Three big motorcycle rallies, including Harley-Davidson Inc.’s 115th anniversary celebration in Milwaukee, are expected to attract about 1 million bikers from around the world this year.
But the events aren’t all the same, and for Harley, there’s a shift in strategy from its 110th anniversary in 2013, which brought more than 100,000 people to Milwaukee’s lakefront.
Last week, when the company announced it wouldn’t have headliner music acts as it had at previous anniversaries, the biker community seemed to accept the change without much grumbling.
“I really like what they’re doing. It’s more of a focus on the brand and the bikes,” said Dave Zemla, marketing manager for S&S Cycle in Viola.
“It’s Harley getting back to their core,” Zemla said.
Not everyone is pleased with Harley-Davidson’s plan to race motorcycles on Milwaukee’s Bradford Beach as part of the rally. A short hop away, Veterans Park will also be swarming with motorcycles, although they aren’t racing there.
Bikes will rip through the sand for several hours Friday and Saturday, on a course that’s still being worked out with county park officials.
“It’s a great opportunity to put some two-wheel action on the beach,” said Chris Urban, Harley’s U.S. events manager.
Not so fast, said Jim Carlson, who lives about eight blocks from Bradford Beach.
Milwaukee County Parks, he said, has spent years cleaning up the beach and putting in systems to protect it from pollution runoff.
“To go from that to motorcycle races, I just can’t understand it,” Carlson said.
“I think it would be a step backward for all of the efforts to make a clean beach. I don’t agree with using park land that way; there’s enough environmental pressure on the parks as it is without having to stage an event like this,” he added.
Not to worry, Harley-Davidson says, as it’s pledged to put the beach back in the condition it was in before the races, or even better.
“As corporate citizens and participants in this community, we have an interest in keeping that beach beautiful,” Urban said.
These might be the first motorcycle races on Bradford Beach.
Harley said it will take precautions to ensure that no oil, gasoline or other pollution seeps into the sand and said the beach will be groomed after the races.
During the races, some of the beach will remain open for swimming, said Jeff Orlowski, assistant chief of recreation and business services for Milwaukee County Parks.
“We also encourage people to visit other beaches as well. There are a variety of options,” Orlowski said.
Daytona Bike Week
Bikers have been drawn to the waterfront for decades, with Daytona Bike Week a classic example.
That annual rally, which gets underway March 9, is expected to attract about 500,000 people over 10 days. Along with races at the Daytona International Speedway, thousands of motorcyclists cruise the streets and hang out at the bars.
“There are a lot of people who come here and never get anywhere near the races,” said Mark Lane, a columnist with the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
The rally sprawls out for miles into neighboring beach towns.
“I think it’s fair to say there’s always been a love-hate relationship between the city and Bike Week. There are a lot of people who live here because of it, and there are others who have moved from here because of it,” Lane said.
“It’s a major tourism event and a big part of the city’s economic year. It’s also extremely loud, and there are a lot of people,” he added.
Daytona is one of the first major U.S. motorcycle rallies of the year, but like Harley’s 115th, organizers say it won’t have headliner music acts such as Bruce Springsteen or Aerosmith.
“I don’t see that as being a deterrent at all,” said Brian Holt, who leases a city park for Daytona Bike Week, filled with about 60 vendors.
Holt said he agrees with Harley’s plan for the 115th.
“Why should they spend a ton of money on headliners when they want to feature their motorcycles? And having smaller music acts, that are free to attend, is sometimes better,” Holt said.
Pat Simmons, singer and guitarist for the Doobie Brothers, has written many of the songs that are popular among traditional Harley riders.
That band has been a favorite among bikers since its inception in 1970. Simmons and his wife, Cris Sommer-Simmons, are longtime Harley enthusiasts who ride vintage motorcycles and have been to Milwaukee many times.
They came to the 110th on really old Harleys — from 1914 and 1915 — traveling some 1,000 miles from Sturgis.
Simmons says he’s not disappointed that the 115th, unlike previous Harley anniversaries, won’t have headliner bands.
“I like less fanfare and more bike stuff,” he said. “People who are really into bikes couldn’t care less, to be honest with you, whether there is some band playing. They can go see that band anywhere.”
The 68-year-old rocker and biker has been riding Harleys most of his life and is gearing up for a cross-country journey this summer on a 1928 Harley.
He loves the rallies, too.
“To me, it’s about the interaction with the other riders … catching up with people I haven’t seen in a long time and seeing what other people are doing with their bikes as far as customizing and retrofitting stuff. I like to go down to the bar, have a beer, kick the tires and talk to people. That, and riding, is heaven for me,” Simmons said.
“I also love going to the Harley-Davidson Museum. As a biker, and a Harley fanatic, it’s like you got to do it,” he added.
For the 115th, Harley is bringing motorcycle carnival entertainment to Veterans Park and the Harley-Davidson Museum. That’s been popular at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
Sturgis is one of the largest, and oldest, biking events in the country. This year, it’s being held about three weeks ahead of Harley’s 115th.
Sturgis, like Daytona, lets the bars run the concerts. This year, those concerts at the Buffalo Chip and Full Throttle Saloon include some headliners such as Trace Adkins, Eric Church and Foreigner.
See the sights and sounds of Sturgis, from the motorcycles to the bikini competition and everything in between.
Trevor Hughes/USA TODAY
Sturgis also has some of the most beautiful motorcycle riding in the country, with hundreds of miles of back roads sweeping through South Dakota’s Black Hills.
“The biggest thing people come here for, year after year, is the Black Hills. That never gets old,” said Jerry Cole, Sturgis rally director.
“You also meet people who become your friends. On one of the rides last year, there were two couples from Australia who lived 30 miles from each other but had never met,” he added.
Milwaukee-area Harley dealerships are putting together scores of local rides for the 115th, and for the most part, they’re taking over the music entertainment.
Wisconsin Harley-Davidson, in Oconomowoc, says it will have more than 35 bands over five days.
The dealership did something similar for Harley’s 110th anniversary, with a goal of keeping concert-goers, and their money, at the bike shop.
“We strive to put on a great five-day party,” said Diane Crowley, the dealership’s marketing manager.
House of Harley-Davidson, in Greenfield, will host tribute bands to rock groups Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Also, the dealership will have charity rides and a women’s ride with members of Stilettos on Steel from across the country.
“It’s going to be a tribute to the female rider,” said Anne Zube, president of the Milwaukee chapter of Stilettos on Steel.
Zube said she can live without the big-name bands, and she agrees with Harley’s decision to put more emphasis on motorcycling events.
“They will figure it out,” she said. “I think Harley-Davidson has always been successful in finding something for everyone, and they’re doing it again.”
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