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Built for This – 2,200 Miles Across Europe on a Harley-Davidson Street Bob

Ride to Prague to celebrate Harley-Davidson's 115th birthday reveals urban bike is surprisingly adept at long hauls

The plan was to have been on the road by 6:30. It’s just past 7 now and I’m standing in the driveway, fiddling with the collar strap on my jacket.

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It’s an Indian Motorcycle-branded Rocker jacket. I’ve removed the shoulder patch, so only the eagle-eyed will pick up that I’m off-message for this ride. I’ve had a pretty dramatic change of heart about Harley-Davidson and its products over the past two years, but I still like to think of myself as an Indian guy; this is my quiet means of rebellion. My late start, however, has nothing to do with insubordination. I just can’t seem to get on the road on time.

start
Running half an hour late, but still enough time to pose for photos.

I need to be on the other side of the country in four and a half hours to meet up with the rest of the journo squad heading to Prague for the European celebration of Harley’s 115th anniversary. The MoCo is planning a slam-bang shivoo in its hometown of Milwaukee for the end of the summer, but attending would be logistically challenging and crazy expensive for the hundreds of thousands of Harley fans living in Not America. So, the brand’s appropriated the annual celebration put on by the longest-running H-D riding club in the world, Harley-Davidson Club Praha, making this year’s event a little bigger and a little louder.

The United Kingdom isn’t a terribly wide country, so it’s only 230 miles from TMO headquarters to the rendezvous point (a motorway services) in Folkestone. Theoretically, 4.5 hours is more than enough time. But the Street Bob I’m riding has a small tank. I’ll need to stop once to fill up. I’m not a morning person, so I may need to stop more than that. Additionally, a large section of the route involves the notoriously un-fast M25. I will be cutting it fine.

RELATED: A Love Letter to the Harley-Davidson Street Bob

It’s a warm morning, about 16ºC, but cool enough that I’ve thrown on a hoodie underneath my jacket. The bike is loaded with Kriega bags and I’ve secured an American flag to the sissy bar. Traffic getting out of Wales is heavier than anticipated. I have to filter through large sections of congestion at Newport, and again coming into Bristol, but I make it to Reading to fill the Street Bob’s tank and empty my bladder around 9:30. I manage a more spirited pace over the remaining 113 miles to Folkestone and arrive at 11:30 on the dot.

There is nothing terribly memorable about this stretch of the adventure. It’s southern England motorway full of sleepy commuters on their phones. Wiltshire is beautiful and I feel happy in the morning sun, but by and large motorway here could be motorway anywhere. Unfortunately, that will be the bulk of the riding today. British motorway will gave way to French motorway after a trip under the English channel.

Bikes on a train

The trip on the Eurotunnel train is my first. Hitherto I’ve always crossed to the European continent by boat because I assumed it was less expensive. Only in researching the prices for this article have I learned that costs are, in fact, the same. The train is faster and – by the nature of its being a train that goes under the bloody sea – much cooler. You simply ride on, sit there for 35 minutes – just long enough to eat a packed lunch – and ride off in a different country.

There is something mind-bending about the experience. For roughly 900 years that tiny 12-mile stretch of water between England and France helped the former fend off numerous invasion attempts. Spanish, French, and German plans were all undone by the sea and its unpredictability. Now you can cross in air-conditioned comfort three times an hour.

There are nine of us on this trip – three members of Harley’s UK team – “Uncle” Trevor, Steve, and Alex – and six journos: me, Tony Carter, Kane Dalton, Geoff Hill, Andy Hornsby, and Jeremy Taylor. I am not the only one riding an ostensibly inappropriate bike; Kane has strapped his gear to the fender of a Fat Bob. And unlike me he does not have a screen. As we zip across France he shifts his feet onto the passenger pegs and presses his belly to the tank.

It is hot, so there is an initial sense of relief when we hit heavy rain near Arras. Our lead rider decides to power on, perhaps because he is still hot or perhaps because he’s unnerved by the streaks of lightning over our heads. Who wants to hang out here, risking violent electrocution? Better to hustle along and hope it clears up. It doesn’t clear up. Within 40 minutes I’m soaked through, water squishing in the toes of my boots.

