Monday, 3 September 2012

Bell Curves and Red Bull

A mutual friend told me about a conversation with a very well known UK motorcycle magazine editor, in which the doom and gloom of publishing prompted him to comment "Motorcycling was a 20th Century pursuit: interest followed a bell curve and we're now well into decline. " This negative thinking might explain why, for the first time, Bike magazine has fewer pages than Classic Bike.

Now, I accept I know 10% of Bugger All, but this is the same negative thinking that the Sports Physiologists at Team GB cycling love to sow in other teams; for instance, the French claiming the British track cyclists' advantage was "special wheels" (that were actually bought by Team GB from a French manufacturer) to the Australian riders happy to come last in the road race by refusing to help the peleton because "It would gift Mark Cavendish Gold." In other words, once you think you're beaten, you are.

By the late 1970s both Gerald Davison (of Honda) and Mark Williams (latterly of Bike, and now writing for Benzina) were warning that the motorcycle industry was sowing the seeds of its own demise by focusing on fast road bikes and little else. Sixteen page spreads of how this year's Fireblade/Ninja/Gixxer is measurably faster than last year's model might fascinate sportsbike fans and self-obsessed journos but, little-by-little, everyone else gets bored. Ditto endless "How to" features which are only fine if your audience has a garage. Something most UK homes lack, by the way. Ditto space for a big shed.

Personally, I think the cause of motorcycling and magazines are far from lost. Sure, folk love their i-pad/phone/whatever, but some use it to watch incredible BMX stunter Danny MacAskill , (below) now sponsored by Red Bull. Ah, Red Bull - now there's a company that understands the future. The only motorcycling action our lad likes to watch on TV is Red Bull X-fighters(above), the dirt bike face-offs that are decided on who can pull off the most outrageous stunts. Ironically, this freestyle showing-off grew out of the AMA banning celebration stunts at the end of races. Yes, the old guard wanted things to stay the same, and the youngsters wanted to move with the times. Sound familiar?

Kids love speed, and most love BMX: so getting them off a pushbike and onto a motorcycle should be easy. But most of all, by necessity, kids love cheap. Funny thing is motorcycling painted itself into the performance corner from the late sixties on, when it realised cheap cars were stealing their bread and butter customers. As motorcyclists (like other consumers) became wealthier an entire industry followed them upmarket, first into performance and latterly with the Adventure Bike thing. A growing economy allowed the industry to forget new blood (as opposed to born-agains) because a few hiccups aside for a certain generation things just continued getting better. But that generation is on the way out, with some owners' club magazines having as many obituaries as small ads.

So maybe now we need cheap, trendy and above all fun wheels that tap into what Red Bull's marketers at least can see: that sexy, edgy and affordable are the future. How to apply that to growing motorcycling? How would I know? I'm a middle aged biker, stuck in my ways at the cosy end of life. Just like most of the folk in the business of motorcycling, whether it's selling bikes or magazines. Maybe that - rather than "bell curves" - is the problem.


  1. so what we need is a modern answer to a 350 Morini, cheap, quick and a grin a second (and a few less fuzz, after all, boys will be boys)

  2. That's about right Henry - 100mph, 60+ mpg, and easy to look after. Only fly-in-the-Chianti is that according to the little Morini's designer, Franco Lambertini, a 350 twin would cost almost as much as a 1200 twin to make. But where there's a will...

  3. Greg, I could not agree with this piece more. I would like to think of myself as a younger member of the motorcycle enthusiast fraternity, and have been on the hunt for a decent machine for a friend for €4,000. If you do not want to go 180mph and kill yourself on a 600 or litre bike then there is very little option. All we really want is a small, light, moderately frugle, 350 or 500 which we can have fun on, look cool, not lose our license and not get killed on. Apparently that is too much to ask, but the manufacturer that puts that machine into production will clean up with the next generation. I am happy to be the guinea pig for such a motorcycle.

  4. As an owner of one of those Morini I can agree with Henry - although 100 mph is only with a following wind given modern fuels... The issue is possibly modern legislation and emmission requirements, I guess; after all the 'lean burn' engine by Ford was killed off by the no lead any any cost debate, ignoring the much lower level of pollunts given out by an engine using half the fuel.

    Catalysts, silencers and low mechanical noise standards are all pushing manufacturers down a particular route, although BMW make a couple of modern twins with great fuel consumption and performance and a price not too far away from £5,000 so suitable machines are out there. Or - buy a second hand Morini (there's one in the Club magazine at a pretty reasonable price right now...) or other semi-classic Italian, British or Japanese. After all, there are precious few places where you can really enjoy 70 mph + away from those magical open roads of Scotland and Wales (or the Island) these days!

    Good riding, CC

  5. Bullseye! Which is presumably why the editor of Classic Bike is now the editor of Bike, why the 2012 KTM 690 Duke is causing such a stir and why Guzzi relaunched the flabby V7. Street Triple anyone?