Ain't no party like a Harley-Davidson party

Eric MenardWilly with the Street Glide motorcycle Harley-Davidson loaned him to tour Prague and the surrounding area.

Eric Menard

Willy with the Street Glide motorcycle Harley-Davidson loaned him to tour Prague and the surrounding area.

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC — Way back in 1903, when Harley and the Davidsons built their first motorized bicycle, they surely could never have imagined the indelible mark their rolling collaboration would one day leave on mankind.

Last week in Prague, I witnessed that mark.

And what a mark it is.

This ancient city in the heart of Europe was the backdrop for Harley-Davidson’s 115th-anniversary party, where an estimated 60,000 motorcycles and a sea of bikers representing nearly 80 countries from across the planet made the scene.

Although I’ve attended a pair of Harley-Davidson’s anniversary parties in Milwaukee — and I’ll be back there for the North American anniversary bash later this summer — this was my very first trip to Europe.

I arrived in Prague in the middle of the afternoon on July 4, with the sun blaring and my excitement level at an all-time high.

On the car ride to our hotel in the very heart of the city, near the Old Town Square, the motorcycles were clearly beginning to take over the city.

My young driver commented he’d never seen so many Harleys in Prague — and this was still a full 24 hours before the event officially began.

I was greeted in the hotel lobby with a surprise: “You have a couple of hours to rest, then we are going to the Rolling Stones concert.” Say what? THE Rolling Stones? Pleased to Meet YOU!

A 90-minute nap was all I needed to bounce back from a tedious day of air travel. With the promise of a Stones concert and a belly full of tasty ice-cold Czech beers in my immediate future, I boarded an air-conditioned bus and met up with my brothers on the Canadian press tour — moto-journalists Costa Mouzouris and Eric Menard from Quebec and Mondo Lulu from Toronto.

The sun was still shining brightly when our bus arrived at Letnany Airport, the location for the Rolling Stones concert, which was the second last stop on their 10-month No Filter tour. A few of the locals estimated there were more than 70,000 people on site. The Stones and bikers have a long history together and it was without question the wildest concert I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been to many.

Things got funny as we waded through the dense crowd and the locals started asking to pose for pictures with me. It was a bit of a head-scratcher why so many wanted to share a selfie, but then it occurred to me I’m quite a bit larger than about 95 per cent of the population of the Czech Republic. As the crowd got more inebriated it became even funnier, and my massive head was inexplicably photographed countless times.

Late in the set, with the sun finally down and the beer kicking in, Jagger belted out Sympathy for the Devil and chills went up and down my spine. A range of emotions filled my head and heart, but the predominant one was immense gratitude for just how lucky a man I am to have witnessed such a spectacular show in such an utterly magical place surrounded by so many smiling faces who seemingly had so little in common with me — until I realized we were all singing along to the same song under the same sky. It was amazing.

On Thursday morning, we were up early and following a huge breakfast consisting of several types of meat and cheeses I’ve still yet to identify, we had a brief safety meeting. Harley-Davidson Canada’s representative (and Mama Bear) Karen Mayberry handed me the key fob to my ride for the next few days: a brand-new 2018 Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special.

This is basically the same model of Harley I ride back home. I’ve been singing the praises of the new Milwaukee Eight 107-cubic-inch engine since its release last year, and was thrilled to be aboard a bike I’m not only familiar with, but absolutely love. The combination of power, agility, technology and safety incorporated into these bikes is really a marvel of modern engineering. To those who don’t ride a Harley touring bike, they may appear to be the motorcycle equivalent of a small yacht, but take my word for it, once you become accustomed to these big bikes they handle like a dream and cruise like a missile.

Our first ride was to be a casual trip, just some light cruising around the hotel and to check out the festival site at the nearby Holesovice Expo Grounds. Thanks to an overzealous cop, we were split up almost instantly, and it was just Menard and myself, lost and alone amid a huge wave of motorcycles. We made the very best of it and headed out of the city. We had to make a fuel stop, and after the other customers took turns getting their picture taken with me while Menard laughed, we finally hit the highway and experienced some real riding.

