Backmarker: An Unlikely New Year’s Resolution

Mark Gardiner | January 8, 2016

Now that we’re a week into 2016, most of us have already broken our New Year’s Resolutions. So this column’s late, but in the spirit of better late than never: There’s one thing the MIC and AMA could lobby for in 2016 in order to improve the motorcycle industry’s long-term prospects.

My suggestion for an industry-wide New Year’s Resolution is: Let’s introduce European-style tiered licensing for motorcyclists.

Don’t worry, this column won’t change anything. Because even though introducing tiered licensing for American motorcycle riders would be good for business and encourage people to become motorcyclists for life, it’ll never happen. In fact, the MIC and AMA’d lobby against it.

Backmarker 2016 New Years

Going back to those heady days before the ’08 recession, Motorcycle USA had to cobble together a pretty sad bunch of bikes for a ‘Newbie’ comparison test (above). I presume testers wore a paper bag over their helmets, in case their friends saw them on that Virago 250. Fast forward to 2015, however, and MotoUSA had a good handful of small sportbikes to ride in its Entry-Level Sportbike comparison (below). And riders who didn’t want a sportbike had way cooler choices than that old Virago, such as the Suzuki TU250 or Yamaha SR400. It’s actually a great time to be a new rider.

Backmarker New Years 2016.

Yes, I’m suggesting restrictions on peoples’ right to ride. If that makes you foam at the mouth, good. One of my personal resolutions was to anger more readers.

But hear me out anyway.

I first wrote about this in 2008, after Luc Bourdon ― a promising NHL hockey player ― went home to New Brunswick at the end of the hockey season. Within a couple of weeks, unlucky Luc was killed when he rode his GSX-R1000 into an oncoming semi. Two days after buying the bike.

I hate it when that happens.

I used to live right near where Bourdon got killed. It’s great riding country, by the way. Lots of two-lane road with sparse traffic and few cops. The locals are friendly and lobster is cheap. It’s actually not too far from Cape Breton, where it was briefly rumored that there’d be a TT-style real-roads race.

I haven’t read anything to suggest that Bourdon was staging his own little TT. Locals speculated that, maybe, a gust of wind blew him into the path of an oncoming semi. And indeed, it’s a windy place. But come on. Wind? Not likely. More like, no one explained counter-steering to Luc.

According to the RCMP, the semi-driver did “everything in his power” to avoid the crash. I think the responsibility can be laid at the feet of the dip$#!+ who thought it was a good idea to sell a kid with less than two weeks riding experience a GSX-R1000. A motorcycle that will go 100 mph… in first gear.

Seriously. Who thought that was a good idea?

I hope it’s obvious, but I’ll state for the record that this diatribe isn’t a knock on Suzuki. Bourdon could just as easily have killed himself on a Kawasaki, Honda or Yamaha. The only reason that he couldn’t have killed himself on a Ducati is that there weren’t any Ducati dealers in that relatively remote part of New Brunswick.

Backmarker New Years 2016

Although a lot of Harley-Davidsons are heavy and visually intimidating, most of the Harley line is actually beginner friendly. Your average hog has a low seat height, torquey motor, and a combination of lazy geometry and wide handlebar providing good leverage. Those things all conspire to make Harleys good (albeit expensive) choices for beginners. Strangely, since most of their line is beginner friendly, Harley was one of the only pre-recession manufacturers to really target American newbies with a specific model. That was a good idea in theory; the only problem was, that model was the unloved Buell Blast.

When Luc Bourdon’s death was all over the Canadian news, I wrote that we would be a lot better off with a progressive licensing system like the one they have in the UK, where riders need either a.) four years’ experience on less-powerful bikes, or b.) to be over 24 and take far more comprehensive training and testing before qualifying to ride bikes like the one Bourdon crashed.

At the time, I thought that a hockey player’s high-profile death might cause a few Canadian provinces to adopt such a system, but even in regulation-friendly Canada, that never happened.

Looking back at life on dealership sales floors in the mid-“Naughties”: It was a time when manufacturers relentlessly pushed bigger and faster sportbikes onto a free-spending public. It was totally common to see beginners walk into motorcycle dealerships and be sold a 600cc supersport replica. Salesmen reassured novices they could trade up to a full-sized literbike next year when they had some experience.

I’ve been through this before, but it bears repeating: I’m consistently amazed how well modern sportbikes work as basic transportation. They have race-quality brakes and sharp handling that can make any rider safer. And there’s a place for limitless power on the street, too, when it can be used to open up a safety gap between you and that idiot car driver. It’s great to ride a bike that is easily capable of traveling at the 95th percentile of traffic speed, so that almost any potentially dangerous situation develops in front of you where you can see it as you come up to pass it; trouble’s not coming up behind you where it will take you by surprise. And yes, the throttle works both ways.

