The Hitchhiker’s Guide to IMS Outdoors

In the beginning, the International Motorcycle Show was a series of traditional indoor events. Manufacturers and other vendors could show off their wares to the public. The public, in turn, got the opportunity to see all these bikes in person without the pressure of a salesperson, as well as the chance to see many different brands of bikes under one roof.

COVID-19 changed all that. 2020 was canceled, the entire year, and IMS was no exception. Rather than simply give up and wait for next year, though, IMS reinvented itself into IMS Outdoors. As the name implies, it is now an outdoor event, as the fresh outside air vastly reduces the chances of infection. Much of it is similar to the old indoor show. The vendors are still there, as well as presentations, and the highly popular Discover the Ride program, which gives people who have never touched a motorcycle before a taste of what it’s like to ride.

For those of us who already ride, the biggest difference besides the open air is the manufacturer booths. Rather than static displays that enable you to sit on a ride variety of motorcycles as in the past, IMS Outdoors brings a whole lot of demo fleets together in the same place at the same time. Now, instead of waiting for Kawasaki or Indian to come to your area once a year, you can actually ride a lot of bikes from different manufacturers all at the same time. This is the most profound difference between the old IMS and the new IMS Outdoors.

I spent the entire weekend at IMS Outdoors Pennsylvania, which took place at the Carlisle Fairgrounds best known for its car shows. IMS Outdoors only took up a small fraction of the available space, but it packed a great deal of goodness into it. Here’s what I learned about how to get the absolute most out of your visit to any IMS Outdoors show.

Ride All the Things

I can’t recommend highly enough the opportunity to try out so many motorcycles at the same time on the open road. I don’t know of any other opportunity like this out there. Even professional motorcycle journalists don’t get the chance to try a Harley-Davidson CVO Road Glide and an Indian Challenger back-to-back. I did exactly that (there’s an article about that coming). Yes, I had media credentials, but that didn’t matter. These opportunities are available to anyone, including you.

To avail yourself of this opportunity, bring your riding gear with you. More than likely, you’ll be riding your own bike to the show, which makes it easy to show up fully equipped. If not, make sure you bring a helmet, long sleeves, long pants, gloves, and boots that go over your ankle. Regardless of what you normally wear, this is what every manufacturer requires for their demo rides. If it means you have to gear up more than you usually do, so be it. You’ll also need a motorcycle license, of course. Kawasaki will also have you blow a .00 on a breathalyzer test before they put you on their bikes or in a side-by-side. This is their standard operating procedure for all of their demo rides, not just for IMS Outdoors.

Different brands handle demo rides in different ways. The Japanese Big Four, for example, as well as Royal Enfield and Zero, take you on organized group rides. You sign up for a particular bike at a particular time, and ride in formation along a prearranged route while escorted by a lead and a tail rider. They make sure you all stay together, stay safe, and avoid any shenanigans. Others — namely Harley-Davidson, Indian, and Triumph — will collect your information, then set you loose on your own. You’re still required to follow a specific route, but there’s no escort, so you’re free to experience the bike on your own terms. Anyone who’s ever done a test ride at a Harley dealership will already be familiar with this format.

To maximize how much time you have to ride, I recommend going to the Big Four, Royal Enfield, and/or Zero first, and scheduling your demo rides throughout the day. If you’re there all weekend, you can only sign up for that day’s rides, so decide that you’re going to do Honda and Suzuki one day, for instance, then Yamaha and Kawasaki the next. Once you have these times locked into your schedule, visit Harley, Indian, and Triumph in between your scheduled rides to fill the time with their more freeform demos. Harley, in particular, will want to put you on as many bikes as they possibly can. Don’t worry, their demo fleet has many examples of the Pan America and Sportster S. There was often still a wait to get on one, but it wasn’t long, so you’ll definitely get to try them if you want to.

Need Gear? Visit Cycle Gear

Back in the main vendor area, IMS has always had numerous vendors showing off their wares. These range from local dealers and motorcycle clubs to large companies like Cycle Gear. Much to my surprise, Cycle Gear actually set up a small store right there at IMS Outdoors. Helmets, gloves, boots, jackets, pants — it was all there. I needed a new pair of gloves anyway, and just hadn’t gotten around to ordering some online. Instead, an extremely helpful salesperson helped me try on a whole bunch of different gloves, and I bought a pair that fit me well. I was thankful to have my new gloves for the numerous demo rides I’d take throughout the rest of the weekend.

