The motorcycling heart of America

People in cold places love motorcycles.

The other day I read an interesting article on Asphalt and Rubber that highlighted where America’s motorcyclists are to be found — both by volume and per capita. By volume, there is nothing surprising: California, Texas and Florida take the top spots. Shocker. California, Texas and Florida are also the most populous U.S. states. 

So, the existence of lots of motorcycles in these states isn’t necessarily a comment on the states’ consistently good riding weather or the attitudes of people there; it is just a reflection of a large population. More people means more things.
Per capita numbers, however, give a better sense of how popular something is. And in those we find that motorcycles are most popular in South Dakota, New Hampshire and Iowa. One in 12 persons owns a motorcycle in the Mount Rushmore State. Whereas the numbers are 1 in 47 in the Golden State. Sure, the actual number of motorcycle owners in California is almost equal to the entire population of South Dakota, but one could argue that it is in the latter state that motorcycles are more relevant.
Yes, bogglingly, motorcycling is more important in a state that is mostly flat and quite often intolerably cold than in one with famously good weather, world-class mountains and legal traffic filtering. And within that are a certain number of truths that I think say a lot about motorcycling in the United States. Chief among them is that the Upper Midwest is America’s motorcycling heart; and it is to there we should look when we ask what motorcycling in the United States is and what it will be.
Asphalt and Rubber offers a list of all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C. Per capita, the top 10 motorcycle-loving states are:
1) South Dakota
2) New Hampshire
3) Iowa
4) Wisconsin
5) Wyoming
6) North Dakota
7) Vermont
8) Montana
9) Minnesota (woot!)
10) Alaska
The states I’ve highlighted are those which comprise the Upper Midwest: flat states where snow can be found for at least a quarter of the year. Considering that the majority populations of Montana and Wyoming live in similar conditions (that is to say, both states have mountainous regions but most of the states’ people live in areas that are flat [a]) I think it’s fair to loop them in as well. I can’t really speak to Alaska, Vermont and New Hampshire, because I’ve never visited those states, but it’s worth noting that all of the Top 10 states for motorcyclists are those that experience real winters.

So, let’s start there in trying to find the similarities, trying to figure out what truths can be offered about the American motorcyclist.

Where I come from, bigger is better.

From growing up in the Upper Midwest, I know that those brutal winters mean that a lot of people don’t tend to vacation too far away from home. After suffering months of icy slings and arrows, Upper Midwesterners feel deeply entitled to the good weather of spring and summer. They don’t tend to want to “waste” their home state’s good days by heading some place else.

And from this you can see the value of a motorcycle. Firstly, what better tool with which to enjoy and indulge in the simple joys of not freezing to death? But secondly, because the average Upper Midwesterner isn’t trundling off to, say, Europe, perhaps he or she is more willing to spend money on a vehicle that, for most people, has a limited range (i.e., most people don’t tend to ride more than 300 miles in a day, whereas they would cover double that in a car).

Meanwhile, it’s a good bet you could thin the population of Los Angeles by at least half by holding a gun to people’s heads and asking them to identify the Upper Midwest on a map. And by and large Upper Midwesterners are OK with that. They’re Americans, and fiercely proud to be so, but they’re content doing their own thing, existing in their own space. They are independently minded in a true sense.

So often, when we say someone is “independently minded” we mean that they are hard to get along with or they don’t want to fit in. Upper Midwesterners are perfectly happy to fit in (especially if “fitting in” means drinking beer and eating a lot of heavy foods) but they are accepting of those times when they do not fit in, and relatively tolerant of those who do not fit in with them — as long as that tolerance goes both ways [b].

In other words, Upper Midwesterners are happy doing their own thing and they are happy doing their own thing. They’re not necessarily averse to change or variation, it’s just that often they don’t see a point in it. And if someone comes along and insists upon a seemingly unnecessary change it can feel irksome. I mean, if I have steak every Thursday and I like having steak every Thursday, why the hell should I listen to someone who butts in and insists that I try salmon en croute? OK, maybe it is good. Fine. But I like steak. I had no problem with eating steak; just go away and let me enjoy my steak.

And inasmuch, is it any wonder that Harley-Davidson is based in the Upper Midwest? Does it not make perfect sense that the region is also home to Indian and Victory?

There is an old saying: “As California goes, so, too, the nation.” But in the case of motorcycling I don’t think that’s true. I think we need to look to the Upper Midwest to understand what motorcycling is and will be in the United States.

The people amongst whom I was raised like heavy, loud machines; they dislike helmets; and that’s just how things are. Those can be frustrating truths for people who see the value of a machine like, say, the Honda NC750X — they simply are not the steak to which Upper Midwesterners have grown accustomed — but accepting these truths is, I think, the first step toward seeing American motorcycling progress.

So, for instance, if you want to initiate positive changes in handling, performance, fuel efficiency and safety, you have to do it in a way that is palatable to Upper Midwesterners. If you want to see filtering accepted outside a niche of California riders, you have to figure out how to sell it to Upper Midwesterners. If a company is trying to develop products that will pull motorcycling from the hands of old white men, it needs to develop products that will appeal to young Upper Midwesterners. And if the exciting ideas of manufacturers like Brammo and Zero are ever really going to get off the ground, they will need to do so in the Upper Midwest.

Better roads and better weather may be found elsewhere, but America’s motorcycling heart is to be found in its geographical centre.


(a) Honestly, Billings, MT, and Fargo, ND, are almost indistinguishable from one another.

(b) My friend, Kristin, is a quintessential Upper Midwesterner. She doesn’t care what a person does or thinks, as long as that person never, ever, criticises what she does and thinks.