STM: European Grand Tour Thoughts

October 22, 2012
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Some middle-aged bikers enjoying the High Alps.
Some of the few bikers that Carol and Frank saw during their recent trip through the Alps to Monaco. Not a 20-something rider to be seen throughout the Alpine terrain.

There was some frosty debate in Team Melling headquarters during June of this year. While playing on Google Earth I had worked out that it was possible to travel from Switzerland through central and southern France using the French Parc Naturel Régional almost entirely. These are spectacular areas of natural beauty in the Swiss/French Alps.

Carol was immediately jumping up and down with delight at the thought of riding our beloved V-Strom through mountain pass after mountain pass and I was forced to be the parsimonious wet towel. We were going to Switzerland to interview motorcycle racing legend Luigi Taveri, and this meant that most of the V-Strom’s carrying capacity would have been devoted to camera and video equipment and that two weeks’ clothes for Carol would have had to fit inside her purse. Carol is a tough motorcycling lady but we’ve both passed the stage of wearing one set of underwear for a week, so we reluctantly headed south in our Nissan X-Trail diesel.

From the outset, this proved to be a good idea. Although I did feel a traitor to the motorcycling cause, as the rain lashed down in biblical proportions I began to feel less of a Judas.

The horrendously bad weather has been disastrous for the British bike trade this summer and is perhaps why we saw so few bikes on the 300-mile trip to Dover – the hopping-off point for most of our trips to Europe. I counted only five motorcycles on the whole journey and in bike-mad Britain this was worrying.

These German professionals were rich enough to have their bikes shipped from the north country to the Alps.
These German professionals were rich enough to have their bikes shipped from the north country to the Alps.

The weather wasn’t any better during the 500 miles to Zurich, though when we turned west to Luigi’s house the rain really started. An inch and a half of water falling from the skies in 36 hours is seriously wet and, I have to confess, that the thought of unpacking a tent from the back of the V-Strom and setting up in a campsite with a river flowing through it just didn’t look attractive.

Modern bike gear is brilliant but even the best clothing just gives up after a day of being power washed and I am certain that this single factor has hit bike sales hard throughout Europe.

When we got into the high Alps, which run through and around the Swiss, French and Italian borders, the sun came out and we started to see a sprinkling of motorcycles enjoying some of the best biking roads in the world.

In a way, what we saw was even more worrying than the absence of motorcycles on the 900 miles we had travelled so far. Almost universally, the riders were wealthy and middle-aged. There were no poor, young people on cheap bikes – as Carol and I had been once – but rather high specification Super Trailies equipped with every extra in the catalogue. If you only had GPS and an entertainment center on your BMW GS you were clearly from the wrong side of town.

Short term, the demographics of this market sector are brilliant. What dealer doesn’t want a well-heeled professional person rocking up to his door and ordering a $20,000 bike as well as another couple thousand bucks’ worth of riding gear?

Taking a long view, the situation is terrifying. Twenty years from now that affluent 50 year-old will be 70. Will he, and his partner, still be riding the Alpine passes? If not, who will replace him?

We didn’t see a single rider under 30 years of age throughout our five days in the Alps, and most were either very well worn – or in their late 40s.

Outside the Hotel de Paris in Monaco  supercars worth millions of dollars line the streets.
Outside the Hotel de Paris in Monaco, supercars worth millions of dollars line the streets.

All this bad news is even further indication that motorcyclists, and the bike industry, need to drop everything and begin work on our Ark now – as in immediately. Instead of spending millions on developing faster machines with even more trick suspension we need to be in the shopping malls, high schools and universities growing the next generation of 20 year olds who can afford a top spec GS1200 – 2032 model.

Instead, all our efforts are concentrated inward chasing the ever shrinking, existing market. This is the easy, pleasant option but goodness me, it is a classic case of eating our own seed corn.

It’s not as if motorcyclists aren’t wanted as customers. Throughout the Alps, there were innumerable signs and welcome posters for riders, who are recognized as high spending clients. We, those who love motorcycles and motorcycling, need to leverage this pool of goodwill to bring us into the mainstream.

We finished our trip in Monaco – probably the wealthiest place on the planet in terms of disposable income per square yard – and even here the bike industry was clearly missing a trick.

For those readers not familiar with the Monegasque climate, it’s not a bad replica of Los Angeles and, like LA, there are plenty of two-wheelers about. The reason is simple. Monaco is tiny – around two miles wide and a mile deep – and, to say the least, parking is at a premium. So, scooters abound – as do cheap and horrible Chinese built 125s. What are absent are the Ducati Panigales, the MVF4s and tricked out Harleys. In two days, the only expensive bikes we saw were in a German tour group and, as one might reasonably expect, both the riders and bikes looked tired and dirty.

Yachts worth millions little the bay in Monaco  and theres not a superbike in sight!
Living the yachting lifestyle, or at least pretending to do so…

If there is a line of supercars, each one worth $750,000, parked outside every hotel and yacht club, then there has to be a market for exotic bikes too. Forget that these customers are not already bike fans and concentrate on their affinity with luxury products.

There were some lovely little cameo scenes during our visit. We met the charming young captain of a small motor yacht who happened to be a fan of MCUSA – yes, really. He and his New Zealand assistant were avid MotoGP fans and, heaven help us, had even read Frank Melling.

We chatted amiably for 10 minutes and the Californian captain smiled and explained that he never did discounts on charter hires, but if Carol and I would entertain him with biking stories he would offer us a once in a lifetime deal; a week cruising round the Mediteraneann. Just $100,000 would get us that week of fun at sea – but don’t tell anyone else at MCUSA in case the whole staff wanted the same deal.

Somehow, I feel that MCUSA’s offices would not be emptied as the great and good from Medford head for Monaco!

Frank Melling enjoying a brief stint aboard a 50cc Honda 4.
Our man Melling enjoying his brief stint aboard a 250cc Honda 4.

A double whammy came with Carol’s birthday gift – or more accurately non-gift. Just opposite the Casino in Monte Carlo – I want to give you the precise location should you visit Monte Carlo with your wife or girlfriend – is a really bijou little jewelry shop. As normal, I had forgotten to buy Carol’s birthday present at the designated time and for some reason she wasn’t too enamored with the offer of a pair of new Maxton shocks for our Seeley by way of compensation.

In the window of the jewelers was an absolutely delightful butterfly brooch. The wings were about the size of two postage stamps and the body was in proportion. It was really cute and we both fell in love with it.

The sales assistant cooed over the brooch too and commended us on our good taste. My credit card was good for a few hundred dollars and the smile on Carol’s face brought joy to my soul. Then the charming young lady discreetly mentioned the price: $18,000.

The retreat was as fast as the remaining shreds of our dignity permitted. And the bike industry is not selling to a client base like this! Why???

Finally, how do you make a fat, bald, old, wrinkly racer happy? The answer is simple. I can now claim, with some degree of pride, to have sat on – and made all the appropriate noises – a works Honda “4,” “5” and “6” – and there’s not many can put that on their resume.