Life in the fast lane: For these Harley riders, biking and business do mix

TRAVERSE CITY – Don't let the suit and tie fool you. These guys are HOGs-the two-wheeled, leather-clad variety, that is.

"Oh yeah, I've got the leathers," said Randy Kiessel, a local investment manager with Baird & Co. on Lake Street in Traverse City and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle enthusiast. "I'm not a big fan of collecting the gear just to collect it. Yes, I have the chaps, yes I have the black leather jacket, but I wear them for practical reasons. I wear them because they protect you while you're riding."

According to official Harley-Davidson Motor Co. lore, the classic American-made motorcycle earned its nickname, the HOG, in the 1920s when a racing team strapped their mascot, a pig, onto the back of the winning bike for a victory lap. In the 1980s, a national social and charitable club was formed around the common interest of motorcycle touring; members called themselves the Harley Owners Group, or HOGs. The nickname became an acronym and, now, Harley-Davidson trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol "HOG."

And local riders, many executives by day, embrace the nickname, their membership in the local HOG chapter, and the camaraderie-as well as solitary freedom-a big, loud bike can bring.

"For me, it's turned into one of the great loves of my life," said Paul Jarboe, an attorney with a general law practice on 8th Street in Traverse City and the president of the Northern Michigan HOGs. "Getting on the bike and going for a ride is an opportunity for me to get out of the executive world and get into what I consider to be the real world. There are doctors who ride, lawyers who ride, even judges who ride-but it doesn't matter. There is no such thing as social standing within the Harley community."

When you enter Jarboe's office, and walk through the lobby, you can turn left to go to his office, or right to go to an attached garage, where two Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a black 2000 Heritage Springer Softail and a white 2006 Ultra Classic, sit parked under protective tarps like hibernating metal beasts. "I'd rather go that way than this way," Jarboe says, ruefully pointing to the garage in the middle of a workday.

Across town, orthodontist Robert Portenga, "Dr. Bob" to his patients and staff, spends his weekdays fixing problems. He has been an orthodontist for more than 30 years and his practice on Munson Avenue in Traverse City has served the orthodontic needs of thousands of people in the Grand Traverse region. He said just knowing that there is a black, 1995 Harley-Davidson Road King safely parked at home in his garage provides a welcome mental contrast to his busiest days.

"I see a patient every 10 or 15 minutes," said Portenga. "My day is very structured. What I like best about getting on the motorcycle is that I don't have to worry about a schedule."

Portenga started riding motorcycles when he was a kid, and spent as much time fixing his Eagle as he did riding it. Kiessel rode a motorcycle when he was growing up in Suttons Bay, and owned a Triumph when he was a young military man stationed in the Philippines. Both took a hiatus from riding while they were raising a family, and returned to the pursuit once their children were grown.

Jarboe didn't start riding until later in life, but by his own admission has taken to it with a vengeance. He has been to all 26 states east of the Mississippi River.

Kris Van Deusen, an emergency room nurse at Munson Medical Center, has ridden her Harley to Canada, New York and New England. She even rides her bike to work.

"I'm under a lot of pressure in the ER," she said. "I get on my bike, I turn on my radio, I see everything, I smell everything, and its peace. I love it. You ride a Harley and you have a family."

Do business and bikers mix?

"When people travel for business, they usually rent a car. I rent a Harley," said Kiessel. "At first, I was a little nervous about what clients would think, but I've come to find out that they like it. They expect it now. With some, it even opens the door."

Jarboe said that being able to give legal assistance to people who have become his friends through membership in the HOG chapter is an unintended benefit of the close-knit group.

"It certainly wasn't by intention, because that was the furthest thing from my mind, but a fair number of riders have become clients," he said. "The people you ride with, they end up literally becoming part of your family. And you always want to help out your family whenever you can."

Eric Bader, who with his wife, Dawn, owns Happy Hog, a motorcycle apparel and accessories store at 150 E. Front Street in Traverse City, sees an even mix of riders.

"Between the hardcore bikers and the executives, I'd say my business is about 50-50," he said. "Harley-Davidson has really breached that gap. There aren't any social-type barriers anymore-anyone can ride."

"I've been in the business for quite awhile and I've seen the clientele change," adds Eric Fischer, sales manager at Classic Motor Sports on U.S. 31 South. "Fifteen years ago, it was the guy who had been riding forever. Ten years ago it was the 'in' thing to own a Harley. It was a status symbol. Today, I'm seeing a swing back to Harley's roots. That may be because of pricing. A Harley-Davidson isn't out of the average person's price range anymore." BN