You don’t even need to bring wads of cash with you. Cycle Gear took my card with no difficulty whatsoever. It wasn’t so much a vendor booth as it was a small temporary store under the tent.

Check Out the Presentations

If you’re so inclined, you can even learn a thing or two while you’re there. As a KLR rider (and yes, I did try out the new KLR), I spent a bit of time in the Adventure Out! area. I enjoyed the opportunity to meet Bret Tkacs, who I’ve been following on YouTube since long before I started riding dirt. He gave two great presentations. One was all about his standardized system for rating different types of terrain, as well as your own ability as a rider. A trail that’s easy for an experienced rider may be quite difficult for a novice. With this system, you can both call a particular trail a “3” and know what that means for your ability level.

His other presentation demonstrated a variety of ways to pick up a dropped motorcycle beyond the traditional way. This was of particular interest to me, because as a relatively inexperienced dirt rider, I’ve had to pick my bike up a lot. With my KLR, I have about two traditional lifts in me a day before I’m exhausted. Now I have a few more tricks up my sleeve to use so I don’t wear myself out so much.

Different shows have different speakers lined up. The website tells you who will be where. Check it out.

Non-Riders: Check Out “Discover the Ride” and “Ride With Us”

IMS’s popular Discover the Ride program easily made the transition from indoors to outdoors. People who have never even touched a motorcycle before have the opportunity to start with a bicycle, something most people already know how to ride, and work their way up to a detuned Zero motorcycle on a closed course. I already know how to ride, but I experienced this for myself in New York a few years ago, and absolutely loved it.

New for IMS Outdoors is the Ride With Us program. By the end of Discover the Ride, you’re doing laps on an electric motorcycle programmed to be no faster than the bicycle you start on. Ride With Us builds on that experience and puts you on a real gas-powered motorcycle on a closed course. MSF RiderCoaches take what you learned in Discover the Ride, then teach you clutch control and how to actually operate a traditional bike. Don’t worry, they’ll put you on something small like a Honda Grom, not a Suzuki Hayabusa. This is no substitute for a proper MSF Basic RiderCourse, but it’s an excellent way to bridge the gap between it and Discover the Ride. After completing both of these, you’ll be a step or two ahead of your classmates in the Basic RiderCourse.

If You Can, Spend the Weekend

With everything going on, it’s impossible to see it all in a single day. I haven’t even touched on the IMS Vintage motorcycle display. The J&P Cycles Ultimate Builder Custom Bike Show now has all of the bikes under one tent, rather than spread out across the entire show like in the past. Personally, I like this format much better, because it makes it easier to pick your favorite and write it in for a prize.

Kawasaki brought not only their motorcycle demo fleet, but also their side-by-sides for demos on an off-road course (making good use of the extra space that Carlisle Fairgrounds had to offer). I’d never driven a side-by-side before, but they put me in a Teryx KRX 1000 and had me driving over obstacles I couldn’t have tackled on my KLR. The gear requirements are similar to the motorcycle demos, but they have loaner gear available. This is something else fun to do with any non-rider friends or family you might bring to the show.

While I got to try all of the motorcycles I was most interested in, I didn’t come anywhere near being able to try every single model available. You won’t either. But if you’re a new rider who isn’t quite sure what type of bike you’re interested in getting, you can try every type of bike you can imagine to figure out whether you want a sportbike, dual-sport, cruiser, or something else entirely.

A three-day ticket is only a few dollars more than a one-day ticket (actual price depends on the show). Unless you live far way, there’s no reason not to get the three-day ticket and go in and out all weekend. If you do live far away, consider getting a hotel room or campsite in the area and spending the weekend anyway. This is a unique opportunity in the motorcycle world unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, even for journalists like me. There’s even more to see than I’ve described here. Seriously, if IMS Outdoors is coming anywhere near your part of the world, you owe it to yourself as a rider, or a wanna-be rider, to check it out for yourself.

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