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Chasing Harley

By John Scott Lewinski, CJPA ’91

I was born in Milwaukee, a city forever associated with Harley-Davidson motorcycles. My uncles built Harley V-twin engines. One of my best buddies works on Harley-Davidson graphic design materials. My father taught me to admire Steve McQueen as he fled the Nazis on a bike in a bid for freedom in The Great Escape. These influences helped shape me into an automotive journalist and travel writer. They also drove me to chase the international story surrounding Harley-Davidson’s 110th anniversary.    

A freelance writer has no expense account to fall back on when chasing international stories. Fortunately, companies ranging from Meguiar’s in South Africa to Samsung to Milwaukee Harley-Davidson pitched in financial help to get me rolling. Harley-Davidson also provided a bike and a place to stay each time I arrived in a foreign land.

My first stop was Auckland, New Zealand. Evidently, a successful film series was shot there. Something about a ring? I deduced that from the elf-themed in-flight video on Air New Zealand, the hobbit-filled airport decor and the statues of dwarfs standing above the luggage ramp.

Still, the rally was Gandalf-free. No biker could ask for a better riding environment for Harley-Davidson’s dramatic Thunder Ride. More than 1,000 motorcycles amassed at the Ellerslie Horse Racecourse, where clubs from Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington lined up alongside Australian riders who’d jumped continents to join the parade.

I took my place in the international contingent, and, when the green flag dropped, we rumbled onto the open road in a deafening, single-file line. I passed sheep grazing in rolling fields and lines of kids waving from their long driveways. I still find it strange that after thousands of miles traveled and countless sights of gleaming motorcycles and wild bikers, it’s those kids’ smiling faces I remember in detail.

Sharing a local tradition

I wanted to leave my mark in Auckland so I rode my Sportster up One Tree Hill  the final resting place of Auckland’s founding father, Sir John Logan Campbell. His grave obelisk stands atop a dormant volcano, and the valley below is studded with lava rock that locals like to arrange into words and sentences. I trudged through a few piles of sheep dip to arrange my own lava rock farewell message to the Auckland Rally in 20-foot letters. After a mid-March Harley-Davidson media event in Daytona, Fla., I journeyed to Africa Bike Week in the seaside resort town of Margate, South Africa. No other event during my tour better highlighted how a love of motorcycles unites people. I visited Cape Town four years ago and found the country still struggling to overcome the racial divisions of Apartheid. I wondered how Harley-Davidson’s 110th event would play against that backdrop. Although white riders made up the overall majority, there was a healthy racial mix, and the bikers mixed and mingled openly. Whatever growing pains South Africa still faced almost 20 years since the fall of Apartheid were put aside that day.

Speaking to the locals, I discovered that in South Africa’s modern culture, people not only embrace the same freedoms, they also share some common vices. For example, motorcycle maintenance is not a value South Africans embrace. They will push a bike until it dies. Then, it’s left behind. There’s no time for oil changes and tune-ups. Ride it. Kill it. Switch it.

After a fun but less eventful journey to Mexico City, a stop in Berlin brought the true value of motorcycle culture home to me. Sadly, the German capital is full of dark monuments to oppression. From Checkpoint Charlie and the remnants of the Berlin Wall to the Holocaust Memorial and museums exploring the rise of Adolf Hitler, the stark historic realities of the city dragged me down and broke my heart. An early May blizzard that struck down any chance of riding didn’t help.

The final night of that leg  the only experience along this journey that had me depressed and longing for home  Harley-Davidson joined with Gibson Guitars to throw a huge party celebrating modern Berlin’s art and music scene. Obviously, no one at Harley-Davidson, Gibson or anywhere in the civilized world would be so naive to suggest that riding a motorcycle or playing a guitar can in any way dismiss the destruction of WWII, the grief of the Holocaust or the repression of the Cold War. But we can find some courage in the idea that freedom, joy and celebration still exist in a world once plagued by those nightmares.

Thundering roar shakes the quiet of a holy place

My worldwide trek next took me to Harley-Davidson’s 110th international finale in Rome, where Harley-Davidson hosted its largest foreign rally and kept a special appointment. Tens of thousands of motorcycles poured into Rome, but it was the scene of us bikers coming face to face with the pope that ranked as the high point for me.

The thundering roar of thousands of Harley-Davidson motorcycles shook the pavement and the quiet at St. Peter’s Square. On Sunday, June 16, when 80,000 pilgrims assembled for Mass outside St. Peter’s Basilica, the marble statues on the square shook. Pope Francis approached the edge of Vatican City, the point where the separate nation of the Holy See transitions into the streets of Rome. He smiled and extended his hand, and hundreds of iron horses roared back at him. With a simple gesture, Pope Francis silenced the noise. It was the first recorded instance of a pope blessing a legion of Harley-Davidson bikers. It was fun to watch tourists taking countless photos of the leather-clad bikers filing in for Sunday services beside monks, nuns and locals. During the Mass, the bikes outside revved their approval every time the pope spoke, making for what I suspect was the most unique (and least audible) homily in Vatican history. 

Homeward bound

I began the final leg of this journey, which led me back to Harley-Davidson’s birthplace  and home. Though I spent the past year as the foreigner visiting far-flung rallies, now I was the hometown boy meeting riders from Australia, Taiwan, Columbia, France, Brazil and more when the anniversary celebration climaxed in Milwaukee at a five-day party. I took in every celebration possible at the party that reached from the Summerfest grounds and Water Street to Harley-Davidson’s corporate headquarters and the sites of multiple dealerships.

It didn’t really sink in that my journey was over until I found myself cruising in the 6,000-motorcycle parade that wound through several Milwaukee streets, from Miller Park and rolling east on Wisconsin Avenue past Marquette to the lakefront. Heading out of the ballpark’s parking lot, there they were again  kids lined shoulder to shoulder, smiling with excitement  and waving little American flags. Those smiles were exactly what I saw on the faces of the farm kids in Auckland. There’s something magical about excited crowds watching joyous riders enjoying their favorite pastime. One hemisphere to the other, a kid is a kid, a bike is a bike and happy is happy.

As spectators cheered, I realized what seemed impossible a year before had somehow fallen into place. My frequent flyer account shows I logged more than 75,000 air miles. But best of all, the Harley-Davidson folks assured me that no one  no rider, no journalist and no H-D staffer  attended as many rallies as me.

John Scott Lewinski, CJPA ’91, travels the world writing for more than 30 national magazines and online news sites and as automotive editor for Crave Online. He is the author of books, screenplays and stage productions.


Comment by Karl J. Kassity at Jan 16 2014 08:00 pm
A wonderful experience...thanks for sending.
Comment by Don O'Reilly ME '58 at Jan 17 2014 12:08 am
I was an Air Force MP in GB in WWll and rode an '42 Air Force Harley, my heart beats faster when ever I hear that special sound.
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