PRAGUE – The castle walls in this city will soon echo with the sound of thousands of Harley-Davidson motorcycles rolling through the narrow cobblestone streets.
Normally, the Czech Republic capital is known for medieval architecture, not motorcycles. But Thursday through Sunday, it’s the epicenter of Harley-Davidson Inc.’s 115th anniversary celebration in Europe.
Tens of thousands of bikers from 77 countries are coming here for the European version of the Labor Day weekend rally that Harley has planned for Milwaukee.
Saturday, waves of 4,000 bikers at a time will ride through the streets, some of them cobblestone, in this city of 1.3 million people.
The rally, which was preceded by a Wednesday night Rolling Stones concert, comes as Harley-Davidson is in the European Union spotlight for the EU imposing a 31 percent tariff on U.S.-made motorcycles — prompting the company to move some production out of the United States and triggering a series of angry tweets from President Donald Trump.
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Why is Harley having its European event in Prague?
Well, oddly enough, Prague has the world’s oldest Harley-Davidson riders’ club, celebrating its 90th anniversary.
The city is easily accessible from the rest of Europe. It has a colorful old-world ambiance that includes the world’s largest castle and a bridge tower where, in 1621, the severed heads of leaders of a failed coup were displayed as a warning against further insurrection.
Czechs favor Harleys
Nearly 50 percent of Czechs view the Harley-Davidson brand favorably and would like to ride a Harley at least once, according to a Prague television news report.
The rural areas are well-suited for motorcycling and, unlike Germany, there’s no autobahn where speeds regularly top 120 mph.
“Once you get off the motorways, you see the real country … even the little villages have these very grand buildings, churches on the hilltops,” said Graham Feld, a motorcycle adventure writer from Bulgaria.
“Your pace slows. It just feels like a little step back in time.”
Harley-Davidson’s showcase event in Europe comes as the company gives a nod toward younger riders by including skate parks, freestyle motocross riding and martial arts in the entertainment mix.
Harley aims to attract a younger crowd in Europe, as well as in the United States, to replace riders gradually aging out of motorcycling.
About 16 percent of the company’s motorcycle sales are in Europe, but it only as a small slice of the European heavyweight bike market, compared with about 50 percent in the U.S.
“There is more room to grow, but there is more entrenched competition,” said analyst Sharon Zackfia with William Blair & Co.
Harley-Davidson doesn’t sell a lot of bikes in the Czech Republic, but most of the rally-goers are from other countries.
The Harley dealership in Prague has rented out bikes to people from as far away as Australia, including three bikes to Milwaukeeans.
“This is the biggest Harley event we’ve had in the Czech Republic, absolutely,” said Dan Odehnal, the dealership’s sales manager.
From Slinger to Prague
Gary and Wendy Radmer of Slinger are doing a lot of sightseeing in the Czech Republic on a rented 2018 Harley Heritage Classic.
This week they’ve toured the countryside looking for castles — there are more than 2,000 of them — and they’ve visited the “Bone Church,” a small chapel adorned with the bones of about 40,000 people.
Radmer, a consultant for We Energies, turned 60 this year and says attending the Harley celebration in Prague was on his bucket list.
He even has a Czech flag tattooed on his arm.
“We just love Prague — the history, the culture, the scenery. There couldn’t be a better spot to have the 115th,” he said.
Many Wisconsinites would feel right at home here.
Czechs drink a lot of beer, consuming on average 43 gallons per person per year.
For a good part of the 1800s, Wisconsin led the nation in the number of Czech immigrants. More than a century ago it was said there was no Czech-American household that hadn’t heard of Milwaukee, Racine or Manitowoc.
What’s called “Harley-Davidson Club Prague” is the oldest existing Harley riders group in the world.
The idea for the club came from a wedding in 1927 where 60 Harley riders accompanied the groom, a famous motorcycle racer, to the altar.
Motorcycle acrobatics became one of the club’s specialties.
During World War II, club members met in secret, in restaurants and on walking trips. They sometimes hid their bikes, taking them apart so they wouldn’t be confiscated by German troops.
After the communist takeover of the country in 1948, club members once again had to throttle back their activities and meet clandestinely. They only rode in small groups to avoid attracting attention from the government’s secret police.
At one point, the club was forced to merge with a paramilitary organization overseen by the Czech army. Meetings included activities such as throwing grenades and target shooting.
Despite numerous earlier efforts by the government to wipe out Harley-Davidson Club Prague, it survived and thrived.
In 2013, during Harley-Davidson’s 110th anniversary celebration in Rome, members met Willie G. Davidson, the grandson of company co-founder William A. Davidson.
“This was a great and lovely surprise,” the club noted on its website.
The weekend rally is expected to pump $25 million into Prague’s economy.
“This is what I call jumping into the world mix. It’s a giant, culturally diverse family from all over the world,” Radmer said.