20 Years of CMG: Harley’s 110th

For our 20 Years of CMG series, this week we’re going back just three years, to when now-Editor Mark Richardson rode down to Harley’s 110th Anniversary Bash in Milwaukee. 

At the time, Harley-Davidson hated this story. It was courageous of Editor ‘Arris to publish it. The Canadian PR person supposed to be “looking after” the media at the event was let go within the month, Harley advertising on the site ended, and press bikes suddenly became unavailable to Mark. But that’s okay. We’ve all moved on, and now Harley-Davidson Canada has an entirely new corporate structure and many new faces. Just last week, Mark went riding with Canadian H-D CEO Anoop Prakash on some of the company’s new bikes, and his story of that ride will appear in CMG soon.

For now though, enjoy this account of that debaucherous weekend back in 2013. – Ed.

MILWAUKEE, WIS. – Departing for home

It’s Sunday morning and my brain’s fried from three days of loud pipes and loud music. And beer. And Jack Daniels. Oh god, the Jack Daniels.

I have to get on my bike now and ride the 1,100 km home to Toronto, all in one shot so I can be there for the family tomorrow. But Editor ’Arris wants to know what I’ve been up to here at Harley-Davidson’s 110th birthday party. And he wants to know quickly to meet deadline. But I can barely remember myself.

Maybe if I ride for a while, back south through Chicago and east over to Michigan, it will clear my head and those Harley “experiences” will start to come back. Even if I don’t want them to.

I rode here, you know. Not like most of the other wimpy media who flew in from wherever, claiming just because they lived in South Africa or Brazil or Australia they needed to take a plane. No, I rode here on my own bike, a 2008 Harley-Davidson Low Rider named Lucy. Took two days, including one breakdown.

A breakdown already? Richardson thinks maybe he should have done this trip on a Triumph or something.
A breakdown already? Richardson thinks maybe he should have done this trip on a Triumph or something.

When I stopped for gas in Woodstock, Ontario, Lucy didn’t want to start. Her indicator lights flashed furiously as if she was being stolen – it’s a Harley thing – so I figured the battery was low on the key fob. So I put in a brand-new battery, but that didn’t change anything.

Helmet? We don't need no steenkin' helmet! At least, not once you cross the border.
Helmet? We don’t need no steenkin’ helmet! At least, not once you cross the border.

So I called Rocky’s HD in London, and the service manager talked me through how to bypass the key fob, but now the battery was flat. I pushed the bike next door to Canadian Tire, got a free boost and hustled down to Rocky’s. After five minutes and then a further two hours of testing, the mechanic confirmed the problem: the new battery in the key fob was in backwards.

Is this going to be that kind of a trip?

Five most tasteless helmet and jacket patches seen in Milwaukee:

  • DUCT TAPE! Turning “No No No” into “Mmm Mmm Mmm” since 1942
  • I’m as confused as a kid in the ghetto on Father’s Day
  • Some people need a high five in the face with a chair
  • Politicians and diapers need to be changed often for the same reason
  • No matter how good she looks, someone somewhere is tired of her shit

NILES, MICH. – Three hours of riding later and my head’s clear. Sort of. That was a lot of beer last night. American beer will kill your head faster than crashing without a helmet, which is easy here.

You could pick worse riding partners ...
You could pick worse riding partners …

I rode through Chicago just now with the OPP’s Golden Helmets precision riding team who were also heading home after the event. Screw riding staggered and a second apart: they ride in a tight phalanx side-by-side and directly behind each other in three groups of half-a-dozen cop bikes. Nobody gives them grief. They chat on their helmet intercoms, and they make me think of the aliens in Toy Story who worship The Claw. I staggered behind with a one-second gap. I don’t have an intercom.

No, this isn't one of the Golden Helmets.
No, this isn’t one of the Golden Helmets.

I went to go see the Golden Helmets on the first day in Milwaukee. They were putting on a special Thursday morning show in the baking-hot parking lot of Miller Park. It’s an impressive show, and you should go see it sometime if you’ve never been. Threading the Needle, Lacing the Boot, Switching the Blade, Hiding the Sausage.

After that the media was hustled off to talk with Harley executives at the Juneau Avenue headquarters. We heard about how The Motor Company is now listening to its riders and their passengers – after 110 years, natch – and redesigning the bikes the way customers want them, not how engineers think they should be.

It all made sense until I went out onto the street and saw some of the customized Hogs blasting back and forth: apehangers reaching to the sky, solid wheels whirling through gyroscopic eddies, tiny little mirrors for show and massive blown engines for straight-line go. Afterthought p-pads for an afterthought hoe. Where will it end?

