It was dark by the time a Boeing 767 deposited us in the Disney-happy town of Orlando, just a short road trip away from a smaller town that once a year gets drunk on another American cultural icon, Harley-Davidson.
Exiting International Speedway Blvd., we head east past the monolithic Speedway bullring – almost entirely neglected on this prelude to the culmination of one of the biggest and best-known bike rallies in the world.
The closer we get to the famous beach, the more encompassing The Thunder becomes. Quickly, we are ensconced in a booming, oppressive, flatulent, oppressive hell-fury of sound. The radio in our rent-a-wreck becomes superfluous.
If there’s a situation that might involve V-Twin cruisers, it is all here on display in an unrelenting parade of lights and chrome and explosions, sounding like the eruptions of a trillion potato-potatoes.
Even though Jesse James is nowhere to be found on the first day of Bike Week, his crew took care of the fans like this little guy.
There’s a helmetless guy riding bitch behind a wild-eyed and grinning female Sportster enthusiast, wiping tears from his eyes around his fashion sunglasses. A curvy woman in full Indian garb proves to be exceedingly arresting – visually if not legally. Later, a 50-something couple on a pair of Mean Streaks blast away from the pack at the turn of a green light, big smiles sculpting into their aging faces. At the junction of A1A and Main Street, local cops vainly attempt to control traffic, making it all look like Barney Fife herding cats. Turning away from the kaleidoscopic din, we feel like we are slowly escaping the clutches of a ravenous predator.
We retreat back to what will become our haven, the glorious Days Inn just west of the Highway 95 on Speedway Blvd. There, we climb up to our second-floor penthouse suite. From that height we can survey our new environment.
Say what they will about the rice-burner segment, they are usually clean-cut and look pretty good rolling down Main Street.
No less than 26 bike trailers dot our limited horizon, and nestled among in their lairs are beasts of all kinds. A lithe GSX-R750 looks menacing from behind our steel-barred sightlines, while a pair of bright yellow CBRs rub flanks nearby. Alongside sits an animal of a completely different genus, a long and imposing Valkyrie.
But the eyes don’t have to stray far to find the dominant species in this habitat: the Harley-Davidson. No matter which direction is faced, there stands the animal at the top of this particular food chain. A few Shadows intersperse with the dominant species, cleverly mimicking the behavior of the H-D T-Rex.
This world, however, can be deadly. Already two Bike Week interlopers have been felled. Tonight, the jungle calms down in the small hours. But the peace that slowly descends as the hours pass will become briefer each night as this week comes closer to its climax.
Daytona’s Bike Week is like Mecca for the loyal worshipers of Harley-Davidson. The H-D flag is flown proudly here, riders announcing to all their brothers that they are indeed one of the clan.
I like Harleys the same way I like people: some a whole lot more than others. I’m sure you also have your favorites, whether it is one of the radical new choppers or a stripped down Electra Glide or something different. But, dollars for dollars, even guys with The Motor Company’s bar and shield tattooed on their arms admit that a Harley doesn’t offer a significantly and/or objectively better riding experience than that offered by other manufacturers.
So if money is not the main factor, what is it that has transformed this so-called low-tech implement into an undisputed American icon?
The answer, of course, is that if you have to ask then you’ll never understand.
Never one to give up in the face of something I don’t fathom, I’ve accepted the challenge. It is my quest during Bike Week 2004 to “get it.”
The journey began on, of all things, a 2004 Yamaha Vino 125 scooter. We knew the roads around Main Street would be flooded with mechanical-borne humanity, and our task of photographing the bellowing masses would be easiest on a nimble and simple, low-effort device that would provide a workable photo platform for the passenger/shooter.
Now before you paint an unflattering picture in your mind of two grown men puttering around on a smoke-belching chain saw, you should know that the newest Vino – vintage 2004 – has a 124cc 4-stroke engine that is able to (slowly) hurtle 330 pounds of flesh to a terminal velocity of nearly 50 mph. It’s kinda stylish, has enough pep to keep up with most city traffic, can hold a camera bag (or full-face helmet) under its seat, it’s a kick to ride, and it gets more attention than two stock Sportsters.
Anyway, the scooter neatly snuck us into the thick of Main Street and onto a tiny spot on the sidewalk in front of the Wreck restaurant. This is where we met Bill Miller, a 60-something Harley rider from Pittsburgh, PA. He’s been at Daytona’s Bike Week for the past 10 years, and also for the fall Daytona rally, Biketoberfest. Miller looks something like you might expect from a biker of that age, with a graying beard, black t-shirt and a face weathered by both fear and laughter. So, Bill, how’s this year shaping up?
