We sat down with our own Craig Knoll, who’s part of our sales team at Motoworks Chicago. Aside from being an all around good guy, Craig has lived and breathed motorcycles since he could walk. A Chicago-area native, Craig returned to the city not that long ago after spending a decade or so living the quiet life in small town Iowa.
Nathaniel: So, state your name for the record I guess.
Craig: So, my name is Craig Knoll. It’s actually Robert but I go by Craig.
Only people who don’t know me call me Robert.
So, why Craig? Is it a middle name?
Well, I’m Robert, but I’m either Robert the third or maybe even the fourth.
If you go to the family get together and somebody yells “Hey Bobby”, you know four or five different guys would turn around. Actually I’m nicknamed after a good friend of my dad’s from high school.
Sounds like you lucked out. You never know with nicknames.
It’s a pretty good nickname. Yeah, I could have really gotten a stupid one. I guess this one is questionable.
It’s a good litmus test man if people call me Robert. I mean I know if they never met me, obviously they’re going to call me Robert. Teachers on the first day of school and telemarketers.
So you’re not from here in Chicago, right? What’s your story?
Well, I’m originally from the [Chicago] suburbs. I grew up in Roselle and Schaumburg areas until I was about 14. My dad moved out of the area about that time and moved out to Iowa. A Harley Davidson dealership became available and he had been chasing a dealership for years and years and years. He was in the steel industry here in Chicago. They got the dealership — him and my Uncle Bill who is out in Detroit — and they said “Well it’s Burlington, Iowa.” My dad said “Great, where the hell’s that?” He went and checked it out. It’s a little river town on the Mississippi. I moved out there in high school and got the culture shock of my life.
I bet. It’s a small town.
It took awhile to adjust. It was good. I realized there was more to life than strip malls and malls in general. You know I met some good people. I met a lot of characters, let’s say that. I worked in the Harley shop for years. I went to school at University of Iowa in Iowa City. Bounced around Iowa for bit and ended up back here in Chicago in 2012.
What brought you back here?
I got into the insurance business through a guy who had come from a similar background working at his dads motorcycle shop in Burlington. His dad had got out of it [bikes]. They were a Suzuki dealer. Basically they were a huge shop in the ’70s and they dominated.
He had got me into it [insurance]. He’s another racer, actually. I met him through some of the flat track motorcycle racing through the shop. He raced sprint cars too.
Turns out insurance wasn’t something I really wanted to do, but then I was kinda stuck. I realized that if you are over 25, not married, and don’t want to be in the insurance business or something similar then you’re probably not a whole lot of options in Iowa.
I don’t know, I was always kind of a city boy at heart anyway. When I moved away [to Iowa] I missed stuff like good music at your disposal and lots of restaurants and things like that. So, I figured I’d move back to Chicago. My mom’s up here. She was always up here. She never moved away. She’s getting a little older. It’s nice to be close to Mom and if I want to go home and see Dad it’s just an afternoon drive away or a quick train ride.
It’s what, a three hour drive?
Yeah. It’s not bad. Nice to get away once in awhile.
Sure. The small town stuff can be fun especially those little … My wife’s from that area. Those little small towns and the little town squares and courthouses and stuff.
Very old school.
It’s interesting. Everybody knows, for better or for worse, everybody knows each other and it’s definitely a different way of living.
It’s interesting to have both perspectives— both small town and the suburban Woodfield Mall crowd. I have to say, it was probably good I got away from that.
Yeah, that’s not really city life either.
The suburbs, I mean, it always depends on the suburbs but it can be sort of a Frankenstein’s monster between those two worlds. It’s not really quaint and homey like a small town, but it’s not really full of character and vibrant like a city.
Exactly. I would say Iowa had more character by far.
So you got motorcycles very much running through your veins I guess with all that family history. You have other family in the motorcycle industry too, right?
My cousin actually runs Ducati Detroit in Birmingham, Michigan. My dad did a lot of racing. He did some amateur road racing. He raced Formula Fords as far as cars so. You know while the other kids or dads are trying to get them into football or baseball or something like that (which my dad actually tried to get little league coach too), mine had me on bikes going fast. I think my dad lived vicariously through me basically. I was off my training wheels on a bicycle about the time I could walk and he had me on a motorcycle by about about two years-old.
