Sunday, January 18, 2009

Reality. What a concept.

When I was a kid, the closest thing we had to a video game was moving the rabbit ears on the TV to make Howdy Doody come in clearer. Now every American child above the age of four has grotesquely muscular thumbs from chasing, and being chased by, horrible fire-breathing, many-headed, bloody-fanged horrors all over the vast simulated medieval landscape of virtual reality.

The fact that today’s kids would rather get their kicks in front of a computer screen than on a motorcycle is cause for concern not only to toothless old fudds like me, but to the motorcycle industry. It’s no secret that motorcyclists are getting older; figures I’ve seen recently say, for example, that the average age of motorcyclists was 32 in 1990, 41 in 2003, and 42 in 2008.

Things are looking worse for Harley-Davidson; in 1988 the average age of Harley riders was 35; now it’s 48.

There are several reasons for the graying of motorcycling. The boomers who fueled the sport’s rapid growth in the 1980s are retired now, and are discovering there’s nowhere on a Fat Boy to carry golf clubs. When you have a bad hip, an artificial knee, and a pacemaker, flicking a GSX-R1000 into a corner with the peg trailing sparks doesn’t have the same appeal it did when you were 40 years younger, and immortal.

The manufacturers share some of the blame, too. Today’s typical “entry-level” motorcycle is a 600cc sportbike that puts out close to 100 horsepower and can twist the needle all the way to the last numbers on the speedometer face. The dearth of friendly small- and mid-displacement bikes scares off some potential riders, and kills off others.

Harley especially has been digging itself a hole by making bigger and more expensive motorcycles year after year while pretty much ignoring the needs of entry-level riders, who get to choose between starting out on a $20,000, 800-pound bike or staying home. (Sportsters don’t count. You can’t even get one out of every 10 Harley riders to take Sportsters seriously, never mind someone looking for a first bike.)

But the real problem is there aren’t enough young riders coming into the sport, at least not in numbers sufficient to keep sales from going downhill. They’re too busy Facebooking, or MySpacing, or Twittering, or some other passive activity, to get up off the couch, go outside, get on a bike, and risk their lives to have a good time.

My mom used to find me sitting in front of the TV on a nice day and tell me to go outside and do something. I did, although riding and racing bikes might not have been quite what she had in mind. To her dying day she referred to motorcycles as “those things.”

Still, I’m glad she got me out of the house, because it opened up a whole new world, and changed my outlook on life forever.

For example, I now know there’s nothing you can do in virtual reality that can come close to the adrenaline rush of an SUV swerving into your lane and missing you by inches. Or grabbing the brake lever at 150 for the chicane at Daytona and discovering your front tire is flat.

Who needs virtual reality when there’s real reality?

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