Two friends of mine neatly bookend the gentleman biker market. Joe—a motorcyclist who lives in California with a cellular phone affixed permanently to his ear—rides a Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic. Randy—a longtime cyclist who longs for the open road and only tolerates the office—lives in Utah and is passionate about his Honda VFR750F. Though both have owned other motorcycles (Randy, a cushy, practical BMW touring bike that in the end proved too staid; Joe, a Triumph Thunderbird so frisky "there wasn't much between me and God, as I discovered several times"), each knows exactly why he has settled on his present mount.
Joe's Softail is an attention-grabbing, retro-look bike that epitomizes the chrome-and-rumble appeal of cruisers, the most popular type of motorcycle, and Harley-Davidsons in particular. Joe is 41 now and looks at his Harley as an expression of defiance against aging: MYD LYFE reads his vanity license plate. He loves his Harley because, like scuba-diving and double-diamond skiing, it forces him to focus his attention on something besides business. "No way in hell can I have a cell phone attached to me on my bike. You can't think on a Harley. You can only experience."
Randy's red Honda VFR750F, a racer-style bike often called one of the finest all-around motorcycles ever made, defines the sexy, high-performance side of the sport. "Like golf," he says, "I'm saving Harleys for later in life." He dotes on the performance his Honda dishes out. "It's nimble, and it's really fast. I've been up to 145 on it." He has ridden the bike to Colorado and British Columbia; and in March 1997 he had it trucked to Orlando, where he rode in the Daytona Bike Week.
Motorcycling has made a stunning rebound in popularity in the past few years. More Americans now ride motorcycles than ever before—27 million, in fact, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC). Based on figures from DJB Associates, street motorcycle sales reached more than 233,000 in 1997; and according to MIC research, they have jumped 40 percent since 1992.
The most surprising aspect of this resurgence is that it is being fueled not by rebellious youth but by thousands of Joes and Randys. Rubbies, they are called, Rich Urban Bikers. The median age of Harley-Davidson customers is now 43; 10 years ago it was 34. "Gentleman bikers are one of the fastest-growing parts of the motorcycle market," says Greg Tacchetti, who, as sales and service manager of GEICO Indemnity Co.'s Cycle-Gard line of motorcycle insurance, tracks such trends closely. "We know nineteen-year-olds aren't buying those $17,000 Harleys."
Joe is among the majority of motorcyclists in owning a cruiser. They account for more than half of all street motorcycles sold in the United States, and the credit for their runaway popularity is laid by most observers on the Milwaukee doorstep of Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Its low-seated, all-American, black-and-chrome bikes personify motorcycling to legions of enthusiasts (although the machines themselves are low-tech in comparison to many other bikes on the market).
With the help of the Motorcycle Group of Petersen Publishing Co., we chose five bikes that we felt were emblematic of motorcycling today in terms of cachet, visual appeal, mechanical function, and riding characteristics. Our panel of experts consisted of: Kevin Smith, editorial director of Petersen Publishing Company's Motorcycle Group; Mitch Boehm, editor of Motorcyclist; Art Friedman, editor of Motorcycle Cruiser; and Kent Kunitsugu, editor of Sport Rider.
Harley-Davidson Heritage Springer
Introduced last year, this top-of-the-line Harley Softail (about $17,000) is the ultimate retro-bike—a factory custom cruiser with a lineage that can be traced directly to 1940s models. The classic design—teardrop gas tank, loads of chromed metal, fat whitewall tires, old-style springer fork front suspension (first employed 50 years ago), fully skirted front fender, saddle-style seat, and fringed saddlebags—is meant to push every nostalgia button. That's complemented by the lack of a windshield (purists scoff at them) and a seat that's less than 26 inches high, as low as Harley goes. "An icon on wheels," Kevin Smith calls this ne plus ultra Harley. "It's the most nostalgic motorcycle on the road," adds Art Friedman.
Like all Harleys, the Heritage Springer is relatively heavy (690 lbs.) and slow, but attitude—meaning a whiff of the renegade lifestyle—counts more in a cruiser than speed and technology. "Function has never been the key to Harleys, style has," says Boehm. The heart of the Softail, like all Harleys, is the company's signature chugging, V-twin, air-cooled pushrod engine, with its "potato-potato" sound cherished by aficionados. It's had some of the more rudimentary elements tweaked; for example, it has a new clutch that requires less lever effort, but this bike is still low-tech. It employs a belt drive, whereas many of the high-end models today are shaft-driven. "It's old technology, but they've made it work pretty well," says Mitch Boehm.
