Why Harley-Davidson is building a factory in Thailand

There’s a lot going on in Harley-Davidson world, and some of it may have escaped your attention.

While it’s not always the best practice to focus on one company as the bellwether of how an industry is doing, Harley-Davidson is such an iconic American brand that it does serve as a beacon of sorts for not just American industry, but the overall motorcycle industry as well.

We’re constantly bombarded with “America First” and “Make America Great Again” from the Trump administration, but as recent moves from Harley-Davidson show, manufacturing and business are far more complex than slogans can account for. Capitalism is, of course, built up and torn down at the altar of the Market, and what the Market giveth the Market can taketh – often in one quarter.

harley-thailand-fullOn 23 May 2017, The New York Times broke the story that Harley-Davidson is establishing a factory in Thailand. HD officials say the purpose of the factory is to build motorcycles for Asian and other overseas markets, and that the motorcycles will not be brought into the United States.

This move has been roundly denounced by union officials, such as:

  • Robert Martinez Jr., president of the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers: “It’s a slap in the face to the U.S. workers who built an American icon.”
  • Press Release from the United Steelworkers: “[Harley’s] decision to offshore production is a slap in the face to the American worker and hundreds of thousands of Harley riders across the country.”

Indeed, in a lot of places, Harley-Davidson IS America. Harley has spent decades building its image and carefully crafting the perception that riding a Harley motorcycle is part of a lifestyle worth achieving. To a certain extent, all the motorcycle manufacturers do this, but none perhaps so successfully as Harley-Davidson.

What the critics of this Thai factory are missing are two incredibly important aspects of the motorcycle industry.

Displacement

MY17 107 Engine. Milwaukee Eight.There is a common adage among motorcycle riders that there is “no replacement for displacement,” meaning that the bigger a motorcycle’s engine, the better the motorcycle is. This is not a sentiment shared by the majority of the population of the world, and certainly not in countries where gasoline is more expensive than Americans can possibly imagine.

For example, the average price of a gallon of gasoline in the USA on 19 April 2017 was $2.57 a gallon. In Thailand, it was $3.72; in India, $4.32. The highest average price in the Bloomberg article used as a reference was $7.23 in Hong Kong; the lowest was $0.91 in Saudi Arabia.

The average gas price isn’t enough to form a solid picture of the real cost, however. In the USA, the average worker enjoys a daily income of nearly $163, while in Thailand, the average worker’s daily income is just over $17. That difference is critical – no matter the price difference in gasoline between the USA and Thailand, gas is simply more affordable in one country than the other.

What this means is that where the rubber meets the road, the American motorcycle rider simply doesn’t have to care about fuel efficiency as much as the Thai rider does. That $3.72 the Thai rider spends on a gallon of gasoline has to last him (or her) much longer than the $2.57 the American rider spent.

As a result of this need for extreme fuel efficiency in nearly every country that isn’t the USA, large-displacement motorcycles are a luxury item. For example, in 2014 Americans bought 466,000 motorcycles of all brands. In the same year, TVS Motor in India sold 784,000 units. Neither of them even holds a candle to Honda, however, which sold over 15 million units in 2013, most of them (13 million) in Asia. Even with 15 million units sold, motorcycles are only Honda’s THIRD biggest source of revenue!

The majority of these motorcycles are vehicles that American riders wouldn’t even identify as such, calling them mopeds, scooters or even just toys. Motorcycles with 50cc engines dominate foreign markets – and in the USA, the average walk-behind lawn mower has a 150cc engine! In every other place on Earth besides the United States, most motorcycles come in under 300cc, and many of those are well under even that mark.

In the long run, the motorcycles Harley-Davidson makes are only hugely popular in the United States, and they’re losing market share on this continent, primarily to Indian Motorcycles (manufactured by Polaris Industries).

Putting factories in other countries gives Harley-Davidson access to people and companies who have been building smaller displacement motorcycles for decades, and it won’t be long before we see Harley’s Street 500 being built in overseas factories. Harley may well start making motorcycles smaller than that as well.

Taxes

Income taxThe simple matter of import taxes (tariffs) is the other aspect of why Harley-Davidson is looking to build bikes in Thailand.

Importing a 125cc motorcycle into Thailand carries an immediate 60 percent upcharge. Add to that another 5 percent for the excise tax, 7 percent for the value-added tax (VAT) and 10 percent for the interior tax, and the cost for a run-of-the-mill Harley-Davidson Road Glide jumps from $21,999 in the US to $43,499. The reality of it is, though, that the Road Glide is not a 125cc motorcycle and its import taxes would be exponentially higher, driving the cost closer to $60,000.

In India, the import tax on a 300cc motorcycle is 100%. The price of a small imported motorcycle doubles before it even hits the showroom floor – yet India continues to be the hottest, fastest-growing market for companies like Trimuph, whose sales rose 37 percent … to 350 motorcycles. Triumph’s smallest displacement motorcycle is about 675 cubic centimeters, so even with that ridiculously small number of sales, there is clearly a market in places like India for foreign brands with higher displacements than are traditionally built in India.

