Best Western, Mid-Western Ride

10 Sep

On a dreary spring morning I received an email invitation to join a promotional tour that promised free food and three days of riding with other moto-journalists—so, without reluctance, my gear was packed and I flew to Kansas.  Two things motivated my decision to fly-and-ride: I needed a get-outta-town-free card and wanted to see what Best Western and Harley-Davidson were up to.

For decades there have been numerous small businesses that have welcomed motorcyclists, but seven years ago, Best Western Hotels and Harley-Davidson created the first corporate partnership that specifically promoted motorcycle tourism. Extremely successful with over 110,000 Harley owners in the Rider Rewards program it came as no surprise that they wanted to announce that this partnership has been extended for another three years.  However, Best Western had something else on their agenda.

Picking up my bike at Worth’s Harley-Davidson in Kansas City I followed what would become the group’s chase van to the KC Speedway Inn. Outside it looked like a nice Best Western property but inside it definitely was a boutique hotel.  The fact that the open, elegant bar was being thoroughly enjoyed by a group of riders merely added to the ambiance.  Aparently, not all Best Western hotels are created equal.

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The Best Western Kansas City Speedway hotel is one of 25 Premier-class hotels in the United States.   I wasn’t aware that this chain of hotels had three designations: the ones I usually associate with the Best Western brand; Plus; and Premier.   The grades are based on a complex rating system that naturally includes whether or not it has a pool, restaurant, and other facilities, but also factors in the quality of the décor and even soaps and shampoos offered to guests.   This Premier hotel was a first-class surprise.

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The next morning, roused from our exceedingly comfortable accommodations, we managed a rather short ride to Harley-Davidson’s Kansas City factory.  This was to be our “Steel Toe Tour,” which, in fact, required us to don steel-toe galoshes over our boots and fluorescent warning vests.  We received our orientation and were led onto the very active production floor.  Giant presses formed familiar shapes in sheet steel, robotic arms cut and welded components, racks of parts were conveyed through automatic paint rooms; and people were inspecting the robotic work, testing components, and assembling motorcycles.  Unfortunately, cameras are not permitted inside the factory—we were witnessing too much proprietary information.  This is where the V-Rod is manufactured.  While parts for the Dyna and Sportster are fabricated, and these models assembled, in this Kansas City facility, the V-Rod is the only model to have its powertrain built in the same factory as the rest of the bike.  The quality control of production seen during this factory would give any Harley rider a renewed sense of pride about their machine.

A cut-away V-rod engine.

A cut-away V-rod engine.

Under gray skies we rolled across Missouri on I-70 / US 40.  This was history beneath our wheels.  Constructed a half-century ago, I-70 across Missouri is one of the oldest sections of the Interstate Highway System.  Running parallel, and often merging with the interstate, was U.S. Rt. 40, one of the original highways incorporated into the U.S. Highway System in 1926.  Even so, U.S. Rt. 40 was built on top of the Victory Highway, established in 1921.  Looping to the north of St. Louis, and making our first detour due to flooding, we crossed the swollen Mississippi River into Alton, IL.

Tonight it would be the Parkway Inn in Alton, a Plus-grade property.  One of the objectives of this tour was to showcase the difference between the three grades of Best Western hotels.  Regardless of the grade, approximately 1200 of the franchised, owner-operated hotels are identified as biker-friendly.  Since these properties are privately owned, biker-friendly might mean that wipe-down towels are available or a complete washing station; some have parking spaces reserved for bikes; others offer bottled water on arrival or even lip balm for wind-chapped lips.  I can only attest to how extremely welcome they made us feel.

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Friday morning began with our guides from the local HOG chapter leading us to sites in Alton.  Robert Wadlow, the “Gentle Giant” of Alton, was, at 8’ 11.1,” the tallest man in the world and still growing when he died of a infection at the age of 22.  The life-size bronze statue in the park on College Avenue is just one of several found around the U.S.

Next was a 900-year-old painting—sort of.  The Illini tribe had a legend for the dragon-like Piasa Bird, but the original painting of the monster on the bluffs along the Mississippi River is thought to have originated around 1200 CE when Alton was the site of Cahokia, the largest prehistoric city north of Mexico City.  The original painting was located several hundred yards downstream, but when that site was quarried in the 1870’s the painting was reconstructed on the current limestone cliff.

With rain falling on our parade, we made it to Ted’s Motorcycle World where, generous gift cards in hand, the group did a bit of shopping and we said goodbye to our hosts.  Needless to say, we didn’t get an early start.

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The day’s ride was planned for 307 miles, but flooding of roads along the Illinois River caused us to alter the route and, in the end, we rode a bit over 400 miles.  We did see endless acres of Illinois farmland under water and rode for miles beneath heavy leaden skies where our narrow, but slightly raised, ribbon of asphalt cut across expanses of gray-brown water.  After battling strong side winds and temperature that had dropped to 49˚ we gratefully pulled into the Best Western Woodstock Inn as darkness was falling.

Once again, the property owners had pulled out all the stops to make us feel welcome.  Custom Harleys graced the entrance, the gas fireplace was turned on, beer and soda waited on ice, and there was enough food laid out to feed us all.   I managed to grab a bottle of local brew and a veggie wrap, but we only had 15 minutes to dump our gear in the rooms before a chartered bus was scheduled to depart to the restaurant.   I felt badly that we couldn’t stay and socialize a bit longer with our hosts.

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“Groundhog Day,” the 1993 movie that starred Bill Murray, was filmed in downtown Woodstock—not Punxsutwaney, Pennsylvania.  Naturally, the first thing we did on Saturday morning was head off to see if we could experience a bit of déjà vu.  The local farmer’s market was in full swing and there was live music from the Victorian-styled bandstand in the center of the park, but none of us recalled ever being here before and there was even a bit of confusion locating the correct street to take lead us out of town.

From Woodstock, IL to Milwaukee, WI is about 80 miles, so we took our time.  Pulling into the Harley-Davidson Museum, the motor company reclaimed our bikes with the promise of food waiting in the Motor Bar and Restaurant.  The food was decent and the ambiance appropriate for a group such as ours, but we were anxious to keep moving.

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After spending the next couple of hours exploring the fabled archives in the Harley-Davidson Museum with curator Jim Fricke some of our group had to depart to catch their flights home.   The few of us who remained were chauffeured to the Best Western Plus Milwaukee Airport Hotel & Conference Center.

Pardon me for getting confused about the Best Western rating system, but my suite of rooms in this “Plus” hotel was larger than my condo, had a party-size Jacuzzi with mirrored walls, a couple of bathrooms, and was situated overlooking a massive atrium with a swimming pool and palm trees.   The executive chef had prepared a special sideboard filled with amazing dishes and the bar was not only stocked with local craft brews, but a representative from the Great Lakes Distillery was on hand in case we preferred something more substantial.   This hotel is the kind of place I could settle into for a long weekend, but we couldn’t . . . a van with blacked out windows was waiting and our driver was taking us to the Safe House . . . wherever that was.

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