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Many of us have attended some type of motorcycle rally.  They are a gathering of motorcycle enthusiasts who come together for the camaraderie and socialization.  It doesn’t matter if you ride ‘slick back’, are part of a riding association or MC.  The rallies can range from the mild corporate-sponsored Honda Hoot to Sturgis or the infamous Hollister.

Rallies can be large or small, and one-time or recurring. Notable annual rallies with attendance in the thousands from all over the country include the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, Laconia Motorcycle Week, and Daytona Beach Bike Week. There are many smaller, regional rallies including the annual BMW MOA international rally, the Oyster Run in the Pacific Northwest, the Golden Aspen Rally (formerly Aspencade) in the Southwest, the Laughlin River Run and Street Vibrations in the West, and Americade in the Northeast.  There is also the Harley-Davidson anniversary rally in Milwaukee every five years.  Some rallies are ride-in events, whereas some like the Iron Butt rally involve days of riding and an actual gathering only at the end of the ride.

But my friends, the motorcycle winds of change are blowing and it’s not a nice smell.  As the song states… “For The Times They Are A-Changing…” – Bob Dylan.  After attending one major and 3 regional rallies this year I can report they are rumbling a lot less louder these days and here’s my extremely broad and completely unscientific, yet infinitely wise reasons:

1. Economy: in case you haven’t noticed it’s down.

a. Market investor gloom persists… see above charts with a 500-point loss brings the Dow’s two-day slump to nearly 900 points.

b. Harley shipments are down and the company has laid off workers

c. Japan’s four major power sports vehicle manufactures (Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha) are down 26.8% this year compared to the same 8 months of 2007.

d. Gas prices. Escort rigs or trucks hauling trailers consume lots of fuel.

e. DealerNews reports that the Sturgis attendance was down 18% this year. Turnout was reported at 414,917 which compares to 507,234 in 2007 or down from the 633,000 in 2000. It’s been a steady decline pretty much the past eight years.

f. Laughlin River Run was down approx 10,000 from 2007. Attendance estimated at 60,000.

2. Demographics:

a. Repeat attendees which is not officially tracked is down. Fewer people going consistently year over year.

b. Aging population are making the most of their free time and have other forms of entertainment.

c. New riders don’t ride the same cruiser bikes or value the heritage of these events and don’t attend. No fun riding a sport bike when the Black Hills are full of motorcycles.

d. Competition for the major vs. local rallies have people making closer to home priorities. We’ve seen this with all the local Indian Casinos who have taken a bite out of Las Vegas.

3. Legislation:

a. The new Denver sound ordinance for motorcycles prevents rally attendance unless you have stock motorcycle exhaust.

b. Don’t drive to a rally in New York City’s high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. They banned motorcycles from HOV lanes and are ticketing. Never mind that Federal law stipulates that HOV lanes must allow motorcycles.

c. Myrtle Beach will never be the same…they approved a property tax increase earlier this year to fund efforts aimed specifically at eliminating motorcycle rallies. There are now 3 independent lawsuits filed against the city in hopes to limit the city counsel.

4. Policing: large numbers and aggressive preemptive measures being taken.

a. LEOs stop bikers heading up the Adirondack Northway before the start of the Americade motorcycle rally at Lake George.

b. Breath check stops outside Oatman, AZ during Laughlin River Run.

c. Street Vibrations ’08 SWAT teams highly visible, armed w/ para-military gear in show of force.

5. Greed: in search of the big $$

a. Rallies have been artificially expanded in length by vendors to capture more customer $$. 3-day events are now 5-day and many of the big rallies are 10-days or longer.

b. Motel’s often triple room rates and have instituted longer minimum night stays. Try to find a motel in Sturgis for a couple nights. Same for Laughlin River Run or Street Vibrations. The motels have forced earlier arrivals which up’s the ante for any event.

c. High prices for vendor space, basically merchants rent space for as much as they can get/gouge people.

6. 1%er Clubs: make city officials nervous and they over react with a lot of police presence at events.

a. Laughlin River Run feud/shooting (HAMC and Mongols) at Harrah’s.

b. First Sturgis shooting (Iron Pig and HAMC) in 20 years at a downtown pub.

c. Street Vibrations (HAMC and Mongols) had numerous citizens calling police concerned about a biker war given the killing of Mark “Papa” Guardado.

7. Repo Rates:

a. Little dark secret of the industry and hardly ever reported on is that repo rates have ballooned due to the mortgage/credit crisis. Go to the Spokane auctions and see all the bikes. A lot of folks used home equity loans to buy toys. When the interest rate skyrocketed so did the payments for the toys and the number of loan defaults has increased.

Just a few examples and any one of these wouldn’t be an issue in of itself, but the combination of problems are having a profound impact on the industry.

So are Rallies as we’ve known them over?  I believe so.  I can remember a few years ago being able to walk casino-to-casino in Reno during Street Vibrations with a beer in hand.  No more, the RPD stopped numerous folks this year.  I can remember 5 years ago staying at the Pink Flamingo (now Aquarius) at the Laughlin River Run watching HAMC prospects do bagger wheelie’s in the valet parking area.  Not these days.  All you’ll see is 20+ motorcycle police.

The real problem is that many of the “industry’s customers” won’t demand attention or seek corrective action to the problems. They have no will or united voice on the issue.  And we all know what happens to the squeaky wheel.  HD and so many other companies at these rallies are simply a corporation that makes money selling motorcycles and motorcycle accessories. The corporate officers want you to believe they are biker’s best friend, but at the end of the day it’s all about business and what will bring them the best return on their investment.  I get the capitalism gig, but where does it end?

Maybe when we’re all sitting around the motorcycle lift watching TV in the garage and toasting the “good-ol-days” when people ACTUALLY went to a rally rather than just watch them on the Discovery Channel?  Maybe it ends when more states do what Montana has done…tourism officials actually target motorcyclist as a demographic they WANT in the state and doing things (special web site, special MDT road reports, and suggested rides) to court us rather than legislate ways to ban us, limit noise, curtail events and hold public relation meetings evangelizing the negative media coverage against bikers.  It will change when state tourism officials recognize that clinging to the overturned lifeboat in a storm and hoping that somebody (the customer) finds them is inadequate.

So, slip off those steel-toed boots or $520 Ferragamo loafers and plan your next rally!  Besides, who cares what the destination is, as long as the route is awesome.

Photo courtesy CNN and Motorcycle Dairies web sites.

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