It must have looked intimidating as 40-odd Harley Davidsons rode into town, creating a cacophony of noise and a searing mirrorball of chrome refractions.
From the outside, I can only imagine that punters and passers-by may have scampered and retreated in fear because it’s natural to associate that a heap of Harleys would only be ridden by gang of lawless bikers.
But that is far from the reality today, which should be obvious by the fact those leading the pack are wearing hi-viz vests rather than ratty leather jackets and the collection of riders behind them range from trendy hipsters in retro open-face helmets to died-in-the-wool couples riding two-up and covered in patches that trace their life and travels on two wheels.
It also includes Bill Davidson, the great grandson of company founder William G Davidson, and his wife, as well as a host of media, including myself and television personality James Tobin. This is not your typical bikie gang!
James Tobin and Bill Davidson Photo: Josh Carroll
As I find out, Harley-Davidson is more than just a motorcycle brand. It’s a lifestyle. And not just for unsavoury folk.
The iconic company, which was founded in Milwaukee in 1903, quickly branched out across the globe and set-up its first dealership outside of the USA in Brisbane, Morgan and Wacker motorcycles, just 14 years after it was established.
To celebrate the milestone, Davidson is the guest of honour on a week-long whistle stop tour of the east coast from Brisbane to Melbourne that is also helping raise funds and awareness for Brain Cancer Research.
I joined the gang for a day, travelling from Sydney to Canberra via scenic outposts that included Stanwell Tops, the Sea Cliff Bridge, Kiama and across the Southern Highlands.
My steed was the latest version of the Fatboy, the iconic low-rider soft tail made famous when Arnold Schwarznegger’s Terminator jumped it off a bridge into the LA River in the sequel, Terminator 2 Judgement Day.
It’s got plenty of chrome, a low-seat seat, big wide bars and a massive 103 cubic inch (1.7-litre in modern speak) 45-degree twin-camshaft V-twin that chugs along effortlessly at low engine speeds.
It’s a big and heavy bike, and it’s easy to grind the foot rests when you lean through corners, but it’s a comfortable cruiser with a nice riding position and surprisingly decent handling.
As we depart Harley’s latest dealership in Sydney’s northern beaches in the middle of peak hour, I quickly find out that it’s not as nimble as the smaller sports bikes that are zipping through the heavy traffic around me. I also quickly realise that big air cooled twin-cylinder can get quite hot when moving slowly or stopped for long periods of time.
But I’m not alone. The collective of riders that have formed an endless two-by-two congo line are all squirming in the traffic and standing up off the seat at the traffic lights.
Everything calms down as we get moving on the freeway and then easily cruise through the southern beachside suburbs against the flow of traffic heading into town.
It quickly becomes apparent there is an etiquette to riding side-by-side among a gaggle of motorcycles; stick to your side of the road and give everyone room, use coded hand signals if you want to move forwards or backwards in the line-up to join-up with mates, and, among our group at least, don’t be an idiot and speed away from the lights or make any sudden movements.
That doesn’t mean Harley’s aren’t anti-social machines even when ridden respectfully. While a collective of 40-odd V-twins make a racket already, I also find myself riding alongside a Street Glide with a booming sound system that is linked via Bluetooth to the rider’s mobile phone.
An hour or so into the ride, I’m starting to gel with the heavy controls of the Fatboy and the whole Harley-Davidson lifestyle is becoming more obvious.
When we stop for the first of many fuel stops (a 1.7-litre motorcycle isn’t an efficient machine), I ask Davidson how his eponymous company has broadened its appeal beyond stereotypical bikie gangs.
“I think it is less intimidating today than it ever has been, because we are more than just a motorcycle maker,” he said.
“I think Harley-Davidson has a magic of attracting people from all walks of life from all around the world. It is a magnet that brings these people together, unified, and there is a genuine brotherhood and.sisterhood that links these types of people together, whether they be stereotypes, which we can’t ignore, or doctors, lawyers, movie stars…
“We have always held our arms open to welcome new people to be brand. And I think we are authentic in that. It’s a powerful brand, but we’re very inclusive.”
It is also a charitable brand, with the Harley-Davidson Foundation providing millions of dollars each year in grants to help community projects around the world.
Joining us as a pillion passenger on the ride is Paul McLean, a long-time Harley fan and former owner who unfortunately can no longer ride due to numerous brain tumours.
Despite his circumstances, the successful businessman is thrilled to be back on two wheels with the wind in his face while helping raise awareness and funds for better research.
Like Davidson, he too says the appeal of Harley is more elastic than its reputation and offers a blatantly obvious explanation of why that is.
“It’s been a brand that has always represented the backbone of freedom,” he said.
“The film Easy Rider was very much attached to Harley-Davidson and I think in every man there is an element – some more than others perhaps – of being a rebel. Most men with even a little dose of testosterone will empathise with that.
“I also think in a world that is increasingly getting wrapped-up in cotton wool, and Australia is often referred to as a nanny state, that getting astride a Harley and out on the open road is a way to escape.
“It is a way to disconnect and escape from reality, to be on your own for a bit of man meditation – it’s a very noisy cave, but your helmet is a bit of a man cave. There’s a lot of power in that freedom.”
As we cross the Sea Cliff Bridge just north of Wollongong, McLean’s explanation rings true, ironically as my mobile phone buzzes away in my pocket. I can’t answer it – obviously – and, with the cool sea air whisping across my face, almost force feeding the smell of the ocean into my senses, my everyday world has momentarily disappeared.
As the day draws on, I become more accustomed to riding among a pack of Harleys, enjoying the freedom and the power of the Fatboy underneath me too. My perception that we must look like an intimidating gang of hooligans fades just like the autumn sun we’re riding towards.
Far from being a typical Harley rider, Tobin – a typical young urban trend-setter that finished runner-up in Cleo’s Bachelor of the Year a few years ago – is also riding a Fatboy, all in matte black with personalised plates.
He’s a chilled-out traditional Harley fan through and through, which seems out of kilter with his mildly hyperactive on-screen weather-presenter personality.
“I love getting away from it all,” he says.
“The appeal of riding a motorbike to me is sitting back and cruising, going for a journey – either a day trip or a week-long road trip. That’s the kind of riding that suits a Harley.
“I love the sound, the feeling and the journey. I think Harley Davidson is the quintessential motorbike and it represents motorcycling. The design hasn’t changed much over time, which I like. I’m probably more of a traditionalist in that sense.”
Before today I dismissed the attraction of Harley-Davidson. It has never been my kind of motorcycle; too traditional, too big and one that makes noise more than anything else.
But as I climb off the bike in Canberra, even though my back is sore, I’ve eaten my fair share of bugs and have been sand blasted behind a truck, I find myself wanting to continue celebrating Harley’s Aussie centenary as the rest of the gang head across the Snowy Mountains to eventually end-up in Melbourne four days later. I joined a Harley gang and I survived. I get it now.