I’ve never understood the vilification of Walmart. Yes, it can be argued that there’s been collateral damage to small local businesses that resulted in the loss of jobs during the mega-store’s encroachment into lesser markets. But I believe that’s offset by the large number of people that Walmart employs, many of which seem physically and/or mentally incapable of gaining employment elsewhere. In fact, I’ve often wondered if Walmart actually uses hospital emergency rooms as impromptu job fairs and Hospice as a temp agency.
There’s another reason I can be sympathetic towards Wally World – paying a few dollars more for a package of toilet paper at a local mom & pop store feels like flushing money down the toilet, so to speak. Some things I just want to get as cheap as possible.
So here’s the deal I’ve made with myself: if I need some cheap crappy general merchandise I head to Walmart with the understanding that no one who works there actually knows anything about any of the products they sell and 9 times out of 10 can’t even tell me where said items are located within the store. The employees are simply there to wheeze a greeting upon entering the store, minimize the damage caused by deviant young children that are allowed to roam off-leash, and ask pregnant teenage girls attempting to purchase a case of Keystone Light and/or a carton of Marlboro Reds for ID. At Walmart the only thing lower than the prices are my expectations so I’m rarely disappointed. That being said, allow me to quickly segue into a contradiction and suggest that the online big-box motorcycle megastore is castrating the off-road motorcycle industry.
Every consumer likes to feel they’ve gotten a good deal when making a purchase. The sticky point to this is the subjectivity of dollars and sense – a ‘good deal’ makes no sense if you’ve saved a few dollars choosing something that won’t work or doesn’t last. Online megastores may provide motorcycle products at good prices but they lack the knowledgeable support staff to help guide people through the dizzying array of available choices. Consumers who are new to riding or looking to try something different are left playing the law of averages by scouring vague customer reviews or trusting someone’s opinion on a forum who may or may not use products in a similar fashion and within similar operating parameters. Or, even worse – consumers are left to source information from some misanthropic crackpot’s blog (ahem).
The point is, without people who are passionate about riding to help steer the industry at every level this sport cannot grow. And without growth off-road riding will inevitably become the victim of land use access. That may sound a tad melodramatic but I assure you we have some very powerful enemies.
Many of the trails I used to ride in the national forest are now being enjoyed by thousands of mountain bikers. These trails were developed by off-road motorcycle and dual sport riders decades ago, only to be discovered by mountain bikers in recent years – who had us promptly evicted. It was easy for them because their industry is filled with businesses helmed by people who are passionate about mountain biking and are actively trying to expand their sport. In other words, they’ve got money, they’re well-organized, and they’re proactive.
At least mountain bikers can appreciate the relationship between two wheels and dirt – hikers hate us too and have even more resources to kick us out of the forest. It’s no secret that companies like North Face and REI have donated heavily to the Sierra Club.
Unfortunately, finding passionate people who are active stewards of off-road motorcycle riding usually means looking at the lower part of the industry totem pole, starting with your local independent motorcycle stores.
My go-to local store is The Moto Shop in Bend, Oregon. Owner/operators Brandon & Dana Wright are longtime riders who have spent years helping other riders navigate the myriad of choices when it comes to gear, soft goods, and hard parts. Like any good local shop, they are an essential information hub for the local riding community. They know what gear and tires work in the area and which ones don’t, as well as what riding spots are in prime condition and which ones are being threatened with closure. They also try to stock a lot of contingency parts for the most popular local bikes.
‘After a while you get to know what everybody rides and what parts fail for each of those bikes’, explains Brandon. ‘We try to stock a lot of levers, cables, sprockets, chains, and other common wear parts to help keep people riding’.
This is basic supply and demand and usually the norm for any decent local independent motorcycle shop. What makes Brandon and Dana’s operation so important is that they’re incessantly polite and infinitely patient. There’s no pretense and no elitist air. They are the welcoming committee, something that’s particularly crucial for people new to off-road riding and may have misperceptions that its strictly a rich man’s sport or only for people who are ‘extreme’ (whatever that means).
For the record, all that patience and politeness is no easy task when you’ve just spent hours changing out a stack of tires while listening to customers come in talking about how great riding conditions are – and your bike has been gathering dust in the back room because you’re too busy catering to other rider’s needs.
Spend a little time in any local independent shop and you’ll quickly realize two things: the owners have a deep love of the sport and they aren’t getting rich off it. By contrast, online megastores tend to be helmed by those that have a passion for business, not a passion for riding.
Which brings us to the shameless sponsor plug portion of this post – Atomic Moto is an online motorcycle goods dealer with an independent spirit that easily separates itself from the big box superstores. They staff some diehard gear geeks that have years of experience working with the biggest names in the motorcycle industry. This company was created with a specific vision: instead of offering everything under the sun at the cheapest prices possible, cherry pick only the best gear for a multitude of price points. Product lines and gear are not selected based on profit margin but rather on if they work and are an appealing value to the customer.
MISSION CONTROL ROOM AT ATOMIC MOTO (pictured above) WHERE PRODUCTS ARE ANALYZED & SCRUTINIZED, THEN EVENTUALLY EPITOMIZED OR OSTRACIZED – (owner Brian Price is also a bit of a clothes horse when it comes to collecting vintage gear)
This is no easy task, as new lines are constantly being introduced and existing lines continually evolve. Once a product is deemed worthy by the staff its then passed on to a team of riders of various skill levels and disciplines for long-term testing and field reviews. Their video reviews are by real riders who spend their time in the dirt, not a polished spokesperson who spends their time in front of the camera.
On occasion I’ve been fortunate enough to be a test rider for Atomic Moto and also attend several round table discussions on motorcycle gear, where products are dissected and debated in-depth. Their office has an educational and philanthropic atmosphere – constantly learning about new products, studying (and deciphering) industry trends, and passing all this information down to consumers. They want to help riders get the most out of the sport.
I’m under no illusions that these two businesses aren’t out to make money, but they sure as hell aren’t getting rich. They are motivated by their passion for riding and their devotion is contagious. They’re also the de facto ambassadors and missionaries of the sport. By supporting these types of companies we are encouraging the off-road riding community to grow. We’re also holding the industry as a whole to a standard, and, in fact, getting more for our money. What’s not to love about that?