Baby Boomers Put the Vroom in Motorcycles

Next time a Harley goes roaring past you on the highway, be polite. It could be your doctor, your lawyer, or accountant.

Motorcycles are more popular than ever, and riders are getting older, wealthier and more mainstream.

Despite a wobbly economy, sales are on track to jump 17 percent this year, after a 19.6 percent increase in 2001, according to industry analysts.

Last year, 763,000 bikes of all shapes and sizes left dealer showrooms for the open road, more than twice as many as in 1998.

Honda, the nation's No. 1 motorcycle manufacturer, saw sales jump 33.1 percent last year.

"The motorcycle industry is enjoying a really robust period," says Don Brown, an industry analyst with DJB Associates. "This is the 11th straight year that motorcycle industry sales have increased."

Brown estimates there are 4 million to 5 million street motorcycles on the road today.

Older Riders — And Richer

Riders today are a typically a far cry from the teen rebels and counterculture road warriors of decades past. The average age of a Harley buyer has crept up to over 45, almost 11 years older than in 1987.

With a standard Road King Classic costing $17,000, that may not be surprising. The company says its average customer today earns over $78,000 a year.

Besides traditional "cruisers" — the classic, easy-riding bikes typified by Harley-Davidson — riders are showing interest in motorcycles of all shapes and sizes.

Ultrafast sport bikes and mammoth touring motorcycles have also seen sales increase, and the fastest-growing segment of the market is dual-purpose dirt bikes that can be ridden legally on the roads.

Recently, European makers such as Ducati and Triumph have stepped up their efforts in the American market.

Hitting the Road, From All Walks of Life

Most riders continue to be male, but women are showing up in dealers' showrooms more and more, analysts say. Women now account for some 6 percent of new bike purchases, sharply up from a decade ago. They made up 9 percent of Harley-Davidson buyers last year.

Diane Howells, who founded the Motorcycle Safety School in New York in 1999, says women motorcyclists are no longer a novelty.

"Women are great riders, they're just calmer," she says.

"This bike is a brand-new bike for me," says New York-area motorcyclist Rebecca Weinberg, showing off her sleek new Italian sport bike. "It is a Ducati Monster Dark.

"It will mean getting around New York City, it will mean traveling safe; it will mean traveling in style."

At the Harley-Davidson Sales Co. in Cleveland, general manager Roger Thiede recently sold a Harley Electro-Glide to an 81-year-old rider.

"He's been riding for about four years," Thiede says. "He's enjoying himself."

Better Bikes, Better Image, and Baby Boomers

The broadening appeal of motorcycles is largely due to the baby boom generation, says Brown.

"They have the bucks to spend," he says. "They have certainly driven the industry for the past 10 or so years."

Motorcycling continues to provoke controversy — particularly the debate over helmet laws, and concern about so-called superbikes, which can hit speeds of nearly 200 mph and easily outrun police. But the aging boomer generation largely sees motorcycles as a respectable form of fun and harmless rebellion.

Cities now compete to host motorcycle rallies, hoping the affluent riders will provide an economic boost for their towns, dealers say.

Motocross and speed bike racing on cable television has also helped draw in customers, especially younger riders, and events such as the annual Ride to Work Day — scheduled this year for July 17 — help motorcycling enthusiasts raise awareness of the sport as a mainstream activity.

Manufacturers themselves have looked for new ways to spread motorcycling's appeal.

Companies such as Harley and Honda routinely sponsor events for their customers, and some even offer rental programs, so prospective riders can try a particular machine.

Bad economic times will eventually affect sales, says Brown. But he thinks riders are more likely to stick with the sport than those with other hobbies.

"I would say more people in general tend to stay with motorcycles than boat buyers or whatever other things people might get into," he says.

Looking for Adventure …

The enduring popularity of the sport comes from the feeling of riding on two wheels in the open air, riders say.

"People in general are looking for an escape from everyday life," says Thiede, and he says motorcycles fill that need. "You throw the cell phone in the tour box and just go."

"It brings you the open road," agrees Greg Van Brookhoven, a salesman at Bergen Sport Cycles in Lodi, N.J. "The wind in your face is certainly the feeling of freedom."

Even the terror attacks last September may have sent more people to motorcycle dealerships.

"The 9/11 thing certainly sparked sales quite a bit," Van Brookhoven says.

"People think that life's too short, and I'd like to do what I love."