Home To The Mothership / 115th anniversary

It’s no secret when you ride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, people look. It could be a custom chopper, decked out custom bagger or even a stock bike straight out of the showroom. People Look. The turning of the head watching you roll by, or a thumbs up, or gawk, or merely a small smile of acknowledgment, saying “Yeah. Shit, I wish I was on that bike”. When you’re on two wheels, common to expect you’re on a Harley, and anything short of that is well, short. The cache of riding a Harley is strong among bikers in general, even if you ride another brand of motorcycle. For most, the goal is to own one eventually. Widely known for its loyal following, the pride of ownership among Harley owners is evident when you’re into the Harley-Davidson world, and once you’re in, you’re most likely in for the long haul. So when Harley-Davidson Milwaukee calls you home every five years, because they’re throwing their 115th – Anniversary party in your honour, well, you GO ! What started in 1903 in that famous little shed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with the Davidson brothers (Arthur, William, and Walter) and William S. Harley, the motor company, has turned into a global powerhouse, the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer that has defined the essence of freedom, independence and good ole American bravado. And like all things American, you either “Go big, or go home.” The Harley-Davidson 115th Anniversary party was BIG. 

Five days of an event filled with motorcycle activities where you can literally be busy every minute of the five days, either participating in one of the many planned activities or doing local planned rides. All while doing so without wearing a helmet if you chose to do so. My brother’s and I did and must admit there’s something liberating about riding your motorcycle without a helmet (admittedly not for everyone, but what’s that old saying ? When in Rome…). The City of Milwaukee catered to, and to some instances, shut down for the hundreds of thousands of bikers who flocked to this Midwestern U.S. city between August 29th to September 2nd, 2018. And the bikers came. It is estimated that over 200,000 plus bikes were in attendance. Well, it felt that way for sure as everywhere throughout the city, there were bikes parked or bikers on the road. My buds and I, five of us from the Toronto HOG Chapter, rode to join fellow bikers from all over the globe. Some bikers were easily identifiable because they are members of HOG (Harley Owner’s Group) wearing their cut proudly, displaying their country of origin. Countries and Chapters representatives came far and wide from places like Japan, Indonesia, India, Mexico, Columbia, South America, Italy, China, Russia, South Africa, England, Australia, Czech Republic, Canada and of course, scores of bikers from all over the United States. Those were only the ones I saw and could identify as HOG members. I’m sure there were many, many others there who weren’t HOG but ride Harleys, as well for the first time in these anniversary celebrations, Harley-Davidson extended their party to riders who don’t ride Harley’s or even ride at all. The idea was to expose the masses to what the Harley culture is all about : the passion of riders united by the universal love of the brand. The vast majority of attendees were, of course, Harley owners and that’s awe-inspiring when you think about the brand loyalty on a worldwide scale. 

The festivities began on Wednesday as the first of the riders/ attendees started to arrive. At the centerpiece of it all and acting as the central hub is the Harley-Davidson Museum where Harley-Davidson history, heritage and culture come to life. If you’ve never been to the museum, I highly recommend it as it’s a must-see for all motorcycle enthusiasts whether you’re a Harley fan, or not. You can spend the day taking your time and experience what the museum has to offer. There is that much to see. In addition, on the grounds every day from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. there were free activities ranging from scores of bands on the main stage, vendors, food vendors, bike games, bike stunts, live tattoos, custom culture artisans including art and photography exhibit, and the full line up of 2019 models including their foray into electric bikes with the “Livewire” motorcycle. What was super cool on a personal level, was being invited to be part of a group exhibit of moto-centric photography called MotoPhotoShow at the Harley-Davidson Museum. What an honour it was to exhibit amongst some of the most talented moto photographers in the country. I am forever grateful to have shown at Harley-Davidson Museum, no less ! 

Throughout the following four days and nights, our time was filled with events from one venue to another throughout Milwaukee. It was near impossible to do all of it, despite wanting to. We visited some of the local dealerships within the greater Milwaukee area (there are seven dealers, and we managed only to visit three – LOL). Each of them had their special celebration and festivities with food, music and vendors and of course, great deals and sales. It made me remember a statement I heard when I bought my first Harley, when a fellow Harley rider said to me, “You know that H-D stands for ‘hundreds of dollars, right’ ?” And that my friends, is the truth from personal experience. Since you’re in the city where it all began, visiting the global headquarters on Juneau Avenue was a must. The building has been around since 1913 and is in fact, the second location for the MoCo since the woodshed days in 1903. The building gets lots of visitors every year, but during the 115th, many bikers made the pilgrimage to have a photo taken of themselves and their bikes in front of the Mothership. It’s quite endearing to see so many bikers wanted their pictures taken in front of the building and plaque, as the lineup to get their photos taken was ridiculous, but worth it.