Sure, we woulda rather have been riding on two-wheelers from somewhere like West Coast Choppers, but I’d take the Vino and challenge most any of the monsters in that garage to a contest of maneuvering through a swelled Main Street with a photographer on back, spinning u-turns, and parking on sidewalks, all while sipping only a shot glass of fuel. It costs just $2199 and joins its 50cc Zuma cousin and Vino 50 brother as the two best-selling scooters in America.
“It’s terrible,” he barked with a hint of teasing. “There’s too many people.”
Not quite the crotchety ole-timer he portrays himself to be, Miller’s acerbic perspective might be better understood if you know that seven of his riding buddies were pulled over by the cops the night before and one was sent to jail.
“The police suck,” Miller said, somewhat predictably. “They’re trying to run everybody out. They don’t want Bike Week here, and the old farts that live down here don’t like it either.”
But although the Ultra-Glide owner doesn’t like the flavor-of-the-month direction Bike Week has taken over the past several years – including more women riders, more metric cruisers and more sportbikes – Miller keeps returning to Daytona to ride with his longtime friends.
Regarding what he calls “rice rockets,” Miller feels the same way about them as he does about cops: “They suck,” he deadpanned only slightly. “They’re dangerous – kids don’t realize what they’ve got under them.” Seeing a rice rocket rider die in front of him at BW 2003 did nothing to dissuade him of this opinion.
Despite admitting – softly and under his breath – that he would enjoy riding his first-ever sportbike, I asked how many times he had been to the races at the Speedway. Not once, not in more than 20 times to Daytona.
A bit disappointed with Miller’s reluctance to expose himself to another discipline of the hobby/sport we all love, I traded in the Vino for a Road Star Warrior and went for a cruise. I loved the instant grunt provided by the long-stroke 1670cc V-Twin, and by the many looks it attracted in its dark purple with ghost flames paint job, I wasn’t the only one enjoying Yamaha’s big aluminum-framed cruiser.
The Warrior works even better than our 2002 test unit, now with a handlebar with less of a reach and with foot controls that are more comfortably placed ergonomically. With its cool blue-lit instrument panel framing my view, I wondered how much more than the $12,199 price tag of the Warrior I’d have to spend to get similar performance out of a Harley.
More female riders than ever at this year’s bike week, whether on a sportbike, metric cruiser or the standard staple, Harley-Davidson.
Pulling back into our hotel parking lot at the end of the cruise, a Super Glide owner sitting on his bike began to ask questions about our Yamahas. He wanted to know what we thought of the FZ6 we had along and how we liked the Warrior. Randall eagerly talked about motorcycles, revealing knowledge that revealed a breadth of knowledge that strayed far beyond Milwaukee.
I remembered back to Miller, a likeable character who disappointed me with his close-mindedness regarding anything non-Harley. But before I could pigeonhole him too deeply into a stereotypical hole, I was lucky enough to meet a stereotype buster.
Randall loves his Harley, but he has a far greater affection for motocycles. As much as I enjoyed my time with Miller, I found myself closer in philosophy to Randall.
And The Quest continues…
In the previous installment from Bike Week, I proposed to investigate what makes a Harley more desirable than a “comparable” cruiser from another manufacturer. But before that could be answered I needed to research the other side of the street.
After starting out as poorly executed and oddly styled rip-offs of the classic H-D style, metric cruisers have really started to hit the right notes during the past several years. With Japanese bikes getting more desirable all the time, sales of metric cruisers have soared. And at least as significant to that market is the emergence of a bourgeoning aftermarket business catering exclusively to non-Harleys.
Knucklebuster built by Speed City Cycle – Best Chopper & Best in Show Winner – Roadbike Metric Bike Show.
“I suspect right now the metric aftermarket is a little like the Wild, Wild West,” explains Buzz Kanter, publisher of two motorcycle magazines that serve the cruiser market. “There’s only a couple of people who have really charged in and made a name for themselves, and there’s a lot of companies coming on line that maybe we haven’t heard of yet.”
Kanter recently retooled his Motorcycle Tour & Travel magazine into the first national publication catering to metric cruisers, now named RoadBike.