Things were lovely before the rain set in

We ride like Brits regardless of the notoriously poor wet-weather performance of cruiser tires. On tar snakes and road markings I can feel the back tire kick but this doesn’t stop us from maintaining a 95mph pace. It’s alright; the roads are straight here. The key is to just not stop. The error of this strategy becomes apparent, however, when the lead rider takes an exit without indicating. A few of the guys are able to stay with him but my position is such that I would have to cross closely in front of a truck, brake hard, and corner aggressively. Nope.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one. Four of us meet up at the next pull-over spot and scrabble our way to the hotel following directions off an iPhone. After dinner, I spend some time blow drying my boots, England manages to win against Colombia (while I’m not watching), and it rains through the night.

‘The Chardonnay Was Very Dry’

The 4th of July starts amid rumbles of thunder. At some point overnight an anti-American hotel guest has chosen to burn a cigarette hole in my American flag. To my surprise, the group is genuinely annoyed at this. I would have expected some good-natured Trump-focused ribbing from the otherwise British contingent, but I guess – as a people speeding toward the clusterfuckery that is Brexit – they understand a flag represents a people’s best vision of themselves rather than the boneheaded actions of present governments.

I take it in stride. And our flag was still there… Besides, Old Glory looks kind of cool with a little wear and tear on her. Tony Carter suggests I just pretend it’s a bullet hole.

Someone doesn’t love America as much as me

“You don’t know, do you, mate?” he says. “You think it’s a cigarette burn, but you didn’t see it happen. Could be someone took a shot at you while we were out yesterday. I’d say that’s about 50-cal-sized. Might’ve come from one of those long-range Barrett rifles.”

Most of the guys are transporting their stuff via the support van that’s following us to Prague, but I’m committed to my system of Kriega bags. It looks the part, provides a back rest, and the van that’s following us isn’t actually following us, but meeting us at our hotels at the end of the day. If I were to store anything there I’d need to sit down and consider exactly what I may need during a day’s ride and repack accordingly. I’m too lazy to work out a new system.

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The problem with the Kriega system is it takes a little while to get everything squared away juuuuuust right. Exacerbated by my meticulous nature (Remember the old Bob Villa phrase. “Measure twice, cut once?” I’m more of a “Measure nine times, second guess, measure another nine times, consider whether there are any alternatives to the permanence of cutting, measure nine more times, cut once” kind of guy), the process of securing the bags to the bike and to each other takes me roughly half an hour. It’s at times like these that I think how lucky I am to have been rejected for the Marine Corps (I tried to enlist but was denied on grounds of having been hospitalized for asthma). I was not made to decamp quickly.

I’d assume someone less precious about packing could get a bike fully Kriega’d up in about five minutes. This appears to have been the assumption of the other guys, as well, because as I’m tightening and tucking away straps they are sitting on their bikes. Some even have their engines running. There is light rain falling, so many of us are in waterproof gear. But the air is muggy and warm; sitting still (or, in my case, running around) is stifling. And, well, I’m still a little miffed about the whole “Anonymous Person Burns My Flag” thing. The end result is that I start growling out a string of profanities as I rush to get everything packed away.

With a combination of a US30, two US20s, and a US10 I was able to carry everything I needed for more than a week on the road.

When we finally get moving, 15 minutes after our intended departure, my heart is pounding in my ears and there are rivulets of sweat running down my back. We ride approximately 200 yards to a gas station and spend 15 minutes filling all the tanks.

By the time we pull away from the gas station the sun is out and we don’t make it too far before we need to stop again to shed our waterproof gear. We don’t make it much further than that before one of our group (thankfully not me, though I was feeling a similar urgency) signals the need for a poo-poo break. As of 11 am, two hours and 45 minutes after rolling away from our hotel, we have not yet covered 50 miles.

