Entering a new cycle of life

Trend: A motorcyclists' event reveals that this population, associated with youth and hedonism, is graying and raising kids.

August 18, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Two images collided head-on yesterday, as thousands of Harley-Davidson riders rumbled into Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, temporarily turning the infield into a giant biker bar.

One image - upon which the motorcycle company is built - was of black leather jackets, tattoos and tales of life on the open road. All were displayed as the company marked its forthcoming 100th anniversary with a noisy festival of music and exhibits.

But another potent image was clearly in evidence at the track yesterday.

Middle age.

For all of its bravado - "Harley-Davidson is all about adventure, freedom and individuality," boasted a company news release - the average Harley buyer these days is 42 years old, earns $70,000 a year and is married with kids, according to the marketing department.

It seems a long time since one of the most famous Harley riders - Peter Fonda in the 1969 film Easy Rider - yelled: "We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man!"

The graying of the Harley set doesn't mean they can't have fun, though. Among other attractions, the three-day festival, which continues today, features two music stages, a demonstration course for new models, clips of famous motorcycle-movie scenes, a rub-on tattoo parlor, and a display featuring Elvis Presley's 1956 model KH bike and rocker Jon Bon Jovi's 1988 Heritage Softail.

The company also is providing plenty of entertainment with the kids in mind.

The offerings include a test track in which kids age 3 and older can ride battery-powered motorcycles sharing the brand name of Harley-Davidson and Fisher-Price, the toy company.

The "Power Wheels" cycles are part of a marketing strategy of hooking kids on the product early. "We're not marketing to a demographic but to a mindset: It's people who like adventure and have a sense of individuality," said Joanne Bischmann, vice president for marketing. She said the Milwaukee-based company begins "brand imprinting at as early an age as possible."

Besides the mini-Harleys, devotees can purchase towels and other household items with the company logo.

"We have Harley little-baby clothes. We started them off early," said Lisa Hauser of Kent Island, who has 9-month-old twins and is pregnant again. She and her husband, Bob, left the kids at home yesterday to attend the festival, where today's musical acts include Bob Dylan and Billy Idol.

The Hausers weren't the only couple expressing loyalty yesterday to Harley and motorcycles in general, which seem to inspire an unusual sort of dedication. "You don't see `Microsoft' tattooed to your body. You see `Harley-Davidson,'" said Todd Woodward, a company spokesman.

Jay Donovan, 49, who traveled to the festival from Trenton, N.J., said he was in a motorcycle accident in the 1970s that left him in a wheelchair. It took him years - and about $60,000 - but he constructed a souped-up Harley he can drive from a sidecar that accommodates his chair. "I've had about three different engines and two different sidecars and lot of custom work," said Donovan, a retired state police officer.

For bikers such as Kalen Weeter of Joppatown, it's not only the product that matters, but the experience of attending the rallies. "It's like being a kid ... and seeing all the new toys," said Weeter, 34, wearing a tight black T-shirt and jeans.

As the festival opened yesterday, he stood in a makeshift parking lot where bikers were rolling in 50 at a time and lining up their vehicles in rows longer than football fields.

There were thousands of bikes in all, and Weeter was looking forward to checking out the "custom jobs" done by fellow enthusiasts: "A guy had a bike on Route 40 that was covered in buffalo hide, complete with head and horns," he said. "It was the whole buffalo, basically."

The "Open Road Tour" festival began in Atlanta before heading here. It has stops in Dallas and Los Angeles - as well as international destinations - before concluding with a celebration at its Milwaukee home next summer.

Organizers said Baltimore attendance figures - expected in the tens of thousands - won't be available until after today's show. Although there were plenty of bikers in the parking lot yesterday, the crowds were very thin around the main stage in the afternoon, before growing in the evening.

In some ways, the tour is like a long infomercial - albeit a cool one - replete with Harley-Davidson videos and poster-sized ads. But the participants don't seem to mind all the commercialism.

In one booth, attendees could tape a two-minute video message about their motorcycle experiences. An accompanying sign noted that Harley gets the rights to their stories.

An unidentified woman described how her motorcycle helped her family life: "My dad and I bought our first Harley-Davidson together," she said.

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