“The decision we made was to celebrate the metric market,” says the genial publisher from the grounds of Daytona International Speedway where RoadBike held its first annual metric cruiser bike show. “We want the metric rider to have someplace where they’re with fellow kindred spirits, where they don’t have to explain, they don’t have to justify – they can celebrate it.
“Originally, a lot of the people who were getting into the metric cruisers were ones who wanted Harleys but couldn’t afford them or justify them,” Kanter adds. “But now it’s gone way beyond that, and a lot of these people are building Warriors or Road Stars or V-Maxs or whatever because they want to. It’s not that they can’t afford a Harley, but they grew up on a Honda or a Yamaha or a Ducati or a BMW and they are coming back to it.
One of the aspects that makes custom Harleys so unique is the sheer number of them being built. This mean a tremendous aftermarket has risen to support it, and H-D riders have a virtual paint-by numbers guide to easily transform a stock Harley into something special. But now, led by a few pioneering companies, metric cruiser riders are able to exploit their own aftermarket catalogs and are pouring buckets of money into making their bikes stand out from the crowd.
“I’ve owned seven bikes and not one was a Harley. I have never had a problem with one of them in all these years, so I will never buy a Harley. I have nothing against them, I’m just not gonna buy a Harley. I will never have a problem with this bike. Just like my Honda – eight years old – I never changed a spark plug and never did anything but change the oil once a year, and I never had a problem with it.” – Warren Wiener
“As far as customizing a metric cruiser, in many cases the parts that you use to customize the bikes are not available,” explains Mike Tockey, owner of Speed City Cycle in Indianapolis. “It’s not like the H-D where there’s 900-page catalogs and you can just pick out your parts and bolt it on, so it gives companies like ours and Baron Customs an opportunity to create the market. There is still uncharted grounds in metrics.”
Tockey, who spoke to us at RoadBike’s Metric Bike Show, knows what he’s talking about. He’s been building customs for 20 years and started his own company in 2001. Speed City Cycle now builds assorted parts for Yamaha’s Star line and, more recently, Honda’s VTXs. If his credentials were ever in doubt, you should know that it was Tockey who walked away with RoadBike’s Best of Show honors, also taking the best chopper award for his low-gloss retro custom Road Star he calls “Knuckebuster.”
Tockey makes another salient point: “When we look at market share as a whole, Harley is the dominant player and they’re usually running about 24% market share. That leaves 76% for all others, and that’s metric in general and that’s who we cater to.”
“In many respects, the metric market is wide open,” explains Tom Fortune from Baron Custom Accessories. “Metric bikes are selling like crazy. It boils down to getting into something that they can feel that is their own piece of equipment a lot less expensively than a Harley. The buy-in on a Harley takes the budget away from the most of the guys that want to get into this market.”
In the past a lot of buyers were using the metrics solely because of the low entry cost and the reliability; Tokey says those are still very important factors. “While we have many customers who will book a full custom job with us, the majority of our customers are still pipes, jetting, bolt-on stuff – things that you can do at home or do with little mechanical expertise.”
While the choices for metric cruiser wheels is not nearly as deep as for the Harley market, more stuff gets introduced each day. Check out these retro wheels from Speed City Cycle that use billet hubs, stainless steel spokes, and come in your choice of a polished, a chromed, or a powder-coated rim. A set will cost about $1300 and are available in diameters from 15 to 18 inches, and up to 8.5 inches wide. The best part is that they are a direct bolt-on for Yamaha Road Stars using the stock axles, bearings and spacers, and they are machined to accept H-D rotors and pulleys to exploit the huge aftermarket.
That description fits Road Star rider Warren Wiener. The only mechanical modifications to his bike are the Vance & Hines pipes and Hypercharger intake. But with the addition of some wild custom paint and several chrome bolt-on goodies, Wiener’s bike looks like a real hot dog.
“I get an awful lot of compliments on this bike sitting on Main Street,” says the Little Rock, NY, resident. “Everybody seems to love it. The paint sticks out like a sore thumb. The front end is all chromed so it turns a lot of heads. And it’s a great value.
Aside from its American cultural icon status, Harley-Davidson has another significant advantage over the metrics. By using a really long development cycle for its models, parts made for a particular Harley model can be used on many different model-year bikes. That makes it easy for a shop to recoup an investment, because it means your inventory will get cleaned out eventually.