Only now – right now, as I’m writing this – do I realize a tactical error that’s affecting our group. The lead rider, Trev, is on a Sport Glide, whereas the tail rider, Steve, is on an Ultra Limited. If you’re up to date on your Harley knowledge you’ll know the Softail Sport Glide isn’t equipped with the 6.5-inch “Boom! Box” infotainment system that’s standard on an Ultra Limited. The infotainment system has an integrated GPS; Uncle Trev is navigating by phone.

Wanting to avoid the super slab drudgery of the day before, he has set his Google Maps app to avoid motorways, a trick that always exposes the US-centric nature of navigation software. In ‘Merica there are no such things as national speed limits, ie no default maximum speed that is applied to all roads that aren’t otherwise marked. So map programmers aren’t aware that a national speed limit road does not always indicate the ability to travel at the national speed limit.

This trip played a big part in my falling in love with the Street Bob

In the United States, a 60mph speed limit means you can travel at 60 mph. Whereas in Europe a 60mph speed limit (100kmh) often just means there aren’t any buildings to run into. Roads that have existed more or less untouched for centuries – roads initially designed to accommodate foot traffic and one or two horse-drawn vehicles a day – will often be designated as national speed limit roads. Narrow, poorly maintained, and inclined to jag sharply into blind corners, they are hardly adequate for moving quickly.

As I say, Google Maps doesn’t know this, so it’s routing us through a rat’s maze of backroads in an attempt to avoid the little villages spaced every few miles or so. The route is nonsensical and Uncle Trev is missing turns because he can’t see his map or his map can’t see him.

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All of this, stretching back to the faffery of my luggage in the morning, is building within the group a very quiet sense of frustration, a feeling of needing to get moving, to open up, to make progress. So when we pass a brasserie that’s grilling poulet out front I don’t even try to suggest we stop for lunch. France becomes Belgium, then Luxembourg – 11 becomes 12, then 1 – and it is not until we hit Germany that we are able to move at any sort of pace. So, of course, no one’s signaling to stop now.

We don’t know the country’s rural national speed limits (on my way back I’ll realize our guesses were WAY off) and are screaming through the Rhineland, doing absolutely no favors for UK-Germany relations. Then Tony’s CVO Street Glide conks out.

Tony Carter expresses his displeasure in losing the Street Glide CVO as transport to Prague

“It was so hot that I couldn’t ride it without putting my right leg up on the bodywork,” Tony will tell me later. “It was physically painful to ride. It then surged three times on me, the tacho was going mental, then one last surge and it died.”

The exact problem will remain a mystery months afterward. In the present, however, it’s decided Tony and Steve will hang out and wait for the support van to pick up the kaput £31,595 machine. The rest of us will go find a place to finally eat lunch. The plan is for Tony to make use of the spare Fat Bob the van’s been carrying and we’ll all meet up again at the evening’s hotel.

Less than 20 minutes up the road, we’re crawling through traffic when a police van comes screaming up from behind. We let it pass, as do a few cars ahead of us but it doesn’t seem to want to go any further than our lead rider. On the back there is an LED sign that says, “FOLGEN BITTE,” with a happy face and arrows pointing to the right.

We are hot, tired, hungry, and stupid. So not one of us – including me, the guy who actually knows that “Folgen Bitte” means “Please Follow” – considers the possibility that the police are trying to instruct us to do something. After several minutes, we see a hand shoot out of the passenger window. It points to an upcoming lay-by with authority that cannot be misinterpreted.

Wüp-wüp, that’s the sound of the polizei

Three officers jump out of the van – two men and a woman. The woman is in charge, but a tall one with a name tag that reads Marx is the best English speaker. Out of instinct I go into Stupidly Cheerful American Mode. This is what I have learned from years of travel: never be grumpy. Instead treat situations with authority figures as if you’ve just been released from a hole in the ground and, golly, you’re just happy to be here.

“Hey guys! How’s it going?” I shout.

“Yeah, OK,” says Marx. “You are… uhm… enjoying your trip?”

“You bet!”

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Uncle Trev is talking to the female officer and has adopted the tried and true British technique of pretending to not understand the laws. We didn’t know it was against the rules to cross a solid white line. I mean, who would’ve even guessed such a thing? All the other guys are doing their best to confound the situation further by thickening their regional accents and being dumb and cheerful.

