CIORLANO, Italy — The cacophony of the open throttle, rock ’n’ roll music, and the wind beating against the helmet died to a whisper for a split second, as if pausing to take in a deep breath.
It was as if some kind of force knew what lie up ahead.
Then, as the ’99 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Classic rounded a bend in the two-lane, gray ribbon of roadway that snakes along the Monti del Matese, a shimmering lake came into view.
And that’s when the phenomenon and hot tears hit me: Sometimes it’s amazingly wonderful to be alive.
It is a notion deeply embedded in the personalities of bikers — who, pardon the cliché, really do live to ride and ride to live.
“There’s nothing like it. It’s a feeling of freedom, a feeling of getting a lot closer to nature, experiencing stuff on a bike you never would in a cage,” said Michael “Gator” Reed, 48, who has spent six years touring nearly every Western European country on the same Electra Glide where I had my epiphany ride.
“You’re not looking through a windshield; smells aren’t filtered by the air conditioner. You smell the fresh-cut grass, smell the farmers burning their fields, smell flowers in the springtime, the trees or bushes that are in bloom.
“In the mountains, you feel the crisp, fresh air of a spring morning. It’s something you cannot experience sitting in car, even with the windows down. No way.
“You smell the rain before it comes, then you’re in the rain, and so what? You slow down, drive safely and enjoy a nice summer shower. Who cares?
“You see a rainbow before everyone else. At night, you feel the coolness; smell the damp of the earth. As you go over a river, you smell it. As you ride by the sea, you smell the salt.”
They rarely miss an opportunity to take advantage and appreciate life’s little rewards, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Ben “Whiner” Simons, acting president of the roughly 30-member Breakaway Motorcycle Club in Naples, Italy.
Thousands of miles and the entire Atlantic Ocean didn’t douse the American bikers’ passions for an open road and a slice of Americana in Italy.
“We have a little piece of home here with us,” Simons said.
If they didn’t ship their bikes to Europe, there’s no difficulty finding a Harley-Davidson dealership in Italy. Shops pepper this Mediterranean country, which seems to gravitate toward many things American — McDonald’s restaurants, Ford cars, even Budweiser beer.
And Italians “love love love” Harley-Davidson, said Michele “California” Campolotteno, who last year bought a 1989 Electra Glide. It’s the thunder of the pipes and the leather chaps that scream “macho man” he said, laughing.
“Don’t be so surprised. Italians love Harley-Davidson, like Americans love Ferrari,” Campolotteno said, a grin spreading across his tanned face.
On July 23, roughly 50 American and Italian bikers congregated for the 2nd Annual “Harley-Davidson Showtime” rally, hosted on a soccer field at the foothills of the ancient mountain village of Ciorlano. In Ciorlano, some residents’ passion for the modern runs as deep as the town’s ancient history — traced to 890 A.D., said Enzo Falco, president of the Proloco Ciorlanese Association, which promotes tourism and business for the village of 560 residents.
But it doesn’t matter if they ride a Harley or a Suzuki, a BMW, a Honda or any other make of motorcycle, riders said.
“It’s all about getting there — getting there safely, looking good and sounding loud,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Ted Banks, 37, who rides a ’97 Harley-Davidson customized Sportster and a custom- built Hellbound Steel “Wicked” Chopper he helped design.
Banks has been riding since 1989, when money dictated his mode of transportation. “Truth be known, as a junior enlistee, I couldn’t afford a car,” he said. So he spent about $2,000 on a Honda cruiser and the passion was born.
“Being a biker in Europe enhances my European experience,” Banks said. “I get to travel the sights, and seeing things from a bike is so different than from a cage,” he said, using the bikers’ euphemism for “car.”
“There’s something amazing about the scenery; the castles, the ruins, things that have been around for thousands and thousands of years,” he said.
Rarely, if ever, will one hear bikers call each other by their birth names. Their “rider names” are bestowed by other riders, and chosen for any number of reasons: a personality trait, a stupid act once committed, one’s birthplace.
Gator hails from Louisiana, and has the image of the reptile emblazoned on his Electra Glide (he even has a gator kickstand.)
Robert “High Clouds” Kois will never make it as a meteorologist. During rides once through Sicily, bikers talked of the possibility of rain. Each time Kois, 46, assured them “don’t worry, they’re high clouds, it won’t rain.” Inevitably, it poured.
And there’s “Bubble Head,” the submariner, “Pokey,” who likes to take it slow, and well, yours truly — “Two Scoops,” a female reporter.
As the bikers said: “Now get out there and ride.”