“I think the biggest challenge (metric cruisers) have,” notes Kanter, “is that the metric OEMs tend to modify their machinery from year to year, whereas Harley doesn’t do that so often. That means the aftermarket on the Harley side can machine something and know it’s going to have fitment for five or 10 years down the road and it’s easy to justify the expense. On the metric side, the fear is that if they change the frame next year from this year, all the parts I make for the frame might not fit. But I think the metric OEMs are figuring that out and they’re slowing down and they are working on evolution rather than revolution, which allows the aftermarket to make a buck.”
Back in the days of Japanese cruisers like the early Yamaha Viragos and Suzuki Intruders, making a radical custom out of one was but a distant thought for their owners. Instead, they were just an inexpensive way to look cool.
“At first, metric riders felt like they were cheapening out (compared to a Harley) – the market was that way,” Tokey says. “But now it’s not so much because of the support from companies such as ours have done with metrics, giving them quality products that normally you’d buy for a Harley – the same kind of quality, the same kind of chrome, the same kind of show – you get the same hit.
“Many of the customers doing these bikes have the means to build or purchase any H-D or clone that they’re interested in, but they do these bikes because of the reliability and because they are something different – it’s not the same old, same old.”
Tockey says he gets mixed reactions from his two-wheeled metric creations, especially with some Harley riders.
We usually get the thumbs-up from people no matter what they’re riding because (our) designs are unique,” Tockey explains, reflecting back in his mind to past encounters. “Sometimes we’ll get the attitude from the people who use their credit cards to buy their bike, and they’ve got all the brand-new plastic leather that is made in Indonesia.
“But, you know what? We’re all riding through the same wind, we’re all on two wheels, and it’s better to be on something than nothing at all. We’re not prejudiced: we like all bikes.”
The behavior of some Harley guys and girls can be baffling to non-cruiser riders. Tobacco addicts smoke when they ride. Most, it seems, are unable to match revs while downshifting. They often keep their burbling bikes idling during parking maneuvers, even when their transmission is in neutral and they have no intention of again engaging a gear before shutting it down. Exhaust notes range from ugly and flatulent to bodaciously mellifluous. And throughout everything is the ceaseless blipping of throttles – brraahh, brraahh.
In our technocentric culture, primitive machines are usually derided. Not so for Harley-Davidson, which continues to set record sales and profits.
As I sat with a notepad outside my Daytona Beach hotel door on Saturday night, I watched a giddy Harley rider do a burnout in our hotel parking lot. Blatting exhaust reverberated eardrums and white smoke began to lift into the treetops. When the rider stopped his ridiculous performance and shut down his bike, his two buddies erupted with whoops of laughter. I chuckled out loud at the sheer stupidity of it all – wasting tires and fuel just to make some noise and smoke.
But while still laughing at the juvenile silliness that played out in front of me, I recalled a certain journalist doing something eerily similar the night before when, for no reason in particular, I felt an irrepressible urge to blow off a little smoke myself. (Peculiar how the same performance can look so dissimilar from a different perspective, innit?)
I began to hypothesize that deriving enjoyment from such a base display must appeal to something primitive within us. It’s like the way HBS (Humans Before Starbucks) would dance around a glowing, sparking fire pit, or how Independence Day revelers ooh and aah at the colorful lights and booming sounds of fireworks.
“It’s like a caveman jumping up and down on a killed Tyrannosaurus Rex,” responded hotel roommate Ken Hutchison to my theory on what we had watched.
Maybe it’s that primal or childish part of us all that makes Harley-Davidsons so appealing to so many. Looking at things in that way, it’s little surprise to understand the primeval allure of a booming exhaust note and rapid explosions of a brawny V-Twin transforming rubber and carbon black into acrid, billowing white smoke.
Of course the same fun can be had with multi-cylinder-powered bikes, but there’s something a little more visceral when the act is done with a simple, air-cooled, pushrod-activated-under-head-valved, double-piston powerplant.
Now, those of you who worship the god of technology and its disciples of double-overhead billet cams, titanium valves, and horsepower-per-cubic-centimeter might bah! at such a concept. But many of you might also be the same people who shake their heads in bemusement at the staggering sales success of the “antiquated” Motor Company.
What’s sillier than a Harley guy burning off $50 worth of rear tire in a few seconds? Sportbike riders are just as guilty of foolishness.
And before you get too uppity about your “superior” choice of machinery, I’d like to relate another tale from the Days Inn parking lot.
