Photo Dispatch: Death of the American motorcycle – and the search for next generation of riders

As baby-boomers get older the US motorcycle industry is desperate to capture the younger demographic, or see its own death.

The median age of motorcycle owners has increased from 32 to 47 since 1990, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC), and Harley-Davidson, America’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer, announced in March that it will close its Kansas City plant, laying off more than 800 people by the end of 2019. 

What was once the baby-boomer symbol of freedom and rebellion has become the mascot of the weekend warrior.

Wealthy suburbanites in ‘ride to live, live to ride’ t-shirts are still loyal to the brand associated with Easy Rider and Marlon Brando’s The Wild One.

But the boomers are now in their sixties and seventies and their most recently purchased bike may possibly be their last.

A man tries on a t-Shirt in the gift shop of the Harley-Davidson's vehicle and powertrain operations plant in Kansas CityCredit:
Neville Elder for The Telegraph

Desperate to capture the younger demographic, Harley-Davidson has launched initiatives such as the "Find Your Freedom", a paid internship seeking young people willing to spend their summers riding around on motorcycles and chronicling the experience on social media.

The company is also planning to win over environmentally conscious millennials with an electric motorcycle which it plans to launch in 2019.

Harley Davidson's vehicle and powertrain operations plant in Kansas CityCredit:
Neville Elder for The Telegraph

The figures provided by MIC are a reflection of new motorcycle sales. Someone looking to buy their first ride will be looking at a minimum of  $7,000 (£5,000) for the most basic Harley-Davidson model.

However, vintage motorcycle can be bought for as little as $1,000, and some work and modifications can turn it from a ride to work to an extension of the rider’s personality.

Spencer Bink and Mike Ashpaugh photographed with the chopper they're building in Ashpaugh's garageCredit:
Neville Elder for The Telegraph

In home garages all around Kansas City the skeletons of abandoned Harley’s – Shovelheads and Panheads – are being resurrected, but it’s community hubs like Blip Roasters and co-op workshops, Hickory Union Moto (HUM), in the old warehouse district of West Bottoms, that have sprung up organically to help a new generation climb on to motorcycles for the first time.

Chris Taylor, 33, with his Harley Davidson 2018 Road Glide outside Blip Roasters, West Bottoms,  MissouriCredit:
Neville Elder for The Telegraph

Cousins Spencer Bink, who works at Harley-Davidson, and Mike Ashpaugh, a lorry driver by profession, are building a chopper from old parts in Ashpaugh’s garage.

"Younger guys are buying old bikes, they’re not built to be comfortable, old bikes are cool," he told The Telegraph.

"You kinda want to make it your own, it’s fun to work on bikes yourself, everything’s like a bird nest of wiring on the new bikes with their computers and that," said Bink.

"I bought my first bike for $800, rode it around found out I liked it. New bikes are inaccessible if you’re trying to decide if want to ride a bike – you can’t exactly go to Enterprise and check out if you want to ride. Old bikes have more style," Tom Pulliam, an architectural intern, said referring to the rent-a-car business.

Ricky Reyes in Anchor Moto, a workshop which specialises in bike repairs and custom builds, in West BottomsCredit:
Neville Elder for The Telegraph

Jesse Clay, a 34-year-old engineer believes Harley priced themselves out of the market. "They used to be designed as a working man’s bike that anyone could afford. I don’t like having a payment on a bike. That’s the reason I build bikes – I like to own my motorcycle."

Jesse Clay, 34, with his 1985 BMW K100RT at HUMCredit:
 Neville Elder for The Telegraph

As Harley-Davidson prepare to pack up and leave Kansas City, Missouri, you don’t have to look far to see motorcycling is as popular as ever.

Until 1991, West Bottoms’ stockyards and cattle markets, was the centre of the cattle trade in the mid-west. The area, plagued by flooding, fell into disuse. Now mostly empty, warehouses have been converted into antique shops and mechanics’ workshops.

Stephanie Hartman, 29, with her 2007 Harley-Davidson Buell Blast outside Blip, a cafe which doubles as a bike shopCredit:
Neville Elder for The Telegraph

Blip Roasters sits above the abandoned loading lock of one such warehouse. The buildings’ exterior still wears the original brickwork, and large retro-fitted windows look out onto the rough, unpaved empty lots with a patchwork of puddles and bricks.

Inside, a hipster Brooklyn coffee shop and a mid-western community centre for bikers blend into one. Racks of motorcycle gear and helmets, rebuilt motorcycles, restored by local ‘builders’ sit alongside comfortable couches, where patrons can watch repeats of the latest Motorcycle Grand Prix race.

‘Sunday Church’ is a weekly meet-up of Motorcyclists at Blip. People gather and exchange tips about building and repairing bikes, many of them classic Harleys from the 80’s and 90’s but also Japanese and European motorcycles.

Ian Davis, Blip Roasters owner, makes coffee with Meghan, a barista at the West Bottoms cafeCredit:
Neville Elder for The Telegraph

"Blip is a good example of how motorcycle culture has changed", owner Ian Davis said. "All I remember was biker bars, and we might not want to get drunk in a smelly bar, now there’s new places to hang out."

"We started out just as a coffee roasters and I’d used to leave my first bike – a 1976 [Honda] CB50 – up on the dock," the 32-year-old said.

People chat and work in Blip Roasters in Kansas City, MissouriCredit:
Neville Elder for The Telegraph

"People would come by and ask about the bike, and people started dropping by on other motorcycles to say hi. Gradually it became a thing, to hang out on Sundays, drink coffee and talk about bikes.

"We open at 8am and usually by 9:30pm there are 10 or 20 bikes parked out front, then it’s just a free for all! Hundreds of people sometimes. Men, women, young or old on [new and old] Harleys, Hondas, Ducatis, even mopeds.”

Motorcycles parked outside Blip RoastersCredit:
Neville Elder for The Telegraph

Just around the corner, in an old fire station, Hickory Union Moto (HUM) provides space and education for people new to the motorcycle world.

In the big empty room that once housed fire engines and their crews, motorcycles sit in various states of repair. Some stripped down to their bare bones, some looking like Mad Max bikes, with distressed petrol tanks, and hand stitched seats.

A rebuilt Harley Davidson engine in Ricky Reyes's workshopCredit:
Neville Elder for The Telegraph

John Iiames, 36, an architect and a partner at HUM says his love of old bikes came from frustration of living in a condo:

John Iiames is one of the partners at HUMCredit:
Neville Elder for The Telegraph

“I was living in downtown Kansas City, with nowhere to work on a bike. There’s not the same sense of ownership with a new bike as there is with getting an old bike from the seventies and bringing it back to life, and not have a $300 payment on it every month.”

As Harley Davidson prepare to pack up and leave Kansas City, Missouri, you don’t have to look far to see motorcycling is as popular as ever and ironically, it’s the Baby Boomers’ discarded machines that’s kick-starting a new generation of bikers and gear heads. For Millennials, riding motorcycles is cool again.


Click Here: Kangaroos Rugby League Jersey