The Missing Link

BMW R1200GS

Mean-spirited stereotype or unfortunate reality?

I’ve come to the unpleasant conclusion that if you want to split motorcycling into groups, I’d very much end up in the very small category marked “other”. And while stereotypically people seem to think of motorcyclists as an “other” all on their own, motorcycling can be a very sociable experience. After all, go to a motorcycle meet and you’re at least guaranteed that every other person there will share at least one interest with you. Unless you count drinking those are better odds than you’ll get in any pub or bar in the world.

And the reality is that a large number of motorcyclists themselves fall into a very small number of groups. Sure, this will inevitably be a generalisation and you can subdivide bike stereotypes like you can subdivide genres of pop music. It’s fractal. But even with this in mind I have a horrible feeling that I’m sitting in my own lonely corner, because I can’t seem to find any manufacturer that’s making motorcycles for people who like to ride the damn things.

american-choppers-27a

Absolutely stunning piece of motorcycling art. But it’s not for me.

To understand this we need to forget traditional stereotypes here and look at how the industry sees motorcyclists. That’s where the money is, and if you buy the same type of bike as someone else, then all other differences and similarities between you and that other person are secondary.

When a manufacturer sits down to design, build and market a new motorcycle to the public, it will want to do so in such a way that makes it desirable to as many customers as possible. When enough contradictions exist that they can no longer satisfy half the target market, they’ll split off and make a different model for those people. The objective is to have as few bikes in your line up to keep costs down while still selling to as many people in the community as possible.

BMW R1200GS

I love the practicality, but the long-term reliability of those electronics makes me nervous. And the price makes me laugh…

Take Adventure bikes, for example. Big, expensive, powerful, feature-rich and comfortable they appeal to older, well-off bikers who can’t handle the riding position of a dedicated Sportbike anymore but still want to enjoy the performance, this time with a bit of comfort. The typical buyer is in his 40’s or 50’s, uses it as a secondary vehicle to his company car, doesn’t do many miles and is, you guessed it, male.

Yamaha R1

Reaction times not what they used to be? No problem!

Why are we still making crazy-powerful, electronics-laden Sportsbikes then? Well, there are enough riders who are a little younger than their ADV-riding brothers, but their eyesight and reactions aren’t what they used to be and the electronic riding aids and dynamic suspension help them stay fast and comfortable as the years creep on. It doesn’t matter that prices are approaching £20,000, because these guys have the cash to spend on these dry-weather toys.

Harley-Davidson Street 750

That’s right ladies, you too can ride a motorcycle now!

Yamaha and Harley’s advertising seems to be aimed at young ladies and men in their late twenties/early thirties – presumably because they’re earning enough money to be able to consider £5,000-7,000 a reasonable price for a toy, yet would laugh a £15,000 KTM out of the showroom. Yamaha’s excellent MT07 doesn’t come with much in the way of performance parts for it’s low price tag, with suspension and brakes that a more experienced rider would complain about, but a new rider wouldn’t care.

Yamaha MT-07

Damn good bike. Damn good price tag. Could use some suspension work…

This also explains the recent rash of 200-400cc bikes aimed at younger riders – a whole demographic was being priced out of the traditional 600cc starter bike, with CBR600RR’s and the like now up to £10,000, and performance increasing to downright scary levels. No new rider should be jumping on a 190kg, 130bhp missile as their first big bike. But a KTM Duke 390? Or a Kawasaki Ninja 300? Now that’s more like it.

Kawasaki Ninja 300

Can’t afford a ZX-6R yet? Good news…

Notice how no-one’s marketing scooters to teenagers? That’s because teenagers don’t have any money, and Mum & Dad would be much more likely to persuade them to wait a year and put them on Dad’s car insurance instead.

Ford Fiesta

Scooters are dangerous, son, so we bought you a nice, safe car instead…

Wonder why Honda’s not updated the Pan European or Goldwing for a decade? Or why the FJR1300 has seen nothing but minor changes? Touring bikes sell slowly and take a long time to pay back the investment in their development, and owners tend to be conservative and stick to what they know. They do one or two big trips a year and then park the bikes in the garage the rest of the time.

Honda Pan European ST1300

Great bike, but why buy new when it hasn’t changed since 2002?

This is why every manufacturer is trying to sell their bikes on 6,000-mile maximum loans. The average biker in the UK rides just 4,500 miles a year, so after three years you’ll still be a a long way away from an expensive major service. Manufactuers and finance companies aren’t stupid – that’s why the numbers are set up that way. Run a 3-year PCP plan and whether you’re a well-heeled ADV rider, moneyed Sportsbike enthusiast or twenty-something wannabe you’ll be paying less than you thought for a brand-new bike every 3 years, with minimal servicing costs and zero warranty worries.

Honda VFR800

Yours for just £139 a month! Valve clearance check? You’ll never make it that far…

Of course, motorcycle couriers would blow through that in a month, and they buy their bikes outright and run them until they explode. They buy simple, so that nothing complicated can fail, and reliability and durability are primary concerns. They must be loving Honda right now; the NC-series are a dream come true for someone that wants zero toys, yet maximum reliability and durability, with a minimum of servicing complexity and running costs. These guys will buy new, rack up 200,000 miles in ten years and then buy another one. They’ll only replace things that break, and never bother upgrading, modifying or tuning anything.

Honda NC750X

Honda build quality, screw & locknut valves, 80mpg; perfect for couriers and dispatch riders everywhere

So where does that leave me? I ride 25,000 miles a year, in all weathers. Only couriers do that, and they don’t care if their bikes look like they escaped from Mad Max – I’d like something that still looks nice in ten years. I want something that handles perfectly, but buying a new R1 is out of the question. I’d blow through 6,000 miles in four months, so no PCP for me, and if I took out a traditional loan the bike would depreciate faster than I could pay for it.

Mad Max Honda Goldwing

Cool, but is a little paint too much to ask?

My requirements don’t fit into any particular marketing demographic – I want top-rate handling, but also reliability and durability over big miles. I’m not a big spender, nor terribly fashion-conscious, nor do I particularly want all the electronic bells and whistles that make me nervous owning a bike out of warranty. And because I’m in the minority, no-one’s making bikes that fit my wants and needs.

It’s frustrating as hell, because it means that I’m going to have to do the best I can on my own…

Suzuki V-Strom 650

DIY servicing, comfy, economical, reliable, cheap, and modified to hell and back

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