Ultimately, Marx has us all circle round and informs us that normally this sort of thing would earn each of us an on-the-spot €10 cash fine. Still in Stupidly Cheerful American Mode, I almost say aloud: “Golly, that’s surprisingly affordable!”

Interestingly, Germany is one of Harley’s largest European markets

“But I think we let you go with the wagging finger this time,” Marx says. “Next time we catch you doing this you will have to pay. But I think I will never see any of you again.”

We thank them profusely and watch them drive off. Then all of us gear up and fire the bikes to life. Just as we are taking off, I do my usual preflight check of pockets: wallet, passport, phone… No phone.

After a flash of panic I remember I had set it on the ground beside my bike. The other guys carry on while I hop off, grab my phone, then suffer a kind of OCD fit in which I need to check over and over again. Wallet, passport, phone. Wallet, passport, phone. Wallet, passport, phone. Wallet, passport, phone. Wallet, passport, phone. Chapstick? Chapstick. Wallet, passport, phone. Wallet, passport, phone. OK, ready to go. Press the starter. Wait. Wallet, passport, phone? Wallet, passport, phone. Wallet, passport, phone. Wallet, passport, phone. OK, really. I can go now. Press the starter. Put the bike in gear. I’m holding the guys up. They’re probably sitting beside the side of the road a few yards away wondering what the hell I’m doing. Let’s go. Wallet, passport, phone. Wallet, passport, phone. Let’s go, damn it! Wallet, passport, phone. Wallet, passport, phone. LET’S GO!

The song I sing before riding

I get out onto the road and cannot see them. After about 10 minutes I come to the conclusion I’ll be making my way to the hotel alone. Eventually I come to a full-fledged highway and conveniently located Autohof (what we in the UK would refer to as a “services”). I stop, text Trevor that I’m OK, and start to plot my route to the hotel. Uncle Trev phones back almost instantly to let me know he and the crew have stopped for lunch about 20 minutes up the highway.

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On the way to meet up with them I spot two 2018 Harleys in my mirrors – an Ultra Limited and a Fat Bob. As they pass, Tony gives me the customary English salutation of making the “wanker” sign and I fall in with them. Uncle Trev calls (my Schuberth C3 Pro is equipped with the Sena SC10U communication system) and I let him know that I’m going to stick with Tony and Steve because, well, I can see them – whereas finding the others will involve navigating a foreign town. We stop for gas and food, but otherwise take on an enthusiastic pace over the next few hours, sticking to the Autobahn. Steve has the idea that getting to the hotel before the others, with the three of us showered and drinking beer when they finally arrive, will annoy Uncle Trev.

It does.

The hotel is particularly budget, but it is clean, the air conditioner works, and moto-journalists understand the rule of gift horses. There is a fridge in the lobby that the friendly hotel manager keeps stocked with beer, and there are chairs and tables outside. The only place to eat within walking distance is a Burger King. We are laughing and cracking jokes, a bunch of little boys on an adventure.

Have Harley will travel

Jeremy, who normally covers car launches, is bemused as we rib him about having to slum it with the motorcycle guys. Car events are notoriously extravagant, held in comically high-roller places like Monaco or Dubai. Even the fanciest of BMW (Motorrad) or Ducati press events doesn’t hold a candle to what he’s used to. But Jeremy assures us it isn’t always as glamorous as we imagine.

“I was at a launch in the Alps recently. We were staying in a chalet with a view across snow-peaked mountains. But the chardonnay was very dry,” he deadpans. “It hit you right in the back of the throat.”

What Happens in Germany…

I’m up early the next morning and start packing the bike a full 45 minutes before scheduled departure. I am still quadruple checking things when everyone else arrives and starts firing up their bikes, but I manage to avoid creating a delay as long as the day before.

