You never forget the first time you twist a hog. Like the split-second of dead calm before an explosion, there seems to be a silent--if ever so slight--moment between the twist of the throttle and the sudden blast to life of Harley-Davidson's mammoth engine, shooting the bike forward with a violent, but ultimately satisfying, roar. It's supposed to be a moment of steady cool, but I could hardly restrain the huge grin inside my helmet as I blasted through the streets of Fairfax at the start of my first Harley road trip.
Sure, the Harley's unmuffled roar is excessive and technically unnecessary, but so was putting cards in the spokes of your bicycle when you were a kid. Immediately I knew that our trip from Washington to Atlantic City aboard our rented Harley was going to be a good--if deafening--one. And when an oncoming Harley rider waved as we passed each other on Lee Highway, I knew I had entered a new biker fraternity, even if just for a few days, courtesy of a new rent-a-hog program from Harley-Davidson.
Weekend warriors: Eric Shelzig and Trisha Herzfeld pose with their rented Harley-Davidson Softail Classic.
(Michael Bonfigli - For The Washington Post)
There is a very real schism in the motorcycling community between people who ride Harleys and those who don't. Motorcyclists usually wave when they pass each other on the road. But if you're on a European or, worse, a Japanese bike, Harley riders generally won't wave back, in what amounts to the ultimate biker snub. Harley enthusiasts, steeped in the tradition, history and mystique of the Milwaukee-based motor company, view all others as pretenders, clones and unworthy challengers. Riders of foreign machines often decry what they view as misplaced arrogance on the part of Harley riders, whose machines they frankly see as substandard and overpriced.
I've had no real place in this debate, mostly having ridden a string of decrepit and deteriorating Japanese motorcycles of early 1980s vintage, held together by bungee cords and duct tape, and not-so-affectionately known as "rat bikes."
But now I have a chance to see what all the noise is about. Harley-Davidson is pushing to introduce more people to its products with an expanded rental program. Through a Harley-certified company called American Road Collection, any 21-year-old with a valid motorcycle license can rent one of the big, iconic bikes from participating dealers in Florida, Massachusetts and, now, Fairfax. I immediately called to reserve the most decadent of all touring Harleys, the Electra Glide, complete with a full windshield, passenger backrest for my old lady, floorboards and the piece de resistance, a stereo with handlebar controls.
My fiancee, Tricia, reluctantly agreed to ride behind me on an overnight road trip. But where? The best place to test a motorcycle's mettle is on a twisty mountain road. But somehow a Blue Ridge trip didn't seem grandiose enough for this bike; who would hear the roar? We finally settled on Atlantic City as a perfectly gaudy destination.
Arriving at Patriot Harley-Davidson in Fairfax City, we were met with a disappointing reality of the Harley rental program: Some neophyte had dropped the Electra Glide, putting it temporarily out of service. We were offered a more stripped-down Harley, the traditional Heritage Softail Classic. The Softail lacks some of the plush features of the Electra Glide, but it does have a swankier, counterbalanced engine--and it does have that roar. We signed away our right to sue the company if we crashed; Tricia surrendered her right to sue me if I dumped the bike while she was on it.
I swung my leg over the low-lying motorcycle. There was no way around the fact that this is indeed a beast of a bike. The 1450cc-displacement engine is larger by half than that of a Chevy Metro. But the big machine handled surprisingly well. It held steady well into extra-legal speeds, although my exploration of this particular aspect of the bike's performance often was cut short by Tricia swatting me on the helmet and yelling at me to slow down. Would the Hell's Angels put up this?
We headed north, traveling 190 miles mostly by interstate, stretched to six hours by frequent stops. Staying just ahead of thunderstorms, and out of the buffeting draft of tractor-trailers, was fun but fatiguing. Tricia kept me up-to-date on the increasing soreness of her rear end. Toll booths presented a tedious challenge, as I fought to keep the bike upright in the oily lanes, and Tricia struggled with her gloves to count change.
