A religion that’s about 2,000 years old met another one exactly 110 years young in Rome last week – and they got along just fine.
The final international leg of Harley-Davidson’s 110th Anniversary celebration took over The Eternal City with more than 100,000 motorcycle lovers bringing about 30,000 bikes into town from throughout Europe, Russia, the UK and as far away as the U.S., New Zealand and Africa.
The big birthday year kicked off in Milwaukee late last August before following a global path celebrating the brand on a monthly basis. Starting in Faaker See Bike Week in Austria and ending in Rome, the 110th drew hundreds of thousands of Harley-Davidson owners and other bike enthusiasts together in an atmosphere of fellowship and V-Twin exhaust.
During my coverage of this extraordinary year, I managed to visit most of the stops – including rides in New Zealand, Germany, South Africa, Mexico and Italy. Along the way, I encountered some rallies devoted exclusively to Harley-Davidson – while others welcomed motorcycles from every manufacturer. No matter the hosting country or the venue, the vibe was always mellow, welcoming and festive. It really was a global party.
When in Rome and Thereabouts
The headquarters for the Rome rally was Ostia, the port city of ancient Rome. Historians tell me the positioning of Ostia was another indicator of Roman genius.
The Roman capital itself is several kilometers inland on the Tiber River. So, Ostia was built where the Tiber meets the sea. The port town was large enough to handle shipping coming into Rome, but far enough away from the capital that, if a foreign army tried to invade, they’d face a long march into Rome. That would give time for the Roman legions to march in force to prevent any invasion. So, there’s a reason why Rome didn’t fall by sea.
With all that military business long past, Ostia is now a tourist city marked by a large marina and home to some of the best preserved Roman ruins in Italy. Harley-Davidson took over that tourism area, setting up a music main stage, demo rides, shopping tents and the other attractions seen at other international stops. The stage served up an 80s-gasm of popular acts enjoying a European resurgence, including Adam Ant, Bonnie Tyler and Mike and the Mechanics.
Separate rally grounds served as the massing point for the weekend’s mass ride through Rome. On Saturday, thousands of bikes lined up two by tow for a slow cruise from the coast, along rural highways and into the city, finishing up at the Olympic Stadium grounds.
I’d already participated in such mass rides through the sweeping green hills of New Zealand, the tropical seaside throughways of South Africa and the hot urban streets of Mexico. But, what can compete with Rome? It was a once in a lifetime experience riding a big Harley-Davidson around the Coliseum, along the Forum and through the winding ways of the ancient city – all while locals cheered, waved and asked for a rev or two.
I’d say it was a dream come true, but I never dreamt I’d manage such a ride. I do know it was all over much too quickly – and I’m thankful the Carabinieri shut down traffic along the route. As any tourist will tell you, streets, intersections and road signs are just suggestions to Rome’s drivers.
A Different Kind of Empire
Each stop along the way of HD110 had a theme. The event in Berlin played out against a backdrop of historical oppression, serving up motorcycles and rock n’ roll as symbols of defiance and signs of a more hopeful future. The intermingling biker clubs in South Africa became a metaphor on the changing image of that country as whites and blacks put aside past differences and learn to build a country together. The popularity of the Mexico gathering demonstrated the expanding prosperity of a growing market.
The huge Rome party was all about history and religion. While the city was once the capital of a vast empire that ruled the known world, it’s now a tourist center filled with that astounding history. It’s easily one of the most humbling cities to visit because so many of the ruins and artifacts spotted are thousands of years old.
When looking at the Roman Senate, the Tomb of Julius Caesar or what remains of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, you realize how long ago these places were constructed – and how long they sat crumbling before archeologists discovered, unearthed and named them. An endless series of men and women lived in and around these museum pieces. All but a very select few are forgotten now.
The likelihood that the other rally visitors and I will be remembered even a fraction of the time these relics have stood or will stand are slim. The only hope is that we make some use of our lives and find ways to enjoy the ride. In the face of that kind of history and the passing of millennia, our short existences are quarter notes in a symphony – blips on a sweeping radar that won’t reappear on the next sweep. But, rather than merely accept that and scuffle around until we pass into dust, we can find ways to celebrate life and exercise our freedoms. On this particular weekend in Rome, the best way to pull all of that off was enjoying a mix of good food, fun music and long motorcycle journeys.
Compared to the thousands of years filling Rome and its imperial past, Harley-Davidson’s 110 years on planet Earth can’t really compete on the temporal scale. Still, H-D’s empire never invaded any country by force or enslaved anyone. The devotees the motorcycle maker earned over the years never gave up their freedom. Instead, they sought ways to express themselves and enjoy their days on the back of a bike.
