On a cold Sunday morning in early December I rode across Denver to meet a half-dozen friends and participate in a toy run. If you haven’t had the pleasure, a toy run involves the purchase of a child’s toy in its original package and the donation of that toy to the charity after which the run is named. Children’s Hospital, this time. Toy runs are a Harley-Davidson holiday tradition.
I’d bought an action figure, Rocket Raccoon from Guardians of the Galaxy. It was easily portable and I hoped it would make some kid happy.
We met for the ride start at a huge multi-sport park at the eastern edge of the Denver sprawl. Empty on a Sunday morning, the place is Texas-size. It needed to be.
We lined up shortly after 9 AM, two hours before the scheduled ride start. By 10, there were 4,000 motorcycles on a curving road in that park. From where we were, we could see tiny bikes and people way up there at the front but no way could we see the back of the line. The line was 10 bikes wide.
We were five or six of us in our little group. Three (yes, I counted) wore waterproof fabric clothing in gray, blue or red. No more than 20 of the 4,000 bikes were ridden by individuals in un-black, un-leather outerwear. Maybe 10% of the riders wore helmets. More than 10% rode in do-rags.
Our gear kinda set us apart.
None of the leather clothing was armored. It wasn’t style clothing in most cases; it was purpose-made motorcycle clothing, but not technical, only intended to protect the wearer from road rash in the improbable event of a crash. No armor. No Dainese, no Kushitani.
The bikes were 95% Harleys. The remaining 5% were Victories and Indian Scouts, a very few Japanese cruisers and our five bikes, one of them two-up. We rode a Harley, an old BMW airhead, a late-model BMW GS, a four-cylinder Versys and my ZRX.
In contrast to the warm welcome I’d received when I registered for the ride at the Harley store, none of the folks near us in the line greeted me cheerily. I can’t remember chatting with anyone except those in our little group. Perhaps my imported bike, my Arai and my weathered red jacket led them to suspect that I spoke no English.
After an interminable wait, two hours plus, the front of the line began to move. I should tell you at this point that the run was five miles long, from the sports park to the hospital. That is not a misprint.
About 100 at a time, escorted by motorcycle cops, we rode west on a major street. More police stopped traffic at the lights so we could maintain about 30mph for the five miles, uninterrupted. Even without the calculator in your phone, you could figure out how long it took.
As each group of 100 reached the hospital, the escort cops turned around and rode briskly back to the Sports Park on the closed-to-traffic ride route to escort the next group. After each group left, the remaining groups would move up. Start motorcycle, creep 50 yards, shut off. Repeat.
We’d waited in the cold for hours to ride five miles in second gear to drop off our toys. I can’t believe I did that, and I am a little embarrassed telling you I did. I don’t believe you could convince the membership of the Ducati Owners Club or the BMW Riders Association or the Bearded Bonneville Bunch to do that, to stand around forever in order to ride five urban miles.
Be that as it may, nearly 4,000 Harley riders, costumed as scary-persons, showed up and waited in the cold more-or-less patiently to give away a brand new toy they’d bought with their own money. They do it every year here and in hundreds of other places. It’s a head-shaker, huh?
It is a head-shaker but—there were thousands of toys for those kids. In hindsight, I wish I’d dropped off Rocket Raccoon a day earlier. I could have taken an actual motorcycle ride somewhere less noisy, where I might have used all five gears. Imagine.
Now, about Harley-Davidson’s problems. Let’s say, on that run, we saw 3,800 Harleys. Not many were Sportsters. So there were well over 3,000 Big Twins, many of which were touring models with all the bells and most of the whistles. Not cheap bikes. Many couples, I noted, had two.
Maybe Harley’s traditional customer is indeed aging and buying fewer new bikes. Probably that’s so. But a big slice of the Motor Company’s faithful, trust me, will mount up in the dark on a frozen-finger Sunday morning to do the right thing for hospitalized kids they’ve never met.
Nothing about my experience at the Harley store or at the toy run made me worry about the health of Harley-Davidson, despite the barrage of gloomy news items. Maybe this is further evidence, as if we needed any, that we can’t believe everything we read…
I don’t want a Harley, but I’ll cheer for the company’s success… as will thousands of kids and their worried parents all across America.
This story originally appeared in our March 2018 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.