Monday, 30 March 2015

Keyless start makes you a bad ass

I can remember when key fobs started showing up in cars, allowing keyless entry and keyless start. It baffled me. Why, I thought, would such a thing be necessary or even all that desirable? 

Is the world full of silent sufferers of repetitive stress injury whose lives are made hell by the act of taking keys out of their pocket and placing them in the steering column? Are we so short of problems that the greatest minds of our generation absolutely needed to remedy this problem?

Key fobs just struck me as stupid and inherently susceptible to issues that don't apply to the traditional old bits of metal that are keys. Water, for example. I have on very many occasions gone swimming with my keys in my pocket. Not by accident, but because it makes sense.

At Barton Springs, in Austin, Texas, for example. Leave my wallet in the car, tie my car keys into the waist tie of my swimming trunks. Boom. No worries. But if you've got a battery-powered key fob, you can't take it into the water with you. You can't keep it on your person. So, you can't relax and enjoy splashing around.

Instead, you have to wrap it up in the towel that you're leaving creekside and hope that no one saw you wrapping up said fob, hope that no one will want to steal a towel just for japes, hope that none of the half dozen dogs that are playing in the creek decide to unravel your towel. And you're left to always be craning your neck to make sure that the towel remains in sight, never willing to put your head underwater, never really venturing too far into the creek or having any fun.

Connected to this, a fob isn't the sort of thing you'd want to risk throwing to someone. Ever done that? I have. You're up on the third floor or some such thing and your wife says: "Hey, can you throw me the keys, I need to get something out of the car."

So, you toss them down to her and because she has the eye-hand coordination of a drunk and blind sloth, the keys never even touch her hand and go straight to the pavement. Do that with a fob and you'll end up with smashed bits of plastic and an urgent phone call to the dealership.

Even if you don't ever get the fob wet or drop it from great height, there's still the reality of a battery and its finite lifespan. A metal key that's been sitting in a drawer for 60 years will still function as it did when it was first cut. If you live in a place that gets ungodly cold, like Minnesota, that key will still get you into the shelter and safety of a car even if the car's battery is dead.

So, by and large, my opinion of key fobs has always been negative. They strike me as an unnecessary gimmick, answering a question no one asked and creating problems from a previously problem-free aspect of driving (a).

Needless to say, as the keyless-start trend has made its way to more and more motorcycles it has been met by more and more eye rolling on my part. I have definitely gone swimming with my motorcycle keys in my pocket (on those times when I've remembered to bring a swimming trunks and not just dived in completely naked). I have definitely dropped my keys.

True, I have also accidentally left my key in the ignition and walked away, only to realise my mistake upon returning to the bike half an hour later. And, yes, the other key on the key chain (the key to my U lock) has bounced around in the wind to the extent that it has scratched and chipped the metal of the steering column. But these issues still haven't really validated keyless bikes in my mind.

Generally, when I've seen keyless start listed as a feature, I've thought: "Give me heated grips instead. They're cheaper, more practical and less critical should they fail."

But then something happened that completely changed my mind

There's a dude in Cardiff who rides a Harley-Davidson Iron 883 and parks it wherever the hell he pleases. He works in the city centre, I assume, because that's where I always see his bike -- always in some place that motorcycles aren't really supposed to go (b). This in and of itself makes him cool. Cardiff city centre benefits from second-hand cool as a result. I feel this should be written into the city's improvement plans: if you have a cool bike you are allowed to park it anywhere you damn well please. There's something pretty awesome about seeing a Harley just cooling under a tree in the Hayes, or Royal-Enfield Continental GT serving as backdrop to some street performer.

This particular Iron 883 has aftermarket exhaust that can be heard from a fair distance, but up until recently I'd never seen the guy who owns it. Then, a few days ago, I was walking through city centre when I heard the bike approaching.

FAWOOM. I turned to see it rolling up a bus lane and onto the pedestrianised area outside Central Library. Next to the bicycle racks, where a few other motorcycles were parked, he stopped and performed the coolest manoeuvre I have ever seen.

In one single, fluid action, he kicked down the side stand, thereby cutting the engine, stepped off the bike and walked away, pulling off his helmet and never even glancing back at the bike as he strut into John Lewis.

Yeah, the story is ruined somewhat by the fact he was strutting into a John Lewis, but ignore that bit. The keyless fob in his jacket meant he was able to just get off the bike and walk away like a movie star. It was such a cool, beautiful move that I felt weak in the knees. It made me want to run out and get an Iron 883 just so I could ride around pulling the same trick.

And deep down in the recesses of my mind a thought formed: "Man, keyless bikes are bad ass."


(a) OK, not totally problem-free, as people from the Upper Midwest can attest. It is possible to have your lock freeze in severely cold weather and for the key to snap as you're trying to undo that lock. But that's a problem that can be overcome by the simple act of paying attention to what you're doing: if the lock feels frozen, don't try to force it.