When it comes down to the economic bottom line, it makes excellent economic sense to simply build these motorcycles in the countries where the manufacturer wants to sell them. With the Trump Administration backing out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership early in 2017, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to see Harley-Davidson initiating the manufacturing of its motorcycles in Thailand, because Asian nations won’t have the same tax rates for products coming from other Asian nations as they will for products coming from the United States.

It’s smart business.

In the past several years, another well-known motorcycle manufacturer, BMW Motorrad, has started making motorcycles and their components in Brazil and India. Branching out from their core manufacturing homeland of Germany has enabled them to not only keep costs down from a manufacturing standpoint, but to also get around some of these massive import taxes used by some countries to protect their home-grown industries.

When it comes to protection, that’s exactly what Harley is trying to do. Polaris Industries bought the rights to the Indian Motorcycle name in 2011 from UK private equity firm Stellican Limited (majority owner, at any rate). At the time they already owned Victory Motorcycles, and Victories were well-regarded bikes despite their low sales numbers. Two years after the acquisition, they announced their 111 cubic inch engine – that’s 1,820 ccs for you metric folks – and started selling motorcycles based around that “Thunderstroke” engine in August 2013. Here it is only four years later, and Polaris has shut down Victory completely to focus on the ten current models Indian offers – a number that is likely to continue to grow.

Harley-Davidson did a similar thing in 2009 when it closed the doors on Buell. Buell motorcycles were touted as technologically advanced, but they didn’t sell in numbers high enough to warrant their continued existence under the HD banner. Many riders cried foul when Harley unceremoniously dumped Erik Buell’s bikes in the dustbin of motorcycling history, but shares of $HOG began to steadily rise through the end of that year. It’s that perceived value, as represented by the stock price, that appeals to shareholders, board members and investors, not how cool or high-tech the motorcycles are.

Even though Indian is still selling a fraction of the number of motorcycles Harley is selling every year, Indian is selling more and more bikes every year while Harley is selling fewer and fewer every year. With Victory out of the picture, Polaris can concentrate all its motorcycle efforts on one brand, and believe that they are doing exactly that as hard and fast as they can.

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The Pentagon’s parking lot the morning of the annual Rolling Thunder ride.

Harley-Davidson reacted, of course, by coming out with a new engine and redesigning a number of the bikes that use their new “Milwaukee Eight” engines (there are two, air/oil cooled at 107 ci/1750 cc and liquid cooled at 114 ci/1870 cc). Nobody will know until their 2017 annual report comes out if that effort will translate into a slowdown in the loss of market share, and Harley still owns close to 50 percent of the large-displacement, cruiser-style motorcycle market in the USA. However, in the same year (2015) that Polaris’ motorcycle income surged 67 percent, Harley’s fell 5 percent.

However, if Harley continues to lose market share in the United States, long its most lucrative market, they will obviously have to do something to boost their bottom line. Unlike Honda and Polaris, Harley doesn’t have other vehicle sales to fall back on. They cannot afford to continue losing market share year after year, not even to a brand as iconic as Indian. Expanding overseas makes sense, and doing so in a fashion that allows them to minimize their tax burden and maximize their profits makes even MORE sense.

They also have to find a way to reduce labor costs. They’re doing it to a certain extent through layoffs, and Harley has reduced the number of workers at its York, Pennsylvania, facility by over 50 percent since 2009. They recently announced that another 118 jobs will leave the York factory, as the company transfers construction of its Softail line to its Kansas City factory. Nobody is under the illusion that labor costs in Thailand are anything but FAR lower than what they are in the USA, where the average union worker earns about $1,000 a week. In Thailand, the average weekly wage in manufacturing jobs is about $230 a MONTH (based on exchange rate on 24 May 2017).

There’s an old saying in scientific circles that a species that fails to adapt to its changing environment is doomed to become extinct. When it comes to capitalism, the same can be said by substituting in a few words: Any company that fails to adapt to the changing market is doomed to go bankrupt. The people running Harley-Davidson clearly see this, which is exactly why they’re following BMW Motorrad’s lead in India and building a factory in Thailand.

While the “slap in the face” referenced by Robert Martinez Jr. and the United Steelworkers may indeed be more literal than metaphorical, there are solid economic reasons why Harley-Davidson is building a motorcycle factory in Thailand. It has little to do with the American worker and everything to do with the company’s future profit-and-loss statements.


SOURCES

protective tariffs, motorcycles and the beef lobby

In April 1983, President Ronald Reagan ordered a rise in tariffs – taxes on imported or exported goods – on “heavyweight” motorcycles from 4.4 percent to 49.4 percent. If you ever wondered why the 1980s were littered with Japanese motorcycles that topped out at 699cc, now you know why. The tariffs kicked in at 700cc because half of all Japanese motorcycles imported into the US displaced 750cc. This rise in tariffs was based on the 1974 Trade Act, which gave the government broad authority to do exactly this kind of thing to help American companies.

