HARWINTON, CT – It doesn’t take psychographic analysis to know that the motorcycling community has changed significantly over the past two decades. As odd as it may seem, while it sometimes appears that there are more motorcycles on the roads on pleasant summer days, a contrary argument can be made that enthusiasm for riding isn’t as strong as in years past.
Baby boomers continue to vacate the recreation due to age, while Gen Zers aren’t replacing them. The only young people on bikes who seem to draw attention these days are the ones who gather in noisy swarms on their dirt bikes and stage street takeovers in cities.
Changing interests are one reason for the lack of younger riders. Who needs to grip handlebars when intoxicating entertainment can be found on a smaller, less expensive device that you can fit in the palm of your hand. The rising cost of new motorcycles certainly plays a role, too, and so does the fact that those currently in early adulthood were coddled as kids.
When I took up riding nearly 20 years ago (at age 51), it was safe to generalize that young riders were bolder and preferred high-performance sport bikes. Older riders favored heavyweight cruisers, notably the rolling sofas made by Harley-Davidson. Neither is as true anymore.
There were other types of bikes back then to be sure – retro models and dual sports – but there wasn’t the variety that exists now. Today, there are more adventure, sport touring, standard and naked models. Indeed, in terms of model choice, now may be the best time ever to go motorcycle shopping.
It was the release of the new and revived Moto Guzzi Stelvio adventure model that took me to Hamlin Cycles in Bethel recently. The chance to meet with friends for breakfast and dispel the winter blahs through tire-kicking seemed to be a wise move.
The Stelvio was certainly gorgeous, although it’s too tall for me to easily throw a leg over. That wasn’t surprising. Its predecessor was too tall as well. What did surprise me during the visit, though, were dealership owner Jim Hamlin’s observations about Gen Zers and sport bikes.
“That part of the market is gone,” said Hamlin, referring to adults in their 20s who prefer sport bikes. “The ones that are (riding) are after a ‘safe’ motorcycle.”
While “safe” isn’t word associated with motorcycling, Hamlin had a point. Having been raised by helicopter parents, Gen Z adults are more likely to buy a mid-sized Royal Enfield than Kawasaki or Yamaha crotch rocket. “Today’s younger motorcycle buyer is not interested in speed. They’re not after an adrenalin rush. It’s a changing of the generations,” Hamlin said.
Mike Keehan, co-owner of Yankee Harley-Davidson in Bristol, has noticed the change as well and cites the economy as a reason. “I don’t think I see many younger people,” he said. “There’s not as much disposable income.”
All manufacturers are adjusting to the changing marketplace, but nowhere is evolution more evident than at Harley-Davidson. Under the leadership of Jochen Zeitz, the legendary brand has been barreling into premium niche status. It has trimmed its dealer lineup and aimed its model lineup on higher-end consumers.
There used to be nine Harley-Davidson stores in Connecticut. That number has been slimmed to six. And foot traffic by the merely curious has declined. “People that walk in now are more ready to buy. They’re not tire-kickers,” Keehan said.’
Even with Harley-Davidson owners, the need for speed isn’t what it one was. “We have less motor jobs being done,” he said, referring to big-dollar, high-performance upgrades. “If I get one or two of those a year, it’s a big deal.”
Harley-Davidson recently revealed its 2024 lineup, announcing four new models that ranged in price from $25,999 to $42,999. Examine the company’s 2024 lineup and there are no small bikes and only three mid-sized models, far fewer than in the past.
The 883cc Sportsters that were long of part of Harley-Davidson’s portfolio no longer exist. Its smallest motor is 975cc. Harley’s least expensive model is the Nightster that starts at $11,999.
Keehan recalled working 20 years ago at Gengras Harley-Davidson in East Hartford. “There was a bike every $500,” he said, noting that the least expensive model started at $8,000 with prices then climbing over the model range at $500 increments.
In other words, there was something for nearly everyone. Those days are gone. Unless you have deep pockets, don’t bother shopping Harley. The company did bring out an adventure model in 2021 with the Pan America – a new CVO version for 2024 starts at $28,399 – but its lineup is centered on cruisers.
Keehan said he was “shocked” by Harley-Davidson’s pricing strategy for the 2024. It has dramatically reduced the MSRP on some models. Fo example, the base price of a Nightster was cut $1,500 from $13,499 in 2023. Nonetheless, the company no longer seems to be targeting or making it offerings affordable for all riders.
It may not be a stretch to say the motorcycle business in the United States is at a watershed moment. With cars and insurance being so costly, and younger people driving less, perhaps a cultural shift will occur. Like in so many other countries, might motorcycles become viewed more as transportation than as a personal statement and weekend fun – provided the offerings are affordable?
(Harley-Davidson photos courtesy of Harley-Davidson.)
(A version of this column originally appeared in the Republican-American newspaper on Jan. 27, 2024.)