To be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect of riding in the Czech Republic, but my typically active imagination did conjure up images of insane drivers and decrepit roads. Reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. The vast majority of the roads are as smooth as glass, and the other motorists are patient and respectful. Miles ahead, in fact, of the terrible roads and dicey drivers I face daily at home.

We really didn’t have a destination, but Menard led the way through a series of small villages on the outskirts of Prague that were scenic and serene. Kids waved at us gleefully as we roared by, old men gazed in envy and young women gawked and smiled. For most of the afternoon, we had the roads to ourselves. As a prairie boy I’m not exactly a road racer, and seldom ride curvy and hilly roads, so this was a real treat, and challenging. Like I said, this was my first trip to Europe, and I just can’t imagine a better way to tour than on a motorcycle. The sights and sounds, the smells of food cooking, the interesting architecture, all the different cars and trucks. I will never forget my first ride in Czech Republic. It was pure magic.

Following the ride, we had a fun and fact-filled question-and-answer period led by Bill Davidson, who is the director of the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, the great-grandson of Harley-Davidson founder William Davidson and the son of Willie G. Davidson. Later, Davidson posed for a photo with me and told me he liked my name! That photo is definitely going on my garage wall. I’ve been an automobile journalist for many years, and travelled all across North America for new car launches and auto shows, yet here, in Prague, on my very first motorcycle press trip, I was rubbing shoulders with biker royalty.

If you ask me, that says a lot about the company Harley-Davidson is and the passion its owners have for the brand. This man could surely have been anywhere else he wanted, yet he chose to be in Prague, enjoying the party. I initially thought he was simply making himself available to the press, but later that day and throughout the event I’d run into Bill Davidson and his sister, Karen, who is Harley’s creative director, and each time they were simply hanging with their fellow bikers, talking about bikes and posing for photos. I truly have an even greater respect for the Davidson family than I already did — the passion they have for their brand is palpable and entirely commendable.

Later that night we took in the grand opening show, and this is where the party really kicked into high gear. I’ve never been accused of being shy, and with a few more Czech beers under my belt I made my way through that crowd with Canada and Metis flags sewn on my biker vest and one mission in mind: to make as many new friends as possible.

Throughout the night, I laughed and hooted and hollered my way through the crowd and met fellow bikers from clear across the earth. I had no idea so many Europeans speak English, and many of them were impressed with just how far I’d come to be a part of the celebration. It was an absolute blast.

I fell asleep late that night with a dumb grin on my face and love in my heart.

On Friday we woke to rain and the boom of thunder. It cleared up shortly after lunch and Eric, Costa and I took a tour on our bikes through the massive Expo grounds. These guys are expert riders: neither of them put a foot down once as we rode at a snail’s pace through the dense crowd. I’m definitely going to work on my slow riding this summer.

Later, we took the bikes back to the hotel and toured the entire Expo area by foot. There was so much to see, including many vendors selling motorcycle parts, accessories and clothing. While some of the fashion is entirely similar, there does seem to be a wave of very distressed gear gaining in popularity, and for about $200, I could have been dressed up like Mad Max, if not for the fact European sizing ends at extra large.

It was also a treat to take a closer look at all the custom bikes. There really isn’t a tremendous difference in the custom scene I witnessed. Bobbers and choppers are popular in Europe, too, as are those big baggers with massive front wheels and pounding stereos. One bike that caught my eye actually had 26-inch wheels both front and back. I thought it looked ridiculous, but when it comes to customs, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, so I bit my tongue and clicked a few photos.

Much like in North America, the Czech Republic is proud of its military history, and it was interesting to see the many army vehicles on display — an olive-drab Jawa motorcycle really caught my eye, which reminded me of a bike a kid in my neighborhood (who was the second coming of Evel Knievel) used to ride. Back then I had no idea that bike came from Eastern Europe; all I knew was it was loud and it was fast. Now I want an old Jawa in my collection.

After a long day of walking (more than 12,000 steps every day for four days!), I was in bed early Friday night. The streets of Prague were alive with the unmistakable sound of Harley-Davidsons cracking the night and the party was in full gear outside my hotel window as I drifted off to sleep.

