They’re called “sleeping license holders,” the nearly eight million Americans who have motorcycle riding credentials but don’t own a bike.
Harley-Davidson and other motorcycle manufacturers, seeking new customers as baby boomers age out of riding, want to wake them up.
Who are the “Sleeping License Holders”?
Many were active motorcyclists who had things happen in their life that caused them to quit riding: marriage, kids, financial pressures,
a job that demands most of their time or simply a change in interests, to name a few reasons.
Others completed rider training, got their license, but never bought a bike.
Maybe they rent one occasionally, or they’re content to be a passenger with the option of taking over the handlebars should that be
necessary. It’s OK to set your own boundaries and limits, said Michelle Swanson, a motorcyclist from Muskego.
“I completely respect that,” Swanson said, adding that she was hesitant to buy a motorcycle after completing rider training but now
has a 2014 Harley-Davidson Dyna Street Bob.
Some aspiring motorcyclists take a rider safety class, which is the path to getting a bike license in Wisconsin and most states, but their
confidence is shaken when they go from training sessions to highways swarming with distracted drivers.
“Many people are not prepared for that,” said Genevieve Schmitt, a longtime motorcyclist and founder of the magazine Women Riders Now.
Tom Stresing, a bike safety instructor in Milwaukee, said one of his best students quit the class before taking the final test.
She took the course to see if she could handle it, and clearly she could, but she wasn’t that interested in becoming a rider.
“I almost cried because she was an awesome student,” Stresing said.
Fueling the desire to become a motorcycle owner, or maybe rekindling it in a sleeper, is an integral part of the marketing strategy
for Harley-Davidson and rival Indian Motorcycle.
Harley has a goal of attracting 2 million new U.S. riders over the next 10 years, a tall order considering it would represent a 25%
increase in the total number of motorcycles registered in the nation.
Some of the hurdles to selling new bikes: Baby Boomers cutting their spending as they near retirement, and Millennials — often strapped
with student loan debt — not seeing the value in spending thousands of dollars for something they can use only eight months of the year.
Millennials value the experience of riding a motorcycle, but they don’t necessarily want to own one, Schmitt said.
The median age of U.S. motorcyclists is about 45, with an overwhelming number of new bike buyers over the age of 50, according to
Cycle World magazine. “Harley-Davidson must overcome hurdles both demographic and social,” Cycle World said in a recent article.
And, of course, there are the sleepers who previously rode but in some cases haven’t thrown a leg over a motorcycle for years.
“It’s a group we are digging into … so we can figure out ways to bring them back into the sport and remind them of why they loved riding,”
said Heather Malenshek, vice president of global marketing and brand at Harley-Davidson.
For those folks who take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course to get their license but are on the fence about buying a bike, Harley wants to
reach them within six months of completing the class.
It doesn’t mean they can’t be convinced to buy a bike later, but that six-month window is the “sweet spot,” Malenshek said.
Harley-Davidson says it’s committed to introducing 100 new motorcycles over the next 10 years, including an electric bike, and that effort will
surely bring some sleeping license holders into bike ownership. Critics say the company hasn’t done enough to keep things interesting.
Tweaking a few things on a motorcycle and calling it a new model doesn’t generate much enthusiasm, said Chaz Hastings, the former owner of
Milwaukee Harley-Davidson, a dealership on the city’s north side.
Harley has disappointed its dealers and customers, according to Hastings. “They’ve become too corporate, in my opinion, and they’ve really
lost their magic,” he said.
One of Harley-Davidson’s rivals, Indian Motorcycle, is also digging into why the sleepers aren’t taking that next step to become motorcycle owners.