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For the love of Harleys

Tribune / Brian Edwards A small crowd gathers at Family Practice Medical Center before their 6 p.m. take off on a Wednesday night ride earlier this summer.1 / 10
Tribune / Brian Edwards The "Wednesday night riders" signature Harley Davidsons sit in the parking lot of Family Practice Medical Center near downtown Willmar while riders wait for the rest of the group to arrive.2 / 10
Tribune / Brian Edwards The "Wednesday night riders" signature Harley Davidsons sit in the parking lot of Family Practice Medical Center near downtown Willmar while riders wait for the rest of the group to arrive.3 / 10
Submitted A busy night in Wabasso with riders from the region.4 / 10
Submitted Members of the Wednesday night riding group head toward Starbuck. 5 / 10
Tribune / Brian Edwards Longtime members Roger Steele, left, and Merle Wieberdink arrive early to the Wednesday night gathering.6 / 10
Tribune / Brian Edwards Though the looks of the bikes vary, every member of the "Wednesday night riders" rides a Harley.7 / 10
Tribune / Brian Edwards A few minutes before leaving for the night, bikes line the parking lot.8 / 10
Submitted 9 / 10
Tribune / Brian Edwards Members converse as the number of riders start to swell before the group takes off for their evening ride.10 / 10

Sometime around 1972, a few Willmar Harley Davidson riders decided they wanted to ride together.

The group sought to shed the stereotypes of other motorcycle clubs, like the infamous Hells Angels, which were tough, exclusive groups that sometimes branded themselves as outlaws. Instead, the Willmar riders focused solely on their mutual love for Harleys. Since the group's inception, riders have been added, and the current crop of aficionados call themselves the "Wednesday night riders." The club recently wrapped up another successful year of rides around the area, showing no signs of slowing down their long free-wheeling tradition.

Every Wednesday, weather permitting, the roar of bikes can be heard throughout the city as riders head toward Family Practice Medical Center near downtown Willmar. Black leather vests, skulls caps and Harley logos adorn the older crowd gathered in the parking lot. At first glance, the group might look like other motorcycle clubs, but members disagree.

Unlike a customary biker club, the group eschews the rules and organizational structures that have become synonymous with motorcycle culture and function like a loose coalition of cyclists tied together by the desire to ride each week.

"The reason it never fell apart is because it's so unorganized," said Roger Steele, who has ridden with the group since 1976.

The lack of organization, nonchalant criteria for joining the group — "if you have a Harley and want to ride, then all you have to do is show up" — separate the group from others. There is no attendance or roll call, only the desire for a bit of camaraderie and an enjoyable ride.

Many clubs are based around having a certain type of bike, which may initially seem to clump the "Wednesday night riders" into the traditional club structure, but members say the similarities end there. Many groups have a plethora of titles, like president, vice president, treasurer, and so on, and may have rules to join the group.

Steele and Merle Wieberdink, who also joined in 1976, have been the de facto leaders of the group for years. Their main responsibilities were to help plan a route to a city they haven't visited yet that year. The club usually rides from about May until September and if the group can squeeze in a couple rides before or after that timeframe, they do.

"Sharing a passion with others keeps me young," Wieberdink said, adding that the group doesn't go to bars, opting to eat at restaurants around the region. That didn't stop some of the older iterations of the group from getting home late some nights though, he said with a laugh.

Recently, Steele and Wieberdink handed over the reins to a couple of younger group members, Tracy Bruns and Joel Carlson. While the two have taken over planning the rides, they are also trying to create a bit of online buzz about the riders on social media.

Bruns said the "Wednesday night riders" aren't a motorcycle group for show-offs or people who want to speed down the highway on their motorcycles.

People are encouraged to join "if you want to eat burgers and talk smart," he said. "I don't come because I ride a Harley, I come because I ride a Harley and I like the people."

That sentiment rings true with some of the older riders in the group, who feel the new generation will continue to carry on their legacy.

Wieberdink said there won't be any trouble keeping the riders together as long as there is a continued love for good conversation, tasty food and a certain type of motorcycle.

"There is just something about a Harley," he said.