Patriotism! Insults! Just a small sampling of the T-shirts circulating around Milwaukee.
Patriotism! Insults! Just a small sampling of the T-shirts circulating around Milwaukee.

Not later that night, that’s for sure. After the exec talk we were taken to the Harley museum, where a clock was counting down to the start of the party and a hairy guy named Dump Truck was revving up the willing crowd. With minutes to go, a much-decorated, good-looking and ripped U.S. marine rode in on a new Street Glide, wearing the “Freedom Jacket” that spent the last year travelling to Harley parties around the world.

The Freedom Jacket changes hands. The crowd goes wild, and hardened one-percenters openly weep. OK, not quite ... but close.
The Freedom Jacket changes hands. The crowd goes wild, and hardened one-percenters openly weep. OK, not quite … but close.

The Freedom Jacket started its life on a road trip in Tibet with H-D’s Chief Marketing Officer – a bit sticky that one, with the whole Tibet/China thing. It went on to earn patches and signatures everywhere it travelled, including a blessing from the Pope. The CMO took it back on the stage and gave the marine the new Street Glide in return. Everybody roared. The marine looked genuinely shocked. His wife started to cry. Even Dump Truck, I swear, was tearing up under his Wayfarers.

Wooh yeah!

The Chief Marketing Officer looked very happy indeed.

The rest is a blur. Lots of flag-waving at the Toby Keith concert, where they were selling $40 T-shirts that declared, “Never apologize for being patriotic.”

I went looking for more beer to drown the images. And Jack Daniels. Oh God.

Just a little bit of local colour.
Just a little bit of local colour.

Five most tasteless statements on clothing seen in Milwaukee:

  • Would you drive better with that cell phone shoved up your ass?
  • Practise safe sex, go fuck yourself
  • If you can read this, the DICK won’t let me drive
  • I’m here about the blow job
  • (On panties) It ain’t gonna lick itself

UNION CITY, Mich. – Almost halfway home

Lucy’s running well, the highway’s dry and the sky’s blue. I left the interstate – and the cops – long ago to ride on this smaller Highway 60 for a while and it’s what this bike was made for. I can stretch out with my feet on the highway pegs and lean against the pack that’s strapped behind, just feeling the V-twin shake between my knees. Glorious.

The MoCo faithful flock to the company's museum. Photo: Harley-Davidson
The MoCo faithful flock to the company’s museum. Photo: Harley-Davidson

This is the kind of image that the Harley-Davidson Museum was selling on Friday morning, when we went back to take in its two floors of heritage. Two hundred bikes on display in the main building and another three hundred stored in the archives behind.

For sale: Two Harley-Davidsons, low mileage, regular oil changes, good condition for year. Buyer will have to pick up at museum.
For sale: Two Harley-Davidsons, low mileage, regular oil changes, good condition for year. Buyer will have to pick up at museum.

The museum was built in time for The Motor Company’s 100th birthday back in 2003 and it’s got bikes from every year of operation. The pride is Serial Number One, one of the first three bikes built by Mr. Harley and the three Davidsons in their Milwaukee shed in 1903. It’s priceless and stored in a glass case; the other two are long lost, probably crapped out within the first few months.

Over in the archives, there’s a pair of bikes from 1915 and ’14 that were ridden here by Pat Simmons and his wife Cris. They arrived just in time to deliver Pat to his gig as lead singer for the Doobie Brothers, one of the headliners last night. Most of his audience probably bought the same bikes new, but these old Harleys got them here and deserve the credit. Like that audience, they’re waiting now for maintenance with small pools of fluid collecting beneath them.

The museum filled and filled with faithful and I ran outside for relief, but found everywhere pounding with V-twin engines and supersized guts. Leather seats and leather skin, all of it studded and dyed. Every woman airbrushed on a gas tank was a babe; every passenger was a broad. Hardly anyone wore helmets. Those who did covered them with stickers demanding beer, blowjobs and the impeachment of Obama. One woman’s half-hat was clear: “My nipples get harder than most guys’ dicks,” it snarled. Harley riders don’t believe in understatement.

Here's how it all started.
Here’s how it all started.

A guy rode past on the street on a Honda. Everybody yelled, but it was a good-natured yell, more of a sympathetic yell by people assured of their superiority. He grinned, but he didn’t stop.

Five comments overheard in Milwaukee:

  • (To a cab driver) Take us to our hotel! No, I don’t know its name. How would I know? Just take us there!
  • (In a hotel lobby) I’ve got to get to my room quick. The hotel shitter will rue the day I checked in.
  • (Harley’s Chief Marketing Officer, at the Juneau Ave. HQ) I’ve just got one suit left in my closet. We’re not big on suits here.
  • (In a hotel elevator) I’m on a layover here with FedEx. I’m kinda freaked out by all this.
  • (On a cell phone on Brady Street) FaceTime me now! This is unbelievable – you’ve got to see this!
Things (like this bike's rear tire) get heated up on Brady Street.
Things (like this bike’s rear tire) get heated up on Brady Street.

