VARADERO, 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 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.
“It was tough. The blockade was very strong. There was no possibility to do anything. Anything,” said Jorge Fonseca, a mechanic by trade and Harlista by love. “Those who had motorcycles and were capable of maintaining them were people of great merit, because without any possibilities they kept going with their Harleys.”
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.”
But there’s still a need to use one’s wits. Fonseca confessed that while most of his 1954 Panhead is original Harley, the alternator more properly belongs in a Russian-made Ural.
“You know how much a (Harley) alternator costs? $400!” he said on a recent afternoon as he tuned up his bike for the rally, clad in a black Bon Jovi T-shirt and Harley baseball cap.
“The Ural? $15,” he said with a laugh. “$15 — but it works for me.”
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.
There are more than 200 registered Harleys in Havana alone and three clubs, including the national-level Cuba chapter of the Latin American Motorcycle Association.
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.
On Saturday in Varadero, a sun-baked central square turned into hog heaven as a long-haired man clad in black and his beau, wearing tight jeans and a sequin-studded tank top, nodded their heads to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n Roll.” Tourists milled about and asked the owners about their aged rides.
“What year is that?” one asked. “1960 — wow!”
The Harlistas also faced off in skill competitions like catching hot dogs in their mouths from bike-back and seeing who could ride the slowest without putting his feet down. There were also awards for the oldest, best-restored and most classic bikes, and the greatest distance traveled.
In one contest, Gonzalez guided his bike slowly along the plaza while his wife, Maribel, tried to slip straws into five beer bottles. At low speeds, it’s particularly tricky to keep precise control of a vintage bike with a foot-clutch and hand-gearshift, he said.
“You need like eight hands to really ride well. It’s a very interesting acrobatic feat,” said Gonzalez, an electromechanical engineer from Havana who has been riding Harleys for 25 years. Second place was “not bad for a veteran like me.”
It was up to attendees to cover expenses like gas, lodging and meals, with the exception of a dinner donated by a Canadian resident of Varadero. The event was put together independently by the Harlistas themselves on a budget of less than $1,000, with the goal of promoting restoration and maintenance of the bikes.
Organizers said they plan to make the event an annual fixture and, if successful, next year give Harley-lovers from other countries the chance to cruise with them through Cuba’s verdant countryside.
“I’ve always ridden other bikes, but getting on a Harley is different. It’s another way to roll. It can’t be described verbally, it’s something inside you,” Fonseca said when asked about his hog’s deafening roar. “That’s why they say what they say about the Harley, they say in English, ‘Live to ride.’”