Off Center: Keeping Bikes Viable

Irrelevant?

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Kevin Wing

I am not now, nor have I ever been a Luddite. There's nothing wrong with old and simple. Take me for instance, or my 1975 Yamaha RD350B. But fresh technology is a beautiful thing when it works. There's a 46-inch flat-screen television bolted to my living-room wall, where a Roomba robot is presently vacuuming the carpet. By the time you read this, a 3.6GHz Intel Core i3-equipped Mac will have superceded the 1.8GHz pooch on my desk. Still, sometimes it feels like I missed my exit on this metaphorical freeway of accelerating technology. I'm all for acceleration, technological and otherwise, as long as it's vaguely rational, fiscally responsible and potentially justifiable. Otherwise, somebody is liable to pull the plug.

Looking out on the expanse of testbikes currently at my disposal, at least six could cover the 79.4 miles between Motorcyclist's garage and mine in less than half my 90-minute average. There are at least six more in the nearest dealership that could do the same if I were willing to take on an extra $15,000 in red ink. It could happen today, but it won't. That sort of thing can and eventually will make a guy unpopular, and eventually irrelevant with people in a position to pull said plug, like American Express, the California Highway Patrol and/or Department of Motor Vehicles, my boss, my wife and our friendly neighborhood insurance agent. I like that sort of social relevance enough to make the concessions necessary to keep it, like keeping my average velocity within sight of enforceable limits, saving enough to pay cash for that next new motorcycle and putting altruism ahead of egotism when and where I can. But if I hold the latest residents of most dealerships to that same standard, or look at them the way more objective members of polite society might, that sort of relevance is hard to find.

If the whole discussion sounds irrelevant to you, I respectfully submit that the future of motorcycling won't be settled entirely from the inside out. Perception is reality, and from the outside, motorcycles are starting to look more like a problem than any sort of valid solution; big, fast, noisy toys that serve no constructive purpose aside from simply being cool. I love big, fast, noisy toys, but like a lot of other people in the world, I'd love a solid, simple, efficient way to get around as well. Especially if it made motorcycling look more like a ray of light in this gathering gloom.

I can hear the product planners now: "American's don't want practical motorcycles, and we can't sell what people don't want."

The latest census figures say more of us get to work on ferryboats than motorcycles. Maybe so, but you don't have to be Alvin Toffler to know things are changing. Maybe it's time for a sort of paradigm shift-a fundamental change in the way we look at the world. When things start looking fuzzy, you get new glasses.

Maybe motorcycling needs a new prescription-but not until we come up with one that actually works.

Motorcycles will always be toys in some sense of the word, and riding one will always involve more sweaty want than pragmatic need. No worries: Keep the big and the fast, just slip a few more solid, sensible alternatives into the mix to balance things out. Chevrolet builds a $106,880, 638-horsepower, 205-mph ZR1 Corvette. But there's also a 40-mpg Cruze in the 2011 line-up, along with the mostly electric Volt that allegedly hums along all day on less than you'd pay for a Venti Americano at Starbucks. Americans are more receptive to solid, sensible, inexpensive motorcycles than ever. Suzuki TU250s aren't gathering any showroom dust, and neither are Kawasaki Ninja 250s.

Paradigms don't shift overnight, and motorcycle manufacturers don't turn on the proverbial dime. That sort of change can take a decade or more, but it has to start somewhere. And the trickledown of technologies like ABS, traction control, anti-theft systems, electronically adjustable suspension and variable drive modes from high-end models will make affordable ones more attractive as well. The motorcycle has always been cool. But keeping bikes alive means keeping them viable, affordable and cool, before somebody starts pulling on that plug.

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