Overnight, Uncle Trev has spent some time staring at a map, working out spots to do photography. It’s all rolling farmland here, which, of course, is a Harley’s natural terrain. Indeed, the German countryside often reminds me of Wisconsin, or vice versa, which is sort of amusing if you consider the fact so many Germans helped settle the Dairy State. They travelled thousands and thousands of miles across the sea, then thousands more across the North American continent, just to end up in a place that looked very much like the place they left.

The fields of Germany have a familiar feel

According to my great-aunt, one part of my ancestry is German. Those folks ended up in Texas, but the story of their getting to America has always amused me. Back in 18-whatever, my people were on a boat full of other Germans that made a stop in London. Turned out the captain owed quite a bit of money in The Good Ol’ City and got thrown in the clink for a few weeks.

The Germans were not allowed to get off the boat, as they were supposed to be in transit to America, so, they just hung out, eating up all the ship’s supplies. Eventually the captain either escaped or cajoled his way out of jail and decided to hightail it out to sea without bothering to fully resupply. Most of the folks on the boat ended up starving to death. My ancestors didn’t.

My family has a lot of stories like that and I’ll admit I question their veracity. But as Texans we understand that a good story is often better than a verifiable truth. Regardless, whether as a result of visual similarities with the American Midwest or because of some deep genetic memory, I feel a sense of familiarity here – a sense of belonging. Every part of me relaxes.

This is what Harleys are built for: these moments of rolling bliss. The pace is relaxed; the road before us is open; the weather is perfect. The Street Bob’s world-engine powerplant thrums with a steady, endless confidence and I feel a deep sense of happiness. If some of my DNA really does trace from Germany, what a fascinating journey its had in finding its way back. Oh, the places you’ll go. And what a lucky motherhugger you are, Chris Cope, that you are spending a Thursday speeding across Europe with a pack of moto goofs.

What happens on the road stays on the road…

Eventually we pull into a roadside rest area to stand around and wait while each rider takes a turn doing tracking shots – following a bike with a photographer perched on the back so we can get the cool “Here’s me on a Harley” photos that will litter our Facebook feeds for the coming months. Photo stops are strangely one of my favorite things about riding with journos, because it’s an opportunity to goof around.

Looking out on the fields beyond our rest area I make the observation that it looks like the setting for myriad Playboy photo shoots. Cue my wheeling the Street Bob into a field so we can take pictures of me sprawled out on it topless. Hey, what happens in Germany stays in Germany.

Eventually we get back on the road and stumble upon the village of Trebgast, population 1,500, where we eat lunch at a place so good I make a note of its name for the trip back. We sit outside in the sunshine, fighting a deep urge to abandon the rest of the day and start drinking. The waitress turns out to be both well versed in English and clever enough that she holds her own in the face of British banter. I fill up on Jaegerschnitzel and we all have such a good time that our lunch runs long. At the end of it we agree to make our way toward faster roads so we can be sure to get to Prague before sunset.

We push east and the scenery becomes a little flatter, a little less interesting. Soon we are crossing the border into the Czech Republic and I think of what a dramatic difference the European Union has made to this part of the world.

There were times on this trip when it felt we were living in a Harley-Davidson brochure

One of my best friends is of Czech origin, his great-grandparents having arrived in the United States after the First World War. Back in the late 1990s he travelled to the Czech Republic to see where his family had come from, and tells an amusing story of being rejected by border guards after making the mistake of showing a military ID. First they refused to believe that a guy with a Czech last name couldn’t speak Czech, then they accused him of being a spy. Because, you know, a spy would definitely come to the border flashing his Navy ID card. After three hours of wrangling he gave up, feeling that he fully understood why his great-grandparents had left in the first place.

These days, you don’t even slow down to cross the border. In fact, it’s the opposite. Once into the Czech Republic the road widens and our pace quickens. Just 100 miles now lie between ourselves and the hotel bar, and we’re eager to enjoy Czech hospitality. We find ourselves riding amid more and more packs of Harleys. I see Harley Owners Group (HOG) patches from Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and England. More than 100,000 of us are expected to turn up for this Harley Club Praha shindig, and with each new pack of motorcyclists we pass I feel a growing sense of excitement.

