Harley-Davidson wants to teach more to ride

In this Dec. 12, 2017, photo, Terri Meehan poses on a 2018 Harley Softail Slim in Milwaukee's House of Harley. Meehan took a riding course at the dealership as part of Harley-Davidson's "Riding Academy," an initiative the company hopes will help bring new customers. (AP Photo/Ivan Moreno)

In this Dec. 12, 2017, photo, Samantha Kay poses for a photo on a 2017 Harley Sportster Forty-Eight in Milwaukee's House of Harley. Kay took a riding course at the dealership as part of Harley-Davidson's "Riding Academy," an initiative the company hopes will help bring new customers. (AP Photo/Ivan Moreno)

MILWAUKEE — Harley-Davidson is placing a renewed emphasis on teaching people to ride as part of its efforts to attract more customers.

The Milwaukee-based company’s decision to expand the number of dealerships with a Harley “Riding Academy” comes as the industry grapples with years of declining sales and an aging customer base.

The program launched in 2000 with about 50 locations and now 245 dealerships in the U.S. offer the three- or four-day course. The company says about a quarter of those launched since 2014.

Harley sold 124,777 new motorcycles through nine months in 2017, down from 135,581 during the same period the previous year, according to the company’s most recent earnings report.

The Motorcycle Industry Council says the median age of motorcycle owners increased from 32 to 47 since 1990. About 46 percent of riders are over 50; only about 10 percent are 30-34.

Samantha Kay rode on the back of her father’s motorcycle growing up, but when the 25-year-old took a class to ride for the first time she couldn’t help being anxious.

“I think motorcycles inherently do scare a lot of people,” said Kay, a Milwaukee woman who is one of 50,000 people nationwide who took a riding course at a Harley-Davidson dealership this year.

The training is one of the ways Harley is trying to attract a new generation of riders like Kay amid big demographic shifts.

“Some of the aging Baby Boomers, which have been the guts of Harley-Davidson’s purchasers, they’re getting older and some of them are just getting out of the sport because they can’t handle the motorcycle anymore,” said Clyde Fessler, who retired from Harley-Davidson in 2002 after holding several executive positions over 25 years. He created what became the “Riding Academy.”

He said the idea “is getting people comfortable on a motorcycle and getting them to feel safe and confident.”

In addition to riders getting older, a slow economic recovery has made it harder for millennials to buy new motorcycles, said Jim Williams, vice president of the American Motorcyclist Association.

Among the newest models, a 2018 Softail Slim starts at $15,899 and a 2018 Sportster Forty-Eight at $11,299.

“The younger generations are buying plenty of motorcycles, they’re just not new,” Williams said.

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