No stealing their thunder

To mark Harley-Davidson's 110th anniversary, motorcycle clubs from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur will be staging a series of leather-clad love-ins

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 April, 2013, 10:49am

No motorbike brand epitomises the freedom of the open road quite like Harley-Davidson, whose motto is "live to ride, ride to live".

Low-slung, and with a distinctive tailpipe noise, Harley is a true American success story; its bikes were used by the US Army as far back as the first world war. They also enjoy a large and loyal international following among biker groups.

Harley Owners Groups (HOGs) are actively encouraged by the manufacturer, founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by William Harley and Arthur Davidson in 1903. This year, it has mobilised thousands of HOG members to celebrate its 110th anniversary.

The "110 Years of Freedom" celebrations are taking place in 11 countries, including Malaysia and China. At least 5,000 riders are expected to turn up for the seven-day "Asia Harley Days" event starting in Kuala Lumpur on September 14.

Alongside a Hong Kong contingent, HOGs from across the region and farther afield are invited. Activities will include a flag parade, demonstration rides and a ride from Kuala Lumpur to the Malaysian states of Terengganu and Penang.

Greg Willis, a Harley-Davidson director for the Asia-Pacific, says Kuala Lumpur was chosen for the region's main anniversary event because of its strategic location and support from the authorities. "They are willing to provide both financial and non-financial support to ensure success for all stakeholders and participants of this major Harley-Davidson event," he says.

Danny Gohel, head of the Hong Kong HOG chapter, says it is too early to say how many members will attend the Malaysia event. Those who do will ship their bikes and stay on after the celebrations.

Gohel, who has been riding motorbikes for 20 years, knows the unshakable appeal of the Harley. "I've ridden Japanese bikes and all other bikes. But when you get a Harley, it's a whole different ride. The pipes, the sound, everything is different," he says.

"These are not even water-cooled engines, so you burn up here [the inner thighs] and you take that pain. But for most of us, it's just the lifestyle," he says on a recent Wednesday night at the Harley showroom on Gloucester Road, which is the meeting point for the club's midweek ride.

The club is planning to celebrate the anniversary at home. "It will be a bike ride, a big dinner celebration, and we hope to invite some of the regional HOG people also."

The chapter, established in 1989, has about 60 active members, although there are also Harley riders in other clubs, such as the Mad Dogs and Hong Kong Motorcycle Club.

One characteristic of the big bikes - Harley engines start at 750cc horsepower - is that they are more often than not customised. "It's never naked like this," Gohel says, pointing to a showroom model.

"It's the spirit of Harley, I guess. That's the fun of it. You can do whatever you want," says HOG member Mark Szeto, an executive at an entertainment company.

"I met some riders from another group, and they were looking at my bike. One of them said, 'What model is it?' I was curious. I thought all the diehard fans were very familiar with all the models. But all the bikes are customised so differently that the standard model doesn't matter anymore," Szeto says.

Louis Fung, a lawyer and assistant head of the HOG, says chrome is particularly popular. "In one magazine … there was a guy who paid an additional US$15,000 to have his whole bike chromed out. There are people who immediately customise the bike when they get it."

However, the Harley's link to bikers' clubs has not always been reputable. For a long time, the brand was synonymous with the Hell's Angels, the feared motorcycle gang that Hunter S. Thompson wrote about in his novel of the same name. He recounts a year spent with the gang in and around San Francisco, where he witnessed their depravity.

Despite the association, the Hell's Angels were always a minority of Harley riders. Gohel says local HOG members come from a range of professions. "We have doctors, dentists, lawyers, academics, tradespeople. We just get together to ride," says Gohel, a professor.

The members, who ditch suits and ties for leather, denim and T-shirts when they hit the streets, have a full calendar, including a regular ride on the first Sunday of every month.

"That's the biggest one; 30 to 40 bikes will come out. Members and non-members will come," Gohel says. "On top of that, this Wednesday ride was started a month ago by our road captain. He started it as an initiative for people who can't ride on Sundays but might want to ride around at night after work.

"We will do a Lantau charity ride, and this year we're also doing a Macau weekend.

"We'll put our bikes on the boat and ride around Macau, although it's very small, only 20 kilometres, so we'll ride around 10 times," he jokes.

Harley has a long history in Asia, where it sold its first bike in the early 1900s in Japan. But it was not until 2011 that an Asia-Pacific headquarters was established, in Singapore. The firm sold 24,480 bikes in the region last year, accounting for 9.8 per cent of global sales.

The Asia-Pacific is home to about 230 HOG chapters with more than 70,000 members, says Willis, the Harley director.

Despite restrictions, mainland Harley ownership is also growing. "Up to 10 years ago, big-cc bikes could not be registered at all, but now they've relaxed it a bit," Gohel says.

Harley's first representative office on the mainland opened in Shanghai in 2005, followed by a dealership in Beijing the following year. Its subsidiary, set up in 2010, now has 10 dealerships in the mainland. The number of HOGs and brand-building events are also growing.

"To date, we have set up six HOG chapters across mainland China, in Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao, Chengdu, Wenzhou and Dalian," Willis says. "We believe many HOG members from these cities will ride directly to Qiandao Lake in Zhejiang [province] for the upcoming 110th anniversary celebrations to be held from May 10 to 12."

The local enthusiasts' favourite places to ride are, not surprisingly, the quieter roads in the New Territories, including Route Twisk, Bride's Pool Road and a run to the airport. "That's a good, long trip. It's where we can hit 110 [km/h]," Gohel says.

It would be an appropriate choice for the anniversary ride, with a maximum speed limit on the route that tallies with Harley's age.