- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

ATLANTA — You might have seen them in beer joints. But they also were hitting Atlanta's finest restaurants, in Underground Atlanta, cruising up and down Peachtree, maybe even stopping off at upscale joints like the High Museum of Art.

And yes, they were wearing the requisite bandannas, jeans, T-shirts, sunglasses and black leather vests. But they also wore polo shirts, khakis and Gucci loafers.

July saw the beginning of Harley-Davidson's yearlong, 10-city, 100th anniversary worldwide celebration, in which tens of thousands of bikers straddling "hogs" roared around expressways to and from a three-day rally and massive show at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton.

No beer was allowed inside, but plenty of bikers and their children left with earrings (the kind that snap on) and big, red Harley tattoos (the ones that wash off).

Contrary to popular belief, the typical rider on a 666-pound Harley Fat Boy is likely to be a fat cat, not the beer-guzzling brawler portrayed by Hollywood. And these days, one in 10 isn't a guy.

Harley owners earn $78,000 a year on average, are 46 years old and see midlife as more of an epiphany than a crisis, a time to feel rebellious again if only for a few days or hours.

Jim Larson of Lloyd Harbor, N.Y., is pretty typical. The 45-year-old aviation engineer arrived in Atlanta by plane to meet two close friends executives in the city and immediately rented a Harley. His income is well into the six figures and he feels he has earned the right to "have as many expensive toys as I like," including his $20,000 bike.

He didn't have time to ride his own Harley the 778 miles from Long Island, so he found Street Eagle of Atlanta, a Harley rental store owned by fellow hog owners Denis Baker, 55, and Paul Skakum, 53.

Both Mr. Baker and Mr. Skakum worked for Lucent Technologies until the company hit the skids. They decided to try to make a buck doing something they loved.

"My Harley doesn't represent a midlife crisis, but it's more a statement of success," Mr. Larson said. "I'm spending time with dear friends."

That's not unusual, said Mr. Skakum, who often rides with his wife, Lynn. Both have Harleys.

"Our demographic wears suits to work, neckties, and puts on a helmet and leather on the weekend," he said. "The bikes can cost more than $30,000. And it's hard to find a good one for less than $10,000."

The average price is $15,000, but the Milwaukee-based company has trouble meeting demand, even though it builds 260,000 bikes a year.

"For the most part, the folks with Harleys have memories of days gone by, the fun they had when younger, and want to recapture some of it," Mr. Baker said. "We have gotten calls from Switzerland, Hungary and Germany."

"Easy Rider," the 1969 movie starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, is still a favorite of bikers. It celebrates rebelliousness, freedom and a zest for youthfulness that are part of the appeal of Harleys, Mr. Skakum said.

But Harleys also can reflect anxiety over aging and a realization of the importance of living in the moment, say many researchers who have studied the nation's 78 million baby boomers.

These folks seem desperate "to have anything and everything that restores the rush of adolescence," said Marian Salzman, chief strategic officer for Euro RSCG, a New York-based research firm. "A Harley screams 'fit' and 'fit financially.' We want to be sure the world knows we are among the achievers who didn't sell their souls."

That is born out by a recent AARP study, which finds that boomers are a nostalgic bunch. Regardless of age, most are worried that the best years of their lives are behind them, but they are determined to make sure that's not true.

"A generation of great expectations always wants more materially, spiritually, whatever," said James Smith, a professor of American studies at Pennsylvania State University.

Because boomers have entered, or are about to enter, their most productive earning years, "material indulgences" such as Harleys not to mention bigger houses are more attainable, Mr. Smith said.

He said boomers are more educated, richer and more "hip" than their parents.

Harleys scream power and perhaps a bit of youthful immortality.

The boom in Harley sales, said Ann Arnof Fishman, professor of marketing at New York University, reflects lingering rebelliousness born during the civil rights, feminist and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

"This is the first generation of American women who have made their own money and are not afraid to spend it," she said, which is why the number of female Harley owners has soared in the past 15 years.

"Riding a Harley makes me feel powerful," said Terry Jones, who owns her own hog. "I love the feeling of independence. There's a sisterhood among women riders, a brotherhood of us all."

Men feel the same way, said Mr. Skakum, riding in 93-degree temperatures on a breathtakingly curvy metro Atlanta road and waving at other cyclists.

"There's a camaraderie," he said, goosing the accelerator. "Riding a bike makes us more dangerous, gives you an image, the bad-guy kind of image, even though you're an average person. You can be a 'bad guy' for a little while and go back to business."

Fred Smith, 56, understands completely. "It's freedom. I like the wind in my face. The destination is important, but the trip is more important," said the retired aerospace scientist.

There are those whom Harley owners call the "1 percenters" bikers who still fit the Hell's Angels stereotype, Mr. Baker said, but they are rarely seen, and usually not on Harleys. Indeed, Harley groups have worked hard to distance themselves from the old images of drugs and violence.

The thousands of bikers converging on Atlanta might have struck fear in some hearts, but they brought just smiles to folks at restaurants, hotels and bars, said Bill Howard, a spokesman for the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

Charlie Broome, head of a 1,500-member Stone Mountain, Ga., group, relishes the chance to hit the highway on two wheels. "The weather is good. The mountains are near. It's a great time to escape."

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