Common Tread

Best and worst trends of 2018

Nov 26, 2018

I always start researching this article by reading the previous year’s article. This has less to do with my love of rereading my own words, but rather it allows me to see what trends have continued as I look for any shifts in the norm. 

The leading negative trend of 2017 was the continuing decline of motorcycle sales in America. So for 2018 I want to kick things off on a positive note by looking at the increase of motorcycle sales in America. 

Kawasaki Ninja 400
The Kawasaki Ninja 400 and other fun lightweights are a welcome trend in motorcycling. Kevin Wing photo.

Positive trend: Low-displacement motorcycle sales are on the rise

According to data from the Motorcycle Industry Council, total motorcycle unit sales were down 2.3 percent at the end of the September when compared to the previous year. But digging deeper in the numbers there was good news to be found.

When looking at cruisers under 600 cc, sport bikes sub-500 cc, and dual-sport bikes up to 250 cc, sales are up. Way up. With numbers ranging from 27 to 38 percent gains over 2017 numbers. The Traditional segment (which contains naked sport bikes and classic retros) and the Dual segment (which includes adventure bikes) are also up as a whole, regardless of displacement. 

While I don’t have hard data on the age demographic for these numbers, I am hopeful that these bikes are attracting new, younger riders to the sport. I am excited because this bump in lower displacement sales could mean that we will see a bump in sales of larger motorcycles in the coming years as folks work their way up the displacement ladder.

Cycle World magazine
Magazines like Cycle World must adapt to the changing market, or risk disappearing. RevZilla photo.

Negative trend: Traditional motorcycle print publications struggle 

When I was in Germany recently, I stopped at a magazine stand in the train station in Cologne and was blown away by the vast number of motorcycle titles. On the return flight to the United States, I made a point to stop at the news stand in the Philadelphia airport. I couldn’t find one motorcycle magazine for sale.

This past year has seen yet another restructuring of major motorcycle publications in the United States. “Print mags are continuing to fade into obscurity,” Lemmy pointed out in a recent conversation.  “Good or bad, I can't say. But the days of the publications we all grew up reading having such an impact on motorcyclists is coming to a halt.”

Just look at the struggles that Bonnier (the leading motorcycle magazine publisher in the United States) has dealt with recently. Cycle World is now quarterly, Street Chopper went away, and Hot Bike and Baggers were mixed into the same magazine. On top of that, Dirt Rider and Sport Rider folded. Paisano Pubs has mixed V-Twin, In the Wind, Wrench, and Road Iron all into one Easyriders. 

I recently had dinner with Ari Henning, Zack Courts, and Spenser Robert, who left Motorcyclist magazine to launch their new show, “Throttle Out,” on the Motor Trend platform. Over drinks they discussed how fans would talk to them about their videos but weren’t aware they also had been the driving force behind Motorcyclist magazine for years. Video killed the print journalist star.

Honda Monkey ABS
Even the little Honda Monkey has ABS with an IMU! Kevin Wing photo.

Neutral trend: The proliferation of technology in motorcycling

Last year we talked about two separate trends, the increase in TFT dashes on motorcycles and mandated technology (such as ABS) driving up manufacturing costs. This year we’ll roll all of the technological trends into one grouping. 

Paying attention to the recent releases at Intermot and EICMA, the leading trend is the increase in technology we’re seeing trickle down from flagship models to even the most entry-level bikes. A little over 10 years ago, riders had to buy a premium model to get features like ABS, a slipper clutch, or traction control. These items are now found standard on nearly every street bike on the market.

Quickshifters, which used to be reserved for high-end, elite, track-focused machines, are now found on everything from adventure bikes to sport nakeds. Sophisticated ABS and traction control systems take lean angle into account. Electronic suspension adjustments are made on the fly, by the machine, in a fraction of a second. There are rider modes and electronic cruise control, all enabled by throttle-by-wire systems. KTM is finalizing a scan tool that works like a pair of X-ray specs to diagnose problems with their bikes. And as recent as last week, Greaseman wrote an article on smartphones replacing mirrors on motorcycles

Take it or take it, technology is here to stay.

KTM 790 Adventure R
The KTM Adventure R is an answer to new demands in the ADV community. KTM photo.

Positive Trend: Less follow the herd, more leading the charge

This has been one of the most exciting years we’ve seen in recent history when it comes to new releases. Lance sums it up best:

“A few years ago, the trend was for every motorcycle manufacturer to build something called a scrambler (or, in Ducati's case, create an entire new brand called Scrambler). While some of those were stylish, fun and successful new models, and others were half-hearted remakes of an existing bike, all of them were more of an example of following the herd than leading the charge. This year felt different.

