Harley-Davidson invites riders ‘home’ for 115th anniversary blowout

Diverse roster of events offer something for bikers young and old

As is has done in years past, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company answered critics, pessimistic industry analysts and politicians by doing what it does best — throwing an irreverent homecoming party.

This time it was a celebration of the company’s 115th anniversary, a  massive event flexing the muscles of the Harley brand and showing the unique depth of passion and the cultural and economic power that surrounds the fabled motorcycle manufacturer.

The ambitious schedule of activities was scattered among 27 locations in the Milwaukee area over five days. The party attracted enthusiasts from around the world and managed to celebrate the company’s enduring legacy while still executing a focused marketing plan toward the next generation of riders.

The widespread events — often held simultaneously — made it difficult to get a feel for the total number of attendees compared to past anniversaries. Enthusiasts had to manage their time between a hillclimb race, an indoor flat-track race, a drag race, a vintage beach race, factory tours, museum visits, five neighborhood street parties, seven dealership parties, a music festival, a riding skills competition, a moto-carnival, a film festival and a downtown parade.

Even the telegenic young hosts of the company’s “X-Games”-ish livestream broadcasts found it necessary to dash from location to location by helicopter, crisscrossing the sky over Milwaukee.

On the ground, the friendly, company town took it all in stride. The partisan populace respects motorcycles as if they were sacred cows allowed to wander unhindered within the community, and tolerates the closed roads and rumble of loud pipes echoing through the night.

The celebration met the expectations of older riders while making inroads with a new and younger crowd. It’s very telling that my media pass specifically instructed access to the Race of Gentlemen pits and the fenced-off pit at the museum rock stage, where psychobilly bands strained the eardrums of older listeners. These are the images Harley wants the world to see; the young and hip, albeit steeped in a traditional aesthetic.

To that end, there are plenty of opportunities to throw a leg over a new Harley, learn basic orientation skills on a static roller, or take a demo ride. Each of the dealerships, the museum, and many of the neighborhood parties had demo staff in place eager to tout the 2019 models and to welcome a new wave of riders.

Perennially popular with the younger enthusiasts was Flat-Out Friday, an indoor short-track race held at the downtown UWM Panther arena. Representing the old guard was Chuck Dickenson, 78, of Richfield, Wisconsin, who won the main event in the Brakeless Class. Overcoming a crash and subsequent restart, he went on to carve a smooth line around the concrete oval with skills that could only be attributed to his 55-years of racing experience. 

The crown jewel of the five-day celebration was the Bradford Beach Brawl, a throwback-style antique motorcycle race held on the sandy shore of Lake Michigan. Produced by the New Jersey-based Oilers Car Club (who stage The Race of Gentlemen each June on the Jersey Shore), the retro-clad troupe is clearly the media darlings of the Motor Company. 

The sublime setting of the historic beach bathhouse adorned in period-style bunting made for an immersive experience, the result of a pitch-perfect partnership between the local parks authority and Harley-Davidson.

The penultimate event was the Sunday Parade, which was somewhere between a ticker-tape celebration and an Olympics closing ceremony, with rider groups from around the world flying their nation’s flags in an 8-mile procession down Milwaukee’s Wisconsin Avenue. 

The street was lined with onlookers eager to slap hands or interact with the passing bikers. It was an emotional highlight of the week, full of camaraderie and pride — and an affirming rejection of those ideas that would divide us.

The company needed — and got — a feel-good story from its 115th anniversary celebration. The impressive organization and enthusiastic reception should give pause to anyone who doubts whether Harley-Davidson can weather the current storm and remain an iconic American manufacturer into its next 115 years.

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