All aspects of Europe’s often troubled history fell away at the rally grounds or during the mass ride. The Roman Empire once ruled many of the regions in attendance. And, from the UK through to Easter Europe and Russia, most of the countries represented have been at war with each other at one time or another through the centuries. Once again, the aura of freedom and enjoyment that radiate off the hot pipes of a motorcycle proved enough to wipe away any memories of those conflicts.
The Order of the Holy V-Twin
Rome also wraps itself around the Holy See and Vatican City – the center of modern Christendom and one of the most important pilgrimage destinations on the planet. In an era when religion is less accepted as a topic of open discourse, Harley-Davidson didn’t shy away from the spiritual aspects of this rally’s home.
The event’s first day offered attendees a chance to attend a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, if they wished. Guests didn’t need to be members of the Catholic Church to take a place amongst the other pilgrims. The end result provided the surreal image of blue jeans and leather vest-clad bikers strolling past Michelangelo’s Pieta and lining up for Communion near the Basilica’s huge central alter.
While Saturday was devoted to the biggest day on the rally grounds in Ostia, the entire rome event built to Sunday and the Blessing of the Bikes at Vatican City. An estimated 30,000+ bikers joined the usual Sunday throng of worshipers as Pope Francis I said High Mass outside the Basilica in St. Peter’s Square. It took a couple hours for the overall crowd of more than 60,000 people to stream in on a beautiful Sunday morning. The hot Roman sun shining out of a cloudless Mediterranean sky had the bikers looking to stay hydrated while buying cheap umbrellas from gypsy vendors to beat the heat.
Wheeled vehicles are not allowed on the cobblestone carpet of Vatican City, so an estimated 900 or so motorcycles filled the Ponte Sant’Angelo – the street leading up to the edge of St. Peter’s Square where Rome cedes to the separate nation that is The Holy See.
The crowd cheered as I expect it must every Sunday when the Pontifex Maximus appeared to say Mass. Pope Francis arrived in his white Pope Mobile without any bullet proof glass to separate him from the adoring crowds reaching out to shake his hands. He rode through the throng multiple times, greeting as many visitors as time and space would allow.
But, all of that cheering was drowned out this day by the grumbling revs sounded by hundreds of V-Twin engines. Riders kept the engine noise coming as Pope Francis made his rounds, waiting for him to make his way to the edge of the Square.
Finally, with the exhaust pipes roaring at a fevered pitch, Francis rode his car through the crowd to the edge of his domain. With a beaming smile, he raised his hand, made the Sign of the Cross, and it was done. For the first time in recorded history, a sitting Pope had blessed a motorcycle rally. It was over quickly, but the Holy Father did have a Mass to say. During the service, those same motorcycles would shout out their gasoline-powered approval every time Pope Francis spoke. It was a strange, celebratory atmosphere I doubt any future High Mass will match.
After the blessing, a much calmer mood took hold of the winding down rally. Back at Ostia, the tone was markedly more mellow across the grounds. I fit right in that atmosphere as I was overtaken by a mix of amazement and gratitude that I’d been able to take part in the amazing international experience of HD110 in 2013. But, there was also a sense of sadness that the international experience of the event was coming to an end. I would come this way but once.
A Couple More Stops to Make
Though it won’t be visiting any more foreign shores, the 110th Anniversary still has some big parties to throw. The ridiculously huge Sturgis rally in South Dakota is helping to set up a big finish this summer. Running August 5-11, the annual biker party will take on special significance as the last HD110 stop before the entire experience crescendos back where it all started last August in Milwaukee.
From August 29 through September 1, more than 100,000 noisy folks are expected to fill Harley-Davidson’s hometown for a Labor Day celebration set to bring the 110th to a close. There’ll be no expense spared as the manufacturer is bringing in UFC #164, Aerosmith, Toby Keith and Kid Rock to entertain the troops.
The 110th Anniversary of Harley-Davidson is sure to come to a momentous close. The only question will be what the company can possibly due to top this for the 115th.
Special thanks to the following sponsors and benefactors for making the HD110 World Tour possible: Harley-Davidson, Crave Online, IndieGoGo, Meguiar’s Car Care Products, The Iron Horse Hotel – Milwaukee, The Langham Hotel Auckland, Auckland Motorcycles and Power Sports, Hilton Daytona Beach, Hotel Casa Camper – Berlin, South African Airways, Margate Hotel, Protea Hotel President – Cape Town, Mexico City Marriott, Harley-Davidson Latin America, Samsung Galaxy, Sheridan Golf Parco de’Medici, Milwaukee Harley-Davidson, Todd Hall, Steve Harpst, Burbank Boxing Club, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, Carla Gehrig, Eric Rogell, Traycee King, Joy Sapieka and Nicholas Kearney.
Be sure to check out the previous stops from our international coverage of Harley-Davidson’s 110th Anniversary: