On the opening day of the 2004 Motorcycle and Scooter Show, the sun shone brightly from a near cloudless sky. A first glance inside the NEC in Birmingham confirmed the impression. It resembled a Bush/Cheney victory party in rural Virginia. T-shirts proclaimed the sort of slogans beloved of good ole boys everywhere: "Dip me in a lesbian. I don't like chocolate" and "Do my balls look big on this?" Heavy rock music pulsated and semi-naked women were being paid to dance to it.
Two-wheelers, particularly scooters, are increasingly popular among women, but the motorcycle industry is struggling to adapt. Superbike Magazine made no concessions. On its stand, a girl in distractingly tight white shorts was pole dancing in the general vicinity of a racing motorcycle. Harley Davidson did a little better. Their dance troupe wore jeans and shirts to gyrate behind the new ultra-low Sportster XL883, which, confusingly, is designed specifically for female riders. Suzuki was not even that mixed up. Catherine and Jo draped themselves across a GSXR750 and smiled bravely through a barrage of predictable jibes about "fur-lined seat warmers" and "comfortable rides".
The list of companies promoting their products via gratuitous displays of young female flesh was long. Even finance and insurance companies seem to consider it appropriate to link motorcycling with a 30-year-old perception of women. One insurance company opted for strappy high heels and micro-shorts, but all-in-one body stockings and black lace were popular, too.
Boringly, predictable the marketing certainly is, but it should not put motorcyclists and aspiring riders off a visit to the NEC this week. The Motorcycle and Scooter Show is simply the best opportunity in Britain to see the latest two-wheeled technology under one roof. Here you can inspect and buy everything from the new 167bhp BMW K1200S to a synthetic Mohican hair strip for your helmet, or marvel at the revived Triumph range that has won the British marque record sales on both sides of the Atlantic. The range of machinery, clothing and advice is unparalleled and the facilities are good, too, such as a crèche run by Nipperbout and the BSM Try a Scooter track.
Mike Loydall, head of rider training with BSM, explains. "A lot of those who come to the show are dreamers. They love the idea of motorcycling but they have never actually learned to ride. Under the supervision of our instructors, a novice can learn a lot in 20 minutes. It's often enough to persuade them to turn their dream into reality."
While the novice is coming to terms with a scooter and the experienced rider is checking out superbikes including the new Yamaha MT-01 Sports Roadster, Triumph Rocket III and Suzuki GSX-R1000, there is plenty to amuse children. In the Trials Arena, top professional riders including world champion Dougie Lampkin demonstrate tricks including a racing pyramid. BSM have installed interactive screens at which young riders can check what is required to pass the motorcycle theory test and the Try a Scooter facility is open to children who reach a minimum height requirement. For those who don't, a PlayStation ride-simulator offers the next best thing.
Behind the stockings and mini skirts, the Motorcycle and Scooter show is full of surprises. My personal favourite is the new Tracker anti-theft device. All motorcyclists know the statistics; they are reflected in our insurance premiums. Bikes are twice as likely to be stolen as cars but only half as likely to be recovered. Traditional GPS/GSM location devices are useless because motorcycle thieves rarely ride the machine away. They lift it into a van or container lorry and remove security devices later. Once inside a metal box a GPS transmitter is useless. Now Tracker have devised a VHF radio version that will transmit through metal. At £399 for the basic version it is not cheap, but neither is losing an expensive motorbike.
Having discovered gems like the Tracker and the gratuitous-babe-free-zones offered by BMW, Ducati and Triumph, I was beginning to feel more positive about the Motorcycle Show. My well-being was increased by a visit to the Classic Village. I had no idea a 1964 Suzuki looked like that and I do wish modern technology was compatible with the shape of a 1970s Moto Guzzi. But it took an attractive woman to turn my grimace into a big smile.
Standing at the Biker Babe stall (www.biker-babe.co.uk), owner Samantha Hatch looked like another luscious model hired to charm me. Her T-shirt said, "I'm smiling because I've just had a fabulous ride." But there was something wrong. Two male models, Simon and Steve, accompanied her. "They're my bitches," she says. "I've hired them to do my bidding for the day."
Biker Babe aims to profit from misogyny. Samantha, whose day job is an air traffic controller, says, "Motorcycling is very male-dominated. Women are taking more bike tests but find it hard to buy good kit. If you go into a bike shop all the women's gear is hidden away and a lot of it is badly cut. We pull all the gear on the market together on one website and print some cheesy t-shirts, too."
The excellent and intriguing Motorcycle and Scooter Show would do itself a favour if it promoted itself with images of female riders like Samantha instead of catwalk lingerie models, but that goes for most of the bike industry. Excellent products deserve subtler promotion, but a visit to the NEC suggests that the increasingly successful British and European motorcycle and scooter companies understand that. Japan has some work to do.
The Motorcycle and Scooter Show is at the NEC until 14 NovemberReuse content