Many of the people at the “ground floor” of motorcycling in Britain are detrimental to its expansion and development, harboring outdated mindsets that run the risk of dissuading potential riders from taking part. That’s the conclusion I came to recently in watching my wife attempt to buy her first motorcycle.
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Last summer, after years of suffering my fanaticism for just about every two-wheeled contraption that rolls by, my wife, Jenn, decided to earn her Compulsory Basic Training (CBT) certificate – the very first step in any British motorcyclist’s journey.
‘She wanted to get a motorcycle, man. That’s like when you come home and your wife is naked, giving you the “come hither” stare.’
For those of you playing along outside of Europe, getting your full motorcycle license in the Old World is a somewhat Byzantine process. Each member of the European Union (of which the United Kingdom will be part for at least another year, after which things will probably be even more circumlocutionary because Brits love red tape) has a slightly different but mostly similar system. In the United Kingdom, it is a bare-minimum three-step process, more if you’re under 24 years old. The first-step CBT is generally earned through a one-day training course that is roughly equivalent to the MSF Basic RiderCourse or Harley-Davidson Riding Academy course offered in the United States.
Actually, it’s a little more intensive, because those US courses don’t tend to leave the safety of a parking lot. In earning his or her CBT, a British rider will spend a number of hours riding on public roads. If they manage to pull that off without killing themselves or someone else, at the end of the day they’ll be handed a piece of paper giving them the right to ride a 125cc motorcycle.
There are restrictions to the CBT beyond engine capacity – your bike has to have “L” plates (signifying you are a learner*), you can’t carry passengers, and you are not allowed to ride on the motorway – but, hey: you still get to ride a motorcycle. The CBT is valid for two years and it’s intended as a means to allow riders to practice and build up their skills before taking the tests to earn a full motorcycle license.
After earning her CBT my wife decided to let things sit a while. In recent weeks, however, with the weather warming up, she started entertaining the idea of getting a bike. A cheap, fun little 125 on which to learn and further foster her interest in motorcycling. I promptly offered to pay for one.
Sure, doing so puts the future of TMO in jeopardy, because I’m presently living off savings whilst trying to get the website off the ground, but I’m sure most motorcycling husbands would have done the same thing. Jenn wanted to get a motorcycle, man. That’s like when you come home and your wife is naked, giving you the “come hither” stare. You don’t question that shit, you act.
Fast forward to this week, when we put a deposit down on a 2018 Lexmoto Valiant. The bike is set to be delivered to TMO headquarters in the first week of May. However, in watching my wife navigate the process of choosing and purchasing her bike, I’m inclined to believe that many people – for example, folks who are not married to a guy who writes about motorcycles for a living – would have just given up.
With the motorcycling industry suffering through a sustained rough patch it’s been distressing for me to see that many of the folks standing at the gateway of motorcycling are effectively blocking it through ineptitude or ignorance.
Now, I realize that most major manufacturers – ie, Honda, Kawasaki, KTM, Suzuki, and Yamaha – offer 125cc machines. And as a result, it is theoretically possible for the newly CBTed rider to enjoy the “big dealership” experience that I’ve had when buying my bikes: lots of information available from both manufacturer and dealer, as well as a professional interaction with sales staff. But by and large those 125s from major manufacturers are too expensive. Ostensibly the easiest route into motorcycling for a new rider – especially a young new rider – is via bikes made in China.
Sure, I wouldn’t argue that a £4,000 Honda CB125R isn’t superior to a £2,000 Lexmoto Valiant. But is it really doubly superior? Or, to put it another way, is the Lexmoto so “poor” a choice that it won’t serve the same purpose for a rider who is either testing the waters of motorcycling or only looking to keep the bike for a year or two while building skill toward getting a full license?
For me, the best way to increase the popularity of motorcycling is to make it as accessible as possible. That’s what Chinese bikes do. With models costing as little as £1,400, companies like Lexmoto, Keeway, Herald, Mutt, Brixton, etc, are doing a good job of offering a wide variety of affordable routes into the motorcycling world. But things fall apart at the dealership level.
Firstly, there is the issue of technology. My wife is a Millennial. I’m willing to bet large sums of money that the majority of 125cc bike buyers are of her generation or the one following: so-called Generation Z.
And how do those generations (and, indeed, most of us these days) get information about a product like a motorcycle? Do they pick up the phone and call someone? Do they physically walk into a shop and ask a salesperson? No. They use the interwebs.
To their credit, companies like Lexmoto offer informative, modern websites, but when it comes to the people actually selling Lexmoto products to actual members of the public, you’ll find things are stuck in a different era. There are three Lexmoto dealers within 30 miles of TMO headquarters. One of them, based in Cardiff – capital of and largest city in Wales – doesn’t even have a website. The others have websites that are piss poor. Look at this screen shot from one of them:
Really? You’re going to sell something to a young person with a site that doesn’t appear to have been updated in their lifetime? And if you guessed these dealers don’t answer their emails, you guessed correctly.
Unable to get any sense of stock availability, or even opening hours, my wife decided to actually call the dealerships. I realize there will be some folks who think, “Yeah? So?” but I really do believe that inadequate online presence would have been a deal killer for many people. Being a learner is an incredibly daunting experience – in the early stages, every little thing can challenge your confidence. Too many challenges and that person will walk away. Making it hard for learners to find out how to give you money is a great way to ensure you never get it and that motorcycling continues to founder.
My wife’s persistence, however, was rewarded by phone calls that involved her being called “darlin'” and “sweetheart” over and over, and people being surprised she wanted a bike with gears rather than an “easier” scooter. Wanna guess how well that went over?
I’m from the American South, so I think it’s possible those terms of can be used in a friendly, non-condescending way… with someone you know. But not with a stranger that has called to ask about motorcycles. It’s outdated. It’s condescending. It’s off-putting. And it’s a great way to convince young people that motorcycling isn’t for them.
Ultimately, we had to travel 60 miles to find a dealership that operates in the current century. And again I ask: what person who is not married to a motorcycle journalist would have gone to that much trouble?
If motorcycling is going to really flourish, if other people are going to get to experience that feeling that I love so much, it has to extend beyond the world of those who already know it. It has to be accessible and welcoming to people with no prior connection to the two-wheeled world – no husband, sibling, parent, friend who rides. At the moment it’s failing to do that.
* In Wales, you can also use “D” plates, signifying you are a “dysgwr” – Welsh for “learner.”