MILWAUKEE, AUG. 31–Calling Milwaukee a motorcycle-friendly city is like saying Lake Michigan is a little damp. The phrase just doesn’t quite convey the deep passion and appreciation the residents and business owners have for all things Harley-Davidson. And nowhere was this sentiment more evident than in downtown Milwaukee during the Harley-Davidson 110th Anniversary Parade.
On Saturday morning of the 110th Anniversary Celebration, I joined thousands of other Harley riders at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team, where the parade was being staged. We’d been informed that only 6,000 riders would be permitted to participate, and sure enough, Harley-Davidson staffers were checking our parade credentials at the entrance to the park.
Staging began at 7:30 a.m., but I didn’t arrive until close to 9:00, and there were already several thousand bikes in the staging area. Based on the color of my parade pass, I was directed to line up in one of the seven designated areas. In the first section were members of H-D Post 400 American Legion, Department of Wisconsin Harley-Davidson. Members of this post are veterans who belong to H.O.G. or work for Harley-Davidson or an H-D dealership. Also in the section were those riding early Harleys, from 1913 through 1979. Artist Scott Jacobs was there with his 1926 J model, and Cris Sommer Simmons and her husband Pat Simmons rode two of the oldest bikes in the parade. Cris rode her 1915 named Effie, the same machine she rode in the inaugural Motorcycle Cannonball Run in 2010. And Pat rode Vinnie, his 1914, affectionately referred to as Effie’s boyfriend.
The next section was reserved for Harley-Davidson family members, as well as board members, executives, sponsors and various dignitaries. Parker Anderson, a 16-year-old H.O.G. member from Appleton, Wisconsin, had the honor of wearing the H-D Freedom Jacket, which had returned from its travels to H-D 110th anniversary celebrations around the world. Then was the MDA Parade of Heroes comprising the 110 Harley riders who raised the highest amount for MDA over the past year.
Following the MDA Parade of Heroes were 140 motorcycle cops from the U.S. and Canada who were competing in the weekend’s Police Skills Competition at the Summerfest Grounds. The most dynamic—and colorful—section was the H.O.G. Chapter Parade of Flags. Each of the 1,400 H.O.G. chapters in 130 countries was offered a spot, and many showed up costumed in their countries’ traditional garb.
Finally were sections composed of designated H-D Museum members, H-D Tour and Rental Operations riders, various Harley rider groups and members of the media, and then Harley dealers, employees, suppliers and selected 110th Anniversary Celebration ticket holders. It was by far the largest all-Harley gathering I’ve ever seen in one spot.
While we waited for the kickstands-up signal, we availed ourselves of the food and beverages (and, just as importantly, the clean restrooms) onsite. The dignitaries that joined in the celebration included Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker on his Road King. I was also introduced to some special guests—Harley riders and actresses Katee Sackhoff and Tricia Helfer, known as the Acting Outlaws who raise money for charity. Both Katee and Tricia had major roles in Battlestar Galactica. Katee has a leading role in the just-released movie Riddick, starring Vin Diesel, and Tricia is one of the leads in the upcoming TV series Killer Women. The two lovely ladies were accompanied by director F. Gary Gray, known for his work on Friday, The Italian Job, The Negotiator and Law-Abiding Citizen.
At exactly 10:00 a.m., the ride escorts fired up their Harley police bikes and, row by row, riders filed out of the park, heading north and then east onto Blue Mound Road and continuing onto Wisconsin Avenue. I knew people would be watching the parade, but I didn’t expect that tens of thousands of spectators would line the roads along the entire route. Nor did I expect the enthusiasm and appreciation that would be expressed. Folks cheered and held up a huge variety of both professionally printed and handmade signs that articulated sentiments like, “We love you, Harley riders” and simply “Welcome home.” The one that really hit me was a crudely-lettered sign that proclaimed, “You don’t know what you do for us.” I realized it was a real honor to ride in the parade, and the strong emotions I felt were totally unexpected. The city was thanking us just for riding Harley-Davidsons!
We continued past the Miller brewery—Miller Brewing Company is also celebrating its 110th anniversary this year—and through the Marquette University campus, all while the cheering throngs loudly expressed their approval, encouraging us to rev our engines with many putting their hands out for high-fives as we rode by. We turned right and proceeded south on Milwaukee Street, finally arriving at the Summerfest Grounds. The five-and-a-half-mile ride took about 45 minutes (remember, we were riding at parade pace), and was so well organized that it took only about two hours total for all riders to reach the destination.
Riding in the parade was, for me, a once-in-a-lifetime event. And if you want to share this experience, well, I suppose you’ll have to wait until 2018 for Harley-Davidson’s 115th anniversary.