MILWAUKEE — Tens of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts have roared into Milwaukee to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Harley-Davidson Co., but few traveled as far as Chai Chua.
The 46-year-old business owner bid farewell to his wife and three children in Brunei about a week ago and set off with seven of his closest friends. They flew to Los Angeles, then hopped on rented Harley-Davidson motorcycles and headed to the Midwestern state.
“My wife knows I am crazy about this,” said Chua, after arriving at the site of the party, where he and his friends joined the crowds marking the motorcycle maker’s anniversary over the Labor Day weekend.
“We have seen the prairies, the mountains, Mount Rushmore and now the Mecca for riders,” Chua said, shouting over blues music outside of the Harley-Davidson Museum where revelers kicked off the celebration with a bike rally on Thursday.
Nearby, a long procession of the motorcycles, nicknamed “hogs,” rumbled onto the museum campus, where riders parked their bikes in tight rows creating a glistening sea of shiny steel.
Riders donned black leather, as well as an assortment of denim, bandanas and Harley-Davidson orange, as they snapped photos, drank beer and marveled at the spectacle.
“It’s exciting … . [There’s] a lot of personal satisfaction in doing it,” said Fernando Dorantes, 52, an engineer from Toluca, Mexico, where he and seven of his friends began their five-day, 2,600-mile journey to Milwaukee.
The party spread across several sites in the city, including the SummerFest grounds where bands including ZZ Top, Blue Oyster Cult and the Doobie Brothers performed.
“It doesn’t matter what you are or what you look like. As long as you ride, it’s a brotherhood,” said Bobby Hite, 40, of Culver, Indiana, after getting a 110th anniversary tattoo on his left bicep. “You got the cackle, the rumble between your legs.”
Harley-Davidson has long relied on a white, male and middle-aged consumer base, an approach reflected in the makeup of the Milwaukee crowd.
But in recent years, it has begun to try to design motorcycles that appeal to younger riders, women and minorities.
The celebration focused on the evolution of the bike during the past century, with guests going on tours of the Harley plant, a few miles from where William Harley and Arthur Davidson began making them in a shed in 1903.
“This is where it all began. Harley Davidson is my life. Besides my kids, it is my life,” said Terry Martin, 59, of Boston, as he sat on his motorcycle next to a replica of the shed at the company’s headquarters.
The celebration comes weeks after rival Polaris Industries relaunched the Indian motorcycle, a storied U.S. brand two years older than Harley-Davidson, at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, hallowed ground for legions of Harley-Davidson enthusiasts who flock to South Dakota each year.
But on this weekend in Milwaukee, it is all about the hog and its colorful array of devoted riders who crave the open road.
“It’s freedom,” said Drew Canon, a 45-year-old Texan with a short gray beard and tattooed arms. “You feel all of your senses. You smell it all, you hear it all.”