My Good Day at the 2018 Chicago IMS

IMG_0496There 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.

IMG_0522Such 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Of Love and Motorcycles

Every year around the second weekend in February, three things have been happening for some time now—Valentine’s Day, my wife’s birthday, and the International Motorcycle Show in Chicago. One of these things is not like the other, but sometimes it’s difficult for me to tell which one. This year’s trio of festivities was one of those times.

Of these three traditions, Valentine’s Day would be the oldest. Some people call it a corporate holiday, but that’s not at all accurate. The earliest known written Valentine dates back to the year 1415, and the origins of this holiday concern a Christian martyr who lived, and consequently died, in the third century. We don’t know that Saint Valentine was born or killed in February. The placement of his feast day may have more to do with the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, which fell on February 15. All of this is the stuff of mystery and legend, so who knows, really, but Google it if you want to learn more.

Beer KarenNext in the chronological order of things would be the birth of my wife. I can’t get into those particulars without getting into trouble. To put things into perspective, let me just say that we were married over 30 years ago and leave it at that. I do need to tell you some things about Karen, though, things that are highly relevant to this story.

For openers, Karen is not a motorcycle fanatic. Due at least in part to certain physical ailments and constraints, her total saddle time with me over the years amounts to less than four hours. If not for my own obsession with the hobby, I’m reasonably certain Karen wouldn’t have any interest in it at all. Yet nobody has ever been more supportive and encouraging of my own participation than she. On those rare occasions where pleasant weather and my free time converge, Karen is usually the first one to suggest that I go for a ride. Shortly after I had my first and, so far, only motorcycle accident, I briefly entertained the idea of taking the insurance money for my totalled bike and not buying another one. Karen let that idea take voice for all of 20 seconds before choking the life out of it with the words, “I guess you could, but you’d be doing it for all the wrong reasons.” This is the woman who more than once now, when it would have made more financial sense to keep the money, advised me to buy the bike. This is also the woman who, knowing that she would not enjoy riding pillion with me for very long, actually encourages me to let other beautiful women go riding with me. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the other Saint Karen.

DucatiRelatively young in the grand scheme of things, the origins of the International Motorcycle Shows only go back as far as the 1982 model year. I began going in 2003, the winter before I got my first bike. I was a late bloomer, learned to ride and got my license when I was in my early 40’s. At that point, I just wanted to get the “M” added to my license classification and never intended to actually get a bike. Or so I thought. But once bitten, once I had that M, well you know. So even though motorcycle ownership seemed to be out of the question financially, I wanted to go see bikes. So I dragged my wife and then-young kids to the big cycle show. A few months later, I had a bike of my own, a story unto itself, which we will get to. And I haven’t missed the IMS once since having gone that first time.

This year was destined to be different from the get-go. Both of my kids, now adults, have M’s on their drivers licenses and both have enjoyed going to the IMS with Karen and me over the years. But while my daughter has a healthy appreciation for motorcycles, my son was always more of a fanatic, like me. The two of us would spend more time looking at the bikes, sitting on bikes, engaging vendor representatives in conversation, etc., and then talking about the whole affair for weeks afterward. But this year, for the first time since 2003, my son wasn’t here to go with us. He’s attending an actors conservatory in Oregon for two years, so it’s understandable, but that didn’t make it any easier on me.
Perhaps that’s why Karen requested that we make a special weekend of it, as part of her birthday/Valentine’s Day celebration. She had never done so over the course of the previous twelve years, but in hindsight, it seems to make sense. Sure, it was still bittersweet, but to a much lesser extent because my wife, having had the foresight to know how I would likely fixate on my son’s absence, chose to displace all that with a night and day filled with love and motorcycles.

We arrived at our hotel in separate cars, after work on Friday. Like all the hotels surrounding the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, the Hilton Rosemont is quite nice, if a bit pricey. Parking in the hotel parking lot was $25 per car. The breakfast buffet was nice, but was almost as expensive as parking the cars. They have a small sundry shop, where everything costs about triple what you would pay for the same thing at a gas station convenience store. Fortunately, I always carry my own wine and nibblies for occasions like this. To be honest, I’m amazed there wasn’t a meter of some sort on the toilet’s flush handle. But it was nice. Our room was spacious and clean, the king bed quite comfortable. As romantic getaways go, you could do worse.

OompahFor her birthday supper, Karen had requested the Hofbräuhaus Chicago, which is very close to the hotel. Had it not been the coldest night of this winter season, we might have tried walking there. But it was bitter cold out, so we took my Chevy, which was still warm. What should have taken a minute or two ended up taking a quarter hour filled with wrong turns, dead ends and a stop in the wrong parking lot, where we were given directions to our destination. Bear in mind, this was only a half mile from our hotel, a mere ten minutes away on foot. But we valet parked, laughed it off and walked inside.

