Dennis Gutfield has a 2½-car garage with four BMWs.
“The answer to the riddle,” he says, “is that I have two BMW cars and two BMW motorcycles.”
“BMW” is synonymous for luxury European cars, but it also refers to a smaller flock of loyal fans of premium motorcycles. Thousands of them rode their models thousands of miles this weekend so they could be surrounded by fellow adventure-seeking cohorts at the 44th annual BMW International Rally at the Hamburg Fairgrounds.
Which got us thinking. There seem to be three kinds of bikers on the road. Harley-Davidson, BMW and crotch rocketeers.
How are they different? Are they different?
So, we asked.
We – a reporter riding with a photographer on his BMW bike – found bikers at the BMW rally, a Harley rider along Canalside, and then some more Harley riders and two speed rocketeers (one of them a BMW) outside Gander Mountain in the City of Tonawanda. Here’s the simplified version of what we heard:
The BMW biker travels thousands of miles just for a sticker or pressed penny.
The Harley biker cruises the highways and hops from bar to bar.
And the crotch rocketeers are youngsters who zip along highways and take the backroads for kicks.
There was enough good-natured kidding to go around.
“Harleys are for posing; BMWs are for riding,” a BMW rider said at the convention in Hamburg.
Harley riders scoff at the “uppity” BMW guys and insist they, too, ride their bikes long distances.
And both Harley and BMW riders point to crotch rocketeers – those who ride the cheaper Kawasakis and Hondas – as the younger guys who give bikers a bad name.
Still, not all are so apt to generalize.
It doesn’t matter what you ride as long as you’re on two wheels, said Jack Dannenberg, a BMW rider.
“You go down the road, you see another rider, you wave,” he said.
Branding and loyalties
Here is another general consensus:
Crotch rockets are built for speed.
Harleys are built for cruising.
BMWs are for long-distance travel.
Mike Spence of Albuquerque, N.M., has owned them all, but he tries to stay out of the cult thing.
He noted, though, that the Harley is probably the strongest cult.
To ride a Harley often means looking the part. On his BMW, though, things are different.
“If I want to wear a purple wig and ride, I can put on a purple wig and ride,” he said.
We heard many bikers paint the picture of a Harley rider as a baby boomer, bearded, leather-clad man atop a bike with loud, thundering pipes.
George Kuntz of Buffalo looks like a younger version of the part. He took his Harley out Friday afternoon while donning a helmet with plenty of four-letter words and demands to shut up. His chrome – all the metal accessories on the bike – shined, even the skulls.
But he started out on a crotch rocket, and about half of his friends ride them. Most riders do. It’s the progression for most bikers: you begin on a minibike, then a trail bike and then you get a crotch rocket. Eventually, when you have enough money, you get a bigger bike like a Harley or a BMW.
Hopefully, somewhere along the way, you get your license and registration.
For some, all about image
One of the biggest jokes we heard was that Harley-Davidson riders like to be loud. They ride under the safety mantra that “loud pipes save lives.”
But when you hear it, you’re just thinking about the safety of your eardrums.
John Crenny from Long Island starts his Harley-Davidson in the parking lot of the Hamburg Fairgrounds.
“Oh God, here we go,” his friend and fellow BMW rider Bob Fowler said. “I have to put my earplugs in.”
The engine of Crenny’s 1996 Custom Sportster 1200 sputters and pops to life.
His two friends’ BMWs sound more like an amplified purr.
“They’re introducing me to the quiet life,” he said.
Like most of the BMW riders at the rally, Fowler doesn’t want to generalize about certain types of riders, but if they’re going down that path, he and his friends offered some provoked analogies.
Musically, Harley riders are like the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
BMW riders are a softer country-blues band.
Harley riders dress in leather, while BMW riders don full-body protective gear – with padding and full-head helmets.
And others – not Fowler, but others – claim that Harley riders are just out for joy rides between bars.
“Some are into the image and persona created years ago,” Fowler said. “They make a lot of noise, roll up their sleeves and go riding.”
And crotch rocketeers are just out for the tricks.
Fowler refers to burnout competitions, where bikers accelerate their engines in place until their back tire catches fire or blows up. You won’t see that at the BMW rally.
Going the distance
The BMW bikers boasted that they can ride nonstop, hour after hour, state after state. This ability led to the prestigious and aptly named Iron Butt Association. Spence is one them.
He has a beige bag filled with pressed pennies. Before he got to the rally in Hamburg, he stopped to press one at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pa., for the Pressed Penny Insanity Tour.
To get a certificate, he must collect 100 pressed pennies from 20 different states, and five must be from west of the Mississippi.
This is what BMW bikers like Spence and his Albuquerque friends do. They take long, elaborate tours across the country like the one Jack Dannenberg took from the southern point of Florida to the tip of Alaska.
Or, they go internationally, like former military linguist John Dillon, who’s taken his bike to every European country except Portugal.
New and faded stickers from faraway distances plaster the hard cases on the backs of their bikes as proof.
“BMW bikers will ride 1,000 miles ...” Dillon said.
“For a pressed penny,” Spence said.
“... for a hot dog,” Dillon added.
He was referring to the annual “Bite the Wieeenie” Ride-To-Eat, which has brought bikers to Pink’s Hot Dogs in Hollywood for the past 15 consecutive years. It’s just a casual day’s ride for some of the riders.
A real biker is in the eye of the beholder.
A group of six mostly Harley riders met in the Gander Mountain parking lot before a ride to Erie, Pa., on Saturday morning.
Jim Greco wore his nylon jacket and 13-inch boots.
In the spring and fall, he wears his leather, but the summer is too hot.
Greco said his brother used to ride with Converse sneakers, shorts and a Kissing Bridge T-shirt.
“My brother once asked me, ‘Why you gotta look like a biker?’ ” Greco said.
Four of the bikes were Harley cruisers, but Heather Farr had her Kawasaki Ninja and then James Depadre pulled up on his BMW S100RR with neon yellow sneakers.
“I couldn’t wear those,” Greco said. “I’d get picked on.”
Depadre’s bike was one of the speed bikes BMW began creating about six years ago. He put 1,000 miles on it in the past month.
“Some people have no idea BMW even made a ‘crotch rocket’ like this,” Depadre said, using air quotes around the “crotch rocket.”
Harley riders don’t always give Depadre the same respect as other cruisers. When he gives them the signature two-finger wave, only about two-fifths of people wave back, he said.
“Hey, why don’t you wave back?” Depadre asks one of his friends.
“No, it’s the other way around,” he said.
“He even waves at mountain bikes,” another added.
They’re not really into the stereotypes about different types of riders. Most of the people gathering don’t even own leather.
It’s all just a preference for what you like to ride, Farr said.
“It doesn’t matter what you ride,” she said. “I wave at everything – just not mopeds.”