Of course the Heritage Springer rides like a Harley—which is to say on the rough side with ample vibration. "You sit in the seat and it vibrates and you bounce, and the shifter throw is long," says Boehm. As for the suspension, "Big bumps smack your butt a bit."
All the same, there's a positive side to this basic, bulky beast, something that Kent Kunitsugu calls "a stark mechanical feel." Says Boehm, "You feel like you're in control of a wild, bucking old thing, not some super-refined appliance of a motorcycle."
And if the handling is less than extraordinary, well that's a Harley characteristic as well. "It's a big, heavy motorcycle," says Friedman. "You have to be deliberate when you turn it, you have to give yourself a little space to stop." Kunitsugu says it has "very lazy steering geometry, it wants you to ride it at a very lazy pace." Which is fine, because the engine "doesn't like to be ridden above sixty-five," states Boehm. "There's a sweet spot up to about there, but then the vibration gets worse."
But the point of this bike isn't to go by in a blur, but to draw attention to yourself. That's the essence of the Harley experience, according to our panel of experts, and the Heritage Springer is the utmost expression of the ethos. "This motorcycle is about plodding along getting looked at," says Kevin Smith. Information: 414-343-4806; www.harley-davidson.com.
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic
It's a mistake to label this retro-look cruiser a Harley knockoff, even though it has the signature elements: teardrop-shaped gas tank, wide seat, chromed parts, flaring fenders, fat tires, and low seat. "Harley didn't invent the styling," says Boehm, pointing out that Indian as well as other now-defunct U.S. manufacturers made bikes that had the look associated today with Harley.
Besides, this bike, which was introduced in 1996, is aimed at cycle enthusiasts who wouldn't be caught dead riding a Harley. "There's not an awful lot of crossover between buyers of Harleys and buyers of Japanese machines," says Kevin Smith. But if some enthusiasts choose this motorcycle as an anti-Harley statement, others just like the price: less than $11,000, or some $6,000 less than the Heritage Springer. "It's a real bargain," says Boehm.
What really sets this bike apart are the sly refinements Kawasaki has folded into its standard cruiser design. A liquid-cooled—instead of an air-cooled—eight-valve overhead cam engine, which provides smoother, quieter operation; wide floorboards; and the absence of the rough bolts that are so conspicuous on a Harley. "Everything's just a little more smoothly finished," says Friedman. The people who buy a Vulcan "appreciate the technology and the engineering," says Boehm. They've made the Vul- can 1500 Classic, along with the retro-look Honda A.C.E. (American Classic Edition), the best-selling non-Harley cruiser.
The Vulcan's polish becomes evident during a ride. The seating layout "is more comfortable than a Harley's, obviously designed to fit a rider," says Friedman. The ride itself is smoother, the handling a little more responsive, the controls lighter, the shifting slicker, the suspension better; the brakes are more effective and easier to squeeze. "In just about any measurable way, everything works a little nicer, and that makes this an easier motorcycle to ride," says Boehm. "The feeling it gives you is completely different from a Harley. The only thing that is really the same is the thump-thump of the V-twin engine." What is odd is that although Kawasaki's engine is a little larger than Harley's, it is so detuned that the 1500 Classic is actually slower than the equivalent Harley, even though the Vulcan weighs less. Make no mistake—that is entirely calculated. "It is interesting to note that the slower the Japanese have made their cruisers, the better they've sold," says Smith.
But even that emblematic engine hides a bit of engineering finesse, a balancer that at higher speeds tones down the rumble and bounce inherent in a cruiser. "On the highway, where the shaking and vibration would get pretty old in a hurry, the engine smoothes out," says Friedman.
"Kawasaki designed this bike in the Japanese way, with all the refinement issues tended to in a way that Harley would never bother with or doesn't want to," says Smith. "But it's still in the cruiser mode. Nobody picks a cruiser for its functional attributes or its performance. You're drawn to the style and the culture and the aura. It's still about chugging along." Information: 714-770-0400; www.kawasaki.com.
BMW R 1200 C
No more distinctive cruiser exists than this idiosyncratic bike, BMW's first non-touring motorcycle. (The company has been famous since the twenties for comfortable, high-performance, sporty touring bikes.) The R 1200 C has been the talk of the motorcycle world since its introduction last summer because it thumbs its nose at numerous cruiser styling customs. The flat boxer-style engine (so-called because it has opposed twin cylinders that project from the side of the bike), raked Telelever front suspension dominating the front end, and deliberately exposed and displayed chassis members make the R 1200 C look conspicuously unlike every other cruiser.