Started out with a CB50 Honda.
As soon as you could walk you were riding, huh?
Basically, with that CB50 Honda. I came up through the years on bikes and dad actually had me go-cart racing by the time I was six. He was definitely the dad that encouraged fun times. Thanks to him, I was skipping school and going racing every once in a while.
It definitely was at the time. Over the years, I got into drag racing a bit, did some flat-track racing, and some off-roading as well. Kind of touched a little bit of everything, man.
Do you do any racing these days?
No, I would love to get back in. They give us kind of a package deal with dad you know.
Without dad involved, I would still love to get back into something, but I don’t know what it would be like. Racing bar stools? I don’t know. We’ve been talking about doing go-carts around here for fun.
I’ve always wanted to build a go-cart.
You can do it man. It’s simple and it’s fun.
I know, and I’ve got the set-up for it at this point.
We should start a team.
We should. That would kind of be fantastic. We just need somewhere to put it in the shop. As for bike racing, there’s obviously all the guys here at the shop go AHRMA racing. Does that ever interest you?
I wouldn’t mind getting into that. I used to be in a few similar organizations. First thing I got to get the bike.
I work at the motorcycle shop but the only vehicle I’ve got right now is an old ’70 Mustang. That’s my only hot-rod right now.
We’ll see. I’m still kind of transitioning from moving back to Chicago. In Iowa I pretty much had a house and a garage and whole different lifestyle. Here I’ve got a three-hundred square foot apartment. I have to rent a garage to put the Mustang in.
AHRMA’s cool just because it’s very accessible and you can do like CB 175’s. One of the things I think a lot of guys are getting into at this point is finding old BMW R65s to race.
That’d be fun.
Which are pretty inexpensive and solid bikes. I think Johnny’s trying to get into one of those.
That would be fun, I mean back on two wheels or four. Whatever, man. Like you said, I don’t care if it’s a Razor scooter. Let’s race!
Do you have any bike of your own at this point? A motorcycle?
I’m in between bikes right now. I’ve had a number of stuff over the years.
What was your first bike?
My first actual bike …
Not counting the 50. The first bike that was actually yours.
The first bike that was actually mine was a 175 Harley Davidson. The old Italian-made bike back from the ’70’s. Then I had a 1995 Buell S1 Lightening.
I pretty much tore the shit out of that thing. It’s still in existence somewhere. Somebody owns it. I think my dad sold it years ago. I wouldn’t mind tracking it down or just getting something like it. That and I had a FX-DX Super Glide.
Thing is I grew up around the Harleys. So, I’ve ridden a lot of different stuff. I actually used to run the V-Rod Destroyer II. It was a spec race bike that Harley put out in 2006. Basically it had the gearing, it had the wheelie bar, it had kind of everything to take to track. All you needed to do is buy a clutch, do some clutch work and get the laptop out and kind of dial it in for drag racing.
I always had the benefit of riding what was the latest and greatest in the shop.
Totally. So what do you have your eye on now? If you’re going to spend your own money on a motorcycle, what strikes your fancy?
Well, I always was hands-on and always liked the vintage stuff. If I had the space, I would love to get into maybe an old Norton — some of the old British stuff. Of course an old Bonneville would be cool. Right now though if I was to pick something here, I think I would go with a …it’s a hard choice man. There’s so many good bikes here.
It’s like a candy store in here.
Yeah I think that I would go with one of the new Bonnevilles. Maybe one of the black T100’s or maybe I might even try to scare up an old Buell. They used to make these mutant Buells. I don’t know if you ever saw them, but I’d like to do something like that.
That would be fun.
You could take basically a wrecked Buell and turn it into a super, a kind of a cool custom bike or something like that. I would love to get my hands on an 1125R or even a new Buell too. I hate to just go on and on about Buell. I would love to have a Ducati or Triumph too.
