There are relatively few things I look forward to doing in the dead of winter. Going to the International Motorcycle Show when it comes to Chicago is one of them. February may seem like the worst possible time to put on a show like this. What were they thinking?
In warm weather states, the IMS features outdoor activities, like demo rides, in addition to the indoor expo. That isn’t very feasible here in the frigid, snowy Midwest—although every year you will find at least one snow-capped motorcycle parked in the remote lot. We do have our diehard riders. For most of us, though, the IMS is as close to riding as we can get in the dead of winter.
Such was certainly the case this year. Thanks to my unemployed/self-employed status (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3), my wife and I were able to attend this year’s show on opening day. The entire area was under a winter storm warning that morning, but that didn’t deter us. I shoveled several inches of snow before we left and off into the storm we went. The drive was slow and visibility poor, but we eventually arrived safely at the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. I’m sure the show’s organizers, UK-based UBM, weren’t too choked up about the lighter attendance that afternoon, but Karen and I thoroughly enjoyed the uncrowded aisles and displays.
I have gone to the IMS every year since 2003 for two reasons. First and foremost, I want to see the new models up close. Sit on a few bikes. Talk to the reps. Dream. Other motorcycle enthusiasts will understand. I am always drawn to “retro” models, that remind me of what motorcycles looked like back when I was a kid, and also new concepts and trends. These days, however, my tastes run heavily toward “full dresser” touring bikes because I enjoy taking road trips on two wheels. Now truly any motorcycle can be utilized for long distance travel. Indeed, people have proven the point by making coast-to-coast journeys on small displacement dual-sport motorcycles, 50cc scooters and even mopeds. Me, I like to travel in comfort, often with a passenger, and do not (intentionally) ride off-road. I like a bike that can be ridden for hours on the interstate, comfortably, but that also handles well on curvy backroads.
I saw a couple of interesting new touring bikes this year, both imports. The all-new Honda Gold Wing Tour packs a lot of technology, power, and comfort into a fairly compact package (relative to the last two iterations of this machine). The unconventional double wishbone front suspension drew a lot of attention, as did all the onboard gadgetry. Compared to the previous GL 1800, which seemed truck-like up front in my eyes, this year’s model looks positively svelte. My greatest concern, apart from the prospect of going back to a Japanese bike from my current American-made mount, is the reduced luggage capacity. The touring model (i.e. with trunk) offers 110 liters total or about 29 gallons of cargo space, 40 liters less than the previous model. That’s a concern for someone like me, who has never been one to pack light.
Yamaha also upped the ante this year with their all-new Star Venture. While no slouch in the technology department, the Venture doesn’t have quite as much high-tech punch as the does the Gold Wing. What it does have is a new air-cooled (!) V-twin powerplant, a comfortably low seat height, and ample luggage capacity—38 gallons, give or take, depending on trim. As with the Honda, I’d have to put this bike through the paces, with and without passenger, before passing any real judgement. But I must say, this bike felt good beneath me. So much so that I went back for one last look before leaving the show that day.
Ever since I bought my Victory Vision, almost five years and 50,000 miles ago now, I’ve had an ever-growing appreciation for American-made motorcycles. I can say without boasting that my current ride is the biggest, heaviest, sweetest sounding, most comfortable road machine I have yet owned. But following Polaris’ decision last year to cease production of the Victory brand, my domestic choices have been reduced. Although I have never owned or even ridden a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, I have a great deal of respect for the brand as well as for the company behind it. I won’t rule out the possibility of owning one sometime in the future, but I must admit that compared to some other choices, the H-D models feel a bit cramped and just don’t seem to “fit” me well. Then there’s Indian. I’ve never owned one but have ridden their Chief and Chieftain models. Still not as roomy as my Vision (I’m not sure what is), the big Indians have a nice ride and a sweet sound. They are also quite expensive and although the touchscreen display on their Chieftain and Roadmaster models is the largest in the industry, I can’t get over the likeness of that big, boxy dash to a 1950’s television set.
The other reason I enjoy attending the IMS every year is to walk the merchant aisles. This year had a better mix of vendors and promoters than I’d seen in a while. For one thing, there were more “destination” exhibitors—tourism departments, event promoters, etc. I love those because their maps and brochures give me something to look over and ponder while I wait for the snow to melt. The apparel and accessory booths are always fun to browse, too. There is one vendor in particular called Cyphen Sportswear that Karen and I look forward to seeing each year. We have been buying T-shirts from Steve and Ronnie for many, many years now. They watched our children grow up, back when we used to take them along. We’ve gotten to know each other well enough that we no longer just shop, but actually stay at their booth and visit for a while.
Custom builds have become a big part of the IMS in recent years. I have no mechanical aptitude to speak of—I break things—but I have an eye for aesthetics and a deep appreciation for custom bike builders who know their craft. Of particular note this year was “Porterfield,” a board tracker custom by a group called Motorcycle Missions, “a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Corporation helping individuals who deal with PTS(D) and suicidal ideation find hope and healing through motorcycles.” I am intrigued by this organization, which deserves more attention from the media as well as the public at large. Motorcycle Missions in fact won the J&P Cycles Ultimate Biker Build Off Championship and was declared the 2018 “King of the Builders” at the Chicago show.
And so we drove home with our souvenir bags filled with literature, freebies, and whatever merchandise we’d purchased at the show. The snow had stopped and, presumably due to the storm having kept so many people at home, the roads were wide open at what should have been the height of Chicagoland’s afternoon/evening rush.
I know motorcycling isn’t for everybody, but it’s clearly a thing for me. There is nothing else quite like it. Thanks for hanging with me.