August 21, 2003

Driving toward Harley Nirvana (The Ottawa Citizen, August 2003)

Ted Powell turned to me after I parked my Hog. "Tomorrow," he promised, "we'll make a real Harley rider out of you."

That this friendly Harley-Davidson "dude," with his long, grey hair tied back in a ponytail, would call into question my Harley authenticity -- after only our first day riding together -- didn't surprise me.

First, I lost the key to the H-D Electra Glide I'd been given to ride the night before. "Now don't lose this key," said Mr. Powell, handing me a bicycle lock we hoped would secure the $34,000 bike for the next four nights. Thankfully, it did.

Next was my helmet. Of the many H-D riders I was accompanying on the eastern leg of the 3,200-kilometre "Ride Home From Canada" to the Harley birthplace in Milwaukee, I had the only full-face helmet. Lyle McRae of Sarnia, Ont., joked it made him nervous.

You see, Harley style dictates an open-faced helmet, preferably black. In fact, everything -- your shirt, your shoes, your pants -- should be black. Or at least blue denim. In my red, full-face helmet, the one I wear riding my 1984 550-cc Kawasaki sportbike, I felt like a safety inspector atop the world's ultimate 1,450-cc outlaw machine.

These Hog jockeys had pointed their bikes west from Dartmouth, N.S., on Aug. 20. Destination: Wisconsin. I cruised along, most days at least, as we rode our bikes "home" to celebrate 100 years of Harley-Davidson. This weekend, an estimated 250,000 H-D enthusiasts will converge on the Lake Michigan city famous for beer, bikes and football.

My final stop was a mere 2,017 km down the highway in Toronto. But it still was a four-day, four-province road trip into the loud, eccentric, and devoted world of Harley-Davidson. It is a group a little rough on the edges, but at its core is an immense social network of people looking for fun, with V-twin engines as the common denominator.

"They're a beautiful machine and we dress them up the way we want them," said Mr. Powell. The regional director for Ontario in the Harley Owners Group (HOG), he's logged more than 200,000 km on a Hog and speaks with the confidence of a true Harley rider. "It's the camaraderie of everything that's around here. It's the bike, it's the open road."

His wife, Rhea, had come along for her first big Harley event. Uncertain at first, she was warming to the lifestyle. "I'm having a great time. I'm just getting to know a lot of the people, and I'm starting to get it," she said.

On Day 2, I intended to show Mr. Powell and the others that I could master my 385-kilogram (850-pound) Electra Glide Ultra Classic FLHTCUI (yes, every letter stands for something) on loan from Canada's Harley distributor, Fred Deeley Imports of Concord, Ont.

But I slept through my alarm.

At 9 a.m., I woke to the rumble of V-twin exhausts, in time to watch 20 bikers leave me behind in Woodstock, N.B.

Just over 500 km later, I caught up with the group in Quebec City. Lyle McRae said he noticed I was missing, but "everybody figures everyone's a big boy and can find their way."

My group was part of four Rides Home organized by HOG Canada. Two started in British Columbia, travelling to Winnipeg before turning toward Milwaukee. The eastern ride, beginning on Aug. 20, ended at a party with hometown rocker Jeff Healey at the Docks nightclub in Toronto (where the fourth, the southern Ontario ride, started).

Big rides, like Sturgis, South Dakota, and Daytona, Florida's Bike Week, aren't new to Harley. But 100 years is special. "Every five years, there's some sort of ride to Milwaukee, but nothing like this one. This one is going to be a true pilgrimage," said Buzz Green, vice-president of Fred Deeley Imports.

He explained the centennial year for the company has been Harley's best. "For the Harley enthusiasts, this 100th anniversary has been too long in coming."

Sales have shot up close to 20 per cent this year. Five years ago, enthusiasts plunked down deposits to buy an '03 bike. If they got lucky, they might have been able to choose the model -- that's how intense demand was, he said.

Harley-Davidson Motor Co. began in 1903, when William Harley and brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson shoehorned a single-cylinder engine into a bicycle frame. The first mass-produced model, the Silent Gray Fellow, came in 1905; the first V-twin model came in 1909. And the seminal 1936, 61E "Knucklehead," whose essence remains even in the current Twin Cam engines, is considered by many as the greatest Harley.

"The basic design has been around 80 to 100 years. All they've done since then is improve the design," said John Kerr, service and warranty manager for Eastern Canada at Deeley. "You've got part numbers in the Twin Cam engine that go back to the 1930s."

With a smile, he described the unmistakable, "potato-potato-potato" sound of a Harley. It's so intoxicating, most riders rev their engines frequently, just to hear their pipes. And when passing through an underpass, the unwritten rule is to "gas it" and enjoy the echoing boom.

But Harley's story isn't all roses. The '70s saw the manufacturer hit bottom. American Machine Foundry, a builder of everything from bowling balls to railroad cars, bought the company for $21.6 million in 1969. Then competition from Japanese bikes hit its stride. Models like the Honda GoldWing shattered Harley's dominance in "dresser" cruiser bikes, and the KZ1000, Kawasaki's famous police bike, antiquated the Harley Electra Glide.

Fortunately for Harley, this was also the time of Easy Rider, a film by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper that pushed the rougher edges of biker culture and chopper mechanics.

It was in this spirit that the 1977 FXS Low Rider, a factory "chopper" bike with a raked front fork was released. It marked, as Brock Yates would write in Outlaw Machine, the point where Harley realized that its future "lay not in the frumpy cruiser market ... but rather in a rising group of traditionalists looking backward ... toward a simpler time." This theme was cemented when a group of Harley executives regained ownership of the company in the early 1980s.

The backward look is exactly what the "new" air-cooled, V-twin, Twin Cam (still pushrods, mind you) engine in today's Harley is: Low-tech, and proud of it. The fact Japanese manufacturers continue dumbing-down their cruiser bike engines to compete with Harley tells you it sells.

That historical patina has people flocking to Harley ownership.

"They have one of the best marketing schemes in the world," said Brian Caseley in Quebec City. Being retired allows Mr. Caseley and his wife, Cathy, time to travel on their Electra Glide. Two months ago they left home in Victoria, B.C., for Newfoundland, then joined the ride in Dartmouth. So far, they have logged 13,000 km. "They have hundreds of add-on parts and upgrades. And then, of course, the clothes."

Screamin' Eagle, H-D's performance parts line, offers the requisite loud exhaust pipes, flowed cylinder-heads and lumpy camshafts that accented many Hogs I saw along the Ride. It comes down to whatever your wallet can afford. If you use Harley parts, you can take your 1,450-cc (88 inches in Harley-speak) up to 1,550-cc (a 95-incher) and keep your factory warranty.

The Harley culture is "like an addiction," added Mrs. Caseley. "The people you meet are really nice, and Harley-Davidson throws a lot of parties to celebrate everything."

It can also be a bit tedious. Parking a Hog means pulling up to a space, then backing in. A workout when you've got 385 kg between your legs, but necessary to show your chrome. Whenever a group of Hogs park, an instant bike show is created.

When you buy a Hog, you become a member of the HOG for a year. Participating means using your bike, and being surrounded by the culture. This is H-D's marketing strategy. "At the end of the day, Harley-Davidson is selling an experience," said Doug Decent, marketing director at Deeley. "It's palpable. You can really buy into it."

Twenty per cent of the company's sales come from parts and accessories, he added.

Day 3 of the Ride, and the Harley crew was making sure I knew exactly when we were scheduled to leave. No more solo rides.

We arrived in Acton Vale, 90 km east of Montreal, to the delight of some residents. "I just love those cycles," said Julie Dupuis. "I love their sound."

At the next stop, Harley-Davidson Montreal, others weren't so impressed. Surveying well over 100 Harleys, bike-lover Jean Desrosiers, who fixes computers for a living, was skeptical of the historical connection. "You look at Harley-Davidson. It's 100 years old, so you'd imagine you'd see some old ones, but most here are relatively new, which says something about the reliability of the bikes."

Mr. Desrosiers, 54, rides a 1974 Norton Commando he restored. "Some of these guys think a Harley is more than a motorcycle, but it is just a bike."

At 100, what Harley has become is a wildly successful image. A version of Americana, steeped in history. Almost anything you can think of has had the Milwaukee manufacturer's logo put on it. "Everything except coffins and condoms," offered Mr. Decent. The condoms were considered, he said, but another company beat them to it.

On Day 5 in Toronto, as the bikes lined up for a parade, Harley-Davidson Toronto cut the price of all clothing by 40 per cent. One woman called the resulting frenzy "the Harley zoo." In line, many held leather jackets -- normally priced around $1,000 -- plus discounted helmets and T-shirts. Standing next to them was an undiscounted, $7,000 Harley-Davidson stainless steel barbecue.

Demographics are changing for H-D customers. Enthusiasts still form the backbone, but increasingly, a group referred to as "RUBs," for rich urban bikers, is buying in. As well, women now represent 14 per cent of riders. "Twelve years ago, that number was four per cent," said Mr. Decent.

Among those women is Rae Lam, a 30-year-old art director from Toronto. She said Harley means different things in different places. "Harley here (in Toronto) means money. If you have a Harley in a big city, you have money. If you have a Harley in Nowheresville, you're a rider."

I caught up with Rhea Powell, the Harley newcomer, just before she left for Milwaukee. Not only was she having fun, she was thinking of getting off the back. In Montreal, she said, "parked beside me was a turquoise bike, and I thought, 'That might fit.'

This week, before I released my Ultra Classic to Harley-Davidson of Ottawa, I took my girlfriend on it for coffee. She innocently asked if it had cupholders. After all it did have a CD player, cruise control, intercom and four speakers

Which is why, I have to say, I'm still not ready to become a true Harley rider. Perhaps if I was aboard the beautiful Heritage Springer, a bike that makes my jaw drop, still, or a Screamin' Eagle Deuce, a factory hot rod chopper, my perspective would be different.

They sure are pretty.


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