"As far as traditional cruiser styling cues, the R 1200 C is extremely unorthodox," says Kent Kunitsugu. "It is almost like a futuristic high-tech cruiser," says Mitch Boehm. "It sure looks weird," says Kevin Smith. You can imagine the reaction among BMW traditionalists, who, says Friedman, "consider themselves as a rule very practical riders who buy bikes for functional reasons. But this is not a practical bike."
All this might seem the kiss of death in the retro-conscious cruiser world, but instead it instantly made the R 1200 C one of BMW's best-selling motorcycles. It's a niche of one, a bike that Friedman calls "a tremendous success." "I'd say competing with other cruiser entries is not a priority for BMW," says Smith. "They're just trying to get their piece of a growing pie."
For its first cruiser, BMW took its comfortable, fast, quick-handling, performance-oriented touring machines and, says Art Friedman, "dumbed them down" to cruiser standards. "They wanted plenty of road feel, and they got it," he says. The result is lots of low-end torque for quick acceleration, but little top-end power, slower steering, stiffer suspension, and plenty of vibration. "It's a lot slower than BMW's other bikes with the same engine, and the handling and ride aren't nearly as good," says Friedman.
But compared with the competition, Smith says the R 1200 C offers a "sophisticated ride and handling package." The electronic fuel injection is not only standard but a first among cruisers; the antilock brakes hadn't previously been available on any other cruiser; a fully automat- ic choke eliminates the conventional hand lever; and the steering system is "quicker and more responsive than most other cruisers," says Friedman. And though its engine is smaller (1,170cc) than that of most cruisers, performance is the same because the R 1200 C, at 528 pounds, is much lighter than most bikes in its class. "It's the sportiest of the big, long cruisers," says Smith.
"BMW knew exactly what it was doing," he adds, citing the price tag, just under $14,000—which puts the R 1200 C squarely between Kawasaki's Vulcan 1500 Classic and the Harley-Davidson Heritage Springer. And that includes BMW's Motorcycle Roadside Assistance Plan. It is a civilized touch, but like everything else about this bike, it was also a lightning rod. Mainstream cruiser owners consider themselves a self-reliant lot, and would rather eat their saddle than call for help. Information: 800-345-4BMW; www.bmwusa.com.
Widely regarded as the most beautiful motorcycle ever built, this Italian bullet is "pretty much the epitome of a performance motorcycle," says Kunitsugu. As such, it is the lust object of every aficionado who has a healthy dose of machismo in his heart and a touch of the poet in his soul. That there are so few sold in the United States (about 500 in 1997) only intensifies the craving for this light, fast, costly—about $16,500—incredibly low-slung road rocket. "The 916 is very much a two-wheeled Ferrari," says Kevin Smith. "It defines the category of sport-bike."
When this expensive-to-maintain street racer was introduced in 1994, it changed the image of sport-bikes. Until then the category was considered a specialty item, built strictly for speed, maneuverability, and attracting attention. These bikes trace their lineage back to the 1970s in Italy, when so-called café racers—performance-enhanced motorcycles—sped exuberantly from café to café: another espresso or slug of grappa, and back in the saddle.
The 916, however, wrapped design flair, cutting-edge technology, and testosterone-fed swagger in one high-performance package. The trestle-frame construction and angular rather than rounded styling was a radical departure, as was what Kunitsugu calls "the 916's styling calling card"—a daring rocket-type nose with built-in dual headlights, sweeping front fairing, and underseat exhaust system. "Before, sport-bike styling was patterned after actual racing machines, whereas the 916 defined its own look," says Kunitsugu. Instantly it became the ultimate sport-bike, even for those cyclists whose abilities weren't up to it.
"The 916 can be ridden slowly without a problem, it just doesn't like it," says Kunitsugu. "There are people who buy one just for the image it projects." Adds Smith, "I could happily sit and look at it."
But the 916 is really about performance. It weighs just 435 pounds and is therefore very nimble. Even that ostensibly archaic V-twin—the same engine found on most cruisers—was tweaked into otherworldliness. "They brought the performance level of the V-twin far above what it had ever been before," says Kunitsugu. "Kind of the opposite of Harley, this thing was designed not to shake," says Friedman.
Still, there are a few things you should know about the Ducati before you get carried away by it. It was born and bred to drive snaking roads at high speeds, not for tooling around town or cruising down the highway. "With performance motorcycles it's all about going around corners, and that's the 916's strong suit," says Kunitsugu. "Up to this point its handling capabilities are pretty much unparalleled." Says Friedman, "The 916 expects you to live on a twisty road, not drive to one."
The 916 also expects that you will be able to handle the considerable demands it makes. Like all sport-bikes, this Ducati requires the rider to bend far forward, hands resting on low-set handlebars. The posture requires strength and endurance to maintain. "Basically, you're making love to a gas tank," says one rider.
