Bike Culture Barometer: Bike Week 2007
I remember the exact moment that Iggy Pop music died for me. It was the end of a long day, my feet were kicked back in the Lazy Boy, remote in hand, when the program I was watching was interrupted by a Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines commercial. Shuffleboard on the deck, sunning by the pool and then came the rising beat, bump bump bump da dum dum da dum dum..."Here comes Johnny Yen again..."
And there I sat in the dark, a bitter young man not sure who to direct his rage at, the corporate marketing politburo who had taken his personal anthem of freedom, gutted it and hung it on the wall of commercialism like a trophy moose head, or Iggy who had given them permission. It's the same feeling I got this year at the Bike Week rally in Daytona Beach, Florida. Love it or hate it, Daytona Bike Week is something no motorcyclist can ignore. It's a bike culture barometer that comes right at the start of the spring riding season. What race replica helmet graphic is the most popular?
If you want to look cool on your Ninja, do you wear a leather racer jacket or do you just wear a back protector over your wife beater? If you're looking for an easy way to catch all the trends in the motorcycle industry in literally a single glance, head to the largest motorcycle rally in the U.S. So what has motorcycling in America become? Like Iggy plugging for a cruise line, Bike Week displays that once motorcycle riding became mainstream, it didn't take very long for it to be made commercial, purely aesthetic and infiltrated by the tacky form following function excess that infects the rest of America. I get this impression first on the nearly 900 mile ride it takes me to get to the Sun Shine State. Call me crazy, but the biggest kick I seem to get out of Bike Week comes from riding there and back. That motorcycling is all about appearances is evident in the fact that very few motorcycles are actually ridden to Daytona. In each of the previous five years I've ridden to Bike Week, I've met fewer and fewer motorcycles along the way that are getting there with their rubber on the pavement.
What's in this year? Choppers or sport bikes?
This year, I limit my "Top Ten Funniest Motorcycles to See on a Trailer" to a top three. Number three. The Ultra Classic on a trailer with Georgia plates. Come on. If you can't suffer through a few hundred miles on a luxury tourer in warm weather, maybe you should look into another hobby. I hear golf is pretty low impact. Number two. The guy, alone in his pickup truck, with both a Harley Low Rider and a ZX-9R on the back. Hmmm, let's see, who do I want to be today, the guy hanging with the biker dudes at the Boot. Hill Saloon or talking speed with my sporty brothers on the Daytona Speedway infield? Decisions, decisions... And number one is...the guy with a R1200GS on his trailer.
Not only was he trailering what is perhaps one of the most rideable long distance machines in the world, the bike was complete with quick detachable aluminum saddlebags. I guess some people can find a use for 80 liters of storage when they make the 1.4 mile journey from the Holiday Inn on North Atlantic Avenue to the Main Street drag. I bet the saddlebags held a spray can of "Genuine Exotic Location Road Crud" and a used Aerostich outfit he bought on eBay to complete his look of adventurousness. Once I'm in town, my next impression comes from riding in traffic on the street. Everyone is heralding the "Death of the Chopper," but what can fill the void left by some of the ugliest motorcycles ever concocted?
Those who say it will be custom sportbikes are affirmed by what I saw at Bike Week. Not that sportbikes will ever overwhelm the Harleys at Daytona, but it seemed like every fourth bike on International Speed Boulevard was a Hayabusa. Most of the sport bikes at Daytona fell into two categories. The first was "pseudo drag bike with extended swingarm". All the polished metal distracts me from noticing that your rear tire is as square as bus tread. Number two is "pseudo stunt bike with crash cage."
"Sporting machines are the best thing on-road motorcycling has going for it right now."
Backwards tennis visor and shorts complete the "extreme sports frat boy" look. I should have seen it coming. When I stepped off an '07 ZX-6R, the same bike that would later win the Daytona 200, after a Bike Week demo ride my legs were shaking from the adrenaline rush.
The amount of technology and performance that the Japanese can pack into a $9,000 motorcycle is astonishing. So it just makes sense that the next trend in motorcycling would be to take all of the function out of these amazingly capable machines. Custom sportbikes are the logical next step in an alarming trend that has taken place in the motorcycle community since the cruiser explosion in the mid-nineties. The goal is to create a bike that gives you the maximum amount of reasons not to ride it.
The whole chopper phenomenon was based around taking an extremely capable machine, a Harley v-twin, and then modifying it with a hardtail frame, extended front end, wide rear tire, ape hangers, straight pipes, etc., etc., etc. to the point that traveling the length of Main Street was an epic journey worthy of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. A 2003 study by the Federal Highway Administration showed that in the previous ten years there was a 38 percent increase in motorcycle registrations, but a three percent decrease in the number of miles that motorcycles were traveling on American roads. In short, more people are owners, less are riders. So why shouldn't you take a sportbike, make its wheelbase longer, collapse its suspension and remove half of its front braking power? So if choppers are dead, note me as the first to predict that the "Death of the Sportbike" is just over the horizon.
American capitalism has a great talent in finding things that are interesting and pure and then exploiting them for money until they die like an overworked Shetland pony in a coal mine. It doesn't matter if it's Japanese anime or rock climbing, mainstream popularity quickly leads to dilution and yuppification. Bike Week is motorcycling taken to its corporate and capitalistic zenith, the ultimate statement of our "Hey look at me I'm special" culture. I'm the last person who would advocate that motorcycling should be an exclusive, elitist club. I love it when I see things like more women and minority riders, manufacturers building budget bikes that almost anyone can afford and trikes that give the older and disabled a chance to ride.
But it sure felt good when we motorcyclists were "1 percenters" rather than six percenters (the portion of American households that now have a motorcycle in the garage, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council). Maybe bikers should go back to being Johnny from "The Wild One" rather than the middle-aged escapist portrayed by John Travolta in "Wild Hogs." It gets a little depressing sometimes standing in the middle of a crowd where everybody's lifestyle is one big temporary tattoo. What is motorcycling about? Is the most important part getting there or being there? Are splattered bugs a badge of honor or an embarrassment that need to be avoided at the cost of actually riding? Is riding a lifestyle or a hobby, a statement of freedom or a statement of fashion? What part has each of us had in realizing that motorcycling is an obese cash cow and that we can make some money off it?
Both the industry and the riders who make up the motorcycling community need to look at themselves and determine what they want to be.
It's going to take a lot more overpriced t-shirt vendors and obnoxious first time Harley owners before Daytona Bike Week stops qualifying as a good excuse to knock out 900 miles in the waning months of winter in the direction of sunny climates. They'll have to get rid of the manufacturers demo rides and the ten days of some of the best motorcycle racing you'll see in a season. I'll also have to stop seeing guys like the one with Rhode Island plates who passed me on Interstate 95, the fairing of his GL1200 stained with fresh road salt. And so I step down from my soap box, voice hoarse from shouting over the noise of slash-cut mufflers and overplayed Lynyrd Skynyrd songs.
Strangely enough, I end my tirade optimistic about the future of motorcycling in America. I feel an Ice Age coming on, a period of desolation, of unsold machines on dealer floors and cheap dinosaur choppers on eBay, a time when it will no longer be cool to show up at a social function on a Harley. But when the ice recedes, a whole new motorcycling landscape will be appear, a landscape inhabited by a new breed of motorcyclists. Those who have survived will have adapted, their machines minimal, tough and functional, designed solely to get from point A to point B. Bike Week attendance this year was down an estimated 40 percent and for the first time since I started going, cars seemed to outnumber motorcycles on the street. Maybe we're seeing the first frosts.