Among one of the other highlights for me was the beach racing with vintage bikes as well as new bikes at Bradford Beach. This was organized by the fine folks from The Race of Gentleman that came all the way from New Jersey to put on a show for the attendees while paying tribute to the early days of racing. The opportunity to see old vintage Panheads and Knuckleheads race on sand was beautiful. It made for some impressive visuals and one nasty wipe out. Fortunately, the rider was not seriously hurt although it could have been bad. Some of the local attendees got into it too by dressing up in vintage fashion and adding to the ambiance of the event. It really felt like we traveled back in time, on the beach. I can only imagine what it was like in the old days where these daredevils ripped it up on a weekly basis. On the same vein of retro, checking out Rhet Rotten on the Wall of Death was unbelievable. Never been to one of these before and was excited to see Rhet do his thing. The experience was even better when Rhet was gracious enough to allow me to photograph him from the pit. That’s right, inside and from the bottom of the cylindrical wall. Wow, that was an experience ! He was going so fast I almost got dizzy and lost my footing at one point. Watching him go round and round and picking money out of the hands of the spectators as he ripped by was just amazing.

As I alluded to earlier, there was so much going all over the city was impossible to do it all. Sad to have missed the Hillclimb competition in Little Switzerland, about 35 minutes outside of Milwaukee. Different classes from 50 cc to 1200 cc bikes rip on dirt going up a hill, competing for best time and distance. This event happened on the Saturday after a downpour Friday overnight and continued rain on Saturday morning. One can only imagine the conditions for the riders as they competed – a mud fest that would have been super fun to watch. Flat Out Friday, indoor flat track racing at the Panther arena was another awesome event that I heard good things about from people who attended. Throughout the whole week, there were all sorts of street parties and public park festivals, all sponsored by Harley-Davidson, and they were not exclusively for the bikers. Citizens from the city partook to Beer Gardens, Party In The Park, Historic Third Ward Street Party, and Jazz In The Park. It was great to see the mix of bikers and non-bikers interacting and mingling, which only helps in dispelling the image of the big, bad biker and Harleys. 

Then, of course, there was the Brady Street party, which Harley-Davidson has dubbed The Brady Street Experience. This street party alone was worth the price of admission to the event. I remember experiencing it for the first time at the 110th Celebration, and I was in awe, then. The 115th edition was no different, maybe even better. Happens only on the Friday and Saturday night, Brady Street which is about 5-6 blocks long, shuts down to local traffic as thousands of bikers descend on this cool, trendy, street full of bars and shops. Bikes parked like dominos one beside the other. Custom bikes and souped-up baggers like you’ve never seen before, with sound systems that make you feel like you’re in a freaking nightclub blaring from one end of the street to the other. People were enthusiastically partying on the road and sidewalk, dancing, socializing, and having a great time with no issues what so ever (even with police presence).

At certain points of the night, there were so many burnouts happening that the entire street was covered in thick smoke that made you feel like you were walking in a fog. Ah, the sweet smell of burnt rubber and exhaust is a biker’s favourite aroma, hahaha. Still, the party went on rocking till wee hours in the morning, and I am happy to report there were no issues in both nights I was there. People just knew how to party and regulated themselves accordingly. Obviously, a party/ event of this magnitude takes a lot of planning well in advance to pull off. That’s why it happens only every five years. Harley-Davidson has been doing it since their 75th Anniversary in 1978 till now so they’ve had lots of experience doing it. I had the privilege of attending the 110th Anniversary Celebration, which was my first. So I had a pretty good idea what to expect five years later. Although both celebrations were fabulous in all its events and activities, the one element that remains true and perhaps my favourite part of all is the people. The opportunity to meet, converse, laugh, compliment, bitch and otherwise enjoy the company of like-minded people from all over the world with the common bond and passion for Harley-Davidson Motorcycles was definitely the highlight for me. It really does make the world seem a bit smaller and more intimate and happier place to be. I’m already looking forward to the 120th. Congratulations and Happy Birthday Harley-Davidson !

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