The nice thing is working at the store here is we do get to ride around and sample everything.
Absolutely. There’s no requirement that you only like what we carry here. There’s a world of great bikes out there. Your interests are your own.
If you want the new turbo-charged Ninja, more power to you.
No, it’s a hard choice. It’s one of those things like picking your favorite movie or something. It’s really hard. It depends on the day basically.
I wouldn’t even mind having an old Harley. I wouldn’t mind doing an old Ironhead Harley, or maybe an old Sportster. I know they’ve been big for years and maybe played out at some point but I don’t see many of them in the city.
It would be cool to get that younger crowd onto some Harley stuff too. I know that they’ve kind of come and gone. Harley got real popular at one point but the British bike thing has really caught on. I think that is really cool.
I would love to build a British bike. I’ve built old bikes and I’ve never built a British bike so I think that would be next thing.
That would be fun.
It would be cool to do a classic Norton or something.
It would be fun to find something like an actual Manx.
So you did a lot of the racing stuff. Ever do any travel? Do you have any other … Do you have any other aspirations you would like to … Take a big bike trip or anything?
You know I would love to do the mountains in Germany. I don’t really know where to start. I would love to do some European tour though. But better yet, I wouldn’t mind just getting out in America a little bit more. Furthest I’ve rode is down to Daytona and back.
I would like to do maybe some of the highways out west maybe the northern part of the west up through the Rockies. Something like that. Doing a big loop would be cool. You know a lot of guys do like Route 66. That would be pretty cool also. I wouldn’t mind doing a trip through Arkansas or Louisiana down through New Orleans something like that.
Those are great places to visit.
I kind of like those back woods and stuff off the beaten path.
That would be cool. That would be fun. So besides bike stuff, what do you do for fun? What are you into that’s not bike-oriented?
I love live music. Growing up in this area, I was at shows three nights a week when I was a teenager until I moved. Since I came back, I still like to do that. Living in Chicago, there’s always a great opportunity for music and kind of shrinking market for that in America. I like to go motorcycle events still. I like to go to classic car events. I love to travel when I can. It’s been a little less lately but I’m kind of getting back to that. Starting this week I’m going to Germany. First time out of the country in three years. I think just exploring Chicago is fun. That’s the kind of type of guy I am man.
Yeah, how long have you been here in Chicago? When did you move back?
I moved back into the city about a year-and-a-half ago now.
Okay so you really haven’t been back that long.
Haven’t been back very long. The Chicago I knew as a kid is a little different than the Chicago I know now. When I moved back, I also went car-less the first time in my life. I have the Mustang but I don’t drive it in the city.
It’s a big lifestyle change. No car, walking places, but it’s kind of what I wanted to do. If I can get a bike, that would probably complete the puzzle man.
What kind of music are you into?
I like a little bit of everything man. I’m not a one genre guy.
Sure, well, what’s the example? What do you listen to? What did you listen to on your phone on the train on the way up?
I listen to a lot of electronic music. Goes back to why I love living in Chicago because it’s the birthplace of house. I love house music — real house music, that is. I’ve also been going to Detroit for a lot of techno events.
But I love a little of everything in between. I love metal, I love punk. I kind of grew up as kind of a metal-head slash punk-kid when I was younger.
Get some aggression out?
On the same token, I love hip-hop stuff too. I used to spin vinyl records in club settings through college and that era. Still do that. I’ve got about 5,000 records.
I’ve got everything from classic rock to any genre you can imagine is sitting in my living room.
That’s awesome. So, you know, of that three hundred square feet you’ve got one hundred of it is music?
[Laughs] I’ve cut down. I got some of them in storage but I’ve kind of picked out the best of the best and they’re sitting in my living room right now everything from classical to death to black metal.
Nice, so you’re running some old school, tube amp analogue set up and all that?
I have some of that too. I’ve got Techniques but I found an old Magnavox 1947 model at an auction once. It’s probably some old lady’s, but that had the old original tubes in it. I’m working on that right now, refinishing it, but it has the original LP flip where it actually flips the record for you which, was like a big deal back then.
