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      Harley owners tout "a culture, a way of life" at spring rally

      The Cruisin' the Coast Spring Bike Rally is officially underway, with thousands of Harley bikers on the Grand Strand.

      Many of them will be on bikes they've spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to customize.

      What inspires such passion?

      Harley fans say it's a culture and a way of life. Each of the Harleys here this week will be as unique as the person riding it.

      To see motorcycles built with great care and precision, look no further than the military tribute bikes on display in the Lakewood Conference Center in Surfside Beach.

      Rolling Thunder sponsors the display of bikes representing the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, along with a POW /MIA Harley being raffled off to benefit the Aleethia Foundation, ( a charity that helps wounded troops.

      Each bike is a priceless, one-of-a-kind work of motorcycle art that took hundreds of hours to build.

      "The dedication and all that the bike builders put into making these, they did it with each and every veteran in mind that ever served," said Don Smith, a Rolling Thunder spokesman.

      That kind of craftsmanship is on display everywhere this week.

      Bikes in a multitude of colors, styles and levels of customization are here.

      Harley owners say owning one is to become part of a culture.

      "It's a lifestyle, that's what you want. It's a family of friends and brothers and sisters," said Gerry Walles, a Harley owner from Solomon Islands, Maryland.

      Walles, who friends call "Tiki", was born on the islands near Australia, but is now all-American.

      He wanted to own a custom bike that would reflect who he is, and only a made-in-the-USA Harley would do.

      "It's not a bike, just about a bike, it's an extension of my personality."

      That's what it's all about: start with a basic bike, add accessories and maybe a custom paint job, and make that Harley your own.

      "What you end up doing, it's an addiction almost, that you keep adding more chrome to your bike or whatever. It's a passion," said Chuck Seminatore from Cleveland, Ohio.