Yes, this is how some companies still market to women riders. In 2017.

Giving a Shift at IMS Long Beach

I always have mixed emotions about whether CityBike should report on the Progressive-sponsored International Motorcycle Show in Long Beach. The still-pissed-decades-later punk rock kid in me feels like we’re playing right into the marketers’ hands, obediently telling the stories as they’re told, presenting the spread just as it’s carefully laid out. Of course, with no show up here in properly advanced civilization, it’s incumbent upon us as motorcycle journalists to make the journey south so that we can bring back photos and stories of all the new hotness.

This year was different, though. Thanks to my ever-running mouth, I’d been invited to the Give A Shift roundtable, a private meeting of moto folk, from industry to enthusiasts, concerned about the state of the industry we love (and sometimes hate), orchestrated by Robert Pandya, former marketing and PR dude for Indian, that would be described by the LA Times the next morning as a “secret cabal of industry veterans” holding an “informal summit to try to forge a way forward for an industry that many believe has reached a crisis.”

That description, “secret,” nagged at me a little with its preemptive inaccuracy, since even though the participants had the option of remaining anonymous, all but one opted to include their names when the documents were released nearly three weeks later.

It was a diverse, comprehensive group: true veterans like former Motorcyclist Editor in Chief Marc Cook, who now runs content at Twisted Throttle; Kent Kunitsugu, Editor in Chief of Sport Rider until Bonnier shuttered the mag this year; Sarah Schilke, National Marketing Manager at BMW Motorrad for the last couple years and head of marketing at Schuberth before that; Alisa Clickenger, who ran the nation-crossing Sisters Centennial Ride in 2016 (“Sisters Centennial Ride: An & Gwynne Catch The Last Leg” – September 2016 ), and twenty-one other concerned moto-citizens. Importantly and refreshingly, seven of the twenty-five were women. While the official line was that everyone was representing themselves in the discussion—not the companies they work for—that was an impossible distinction for some participants who own their companies.

If you read CityBike regularly—particularly my Uneasy Rider column—or otherwise pay attention to this oh-so-exciting-often-depressing industry stuff, you may be aware of the problems the motorcycle industry faces in the US (and beyond); some societal and cultural, some self-inflicted. Short version, in very broad strokes: the motorcycle industry knows that it has a problem acquiring new customers, and that interest in motorcycling is waning. There are many reasons for this—too many to list here—but the industry as a whole has been slow to respond, and tends to run the same playbooks over and over, with the same predictable results. Contrast this against what is arguably a golden age of motorcycles, if not motorcycling—we have unbelievable performance and incredible technology, in many cases at downright reasonable prices, a broad array of truly good motorcycles to choose from. What we don’t have is good growth of new riders.

You can download the documents from the meeting here. There are three: the final report and summary; the anonymized meeting transcript; and the pre-meeting industry background report produced by Guido Ebert.

So it was with even more consideration of “industry health,” always a concern but now occupying a good chunk of my mental bandwidth, that I entered the yawning halls of the Long Beach convention center for “media time,” armed with a list of bikes to look at closely, questions to ask, and people to hassle.

CityBike being the obedient participants we are, we usually stick with the program, that is, we dutifully follow our guides from brand to brand, nodding and mumbling as each goes through its “what’s new and cool” presentation. Instead, this year I alternated between sneaking around on my own; catching up with reps and vendors and other industry regulars; and working my straight job at a table off to the side.

It wasn’t a surprise, but I was bummed by the absence of a company with Buell in the name; fortunately Piaggio—absent last year—quickly got me smiling again with an expansive assortment of Vespa and Piaggio scooters alongside Moto Guzzi and Aprilia motorcycles. The V85 concept adventure bike that was the talk of EICMA wasn’t there—presumably still RTW’ing its way from Milan, but there were new Dorsoduro and Shiver 900s, which nearly inspired me to peace-the-fuck-outta there to go ride the new Dorso 900 strapped into the back of our van parked outside. Piaggio’s space also featured a spare, stripped-down V9 Roamer-based build by Untitled Motorcycles that grabbed my interest despite its lack of topcase mounting options.

Harley-Davidson’s area, while not quite as expansive as those of the Big Four, was well-staffed by men and women and constantly jammed once the doors opened up and the public came in. I had seen most of the MoCo’s new stuff already, so once I got over still being pissed about the forward controls on the Sport Glide, I spent my time there watching the interactions between staff and consumers.

They were doing the usual “here’s how you pick up a dropped bike” demonstrations, which always seem to draw a crowd, but what struck me most about Harley’s brand presence was that unlike some of the other booths, large and small, the women staffers here were not accessories, but fully functional humans, equitably engaged with consumers as riders, not tawdry enticements.

I thought of the seven women in the Give A Shift meeting, and our discussion of how women are perceived and treated by the industry and motorcycling in general, from marketing efforts to dealership floors, as I headed for the Ducati booth—the brand that is arguably the flip side of the motorcycle lifestyle coin.

I have to choose my words carefully here, because as you’ll see in this month’s Tankslapper, we’ve been accused of hating on Ducati again. I’ll be honest: while I’m a fan of Ducati’s engines and technology in a clinical sense, there’s something about the overall sphere of the brand that kinda kills it for me. Maybe it’s the Ducatisti and their banal interjection of occasional Italian words, maybe it’s the very notion of things like Ducati Island, or maybe I’m just a jerk.

