Oct 2, 2010

#30before30: Ride a Harley

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My experience with motorbikes boils down to a few scooter tours through scenic parts of South-East Asia. While bumping along a dirt road somewhere near Battambang, stopping only to taste some sticky bamboo rice, is all very exotic, there’s not a lot of grunt involved.

And grunt is Harley Davidson’s middle name.

A Harley Davidson is not just a motorbike. It’s a lifestyle. A lifestyle that I know next to nothing about - except the vague mental picture of chrome and big handlebars (of both the bike and moustache variety).

Luckily Phil, the manager at Morgan and Wacker, is keen to enlighten me. “Brisbane has a very dedicated Harley Davidson culture,” he says.

Their showroom is as much clothing outfitter, accessories buffet and gift emporium as it is a place where you can look at bikes. I examine HD leather jackets, belt buckles, shot glasses, toys and even baby booties as I wait to be suited up for a ride. I’m given a python-patterned leather jacket and a full-face helmet, and head out to meet Jesse, a shy but polite young bloke who’s tasked with breaking my Harley Davidson virginity. Oh dear, that’s an awkward phrase. I hope I haven’t embarrassed young Jesse.

It’s an easy enough jump on the brand new Fat Boy. Its engine has over 1500ccs, and while I still don’t really understand what that means, it all becomes clear when Jesse fires it up and that familiar guttural rev bursts forth, rumbling the seat below us. This Fat Boy’s going to be a goer.

We turn out on Kingsford Smith Drive, me clinging to the holder behind the passenger seat rest. It’s padded and quite comfy, and the elevated seat gives me a good view over Jesse’s helmet. After a few minutes, I relax and start looking out over the river. It’s quite a pleasant ride at 60kmh.

Then we turn onto the Gateway, and Jesse cranks up the juice (is that good lingo? I’m not sure). The wind begins whipping me in the face, and I have to keep my head steady to avoid it being wrenched around by the helmet. I lean when Jesse leans to take the corners.

I start to see why motorbikes have such an appeal. It’s like the modern day equivalent of a centaur – a combination of man and beast now becomes a combination of man and machine. Phil says later it’s like being in a 3D movie, rather than just watching the action through a car windscreen.

The bike responds to Jesse’s every movement, not always gracefully or immediately, but then Phil had told me you don’t buy a HD for the handling or speed. “In terms of comfort and reliability for cruising bikes, you can’t beat it.”

We exit the Gateway at Boondall and turn around to come back. The return trip is even faster, thanks to less traffic heading south. That is, until we hit Kingsford Smith Drive again. Putting along at 20 or 30kmh really feels like an insult to the Fat Boy. I could see traffic becoming a real drag for the regular rider; exhaust fumes can really clog up a helmet. I understand why some bike riders sneak through lanes and up road shoulders – I kind of want to nudge Jesse in the back and say, “We’re on a bike, let’s move it!” But he’s a responsible young man whose back frames up very nicely on my video camera, so I didn’t want to seem pushy.

We return to the showroom, and Phil greets me with a grin. He tells me all Harley Davidsons are built with a hand in them, and when you ride them the hand grabs your heart and doesn’t let go. “It may not be now, but one day you’ll remember that feeling and you’ll find yourself drawn back to the bikes,” he says. “Harley are doing a lot more targeting of young people and particularly women now, so they’re not just for oldies like me.”

I laugh, and Phil walks me through some of the brand new machines, gleaming in the late afternoon sun. He points out that styling is crucial to Harley Davidson, and all bikes are built to retain a “retro” look, even though everything under the steel is modern. They certainly retain a bold beauty, something I don’t usually associated with American manufacturing.

I don’t know if a Harley Davidson is in my short- or mid-term future. But then, as Phil waves me goodbye, I remember that hand that he talked about, and wonder if maybe one day it’ll squeeze my heart, and lure me back to the low roar of the Fat Boy.

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