“There is nothing like a Harley-Davidson Motorbike” Interview with Guy de Smet, Director of the Harley Owners Group (HOG) Chapter of Geneva

HarleyI knew little about motorcycles ; even less about Harley-Davidsons … until the day I met Dr Guy de Smet, a dedicated Harley-Davidson fan who knows everything there is to know about these legendary motorcycles.
The Harley Owners Group Chapter in Geneva is not only one of the most international Harley-Davidson factory sponsored clubs in the world — with members from some twenty different nations — but also one of the most dynamic. They organize trips, outings and informal rides ; they participate in charity events … The atmosphere is friendly and courteous — so if you are a Harley fan or interested in motor-cycles, what are you waiting for ? I’m sure the members of the Harley Owners Group Chapter of Geneva are going to do everything they can to make you feel welcome.
Q : Guy, what is so exceptional about these machines ?
It’s a legacy ! Harley-Davidson is a major company making beautiful motor-cycles. The company did not do so well until 1983 when they almost went bankrupt. One of the grandsons of the founders, Willy Davidson, together with other investors, took over the company and started production again. The machines were improved, as the older models had a reputation for leaking oil, being difficult to start, etc. Now they are absolutely wonderful. Even the sound of the engine is patented : nobody is allowed to copy the sound these machines make.
During that time the HOG — the Harley Owners Group — was also created. Today, there are more than 1 million members worldwide, which makes it the largest factory sponsored motorcycle club in the world. Every Harley-Davidson dealer has a Chapter, or there is a HOG Chapter linked to an official dealer. There is a dealer in Geneva (Moto Mure) and we are the official local chapter, which started five years ago. I myself took over as president a year and a half ago.
Each national HOG is sub-divided into local chapters. HOG Switzerland with about 4,500 members brings together all the different local chapters, such as Geneva, Zurich, etc. We are like a big family. Altogether, we have more than sixty members in Geneva. Whenever we go to Lausanne, Neuch ?tel, Berne or elsewhere, I can always call the president of the local clubs and say to them : « Hey, I’m coming with my guys. Can we go and have a meal together ? » The tone is very informal and friendly.
Q : So what is so « sexy » about a Harley-Davidson ?
You have to sit on the machine to be able to understand, feel the vibration and hear its pure mechanical throb. It’s a lifestyle ; there’s no plastic – it’s all pure metal ! The legacy that comes with it ; the tradition and the history since the company started in 1903.
In 2003, Harley-Davidson celebrated its 100th anniver-sary. More than 250,000 motorbikes gathered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from all over the world. I was there and it was quite amazing ; a real fiesta ! The whole city of Milwaukee was full of bikes — no cars !
Why am I so attached to the Harley-Davidson ? I simply do not know. I have been riding bikes since the age of 25. I have had a Yamaha, a Honda, a BMW (all great machines !) but since I started riding a Harley-Davidson four years ago, you will never make me change. It was always my dream to have a Harley. So when I tried one out — that was it ! I sold my BMW and bought a Harley. I cannot explain it, but I could invite you for a ride.
People sitting in their cars look at me when I’m riding my bike and may think that I’m a weirdo or a strange guy, but they do not know the pleasure of being out there in the wind, in the sun, riding along…
Q : Harley-Davidson is often associated with bad guys ?
There is good and bad in everything. We, for our part, share the true legacy and we invest all our passion and time and enthusiasm to make this legacy live on.
However, the image problem is changing now, for several reasons. Today you can buy a Harley-Davidson motorcycle already for CHF 10,400 and start to be part of this gropup of enthusiasts So driving a Harley is no more expensive but somehow still very exclusive. Our club, for instance, consists of a heterogeneous group of members, ranging from multi-millionaires to the unemployed. It’s just a group of diverse persons sharing one passion : driving Harley-Davidson bikes !
Q : So what does the local HOG Chapter do ?
We have already established our programme for 2007, thus permitting our members to book their holidays. There is, for instance, the ’Love Ride’ in Zurich ; the European HOG Rally in Fuengirola, Spain in June ; the Swiss National HOG Rally in July in Morges, etc. Then, of course, there are organized local events, such as our annual Christmas party and other meetings. The event is just a pretext : to go there and have a wonderful time is the main issue. The main goal of all of us is to ride and have fun.
On Saturdays we all gather at the dealer for a chat and coffee, and afterwards we may go together for rides. For instance, if somebody wants to go to Lyon, he just asks who wants to go along with him, and off they go ! It’s very informal ; no policies ; it’s all for fun.
We also offer services : we donate to charity or participate in parades. Every year we participate in the 4th July party in Geneva with a parade through town. For example, we could do something for an event at the United Nations where every bike would carry a different flag. We are willing to do so in order to show the real image of Harley-Davidson and service to the local community.
Whenever we go on trips, the committee is responsible for the team. Everything is well organized. There is always a « road captain » who drives at the front. Then we have two or three security guys who stay at the back, so that if anybody breaks down or does not feel good, or whatever, somebody will always stop with them and remain in contact with the road captain. In this way, we always know who is missing and what is happening.
Q : Are you looking for new members ?
All the time ! Good as well as still less-skilled riders, good guys & gals are always welcome with pleasure ! We are also very proud of the Geneva Chapter as we have twenty different nationalities out of some 60 members. Geneva is known as an inter- national trading centre, but it’s also the home of the United Nations, so we would like to have more members from the United Nations.
Q : What about women ?
There is a whole new section of bikes especially made for women. In the United States, I believe that some 10 per cent of the riders are women. We even have a special section for them called LOH, « The Ladies of Harley ». In Switzerland, however, the LOH-rate has increased considerably within the last few years, reaching almost 15% !!
In our club, ladies come either as participants or full riders. We have today four lady riders and are looking for more : this is not exclusively a man’s world !
Q : I have heard that the Harley-Davidson HOG participates in a lot of charity events.
We have the Love Ride in Zurich, for instance. In order to participate at the different rides you pay a small fee and this amount goes to charity. Last year, the Love Ride generated more than CHF 800,000 in one day alone. This year we also participated in the « Flamme du Don de Sang » [Blood Donors’ Flame] which toured all over Europe. We picked the flame up at the border and carried it to the centre of Geneva. We have a lottery at the Christmas party and the funds remaining at the end of the year are donated to charity. It does not matter if we don’t have any cash left at the end of the year ; next year new money will come in. We charge CHF100 a year to become a member of our club.
This year we’ll have the Swiss National Rally in Morges, which is open to the public, sponsored by big companies like banks, insurance companies and the like. It’s a free party and we expect between 10,000 to 15,000 people, some 2,000 to 2,500 bikes. People come for a small meal, a dance, listen to free music, take pictures of our bikes, go for rides and have lots of fun ! Please invite all your UN people on 7-8 July to Morges !
For more info, come visit our dealer, Moto Mure in Geneva, visit our website www.genevachapter.ch or e-mail me at guydesmet@ gmail.com.