I got a taste of the Bike Show a little early this year in the unlikely surroundings of a West London traffic jam. There I was, waiting impatiently to make a left turn in a snarl of cars wedged too tight to permit my wobbly egress, when a mini-skirted cutie flashes her tits at me.
Naturally this happens all the time at the swanky niteries I attend during the course of my glamorous life in the fast lane (with a slow puncture), but with my matinee idol looks hidden behind a battered full-face, and my heavily muscled torso swaddled in grubby Rukka-wear, how could she have known I was a viciously handsome, highly eligible bachelor? Well sadly of course, she couldn't, and the mammary show was really for the benefit of the photographer who was there to record just how delighted passing bikists were after being handed a copy of London Biker magazine by a (briefly) topless babe. In other words, the sort of gratuitously salacious nonsense that I muttered about in my critique of last year's Bike Show, the only difference being that in this case the rent-a-totties were flogging motorcycle mags, rather than motorbicycles.
In fact, London Biker isn't a bad little mag. And I mean "little" as in page size, rather than editorial ambitions, for in this latter respect it's well produced, often engagingly if self-indulgently written (do people read much anymore?) and includes some neat features. It does, however, straddle an uncomfortable line between the cynical, willfully narrow focus of the courier brigade and the more aspirational imagery of the well-off metropolitan commuters on whose saddles copies of the mag are stuck every month.... by a mini-skirted cutie if you're lucky. (Photos of whom are sprinkled liberally throughout its tiny, otherwise earnest pages).
But irrespective of editorial muddle, it contains one brilliant element I wish I'd thought of myself: a Service Directory.
Unsurprisingly, this is pretty much aimed squarely at couriers with repairers, recovery services (13 of these in Central London alone, for chrissakes), tyre fitters and, most thoughtfully, public loos, all efficiently listed along with other essential suppliers.
Rather tellingly, not one of the companies detailed in the Directory was a franchised motorcycle dealer. Not one. Now while this rather underlines the magazine's courier bias, and these are people who aren't going to put up with fancy prices or advance booking for a chain change, it's a sorry sign of the times that there's so little confidence placed in mainstream dealerships.
Not uncoincidentally, the Carnell/City group's decision to close five of its London showrooms proves just how bad things have got, and their promise of "re-branding" its remaining outlets doesn't fill me with glee. Neither does their assurance that in future far greater emphasis will be placed on customer service, which is not at all the same thing as mechanical service... And we all know that it's precisely the sort of privately owned, often back-street dealerships listed in London Biker that dealt with, or even traded on, the fall-out from the big chains' incompetent and often cavalier approach to servicing and repairs.
Indeed, long may they prosper accordingly, for there's nowhere I feel more at home than on an oil-stained floor littered with fag packets and used gaskets as I wheel in my 1200cc Moto-Splendido to have its fluids replenished. (Well actually, my glamorous new assistant and wannabe London Biker rent-a-bint, Trixie Luvsitt, does the wheeling round here while I just stand around and commiserate with the proprietor as he excoriates the Sun's racing columnist and chain-smokes roll-ups).
But seriously, the Carnell closures should send a chill wind around the industry, for the disappearance of five high volume retailers from our capital city could have serious long-term consequences.
The last time anything like this happened was when Mocheck's London stores went tits-up and committed bikers suddenly found themselves having to go further and further afield for franchised servicing, let alone to buy a new bike. (And as a BMW owner ensconced in SW1, when Gus Kuhn closed down in nearby Stockwell, I was so distraught I nearly bought a Vespa).
Some will argue that in these discount-obsessed times, this is what bikers are now prepared to do anyway, but with so few official dealership left in Central London, who's going to take care of warranty work and look after those better-heeled motorbicyclists who are not prepared to rely on back-street spannering for the maintenance of their nine grand toys? The owner of a new Toyota Yaris or Rover 45 certainly wouldn't, and that's the sort of value judgement I'm talking about.
Surely there's damn-all point in trying to drag motorcycling's image up-market if the most affluent would-be punters, i.e. Londoners, can't find anywhere to buy bikes? So servicing aside, the major importers should perhaps think hard about directly financing solus showrooms. After all, it's a salutary fact that eight of the top ten dealers recently voted by RiDE magazine readers were solus sites. Failing that, they might have to swallow their corporate illusions and be prepared to supply bikes to the smaller dealers who're committed to real customer service, albeit from less than salubrious surroundings. Or, of course, accept that they'll just be selling a lot less bikes in London... which no amount of topless activity could reverse, either at National Bike shows or metropolitan traffic lights.