“We’re delighted,” said Vaughn Beals, Harley-Davidson’s chairman at the time. He couched that statement by claiming The Motor Company would improve their manufacturing processes and practices, but we all know that didn’t happen until the introduction of the 80-horsepower Fathead (officially the Twin Cam 88) engine in 1999. The 15-year focus on the 1340cc Evolution engine, released in 1984, ushered out the venerable 1200cc Shovelhead power plants that HD had been relying on since the mid-1960s. The Fathead vibrated so viciously that HD revised it (but not until the 2000 model year), adding counterbalance shafts in an attempt to mollify long-complaining riders.

In other words, Harley had 20 years, give or take, to improve their product, but refused to even make a half-hearted attempt do so until Japanese motorcycles started seriously threatening their market share on America’s highways.

I digress, however, and I do not want you to think this article is out to bash Harley-Davidson. They had 50% of motorcycle registrations in the USA in 2015 for a reason. It is important to note that in 1983, they had only been out from under the disastrous, destructive leadership of AMF for about two years and were struggling for survival. Harley-Davidson is a legitimate American icon, and nothing I say can take that hard-earned status away from them.

Instead, let’s jump back and look at those tariffs. In 1983, the import duty (another word for tax) jumped from 4.4 percent to 49.4 percent. This affected about 20 percent of the over one million motorcycles imported into the USA, and about 80 percent of the motorcycles affected were manufactured in Japan. According to President Reagan’s five-year plan, the tariffs would gradually reduce from 49.4 percent in the first year to 14.4 percent in the fifth, after which they would return to 4.4 percent.

The law carved out an exception for a growing number of motorcycles manufactured in West Germany – our beloved BMWs. By the end of the program, 10,000 German motorcycles would be exempt from the import duties. British and Italian motorcycles (Triumph and Ducati) were also granted a number of exemptions, with up to 9,000 bikes allowed imported at the old 4.4 percent rate by the end of the program.

The justification for these tariffs was twofold. First, the US International Trade Commission determined that imported Japanese motorcycles were hurting Harley-Davidson. Second, Harley testified before the USITC that they planned to start manufacturing motorcycles in the 750cc segment, what today we call a “midweight” motorcycle.

Harley’s 1986 Sportster came in at 883cc, well above the 750cc mark. The only 750cc motorcycle Harley built in the 1980s was the XR750, a well-known flat-track racing bike, which also saw action in other styles of racing. When HD finally made a street version of the XR750 in 1983, they put out a Sportster with a 1000cc engine based on the XR750 design. The bike sold so poorly they made it for just two years, ending its production well before the protective tariff law’s five-year plan expired.

Harley brought back the XR in 2008, with the XR1200, but discontinued that bike after the 2012 model year due to poor sales. (It’s too bad, too, because I rode an XR1200 and it was a fantastic motorcycle.)

The “motorcycle wars” of the 1980s spurred the Big Four – Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha – to innovate. They couldn’t rely on big profits from large-displacement bikes such as Honda’s CBX – a 1047cc six-cylinder behemoth – so they simply stopped making it and many other similar bikes, focusing instead of smaller displacement motorcycles that weren’t affected by the giant tax increase.

In the end, Harley was still making motorcycles, and the Japanese companies were still importing huge numbers of bikes into the US. Nobody really won the motorcycle wars, but nobody really lost, either, except for maybe motorcycle riders who loved big-bore Japanese bikes.

Looking back, we can understand why this all happened.  Harley was hurting after a recession. Their technology was stuck in the previous generation. At the same time, the Japanese and European motorcycle manufacturers were leaping forward as fast as they could – remember, BMW introduced the first ABS-equipped motorcycle (the K 100) in 1988 – and their economies weren’t as hindered by the 1981-82 recession as the USA’s was.  It made sense for Harley to go to the government to ask for help, and the help they got in the form of protective tariffs made sense in the grand economic scheme, even if it ultimately did not show Harley-Davidson a huge amount of benefit.

Which brings us to today. As you may know, Europe’s economy is in a weird holding pattern and right on the verge of chaos. The turmoil comes from a set of poorly performing countries (PIIGS – Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) and the impending exit of Britain from the EU. There are motorcycles made in those countries, but other than Italy, none of them sport a first-line street bike manufacturer.

It may come as a surprise to you to learn that, once again, it seems as if protective tariffs may come to imported motorcycles. This time, however, the target is exclusively European motorcycles. The government institution involved is not the International Trade Commission, but the United States Trade Representative. The reason for the hoped-for protective tariffs is not a flailing Harley-Davidson, but rather the beef industry.

Wait, what?

Since 1981, the European Union has banned the importation of any meat from any animal raised with synthetic hormone treatments; it was a gradual ban that took full effect in 1989. You may have heard of BGH – bovine growth hormone – and substances like that are exactly what they’re keeping out of their food supply. Europe has a troubled history with beef in the 20th century, largely due to several outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as “mad cow disease.” Britain suffered the continent’s worst outbreak of the deadly disease, with millions of cattle slaughtered between 1986 and 1998 to prevent the spread of the disease. While BSE’s causes lie in cows consuming the remains of other cows and not the treatment of cattle with hormones (natural or synthetic), the fact remains that Europe is wary of beef, period, and imported beef is granted a high level of scrutiny.

