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Single Track Mind: A Memorable Autumn

Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Being on an island surrounded by sea and wind, our weather is very variable in Britain. That’s why we’re obsessed with it. In fact, if you ever visit England and want to bond with the natives, simply mention the weather and you will be immediately treated as one of the family.
Following a non-existent summer this year in Britain  motorcycle sales were bolstered by a warmer autumn.
Professor Melling during climate research this fall aboard his Suzuki V-Strom. Thankfully, an atrocious English summer was followed by perfect autumn riding weather.

Meanwhile, the conversation with a Navajo lady in Monument Valley might well get a little constrained. “Well, Doli, what do you think of the weather today?”
“Well, Frank, it’s pretty damned hot and dusty – same as yesterday in fact…”
The same conversation in England can go on for hours since, during the first 10 minutes, the weather is very likely to have changed completely.

The practical implication of this situation is that it is equally easy to be either pro the Global Warming hypothesis – or anti Global Warming. If you’re the government of the day and want to raise taxes so a gallon of gas costs $9.50 (and no, that’s not a misprint) in order to protect penguins in the Antarctic, you can quote the abysmally cold, wet and miserable summer we had – explaining that the freezing days, and arctic nights, were a result of the aberrant weather patterns caused by Global Warming.

The great joy is that you can just as easily insist that the most wonderfully warm Autumn we have enjoyed was also the result of Global Warming.

I’m not a climatologist, but it does seem that the Global Warming advocates do want to have their cake and eat it – at least those bits of the cake they’re not selling to us at usurious prices because of the obscene levels of taxation.

2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650
We enjoyed autumn here in the US too (riding Blue Ridge Mountains during V-Strom 650 press intro). But to hear Frank tell it, the good weather in England literally saved some dealers in the beleaguered British market from closing shop.
Regardless, the bike trade really took a big hit during the summer. Carol and I looked at the rain lashing our cottage windows, and the trees bent double in the howling winds, and simply didn’t feel like riding. It’s not that I can’t ride in the wet – in fact, I quite like the challenge of wet roads – or that we would have got soaked, which we wouldn’t in modern riding gear. Rather, it was as basic as going for a ride in full winter gear in the height of summer just didn’t hold any attraction.

It seems that we weren’t the only ones in this frame of mind. Showrooms were empty; accessory sales plummeted and profits dropped so hard that they caused earth tremors.

Then along came the most wonderful Autumn. Temperatures rose, the sun shone all day and suddenly we just had to ride. And what wonderful riding it was too. The warm weather caused the trees to hold on to their gold and brown leaves and we sat next to mountain lakes, having a sandwich and a coffee, realizing why motorcycling is such a wonderful experience.

There must have been many prayers of thanks throughout bike showrooms all over the country because, suddenly, they were full of customers buying riding gear, having bikes serviced and placing orders for 2012 offerings.
Whether motorcycle dealers have Global Warming, or the fact that we live on an island, to thank for this blessing is open to question, but what is for sure is that the six weeks of benign weather have quite literally kept a lot of bike shops in business. Had it been a harsh, and early, Autumn there would have been 20% fewer dealers by now than there were at the start of the 2011.

New Trails

It was pretty shocking – not to say a thing of wonder and sheer delight on my part – when I realized I had been riding for 50 years. In fact, my Mum confiscated my first bike – for alleged dangerous riding (I still maintain my innocence even to this day) when I was 10 years old and I’ve been with motorcycles ever since. But 50 years is a long time, so I decided to learn a new skill this summer: sailing a dinghy.

Turning to sailing for a new hobby  Frank Melling experienced the thrill of being a newbie again.
After a half century in the saddle, our vintage motorcycling expert becomes newbie again – this time on the water.
The first thing which struck me – maybe shocked would be a more apposite expression – was that I was entering a world which was completely new to me. I didn’t know the pointy end of a boat from the blunt bit and this got me to thinking how new potential motorcyclists feel when they first meet a bike.

My experience, as the most raw boating virgin, really got me thinking about how we treat beginners in the bike world – and I think that we can learn a lot from our aquatic friends.

The first thing was to learn to sail. In Britain, there are numerous courses – literally hundreds – run under the auspices of the Royal Yachting Association. You don’t need to take one of these lessons, as you do to gain a bike licence, but since drowning wasn’t high on my “must do” list for 2011, I paid up – and what a rewarding experience it was too.

After a very pleasant hour in the classroom – full of smiles and good humor - I was out on a lake with my instructor and sailing. I was allowed to “captain” the boat right from the moment we left shore and so the fun started immediately. That’s an important lesson for us in the bike industry to learn: let learners begin with a smile.