The scenery becomes flatter – less Wisconsin, more Iowa – and heavy clouds loom in the distance. The sky threatens to open up on us but never fully does. We’re holding off the rain with the roar of our V-twins. We turn away from the storm, the sky lightens, the temperature warms and I am so excited that I imagine removing the American flag from the bike’s sissy bar so I can ride into town waving it.

Living the dream, y’all

A few miles outside Prague we stop to top up our tanks and strategize arrival. Prague will be heaving with bikes, Steve warns, and we’ll need to stay tight and ride aggressively if we want to keep together. Tony and I joke about the seriousness of Steve’s tone by imagining our ride to a four-star hotel as akin to a WWI trenches raid: “I hope you’ve all written your letters home, gentlemen. We may lose a few of you on the way to Mama Shelter, but we’ll tell your loved ones of your bravery. If you make it through alive, we’ll see you for hors d’oeuvres at 8. For Queen and country, lads. Let’s go!”

Getting to the hotel turns out to be comically easy. Turns out most motorcyclists will be arriving tomorrow.

We Win in Rock ‘n’ Roll

I spend the next three days in Prague. The air conditioning is broken at the hotel, so our contingent effectively sets up camp at the hotel bar’s outdoor seating area. No matter what time of day, you can find at least two of us hanging out there. Grab a beer, maybe a pizza, catch up on who’s been to see what, then wander off to explore some more.

The bulk of Prague Harley Days takes place in a huge area surrounding the Výstaviště Praha exhibition grounds, the centerpiece of which is the art nouveau Industrial Palace, built in 1891. It adds a sense of prestige, but much of what you find here is the of sort you might find at Sturgis or Daytona. Custom builds, stunt shows, historic bikes, demo rides, multiple music stages, food and gear vendors, beer tents, and thousands upon thousands of people bedecked in leather.

Prague is a very cool city: a mix of hip and historic

I spot HOG patches from all over the world, the farthest afield coming from Mexico City and Bangkok. I usually feel ownership groups like HOG may be outdated concepts, but in a setting like this I understand the appeal. To be able to say you ‘belong’ amid all these people, that you are one of them, that ‘them’ is ‘us,’ is an attractive idea. I suppose it’s the same sort of thinking that inspired me to join a fraternity back when I was in college. As I walk around, I entertain little daydreams of buying the Street Bob I’ve ridden to Prague and promptly joining my local HOG chapter so I can get get a fancy patch to sew onto the back of my jacket.

The big stage hosts the Picturebooks on Friday night and the Hives on Saturday. Both put on fantastic shows, but the patter of Hives frontman “Howlin” Pelle Almqvist gives them top spot in my memory.

“Sweden lost in the football,” he says, referring to Sweden’s 0-2 World Cup quarter final loss to England earlier that day. “But we win in rock ‘n’ roll. Prepare yourself for another bonafide fucking rock ‘n’ roll classic!”

‘USA OK’

I make a relaxed start for home on Sunday morning. Most of the guys I rode out with are flying back, Harley shipping their bikes to Blighty, but Andy and I are going back the way we came. Well, we’re each using the mode of transport on which we came. Andy is veering north and will spend more than a week wandering the European continent. I’m taking a more direct route, more or less retracing my steps, but with the aim of cutting out a lot of motorway.

As I ride out of Prague, a woman at the side of the street spots my American flag and runs out to hug me at a stoplight.

“USA OK!” she shouts. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” I say, and ride on.

As part of the festivities in Prague I took part in a parade

Back in Germany, I eat again at Landgasthof Friedrich, the restaurant in Trebgast we’d visited on the way out. Things are relaxed and I spend an even longer time lingering in the afternoon sun. Two motorcyclists end up choosing the table next to me; they speak English and we engage in general conversation about where we’re going, where we’ve ridden, and so on. When my food arrives they do that German thing of politely ending the conversation so I can eat in peace.

At a middle-of-nowhere petrol station a few miles further down the road, the attendant and I engage in a Google Translate conversation (she speaking into my phone and it translating English, then I speaking my response and it translating to German) in which she expresses displeasure at the fact she has to charge me a €1 charge to use a credit card. I tell her it’s OK but she thinks it’s unfair.

