Vroom! There goes the In Crowd, riding a Harley

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Uh oh. Motorcycle in the rearview mirror. It's big, it's bad, it's ba-boomba boomba boomba loud. Must be a Harley. Guy's wearing enough leather to give milk. Easy now, just pull over and give him everything you own and he'll probably let you go with just a sneer.

But what a relief! It's not Peter Fonda at all, it's just good old Doctor Whosit from down the street, out relaxing in his high yup road warrior suit. And, look, here comes your local banker, and the lawyer from work, and the guy who does your taxes, all of them cruising the boulevard on their big Harley-Davidson hogs, looking so bad but so cool.

"Why not, it's fun to do," says Jerry Swan, a 48-year-old Balti

more financial consultant who drives a BMW car by day and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on weekends. "So much has been legislated out of life, there's not that much that's fun to do anymore."

Fun? Whatever happened to The Pagans, The Hells Angels, those really bad dudes with "Born to Drool" tattooed on their knuckles?

"The image has changed," shrugs Jim Foster, manager of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle store on Loch Raven Boulevard. "Not every biker is going to rape and pillage. That's an impression Hollywood created. A lot of bikers today are people whose parents said to them when they were kids 'You are not getting a motorcycle.' But they're grown up now, they're successful in business, they're doctors and lawyers and they can afford a lot of toys."

Toys, indeed. A new Harley-Davidson can cost more than $16,000, depending on the model and how many bells and whistles each rider wants. And while Harley isn't the only motorcycle manufacturer out there, its resurrected reputation for quality since employees bought controlling interest in the company a decade ago -- and the longtime mystique of Harleys going back to films like "Easy Rider" and "The Wild One" -- make it the hog of choice among the in crowd. Not to mention that Harley is also the last remaining American motorcycle company still in business.

Harleys have become so popular in the last decade that the Milwaukee-based company cannot keep all its dealers in stock. Last year, Harley -- which commands 60 percent of the U.S. heavy motorcycle market and about 30 percent worldwide -- produced 76,500 cycles and sold every one. It typically rations its dealers, and if customers haven't put money down on a Harley by March or April, their chances of getting one when the new models come out in August are slim.

"American stuff is in," grins Mr. Foster, "and, hey, business is good. People have money to spend. These are people who know where they are in life, people who are independent, free thinkers, people want to be with somebody successful."

On Saturday mornings, Jim Offutt pulls on his black leather jacket and climbs aboard his black-and-silver Harley for a dose of solitude along back roads. "What's a biker look like?" asks the 66-year-old Towson attorney. "It's kind of a nebulous thing. The image is getting away from the biker gang. I don't think there's much of it out there any more."

"There's a saying printed on a Harley sweat shirt," adds Dr. Nelson Goldberg, a 45-year-old biker who heads the division of plastic surgery at the University of Maryland. "It says 'If you don't understand it, I can't explain it.' "

At his office they certainly understand his occasional grumpiness: It means he hasn't been out on his Harley in a while. "The low rpms, the vibrations, you feel it in your system when you get on a Harley," he says. "It makes you feel relaxed, like getting into a hot tub."

To die-hard Harley riders, some of the more affluent bikers are known by such disparaging terms as Rolex Riders or Rubbies -- short for rich urban bikers. It's a name, though, that seems to have more to do with a rider's motivation than his bank account. "A lot of people are more into the leather clothing and the image than riding," says Cleve Laub, a 53-year-old nursing home administrator who has been riding motorcycles since his mid-30s.

"We call them profilers. They buy a bike, decorate it and ride on Sunday in their fancy garb. I ride because I like to ride."

Mr. Foster, though, isn't about to turn anyone away from his store, profilers or die-hards. He's even taken radio ads recently that invite anyone to come in and browse, if only to buy a jacket or a belt buckle.

"We're selling a lifestyle," he explains. He's also selling an incredible array of upscale designer clothing and accessories: leather jackets at $350; raspberry Harley sweaters at $55; muted pink jean vests at $35, leather chaps at $130, boots at $140 a pair, a buck knife engraved with the Harley name at $350, a cookie jar shaped like a Harley gas tank for $50, electric gloves at $93, nylon riding suits at $220.

"In 1975, you couldn't give a nylon suit away," says Mr. Foster. "Harley riders would say it's got to be leather. New riders say 'yes, but this keeps me warm.' "

The average Harley fashion plate today is a 37-year-old male who makes $40,000 a year and is just as likely to be a white-collar professional as a blue-collar worker.

"There was never really a time when we said 'let's attract upscale,'" says Harley spokesman Ken Schmidt in Milwaukee. "It's been a natural evolution over seven years. The bike is not cheap certainly. That itself tends to attract people in the work force."

hTC As a result, he said, Harley is now placing ads in magazines like Playboy and Penthouse where they had never before advertised. "This is not for the 18-to-24-age group," he says. "They just typically can't afford to buy a Harley."

In fact, says Taylor Anderson, Harley's district sales manager in Maryland and Virginia, "The biggest area of our growth is baby boomers who are getting old. They're looking for excitement and they've always wanted one of these."

And yet the largest group of Harley riders has been at it for some time, people like John Ritter, a 40-year-old Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. employee who's been riding since he was 26. He helps organize weekend and summer rides for the local chapter of HOG -- Harley Owners Group. "Most people who ride, that's their jewel," he says. "You feel proud about what you are doing, proud you're riding a Harley. What you do for a living is irrelevant. This is a statement of who you are."

Cleve Laub, though, winces. "I'm not trying to make a statement that I'm tough," he laughs. "All my bike says about me is that I ride a bike. I use it for therapy, quite frankly. It gets me away from the concerns of the workday."

Dr. Goldberg, who has been riding bikes since he was 16, agrees. "Intellectually, I am fairly well beyond thinking my motorcycle is a statement of who I really am. But I probably do fantasize and pretend it's a statement of who I am to perfect strangers going by."

Among Dr. Goldberg's regular riding companions are a bail bondsman, a contractor, a dentist, two physician's assistants, a framer for an art museum and a sculptor. That's typical, says Towson attorney Offutt, who got into riding in his early 50s. "You do run into a lot of professionals or executives or people who are more affluent," he says. "You damn near have to be affluent to ride a Harley. They are pretty expensive."

Which is Tom Joyce's point exactly. "My sisters still stereotype bikers as dirt ball, beer belly slobs," says Mr. Joyce, a Baltimore police officer who rides a city-owned Harley at work and has his own private Harley waiting for him at home. "I try to tell them motorcycles now aren't like when you could get into one for $2,000. I've got $17,000 tied up in my bike. It isn't the run of the mill gas station repairman owning a brand new Harley."

Not at all, says financial consultant Jerry Swan, who's been riding for 30 years.

"Take a guy in a BMW," he says, "and a guy on a motorcycle comes up behind him and he's wearing black leather. There's a negative mind set. But as soon as the biker starts talking, the guy in the car is shocked. Chances are the guy on the bike makes more money and is more financially secure than the guy in the BMW, who is probably cash poor."

Which explains, says Jim Foster, why his business is doing well in a recession.

"Why is Harley-Davidson selling a leisure time product at a time when many people are losing jobs?" he asks. "Because people want something different. It's 'Hey, gimme another reason to do something new in life.'"

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