy in Canada’s big cities, motorcycling misses the chance to present itself to lawmakers and fellow citizens as part of the solution to crowded streets, scarce parking, and dirty air. Instead, the sport’s most passionate and aspirational ambassadors are out there on their own, curiosities at best, and far from a political force. From a new rider’s perspective, trying to stay alive on the mean streets, the goals of promoting motorcycling to Canadians and promoting it to their city governments seem inseparable.
The Dealership Experience
In my brief riding career, I’ve purchased four new bikes off showroom floors: a Honda, a Triumph, a BMW and a Ducati. And it’s worth adding that these purchases were made in and around Toronto, Canada’s most populous market, where one might assume that the retail experience is the most cutting edge. If bike manufacturers were to focus on winning at retail, you’d expect to see signs here first.
But you probably won’t. If I were to generalize – which I will, in order not to pick on any particular brands – new riders can find dealerships surprisingly disinterested in them, and the purchase experience about as bloodless and perfunctory as paying a parking ticket. I’ve had positive moments, certainly, but these were more about the character of individual employees than about the kind of systematic excellence you can see in the best car dealerships. Seldom in my career have I seen such a stunning contrast between the breathless enthusiasm of customers and the grudging reluctance of the people they buy from.
For me, the service experience has often panned out the same way. The sometimes bored impatience of service writers can make a new rider feel like they still aren’t part of the club they so badly wanted to join. Add the perhaps uniquely Canadian problem of geographic coverage I mentioned earlier, and the very idea of a new bike can seem more daunting than exciting, especially if you’re not yet ready or willing to work on it yourself.
The Bottom Line
To be honest, as a new rider, it’s hard to stay critical or negative about motorcycling for long, even in snowbound Canada. But if I were that ghost, pointing a spectral finger at the North American motorcycling industry, I would tell them the lesson of Canada is this: don’t fear generational differences, or fashion, or traffic, or autonomous vehicles, or difficult dealer economics. Fear irrelevance. Without critical mass, you have no voice. Without critical mass, you have no political leverage. Without critical mass, obstacles for new riders become insurmountable. And without critical mass, there are no ambassadors to tell the world what a thrilling, life-affirming thing it is to ride a motorcycle, and how very worth the challenge, the effort, and every penny of the cost.
Some of you may know that I was lucky enough to be the spokesperson for the International Motorcycle Shows event series for several years. I was doing that work WHILE I was working for Aprilia and then Victory. It gave me great insights into the differences between the markets in North America, as well as a chance to be a sort of industry -wide spokesperson and be on countless radio interviews, news shows and even the Today Show a couple times. There are key people who STILL work with that show property to this day, and have become life-long friends. I see an understand the struggles that live events have in a receding market - but the International Motorcycle Shows and AIME should be on your list to attend, especially if you live close by.
I had a thought to get friends together to ride or carpool up to the Dallas show in early Feb - and within 4 hours of seeing if it was possible to do a group buy, Tracy Harris approved and instituted a coupon for ALL of you who are paying attention to the Give A Shift program - good for all the remaining shows. This will also show IMS how many people are paying attention to GAS and attend the show.
These shows are the winter moto-oasis for many enthusiasts, and yes, there are some challenges in OEM attendance, and booth sizes - but I think that the typical GAS reader is a person who would go see the show and support the industry even if the show is smaller than they remember. There ARE great deals at the show for gear and accessories, as well as displays and products that are not yet in the dealerships. Most OEM's also have product experts who can dive deeper into a specific motorcycle than the average floor salesman. There are seminars where you can rest your feet and charge your brain at the same time and it simply a great excuse to meet up with fellow riders and check out custom bikes, vintage bikes and new models too.
Simply buy your tickets online and use the code GAS18 to save $3.00 per ticket.
Here are the IMS city page links to direct users to buy tickets and then enter the promo code:
Cleveland (Jan 26-28) - http://www.motorcycleshows.com/city/cleveland-oh
Dallas (Feb 2-4) - http://www.motorcycleshows.com/city/dallas-tx-1
Chicago (Feb 9-11) - http://www.motorcycleshows.com/city/chicago-il-0
Washington D.C. (Feb 23-25) - http://www.motorcycleshows.com/city/washington-dc-0
Thanks to the International Motorcycle Shows and their enthusiastic staff for getting what it is we are doing with Give A Shift and I hope to see my Texas moto-friends at the show in Dallas. Let's meet up in the “Shift” display at 1:00. Seems appropriate to me!
