Terri Meehan on a 2018 Harley Softail Slim at Milwaukee's House of Harley. Meehan took a riding course at the dealership as part of Harley-Davidson's 'Riding Academy', aimed at bringing in new customers. Picture: Ivan Moreno / AP

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

The Motor Company's decision to increase 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 programme was launched in 2000 with about 50 locations; now 245 dealerships in the US offer the three or four-day course.

Harley-Davidson sold 124 777 new motorcycles in the first nine months of 2017, down from 135 581 during the same period the previous year, while the Motorcycle Industry Council says the median age of motorcycle owners has increased from 32 to 47 since 1990. About 46 percent of riders are over 50, only about 10 percent under 35.

Samantha Kay, also a 'Riding Academy' graduate, on a Sportster Forty-Eight. Picture: Ivan Moreno / AP

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 nervous.

"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 in 2017.

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

Former Harley-Davidson executive Clyde Fessler, who created what became the 'Riding Academy', said: "Some of the aging Baby Boomers, which have been the guts of Harley-Davidson customers, they're getting older and some of them are just getting out of riding because they can't handle the motorcycle anymore."

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

'Give a Shift'

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

"The younger generations are buying plenty of motorcycles, they're just not new ones," Williams said.

Robert Pandya, who used to manage public relations for Indian and Victory, recently launched 'Give A Shift', a volunteer group discussing ideas to promote motorcycling. One of their conclusions, he said, is the idea that "if mom rides, the kids will ride." Currently, women are about 14 percent of the riding population, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

Pandya insists "the biggest possible opportunity in motorcycling is to invite more women to ride".

That's not lost on Harley-Davidson. 

Among the ways it's trying to reach younger riders is by having motorcycle role models such as Jessica Haggett, the founder of the "The Litas" all-women motorcycle club, as a voice for the company on social media. And the company is also focusing advertising efforts in male-dominated sports such as the X Games and UFC events popular with younger viewers.

Harley-Davidson vice-president of marketing Heather Malenshek said: "I think we have to work harder to gain share of mind with young adults, for example, in that they have other activities in their lives. They're on screens, they're connecting socially, they're involved in gaming, they're involved in other things."

She said the easily customisable Sports Glide model that launched in November and the aggressive, performance-driven Fat Bob also have younger riders in mind. In all, the company plans to release 100 new motorcycles over the next 10 years. During that time, the company also wants to gain 2 million new riders.

Learn from an expert

Terri Meehan took plenty of motorcycle rides with friends as a passenger but has wanted to be in the driver's seat for a while. She took the Harley-Davidson riding course in October because she wanted to learn from "an expert who could teach right way versus someone who had learned bad habit".

The price of the class varies by dealership but it's generally about $300 (R3700). Students spend time in class learning about motorcycle safety and on ranges learning to ride. Meehan plans to buy a motorcycle soon.

"My son's a psychology major," said Meehan, "so he asked me if I was going through a mid-life crisis, which is actually quite hilarious."

'Nice bike'

Kay's experience notwithstanding, Melanshek said, another challenge for Harley-Davidson is motorcycling simply isn't a major part of people's upbringing as it once was.

"If you think about Baby Boomers," she said, "they were probably brought up on a dirt bike or had an uncle or a neighbour who rode. That may not be the case today."

She said Motor Company boss Matthew Levatich was is encouraging staff to engage people in conversations about motorcycling if someone happened to say, "Nice bike." Melanshek took that to heart during an interaction with somebody at a garage who complimented her on her motorcycle and told her he'd never thought about riding.

"And I said, 'I can get you hooked up with the riding academy!'"