Scrambling For New Riders

Redefining the motorcycle with a monkey and a leaning trike

Yamaha Niken
Not a scene from Star Wars.Yamaha

One of the revelations of this year's EICMA is the lengths to which the motorcycle industry will go in hopes of attracting new riders. It's clear that doubling down on staid tropes of motorcycling (e.g., rehashed café racers, retro ADVs, bobbers), which please those of us already steeped in moto-dom, are not enough to cause a mass cultural awakening, winning souls to the way of the moto. It's no wonder the OEMs are introducing nonconventional models in order to incite something…anything.

One look at the Yamaha Niken conveys the idea that manufacturers are trying to think outside of the "two wheels and an engine" paradigm that has been the status quo for 100 years. The Niken has three wheels, but it's not really a trike or an "auto-cycle." It leans like a motorcycle and is mostly an MT-09 from the handlebars back.

What rider will the Niken attract?

Honda Monkey 125 Concept
The Honda Monkey 125 Concept looks production-ready and tugs at the nostalgic heartstrings. Looking at it, I can’t help but remember bombing around the suburbs of Cleveland on my best friend’s Trail 70, as a misguided attempt to impress girls. The wooing was futile, but that’s no fault of the Trail 70, I’m afraid.Honda

Well, Yamaha probably hopes it will attract new riders, though I can't help but compare it, at least strategy-wise, to the Polaris Slingshot, which the US company hoped would attract younger buyers but has proven more popular for boomers seeking more accessible thrills to extend their riding years. We suspect the Niken has some sort of lockout mechanism so it will stand up on its own at a stop but have yet to get confirmation from a Yamaha representative.

One of the challenges the motorcycle industry faces is that it’s both a recreational product and a transportation product. If a consumer is considering spending his/her disposable income on a motorcycle as a recreational product, it’s competing with surfing, skiing, bicycling, hiking, snowmobiling, boating, vacationing, gaming, etc. Purely as a transportation device, the motorcycle is not the most practical of choices for obvious reasons.

Owning and riding a bike also represents a fairly large commitment of time and resources; it needs to be stored and insured, and the rider needs a special license. As both recreation and transportation, we motorcyclists must admit that for someone to try out motorcycling requires a big commitment. It’s much easier and cheaper to try, say, snorkeling. Or basket weaving.

Yamaha Niken
The Yamaha Niken will be released sometime in 2018 as a 2019 model.Yamaha

Enter the Honda Monkey 125 Concept. Introduced at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show several weeks before EICMA, the Honda Monkey is a retro-looking Grom alternative. At the moment, the Monkey remains a concept bike, but its undeniable "cuteness," low horsepower, and low seat height mark it as a "gateway bike," just like the Grom. The Monkey readily recalls the "You meet the nicest people on a Honda" campaign from the 1960s, which became the social barrier-breaking lightning bolt that Honda needed to sell its small-displacement motorcycles, forever changing the image of the American biker in the process.

It’s fair to say that all of the industry is looking for that barrier-breaking lightning bolt again (or still); and until one of its flights of fancy really strikes a chord—three-wheeled, diminutive, and nostalgic, AI-equipped, recyclable, transmogrifying, or otherwise—we’ll expect plenty of outlandish “motorcycles” to keep on coming.