When the EU’s ban on US beef went into full effect in 1989, the US responded by putting 100% tariffs on a variety of European food products.  Like the 1980s tariffs on imported Japanese motorcycles to protect Harley-Davidson, these tariffs on food make sense. They were a simple tit-for-tat measure to hit back against the EU’s meat ban.

What doesn’t make sense is that the USTR is now considering imposing tariffs on sub-500cc European motorcycles imported into the US over an argument about beef. After losing an appeal to the World Trade Organization, the “beef lobby” seems to think a 100% tariff on all sorts of scooters and dirt bikes as well as street bikes like the KTM RC 390 and BMW G 310 R will force the EU to rethink its ban on hormone-treated meat. This is the third time the beef lobby has tried to get these tariffs imposed; previous attempts in 1999 and 2008 failed.

When it comes to BMW, the proposed tariff is, at best, symbolic. BMW sold 13,730 motorcycles in the USA in 2016 and not a single one of them was under 500cc. BMW announced its first sub-500cc motorcycle since the R 51/3 in 1956 last year, the single-cylinder G 310 R and its sister, the G 310 GS. The 310 R isn’t even expected to make it to dealerships until the third quarter; a 100% tax on it would obviously double its $4,995 price tag and destroy any sales potential the motorcycle has.

The American Motorcycle Association has naturally spoken out against this measure, but it is incumbent upon all American motorcyclists to act when our sport is threatened unreasonably. I am all for protecting American companies when they need the help, but it is unfair to punish European motorcycle manufacturers for the EU’s meat importation policies. The AMA says the 2008 attempt to get these tariffs in place received about 600 thumbs-down comments. If that was all it took to defeat the measure, imagine what we could generate in these politically charged times.

There are three ways you can make your voice heard on this matter:

  1. Point your web browser to the USTR’s website and leave a comment about this measure on the appropriate page, which is https://www.regulations.gov/comment?D=USTR-2016-0025-0001. You must do this no later than 30 January 2017.
  2. Attend the public hearing on this issue. The hearing starts at 9.30 in the morning on Wednesday, 15 February 2017 in Rooms 1 and 2 of the US Civil Service Commission building, located at 1724 F Street NW, Washington DC 20508. This building is also known as the US Trade Representative Annex and it is on the Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places. If you attend the hearing, plan ahead and allow plenty of time for the D.C. area’s notoriously terrible traffic. 1724 F St NW is just a few blocks from the White House. Parking is limited. Farragut West is the nearest Metro station.
  3. Contact your federal senator and/or representative in the US Congress and express your opinion on this matter and ask them to get involved. If you don’t know who your senator or representative is, head over to the website whoismyrepresentative.com and plug in your ZIP code.

an ode to motorcycles

This post discusses certain behavior that may or may not be legal in all 50 states. I do not advocate breaking (or even bending) the laws of your state, county or municipality.

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There really isn’t anything you can do in a car that you can’t do on a motorcycle. Sure, there’s some stuff you can do in a truck that you can’t do on a bike, but who wants to put a new refrigerator on the back of even a large motorcycle?

Whether you ride a 125cc dirt bike or a behemoth Gold Wing, you’re part of the brotherhood (even if you’re a sister!).  We smile, we wave, we chat each other up at gas stops.  No matter how clapped-out that guy’s ride is, we’ll always say, “Hey, nice bike” and ask some questions about it.

On Sunday, I got grilled by a 10-year-old about just about anything you could ever wonder about motorcycles. It was great fun, and I even managed to work in a suggestion to him and his father that he take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse.

I’m a giant proponent of ATGATT – All The Gear All The Time – but like most people, I’ve been known to head off to the store wearing, for me, what passes for the basics – boots, jeans, jacket, gloves and helmet. The few times in my life I’ve ridden without a jacket on, I’ve felt so uncomfortable it’s not even funny.

I don’t understand why people fight against laws that require helmet use.  This, to me, is the most critically stupid thing a motorcycle rider can do.  Frankly, I don’t understand why all riders don’t use full-face (or at least flip-front) helmets to start with.  The point of a helmet is twofold – 1) to prevent your brain from suffering catastrophic injury (which it does by slowing down the rate at which your brain bangs around inside your skull – as your skull deforms the EPS lining of the helmet, it decelerates your brain) and 2) to prevent skin, eye, mouth, nose, chin and penetrating damage done by objects external to the helmet like roads and guard rails.

There isn’t a half or even three-quarters helmet made anywhere in the world that will prevent your chin from scraping along the ground if you should be separated from your motorcycle at high speed.  I simply don’t understand why all motorcycle riders don’t recognize this.

