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2012-04-16 11:45

BORN TO BE WILD: Cuban Harley-Davidson fans take to their hogs in a national gathering for the iconic rides, engaging in activities such as the beer bottle slalom pictured above.

VARADERO, Cuba - Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle brand as American as apple pie or the Super Bowl, has a massive following in communist-run Cuba. Die-hard fans of the iconic bike gathered for the island's first national bike meeting in honour of the "hog."

Dozens of black-vested Harley owners gathered from across the island for two days of celebration and to show off their rides.

Max Cucchi, owner of a 1958 Harley and one of the organisers, said: "You're sitting atop the history of Cuba. It's like being on a bull that wants to run."


Cuba's "Harlistas" are just as passionate as their US 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 organisers say vehicle registries show nearly all the estimated 270 to 300 Harleys on Cuban roads to date were built before 1960. They are what's left of the estimated 2000 that existed in Cuba at the time of Fidel Castro's 1959 Cuban Revolution, when they were favored by police and the military for their power.

Cucchi said: "Normally all the motorcycles you see would be in a museum elsewhere in the world. Here people use them to live."

At the two-day rally in Varadero, the Harlistas were entering skill competitions like catching hot dogs in their mouths from their bikes and seeing who can 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.

It was up to attendees to cover expenses like fuel, 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 R7994, with the goal of promoting restoration and maintenance of the bikes.

Mechanic Jorge Fonseca said: "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,"

He said: "That's why they say what they say about the Harley, they say in English, 'Live to ride.'"

With no retail sales of new Harleys or parts during the 50-year US embargo, tales of makeshift repairs are numerous; substituting Alfa Romeo pistons, mounting Volkswagen sedan wheels and tires, even scavenging residential piping to replace a handlebar or exhaust pipe.

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

Fonseca said: "It was tough. The blockade was very strong. There was no possibility to do anything. 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.

Fonseca confessed that while most of his 1954 Panhead is original Harley, the alternator belongs to a Russian-made Ural.

Fonseca said: "You know how much a (Harley) alternator costs? $400 (R3197). The Ural? $15 (R119)," he said with a laugh. "$15 (R119) - but it works for me."

A closely knit community, Cuban Harlistas share tools and help each other with repairs. There are more than 200 registered Harleys in Havana alone and three clubs, including the national Cuban chapter of the Latin American Motorcycle Association.

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