That evening, after the Aerosmith concert (“Dream on!”), I headed over with some new friends to Brady Street, where the bars are. We needed alcohol.

Smartphones mean biker parties ain't what they used to be, despite all the chrome and tassels.
Smartphones mean biker parties ain’t what they used to be, despite all the chrome and tassels.

The cops close down Brady Street at night, allowing bikes to park and ride through but keeping away cars. It becomes a procession of strutting bikers, roaring and revving and ripping up the asphalt. Sidewalk crowds cheer them on from both sides, and cops standing every few paces try to keep things in order.

They’re remarkably well behaved, these dirty bikers, but the sense of order seemed always to bubble just beneath the meniscus of social acceptance. Which is a fancy way of saying that whenever something unexpected happened, which was every few minutes, the crowd surged forward and a riot seemed inevitable, but never happened.

Then two white cops grabbed a young black guy and frog-marched him up the street. When he struggled to free his arms, a roar went up and people tried to focus their cell phone cameras. But as quickly as it started, it was over.

Despite all the mayhem, a riot never broke out.
Despite all the mayhem, a riot never broke out.

This was followed by a fat guy on a Fat Boy who dropped the clutch and shot forward, lurching his girlfriend from the pillion and dumping her on her ass in the middle of Brady outside the World of Beer bar. The crowd cheered and helped her to her feet. She got back on and they rode off, though more slowly.

Sage sayings of the Harley faithful.
Sage sayings of the Harley faithful.

And what evening of mayhem would be complete without a burnout, courtesy of the road captain with the Wisconsin chapter of the Iron Order Motorcycle Club, who parked his rear tire right on the white line at Brady and Arlington. Another club member stood astride the front wheel and held back the bike as the captain lit up his tire, roaring through all five gears while the police watched and everyone yelled him on.

Amid the chaos, I chatted for a while with a young cop who was holding back the crowd from the street.

“We’ve got a shitload of cops here,” he said. “We’re being really lenient, but burnouts don’t hurt anyone.”

“But this isn’t like Daytona or Sturgis,” I said back. “Are you giving tickets for flashing tits?”

An Indian crashes the party.
An Indian crashes the party.

“No,” he said, “and there still haven’t been any. I thought for sure I’d get to see some boobs tonight but there’ve been none. There were some girls dancing up on that balcony for a while and I was hoping to see some boobs, maybe even have to go up there and have a word with them and get a better look, but they left without showing anything.”

And then, just a minute or so later, a bike roared past and the woman on the back flashed her not-unimpressive boobs to the crowd. The cop looked delighted and turned toward me with his hand held high. I high-fived him and we slapped each other’s shoulders.

That’s one for the grandchildren.

Mark rides home and thinks about what he's done ... except, he can't remember.
Mark rides home and thinks about what he’s done … except, he can’t remember.

Five reasons I bought a Harley over another brand:

  • I’ve been to the Milwaukee plant where my engine was made, and the Pennsylvania plant where the bike was assembled.
  • I’ve shaken Willie G. Davidson’s hand.
  • Harleys aren’t as expensive as they used to be.
  • Harleys are much more reliable than they used to be.
  • My bike is just so pretty – no plastic anywhere.

WINDSOR, Ont – The home stretch

Now I’m back in the land of colourful money, civilized healthcare and high taxes. I can breathe a little more easy, relax a bit more in the saddle. I’ll be home in just a few hours.

There were Canadian flags flying proudly at the big parade on Saturday morning. At least 5,000 bikes were registered to ride down Wisconsin Avenue, including mine. I headed back to Miller Park in the morning to form up with all the Chinese and Chileans, Brazilians and Belgians, Mexicans, Australians, Rastafarians, Humanitarians – well, maybe not so many of those.

At least 5,000 bikes were registered to ride in the anniversary rally.
At least 5,000 bikes were registered to ride in the anniversary rally.

Last time Harley had a big parade, anyone was allowed to ride and so there were tens of thousands of motorcycles roaring into lore. Old-timers tell of how the procession took six or seven hours to finish. Men were dying, women were giving birth, and the circle of life was complete. That’s what they say, anyway. This time, you either had to have an invitation or you had to pay to participate. It is the heart of Americana, don’t forget.

High-fives were flying all around during the celebration parade.
High-fives were flying all around during the celebration parade.

