A friend invited me to join a little group to ride the big, annual, early December toy run. First, he told me, I had to visit a local Harley dealer to register. There’s no such store in Denver. So on the Friday before the Sunday run I drove 15 miles west to Golden and found the newly opened H-D store on the outskirts.
It’s a big box up on a rise. The H-D folks, I feel sure, are the first tenants in a building designed just for them. The lot in front must have slots for 100 cars.
As I entered, someone greeted me, not a designated greeter as at Walmart but a person on his or her way to get something done. I wasn’t wearing anything like biker clothing. The greeting seemed sincere, and if that individual asked me how I was doing, he or she paused mid-journey to listen to my answer. I felt that the folks there were pleased I’d come in.
In the mostly flat-gray shop interior, I’m sure I saw at least 15 employees scurrying around, doing this or that. Maybe half a dozen said hi to me. I could not see the workshop area or the behind-the-scenes parts department, so I can’t guess how many more people were busy there. I’d estimate between 20 and 25 employees total, maybe more. That’s a lot of salaries.
I walked past all the motorcycles: the newish Street entry level bikes and the many variations of Sportsters and Big Twins, and I walked past the branded accessories.
I passed lots of footboards and low seats, and saw my fill of forward-mounted footpegs. I walked past the little fairy bells that jingle underneath cruisers. I walked past bandanas and t-shirts and do-rags and vests and chaps and boots trimmed with chrome chain.
A remarkable number of new Harleys are black, either gloss or matte black. Today, when bikes are painted black, often the small parts that would have been anodized or plated in the past are also black. The bikes look sullen, glowering, hostile.
I know a few Harley riders and they are not sullen, glowering or hostile. I don’t know why they try to make such a negative first impression.
I was walking in a toyland of bad-guy motorcycle gear, thousands of dollars’ worth of off-putting bikes, clothing and accessories that thousands of friendly people covet. That attitude stuff sells—and sells well, or the computers controlling the inventory won’t generate a reorder.
I looked at that mean-biker stuff and didn’t want any of it. Even if the folks who sell it are civilized and gracious. As are, puzzlingly, so many of the people who wear it.
I guess I’ve never felt the need to belong to some imagined association or to masquerade unconvincingly as “badder” than I am. Maybe all that badness is a thing of the past anyway. Groups of Harley riders no longer strike fear into our hearts.
I looked at all that that black leather and black t-shirts and black motorcycles, I wondered why Harley riders around the world costume themselves so uniformly. As individuals, they’re as different from one another as their gear is the same.
Curious, isn’t it? You can describe them without having seen them. Down to the silly, useless helmet or the bare head or do-rag, fingerless gloves and the little bell hanging below the frame. Thousands of identical rugged individualists: plumbers, psychiatrists and Presbyterians in chaps and vests.
Like you, I’ve been reading about Harley’s problems as its customer base ages. Who knows how the Motor Company will look in 10 or 15 or 25 years. We do know the execs in Milwaukee are aware that change is coming.
We’ve read about the many new models they’ll unveil. And how aggressively they’ll court the millions of Millennials who may not give more than a fleeting damn about bikes but whose business the industry is sure it urgently needs.
Will they buy bar-and-shield branded black leather covers for their phones?
As I walked around the Harley store, I tried and failed to square all the gloom and doom I’d read about with what I saw. Nothing there looked endangered. No one looked concerned. All was prosperity. The machines were dark and ominous, but there was human cordiality all around.
You’d think you would sense those growing storm clouds in the shop, but you don’t. It’s business as usual, and business appears to be good.
If we calculate the worth of the building and bikes and shop facilities and parts and accessories, we are looking at a big number indeed. Someone with money and a fine line of credit has bet big on Harley- Davidson there in Golden. He or she evidently feels that the recent dip in sales is merely an adjustment in the generally upward curve of Harley’s success.
I won’t be buying a Harley anytime soon. But I’d like H-D to thrive just as I’d like bike makers everywhere to thrive. We only have two major motorcycle manufacturers here in This Great Land. Having two keeps both of them honest and gives a choice to American riders who’d prefer to ride an unsubtle American bike.
Live long and prosper, Milwaukee, but I won’t be buying stuff that makes me look like an outlaw on Saturday rides. And then have to change clothes to ride to work at the pet shelter.
This story originally appeared in our February 2018 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.