(b) Though, there's nothing to say specifically that he shouldn't be parking his bike there. Peculiarly, if you look at the Vehicle Excise Duty certificate (often incorrectly referred to as "road tax") for a motorcycle in the UK, you will see that the government in its infinite wisdom has classed the machine as a bicycle. Running with this, many of the ballsier riders in the UK apply the same parking thinking to their motorcycles as one would a bicycle -- e.g, on the sidewalk, chained to a pole, etc. Only London has cottoned to this trick and outlawed it. Everywhere else, it is left to police discretion as to whether your bike is causing a problem.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

How to save Victory Motorcycles

About a month ago, Jason Avant wrote an article for RideApart titled "How Victory Motorcycles Can Save Itself From Defeat," which is an issue that is sort of near and dear to me. I agree with almost all of what Jason says in his article but wanted to write a post on how I'd specifically like to see things done.

Jason, by the way, is a cool dude. Not too long ago, he put in a good word for me with the higher-ups at RideApart, suggesting me as a writer for the site. Sadly, I've never heard from those higher ups. I suspect that's because whatever good words Jason might have for me are negated by my own words about RideApart

In my defence, I would say my criticism was directed toward a previous incarnation of RideApart. The modern site still has quite a few problems (I can think of no other "professional" website that is so littered with typos, bad grammar and spelling errors), but I'd rather be part of the solution than bitch.

That's neither here nor there, however. It's not relevant to the future of Victory Motorcycles. Like Jason, I carry a bias toward the company. Though in my case it is because Victory is based in Minnesota. Although more of my life has been spent in Texas, and I've now lived in Britain longer than I ever lived in Minnesota for any consecutive number of years (a), there is a strange part of me that thinks of the Land of 10,000 Lakes as home. And as such, I like to see Minnesota businesses succeed.

I'm also an American. And my competitive side wants to see American businesses not just succeeding, but dominating. At the moment, Victory is nowhere near that.

There are a lot of reasons why. First and foremost is the fact that you are never going to out-Harley Harley-Davidson. That company is very, very good at what it does. I guess there is some money to be had in offering up a Harley clone, true, but you'll note that doing so isn't the bread and butter of other companies. Honda doesn't live and die by its cruiser sales; the Vulcan is not the only bike that Kawasaki makes.

Victory, though, has nothing else. And I really don't think you can beat Muhammad Ali just by wearing the same colour of trunks as him. Being like Harley-Davidson ("Hey, we're American, too. We're also from the Upper Midwest. We also make nothing but V-twin cruisers and tourers.") while still not actually being Harley-Davidson just doesn't cut it.

Especially when you're up against the Harley-Davidson of today. Its bikes have more features (e.g. anti-lock brakes, keyless start), better finish, higher resale value, greater clout among non-riders and offer considerably more customisation options. And most importantly, as one of the RideApart commenters pointed out, Harley-Davidson understands how to make the most of an experience economy. Victory does not –– especially outside of the United States.

All of this means that Victory doesn't seem to know what the hell it is. I've talked about this before; there's no real identity to Victory motorcycles.

I mean, if I ask myself, "What is a Victory rider?" I struggle to come up with a clear answer. That is to say, I struggle to come up with a unique idea of a person. Think about it: If I say that my friend will be arriving on a Victory Gunner, what sort of person are you expecting to show up? Male or female? Young or old? Race? Economic status? And are these attributes any different from those you would apply to the rider of any other cruiser?

Victory's marketing offers no real clarity. It tends to be all over the place in terms of the demographics it pursues. I realise that all motorcycle companies pursue different demographics with different models, but Victory's actions seem far more confused. More often than not, it seems to be chasing an identity rather than declaring one. What the hell is the essence of the Victory brand? I don't think Victory knows.

You can see that in the manifestation of Victory's biggest problem: the fact that it is falling ever more behind. Since 2010 it has offered nothing that is actually new or different. Instead, it has whiled away half a decade changing aesthetics or slightly altering ergonomics and hoping no one notices. In recent years, it has become clear that Victory has run out of ideas. Few things shout "We ain't got nuthin" more loudly than the Magnum X-1.

If you haven't heard about the Magnum X-1, it is a Cross Country with a comically large front wheel, awful paint scheme and 200-watt sound system. A sound system, y'all. A sound system. Let me repeat that again: A SOUND SYSTEM. Victory's best effort in the world of performance motorcycles is to offer up a 5-year-old bike with a really loud sound system.

Because the Notting Hill Carnival crowd is such a vast, untapped market...

Things are bad. Victory has become the Impact Wrestling of American motorcycling; people are looking at it thinking: "OK, this is it. This thing is dead. It could have been so much."

For a long time I had hope-believed that Victory would present us with a truly new machine at Daytona Bike Week. Now, I have lost almost all my faith in the company.

Almost. I'm clinging to the fact that Victory is planning to produce an electric motorcycle this year. So, I won't sign the death certificate just yet.