Yes, a full-face helmet is warmer in the summer than a half helmet.  You know what else it does besides make your face & head hot?  It protects you from sunburn (provided your face shield blocks UV rays, which most of them do) and windburn.  It protects you from getting smacked in the face with bugs of all sorts (imagine getting your cheek splatted by a big ol’ butterfly or cricket).  It cuts down on noise, thus protecting your hearing (though you should not rely on your helmet alone to do this).  In the winter, your helmet helps your face and head stay warmer.  A full-face helmet keeps your whole head and face dry if you’re riding in rain, sleet or snow.  (Riding in sleet is just no fun, and it’s even worse if your face is being pelted with tiny, angry slivers of ice.)  If your full-face helmet is a bright color (yellow, orange, white, silver, etc.) it gives you a lot of real estate to be seen by car drivers.

You get the point.

Motorcycles are just plain fun, too.  I discovered in the past few days that both of my bikes will get up to about 90 mph in 3rd gear before the rev limiters kick in – which is impressive considering one of those bikes has a giant heavy sidecar hanging off it (and it had a passenger in it at the time).  One of my bikes gets 40+ miles per gallon – on a bad day!  When you’re out on a motorcycle, you’re more in touch with nature.  You can smell everything, see everything better, hear the sounds around you (that is, if your bike isn’t obnoxiously loud).

I think I might be rambling at this point, but I’m having fun. Not as much fun as I’d be having if I was out riding somewhere, but I’m supposed to be working, so the 10-minute break it took to write this counts as my union 15, right?

Ride. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

gear is gear, even if it’s made in china

Some of you will remember that I fell (while walking) and hurt (sprained severely) both of my knees back in September. I’ve been diligent about going to physical therapy and am making good progress. Part of that progress is getting back on my motorcycle, which is the thing I told the doctor & physical therapists is the only thing that really mattered to me as far as recovery went.

I missed some amazing weather in the first weeks of recovery, and I’m doing my best to make up for it.

(That’s part 1 of the story.)

Some of you will also remember that I moved recently, leaving a 3BR house in Annandale for a 3BR apartment in Fairfax. There’s 2 big things I gave up in that move – a garage and a basement. The main repercussion of giving up the garage & the basement is the loss of all that storage space. The apartment has some great storage space, but it doesn’t compare to having a garage to put hooks on the wall and hang an entire year’s worth of gear, or a basement to hold … well, pretty much anything.

(Thus endeth part 2.)

Now, if you really know me, you’ll remember that my basement, and by extension my garage, had a bit of a moisture problem. The drainage around that house was very poorly done, and I ran a dehumidifier in the basement 24/7, emptying the 2-gallon reservoir literally every day. We had problems with the electricity in the house because the fuse box, mounted on the wall in the garage, constantly had water in it. The entire lower level of the house always smelled musty, and I was always worried about mold.

(You knew it – part 3 ends there!)

It was summer when we moved, so I packed a lot of my cold-weather gear in boxes or tubs for transport to the apartment. Upon opening one of those tubs, I discovered that my 2 favorite pairs of motorcycle gloves had molded.  A lot.  It broke my heart a little to throw out nearly $300 worth of gloves, but once leather molds, it just isn’t ever going to not smell like that.

I very soon bought a new pair of nice BMW sport-touring gloves from Morton’s BMW, 1 of the 3 BMW dealers that’s within an easy (if traffic-filled) ride from where I live.  Great gloves except the thumbs are freaky long, like they were made for some weirdo gray-skinned alien. What they’re not great for, though, is very cold temperatures.

Yesterday, when I rode to physical therapy, it was maybe – MAYBE – 50 degrees and very windy to boot.  Even using the heated grips on my GS, my hands were friggin’ COLD. By the time I got out of physical therapy, I knew there was no way I was riding all the way to Fredericksburg, Gaithersburg or Jessup to go buy a pair of BMW winter gloves.

Walmart? Target? That ski shop in Oakton? Wait, wait, wait.

What riders have to have amazing cold weather gear? The ones that ride those cruisers, which have (for the most part) really poor weather protection, that’s who.

Yes.  Harley riders.

Before you blow a gasket, yes, I know Harley-Davidson make some bikes that have great fairings that offer a lot of weather protection. If I can admit that, then surely you can admit that many Harleys do NOT offer excellent weather protection – and that means that on the rare occasion a Harley rider goes out on a cold day (ok ok look I’m kidding!), they have to have gear that keeps them warm.

The idea hit me to go to Patriot Harley-Davidson, which is maybe a mile from my apartment, and see what they had for cold-weather gloves.

I was happy to see 10 or 12 bikes parked in front of PHD when I pulled up. One guy that came out & got into a car gave me (on my BMW) a really intensely weird look as I parked, but hey, maybe he looks at everybody in a full-face Schuberth helmet with day-glo orange stripes on it like that. I did park discreetly as far from the front door of the dealership as I could, so as not to sully their reputation with a bike that is practical, comfortable, gets great mileage, and … oh come ON! You know I’m kidding!!

The first thing I noticed when I went in was how nice & warm the shop was. Oh, that felt great. The lady at the door greeted me pleasantly, and another woman who was messing with a t-shirt display looked up and said, “Good morning! Can I help you find something?”

HDGloves01“Yes,” I told her. “I need a good pair of winter gloves.”

“Come on right over here, we’ve got a bunch.”