Every moment of the four day course was based on enjoyment. As Steve, my instructor, said: “You’re here to learn a new skill and enjoy yourself - not to spend a day at work.” Maybe there’s lesson two for us in the way we teach beginners.

Not that Steve was lax or tolerant of safety errors. In order to get my Level 2 certificate, effectively a “driving license” for boats which enables the holder to rent sail boats, I had to undertake my “man overboard” drill until my hands were red raw. As Steve said, picking someone up from the water could be a lifesaving exercise so I had to learn to the do the task perfectly.

With so many die-hard motorcycle enthusiasts out there  why isnt there more effort to recruit new riders
Riding motorcycles is inherently fun. But can the same be said of getting into motorcycling and learning to ride?
But there were some rather startling differences between mastering a motorcycle and a boat. At one stage, the wind picked up and things started to get rather frisky. We were fairly skimming along and a boat containing two teenagers cut right across us. I was far too slow reacting so we ran over them and one of the youths got spat into the water.

I was traumatized but Steve never batted an eyelid. “The water’s warm and it will teach them to learn their “right of way” rules.”

Which I’m sure was scant comfort to young man bobbing up and down in the water while his mate rolled around in the boat laughing at him. Somehow, I think that mowing down your fellow student – even if you did have right of way – would make the tyro motorcycle student rather unpopular.

Following my positive experiences Carol decided to join in the fun because she was so taken by the relaxed nature of the sport. Had I not enjoyed myself that would have been the end of sailing. Here’s yet another lesson for us. Get new riders hooked and then keep them with us by making them feel one of the motorcycling fraternity.

We then went on to hire a range of boats before we bought one of our own – which we haven’t yet – and there was another big shock awaiting us. Everyone we talked to was encouraging and friendly without a hint of the tribalism and, I have to say, snobbish attitude which one often finds in the bike world.

And before anyone says anything, yes I am as culpable as anyone else. I love lean, light, tightly focused race bikes, or functional AT motorcycles, and so tend to sneer quietly at V-Twin owners plodding round with fake German helmets on their heads or, worse still, a bandana for protection.

We just never found this tribalism in the sailing community. The only concern from the people we spoke to was that we should have a good time and sail safely. Even talking to an ex-World Champion sailor – who never even mentioned his success or status – we were treated with a courtesy and warmth which was quite a shock coming from the bike world.

Finally, the boat dealers were outstanding. Yes, we could test sail any of their boats which were within our competence. Yes, they would be pleased to help with more information, brochures and delivery. In fact, the true (waterproof) red carpet was laid down for two absolute beginners.

The Matchless G.50 Prophet  Frank calls upon all riders to do their part proselytizing the two-wheeled creedo.
The Matchless G.50 Prophet, Frank calls upon all riders to do their part proselytizing the two-wheeled creed.
Do we do the same thing for neophyte motorcyclists? I seriously doubt it.

Despite all its attractions, and the wonderful welcome we have been given, sailing isn’t 10% as good as riding a bike and this raises another major question for us to consider. We all know that riding a bike is the nearest thing to heaven on earth so why aren’t we out there recruiting?

For me, having the back tire of our G.50 scrabbling for grip as I balance the bike on the throttle at 100 mph is truly a spiritual experience with which nothing can compare.

For Bryan Harley, our Cruiser Editor, a great trip on a thumping V-Twin no doubt offers the same heights of ecstasy whilst MCUSA Boss of All Bosses, VP Ken Hutchison, will drop everything for the opportunity to ride the latest Superbike to the edge of its, and sometimes his, life.