But.

But even a 600cc race replica was way, way too much bike for any beginner. Selling bikes like that to beginners was just a way to get a short-term gain at the expense of long-term pain. And I don’t mean pain from injury, I mean pain in our industry. What we need to do is create motorcyclists for life; guys (and gals) who’ll progress from beginner bikes through high-performance bikes and then on to adventure bikes, dual-sports, cruisers, whatever, while they ride their entire lives. Lives that aren’t shortened by their love of motorcycles.

Even the beginners we didn’t kill with that short-sighted 600s-for-beginners sales strategy were intimidated. They bought one bike, crashed it, and never rode again.

A six-speed transmission package is highlighted by the Gear Shift Assist Pro, yet another option included in the Premium spec ($475 as stand-alone accessory).

While this column has picked on race-replica sport bikes as examples, it’s still true for other big, powerful bikes — I’m looking at you, BMW S1000XR, Yamaha Super Ténéré, etc.

When I was in the ad business, I watched dozens of focus groups from the other side of the one-way glass. And I learned that the most important things are left unsaid. No motorcycle-industry marketing flack will ever hear a (male) rider say, “I’m afraid of my bike,” because 21 year-old guys can’t even admit that to themselves. But when ex-riders say, “I was going to lose my license,” or “I was going to kill myself,” or some such macho crap, what they really mean is, “It scared me.”

Fast forward to today, and if you walked into a motorcycle dealership you might think, “Wow, they really listened to Mark! Look at all those cool 300cc beginner bikes.” But it wasn’t a case of them listening to me, or anyone else. It was the recession. Manufacturers came to realize that they needed new models that could sell for four or five grand.

Thanks to a collapse in demand for high-end bikes, there’s a bunch of great new models that won’t lure enthusiastic beginners up to triple-digit speeds on a whim (or maybe just because the rider sneezed). And it’s possible that a new generation of novice riders will learn something all veterans already know: That it is more fun to ride a slow bike fast than it is to ride a fast bike slow.

For the first time in decades, almost every manufacturer has a few genuinely cool small-displacement street bikes; now is the time to do more than offer them on the market. Now’s the time to introduce tiered licensing and force new riders to spend a couple of years on bikes that make less than, say, 50 horsepower.

Of course, that’s never gonna’ happen. Because manufacturers all still want to sell novices big, expensive motorcycles; they’re only offering those cool little bikes because the market forced them to. If some tech bro walks in with a big bonus and wants to buy a literbike, that’s what almost every salesman will steer him towards. Nobody wants to be forced to sell a free spending buyer a $5000 entry-level Twin.

That’s shortsighted, because (and trust me, I’ve got the accident statistics to prove this) the kid who buys too much bike buys one bike. Start that same guy on a smaller bike he can handle and, in a few years he’ll buy a bigger one. So you’ve already sold that guy two bikes but more importantly, there’s a far better chance you’ve set that guy on a path that will see him become a motorcyclist for life.

In the UK, before you can ride, you have to be able to jump through hoops.

There are four license tiers for UK motorcyclists, and three potential entry points: Moped, Light Motorcycle, or Direct Access.

Moped ― Riders must be 16 or older. Mopeds have a maximum 50cc motor and designed top speed under 30 mph.

A1 Light Motorcycle ― Maximum 125cc and 14.6 bhp. Riders must be at least 17.

A2 Standard Motorcycle ― Candidates must be at least 19 and have 2 years experience with A1 motorcycle. They must re-take an re-pass the practical test on a suitable machine. Maximum power 47 bhp.

A Unrestricted ― Candidates must have at least two years’ experience on A2 machine, and re-take practical test on a full-power motorcycle.

Direct Access ― It is possible to go straight to a full-power motorcycle. Candidates must be at least 24. There are three tests: Theory, Module 1 – Maneuvers, and Module 2 – Road Test. Module 1 is a relatively low-speed test on a closed course (usually a coned-off course in a parking lot. Module 2 involves riding on the road for 45+ minutes, while being followed by an examiner. Both on-bike modules are far more demanding than any U.S. license test. Most riders who successfully take the direct access route spend $1,000+ on specialized training. For reference, the UK school associated with BMW charges £885 for four full days of classroom and on-bike training.

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Mark Gardiner

Contributing Editor| Articles | In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

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