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Drebbin
03-28-2005, 05:21 PM
Atlanta Journal and Constitution

March 27, 2005, Sunday

HEADLINE: Harley-Davidson of Atlanta turns average residents into serious riders

BYLINE: By Matt Kempner

Right off the bat, you know there is going to be trouble.

Riders are on 12 motorcycles lined up in a row, motors calmly rumbling.

Except for one machine. It's freaking out.

White smoke is shooting out the exhaust, the engine is screaming and one of the always-calm instructors is walking at an increasingly brisk pace toward the befuddled rider.

The rider -- a 44-year-old who has dreamed of motorcycling -- throws her arms up in the air as if to say she didn't do it and she has no idea why this crazed motorcycle would lose control of itself.

"Don't roll on the throttle," the instructor says.

Moments later, the engine screams again. Again the rider throws her arms into the air. What will happen when it's time to ride? Ouch.

Welcome to motorcycle school, where the business of selling cycles meets the reality of the road.

It's one thing to dream of churning up the highway on $ 30,000 worth of chrome-encrusted horsepower and attitude. But first: How do you ride the darn thing?

Some of those leather-clad Harley riders who churn up I-85 or rumble over North Georgia blacktop worked out their fears at a place like this: the backside of the Harley-Davidson of Atlanta dealership off Thornton Road.

More than 2,000 students have passed through the Lithia Springs dealership, paying $ 350 for training that spans four days and includes a workbook, classroom talk and lots of time on a range, riding dealer-supplied motorcycles.

Classes are in a trailer decorated with Harley accessories and signs. Students watch a standard safety video, but it's been adapted by the dealership: All the motorcycles are Harleys. The course ends with students taking the state motorcycle license test.

Harley-Davidson of Atlanta is among top U.S. Harley dealerships for Rider's Edge enrollment.

Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Inc. is trying to persuade more dealers to offer the program. Harley has grown in recent years and topped $ 5 billion in revenue last year, but it faces the time bomb of an aging customer base. The median age is just on the gray side of 45 and rising.

When Harley launched Rider's Edge five years ago, executives hoped it would attract a fresh batch of riders, including younger buyers.

So far, the program has graduated more than 45,000, but it has yet to revolutionize Harley. In fact, the median age of Harley buyers has increased slightly since the course began. And only 96 of Harley's 700 or so dealers have agreed to offer the program -- in part because of licensing restrictions in some states and the hefty costs of operating the program.

"A lot of dealers were very reluctant, and some still are," says Eddie Houghton, who owns Harley-Davidson of Atlanta along with his son, Chris. But "it's brought a lot of money in to us."

The Houghtons spent $ 250,000 to gear up. That includes buying extra insurance and a classroom trailer, paving the training area and installing a chain-link fence to stop out-of-control riders. They also bought training motorcycles -- stripped of vulnerable parts such as sideview mirrors -- and hired three full-time instructors.

What the students pay for the class is only enough to make the course break even, Chris Houghton says.

The real payoff is in what students spend afterward. The dealership has tracked $ 4.5 million in sales to people who took the course: an average of two bikes per class, plus enough helmets to make the dealership Harley's top helmet seller last year.

In most classes of 12 people, three or four have never ridden a motorcycle, and others haven't been on one in years.

"You become almost like a mentor to them," Houghton says. "They are kind of a clean sheet of paper. You take them by the hand, get them comfortable riding, create a rapport with them. And more than likely they are going to do business with you."

It's not unlike Home Depot holding in-store classes to teach customers how to lay tile or Wolf Camera offering customers a $ 39.95 package of photography classes.

Other motorcycle makers have noticed Harley's progress.

Honda, which has a training building and range in Alpharetta, offers motorcycle courses, but it doesn't include the selling angle -- yet.

Harley has tried to perfect the model.

