Photo by Sean Gallup
ennis Hopper didn't make it to Prague's second Harley-Davidson National Rally this summer, but judging by his age, income, and hophead-turned-high roller status, the darker half of the Easy Rider duo would have fit in well.
The more than 350 bikers who roared into Areal Dzaban like a squadron of B-29's came from all over Europe. The German clubs showed up en masse to party with their Czech hosts, but apart from language it was hard to distinguish nationalities. Hog riders exist for their own culture, a sort of rawhide-and-steel version of Deadheads, which have been around, in various forms, since the beginning of the century. The inner circle is still male and most are over 35; women generally are girlfriends in tassels and tight jeans. The uniform-leather, shades, bandanas, beards you could build a tree house in, and hair begging for the wind of the open road is international.
The bikes aren't cheap (200,000 Kc to 500,000 Kc a shot), which means that riders have to be career types or willing to make a lot of sacrifices to ride. Most are both and this creates a kind of paradox among them: they have to work to be able to escape from work. George Orwell dressed up as a tramp and changed his name to elude the British public school society that spawned him. When bikers hit the road, they step out of their imposed professional identities and change back into themselves, they say.
"It's freedom. You can be yourself," said Constantin "Connie" von Kalckstein, a 31 -year-old with blue eyes and the elegant charm of an aristocrat. "Whether you're a plastic surgeon or a dustbin man, it levels all the differences."
"Bikes are spiritual. If I'm on my bike, I become the bike. We're one integrated entity," said 33-year-old Petr Vlasak, a Praguer who has been riding bikes since he was 15.
"It's not aggressive-you just get into the vibe of the engine, and the resonance relaxes your body. I live for it."
At times that way of life has been hard. The Czechs founded their first owners group in 1928, and within a year they had 150 members. (The first U.S. owners group, by comparison, didn't form until 1983.) Until 1938, Harleys were used by both the police and the Army, and even as taxis. But during the Nazi occupation the club was dissolved and the Brown Shirts were reputed to have confiscated over 25,000 bikes. Members met in secret, small groups. Sometimes they took apart their machines and hid the pieces.
With the establishment of the communist regime in 1948, the situation continued to stagnate. After 1968, the secret police arrested and sometimes interrogated them for encouraging Western fashions and philosophies. "It was because we represented freedom. We were a threat to the status quo," said Vlasak.
It wasn't until June of last year that the first Harley dealership opened in Prague, according to owner Josef Benes. And Eastern Europe is Harley's newest market.
H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) international, the rally's sponsor, claims 30,000 members in Europe and 270,000 members world-wide, said H.O.G. Europe Manager Nigel Villiers, a 39-year-old bushy-bearded Brit who, true to the creed, never stays too long in one place, "I went to the south of France for a holiday years ago and ended up staying for a lot longer than I expected."
The bikers chose Prague because of the "anarchic," out-of-the-past feel of the place. "Prague's got it all. It's cheap, the beer's great, and of course it's beautiful," said Villiers, listing the city's attributes in descending order of importance. "God it's a great place!" The group is planning a much larger rally here in 1998.
The riders no longer rile the government, but there's still plenty of room for trouble at home. "Harleys and relationships don't always mix," said the twice-divorced Villiers. Harley freaks, however, are bound toge7ther by an almost mystical love of riding, stronger than blood or love. "I haven't seen my father for nearly a year and he only lives down the road from me. Yet I can work more than 16 hours a day and then go riding on weekends. There's just no room for anything else," von Kalckstein said.
With a missionary's zeal these guys will seize the smallest sign of an outsider's interest try to make a conversion.
"What does it feel like?" von Kalckstein asked. "You wanna ride?"
Does anyone know where I can find some tight jeans and tassels?
This month's FIRST contributors are Omri Ben-Amos, Michelle Legge, Michael Wayne Jr., David Freeling, Radha Burgess and Anne Renahan.