So here is the question: If we, of the motorcycle fraternity, know that we have the best pastime/recreation/hobby/addiction in the world, why are we not more evangelical and recruiting new members every day? I really would like to know your answer.
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brianw   December 24, 2011 06:58 AM
I think marswat is correct in that we are a bit tribal, but that is because those of us who have ridden for many years (32 for myself) realize that motorcyclists are really a small percentage of the population, particularly in the US, and that is not likely to change. In other countries motorcycles are ridden by a larger percentage of the population solely due to their efficiencies as a form of transportation. It is simply all they can afford due to cost in the initial purchase and then cost of operation. In the US, this is generally not the case. In other countries, if the financial resources were available, most of their population would likely not ride motorcycles for the same reasons as in the US. Motorcycles are not for everyone. First, the skill level required to operate a motorcycle competently is much greater (factor of 10x?) than for an automobile. That simple fact alone winnows down the field of potential operators of motorcycles in a very blunt fashion. Second, motorcycles are not for comfort driven people. Riding a motorcycle is often a hot/cold/wet tiring affair. I ride all the time. I ride year round. I ride to work. I ride just to ride. I ride in the dirt and on the pavement. I think most of us that ride do it for the same basic reason; we love it. We are willing to endure the 100+ degree heat in helmets and armored jackets because we just love to ride. We are willing to endure 15 degree freezing rain because we love to ride. We are willing, and actually enjoy getting muddy from head to toe because we love to ride. We risk life and limb on the street in rush hour traffic due to brain dead automobile operators more interested in talking on the phone than operating the vehicle because we love to ride. This makes us a pretty select group of people, and thus a little tribal. Other people, particularly in the US, think we are crazy for riding bikes. Those of us who love to ride don’t care what they think. I have welcomed everyone that wants to try riding, but I always caution them that motorcycles are not for everyone because they are not. There are those that I call “fair weather riders” who spend very little time on the bike and are riding for the image (again, I think a US phenomenon) only and they do tend to annoy those of us who ride because we love to ride. For those of us who ride all the time, hot or cold, dry or wet, long distance or short, we are a small (possibly crazy) group of people who tend to bond together as only other small (possibly crazy) groups of people who do potentially dangerous things that require a sacrifice of comfort. If we tend to be tribal, I think that may be the reason.
marswat   December 10, 2011 06:09 AM
Forgot to mention, you do one hell of a good read, man!
marswat   December 10, 2011 06:01 AM
May it is because we are a little tribal. I've been riding for on 46 years now and although I sometimes love to do a big group ride, once a year... I really like the smaller 400 kms 1 day ride somewhere with the same small bunch of mates. And while I like meeting other bikers all the time on the road, one of the good things is that everyone out there are not bikers so we are in a mixed world out there and while we sometimes curse them, it is necessary for the balance that not everyone or even too many of all of us are bikers. We don't have to spread the word, the word is spread every time any of us hit the road.
Gorecki   December 7, 2011 12:50 PM
Just wanted to say thanks and very much enjoyed the read. :)

Thought I most certainly have no interest in boats or sailing I hear what you're saying about the brotherhood element being a little lacking in the riding world. Not entirely, there are more sub-cultures then models of machines. Regardless of associations and preferences I've found an idiot is an idiot. Doesn't matter if it's a GXR squid kid or a flipflop/tshirt/bottletoplid wearing cruiser old dude. I've encountered smart people in just about every riding culture preference and when I have that guy with his legs strapped across a Pontiac 502 V8 on two wheels...wearing shorts and a racoon skin lid (yes this has actually happened)...I choose to be friendly, give a thumbs up and do my best to keep from screaming, "YOU'RE AN IDIOT!"
Piglet2010   December 6, 2011 09:14 PM
-GrahamH- Unfortunately, too many get into riding motorcycles (at least here in the US) as an excuse to put on a bad attitude (the pretend 1% MC people); not that the squids are often much better. Of course, you will meet nice people on all types of bikes too, such as the guy on the H-D Road King that was friendly, even though I was on my Honda NHX110 scooter at the time.
GrahamH   December 6, 2011 11:13 AM
It is difficult to generalize about motorcyclists and especially about the attitudes that they hold. If there is one thing that I have observed about riders, it is that they are all individuals, and are some of the most unique people that I've met. The issue that you bring up concerning the "welcome" that riders give to "newbies" is one that I have mulled over many times myself. How is it that some of the nicest people I've met ride motorcycles, and some of the nastiest and meanest people I've met ride motorcycles? In my mind, I think it all boils down to ego. The riders I've met who are the most accomplished, most highly skilled bike handlers, are often the most humble and kind, as they are doing what they love for the love of it, not the boost that it gives their egos. The riders I've met who are the most abrasive, are often the ones that seem to have gravitated towards this sport based on the idea that it will somehow make them cooler, and give their ego the boost that they've been searching for. In my somewhat limited experience, it seems to me that the latter class of riders feels threatened by anyone new who shows up on the scene, and therefore tend to ridicule newbies or give them the cold shoulder. Riders who pursue their passions for their own enjoyment rather than to boost their image are welcoming to new enthusiasts, and seem thrilled to share their passion. Basically, this boils down to a choice that all riders face. Am I one of the too-cool uber-bikers who know it all and look down on puny newbies for their eagerness and inexperience? Or am I one of the true lovers of riding who welcomes new members of the community with an open heart? Beleive me, the riders who swallow their egos and lend a hand to a fresh face are always the ones who look the coolest in the end. We all started shaky and unsteady (whether we started at 2-years-old or 62), and we all needed support and advice from someone. When you have theopportunity to be that support and foster-in a new rider into our large extended riding family, jump on it. Helping a fellow rider learn the ropes can be one of the most rewarding experiences ever. Belittling someone for trying something new is the epitome of low-class and makes you look and feel like an asshole.