I’ve spent a lot of time on the road lately and the one thing that I’ve noticed more than anything else is that, if a group of motorcyclists appear, it will inevitably be a group of Harley riders and not just a small group, either. While the group may include a smattering of metric cruisers, the vast majority of the bikes will be Harleys. The days of seeing large groups of sports bike out on a jaunt somewhere seem to be but a distant memory. Not just once have I asked myself why this quantum shift in motorcycling use and preference seems to have come about. There are some simple answers, of course, but then there are some aspects of the situation for which I can’t come up with an answer at all.
Ten years ago, when I first started riding with my local motorcycle group, we rode almost constantly. There was a ride somewhere or other every weekend. Because many of our members worked shift work there were regular mid-week rides, some of them being of an all-day complexion. The most popular thread on our forum was the one that was entitled, “Coffee and a pie sounds good” which consisted of notifications on a daily basis that one member of the forum was heading up to the Pie Shop (which often led to a quick “Lap” before heading back home) and that any and all were invited to join him/her there. As well there were regular touring rides that could be anything up to 4 or 5 days in duration and organised rides to motorcycling events like the MotoGp, WSBK and the Barry Sheene. The common factor that bound them all together was that all of these trips, short or long, were accomplished on sportsbikes. Yes, some members rode S/T bikes and a couple even had full-blown touring bikes but the majority of the membership rode sportsbikes.
And these riders thought nothing of touring on their sportsbikes as well as doing the shorter rides and “scratches” through the twisties. One member rode straight back to Wollongong from the MotoGp in 2007 (a distance of over 1000kms) on his new Ducati 1098! It was a “given” that the majority of our rides were sportsbike rides. Even the “cruises” like Breakfast Rides or a run to Sydney to Harry’s Cafe de Wheels at the harbour were almost all made up of sportsbikes. For nearly all riders the sportsbike was the only bike they had so that’s what they rode.
But then, probably 5 or 6 years ago, a change began to be seen. Many of our members, frustrated with riding the same roads all the time and looking for variety, bought dirt bikes, some dedicated machines like Suzuki DR’s and some the early adventure bikes that could double as a road bike. Suddenly a whole heap of trails were available to explore and it became a hugely popular trend. Charley Boorman and Ewen McGregor have a lot to answer for in his regard. It was a fad, and, like most fads, it was always going to end. Some persevered with it, buying GS BMW’s and VStroms while others, as other responsibilities started to encroach, rode less and less until the dirt bike was sold in favour of a 4WD or something that was more family friendly. Few, if any, returned to riding a sportsbike.
As already noted, the increasing age and level of family responsibilities of our members was always going to bring about a change, but the funny thing is that it seems that that change has not just been one that affected our group but has been reflected in motorcycling demographics as a whole.
Market stats have been telling us for some time that Harley Davidson is selling more bikes than all the other manufacturers. Leaving out the “postie bike” that has always skewed the sales figures in favour of Honda, the fact is that, like them or loathe them, Harley is killing them in the market place. And that formidable stat is now even more formidable since Harley introduced its LAMS bike, the 500, which is selling its socks off. And what bike is selling the best of the non-Harley pack? The Yamaha WR450 enduro bike. A road-registerable enduro bike that can do both jobs. Sportsbike sales are at their lowest point for years with the latest crotch rockets from the Japanese and Italian manufacturers are being ignored by potential buyers like never before. And the question must be asked, why?
Well, to start with, the latest crop of sportsbikes, both 1000cc AND 600cc are really race bikes. The level of performance available is so extreme that the only place where a rider can explore the potential is at the race track and track days are now so hideously expensive that the economics of owning a sportsbike is increasingly marginal. Added to the fact that all of the race replica bikes are licence-endangering and increasingly attracting attention from the police and it starts to be a case of, do you want to spend $20000 for a bike that you can barely use? And can you tour on one of them? Of course you CAN, but why would you?
Next to Harleys, the next biggest number of bikes that you will see on the road in groups is the BMW adventure series, both the big twins and the smaller singles. Why? Because they are comfortable on a trip, you can do some fire-trailing and you’re almost certain to return home from your ride with your licence intact. Sportsbikes are being increasingly marginalised at least as far as my anecdotal evidence seems to suggest.
But what’s the attraction with Harleys? I confess that I don’t know. It is easy to dismiss the Harley horde as slavish followers of a fashion that only they understand. “They’re not really motorcyclists at all, just rich old guys who buy their bike as a fashion statement,” is the snide response of may “real” motorcyclists. Well, I disagree. In my world, if you ride a motorcycle, you’re a motorcyclist, no matter what brand it is. Would I own and ride one? No, firstly because I could never afford one but, even if I could, a Harley could never provide a level of performance and riding experience that would satisfy me.
But they appear to be satisfying plenty and it isn’t just for a run down to the shops either. They get out on the open road and are doing a heap of touring if my experience is anything to go by. Do I understand the fascination? No, I don’t. But I DO know that the days of seeing large groups of sportsbikes out on the highway appear to be gone. I’m sad for that, but that’s what the times are dictating, it seems.