Yet there was something else, too. In all the time I spent at the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, something kept nagging at me. The Sturgis Rally is the biggest bike rally in the world: some years, it attracts 750,000 leather-clad bikers to this town of 4,000, in a state of only 750,000 anyway. As more than one person informed me, for one week in August, Sturgis becomes the biggest town in South Dakota. And as I wandered through the crowds—I wasn’t on a bike—something about the rally seemed false, not quite right. It wasn’t that I expected to find an answer at the Lehman factory, but it was on my mind as I drove there.
So, 9:30 on Tuesday morning, I took a tour of Lehman’s factory, not far from Sturgis. A tall, hearty woman—“I’m just a beancounter from the admin building,” she introduced herself, not too encouragingly, “I don’t really know much about what goes on on the shop floor”—took us through in 20 minutes flat. She stopped briefly to point out where trikes get painted, or assembled, or QA’ed, or fixed, or whatever. It’s a relatively small, sparkling clean facility. Half the floor is dedicated to converting Harleys into three-wheelers, the other to converting other brands, such as Honda, Suzuki, and Victory.
Now I know very little about bikes and trikes, but the rest of the group—notably, all at least a decade older than me—was clearly knowledgeable. “What are those, 96s?” asked the only woman, pointing to a rack stacked with the Harley bikes that arrive here to be converted into trikes. “They’re either 96s or 103s,” said one of the men, advancing to peer at them. From behind, one of the staff shouted: “They’re 103s!” And thus were we enlightened. (No, I don’t know what either a 96 or a 103 is. A kind of bike, is all I’ll say).
The Harley conversion goes through six stations. The hallmark of it, said the woman, is that one technician is assigned to a bike, and he takes it through the whole process. That doesn’t happen with the other brands being converted. I don’t know why and neither did she. (“Just a beancounter!” she reminded us). Though I did get the sense that one-technician-per-bike was somehow a virtue of the Harley conversion.
An unshaven man in grubby overalls in our group piped up: “How long does this Harley conversion take?”
“It just kinda depends, y’know?” said the woman. Codespeak, of course, for “I don’t know.” Damn, I dislike perfunctory tours. Tell us something meaningful, lady, something deeper than the spiel!
“Well,” I piped up in turn, not that I cared but I didn’t want to let her get away with this, “is it a matter of hours? Days?”
“It just kinda depends, y’know?” she said again. Then, perhaps conscious of the several skeptical faces around her, she leveled with us. “Truth is, I’m not at liberty to discuss that information with y’all. It’s one of those things I’ve been told not to divulge to tour groups.”
Why not? The time a conversion takes is a company secret?
Another man asked, “D’you have any dealers in Utah?” Beancounter thought for a minute and replied, “We have some really neat dealers out there, one of ’em, I’m going to say, in Hurricane? There a town by that name in Utah or am I entirely wrong?”
Two men confirmed that there was, indeed, a Hurricane in Utah. And that was the end of the tour.
Outside, I had a brief conversation with another companion from the group, a writer for Quick Throttle magazine (the sheer number of bike-related magazines is astonishing).
I asked him the only question that interests me about trikes—remember I know nothing about them: why would somebody choose to convert their bike into a trike?
“It’s just that as guys get older, y’know, they want a little more stability, safety, they don’t wanna be putting their feet down each time they come to a stop light. With a trike, they get that stability. I drove the Victory model last month, and boy, that baby’s got power. But real stable, know’t I’m sayin’?”
A Lehman dealer standing nearby confirmed this. “It’s the aging bike population,” he said. “So trikes are doing real well—bike market is down, but trikes are up 40 percent growth over the last year. ’Cause bikers are mostly baby boomers, and those boomers are getting’ old.”
Some brochures I picked up off the Lehman racks confirmed this again. In brochures like these about other bikes, or cars, you’d find athletic young models draped all over the gleaming machines. These slick brochures have the gleaming machines all right, but are filled instead with people obviously middle-aged or older. With kids, in some photographs. None of them draped.
And now that I think about it, the group I took the tour with also confirmed this. About a dozen people, and of them, I’m the youngest by a decade.
Which actually explains a lot about my time in Sturgis and the disconnect I sensed. The place is filled with vendors aimed at a generally young audience: loud rock music; t-shirts with risqué messages; tattoo parlors; vast displays of cleavage to attract customers into stores; and a cornucopia of parts that will make your bike more noisy, powerful, and shiny than it already is.
Yet the crowd that roams the street is almost entirely middle-aged or older. Almost entirely in generic biker gear, almost entirely overweight, almost entirely older.
I hadn’t expected this. Found myself wondering: this year, have only the older bikers come to Sturgis?
And it’s at Lehman that I understand: as a group, bikers are getting older. Boomers are getting older. A generation that defined and shaped a country is passing the torch. That simple.
But how strange that only one vendor, even with a beancounter conducting a perfunctory factory tour, seems to have understood.
|A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.|