A View from the North

I was thrilled when Robert Pandya suggested contributing a Canadian perspective to the Give A Shift conversation. As a career marketer, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by this glimpse at an industry pulling together to save itself. But what really had me fist pumping at my iPhone when I heard him speak about GAS on a popular podcast (Motorcycles and Misfits), recently, was that I am a new rider. I may not conform exactly to the picture we all see when we close our eyes and imagine a rookie motorcyclist but, trust me, I am that guy. Heading into my fifth season, it’s all very fresh for me, the joys and the obstacles, the learning and the spending. I am, in a sense, the ghost of the industry’s Christmases yet to come (minus, perhaps, the hooded cloak), and I have a message for them. 

But first things first: how is the motorcycle industry actually doing in Canada? The good news is that motorcycle registrations have been climbing, here, rising close to 9% from 2012 to 2016 according to government data. And dealer sales have followed, according to an official industry source; in dollars, motorcycle and accessory sales rose about 16% over the same period. As in the U.S., an anomalous spike in sales about a decade ago may have flooded the market with used bikes for a while, to the consternation of manufacturers and their dealers, but on the basis of the vectors alone, you might conclude that the Canadian motorcycling industry is recovering nicely. 

The bad news is, as ever in this vast country, a persistent lack of critical mass. There are fewer bikes in all of Canada than in the state of California and it’s a seasonal business here besides, so the business is actually spread pretty thinly. As a marketer, I look at more sales and fewer dealers as a sign of shrinking margins, something small markets don’t tolerate very well. With absolute sales volumes so low in comparison to America’s, it’s not hard to imagine that selling affordable lightweight bikes excites nobody, even if it means growing the sport. Retailers don’t tend to play a long game at the best of times; stocking a bike with $100 worth of margin in it and 10,000km service intervals must seem like fiscal suicide.

And maybe that’s the best reason for GAS to think about Canada as it plots a course forward. As a volume opportunity, the motorcycle industry should no more dismiss this country than it should, well, California. And we do love our powersports here, all year-round (motorcycling can only dream of being as organized in Canada as snowmobiling is). But more than anything, Canada provides a snapshot of what the future looks like if America’s industry continues to shrink… a place where riders are an oddity, dealerships are sparse, and transportation planners think of motorcycles as a footnote, if they think of them at all. 

From that point of view, here’s what Give-A-Shift’s 5-point agenda looks like from the Great White North:


While this statement might generate howls of protest, affordability for millennials is even more of a red herring in Canada than in the United States. Here, that generation is actually earning a little more money than its parents did at the same age (that’s according to our federal tax authority, and it’s not the case in the U.S.). Public subsidies for university and college mean that student debt can be less burdensome, depending on your field of study. And adjusted for inflation, a 300cc standard motorcycle today costs the same as it did in 1970, while the interest rates to finance it are absurdly low. No, when I talk to potential new riders, I don’t hear grumbling about the price of bikes. What I hear, ironically, is shock at how affordable they are, compared to what they imagined was the case. That’s a failure of marketing, not of economics. 

What I wonder, though, is how much the real opportunity to generate desire lies in geography. As I’ll touch on later, Canada is an extremely urban country, with a third of the population living in just three cities (for young people, that number is likely higher still). Yet, if I was a young professional living in an overpriced condo in downtown Toronto and lusting after a new Triumph Bonneville, I’d be looking at a journey of 60 km or so to see one in the flesh. For someone without a car, that’s a big ask. Yet it’s easy to understand why dealers, operating on tight margins as it is, wouldn’t dream of locating in the heart of the city, with its choking traffic and sky-high rental rates. It’s a bigger problem than it seems. 

Maybe that’s why low-volume Tesla, for example, doesn’t display its cars in the same places as it services and delivers them. If I were an OEM in this country, I’d be thinking about this a lot. 

Autonomous Vehicles

This is a global issue, and Canada’s concerns are likely not going to be unique. What may differ here is timing. Autonomous vehicles are not nearly the topic of daily conversation in Canada that they seem to be in the United States, and that’s likely because we know they’re likely still many years away for us. Given the modest size of this market, the lack of a home-grown industry, and our sometimes hostile climate (if you’ve experienced the incessant beeping of a snow-caked parking sensor, you’ll be nodding in agreement), this country is likely to follow rather than lead in the adoption of autonomous vehicles. 

In the meantime, as distracted driving eclipses impaired driving as the leading cause of traffic deaths in this country, I wonder if autonomous vehicles might not turn out to be so bad. Either way, Canadian riders will watch with interest as the world figures this out. It just isn’t likely to impact new rider interest here any time soon. 

If Women Ride

I suspect this isn’t just a Canadian thing, but I’ll say it anyway: women matter to motorcycling for reasons far beyond the potential sales opportunity they represent, and it’s time we stopped talking about them solely in terms of gear fit and bike size. They make the sport more approachable, more inclusive, more civil and more joyful. Unburdened by the grim male archetypes that laid the cultural foundations for how society sees motorcyclists, women on bikes open people’s minds about what riding means, and how it can be saner, more social, and more fun than Hollywood and your terrified parents ever imagined. 