Indeed, let's be positive here and imagine that Victory is aware of just how bad things look, and that it wants to change, that it truly wants to compete. Here's how I'd go about doing that:

Firstly, Victory needs to be thinking far into the future, while demonstrating in the immediate present that this thinking is taking place. One way to do this is to let people know what you're working on. You don't have to give specifics, obviously, but letting people know that there is stuff happening makes them more comfortable about sticking with you. A few leaked images, perhaps –– things to stir the rumour mill –– or even videos showing some engineers poring over schematics.

What Victory's been doing over the past 5 years, simply changing the paint, would make me nervous as a consumer and I'd be concerned about buying a bike from a company that may not be around in another 5 years. If Victory were to be able to demonstrate that it really is thinking about tomorrow, that it is developing new technologies, new engines and new chassis, that would convey a sense of a company that's in it for the long haul –– a company you can "invest" in with your purchase.

Secondly, Victory needs to figure out who the hell it is and what it's about. I'm not entirely sure where I think they should go with things, but there may be some value in looking at how Triumph managed to pull itself out of the depths a few decades ago. Although, in fairness, Triumph in the 1990s had something Victory does not: a legacy.

And to that end, Victory should be working extra hard to establish its own legacy, its own solid identity.

In fairness, there are already some scraps of such a thing. A very subtle string that runs through Victory's advertising is its obsession with the modern American West. By and large, Victory chooses desert landscapes for its promo shots. The exception to this is when it chooses Las Vegas as a backdrop. Without really saying as much, or indeed adequately embracing what it means to say such a thing, Victory seems to be keen to sell itself as the bike of choice for Nevadans.

This strikes me as a questionable strategy, considering Nevada is ranked 35th in terms of the states with the highest populations and very few outsiders have any idea of what it means to be a resident of the Silver State (heck, most people don't even know how to pronounce the state's name correctly).

But, you know, OK, fine. There are concepts within that which you can use in developing a real sense of what Victory is. Not just open road nonsense, but practicality and the tolerant nonchalance of true libertarianism.

Though, if you're really going to embrace the Nevada mindset you're going to need to develop an adventure bike tout de suite. Which leads to the discussion of what Victory should be doing in addition to or, perhaps, instead of cruisers. Again, Victory simply doesn't have what it takes to lock horns directly with Harley-Davidson. Meanwhile, there is a huge, gaping hole in terms of American offerings of other bikes.

An adventure bike would make a whole lot of sense. Firstly, because Victory has the pedigree. Its parent company is Polaris, which makes some of the best offroad vehicles in the world. Secondly, it seems to me that unlike with sport tourers or supersports, there is an easy transition for the bulk of American riders (although Victory seems to offer better products in Europe, I'm assuming the United States remains the market it cares most about).

Most adventure bikes are twin-engined, offering a somewhat similar experience to cruisers, along with the same sort of roomy ergonomics. Check the owners' forums of various adventure bikes and you'll find that a surprising number of the forum members are former or current cruiser riders. And it's a style of bike that fits with the American psyche: the image of explorers and pioneers.

To that end, I'm not sure I'd listen too intently to those people who think Victory should be producing stuff that rivals something like the Honda CB500X in price and displacement. The profit margin is too narrow and the demand for lower-middleweight bikes isn't terribly high in Western markets (unless you're talking about 600cc supersports, and even there interest has been in dramatic decline over the past several years). Victory needs to deliver a bike that can serve as an entry point to the brand, yes, but that doesn't necessarily need to come in the form of some cheap bike that would be better suited to Indonesia than Indiana.

Whatever Victory does, I think it needs to drop its blind love for everything the Ness family does. I respect custom builders, but it is the very nature of a custom builder to be niche, to only appeal to a certain style and taste. That's part of what a custom build is: a bike that is keyed to very specific tastes –– the tastes of one, rather than 1,000.

That doesn't mean they need to be bland, though. Victory already has a wholly unique design in the Victory Vision. That is a bike that looks nothing like a Harley-Davidson. Add more technological farkles (e.g., traction control) and figure a way to lose some weight and you've got a machine that can compete against pretty much all other tourers whilst remaining individual and unique.

I'd like to see Victory taking inspiration from the Vision and putting it into other models. It doesn't have to be space age for the sake of being space age, but why not offer something that someone else isn't already doing better than you?

I feel that Victory can turn itself around, but that will require a whole new level of thinking and some fearless leadership. Time will tell if Victory has those things. If it doesn't, I fear it's doomed to disappear in the wake of Indian's success.


(a) I have left and returned to Minnesota twice. My longest consecutive stretch in the state was 7 years; as of July, I will have lived in Wales for 9 consecutive years. Breaking down all of my nearly 39 years of life, I have spent:
- 12 years in Texas
- 11 years in Minnesota
- 9 years in Wales
- 3 years in California
- 2 years in Nevada
- 1 year in North Dakota
- 1 year in England