So far, so good. She then proceeded to show me several different pairs of gloves, some with more sporty features, and let me try on as many as I wanted to. I found one I really liked, but realized they wouldn’t go over the outside of my jacket sleeves, so I asked for a similar glove but with a longer gauntlet.  She knew right where they were and all in all, in about 10 minutes I had selected a pair of gloves.

Knowing what I know about BMW-branded gear, I was pleasantly surprised to learn the gloves I chose were only $90. I did hesitate a little when I saw the “Made in China” tag on them, but I figured a lot of stuff is made in China & I can’t avoid all of it – and besides, my HANDS WERE FREEZING COLD!  The clerk-lady that helped me offered (kindly) to put me on their mailing list (I declined) and tried to sell me a couple other things, but I managed to resist the urge to buy anything else.

I wasn’t far from home, but just from wearing them for the few minutes, I could start gauging their quality & fit.

Well constructed. Nice lining.  That was about it in the first 5 minutes.

Last night, though, I rode down to Woodbridge for class. It took an hour & 10 minutes in rush hour traffic. I rode home, too, a 40-minute ride after dark and it was really cold.

Gloves work pretty good!  Well worth the $90 buy-in.  The outer leather shell is relatively thick & will most likely be protective in a slide. The leather is soft and feels more like fashion-weight leather, but the layer is thick enough to block out most of the wind. The inner lining is plush and warm; it’s a little thicker than I like, especially on the palm, but it’s not so thick (especially in the fingers) that it compromises feel on the controls. With my heated grips on low on the cold ride home, my hands were chilly, but comfortable. I was impressed and pleased with my purchase.

These gloves are not as nice (or as warm) as the pair of First Gear gloves I lost to mold, but they also didn’t cost as much.  They’re not as well constructed as my BMW-branded gloves, but again – they didn’t cost as much. They are a good pair of gloves for $90, no doubt about that.

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I don’t feel the urge to run out and buy a Harley, but I do have to say the brand has some decent kit. When I was in the shop, I saw a variety of gear, some of which even appealed to me – and not all of it was all leather, either, which was a big surprise. Some of it wasn’t even black! The clerk even asked me about my helmet!!!!

Anyway, I’m posting this less as a product review and more of a reminder that gear is gear, even if it’s H-D branded and made in China. The point of the gear is to keep you comfortable and protected, so wear that gear!

This is also part confession, as I’m sure my BMW-riding friends are sure to give me a healthy dose of shit – not for stepping into a Harley dealership, but for buying Harley-branded gear… and maybe getting the H-D shield tattooed on my bicep.

respect on the road is earned

ImageThis post doesn’t have anything to do with the police, I’ll say that right away 🙂

What it has to do with is respect.

As a motorcyclist, I am very, VERY aware that I am at all times in far more danger of my life ending on the open road than anybody in a car. It is a simple fact that motorcyclists face more risk than car or SUV drivers.

I am willing to accept that risk, but I like to think I act accordingly.  Even on a day as hot as today, I’m wearing a full-face helmet, a jacket with armored pads in it, gloves, sturdy leather boots, and riding pants that are not only abrasion resistant, but also have armor in them.

I ride defensively, which is to say that I am somewhat aggressive in defending my space on the road – not just my track in my lane, but my lane.  I rarely ride in a strict straight line, occasionally even weaving a bit so alert oncoming drivers (or oblivious ones behind me) that I’m there.  I have two very bright (yet properly aimed) HID lights on the front of my bike and when I get on the brakes, the back of my bike lights up like a blinky red Christmas tree.  I have a 132 dB horn that has snapped more than one inattentive driver away from their cell phone.

Most of all, however, I ride with respect.  Not just respect for the rules of the road (stop, yield, speed limit (well… mostly), RR Xing, etc.) but with respect for the danger I’m in as the next-to-smallest motorized vehicle on the road (the smallest being those crazy people on scooters). It’s the unwritten “law of the bigger vehicle” – as in, no matter what traffic law is on your side, a semi filled with milk trumps my motorcycle all day long and if he wants my spot bad enough, I’m going to give it up to him.

Which brings me to my point.  As a motorcyclist, if you want respect, you have to give respect as well.

Today as I was heading west on I-66, a group of 8-10 (maybe 12) bikers merged (legally & properly) into the rightmost lane ahead of me (I was in the middle of 3 lanes – this is in Fairfax just before the HOV lane appears).

After cleanly & safely merging into the right lane, the procession’s tail gunner (last in line, for those of you not in the know) put on his turn signal, cut off the SUV in front of me, and slowed from about 50 mph to about 25 mph, nearly earning himself a trip to the hospital because the guy in the car in front of me was (of course) yakking on his cell phone and caught completely by surprise by the rider’s move.  I had a gut feeling something was going to happen (no idea why) and as soon as I saw his turn signal, I cut my throttle, downshifted & tapped my brake level to alert the driver behind me that I was slowing down.

What the tail gunner was doing was blocking the traffic behind the procession so they could all change lanes.  He maintained his 30 mph speed until all the bikes in front of him had a chance to change lanes.  Those of us stuck behind the procession couldn’t get out of the middle lane, because traffic in the left lane was going by us at something approximating the proper speed limit.

