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Cuban Harley-Davidson owners and enthusiasts will gather for the island’s first-ever national gathering in honor of the “hog” in the tourist resort city of Varadero.

Cubans hold 1st-ever Harley rally

Fanatics gather to share in love of American cycles

Associated Press photos
Yaismer Escalona works on a Harley-Davidson in preparation for the gathering of Harley enthusiasts in Havana, Cuba.

– A throaty roar and an ear-splitting siren cut through the balmy sea air of this Cuban resort town as Luis Enrique Gonzalez gunned the engine of his vintage Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, which was a police motorcycle in another life before the 1959 revolution.

“I love everything about it. It’s like my girlfriend,” Gonzalez said, showing off the fire-red bike, a sticker of iconic guerrilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara peeling from the fender. “I love the heat, I love the vibration, I love how it rides. I feel like a plane floating through the clouds.”

Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle brand that says America as much as apple pie or the Super Bowl, also has die-hard fans in communist-run Cuba, and on Saturday, they kicked off the island’s first national gathering in honor of the “hog.”

About 70 black-vested Harley owners rumbled into Varadero from across the island this weekend, many riding double with their loved ones, for two days of rock ’n’ roll, schmoozing, showing off their bikes, and, most important, sharing their mutual obsession with the powerful machines.

“You’re sitting atop the history of Cuba,” said Max Cucchi, the owner of a 1958 Harley. “It’s like being on a bull that wants to run.”

Cuba’s “Harlistas” are just as passionate as their American counterparts, but like the owners of rumbling 1950s Detroit classic cars that still prowl the streets of Havana, vintage Harley fans have had to get creative to keep their bikes road-worthy.

Rally organizers say vehicle registries show that nearly all the estimated 270 to 300 Harleys on Cuban roads today were built before 1960. They are what’s left of the estimated 2,000 that existed here at the time of Fidel Castro’s 1959 Cuban Revolution, when they were favored by police and military for their power.

“Normally, all the motorcycles you see would be in a museum elsewhere in the world,” said Cucchi, an Italian resident of the island who helped organize the event and is working on a book about Harlistas. “Here, people use them to live.”

With no retail sales of new Harleys or parts during the 50-year U.S embargo, tales abound of makeshift monkey-wrenching: substituting Alfa Romeo pistons, mounting Volkswagen Sedan wheels and tires, even scavenging residential piping to replace a handlebar or exhaust pipe.

According to one story, motorcyclists in the countryside with no way to fix a punctured tire would fill it with grass instead.

Things began to ease in the 1990s as Cuba opened to increasing tourism. Canadian and European visitors in particular have brought in parts as gifts. Islanders’ friends and relatives in the United States are increasingly doing the same as restrictions on Cuban-American travel back home eased in recent years. Import taxes are said to be manageable.

“Right now it’s relatively easy,” said Adolfo Pez, another event organizer. He said he can even order parts online and have them shipped to Canada. “Friends there bring them to me in Cuba.”

A closely knit community, Cuban Harlistas share tools and help each other with repairs. They get together periodically and party to classic rock tunes like Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” rather than Cuban salsa or reggaeton.

Some gather each Saturday in the shadow of Havana’s seafront Hotel Nacional to display their vintage bikes, sip rum and coke and trade stories of the garage and the highway. Most are men, but a few of the riders are women. It’s a diverse crew that includes mechanics, tour guides, retirees. Many bring spouses and children.

Even politics are set aside. A U.S. diplomat sometimes shows up with the 2007 Harley he brought to the island. So does the youngest son and namesake of Che Guevara, though he was unable to make it to the gathering on Saturday because a part on his motorcycle broke, said Kristen MacQueen, a Canadian woman married to the leader of one of the clubs.

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