But once off the interstate, the bike really came into its own as we leaned through sweeping turns and rumbled through little New Jersey towns. In a place called Cowtown, we stopped for burgers at a 1950s-style diner where they serve their meat one way: well done. This was more like the American Road Trip we'd imagined, and so we began planning a return trip that kept us on secondary routes. Highway 301 along the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake is no country lane, but it carries mellower local traffic and it did lead us to Annapolis for a waterside lunch on our way back to Washington.
The interstate, however, does boast the East's newest Harley Mecca, and we stopped at the base of the Delaware Memorial Bridge to pay our respects at Mike's Famous Roadside Rest. This 42,000-square-foot complex houses a full-service Harley dealership (with its own rental program), gear and clothing store, restaurant and motorcycle museum. Enjoying the sales-tax-free status of Delaware, Mike's has become one of the most successful motorcycle dealerships in America. It's also functional, with showers for passing bikers and just about the cleanest rest stop you'll find between D.C. and Atlantic City.
We finally pulled into Atlantic Avenue at dusk, rumbling toward the end of the boardwalk and the Donald's Taj Mahal. Grand hopes of cruising down a glorious Vegas-style strip were quickly dashed by the boarded-up stores and nudie joints that line the street opposite the casinos shining on the beachfront.
Nobody seemed in a great rush to assist us at the hotel, but then again, we were grimy, sweaty and carrying motorcycle helmets. Our 37th-floor room, at $200 a night, was none too impressive, with spotty water pressure and a rattling air conditioner--probably about right for a couple of bikers. We struck out for dinner, and even played the slots with $40 in quarters, but soon collapsed after our long and taxing day's ride.
The next morning, we shared an elevator with a portly man wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt. Spying our motorcycling gear, he said he was "from the ministry" and began offering biking advice. "Keep the shiny side up, the wind at your back and Jesus in your mirror," he said as we headed toward the garage. Our bike was still there--which was better luck than we'd had at the slots.
A few days later, back on my old Yamaha, I saw a leather-clad Harley rider approaching in my mirrors. As he pulled alongside, I instinctively lifted my hand. He looked at me, then my bike, and without returning the gesture, twisted the throttle to blast away.
I waved anyway, which surprised him. But now I knew that I was worthy of a nod from the back of a hog. Hey, I've been there.
HOGS FOR HIRE: Patriot Harley-Davidson (9739 Lee Hwy., Fairfax, Va., 703 218-4004; national info at 888-736-8433, www.motorcyclerentals.cc), part of Harley-Davidson's national rental network. Several late-model bikes available from $49 for half days to $338 for weekends. Discounts available for longer and midweek rentals, and one-way rentals possible with drop-offs at five other participating dealers from Martha's Vinyard to Miami. Riders must be at least 21 with a valid motorcycle license. Patriot closes its rental program for winter Nov. 12, but other area Harley dealers have begun offering local rentals year-round: Harley-Davidson of Frederick (5722 Urbana Pike, Frederick, Md., 301 694-8177); Harley-Davidson of Washington (9407 Livingston Road, Ft. Washington, Md., 888 433-3837); Street Eagle (6200 Coventry Way, Clinton, Md., 301-868-9100, www.streeteagle.com/washington/index.html).
ROAD TRIP: Atlantic City is 190 miles from Washington. Take I-95 north to Wilmington, I-295 across the Delaware Memorial Bridge and Rte. 40 east to A.C. A non-interstate option of similar length and more character for the return trip is Rt. 301, south from Wilmington, across the Bay Bridge through Annapolis. The Trump Taj Mahal (1000 Boardwalk at Virginia Avenue, Atlantic City, 800-825-8786, www. trumptaj.com) is one of the original casino 'resorts,' but perhaps no longer among the best. October rates run from $150 weeknights to $275 weekends. Gambling problem? Call 800-GAMBLER. Info: Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, 888 222-3683, www.accva.org.
REST STOPS: Mike Famous Roadside Rest (New Castle, De., just off 295 on east end of Delaware Memorial Bridge, 800 326-6874, www.mikesfamous.com). A must stop for bikers: motorcycle museum, clothing, clean showers and bathrooms, and tasty grill food. Phillips Seafood (12 Dock Street, Annapolis Md., 410 990-9888) harborside shrimp to ease you back into non-Harley mode.