THEN THE ASSHOLE DID IT AGAIN SO THE PROCESSION COULD GET INTO THE FAR LEFT LANE.

For the second time in about two minutes, I watched a car nearly kill the tail gunner, who continued to move down the highway at about 25 mph. Once the whole procession was in the left lane, they ramped themselves up to 55 mph, just under the posted speed limit of 60.

Traffic went past & around them, including me. I probably gave the tail gunner the finger as I went past.

The real kicker is they got off on 234 – only a few exits down the highway. They could have easily stayed in the right lane or even the middle lane & been perfectly safe since they weren’t doing the speed limit anyway.  I was getting gas, so I saw them go by, which is how I know where they got off 66. I can only guess that Mr. Death Wish Tail Gunner did a similar set of maneuvers heading into the right lane as he did heading into the left lane.

I’m still stunned, frankly, at the disrespect these riders showed everyone else on the highway this afternoon. They didn’t earn any respect for riders – as a matter of fact, fervent rider that I am, I sat there wishing I wasn’t a motorcycle rider at that moment. I was & am truly ashamed to be associated with riders such as this group (who, incidentally, were not 1%ers, but had on very slick-looking 3-piece patches on their vests so everybody behind them knew they were together). Instead of being respectful and sharing the road like responsible drivers/riders, they acted as if they were the most important machines on the move.

There wasn’t a driver around them that had any respect for them at that point, and I’m sure there was more than one driver that got home & told their friends or family about “these asshole bikers I saw” on 66 today.  THAT is what people will remember – “bikers are assholes” – the next time they come across a rider.  The next rider that driver encounters will suffer for the disrespect this procession showed today.

That next rider could very well be me.

a quick look at helmet prices

I read Wired (wired.com) just about every day, and when you read a website every day, you get used to the kinds of articles they run. Color me surprised, then, when they ran a piece on the Schuberth C3 Pro helmet! As regular readers know, I wear a Schuberth S2 most of the time (my backup is a Shoei RF1100) and really like it. Last month I was discussing helmets – and helmet prices – when the subject of expensive helmets came up.

“Do I really need a $700 helmet?” he asked.

“No,” I answered, “but there’s plenty of people who will throw that old adage ‘if you’ve got a $100 head, buy a $100 helmet’ at you. Instead of listening to either bullshit or hype, go to a couple motorcycle shops and try on a bunch of different helmets and see what fits best. Buy that one & use it for 3 months, 6 months, a year, whatever. Then decide if you need a different one.”

The only difference between a “good” helmet and a “bad” one is that ANY helmet is better than no helmet. Your head, therefore, is a bad helmet. There are some typical differences between inexpensive & costly helmets, though. As you go up in cost, the helmets tend to get lighter (compared to other models of the same style), the shells get more high-tech (more composites & less fiberglas), the components (lining, cheek pads) get nicer or have more healthy qualities to them (removable/washable, anti-bacterial) and, perhaps more important than anything else, really, is the elitism factor.

“Oh, you use an HJC?” you can sneer at somebody when you wear an Arai helmet. “How nice for you.” You can feel superior to him if you like, but the bottom line is his HJC probably protects his head just as well as your Arai. Your Arai might feel nicer, look better and last longer, but the core of most motorcycle helmets – the EPS foam inside the shell – is nearly identical across all manufacturers.

I decided to put this quick comparison list together.  I looked at base model (solid color) helmets across a variety of manufacturers. (flip) = flip-up/modular; (DS) = dual sport. The helmets are listed with their MSRP (manufacturer’s suggester retail price) and, if I was able to find one, a street (or rather, web) price. Some manufacturers – like Schuberth and Bell – don’t discount their helmets, but you may find them on sale at this dealer or that dealer.

Schuberth SR1, 899
Arai Corsair V, 800 (600)

Schuberth C3 Pro (flip), 770
Arai RX-Q, 720 (648)

Schuberth S2, 699
Shoei X-Twelve, 682 (614)
Shoei Neotec (flip), 649 (585)
Schuberth C3 (flip), 630
Arai Defiant, 620 (558)
Arai Signet Q, 620 (558)
Arai XD-4 (DS), 600 (540)

Shoei GT Air, 550 (495)
Shoei Hornet (DS), 511 (460)
Arai Vector 2, 500 (450)

Shoei Multitec (flip), 430 (300)
Nolan N104 (flip), 450 (405)
Shoei RF1100, 440 (400)
Bell RS-1, 400

Nolan N90S (flip), 370 (243)
Scorpion EXO-R2000, 370
Shoei Qwest, 367 (330)
HJC RPHA-10, 360 (324)
HJC RPS-10, 360 (270)
Nolan N43E Trilogy (flip), 360 (324)
Icon Variant (DS), 350
Nolan N90 (flip), 300 (270)

Icon Airframe Construct, 295
Scorpion EXO-1100, 290
Scorpion EXO-900, 270
Nolan N85, 250 (225)
Bell Revolver EVO, 200
Scorpion EXO-500, 200

