Angels with dirty faces

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The Independent Culture
"That's a real motorcycle," says Larry, pointing back over his shoulder to the monstrous arrangement of steel, leather and rubber parked on the blistering tarmac. Naively, I had thought that all motorcycles were equally real, especially Harley Davidsons, and even more so when you find yourself surrounded by tens of thousands of them. But, while most Harley owners will tell you that any Harley is better than none, Larry's is something else again. "That's a rigid frame chopper," he declares, clearly expecting me to nod in appreciation.

I nod. Sensing my technical limitations, Larry explains. "These days, all motorcycles are built with rear suspension, but the real Harley chopper, traditionally, is a hard-tail. There's no spring on the back wheel, and those forks," he says pointing to the front end, which has more stainless steel than an Ikea warehouse, "that's a Springer front - again, very traditional." Larry explains that his bike would be illegal in Germany, which has very strict laws on trivial matters like suspension, helmets, brakes, stuff like that. It occurs to me that Dawn, who sits astride his chopper sipping at a Diet Coke, might also find her outfit - bikini top, hot pants, cowboy hat and boots - unsuited to those chilly alpine autobahns.

Larry, a small, tanned man with a greying ponytail and a droopy moustache, rests one thumb in the pocket of his black leather waistcoat, scratches his hirsute chest with the other and, luxuriating in my oceanic ignorance of these matters, begins to extol at length the joys of motorcycling, Harley style. Before long I am imbibing deeply at this font of arcane knowledge, and by the end of the day I shall be able to tell a Fat Boy from an Electra Glide, a Softail from a Sportster, to spot even a fast- moving FXR low-rider, and to recognise the four main engine types - Knucklehead, Panhead, Shovelhead and the new Evolution shape, introduced in 1985. Larry's engine - "all 80 cubic inches" - is custom built and includes parts from at least three of these, including a chrome casing from a '52 machine, "because that was the year I was born."

Eventually it transpires that Larry is not your average enthusiast but the owner of a specialist Harley shop in the Florida Keys (hence the stainless steel parts, rather than chrome, which rusts) which customises four or five bikes a year for wealthy Floridians. For a price, Larry and his team will design and build the Harley of your dreams, a bike that perfectly fits your personality, whatever that might be.

"But if we decide to build you a bike," he says, holding up a small index finger, "there are two conditions. We decide when it's finished, and we also put the first 200 miles on the clock, so that we know it's perfect when we hand it over." And just how much would this service cost me? Larry looks me over; "If you want something worthwhile, you have got to start at around $25,000."

Larry has ridden his chopper all the way from the Keys to be here, and I can't help thinking that the nervous tick under his eye may have something to do with all the shock his spine has absorbed, in lieu of suspension, along the way. Were it so he would probably say that it was all worthwhile, for he has made it to Sturgis, South Dakota, for the 55th annual Sturgis Rally and Races - the largest Harley Davidson rally in the world. Every summer, Harley owners from all over the globe gather here to celebrate, erm, their Harley ownership. For that one week the otherwise unremarkable town of Sturgis (pop. 35,000), plays host to over 200,000 motorcyclists and their vehicles.

In the Rally HQ at the top of Main Street, there's a map of the world, and all are invited to mark their place of origin. There are over 40 pins in Switzerland alone, one in Reykjavik and a couple each in Sydney and Hong Kong. Naturally, these devotees have flown their bikes into Los Angeles and ridden across the Rockies to be here: for Harley owners, Sturgis is Ascot, Glastonbury and Mecca all rolled into one. Say what you like about the bikes (and a reputation for unreliability has led many English riders to dismiss them as Hardly- Worthits), the dedication of the riders is staggering. By cross-referencing a red pin with the signing-in book, I learnt that somebody has made the journey from Lima, Peru, on a Heritage Softail.

But what about the violence, the drugs, the rape and pillage? Why is everybody behaving so politely? These days, says Larry, only those with a good credit rating can afford to partake in this particular American legend, and whatever they'd like you to think, most owners are reliable citizens with good jobs. And so they celebrate their membership of this elite club with lots of barbecued meat, watery beer and official merchandise, capturing those precious moments on video tape.

Perhaps Marlon Brando had an intimation of things to come when he was offered the role of a leather-clad bad boy in the seminal biker film The Wild One. After all, he ended up riding a Triumph.