Beer Vat HBHI wouldn’t call the Hofbräuhaus romantic, but it is a fun place. The food is great, the beer is quite good, and they have live entertainment. It can be a bit loud, especially if your table is close to the stage, but it’s a good time. I would definitely go back. Try the warm pretzel for openers. Imported from Germany the thing is about as big as a dinner plate and comes with a cheese spread and two different types of mustard. Goes very well with a stein of beer.

PretzelFriday night was all about celebration and romance, but Saturday was fun, too—just in a different way. We got up uncharacteristically early for a Saturday, enjoyed a very nice breakfast buffet at the hotel’s restaurant, checked out of our room, and then took the heated sky bridge from the hotel directly into the convention center. The show had just opened and since I had already bought our tickets, we were able to walk right in without having to stand in line.

Fast MeThe best time to attend the International Motorcycle Show in Chicago is on Friday. The show opens in the afternoon, while many people are at work, and runs until 8:00 PM. There are fewer people, and the manufacturer and vendor reps are fresh. Since 2003, I’ve been able to do that once, and only because I was unemployed at the time. But for those who can go on Friday, I recommend it. The second best day to go is on Sunday. It’s way more crowded than on Friday, but still isn’t too bad during the early hours. The key to doing the IMS on Saturday, probably the busiest day of the three, is to get there when it opens, move as best you can, and try to be done by early afternoon. That’s exactly what we did and by the time we left, around 1:00 PM, the line to get in was intimidating.

Custom NessKaren and I have always viewed the IMS as having two essential two parts, the bike manufacturers and the merchandise vendors. There are other categories, namely the brand-oriented owners clubs, organizations and charities, motorcycle events and tourism, custom bike displays and contests, seminars and demonstrations, some sort of stunt show, and the motorcycle dealership exhibitors. All are nice, but we have always been about the bikes themselves and the product vendors.

We spent hours walking the show. We always spend some time with our favorite tee shirt vendors, an older couple out of New York who have watched our kids grow up, know our faces if not our names, and always greet us with sincere hugs. They sell an awesome selection of tee shirts, too.

Fast KawAs for the bikes, I always like to see what’s new, and because I try to keep up with developments from the major manufacturers, I often arrive looking for specific models. But my perspective has changed entirely since I began attending this show. In 2003 I had never owned a motorcycle and wasn’t entirely sure I ever would. I went to the show wide-eyed and salivating, but left knowing that a purchase wasn’t imminent. Or so I thought.

I wanted to get a bike. I didn’t see how that was possible, for a variety of reasons, but I could imagine the possibility. And so I never stopped thinking about it. Inside of three months, I had a Honda 750 Shadow A.C.E. in my garage. The bike was barely a year old and had something like 3,600 miles on it.

The next year I went to the show as a bike owner, a bona fide motorcyclist. I still salivated, because there were many bikes I thought I might enjoy more than the one I owned. But again I left feeling fairly certain that a purchase wasn’t imminent. One year later, same thing. But two months after that, I bought my first new bike, a 2005 Honda ST1300 sport touring rig.

From that point forward, the number of “bikes I’d rather have” dwindled. In 2007, I suffered my first and (so far) only crash and my insurance company bought me another bike. I chose the same model.

Six more years passed before I bought another bike, not because I didn’t want one, but because the only bikes I wanted more than the one I had were out of my reach. But I continued to follow industry trends and developments, attended demo ride events, religiously continued to attend the IMS, and never closed my mind to the possibilities of getting that next bike. In 2013 I took possession of a gently used 2012 Victory Vision Tour an American made, full-on touring bike powered by a 106 cubic inch v-twin engine. This changed everything.

Custom RatFrom a North American touring standpoint, my current ride is near the top of the food chain. There are other “full dresser” touring bikes, each with its own set of pluses and minuses, and I look at every one of them each year. But for the last two years now, I leave the show without wishing I could afford a different bike than the one I own. I may dream of a new accessory or two, but that’s the extent of it. I’m in a good place.

By early afternoon, Karen and I had seen everything we wanted to see and were ready to head for home. The show had become quite crowded by then and we couldn’t help but notice the depth and breadth of humanity that was outside buying tickets and waiting to get into the show. We had picked a good time to leave.

Beer MeI am grateful to Karen for having thought up this getaway weekend, which provided some much-needed “us” time and helped me not to dwell on the first-time absence of my son. Such is the power of love and motorcycles. As far as I know, our son will miss the show next year, too. Will we do the same thing again? You’re asking the wrong person.

Until next time…