I woke at 7 on Saturday morning with a feeling of excitement for the awaiting day. It reminded me of being a boy of 12, laying in bed waiting for the birds to start chirping and the sun to rise, so I could gas up my dirt bike, hit the trails and seek escape, adventure and enlightenment. Tears of joy streamed down my cheeks as I gazed out the window of my hotel room and thanked the creator for what promised to be a fantastic day. As I looked out at the silent and deserted streets of Prague, I thought of the free life I’ve lived and how it felt especially special that morning, as I prepared to discover that ancient city with my newfound friends aboard our beautiful motorcycles. I thought of Prague and its people, a people who fought so hard to feel the freedom I’ve taken for granted for more than 50 years. It was another truly magical moment.

I was the first one down and around the bikes in the hotel parking lot, anxiously waiting to do what I love to do the very most — RIDE!

And ride we did. With Costa in the lead on a Road Glide, Karen behind him on a Sportster, Eric on a Road Glide, Mondo on a Street Glide and me sweeping up the rear, we escaped the hustle and bustle of the city and toured the breathtaking countryside. We ripped past small villages, toured a church with a macabre display of human bones and skulls that both terrified and intrigued me, ate lunch in a small café where no one spoke a word of English, drank Coca-Cola at a roadside restaurant, blasted through underground tunnels eight lanes wide, and absolutely owned the day!

I’ve done some cool stuff in my life. This ride was without question the coolest.

That night at the closing ceremonies, The Hives, a rock band from Sweden, played a raging set. “We just show up, we make everybody love us and we leave,” singer Howlin’ Pelle belted into the microphone. The crowd went wild. I did my best not to cry again, but I think a couple of tears managed to leak out. There was just something so special about Prague that made me a huge crybaby.

With my ears ringing and my heart singing, I wandered back to the hotel, but not before posing for another photograph with a couple of locals.

It makes me happy there’s a pack of European bikers with a photo of their Canadian brother saved in their phone.

Meanwhile, I have my European brothers saved in my heart.

Thank you Prague, and thank you Harley-Davidson — I’m a better man for knowing both of you.

willy@freepress.mb.ca

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free PressA line of Harley-Davidson motorcycles is parked in perfect order outside the Mama Shelter hotel, near Prague’s Old Town Square.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press

A line of Harley-Davidson motorcycles is parked in perfect order outside the Mama Shelter hotel, near Prague’s Old Town Square.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free PressPrague was the second-last stop on the Rolling Stones’ No Filter tour.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press

Prague was the second-last stop on the Rolling Stones’ No Filter tour.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free PressPrague’s Holesovice Exhibition Ground was ground zero for a gathering of bikers representing nearly 80 countries at Harley-Davidson’s 115th-anniversary party.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press

Prague’s Holesovice Exhibition Ground was ground zero for a gathering of bikers representing nearly 80 countries at Harley-Davidson’s 115th-anniversary party.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free PressMembers of the Harley Owners Group — or HOG — represented nearly 80 countries in Prague.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press

Members of the Harley Owners Group — or HOG — represented nearly 80 countries in Prague.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free PressThis modern-day interpretation of the Big Wheel was a hit at the custom motorcycle show.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press

This modern-day interpretation of the Big Wheel was a hit at the custom motorcycle show.

Eric MenardWilly meets Bill Davidson, the great-grandson of Harley-Davidson founder William Davidson.

Eric Menard

Willy meets Bill Davidson, the great-grandson of Harley-Davidson founder William Davidson.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free PressCobblestone streets get very slick in the rain, are found in many areas of Prague and can be a challenge for motorcyclists unfamiliar with them.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press

Cobblestone streets get very slick in the rain, are found in many areas of Prague and can be a challenge for motorcyclists unfamiliar with them.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free PressNo, he wasn’t trying to get artistic with us, apparently Willy had sunscreen on his iPhone when he shot this selfie with, from left, Mondo Lulu, Eric Menard, Karen Mayberry and Costa Mouzouris, after an adventure-filled ride in the Czech Republic.

Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press

No, he wasn’t trying to get artistic with us, apparently Willy had sunscreen on his iPhone when he shot this selfie with, from left, Mondo Lulu, Eric Menard, Karen Mayberry and Costa Mouzouris, after an adventure-filled ride in the Czech Republic.