Why I don’t ride a Harley

OK, we live in the Black Hills just fifty-two miles from Sturgis, SD, home of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. So if you have ever been there or even seen the numerous films about Sturgis, you know the rally is a big – REALLY BIG – Harley Davidson event.

Well, it’s not!

True, Harley riders dominate the rally nowadays, but it wasn’t always so. Even today there are many other brands of motorcycles at the rally. But thems who look like your classic “bikers” mostly ride Harleys. You know 'em. They go for that bad-attitude and limp-cigarette look of Brando in “The Wild One” or Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause”. For them, only a Harley will do. Forget the fact that Brando and Dean rode Triumphs. Rebel

As a point of fact, the old-time rallys consisted mostly of guys who rode Indian Motorcycles. The Rally’s original organizer, Pappy Hoel was an Indian dealer. By the late 60s, after the demise of the Indian brand, Hoel was selling Yamahas and many of the 1960s Rally goers were Yamaha riders.

But to my point. Harleys are great bikes and contrary to what many say, they are a good value. They are well-designed and well-made with first class components and workmanship. No argument there from me. So why not!

Well, I have this little addiction to performance. ... Some history is called for. My first powered two-wheeler was an odd little contraption called a Whizzer which I bought when I was 14 from another kid for $15. I kept it in my friend’s garage so my mother wouldn’t know I had it. I didn’t own the Whizzer very long before I sold it to another kid for $15 and moved up to a ‘51 Plymouth. My first real bike was a 1946 Harley-Davidson which I bought for $125 and sold for $25 after a buddy wrecked it. (Long story.) My last Harley was an ‘08 Sportster 1200 which, incidentally, rode about the same as the ‘46.

In between that pair of Harleys, came a classic R67 BMW in the mid 60s and a Bonneville which became my “summer of love” bike in 1967. (Another long story.) Both of these bikes had their flaws. The BMW would roast your feet and the Triumph drank oil the way I drank beer. Skip forward a hundred years and I was still riding a Triumph and BMWs, although generally not both at the same time. Each does what it does better than my old Harleys could ever do.

Nothing beats the Nine-T for taking on the super twisties like the Needles Highway or Iron Mountain Road. Sport bikes are too fast and lack the torque for steep 10MPH pigtails. Big Harleys are too heavy and ungainly to be great fun on roads that turn back on themselves and rise forty feet in a hundred yards. Sure there are other bikes that can handle these roads well, my old Honda CB750, is one of them, as I’m sure are many of the other light metrics from Japan and Europe. This is not to say the Harleys are bad, it’s just that other bikes are better on these roads. Touring Machines

Then there’s long-distance touring. Yep. I know this is supposed to be Harley’s thing. Certainly, for some folks, it is. But for me, the speed, power and comfort offered by the big BMW GS beats everything on the road including (sorry guys) Honda Goldwings. Aside here: I’ve never been a Goldwing fan, even though I know they’re well-engineered, reliable and comfortable; about everything you’d want in a touring bike. They’re just too car-like for my taste. And (I know I’m going off the rails here) it seems that most of the twit bikers I’ve ever met had Goldwings between their legs. Maybe somebody should write a masters thesis based on that observation.

OK, so other bikes are better than Harleys for my style of riding. That ought to settle the matter. ‘Nough said! Right? … Not quite. I think what Harley-Davidson is really good at selling is not motorcycles, but “lifestyles”. Let’s get back to Brando and Dean, or for that matter, Steve McQueen. Or the Marlboro Man, whoever that cancer victim was. Each is the very image of defiance and individualism. The person who makes his own rules. That’s what Harley-Davidson marketing is all about. Tatoos! Leather! Bandanas! Jack Daniels! “Live to Ride; Ride to Live”! Right-On! … You get my point.

Some of us just like to ride. This is an uncomplicated pleasure that doesn’t require a lifestyle commitment. When you get down to it, there’s no way a person can ride a Harley in a Schuberth helmet and Kevlar riding gear without looking like a dork. Show up in Sturgis dressed like that and the “real” bikers will think your a NOB. I know, I’ve done it.

A couple of years ago at the rally, I was talking to a guy from Kansas while we were both waiting to have our bikes’ serviced. He had a nice leather jacket with 14 year-patches on it; one for each rally he had attended. After he sized up my riding gear, he opened the conversation with this gambit: “First year?”

“No,” I said, “I’ve been here a few times.” He nodded then started explaining to me. the simpleton, how the rally that year compared to the others he’d seen.

“Ya,” I said, “It’s changed a lot over the years.” Just then his number was up and he was off.

I was left there to think about my first rally ... way back in that summer of love. It was, I believe, the 28th Rally in 1967. 

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