Hear that rumble? Here come the Harleys

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Hear that rumble? Here come the Harleys

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DONGHAE, Gangwon province ― When it’s passing by, it sounds like a bike running at breakneck speed even though it’s not that fast. When it’s not alone, the low and thick sound becomes a ground-breaking rumble.
Welcome to the eighth Korea National H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) Rally, or as one resident of this small city put it, “They’ve been making these noises for two days now. What are they doing here?”
Last weekend, over 500 Harley-riders from around the nation, including 18 from Japan, roared into the Mangsang Auto Camping Resort in Donghae, Gangwon province, for the three-day festival.
Having come with his 10-year-old son, Robert Krakauer, executive vice-president of MagnaChip Semiconductor Korea, said that he finds “peace on the road,” with Harley. Bruce Motta, HOG International Manager, said that he feels like he’s “in the world” on a Harley, while other times he just lives “on the world.”
Like the noise of the Harley engine itself, the liberating feeling gets stronger and heavier the more riders show up, one reason the club members say they came here, despite the long journey, to join the last day’s Grand Tour from Donghae to Taebaek. As two-wheel vehicles are not allowed to use expressways in Korea, they have to take national roads. One member said it took him about 10 hours to come from Seoul, while riding a bus would have taken only three. The riders were unanimous in saying that Harleys should be allowed on the expressway, but they didn’t seem to mind taking back roads. If anything, that added to the sense of adventure. Even the smallest Harley’s engine displacement is 883 cubic centimeters, more than some cars.
Hwang Jung-hee, 46, said she loves the sound of a Harley engine. “People are excited when they listen to music, like rock,” she explained. “It’s the same. For some people it might be a noise, but the roaring sound of Harley drives me wild.”
“Every bike has a different sound,” she added, indicating that she’s there to enjoy the “music.”
Harleys do indeed have a distinctive sound: part machine-gun, part earthquake, enough to make passersby plug their ears. People often link the sound to hot-rodding, but most riders stay at reasonable speeds, said Kim Yoon-young, in the marketing department of Harley-Davidson of Korea.
“They can go as fast as 220 kilometers (136.7 miles) per hour, but no one runs to that, because the best way to enjoy riding a Harley is by going 80 to 90 kilometers an hour, in terms of the sound and the engine vibration,” Ms. Kim said.
“Sometimes I feel when I look at my parked Harley like it’s nagging me to go out for a ride, just like a horse,” Ms. Hwang said. “Like the other wives, I didn’t like the idea of riding a bike, but after my husband bought one, I came to like it, actually more than he does.”
Ms. Hwang is the head of the women riders’ group in Korea, Ladies of Harley, comprising 20 of the 800 members in the Korea Chapter, which was formed in 1999. Mr. Krakauer said motorbike-riding appears to be growing in popularity as a hobby in Korea now, rather than as a cheap form of transportation for Chinese-food deliverymen.
HOG was established by the company in 1983, in order to “boost the pride of Harley owners,” and has 1,157 chapters around the world, with over 800,000 members in total.
It’s easy to see the appeal. The long line of parked Harleys stood like a metal wall. The combined roars of the engines thumped at one’s chest. Every individual bike was its own work of art and style.
“Almost every Harley is customized,” said Kim Yoon-young. Owners typically change the seats, handlebars and lights; one bike is decked with bunting, another is longer than the usual; one is nearly naked, and another has a thick Ferrari wheel.
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One of the rally’s star bikes was a Harley with a sidecar, whose Japanese owner came from Fukuoka by ship. The Harley was decorated with snakes: snake paintings on the bike, snake-skin seats and snake dolls hanging off the front and back ends. He also wore a snake-skin jacket, hat, and boots. “Because I don’t like snakes, I wanted to get close with them by putting them around my bike,” he joked (he did not give his name). The Yonhap news agency reported that he spent about 150 million won ($158,630) buying and customizing the bike.
The Harley owners aren’t so boring to look at, either. Korean Harley owners wrap themselves up with Harley products: shirts, jackets, handkerchieves, boots, helmets and more. “You wear ski suits when skiing and riding dress when horseback riding. It’s natural to be in Harley dress when riding a Harley,” Ms. Kim said.
It also makes the rider the center of attention. Choi Kyung, 42, knows what it’s like to be stared at: She rides a three-wheel Harley, and her young son is always with her. “My boy grew up in the womb listening to the ‘hoofbeats’,” she said, laughing. The boy is now six, and he has been riding with his mother on the Harley since he was two. Her husband rides his own, so when riding around in the suburbs of Seoul, cars on the street recognize them as a family and make room.
When asked how long she washes her bike ― it was gleaming ― she said, “There is a saying in HOG that Harley owners ride for 30 minutes and polish for three hours. But because we both work, we usually ride the bikes during the weekends and wash them for two hours after a five-hour ride.” The family rides go all the way to Sokcho, Gangwon province, or even further, as far as South Jeolla province.
Sean Shields, 35, a U.S. soldier stationed in Euijeongbu, Gyeonggi province, said it was interesting to compare the Korean rally with those in the United States. The basic rules are the same: There is a road captain, two “road masters” behind, the rest of the riders in a zig-zag formation, and two “rear masters” at the end. But here, when a traffic light turns to red, the two leading bikes block traffic to allow the rest of the group to pass, while in the States, the two leading bikes would stop the group until the light changed to green. “[If we did that in the States,] we would get a lot of tickets,” Mr. Shields said.
During the Grand Tour on Sunday, Donghae police officers blocked traffic for the Harley riders, while security volunteers controlled the riders at every corner. The 500 Harleys, lining up in two lines like a military march, cut through the town like enormous metal shears. After a two-hour ride to Taebaek, the group broke up to head back to towns around Korea. Some will meet again next time in the United States, as the Korea Chapter is planning ride from Milwaukee to Los Angeles a distance of about 6,000 kilometers, from July 23 to August 6.


by Park Sung-ha

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