Two days before the riding portion of a recent class, the first session began with a 45-minute tour of the dealership. It included discussions about renting Harleys and buying gloves, jackets, sunglasses and those leather riding pants with the bottoms missing. (A saleswoman confides that "a lot of the people putting them on are very self-conscious" the first time but soon get over it.)

Before entering the showroom, instructor Lawrence Marquit, who also teaches marketing classes at Georgia State University, asks the class, "What kind of bike do you see yourself on? What's your vision of you on your bike?"

Students -- most look older than 40, several have gray hair and five are women -- smile when a sales associate cranks up a motorcycle in the showroom. The roar rumbles through the store.

"Sounds pretty good to me," says Dave Cole, a bespectacled 62-year-old who is a retired chairman of retail and consumer products consultant Kurt Salmon Associates.

He straddles some of the showroom's chrome candy, first an orange cycle, then a purple one.

One woman asks what the bars are near the motorcycle engines. Those are the engine guards -- also known as crash bars, she's told. The students chuckle.

Cole later says the tour "was a little more business than I would have liked."

But he's pumped for the experience. He hasn't had a motorcycle since he was 16 -- in one of his early wrecks he conked his head so hard that the headaches lingered for years. His kids worry. "They wish I wasn't here," he says.

Day Three is riding day. At 8 a.m., there's still frost on the motorcycle seats.

The range looks like a schoolyard blacktop, minus the monkey bars.

The would-be chopper fiends are wearing name tags and white helmets that encase their heads like giant marshmallows.

The students quietly mention one fear: looking like a dork.

Marquit, the instructor, starts off nice and easy. They already talked about all this in the classroom.

They practice getting on and off the motorcycle. They look closely at the controls. An instructor displays the proper riding posture: Head up. Elbows in and slightly bent.

They turn on the engine. They turn off the engine.

"Nice job," Marquit tells them.

Michael Tang prepared for this. The 36-year-old director of information technology lifts one foot off the ground and pretends to flip an imaginary gear shift lever with his toes.

"I've practiced all night," he confides.

He didn't mention this little adventure to his parents. He's planning on buying a Harley.

With the motorcycles lined up on one side of the course, the students are shown how to do a sort of ride/walk to the other side.

This is where the problems begin. The motorcycles stall. Again and again. But the riders are moving.

At the first break, Tang is smiling.

"I got a rush," he says, although he stalled the cycle a dozen times.

Looking the part Surely, Lamar Manning has done better. The 48-year-old lumberyard manager looks like a real Easy Rider. Thick beard, tough face, ponytail.

But he hasn't ridden a motorcycle in years, and when he did he says he didn't really know what he was doing.

"I've wanted a bike since I was 16," Manning says. He explains why it's taken him this long: "kids, house, responsibility."

"I said, 'I'd better do it now, or I'll never do it.' " He stalled just twice on the first round of class -- not enough to jeopardize plans to buy a Harley priced at $ 32,000-plus.

But not all is well on the riding range.

That rider keeps rolling the throttle without realizing it. Each time it revs until she throws her arms into the air.

Until now, Sandra McEver, a quiet woman, seemed to melt into the rest of the class. She works two jobs: driving a school bus and waiting tables at a Waffle House. She saved up for the $ 350 class fee.

But she can't get the hang of the throttle. Forty-five minutes and only a few yards into the riding-range segment, she revs the throttle and once again throws her hands into the air.

This time, though, she does it with the motorcycle moving.

It wobbles, then falls sideways. Marquit, the instructor, hustles over.

McEver is unhurt and tries again. No luck. Soon Marquit gives her the bad news. No more today.

She walks off the course, lifting her helmet, exposing a carefully tied-on do-rag. She is crying. Her motorcycle, a Buell Blast, is scratched a little. It's now a Buell Blst.

Chris Carr, another instructor, comforts her. "Everybody works at a different pace," he says. "We'll work with you."

They schedule a time for her to take a one-on-one class for free, with the idea that she will work up to another group class at no additional cost.

McEver says she is OK with this setback. She knew she would crash, she says.

