The world tour celebrating Harley-Davidson’s 110th birthday continued recently with a stop in gorgeous Auckland. More than 1,000 motorcycles rumbled through New Zealand’s biggest city, filling the Ellerslie Horse Racing Grounds for the better part of four days in February.
The global #HD110 celebration officially kicked off in the brand’s hometown with a massive kickoff in front of the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisc. (Aug. 30 to Sept. 2). However, the international side of the global party actually started Aug. 4-9 with a ride across the Tibetan Plateau.
Following the Milwaukee rally party, September saw a visit to Faaker See, Austria for European Bike Week – while February brought Harley-Davidson’s birthday cake to Goa, India for that country’s National Hog Rally.
I caught up to the touring circus in Auckland after a 13 hour flight out of LAX. Though I arrived sleep deprived, I had no trouble getting to my room at the beautiful Langham Hotel. The luxurious accommodations would offer a balm to a body joyfully worn out by hours of motorcycle riding, though it did seem strangely prim and proper for a weekend of denim, leather and iron.
Auckland is a beautiful city, made even more appealing by brilliant urban design. It’s a city nuzzled between sea and mountains on all sides. Its isthmus sits between the Hauraki Gulf of the Pacific Ocean. There are the Hunua Ranges to the southeast, Manukau Harbor to the south-west and the Waitakere Ranges to the northwest. One of the few cities in the world to have fully working major harbors on two sides, Auckland holds multiple sprawling public parks, including the Auckland Domain – the city’s visitor friendly version of New York’s Central Park.
Filled with friendly people, survivable traffic and temperate weather, Auckland scores highly on almost every international list of the most pleasant, livable cities on the planet. As hilly as San Francisco, with even better views, the only city I’ve visited that could match the aesthetics of its natural mix of sea and elevation is Cape Town, South Africa. Combine its natural visual impact with that perfect weather peaking in the breezy low 80s, and no biker could ask for a better riding environment.
Though it packs a population around 1.3 million, there’s nothing within the city that seems particularly far away from anything else. For example, my hotel was a 15 minute walk from Auckland Motorcycles and Power Sports (AMPS) – the home of my wonderful loaner ride, a 2013 XL-1200 Sportster.
I admit I didn’t pick it out as that was AMPS’ call, but the 1200 was an ideal bike for the Auckland rally. Big enough to be seen on the hilly streets or the freeway, the Sportster’s ergonomics were comfortable enough to spare my lower back during longer runs. Small enough to be maneuverable up and around Auckland’s hills, the bike also had ample power to keep up with the other 1,000+ bikes rumbling through the Kiwi city. Finally, two amble saddlebags carried all of my reporting equipment securely.
The Ellerslie Horse Racing Grounds were three freeway exits south down Auckland’s Highway 1. Of course, I had to power down the wrong side of the road to get there, but three weeks of riding a Harley-Davidson in London over the summer more than prepared me for that.
The rally kicked off on with an initial gathering of early arrivals. The first faces on the scene could visit the race grounds and enjoy food, drink, biker games, custom bike exhibits and Harley-Davidson corporate attractions. All the way from Milwaukee, the H-D staff showed off 2013 models, and, if a rider found something they had to have, he or she could arrange financing on site. If visitors were just spectators, they could learn the basics of controlling a bike with the JUMPSTART Rider Experience.
Friday was the rally’s real ignition point, providing the dramatic Thunder Ride. At 9 a.m., more than 1,000 motorcycles massed in the Ellerslie Horse Racing Grounds parking lot, grouped by region. Clubs from Auckland, Christ Church and Wellington lined up alongside Australian riders joining the parade.
I took my place amongst the international contingent, waiting for the throng of Softails, Sportsters and V-Rods to coalesce. Putting the wait time to good use, I struck up conversations with some of the jacket-clad veteran riders who traveled countless miles to be a part of the #HD110 Anniversary celebration at the bottom of the world.
The faces around me made clear the cross-culture appeal of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle culture. There were plenty of riders of every age and background – rich and working class, descendants of British settlers and members of local native Maori tribes. Some brought their families along to see the spectacle – though most of the kids I spotted headed the other way with their hands over their ears when the V-Twins ignited.
Some rally’ers saved their money for a year, planning ahead to be part of the birthday party. Other incorporated the rally into their year’s standard enthusiast experience. However, one rider’s story stood out for me. Gordon Davison – a 55-year-old Auckland native and a lifelong rider – embraced the joy of the gathering to help put his problems down for a while.
Davison is a lifelong motorcycle lover and former racer who lived in Auckland all his life – aside from a stint in London while he built up a business. That business was once successful enough for him to amass a collection of motorcycles worthy of pride and joy. But, the global economic downfall didn’t spare too many folks anywhere in the world, and Davison lost his business and his home. He’s living in a bed and breakfast in a nice Auckland suburb, working to get back on his feet.
Fortunately, he still has a Harley-Davidson – a survivor from the housecleaning he suffered when his business fell. As he prepared for the Thunder Ride beside me, there were no signs of self-pity or depression. He was glad to be alive with a ticket to ride.
“There are a lot of folks worse off than me,” Davison said. “So, I’m going to enjoy the day. It’s a beautiful day. I got a motorcycle. I got a roof over my head. I say life is going to kick you one way or another eventually, so let’s not give it anymore chances than it deserves.”
Once we got the green flag from the rally organizers, the thousand-bike march rumbled onto the open road in a deafening, single-file line. Auckland news broadcasts prepared the city for the rally, so the local freeway traffic got out of the way. As the Thunder Ride cruised through hilly farming country outside the city, families and small groups of villagers gathered on the roadsides to cheer the riders on (while a few ill-tempered commuters parked their cars and waited – sour-faced – for the procession to pass).
The experience of being welcomed and celebrated by a vast majority of Kiwis sits well in the heart. The sight of little kids waving excitedly from their long driveways while their sheep grazed in the fields was the perfect reminder that the motorcycle culture exports well and appeals to fun-loving folks across the spectrum.
I wanted to leave my mark on Auckland before I endured the 13-hour flight back to LA, so I departed the rally and rode the Sportster up One Tree Hill. One of the primary tourist attractions in New Zealand, it’s the final resting place for the founding father of Auckland. His grave obelisk stands atop a dormant volcano, and the valley below is studded with lava rock – enough that the locals like to arrange it into words and sentences, such as "I love sheep."
I trudged through a few piles of sheep dip to arrange my own lave rock farewell message to the Auckland Rally – leaving the #HD110 Twitter handle in 20-foot letters for all to see. I made sure this rally left its mark in stone.
I’m only left to wonder how long my letters will live.
HD110: Check out John Scott Lewinski's other stops on the Harley Davidson 110 World Tour:
Berlin: #HD110: Harley-Davidson Rides Music and Motors to Berlin; Apr. 8, 2013
Daytona: HD110: Bike Week 2013 ‘Breaks Out’ in Daytona; Mar. 18, 2013
Milwaukee: Harley-Davidson Kicks Off Its 110th Anniversary; Sept. 16, 2012
Special thanks to the following sponsors and benefactors for making this leg of my HD110 World Tour possible: Harley-Davidson, Crave Online, IndieGoGo, The Langham Hotel Auckland, Auckland Motorcycles and Power Sports, Milwaukee Harley-Davidson, Todd Hall, Steve Harpst, Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, Carla Gehrig, Eric Rogell, Traycee King and Nicholas Kearney.