Friday, July 16, 2021

Unless it's a Harley, a motorcycle hardly counts

Beat up Harley-Davidson in outdoor restaurant.
Rusty Harley decorates Robbie's Marina in Florida's Keys.
(Photo by Bonnie Gross)

By Maynard Hershon

I recently commented that Harley-Davidson remains the popular image of motorcycling. In partial response, reader Maynard Hershon offered this piece he wrote, maybe a decade ago. Things haven't changed much.

You Need a Harley, She Said.

Tamar and I took the train west over the mountains to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, from our home in Denver. After a scenic train ride we stayed in a charming bed and breakfast inn where we enjoyed meeting the innkeeper and the other guests, as we almost always do. 

Our innkeeper was a 70-ish woman, educated and well-traveled. She and her Dutch engineer husband own the inn-and-residence in Glenwood Springs, a home in a Denver suburb and one in Provence, in the south of France. 

We were finishing breakfast on our departure day, two couples around the table, when our hostess asked me what I do. I write magazine articles, I said, about bicycling and motorcycling.

“What kind of motorcycle do you have,” she asked. 

“A Kawasaki,” I said, surprised that she’d ask me that question, surprised that she’d be interested in particular motorcycle brands. What could my answer mean to her?

“Really,” she replied. “I had imagined that a man who would write about motorcycles would be a connoisseur. I would think you would have a Harley-Davidson. Really, you need a Harley.”

I assured her (gently) that I did not. 

She told us that her daughter’s husband owns a cigar store in a Denver suburb. His customers are doctors, lawyers et cetera. They all have Harleys, she said, evidently trying to assure me she hadn’t meant that as a Kawasaki rider I was a substandard sort of B&B guest.

She wanted me to understand that clean-livin’, educated American men, successful men, often choose the Big Twin when the midlife urge to own a motorcycle wafts over them. Can all those mature, effective men be wrong in their choice of evocative transportation? 

She told us of a motorcycle run that began in front of the cigar store. She said that the sound of the assembled 700 Harleys, all directed to start at the same time, was deafening; but glorious.

This is the same woman who’d just told us of her stomach-turning aversion to conversational use of the phrase “you guys,” as in I hope you guys are enjoying your breakfast. Somehow, “you guys” grates on her ears but the roar of 700 open-piped twins (straddled, you’ll remember, by those successful men) echoing in downtown canyons sounds sweet.  

I shouldn’t have been surprised that she’d want to know if I rode a Harley; I’ve been asked the same probing questions countless times, often enough so that I am reluctant to mention my motorcycling among strangers. The questions so often lead to the same place. 

Our innkeeper didn’t care what I ride if it was a non-Harley; other motorcycle brands don’t mean much to her. She just wanted to hear me say those magic words, Harley... and Davidson.

I felt I’d disappointed her. I thought about how difficult it would be to explain to her about our choices in bikes and engine configurations and clothing and sound levels and... culture. How would I explain our reverence for Triumph’s heritage... or Moto Guzzi’s? 

How would I explain my loyalty to the Four Stroke Singles Owners Club or my preference for quiet, naked motorcycles? 

I wondered as I often do just why the word Harley means prestige motorcycle to so many people, even people who don’t give a damn about motorcycling. Can’t simply be the cost of those bikes. BMWs are comparably costly but my hostess may not be aware that BMW makes motorcycles. Curious, isn’t it?

As I’ve explained previously in these columns, I am puzzled by the H-D phenomenon. Don’t some of these things make you curious?  

How 'bout authenticity? The cliché has it that the purchases are all done during the same store visit: the bike, the biker clothing, the biker boots, the biker shades, the biker head scarf. Presto: A Harley rider, born full-grown, indistinguishable by the untrained eye from the many others who’ve just left Harley stores worldwide. 

Owns a nice car or truck, quite possibly imported. Wouldn’t drive around the block sans seatbelt. Swears the inattentive other guy is the problem in traffic, but didn’t buy a helmet and won’t wear one, not here in Colorado or in two-thirds of these somewhat United States. 

He, the new Big Twin rider, does his best to look like an old Big Twin rider, a grizzled, belt-drive veteran of the highway wars. His new clothing is often bought distressed, pre-weathered. Otherwise the sight of all that glistening NEW is laughable, a 50ish dentist trying too hard. 

And there’s the bad-guy theater aspect: prosperous suburban Americans dressed up as outlaw bikers. From good homes, they have fine manners and may have read Dickens but spend their leisure time drinking cheap beer and calling one another bro. 

No one has believed any of that outlaw pose for years but somehow the chaps, vest and doo-rag look still entices. The lifestyle entices, broad spectrum, on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.

Let’s imagine attorney A buys a Harley. His associate at the law firm, attorney B, spends the same amount for a BMW, ST1300 or Gold Wing.

Lawyer A will shun helmets. He’ll wear black leather, biker boots, blue denim and fingerless gloves. He’ll carry a Buck knife for chrissakes. 

His colleague, attorney B, will wear armored Cordura outerwear, stiff, protective boots, armored gloves and a pricey helmet. He’ll carry a titanium multi-tool. 

The two may do similar annual mileages, the biker to Sturgis or Daytona, the BMW or Honda rider to the brand rally or Sport-Touring Association meeting. They may never ride together.

Only one of them will impress my bed and breakfast hostess. I can’t speak for you guys but it baffles the hell outta me.

5 comments:

  1. For many years I kept a side job driving charter buses. About 15 years ago, I had a group of passengers from France, about 25, men and women, all dressed in the most expensive official Harley Davidson clothing and regalia I have ever seen. The trip was taking them from Chicago to the HD factory in Milwaukee and from there they were going on a rental Eagle Rider tour of the Midwest. I was stunned that these folks, all nice people btw, would shell out that amount of money for all things HD. I'm still scratching my head as to "why." I used to ride my Triumph Bonneville from San Antonio into Mexico with whatever dough was in my pockets. I can only chalk it up to old saying "different strokes for different folks."

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  2. I am with the innkeeper on the use of "you guys". Often convenient, somewhat unsophisticated, and now inappropriate when it does not match the genders of the people spoken to. "Y'all" appeals for being less specific. I met a lady (self described as the Georgia Peach) who informed me the plural of y'all is "all y'all". That is charming. Alas, I think I must live on the other side of the Rockies and the other side of the 49th to use the terms and sound authentic.
    Was it Alvin Toffler in Future Shock who said choosing a Harley simplifies lives? Removes the need to make decisions on what to wear, who to hang out with, how to behave.... Me? I prefer to wave to the other bikers as we pass on the road....
    Chris O.

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  3. I've always liked the look and sound of a Harley, but no way am I dressing up like a "pirate" or a stage extra for a Sons of Anarchy episode.
    OTH, I've no desire to play a "Rocker" either. Normal, practical riding attire is just fine, Thank you

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  4. Only interested in "Pukka" british style care racers. Irrespective of the make. Most of the British style cafe Racers differesignifcantly to those in the USA

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  5. I wouldn't say I don't care for Harleys--just not ABOUT them so much. Aside from a few 3-wheeler ServiCars wrestled around by meter maids or ice cream salesmen--hardly the epitome of coolness--Harleys just weren't much part of the street fauna of downtown Boston of the '60s, which is when what a bike ought to look like sort of "imprinted" on me, like a duckling recognizing it's Mom. You know, Triumphs, BSAs, the occasional Norton or BMW...THOSE looked like proper motorcycles, and were probably more suitable to the twitchy gladiator school of driving that was and is Boston than those long-legged ponderous beasts from Milwaukee. But here in Virginia I'd give a needy old Sportster a good home if it rolled my way for a good price. Don't think I'd be likely to suddenly start dressing up like a Pirate of the Caribbean or some Hillbilly in parole violation though. But Godspeed to those cosplaying orthodontists who do.

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