"I want to learn so bad," she says. She's ridden on the back of a friend's motorcycle, and it gave her a taste of something.

"It's fun. It's exciting. It's exhilarating," she says. "It's like you're free. It takes all your worries away."

She says she'll learn and then -- with perhaps another three years of saving -- she'll buy a new motorcycle she's had her eye on and thinks she can afford.

A Honda.

WildHair
03-28-2005, 06:38 PM
I took the riders edge course at HD Atlanta last July. They do have a great facility. Larry and Chris are good guys and great instructors. We had a lady bomb out of our course too, she just couldn't get the hang of it. Our class is supposed to get together this spring for a ride.

hogwylde
03-29-2005, 04:41 AM
I think this is a great idea, and to a certain degree, think it should be mandatory. Think about it:

you buy a tv - they show you how to use it
buy a new heating system for house - they show you the controls
buy an airline ticket - they show you how to be safe (every effin time...lol)
get cable - tech shows you how to use equipment

(except ricknsa of course)........ :P

I wish they'd had this when I bought my bike. I already knew how to ride and had taken courses before, but knowledge is a terrible thing to waste.

BillC
03-29-2005, 06:13 PM
My wife took a Rider's Edge course last year. Or, perhaps I should say she tried to. She ended up quitting early Saturday afternoon (the first day of riding). In fact, it scarred her so badly she may have permanently lost any interest she ever had in getting a bike -- Harley may have actually lost a sale due to that class. She came home from the class crying her eyes out, with some spectacular bruises the full length of both legs.

The basic problems are the instructors pushed her (and about half of her classmates) too fast and the Buell Blast is a lousy bike for a first-time rider.

The instructors were too worried about completing the curriculum on time to let my wife have the time she needed to learn to ride. When I signed her up, I expected that she probably wouldn't pass the first time (because she'd never driven a motorcycle before, not because of lack of ability). As such, all I wanted was for her to have a good time and start to learn how to ride. But, the instructors kept moving the class to new skills (gotta keep the schedule juker ) before she (or most of the class) had gotten comfortable with the previous skills. Once she and the instructors realized she wasn't going to pass, I would have been perfectly happy if they'd just let her go to the other side of the parking lot and practice basic start, stop and turn skills, just to let her get a little more seat time.

The other problem was those d*@n bikes. A sport bike, even a low-powered one-lunger, is NOT the right bike to teach a total newby on. It is too tall, top-heavy and uncomfortable. What they really need to use is a three-quarter-scale Softail, or something like a Honda Rebel.

The only little bit of satisfaction that came from the class, is apparently my wife really trashed the bike before she quit -- not intentially, but she took four bad spills before giving up. From her description, the bike looked like one of Saddam's tanks after the invasion.

Perhaps the only good thing that came out of the class is that she's no longer afraid of crashing a bike. :lol:

BTW, does anyone have a cheap Honda Rebel 250, or similar bike, for sale near me? I might, repeat MIGHT, be able to get her back on a bike if I can get an easy-to-ride bike and to teach her at her own pace (just to get her prepared to take a beginner's course). The emphasis has to be on low-cost, 'cuz it stands a good chance of being "sacrificed" during the teaching.

trunx
03-29-2005, 07:16 PM
That's unfortunate that the instructors behaved in this manner. I took the Rider's Edge course a few years back and had an extremely positive experience. Even in my class there was two students, one male and one female who really struggled the first day. They were taken aside and taught separately from the class at a slower pace. By the end of the second day, one of the students completed the course with us and the other student didn't 'graduate' in our class.

I have a little different take on the Buell Blast. It's not the greatest bike in the world, but quite honestly, I want a challenging bike during training, on a closed course. I wanted my course to be as challenging as possible given that the open roads would be less forgiving of my mistakes then the training course. I would have been displeased to make any false assumptions about my riding abilities should I have been trained on a bike could minimize any of my mistakes.

Not trying to be argumentative here just a different perspective on the training methodology. Have a good one.