Point being, the many-from-one model development that all brands do sticks in my craw a little more when Ducati does it, so upon entering the white-floored, sterile-feeling Ducati enclosure, I didn’t get all woozy about the Scrambler 1100, because it’s just more of the same. I wanted to linger by the Monster 821 because even though the engine has too many valves, it actually quotes the design of early Monsters pretty accurately, bikes I lusted for before ultimately buying a Speed Triple; and because the non-metallic yellow paint reminded me of the always-disassembled 900SS in the back of my garage.

But here’s the thing: the vibe was wrong. In the Ducati booth, unlike the booths of Harley-Davidson and other brands, women were decorations, done up in minimalist, tight dresses reminiscent of club wear. Sure, it wasn’t down to the level of the ten dollar drinks-and-lapdances feel of a few brand presences over past the Allstate-sponsored kids’ area; and you can accuse me of not understanding the difference between European sensibilities and stripper chic; but I’ll stick to my guns: when the women in a brand’s booth are sexualized accessories to motorcycles, not people, that brand is relying on lazy, backward marketing that entices only the knuckle-draggingest meatheads to come visit you.

Oh yeah, also, Ducati made a V4 motorcycle. It’s pretty cool.

Other brands in attendance had most of their latest and greatest on display: KTM had a bunch of angular, orange, white and black machines, and their smaller booth was packed the whole time I was there. Kawasaki didn’t have their new Z900RS on display, but they did have a badass-looking red and black Z900 up on a pedestal. They also had their revived KLX250—for me, probably the most interesting thing in the Kawi booth; a motorcycle we need, maybe or maybe not one we want. Something like that.

Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha offered sprawling displays. One of the most memorable bikes was a confusing, Roland Sands-branded Africa Twin police concept bike, an apparent exercise in tacticool accessorization more than a solid idea. The rapid-deploy bulletproof barrier blanket might be useful, come the revolution, I suppose.

But beyond the coming 750cc version of the underrated, misunderstood NC700X, the coolest thing from the Big Four, in my opinion, was the blockily muscular, serious business CB1000R in the Honda booth: blacked-out, burly, and surely a kickass multi-purpose conveyance once appropriately equipped with a topcase.

I’m not sure that’s what Honda has planned for the CB.

Indian had a large number of very large motorcycles, and a cool Scout-based “Spirit of Munro” build. The centerpiece of BMW’s assortment was a 215-horse, $87,000 HP4 Race on a rotating platform surrounded by TKC-shod motorcycles of various sizes and styles. Retro-centric brands Ural and Royal Enfield offered classical styling combined with old-timey engineering, although Royal’s new line of 650cc twins and the Himalayan adventure bike are sure to be interesting additions.

This year, IMS Long Beach had two prominent lifestyle sections: Adventure Out and Shift.

Adventure Out was a square of fake grass on the outskirts of the show, featuring a smattering of dirt road-weary traveling bikes, picnic tables and a tent, with ADV-centric vendor booths clustered around it.

The centrally-located Shift was more show than go, featuring mostly apparel and even fucking jewelry alongside retro-hipster helmets, arranged a Husky flat tracker elevated on a crate.

Both of these sections were conspicuously short on people every time I came by and felt… wrong. Exploitative. Obvious plays on lifestyle.

And kinda sad.

In addition to all this big stuff, probably half the hall was dedicated to smaller vendor booths, ranging from good shit like helmet brands and genuinely useful parts and accessories, to same old, same old leather goods and other nonsensical gewgaws that always seem to show up at such events. It was down at this end of the building that the hackneyed notion that off-duty strippers make guys buy stuff really reared its stupid, ass-backward head. I cringed at the way older men clustered around the young blonde woman with her ass hanging out of patent leather booty shorts at some Triumph dealer’s booth, and groaned at the dudes taking selfies with obediently smiling, top-heavy, “aspiring models.” Or maybe they were “actresses.”

Then, having had enough, I headed for the door, thinking, “Maybe I’ll pull the Dorso out of the van and wheelie this sad bullshit from my mind.”

On the way out, I encountered a young-ish woman rider, maybe early thirties, in a blue and gray Aerostich, and instinctively smiled a bit and nodded, like, “Hey there. You’re one of my people.” She smiled back, but I immediately went pensive, troubled by potential interpretations of the exchange.

Never mind the overarching cultural context; here’s a woman rider walking into a motorcycle show to check out motorcycles and motorcycle stuff, where’s she greeted by an industry that mostly thinks she wants pink babydoll tees and 300cc motorcycles, or even worse, where women are often nothing more than scantily-clad bait for male customers apparently too dumb to choose motorcycles based on the machines’ merits.

And then, some grey-bearded old-timer smiles at her. Did she think in frustration, “Goddammit, another one of these bastards?”

Or did she take my passing nod as it was meant, and post a sneakily-shot photo of me on her Instagram account: “Biker Santa smiled at me! 2018 will be a good year. #blessed”

This story originally appeared in our January 2018 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.

Editor Surj thinks the best way to sexualize motorcycling is for brands to embrace the whole shorts-and-boots-under-‘Stich thing. It’s hot, right?