Later the same night as the inane burnout king, some youngsters were playing on their sportbikes. Just like the Harley guys at Bike Week, they were having fun spinning the crap out of their engines until they bounced of their rev limiters. As the night grew on, their tricks grew more action-packed, punching out a couple of lame wheelies and amateurish stoppies in the parking lot to the delight of the admiring girls in attendance.
Their show was kind of amusing for me, as I was able to hark back several years to a younger me. What was worrisome about this scene was that mostly they rode around without helmets or any other riding gear. Still, I enjoyed a vicarious thrill as they amused themselves with the excitement of exploring their limits. One of the kids took his stunting to a higher level, attempting a stand-up wheelie in between the rows of cars and bikes. He wasn’t quite successful, though he must’ve been emboldened by the attention from his peers.
Despite not yet mastering the art of a conventional wheelie, Mr. Stand Up went to try a more advanced stunt, the wheelie while sitting on the fuel tank. His first couple of attempts weren’t very promising, but he continued to persevere. Perhaps he didn’t notice that the pro stunters remove the clip-on handlebars from their sportbikes to give them room to sit over the bars and provide a higher center of gravity to make any wheelie quite a bit easier.
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes (or Jim Rockford, for that matter) to see where this story is heading. Sure enough, things got out of control in a thrill-addled second, and the bike and rider were doing an impression of a different kind of stuntman, sparks flying and body thudding.
Could we have got this cute pair to have posed on a Japanese sportbike? Perhaps. But with the faces we were given, let’s just say it’s not a frequent occurrence.
Curiosity and investigative journalism getting the best of me, I ventured down to check on the kid’s condition, physically and mentally. Luckily, damage to both was purely cosmetic, and thankfully the kid had dug his helmet out of his room before his crash course in crashing; his helmet will be needing some bodywork at the same time as his bike.
“I’ve done that to five bikes already,” he told me with indignant invincibility. “It’s just a couple of scrapes,” he added while examining his scraped arms and legs (short pants and sleeves, doncha know). “My bike needed a paint job, anyway.”
My conception of a motorcycle is something that is efficient at transporting myself to my destination in the least amount of time. In this regard, H-D motorcycles are often considered to be a miserable failure in comparison to most other motorcycles.
Things are different on a cruiser. The trick is to slow everything down. Red lights are not as an impediment to progress, but instead are a reason to check out the scene – and be seen. Pretend you’re in Jamaica, mon, no problem!
We got our chance to investigate this attitude further when Harley set us up on a couple of Big Twins so we could get a good dose of playing Hogs of the road (any Kubrick fans out there?).
For Hutchison, who grew up riding off-road and then on sportbikes, riding a Harley didn’t feel quite right at first. “It makes me feel like a dorky high-school kid that moves to a new school and his mom buys him new clothes and a trendy haircut. You can pretend that you’re cool for a little while before the other kids find out the truth.”
After years of getting accustomed to three-way adjustable suspension and revs that spin up faster than a crack addict in a centrifuge, the slow-revving and heavy Harleys just didn’t feel right to him. Trying to find the correct key arrangement (ignition and fork locks aren’t the same on a Road King as they are on a Heritage Softail as they are on a Dyna Low Rider) was almost as much of a pain as the heavy clutch effort during Bike Week’s notoriously slow traffic.
The wheelbarrow-bend of the Road King Classic’s bars makes no sense, whether at speed or making tight turns; shifts are best made with deliberate and unhurried movements; and the brakes take a healthy squeeze or stomp to get the steel horses whoah-ed.
That said, there is nothing on the road that provides the exact same riding experience as a Harley. Immediate power is available at tractor-like engine speeds for those blasts away from traffic lights, and a short suspension stroke isn’t much of an issue when your rate of progress rarely tops 50 mph, as is the case during events like Bike Week. And let’s not forget that a lack of ground clearance isn’t a concern for many riders in parts of the country where the only corners are where two streets intersect.
But most important to Harley riders is the reactions from both converts and the uninitiated. Conversations at stop lights became frequent, and we began to get more looks from the opposite sex than usual – probably more than we really deserve.
A quick spin on the white sand of Daytona Beach illustrated this point. We set up a Softail and a Dyna for an impromptu photo shoot, and it wasn’t long before two lovely ladies were posing on it for the lens.
Looking again at the accompanying picture makes me wonder if we can find that friendly pair again to discuss my theory on the primal appeal of Harleys…