Baby-boomer bikers

Baby-boomer bikers

Alison Boggs Staff writer

Paul Danelo always had some kind of motorcycle, ever since he was a teenager growing up in Spokane.

But in the late 1970s, about to marry and short of cash, he sold his 350 Yamaha. He began a new life – a teaching career, children, a home in the country.

He figured he’d buy a street bike again when he retired.

That timetable quickened when he found his dream bike three years ago at a Boise Harley-Davidson dealership. Laying out almost $17,000 for the shiny Dyna Wide Glide, Danelo, 50, joined a growing demographic.

Nationwide, older riders are straddling Harleys in record numbers. The company celebrates its 100th anniversary as an American icon this month, and sales are soaring. Company records show more than half the 234,461 motorcycles shipped in 2001 were sold to buyers age 45 and older. Last year, the number of bikes shipped to dealerships was 263,653, up from 150,818 in 1998.

Local dealers are hauling in profits, too. At Latus Motors in Spokane, the city’s only Harley dealer, owner George Latus said recent sales growth has been “substantial.” Two years ago, Latus built a new dealership on Trent Avenue, more than doubling the size of the space he’d owned since 1988. He also recently opened a dealership in Lewiston.

“In the last seven or eight years, we’ve started to see more of an advancing age,” Latus said. “You are seeing a lot of people who are baby boomers who are buying Harleys.”

Buyers like Danelo say a Harley is something they’ve always dreamed of buying, but perhaps couldn’t afford. They want Harleys because the bikes signify freedom on the open road, individuality and something that’s distinctly American.

“I like the nostalgia of Harleys and I like the mystique,” Danelo said.

“They’ve always had the image of guys traveling across country like a nomad.”

For the past two summers, Danelo has been roaming the country, stopping at Major League baseball diamonds. He visited seven last summer, heading down the West Coast to San Diego, then over to Phoenix. And he just returned from 28 days on the road, visiting nine more parks from Kansas to Florida.

But riding Harleys is also something Danelo and his wife, Melissa, can do together. Two years ago at Christmas, he surprised her with a 2002 Fat Boy with cream and purple trim. She’d seen it at the Kennewick dealership and fallen in love.

Though she’s driven lots of motorcycles, a Harley was something different. “I hadn’t ever really ridden a big bike like that,” said Melissa, 50. “I’m still in the nervous stage.” The thing she likes best about Harleys, she said, is the rumbling sound.

The Kennewick dealership, Shumate Harley-Davidson, also has seen sales jump, about 25 percent every year for the past three. Sales Manager Mark Neely said his customers’ average age is early 40s.

“There isn’t any vehicle known to man that creates as much passion in their customers as Harley-Davidson,” said Neely, who used to sell imported bikes. “It absolutely blew me away, the level of passion and commitment and enthusiasm people have about this product.”

Terry Neal understands that passion. Every year around this time, the normally clean-shaven bank vice president starts to change his look. When July comes along, he’s almost as likely to be seen in black leather and bandannas as shirt and tie.

“I don’t have facial hair any other time of the year,” he said, grinning and running his fingers over his short black goatee.

Neal and his wife left their well-landscaped home in the Spokane Valley’s Ponderosa neighborhood this morning and hit the road. They joined four other couples headed for Sturgis, S.D., home of an annual Harley-Davidson rally.

The biker party, which draws several hundred thousand people, has increased significance this year because of the 100th birthday.

Neal forked over $18,000 in June for a 100th anniversary model Road King Classic in black and chrome. He also bought between $3,000 and $4,000 in accessories.

“You kind of graduate to one is what happens,” said Neal, who is 45. “I had Japanese bikes before this.”

After his first trip to Sturgis two years ago, Neal started jonesing for a Harley. So he sold his Kawasaki and his muscle car and bought the hog.

“They have their own distinctive ride to them,” he said. “I always dreamed about having a Harley.”

And again, it’s something he and his wife, also named Terry, can do together.

“We’re transitioning from being parents to being couples again,” she said, as their 12-year-old daughter dashed in and out of the house. Their sons are 22 and 18. As the Neals move closer to being empty-nesters, she said, they’re looking for more things they enjoy doing together.

The family-oriented image Harley now projects is a long way from biking’s “bad boy” persona of the past. Harley Owners Groups (HOG) nationwide regularly hold charity rides to raise money for causes like muscular dystrophy.

Still, they seem to revel in dressing the part of the rebel. Part of it is practical – the leather will protect them in a fall. But it’s also just plain fun. At Sturgis, Neal said, “There’s people that wear the three- to seven-day tattoos.”

Danelo said that image never attracted him, but about the time he bought his bike, he also got his first tattoo – the New York Yankees emblem, on his right ankle.

Standing by his shiny Dyna Wide Glide, Danelo shows off the tattoo and laughs.

“I hit about 47, 48 and this started happening.”

Copyright 2003 Cowles Publishing Company

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