Milwaukee, Wis., Feb. 16–19—Dragging luggage through the Milwaukee airport gives one a giggle while passing through the designated “recombobulation area,” past the cheese-wedge hats, Harley-Davidson boutique and right on out the front door to the biggest motorcycle mecca in all the world. While bikers might be a minority anywhere else on the planet, we are certainly not so in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There is no other city that serves to make a biker feel more welcome than Milwaukee, the birthplace of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and those of us who are devotees journey here to mingle with our tribe and regale in the glory of life on two wheels.
Each February for the last four years, bikers of every ilk converge on Cycle City to shake off the winter doldrums and celebrate custom creations at a little bike show held in a warehouse district in Milwaukee. Mama Tried has grown into a cult affair that attracts folks from around the world and has turned into an extended celebration of all things motorcycle. There’s a bike night, pre-parties, after-parties, underground parties, official parties and unofficial parties in addition to flat track races scheduled throughout the weekend and this year there were even official ice races planned for after the show on Sunday. Unfortunately, somebody forgot to tell the Weather Witch. Instead of the typical 39-degree February temps, she blessed us all with beautiful riding weather, which blew the hell out of anything to do with frozen ponds since even the trees were budding in response to the unseasonably warm conditions. Slippery Sunday was officially cancelled, but the rest of the festivities raged on in the full glory of a very hospitable spring-like warmth.
Thursday night kicked off with Bike Night at the Motor Bar & Restaurant at the Harley-Davidson Museum, which serves as a sort of cultural center for the cycle-centric events around town. All the cool kids were mingling, sucking down $2 suds as Zach Pietrini provided tunes. We caught up with a variety of riding notables and found out that the museum is working on bringing the The Race of Gentlemen guys in for an exhibit later this year. The Hooligan tribe, Frozen Few, Oilers and Indies were on hand and the race vibe was thick as the gathered speed freaks needled each other about the races scheduled on Friday. We swung by the Iron Horse Hotel and discovered there was to be an exhibition and lecture by renowned biker photog Michael Lichter on Sunday morning so we added that to the growing list of must-do cool stuff. The best part of the four-day funfest is hanging out with friends, of course, so being chauffeured around by local buddy Tony “Pan” Sanfelipo made it all the more fun. Employed as an investigator for Milwaukee law firm Hupy and Abraham, Pan is well versed in the local bike scene and as the first inducted Sturgis Motorcycle Hall of Fame Freedom Fighter, he’s also well versed in how to handle bikers’ rights. Time with Tony is always an education and there’s nowhere to go that he doesn’t find a friend, so a visit always includes meeting lots of new compadres. Party hopping is an acquired skill and Tony, pro that he is, knows all the happening places to visit, including a trip over to a local 1% club.
Friday’s agenda included a behind-the-scenes tour of the Pilgrim Road Harley-Davidson plant where everyone is welcome with admission between $14–$20 or free to H.O.G. members, and a bit of bar hopping before heading over to the official kickoff of Mama Tried with the Flat Out Friday races at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. After watching brave speed freaks lapping the oval, the crowd moseyed back over to the H-D Museum for a raging pre-party at the Garage. There’s a sense of family in the air when you’re in Milwaukee, and the Davidsons tend to make sure folks feel welcome in their town. As official sponsors of the Mama Tried show, Willie G., wife Nancy, adult children Bill and Karen and the rest of the clan can be seen around town all weekend and are always gracious hosts.
Saturday morning found a line of eager show fans trailing off into the horizon, sprawled out over a four-block stretch as they waited to get into the Mama Tried show. And it stayed that way for the entire day and into the evening. People crowded the sidewalks out front as security closely scrutinized the headcount, making sure the comings and goings were monitored to avoid overcrowding the old warehouse. Once inside, vendors lined the perimeter walls and center aisles of the ground floor, and the lines to catch the creaky old freight elevator to the top floorshow were constant. A short sprint up the three-flight back stairwell was quicker and provided a bit of a workout but once we finally made it to the show, we forgot all about the effort it took to get there. It was glorious.
Dark and moody, the oil-stained board floor of the old building housed the 100-or-so custom-built machines that were sprawled out across what appeared to be a totally random layout. There was only one wall with windows and the wood and brick interior seemed to consume whatever light managed to filter through the dirty panes to illuminate the magnificent machines that hunkered down in the dark recesses. Each builder had been specifically invited to show their builds in the show that offers no awards. There are no trophies and there is no competition. Mama Tried is simply an opportunity for builders to show folks their craft.
When founders and coordinators Warren Heir and Scott Johnson were asked how they go about determining who to invite to participate in the show, it was Heir that shared the formula, though admitting there isn’t an exact science to the process. According to Warren, “There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to being invited. A lot depends on how a bike looks. Some depends on the person who built or owns it. It’s organic, gut feelings.” Some of the bikes are submitted via the MT website, some are seen via Instagram and some are just bikes that Warren or Scott have heard about and then seek out.
Event team member Maureen Post went on to explain, “The guys definitely try to get a good mix of bikes so that is a factor, but sometimes the builder is as much a factor as the bike is. We really like to work with people who are in it for the right reasons, who totally involve themselves in what they do. Warren and Scott build relationships with guys who continuously blow it out of the water every year and who we’re happy to have back. And it’s important to note that there is no outside influence from sponsors on the bikes chosen, either. If Warren and Scott don’t want a bike in the show, it isn’t in the show.” Whatever the formula, it seems to be a good one since we found ourselves lapping the maze of machines over and over in order to be sure we saw what we thought we’d seen. From Fred Wacker’s 1913 Indian that ran in the 2016 Motorcycle Cannonball to the crazy Yamaha with a ski, there were plenty of reasons to return again Sunday morning to scope it out all over again and there were a plethora of others who felt the same since the place had a steady stream of visitors, including Willie G. and Nancy who quietly wandered through and ogled the display while graciously posing for photos. By the close of business, over 8,000 attendees had wandered the planks of the showroom floor. Next year’s Mama Tried will be in the same building and there are no current plans to expand. You can go to the website for instructions on how to apply to have your bike in the show. mamatriedshow.com