Motorcycle companies cash in on adventure riding boom

Charles Fleming
Los Angeles Times

Blame it on Ewan McGregor.

Interest in “adventure” motorcycling, riding that involves touring hidden backroads with the prospect of exploring unpaved trails, has been warming up since the Scottish actor starred with his childhood pal Charley Boorman in the 2004 documentary “The Long Way Round.”

Now, adventure riding has warmed to the boiling point. The niche segment, which in 2011 accounted for only 5 percent of motorcycle sales, has grown to 10 percent, according to the industry publication Power Sports Business. Those sales have high value: Adventure bikers spend more on their bikes, and more on after-market accessories for their bikes, than any other kind of rider.

As a result, virtually every major manufacturer has fielded a machine in the segment, and scores of apparel and equipment makers, along with riding schools and motorcycle travel companies, are cashing in on the enthusiasm.

But they may have to hurry. The adventure niche attracts an older cohort, and they’re aging out of the sport fast. New riders may not be catching the adventure bug as quickly as their elders.

According to Power Sports Business, the age group buying the most adventure bikes was 50-54, followed closely by 45-49 and 55-59. Those in their early 50s bought almost twice as many bikes as the 20-to-24 group.

Phil Freeman, who started his company, MotoQuest, in 1998, thinks the high buy-in is the principal factor limiting younger riders from joining the adventure; his core customer ranges in age from 50-80. The motorcycles can cost $20,000 or more if bought new, and the clothing and gear can easily add another $3,000 to that.

“It’s expensive,” he said. “Maybe younger riders just can’t afford it.”

“Adventure riding evokes all the dreams that people have about riding a motorcycle,” said Cycle World Editor-in-Chief Mark Hoyer. “But you’ve got to be funded. You have to be able to make the nut.”

Jeremy LeBreton thought he saw something new happening in motorcycling in 2008. A year later, he started a company called AltRider, catering to a growing kind of riding that involved taking street bikes off-road. AltRider began with six after-market parts for the Suzuki V-Strom.

Today, AltRider offers 380 parts, designed to make all manner of motorcycle more adventure-worthy: beefier footpegs, crash bars to protect exposed engine parts, or special navigation systems or tool kits.

Andy Goldfine came to adventure riding earlier than LeBreton, and in a more personal way. He was commuting to work on a motorcycle in the 1980s, and didn’t like having to change clothes every time he got on and off the bike. So he developed a special set of riding overalls. The Roadcrafter one-piece textile riding suit became a staple of motorcycle touring.

Today, Aerostich’s lavish catalog offers more than 2,000 individual items — many of them designed to assist the adventure rider. Goldfine credits technological advances in four areas with pushing the adventure boom.

“One is GPS, because you’re never lost. Two is a cellphone, so you’re never alone. Three is the textile clothing, like ours. And four is motorcycles that don’t break down,” he said.