Drebbin
03-29-2005, 09:47 PM
My wife took a Rider's Edge course last year. Or, perhaps I should say she tried to. She ended up quitting early Saturday afternoon (the first day of riding). In fact, it scarred her so badly she may have permanently lost any interest she ever had in getting a bike -- Harley may have actually lost a sale due to that class. She came home from the class crying her eyes out, with some spectacular bruises the full length of both legs.

The basic problems are the instructors pushed her (and about half of her classmates) too fast and the Buell Blast is a lousy bike for a first-time rider.

The instructors were too worried about completing the curriculum on time to let my wife have the time she needed to learn to ride. When I signed her up, I expected that she probably wouldn't pass the first time (because she'd never driven a motorcycle before, not because of lack of ability). As such, all I wanted was for her to have a good time and start to learn how to ride. But, the instructors kept moving the class to new skills (gotta keep the schedule juker ) before she (or most of the class) had gotten comfortable with the previous skills. Once she and the instructors realized she wasn't going to pass, I would have been perfectly happy if they'd just let her go to the other side of the parking lot and practice basic start, stop and turn skills, just to let her get a little more seat time.

The other problem was those d*@n bikes. A sport bike, even a low-powered one-lunger, is NOT the right bike to teach a total newby on. It is too tall, top-heavy and uncomfortable. What they really need to use is a three-quarter-scale Softail, or something like a Honda Rebel.

The only little bit of satisfaction that came from the class, is apparently my wife really trashed the bike before she quit -- not intentially, but she took four bad spills before giving up. From her description, the bike looked like one of Saddam's tanks after the invasion.

Perhaps the only good thing that came out of the class is that she's no longer afraid of crashing a bike. :lol:

BTW, does anyone have a cheap Honda Rebel 250, or similar bike, for sale near me? I might, repeat MIGHT, be able to get her back on a bike if I can get an easy-to-ride bike and to teach her at her own pace (just to get her prepared to take a beginner's course). The emphasis has to be on low-cost, 'cuz it stands a good chance of being "sacrificed" during the teaching.

In my case - the MSF course at the local community college was disastrous - I passed - but the instructors and bikes were horrible.

Then I took Riders Edge at HD - FANTASTIC instructors and LOVED the Buell -- the bikes were in excellent condition since the dealer owned them. Just goes to show ya it can be different anywhere. Hope your wife finds the right place & instructors - DREBBIN

BillC
03-30-2005, 03:13 PM
trunx --

Did you have any riding experience prior to taking the Rider's Edge course? The Blast is probably adequate to learn on for somone with some prior experience. It is my opinion, however, that the Blast is just a little too much to be the best possible learning platform for a total newbie with no prior riding experience at all (other than being a passenger).

I agree that the training should be challenging. However, it shouldn't be so challenging that those who fail are so emotionally scarred they never want to try again. They should really formalize a procedure where those who can't pass the course are pulled aside and allowed to practice at a slower pace.

Also, the instructors tried to spend some extra time with my wife, and the other students who needed it. Unfortunately, they were so fixated on the schedule that they couldn't give my wife the attention and time she needed (it was understandable, given the other students in the class, but still unfortunate).

Drebbin --

The instructors my wife had were professional and courteous. The problem is that they were so fixated on maintaining the schedule that they wouldn't even entertain the idea of letting my wife just keep on practicing on the side (she asked, and they said "no"). I even went back to the Harley dealer afterwards, to talk to the course manager. This particular dealer apparently tells its instructors to keep the class together at all costs and to rigidly stick to the schedule (at least, that was the attitude I was given). When I asked the manager about why not just let her continue to practice on the side, I was told "that isn't in the MSF course, so we can't do that".

Maybe part of the problem was that last year was the first year this dealer started doing Rider's Edge, and they still needed to get more "comfortable" with stretching the bounds of the program. Who knows? All I know for sure is that they wouldn't give my wife the extra time she needed to learn to ride.