“It felt to me like companies didn't copy the latest fad but actually played to their strengths with the new bikes they introduced. Indian is cleaning up in American Flat Track, therefore it made sense when the company confirmed production of its flat-track-inspired FTR1200. KTM builds killer off-road and adventure bikes and showed us some impressive new middleweights at EICMA. Ducati did what it does best and built a faster Superbike, and to do so they they abandoned their iconic L-twin in favor of a V4. Kawasaki continues to eat into its competitors' market share with new models like the Z400 that manage to be both practical and enticing at the same time. There are other examples, but you get my point. We're motorcyclists. We're naturally inclined to go our own way rather than follow the crowd. This is a good trend.”

Motorcycle airbag vest
Airbag systems are so simple, anyone could use them. RevZilla photo.

Positive Trend: Airbag technology becoming more accessible 

While airbag technology in gear is nothing new, this was the year I saw it in the wild more than ever before. While companies like Dainese and Alpinestars are leading the charge with sophisticated electronic systems, brands like Helite, Merlin, and Spidi are making airbags available to the masses with the lower cost of their universal systems.

In past years, I might have seen one or two riders utilizing this technology at my local track days at New Jersey Motorsports Park. This year it seemed like at least half the riders were sporting some sort of airbag protection. At off-road events like AltRider’s “Conserve the Ride,” I helped a father and son duo navigate a log jump on large adventure bikes. They were both wearing Helite vests. While I don’t know if I would personally want to use one these off-road, it’s interesting to see how this technology has spread.

Alleged Suzuki motorcycle criminal
Moto crime? We don't need that. Screenshot from Channel 2 Action News video.

Negative Trend: Motorcycles aiding criminals

Google “Scooter crime in London” and you’ll be met with a litany of articles discussing scooters and motorcycles helping criminals make clean getaways. This has been happening with increasing frequency across Europe and now Lance tracks some cases of this happening in America as well. 

“I don't have statistical evidence to prove this is a trend, but I’ve seen more examples of this occur this year than I am really comfortable with. Most notably, there were as many as four cases during the year in the Atlanta area where a person on a Suzuki sport bike robbed individuals, appearing to target people driving expensive cars. In one case, he stole an expensive ring right off the finger of a grandmother.

“Then there was the guy who robbed a McDonalds in Arizona and tried to escape by riding against traffic or the bank robber in New Jersey who wore his helmet into the bank. I saw other cases during the year, too. Motorcyclists have enough image problems already, without being perceived as criminals, so let's hope this isn't really a trend.”

Bikes like the CSC SG250 offer more low-buck options for motorcyclists. Spurgeon Dunbar photo.

Neutral Trend: Chinese manufacturing on the rise

From Lemmy’s minibike project, to the CSC San Gabriel 250, to the engines in the new BMW F 850 GSes, an increasing number of motorcycle manufacturers are relying on China to produce their goods.

In the case of bikes like the CSC, this can be seen as a good thing. It allows the Southern California-based firm to sell bikes like the SG 250 at a fraction of the cost of similar motorcycles. And while it may not be the most polished motorcycle I’ve ever ridden, its low cost of entry helps cover up quite a few of its sins.

Traditionally, the benefit of outsourcing production to China is the cost savings that typically gets passed on to the consumer. Where this practice becomes unpopular is when it applies to bikes like the BMWs and they retain their premium price point. Something that quite a few of you took umbrage with in the comments section

KTM off road
Liz Kiniery puts her new KTM through its paces. Spurgeon Dunbar photo.

Positive trend: Off-road riding continues to grow 

For my final trend of 2018, I am going to combine a little anecdotal evidence with some hard numbers that we started to touch on in the first section. In order to see that the off-road segment is growing, you need not look any further than the MIC data. Street-legal dual-sports and adventure bikes are up 11 percent year-over-year while Off-Highway dirt bikes are up nearly 5 percent. And like I discussed in the first section, it’s the smaller bikes that are really driving those increased sales.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen this amongst my group of friends. I’ve had two of my closest riding buddies, Jeff and Liz Kiniery, buy 350 and 250 KTMs, respectively. Steve Kamrad totaled his Tiger and is sniffing around a smaller KTM 690 to replace it. Our own Joe Zito has decided it’s time to make the shift away from heavy, vintage machines and start competing on a two-stroke KTM (he has yet to choose between a 250 or 300). Even I have been bitten by the small-bike bug.

My interest was first piqued by the amount of fun I had with the Honda CRF450L at the launch in Washington, but it was solidified a few weeks ago on a KTM 350 EXC-F. In an effort to include me in this year’s Hammer Run, a notoriously tight and tough dual-sport ride in southern New Jersey, Solid Performance hooked me up with a race-prepped 350 to ride. By the end of the event, I was trying to buy the bike off of Evan, the co-owner of Solid. He regretted to inform me the bike wasn’t for sale. 

Lemmy’s been telling me for years that I’m an idiot for riding adventure bikes off-road. While I’m not saying I agree with him that I’m an idiot, I am saying that I’ll probably have a small-displacement off-road machine in my garage by the time I sit down to pen the best trends of 2019.