Last month, we reported on the death of Polaris’s original cruiser brand, Victory Motorcycles, and Polaris’s reasoning that one of America’s original motorcycle brands was a better bet. Shortly after we went to print, EBR Motorcycles, now owned by Liquid Asset Partners, unfortunately but unsurprisingly announced that EBR was shutting down again, for what… the 27th time?
As underdogs ourselves, we here at CityBike really wanted EBR to succeed, though it seemed more and more unlikely every day. EBR’s last new model, the Black Lightning, dashed our dreams for a last-ditch, brand-saving new bike that would turn things around. That damn thing looked deflated to me, like something was wrong with the suspension, like it had given up… perhaps it was an omen. But at the time I wondered why they didn’t just go whole hog and put an extended swingarm on there, or at least call it a “power cruiser” instead of trying to make it sound like a proper motorcycle with what now sounds like disingenuous claims of “improved performance handling for all rider styles.”
When two brands die in a single month, it gets people thinking, talking, pontificating.
Look, in many ways, we—motorcyclists, the industry, its offerings for us—are in way better shape than we were post-Great Recession, although it’s worth noting that while the Great Recession is a socioeconomic waypost useful for marking the most recent bubble-bursting, that certainly did kick the nuts right off the motorcycle industry, we were already riding a crusty, wobbly cruiser towards a certain, eventual crash. Sure, things keep looking up—we’re even in better shape than we were just three years ago, and kickass, truly exceptional new models and game-changing technologies make the twenty-teens a no-bullshit golden age of motorcycles… but not motorcycling.
All this tech makes bikes more expensive, mostly just braggart toys for old boys. The industry is desperate to reach young dudes, and women too. Check out Honda’s recent Rebel reboot, for example.
Cheap entry bikes like the Grom and Z125 would seemingly provide a starting point for new riders, but it seems they’re mostly being bought as second or third or twelfth bikes—again, toys. And anyway, while these bikes have a seriously high fuck-yeah factor, if we’re being truthful with ourselves, they’re inadequate utility machines once you get beyond the skate park. And that’s what the industry needs—bikes that people ride because it’s cheaper, easier, better, and yes, more fun than sitting in traffic, taking the bus, or whatever.
We’re no longer attracting youngsters with the sexy side of riding, the rebellion, the middle finger. But if we can trick ‘em into riding because it solves a problem, they can’t help but fall in love, right, at least some of ‘em? Maybe?
Perhaps an apt comparison is the blues, a form of music built on and perfected through real pain well before the turn of the century. The blues is so moving, so vital, that guitar players keep coming back to it, hammering that root-four-five thing into the ground, positively pulping that dead horse. Some of these players are really amazing musicians, but they’re all doing the same fucking thing. The blues has become a mechanical, technical pursuit—devoid of the emotional component that created it.
And don’t we have the blues? Manufacturers churn out blurry photocopies of previous models, hoping for a nostalgia-driven cash cow. I’ve written previously about how Triumph and Harley-Davidson do this best, building bikes that look so right, while other marques’ retro-authentic models look like castoffs from a Dali painting, tossed aside because they look wrong, but not wrong enough to be interesting.
Vintage-esque bikes are the root-four-five of motorcycling, and manufacturers hope that these fashion accessories, boldy termed “authentic” because no one even values truthful language anymore, will revive motorcycling in America. But it’s unlikely there will be anything new under the sun—bikes keep getting better, but the industry, or sport, or lifestyle, or whatever misnomer we assign, keeps withering—sometimes frighteningly fast, like in the years following the Great Recession, and sometimes more slowly, like today, when things are good, at least if you’re a relatively wealthy old guy with time, money, and garage space to spare.
I sure don’t have the answers, so I’m sorry if you read this far in hopes of some big reveal. I fear that like human communication, passionate but thoughtful debate, privacy, critical thinking, guts and all the other good shit the old timers mourn the passing of, motorcycling is soon to be obsolete.
We can trash-talk the posers, the collectors, the wannabes, till we real riders are blue in the face, but the reality is that consumer majority—the motorcycle owners, arguably not motorcyclists—those are the people supporting the industry with their purchasing power. Whether they actually ride or not is immaterial. If we’re not successfully introducing new people to motorcycling in a way that means they stick with it until they get old enough, successful enough to piss away their disposable income on bikes and bike stuff, motorcycling will be reduced to ren fair status—a weirdo subculture sideshow stuck in the past.
Maybe we’re already in a societal tailspin, where interfaces—mechanical and human—and experiences continue to be abstracted to software, to taps and swipes, to app-summoned services built on the backs of a modern-day servant caste. But consider this: while the auto industry can continue through evolution, shaping itself around regulatory and economic forces, there’s no real motorcycle equivalent of a self-driving car. Why would there be?
This story originally appeared in our March 2017 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.