Where I live, the proof is all around. Women are partners in a prominent gear retailer, a local co-op garage and a significant online publisher and riding app startup, here, and a surprising number of this riding community’s biggest personalities are women. In my experience as a new rider, this has helped motorcycling be less tribal and more ecumenical, and that’s encouraged me. I don’t think there’s enough the industry can possibly do for this ‘market’ (note the air quotes). If I were anointed motorcycling’s marketing czar and could only make one bet on the near-term growth of the sport, this is where I’d put my money. 

Relentless Self-Promotion

It turns out that there is a Canadian Motorcycle Association, though I didn’t know that until I Googled it while writing this article. I still don’t know exactly what it does, or if I should join, or whether I don’t know these things because the CMA can’t afford to promote itself or simply isn’t interested in riders like me. And that’s kind of the problem. It’s not hard to see that advocacy is something of a gaping hole in the life of Canada’s rookie motorcyclists.  

When it comes to encouraging new riders, the need for advocacy may be at its starkest on the matter of insurance. Canada’s small population of motorcyclists has apparently presented a challenge for actuaries looking to price risk, and they’ve solved it simply by adding zeroes to new rider premiums. In my case, with two cars, a spotless driving record and in my fifties, the insurance on my new bikes – including my former Honda CBR250R ABS, which some insurers wouldn’t touch because ‘CBR’ was part of its name – has been nearly $1000 a year. Per bike. I’d hoped that getting my unrestricted license would knock this down a little (we have graduated licensing in my province), but it hasn’t happened so far. I have to believe this has turned more than a few twenty-something riders away from new bikes, and only organized advocacy is going to fix it. 

Cities are the other sphere where motorcycling’s lack of self-advocacy can be felt every day, despite being where the fire for riding burns most brightly. Motorcycling has a lot of influence in popular culture these days, mostly thanks to the people grumpy old men on internet forums dismiss as hipsters. These generally young, image-conscious riders remain the best chance this sport has to promote itself to the next generation, perhaps the first in a long time to look with envy at a passing bike or express interest in a wrench. And not only do they ride, they promote it socially, and do it better and with more cultural relevance than any manufacturer. With a potent combination of demographics and trendsetting going for them, cities are where the future of motorcycling will be decided in this country. 

It’s odd, then, that motorcycling is so absent from the conversation when it comes to the safety and utility of urban streets. While we look on in awe at the highly effective and organized bicycle advocacy in Canada’s big cities, motorcycling misses the chance to present itself to lawmakers and fellow citizens as part of the solution to crowded streets, scarce parking, and dirty air. Instead, the sport’s most passionate and aspirational ambassadors are out there on their own, curiosities at best, and far from a political force. From a new rider’s perspective, trying to stay alive on the mean streets, the goals of promoting motorcycling to Canadians and promoting it to their city governments seem inseparable.

The Dealership Experience

In my brief riding career, I’ve purchased four new bikes off showroom floors: a Honda, a Triumph, a BMW and a Ducati. And it’s worth adding that these purchases were made in and around Toronto, Canada’s most populous market, where one might assume that the retail experience is the most cutting edge. If bike manufacturers were to focus on winning at retail, you’d expect to see signs here first. 

But you probably won’t. If I were to generalize – which I will, in order not to pick on any particular brands – new riders can find dealerships surprisingly disinterested in them, and the purchase experience about as bloodless and perfunctory as paying a parking ticket. I’ve had positive moments, certainly, but these were more about the character of individual employees than about the kind of systematic excellence you can see in the best car dealerships. Seldom in my career have I seen such a stunning contrast between the breathless enthusiasm of customers and the grudging reluctance of the people they buy from. 

For me, the service experience has often panned out the same way. The sometimes bored impatience of service writers can make a new rider feel like they still aren’t part of the club they so badly wanted to join. Add the perhaps uniquely Canadian problem of geographic coverage I mentioned earlier, and the very idea of a new bike can seem more daunting than exciting, especially if you’re not yet ready or willing to work on it yourself.  

The Bottom Line

To be honest, as a new rider, it’s hard to stay critical or negative about motorcycling for long, even in snowbound Canada. But if I were that ghost, pointing a spectral finger at the North American motorcycling industry, I would tell them the lesson of Canada is this: don’t fear generational differences, or fashion, or traffic, or autonomous vehicles, or difficult dealer economics. Fear irrelevance. Without critical mass, you have no voice. Without critical mass, you have no political leverage. Without critical mass, obstacles for new riders become insurmountable. And without critical mass, there are no ambassadors to tell the world what a thrilling, life-affirming thing it is to ride a motorcycle, and how very worth the challenge, the effort, and every penny of the cost.

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