"The clutch pull is very stiff," says Kunitsugu, ticking off the other riding challenges this bike poses. "The seat is thin and gets uncomfortable after a short period of time if you're just putting along, and there is no wind protection from the fairing because it's made for aerodynamics; it wants to be in a performance environment."
What sets the 916 apart is the way it synthesizes sport-bike tradition with trendsetting design and engineering, how "form and function coexist," states Kunitsugu. There are faster super-bikes, but none are better overall performers. The reason, says Kunitsugu, is that the 916 "communicates what's going on between you and the road so much better than any other motorcycle. It performs so well that it allows you to explore outer limits." Says Smith, "You know exactly what it's doing, so you don't have the sense that you have to leave a lot of safety margin." Information: 800-231-6696; www.ducatiusa.com.
Honda GL1500SE Gold Wing SE
Posh, wide, and comfortable, this Barca-Lounger of the motorcycle world is considered the perfect expression of the touring bike: the benchmark touring machine. That's probably why it is the best-selling non-Harley motorcycle.
Touring bikes (sometimes referred to as full-dress tourers, or simply as dressers by Harley aficionados) are designed for sedate long-range travel for two people. The Gold Wing SE, evolved from the original and far less specialized Gold Wing of the '70s, delivers automotive comforts, solid engineering, and trouble-free operation. "For 700 miles down an interstate, there isn't a better motorcycle," says Friedman.
The $17,499 base price of this Honda cycle buys you comfortable seats, cruise control, lots of storage room, foot-warming vents, CB radio and intercom, stereo sound system, as well as windscreen and fairing large enough to turn aside flights of geese. "It has everything but cupholders," says Friedman. (You can bet Honda engineers are working on that.)
But all that creature comfort shouldn't blind you to the fact that the Gold Wing SE, according to Friedman, is "a marvel of engineering." The six-cylinder, 1520cc engine, coupled to a shaft drive, is so quiet and reliable that "appliance-like" is an apt label for this bike. "There's a high level of technology and it's very sophisticated in its way, but it's all aimed at quiet, smooth, trouble-free, long-range riding," says Smith. "It is targeted at carrying the riders as far as possible and demanding as little as possible from them." To that end, there's even a reverse gear, virtually unheard of in a motorcycle, and automatic transmission is rumored to be on the way.
The handling is superb for a bike this big. Its 816 pounds are so well balanced that "it is unbelievable how easy it is to manage at low speeds," says Kunitsugu. "The thing works amazingly well for a motorcycle that heavy," offers Friedman. "It goes around corners surprisingly well, it even stops pretty well." Says Smith, "It does everything a motorcycle is supposed to do while protecting you from the wind and keeping you from being ruffled and bothered as you run up thousand-mile days." Moreover, it's not slow. "It's faster than most cars—by a lot," Smith adds. Information: www.honda.com.
Posh, wide, and comfortable; designed for two people interested in long trips at a sedate pace. Harley-Davidson and Honda dominate this lightly contested, anti-hip category. Price: $12,000-$18,000.
The Hell's Angels look, and the hottest category. Attitude and style are primary, not speed, technology, or comfort (the tilted-back riding posture takes getting used to). Harley-Davidson typifies the style and dominates the field. Price: $4,500-$20,000.
Cutting-edge technology, design flair, and swagger meet in these light, fast, sexy, incredibly low-slung motorcycles. $6,000-$24,000.
Hybrid bikes: part cruisers, part sport-bikes. Ten different manufacturers, including Ducati, BMW, Honda, and Suzuki, each with its own wimp-to-wicked quotient. Price: $2,600-$16,000.
Street bikes with dirt-bike souls (and disappointing sales). They're legal on public thoroughfares, but the knobby tires and ungainly high stance enable them to hop nimbly off-road. Price: $2,000-$13,000.
Langlitz custom motorcycle jackets epitomize black-leather cool. The Portland, Oregon, company makes only 30 jackets each week, which is why the waiting time for one is currently 19 months. Prices start at $650 for the Cascade model; $750 for Columbia, the most popular style.Customers mail in their measurements, and most opt for black top-grain cowhide or goatskin, though other colors are available. (The Portland shop has stock sizes, but the price is the same as for custom-made jackets.) There are a host of options available—gun pocket ($20), epaulets ($30), fringes ($75), even a fur collar ($50). Langlitz Leathers, 503-235-0959; fax 503-235-0049; www.langlitz.com.
