Adventure-loving boomers give boost to motorcycle industry
Motorcyclists have their own gang: baby boomers.
On a nice, sunny day this spring, when you hear a bike rev, it’s more likely to be an older white man who is a doctor or lawyer, not a young rebel outlaw with skull tattoos and a rap sheet. The sweet spot for the U.S. motorcycle industry is white men in their late 40s and 50s. They are older, wealthier and a lot more mainstream than those freewheeling hippies riding choppers, selling drugs and practicing free love in the iconic 1969 film “Easy Rider.”
Thousands of local bikers or potential bikers will show up this weekend for the 11th annual Inland Northwest Motorcycle Show and Sale at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center. Last year 10,000 people attended the show and most – 68 percent – were older than 40. An easy majority of those were boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, said producer Steve Cody of Delcreek Productions.
These graying bikers also have money to spend, with incomes in the $40,000 to $75,000 range, and 25 percent earning more than $75,000 annually. That’s good because motorcycles are no longer inexpensive transportation, with price tags roaring past $10,000 to upwards of $25,000.
Wally Youmans, 69, has his 2006 Honda Gold Wing stored in his Post Falls garage and eagerly awaits warmer temperatures and dry roads.
Youmans and Mary Grose are chapter directors of the Lilac City Wings, the local chapter of the National Gold Wing Touring Association. It would cost the couple $25,000 to replace the comfy touring bike that has taken them throughout the continental U.S. and most of Canada.
“I didn’t pay that much money for my first home and it was brand new,” said Youmans, who didn’t want to show off his Gold Wing because it had a winter layer of garage dust.
He has ridden since his teenage days, starting off with a Triumph, because it was an inexpensive way to travel and he loved the open road. Inexpensive is no longer the case, but he still loves the freedom of the highway and the view from a motorcycle. A car, or the more unthinkable motor home, is too confining and obstructive for this retiree.
“When you ride a motorcycle, everything is in front of you,” he said.
The Lilac City Wings and the National Gold Wing Touring Association include all brands of bikes and trikes. The three-wheel bikes are popular with aging bikers dealing with bad knees, sore joints and questionable balance. Two Lilac City members have even stopped riding but still attend club social events. The average age of members is about 50, Youmans estimates. Most are married. The club allows children at its events, including summer campouts, but he said most parents prefer to take mini-vacations and leave their children at home.
The motorcycle show is prime recruiting territory for the club, which offers attendees a three-year membership discount. Youmans would like to see younger members and those who ride bikes other than Gold Wings. He’s excited that the club is getting more Harley-Davidson riders to add diversity.
The group meets monthly and focuses on social events such as dinner rides, game nights and movies. They have two campouts each summer and meet over the Fourth of July for an annual state rally, which is in Omak this year. Just this month, Youmans spearheaded a charity effort to collect diapers for the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery.
Youmans has been in the club since about 1990. He worries that it will age-out of existence because fewer young people are riding bikes and that the rides are too expensive in the bad economy when people are trying to save their homes. He added that the younger generations aren’t joiners and that’s why all kinds of social clubs have dwindling membership.
The motorcycle industry is acutely aware of the aging demographic of bike owners: white men in their 40s to 60s. The baby boomers are the largest and wealthiest generation in history. The number of American men aged 40 to 49 is set to decline through the early 2020s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s why companies such as Harley-Davidson are aggressively courting younger men, non-Caucasian men and women. As pointed out in a November 2013 Forbes article on Harley-Davidson stock, the iconic company is facing a demographic growth problem.
“Realistically, there is no replacing white baby boomer men,” the article reports. “And this means a very rough decade ahead for Harley-Davidson.”
This week’s motorcycle show and sale has something for everyone including five dealers, and vendors selling clothing and accessories, said Cody, the show producer. Besides new bikes for sale, the show will include a display of classics by Northwest Classics Vintage Bikes. Also attending is Zacky’s Custom Rods, the premiere Northwest bike builder that created the custom Seattle Seahawks “Hawk Bike” that was sold for charity in 2013. Attendees can win a trip to the Buffalo Chip in Sturgis, the annual August biker mecca in the South Dakota Black Hills.
Baby boomers outnumber younger bikers at the weeklong rally that attracts more than 400,000 people to the small town. Some joke that boomers are buying bikes for their midlife crisis instead of little red sports cars. According to a 2009 article in the Rapid City Journal, boomers also account for the most accidents in South Dakota. That’s why safety groups in the state try to persuade biker boomers to wear helmets and protective clothing as they roll into the Black Hills.
“We’re seeing accidents and fatals with dealer plates,” said J.C. Carpenter, director of the South Dakota Office of Highway Safety of the new motorcycles often involved. “They’re in the prime of their life looking at their retirement years and are seriously hurt or killed on a motorcycle.”
The Spokane show also emphasizes safety and includes several local vendors that provide motorcycle training classes and state Department of Licensing motorcycle endorsement testing.
Mandy Talkington, the rider test and training program coordinator for Westside Motorsports, said it’s not just older riders who need help with their skills. As the number of riders increase, everyone could use a refresher course. In Washington, riders who pass the 25-question written test earn a 90-day learning permit with no on-bike training required.
“A lot of people assume that if they’ve been on a 50 cc dirt bike in the farm fields they can handle a 1,300 cc hog and ride to Sturgis,” Talkington said. “It takes years to develop your skills. It’s an art and a skill.”
Each year at the show, Westside Motorsports signs up nearly 100 people for its training classes.
In addition to trikes, many riders, especially older women, are taking an interest in Can-Am Spyder bikes, which are a trike but with two wheels in front and one in the back. Westside plans to start selling Spyders and providing training classes by summer. Talkington said driving a Spyder takes a different skill set than a regular trike. Women like them because it takes less upper-body strength to control them.
Because of the popularity of motorcycles with an older, more responsible crowd with money, many towns are happy to host bike rallies on a smaller scale than Sturgis. That includes Spokane Valley.
The first Pacific Northwest HOG (Harley Owners Group) Rally, sponsored by Lone Wolf Harley-Davidson, will be July 24-27 in Spokane Valley.
More than 1,000 Harley riders from Washington, Oregon and Idaho are expected.
So in the words of Steppenwolf, “Get your motor runnin’. Head out on the highway.”