HJC FG-17, 190 (171)
Bell Vortex, 180
Icon Airmada, 180
HJC IS-16, 170 (153)
Icon Alliance, 160 (128)
Scorpion EXO-R410, 160
HJC CL-Max II (flip), 140 (126)
Fly Trekker (DS), 136 (126)
AFX FX-39 (DS), 135 (122)
AFX FX-140 (flip), 130 (117)
HJC CL-16, 130 (117)
Scorpion EXO-400, 130 (100)
Bell Arrow, 100
Speed & Strength SS700, 100 (90)

AFX FX-90, 80 (72)

IMG_2777(this is my Schuberth S2 helmet – love it!!)

the Maximization of Cycle World magazine

Change is always hard for some people to accept, yet it is, by its very nature, completely unavoidable. When it comes to our media institutions, though, we expect them to look the same year after year, decade after decade.

CW1Motorcycle magazines are suffering the same attrition that motorcycle manufacturers are. As the recession – though improving – continues to linger, people are spending less of their discretionary money on luxuries like motorcycles and magazines. Add to that the downward spiral being suffered by all print media outlets as the internet age marches on. The advent of the iPad (& other tablet computers) has really taken a giant bite out of magazine subscriptions.

In some ways, I support that move, the move to digital, but in other ways, not so much. There is still something special about getting a magazine in the mail, seeing that 8.5×11 cover (or bigger, if you used to get Rolling Stone or Vintage Guitar, but even RS has gone to a more standard format recently) and looking at the table of contents as you walk back to the house. Plus, face it, taking your iPad into the bathroom is just a little creepy, because you never know when the NSA is going to co-opt the onboard camera & microphone and start checking out your bathroom habits.

(I bet if you weren’t worried about that before, you are now!)

I read several motorcycle magazines – Cycle WorldRider, Motorcycle Consumer News (which, honestly, is the best of the bunch) and Iron Butt Magazine (which I also work for) as well as some BMW-specific magazines – BMW Motorcycle MagazineOwners’ News (magazine of the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America) and On the Level (magazine of the BMW Rider’s Association). They all have their particular style and charm, from the stark, workmanlike aesthetic of MCN to the flashy, perhaps even Euro-trendy look of BMWMM.

(Yes, I am the kind of person who spots typos, spelling & grammar errors in magazines.)

A few months ago, I got my first copy of the redesigned Cycle World. At first, I was kind of excited about it. The new look was bright, colorful, flashy, bold and thorough – they left no stone unturned, no aspect of the magazine unchanged. After reading through the first new-look issue, though, I felt … strange. Unsatisfied. I went back and flipped through the magazine again, slowly, just looking at the graphics and layout rather than reading the articles.

That’s when it hit me. Cycle World was emulating Maxim. If you’re not familiar with Maxim, it’s kind of like a lightweight Playboy without full nudity. The magazine is filled with photos of beautiful celebrity women, often wearing nothing more than the skimpiest of swim suits or even just covering their juiciest bits with their hands/arms. The content is largely of interest to men and boys – lifestyle items like watches or fashion brands are treated as objects as much as the women between its covers are. There’s not much in the way of news or anything resembling actual journalism in it, but that’s not surprising as Maxim isn’t about news/journalism. It’s about image.

That’s what I mean when I say “the Maximization of Cycle World” – CW has become more form than function. In the current issue, September 2013 (rec’d 5 Aug), it’s not until page 34-35 that any one article takes up more than a half-page. Nearly every odd page (on the right side of the spread) is a full-page ad; the only exceptions are pages 3 (table of contents), 15 (Yamaha YZ450F “first ride” by Jimmy Lewis – and 1/3 of the page is taken up by a silly waste of space running some numbers in a grid) and 25 (has a full-spread ad taking up the bottom half of both pages). When we finally do get something substantive, Peter Egan’s piece, it’s not news but rather a column – one of Egan’s great stories about his adventures on classic and/or vintage motorcycles. Still, though, the piece is broken up by another of the silly number-based graphic grids and the 2nd page of the column has a half-page ad on it. The first actual in-depth, interesting article about anything truly motorcycle-related starts on page 40 – their look at the new Yamaha FZ-09. Even then, this brand-new (and quite impressive) bike gets a full-spread photo and just one (ad-free) spread of content – that’s 2 measly pages on a brand-new bike that’s sure to set the naked bike fans afire.

I’m not even going to get into the weird mish-mash of typefaces they’re using other than to say holy crap!

CW2One of the other “substantive” “features” compares 5 bikes to each other, but each bike gets barely a half page and the giant (and beautiful) photos mean that there’s only a couple paragraphs of content.

It’s sad, really, to see Cycle World go the route of the short attention span. While on the one hand it’s great to see them printing larger, slicker photographs, it’s a shame they’re doing so at the expense of the content. It’s as if they’re saying “Words don’t matter – only images matter.” I definitely disagree and will be letting my subscription to this magazine expire without renewal.

Until then, though, I’m going to enjoy the photos, because that’s really all that’s left to love.