The Harley Mystique
Most observers lay the credit for the renewed popularity of motorcycling on the doorstep of Harley-Davidson, the Milwaukee company that last year made over 132,000 motorcycles. When you think Harleys, you think of cruisers: low-seated, all-American, black-and-chrome bikes that are ridden in a canted-back position. The appeal of the Harley defies pigeonholing. Rebels—both real (The Hell's Angels) and celluloid (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider)—have ridden Harleys, but so have all-American types: Pat Boone released a CD in 1997 entitled In a Metal Mood that featured the Christian crooner posed bad-boy-style with tattoos and black sunglasses next to a flame-tanked Harley. According to a 1997 New York Times article, many owners love the product so much they buy stock in the company. "A lot of the popularization of motorcycling over the last ten to fifteen years has to do with Harleys," says Motorcyclist editor Mitch Boehm. "They've helped make motorcycling mainstream, especially through people like Malcolm Forbes and Jay Leno."
Learning to Ride Safely
Motorcycles are often more powerful on a pound-per-horsepower basis than cars, and they accelerate faster too. In short, there is scant margin for error on a bike, which is why almost every new rider dumps his bike at least once within six months of buying it. "A motorcycle is an expensive toy and a dangerous one," says Cycle-Gard's Greg Tacchetti, himself a rider. "I can't stress enough the importance of taking a motorcycle safety course." There are practical reasons for taking the course too: Thirty-nine states waive all or part of their testing procedure for a motorcycle license or endorsement if an approved course is successfully completed, and few insurers will cover a new rider who doesn't take a course. Most riders take the 15- to 20-hour basic safety course through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (800-833-3995), which has trained about 1.3 million motorcyclists since 1973 and is funded by the four Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, BMW, and Ducati. There are approximately 1,000 affiliated but independently owned schools in all 50 states; the average cost is $150.
Taking a Test Drive
Before you buy a bike you might want to rent one for a weekend or even go vacation-touring to see how deep your interest runs. Package tours like these have recently caught fire among North American riders. Werner Wachter, cofounder with his wife, Coral, of Austria-based Edelweiss Bike Travel, says that the number of Americans traveling to Europe to tour with his company has increased 15 to 20 percent annually for the past six years. Edelweiss (West Coast: 800-582-2263; fax 760-249-3857, or East Coast: 800-877-2784; fax 516-746-6690) and Beach's Motorcycle Adventures (716-773-4960; fax 716-773-5227) are the oldest and biggest motorcycle-only tour firms.
"Statistics show that a high percentage of accidents occur in the first six months of riding," says GEICO Indemnity Co.'s Greg Tacchetti, explaining why new riders find it difficult to get insurance through the major companies.
"Sometimes we even have to tell our good automobile insurance customers to come back in a year, after they have riding experience," adds Tacchetti.
New riders are generally defined as those with less than a year's motorcycle riding experience, but it takes three years before insurance restrictions begin to fall away, surcharges are dropped, and discounts kick in. GEICO'S Cycle-Gard rate "swing," says Tacchetti, is 20 to 30 percent after a year. After three years, he says, riders with excellent records, particularly those older than 40, can expect a bevy of mature and preferred rider discounts, such as 10 percent off for passing an approved safety course; 10 percent off for experience and age; 20 percent off for owning a touring bike.
To show how rates vary, we asked Tacchetti to calculate the insurance premium for a new rider, a 45-year-old married man who lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and owns a 1998 Harley Softail Custom. We requested a basic policy, one that includes $100,000/$300,000 liability coverage, $50,000 property damage, and comprehensive and collision with a $250 deductible. The cost: $1,207 for a year's coverage, assuming completion of a safety course. The same rider with three years' experience would pay $598.
Most novice motorcyclists turn to specialty insurers, such as ISU-The May Agency in Bloomington, Indiana (800-313-0285). The firm issues policies underwritten by Progressive Insurance, which claims to be the largest motorcycle and auto insurance underwriter of independent agents in the country. National accounts agent Patti Powell says, "Progressive will insure almost everyone," including new riders.
But riders with less than two years' experience qualify only for the company's standard program, which means higher rates. If our 45-year-old married rider—this time living in Beverly Hills with that same 1998 Harley Softail Custom—had no experience, ISU-The May Agency would charge him an annual premium of $1,133 for the same policy that our Chevy Chase rider had. With three-years' riding experience, the premium falls to $907.
It's important to consider insurability when deciding on a particular motorcycle, whether you're a novice or an experienced rider. "We won't touch anybody who wants to insure a Ducati 916 and has never owned a bike before," says Tacchetti.
For information on GEICO Indemnity Co.'s Cycle-Gard line of motorcycle insurance, call 800-442-9253.