No - I'm not talking about eliminating the category of smaller more approachable motorcycles - I'm suggesting that we eliminate the phrases "beginner bike", "entry bike", "learner bike" etc from our daily discussions about motorcycles. It's going to be hard to do - but here is the reason for the suggestion:
"Beginner bikes" and similar phrases intone that a new rider will need to step up to a larger displacement to be considered a “true” motorcyclist. At least that is what they might hear. That thought is petrifying to a new rider when they look at the cost, complexity, weight and capability of the typical higher displacement range motorcycle. We will lose consideration as new riders feel that they may not be considered part of our world by electing to ride a smaller bike first - EXACTLY the sort of advice freely given to riders every day - but phrased in a way to push then into larger motorcycles prematurely, or worse, scare them away from riding all together.
I spoke with a podcaster about how she had often told people to go ahead and buy a bigger bike because they would only grow out of a smaller one in a few months. She now sees that that's exactly what they need to do, and that the progression from a smaller bike is critical to ongoing skills growth as riders self-elect to move up the product ladder. Besides, MANY riders will be happy having a smaller and approachable motorcycle in their lives and NOT feel the pressure to "move up". It is up to we experienced riders to respect that smaller motorcycle as an equal in the world of ridership - not based solely on displacement or capability. Nobody expects a Harley Touring motorcycle to compete on a motocross tracks with 250's - every bike has an ideal environment, and the act of being on that motorcycle makes one a rider, and an equal.
Instead of referencing smaller bikes in a way that can discourage ridership - I'd suggest that we start using "Lightweight, Middleweight and Heavyweight". Regardless of the category of motorcycle, there are brands that have motorcycles that fit those descriptors. We would all understand that a lightweight bike rider with expert skills will crush a novice on a superbike.
The benefit of the language change will pay off over time. More riders will fee comfortable - floor sales staff will have more success - more small units will work their way into the used market making less expensive motorcycles available to even more riders. I encourage all of us to shift our language, and and to be inclusive and encouraging.
Ride safely my friends - not matter what you are riding!
As a consultant I'm not supposed to give stuff away for free - but c'mon, this one is easy...let's freaking do something to feed the fires of freedom first experienced in college. Parties, learning, beer, romantic attraction, late nights, new people, exciting experiences, new places...other than the beer, motorcycles and scooters are a perfect fit! Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Triumph, Harley, BMW, KYMCO, Royal Enfield, Genuine Scooters, Indian - I'm talking to ya'll. This is an ideal program for the AMA to own, elevate and expand. Seriously - drop the stupid helmet issue totally, keep up the legislative work and this sort of thing that will increase your membership andmotorcycle/scooter sales.
Purple Parking Program - if something similar exists - I hope to hear about it and I'll help promote it if its an inclusive and well thought out program.
- Address several issues including waning interest in motorcycles: a) traffic congestion b) lack of parking c) modern mobility and d) budget efficiency with the important side effect of MORE OEM's working together for a change.
- Build a coalition of motorcycle brands who co-sponsor free motorcycle parking on college campuses by working with universities and community colleges to identify unused or inefficient locations where motorcycle and e-bike parking is an ideal solution for mobility.
- Paint those spaces purple (no brand affiliation) and offer free parking for 2-wheeled powered vehicles in the P3 spaces. The Purple Parking Program is born.
- Build a permit program for those spaces to a) ensure it is used by students and b) encourages safety. To register for these spaces, students must take a safety program that is additive to whatever is require for vehicle licensing.
- Select a pilot program for campuses that ideally mix parking issues, weather, dealer access and the spirit of partnership with the industry. Then expand the program to other locations including municipals facing the same issues.
- Fund college motorcycle clubs to help promote the program - what you say? There is not a local college motorcycle club? FIX THAT PROBLEM TOO!
OK - So there - got it off my chest. Tell me why this does not work - I'd love to hear a reason other than excuses.