I’m trying to get the mechanicals working on that. I always got my hands in something man.
You’re always tinkering on something?
That’s just it. I worked office jobs and even this [at Motoworks] isn’t a hands-on job. It’s not like I’m working back in the shop but it’s kind of best of both worlds.
It’s something I can get my hands dirty with.
Mm-hmm. So switching gears, you do sales here at the shop. What’s that experience been like? Tell us about that a little bit.
It’s great man. It’s just a great shop, you know. I think this is a pretty unique place.
Coming from the Harley world, you know, over the years they’ve all kind of become big box stores and lost a lot of their character. Not to say there’s anything bad about that. Obviously they’re doing something right because they own sixty percent of the market. But I can still remember the first time I walked into Motoworks. This old building and the old wood brick floor in the back. It’s a place you meet interesting people and real motorcycle enthusiasts. I had a lot of that in the old Harley dealership. I love that too, but I think Motoworks is just unique — a unique time and I can see where the torch is kind of being passed from Harley really dominating the market to the younger generation really getting into the Triumphs and Ducatis. Not to say Harleys aren’t cool anymore, but I think the hip thing now is really going more towards the European bikes.
Do you feel like coming from Harley and running into those enthusiasts, do you feel like it’s not a matter of who is more enthusiastic, but more that there’s a difference in the flavor of that enthusiasm? Does it manifest itself differently?
Oh yeah, you know I think that people have their brands and their preconceived ideas but a lot of new riders come in here, and a lot of people who are not just one brand of people. They’re open to motorcycling in general and just a little bit more broad spectrum than before.
As far as sales, it’s great man. I get to talk about bikes all day. I’ve been around bikes my whole life. I went to college and racked up like seventy grand in debt and worked jobs that I pretty much hated for five years to pay for them. I’m about there finally so I basically said to myself “You know what, F__k this, I’ve got this paid off. I want to go back to something I enjoy.”
Yeah, might as well. What was your degree in?
Just communications. Liberal arts. I’m one of those liberal arts guys.
Well, me too.
If I’d go back now, I would probably do like computer science now or something. I think I was one of those guys that was just amazed that I was going to college.
When I was in high school, I kind of wondered if I would go to college and get a degree and when I finally did I was like “Holy shit! I did it.”
Yeah, then “now what?”
Yeah, now what?
It worked out great though, because I get to come in everyday to work as a bike enthusiast. It’s not really about getting people to buy something, or really going that “salesman” route. Our approach is really about giving our customers all the information they need to make their own decision. If we can just inform them about what we offer, and find out what would work for them, or what hidden need they have when they come in, then they will walk out of here with a big smile on their face and probably give me a big pat on the back. It’s not really about getting someone to buy stuff. It’s about helping them make sense out of buying a bike, which isn’t really a sensible thing in the first place.
It makes a certain kind of sense.
It’s not a rational decision.
No, and that’s okay.
Yeah, it’s a good, irrational decision.
It seems like there’s a growing trend within motorcycling, and within that larger enthusiast community, of more and more women riders. Are you seeing that here in the shop?
Most definitely. I remember I started to see a shift maybe in the late 90’s in the Harley world. They came out with some bikes that were a little bit lower, a little bit easier to handle and that wouldn’t beat you up. Here at Motoworks, yeah, it’s probably about maybe one in five.
It’s fantastic. Motorcycling shouldn’t just be limited to one sex. It’s fun for everybody.
I think that the whole education part I talked about is a big part of it too. It’s a great hobby and it’s a lot of fun at the same time. I think a lot of women are realizing that it’s not just “Hey I’m going to ride on the back of my boyfriends bike.” There’s more women getting into the hands-on portion of it now and it’s just a whole different market. It’s great.
That appeal, when you really sit down and think about it and you let go of any sort of wild, old school “one percenter” bullshit, there’s really nothing inherently masculine about motorcycling.
No, that was all a Hollywood thing.
Just the fact that what makes riding appealing in the real world is that sense of freedom and that sense of adventure, that exposure on the road. Getting out there and viewing that has such universal appeal. I think its finally like everybody’s realizing that and noticing that.
