Along with a couple of hundred thousand Harley riders from all over the U.S. and 129 other countries, I arrived in Milwaukee on August 28, 2003, for the Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary Celebration. Because the four-day event consisted of many venues distributed over a fairly wide geographic area, the crowds were not as tightly packed as I had feared. With the exception of Saturday's three-hour, eight-mile-long parade of 10,000 invited Harley riders, and the Sunday night concert limited to 150,000 ticket holders, the celebration's participants had plenty of room to move.
Out of an estimated quarter of a million attendees, Milwaukee police reported only 39 collisions involving motorcycles, with one fatality, a 10 year old boy who was riding with his father when they crashed into a taxicab on Saturday. Wisconsin does not have a mandatory helmet law, and with temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s, there were very few riders who were wearing them. Perhaps there actually is some safety in numbers, as motorists couldn't help but notice all the motorcycle activity taking place around them. Still, I found the spectacle of so many helmetless heads rather disconcerting.
I must say that everyone was extremely well behaved. I didn't see anyone obviously drunk or rowdy, didn't smell any aromatic herbs, and didn't see any flashing of female flesh. Boring! In many respects, the celebration appeared to have been sanitized for consumption by the non-biking public. According to police reports, only 35 people were arrested from Wednesday through Sunday. However, there were serpents slithering through this Eden, as 13 Harleys were reported stolen during that time. The food, music and exhibits at the various venues were all first-rate. Great performances at Sunday night's closing ceremonies included the Doobie Brothers and Tim McGraw, though many bikers left the concert after Elton John began playing. Elton John at a biker event? What were they thinking at corporate headquarters?
Milwaukee's Mayor, John Norquist, who obtained his motorcycle license just before the celebration, rode around on a borrowed Harley in order to mingle with the weekend visitors. Wherever I went, townspeople seemed happy to welcome the bikers, blending the rumble of exhausts with the ringing of cash registers. On Monday, departing bikers jammed the freeways out of town, while locals gathered on overpasses to wave goodbye. Law enforcement personnel did a praiseworthy job of maintaining the flow of traffic throughout the festivities.
From my point of view, Harley's Big Event was an interesting, though rather tame, sociological phenomenon. Riders from all corners of the globe made what can only be described as a pilgrimage to the holiest shrine of Harleydom. Meanwhile, The Motor Company reaped enormous profits and priceless promotional exposure from their Centennial Celebration. For many owners, the Harley-Davidson monoculture is akin to a religion, with Willy G. Davidson as its high priest and the dealerships its houses of worship. There, the true believers can pay homage, tithe by spending more than MSRP, and purchase chrome icons with which to adorn their two-wheeled altars.
Since I don't pretend to be a born-again Harley rider, I can confess to the heresy of owning a rice rocket as well as a Sportster. I will commit further blasphemy by saying that my Ninja is far more fun in the twisties than any Harley, or Buell, for that matter. Consequently, while people-watching at the Harley bash, I frequently felt like an outsider as I observed the genuflecting acolytes, and refused to purchase any of the overpriced 100th Anniversary T-shirts, patches, medallions and other logo gear, for which the devotees waited in long lines as if to receive communion.
My apologies to those who sport a Harley tattoo if my words sound a little cynical. A 100th Birthday Celebration for a motorcycle company and their loyal customers is a pretty awesome thing to behold, even for a cynic. A week after the event, when the last visiting biker had left and the boost to Milwaukee's economy had been tallied, the local curmudgeons began complaining about all the traffic, noise and crowds that they had to endure while the bikers were in town. Personally, I would be willing to repeat my trek to Milwaukee for another Harley celebration ... a hundred years from now!
Contributed by Mick Skolnick
Harley Riders Rolling into Milwaukee
A "Welcome Home" from Harley-Davidson
The Biggest Biker at the Celebration
The Amazing Seattle Cossacks
One Incredible Stunt After Another
Working Without a Safety Net