I make it to my hotel in Siegen in the final light of the day. The attractive woman managing the hotel helps me find a safe place to park my bike for the night and gives me a free beer when I order dinner.

The next morning I’m up early and point the bike toward Bastogne, Belgium. In the Second World War, the town was the site of the Siege of Bastogne, in which the 101st Airborne Division (that of “Band of Brothers” fame) found itself surrounded by Nazi forces and poorly equipped. With the situation looking grim, the Nazis offered their American opponents an opportunity to surrender, rather than be pummeled to hell by tanks and artillery. The acting commander of the 101st, Gen. Anthony McAuliffe, famously responded to the Nazis with a single word: “NUTS!” The Americans dug in and managed to hold out for five days, until Gen. George Patton’s tank division managed to hammer through the lines.

The Mardasson Memorial, in Bastogne, Belgium

Off the back of that action, the “Battered Bastards of the Bastion of Bastogne” were honored by the town with an enormous monument known as the Mardasson Memorial. It shares a site with the even larger Bastogne War Museum and overlooks rolling pleasant fields that lead back to the town center. It is beautiful and humbling, and every time I’m here (This is the second time I’ve visited, having ridden through in 2015) I find myself crying uncontrollably.

I mean, dear God. It’s so peaceful and pleasant now, but imagine shivering in the snow on Christmas Day 1944, hungry and tired, with horrific, body-ripping death raining down all around you, and thinking: “This is it. At any second it will probably end. Here, so many thousands of miles away from everything I love and understand, I’m going to die. But until then, I refuse to give up.”

Much of America’s modern sense of greatness is derived from the bravery of those men who said “Nuts” to the Nazis, and the unquestionable righteousness of their mission. The Nazi aims were purely evil, incomprehensibly so… And as I ride on through Belgium, roughly following in reverse the route that Allied forces took in pushing toward Germany, I find myself thinking about the past that my grandparents knew and the present that I know.

The majority of Germans I meet are so very likable. True, they’re not as warm as the Scottish/Irish in their welcomes but they are nonetheless friendly, respectful, accommodating, intelligent, and equipped with a sharp, dry humor. They’re purveyors of good food and good beer, their cities are clean and functional, their country is beautiful, and they’re pretty skilled when it comes to building motorcycles. I make a point of visiting Germany so regularly that I’m considering taking German courses. I understand that the past is the past and incomparable with the present, and that one of the effects of the war in Germany (and in most of Europe) was a dramatic change in culture, but can the people that I love being around today really be so totally different from the ones who supported the Nazi agenda?

The modern town of Bastogne is a very charming place

I mean, I’m a different man than my grandfather was. But who I am is informed by who he was. We share a basic understanding of what is right, of how people should be treated; he gave me that. I can’t imagine Germans are completely different. There must be a spirit, a golden thread, that connects today’s Germans with their grandparents, and they with their grandparents before them. So, it must be that people who swore allegiance to the Nazi regime carried within them some of the same character traits that appeal to me now.

As I ride back through France, it occurs to me that we are all capable of evil. That’s an uncomfortable thought: somewhere within each each of us there lies the capacity to be horrific. I’m not saying we are born evil and cursed to spend our lives fighting against our natural state, but equally we are not born great. We are not born superior. If we are great, it is because we choose to be, because we challenge ourselves to be.

A few months later, the president of the United States will stand in front of a crowd in my home state of Texas and declare himself to be a nationalist. And I will find myself quietly understanding why that anonymous Frenchman burned a hole in my flag.

But people are not their governments. I take the train back beneath the sea, from the European continent to a country whose government seems hellbent on establishing an even greater separation from the continent than 12 miles of water can provide. As I roll off the train into the cool evening of English summer, I’m hit by a quiet irony: I’m riding a bike made by a company that is increasingly looking toward Europe, in a country that is increasingly looking away.

Everything is fluid. The story of what was meshes into what is and what will be. The road beneath my feet blurs. The Street Bob’s massive engine churns without effort; it was built for this.