Yeah. That is it. It’s universal, that’s why motorcycling is fun. It’s fun for everyone. It’s fun for anybody.
Fun for the whole family. Ha!
I think it’s what you said — what we mentioned earlier — there’s a shift happening, I think, in the culture of getting away from that old image of who a motorcycle person is. Maybe it was more like a baby boomer thing. Our generation didn’t grow up with The Wild One or Easy Rider or any of that.
It really seems like the whole outlaw biker persona and whatnot has lost a lot of its appeal. Even a lot of people who would be fans of Sons of Anarchy do not actually aspire to wear leather and get shot at. Yet so much of that is still what people think of when they think “biker” you know?
Yeah, it’s become kind of obsolete. There’s always a new way. Hollywood has to keep recycling it. Whether it was the bad boy image of the old days, Motley Crew in the 80’s, biker build-off, or West Coast Choppers in the year 2000, you know, it will probably never lose that “bad boy” element. I never really went for that anyway. I was never really into that whole image. Even when I was selling Harley’s I think a lot of people came in and kind of ate that up but not everybody.
Johnny and I were talking about this just the other day. There’s been a big shift away from conspicuous consumption since the economy started tanking in 2007. You look at the downturn, and with it came the death of the $70,000, 25′ long choppers. Thing is the market for those bikes didn’t dry up because the people who were buying them before didn’t have money anymore. They did. It was the conspicuous consumption of that was no longer socially acceptable. Then tastes changed back toward cafe racers and adventure bikes and that was it for that kind of bike.
That’s a big part of it. I think we’re seeing a fall out to that too. We’re seeing a shift in everything.
I think about how we’re sitting here in the middle of the Ducati dealership with the Panigale and bikes like it. If you know that bike, you know it’s spendy because it’s very high performance but there’s nothing ostentatious about it.
No, not really.
If you’re in the know, you’re like okay that’s a flash bike. That buyer is somebody that’s obviously like taking that really seriously but it’s not like an automatic phallic stand-in. A big chopper would do that.
No, definitely. I think the Panigale is a status symbol, but in a different way. The guys that are buying them are riding them, and taking them seriously.
Right, they’re buying them to actually ride them, not just have them.That’s a great point. Your 1199 Panigale buyer is not going to be a garage decorator.
No, that bike is not going to be a dust collector. It’s still definitely a show-off bike, but it’s a rider’s show-off bike.
The show off is “Hey look what two-hundred horsepower will do!”
Exactly. “Listen to what this thing sounds like!”
Have you ridden the 1199 Panigale?
Yeah. I haven’t taken it to a track or anything crazy but around the area.
So the wrap up question would be, what’s your advice? You talked earlier about how your role, and really the role of all of our sales team here, is just helping people have good information so that they can make informed decisions. In that vein, what’s your advice to people who are thinking about buying a bike?
Well I’m not only educating them, but they’re educating me. When they’re looking for a new bike, I would say first let’s identify why you’re buying. What kind of riding do you want to do? Let’s really figure out why you came in here in the first place and see what best fits those needs. So I would say ask yourself that question. What kind of riding do you want to do?
Usually my approach is to find out a little bit more about people. It’s kind of an interview, really. So I would say take your time, look at everything online and then come into the dealership and take a look around at the real thing.
A lot of people come in here to see a specific bike — for something they thought they were looking for. Yet they will probably change their mind a few times before they actually leave with a bike. So take your time.
That’s a good idea. Any other advice?
Once you have your bike, come to our track days. Motoworks does track days that are just for our customers. We use Sport Bike Track Time instructors, but you can literally ride any bike for the day and that extra riding expreience. That is worth its weight in gold. Most people don’t come in here thinking they’re going to the track but it’s not really about going racing.
It’s not about dragging knees.
Right. It’s about going and feeling like you’re one with your machine. You become more familiar with the bike and it becomes more of an extension of yourself. You walk away feeling like you’re a better rider and have a hell of a lot of fun doing it at the same time.
That’s great advice. Thanks dude.
Hey, no problem.