And then, we were off. I rode behind a guy and his girlfriend – guess who was doing the driving – who kept veering toward the crowd to slap outstretched palms with grinning children and chair-bound grannies.

It was great. Everyone was loving it. Old, young, black, white – all of Milwaukee seemed to be alongside the road, cheering us on. Welcome Home! called the signs and they were waved with genuine affection.

What do I remember of riding in the hour-long parade?

  • An elderly woman watching in a wheelchair, holding her hands up on imaginary apehangers and revving her wrists.
  • A man with a giant plastic yellow corncob on his head, arms held stiffly while his hands waved like a bobble-head, looking sheepish when we made eye contact.
  • The hand-written sign in the poorer part of town saying “Welcome Harly riders.”
  • Bike stereos just in front competing for volume, between Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama – the third time in 30 minutes – and Ozzy Ozbourne’s Crazy Train. The southern boys won out.
Riders converged from all over the world for this event. Not all of them wore sombreros.
Riders converged from all over the world for this event. Not all of them wore sombreros.

This was a crazy train, alright. Loud pipes and loud music, bike after bike after bike. Just a huge release after a brutal recession, a massive statement of faith in a brand that’s refused to quit. Harley-Davidson is Milwaukee, and for that morning, Milwaukee was Harley-Davidson.

Wisely, this Honda didn't stop to chat about his bike's contrasting design philosophy.
Wisely, this Honda didn’t stop to chat about his bike’s contrasting design philosophy.

We rode past the shuttered businesses and through the very centre of town, beneath the huge banner strung from two fire truck ladders that held the famous photo of the four founders from 110 years ago, past the new lofts and condos going up beside the Milwaukee River and toward the massive investment of the Harley-Davidson Museum. For an hour, we were loved.

Now it’s just a few hundred more kilometres and I’ll be home again, Lucy dirty with grime from the road and in need of a new tire. The Golden Helmets have gone one way, the bikers have gone another, and all the normal people have gone back to their normal lives.

The beer and Jack Daniels have (thankfully) finally receded into the background. But it was a weekend when everyone was happy to be there and just got along. And I high-fived a cop. Now that’s one to tell the grandchildren.


  1. Having been to four of these assemblages–my first was the 95th in 1998, went to the 100th in 2003 (with media credentials thanks to Mark), 105th in 2008 and the 110th in 2013 I thought the story captured a good deal of the vibe I certainly felt at those events.

    As for the Motor Company not being happy with the story–it seems to me that over the past 25 years it has moved away from those who really like to ride to trying to attract those who like to pretend to ride by going all upscale. Long gone are the “classic” motorcycle shops because they did not fit in with the “corporate image” HD wanted to project.

    Also, HD and its HOG (Harley Owners Group) organization used to make Harley owners feel “special”–not so much now. At one time HD and HOG used to operate a “Fly ‘n’ Ride” program exclusively for HOG members–certain designated dealers offered factory owned bikes for rent to at a significantly reduced rental daily rates. That got eliminated a few years ago. I used to go on a Fly ‘n’ Ride once a year but with that change have not bothered.

    I’ve had a really good time at each of the four I’ve been at–but there really was a different feel at the 95th compared to what the 110th was like–e.g. no necessity to pre-register or get a ticket to the parade–I got into the parade at the 95th by showing up in the vast parking lot at 4 a.m. and lining up. Never got into the other three.

    Maybe having a polished, clean cut corporate image makes sense if you’re looking to attract investors and keep your shareholders and bankers happy, but it might not be shared by many of their once loyal riders.

    So, I say kudos to Mark for taking a few jabs, making me laugh, causing those at the Motor Company who take themselves too seriously a little discomfort and providing a somewhat accurate, if less sterile depiction, of what took place in Milwaukee at the end of August, 2013,

    By the way, there’s a good reason sometimes “for resorting to the same old stereotypes.” Doing so conveys an image of what was once the case and perhaps allows one to engage in wistful thinking that it might return.

    bbb (aka Harry)

  2. I can see why the story wasn’t well received – having attended a couple of these anniversary parties with my wife and friends, I wouldn’t just focus on the same lowbrow version of events as you did. Of course that kind of stuff, and worse, is always going on.
    But otherwise these are gatherings like no other, and I’ve been to countless, but this is a great little city that treated riders like royalty, a rock party like no other (Springsteen, Aerosmith… atleast 10 other great bands), great selections of beer, countless things to see, etc. I think the organization alone would’ve put anything we’ve ever organized to shame, and probably the nicest people from all over the world that I’ve ever met in one place. I also ran into Willy G and his family countless times without even trying!
    You had great stories that you could have told without resorting to the same old stereotypes.

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