“Speechless” is how Michelle Edwards, general manager of the Bourbeuse Valley Harley-Davidson dealer in Villa Ridge, felt looking up at the “mammoth” Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, during a visit there in early April.

“The beauty you see as you enter the inner sanctuary is beyond describable,” said Edwards. “It is very hard to believe that such a structure could be built by man in the time that it was started, being the late 1800s, and that the project continues today!”

The Basilica was just one of the sights Edwards and her father, Don Thompson, were treated to on a trip across Spain with Harley-Davidson as one of the company’s prestigious “Bar & Shield” award winners.

“The Harley emblem is known as the Bar and Shield,” Edwards explained. “That is their iconic symbol, what people know Harley by.”

Every year the company honors its top dealers with the Bar & Shield. There are platinum, gold, silver and bronze winners. The Bourbeuse Valley dealer was a bronze winner, but for Edwards and her small staff, they felt like they had won the Olympics.

“We’ve always kind of considered ourselves the country dealer, and that award was for the big, elite dealers,” she said. “Winning this award, it opened our eyes to see we’re not as small as we think we are. We are actually in contention with a lot of major players in the corporation.”

Edwards said there are around 600 Harley-Davidson dealers worldwide, and 144 of them were selected as Bar & Shield winners for 2013.

There were only six platinum winners among the group and two dozen gold. The majority were bronze, Edwards noted.

“The Bar & Shield award is earned based on motorcycle and related product sales performance, an evaluation of customer service and sastisfaction and various operational measures,” the awards brochure read.

The Bourbeuse Valley dealer includes what almost amounts to three separate businesses, Edwards said — the shop where bikes come in for repairs and maintenance, the sales department where bikes are sold and the retail boutique that offers clothing and accessories for all ages, from adult to babies and even pets.

No one at the dealer had any idea they were in contention to win a Bar & Shield Award until a fellow dealer texted Michelle one day.

“There’s a report that we follow to watch our numbers,” said Edwards, “and it was actually someone from another store who texted me and said, ‘Congratulations, you guys are kicking on the Bar & Shield.’ So I went and looked and thought, ‘We’re going to get bumped out. It’s a numbers thing; they change every day.’ ”

When their numbers held up until the end and the store was notified early this year that it had won a bronze level Bar & Shield, Edwards said her father, who had bought the business in 1981 and led it through some very lean and difficult times, almost couldn’t believe it.

He jokingly asked if that meant all of the other dealers were having a bad year, she recalled.

Family Business

Bourbeuse Valley Harley-Davison is located off of Interstate 44 in Villa Ridge, on Highway AT, better known as Historic Route 66.

That location has been both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that over the years, travelers from all over the world have come to ride along “the Mother Road,” but the curse is its proximity to the Bourbeuse River, which left the old store flooded four times since Edwards’ parents, Don and Chris Thompson, purchased the business in 1981.

Don Thompson’s love for motorcycling started young. As a teenager he had a summer job doing setup in a Florida bike shop. He was serving in the Air Force when he met Chris, his wife of over 50 years, in Long Island, N.Y.

Don’s training as an airplane mechanic brought the couple to St. Louis for work at McDonnell Douglas Aircraft. Chris landed a job at a local motorcycle dealership doing office work and running the parts counter.

In 1981 the couple purchased Bourbeuse Valley Harley-Davidson and soon moved the family to Union. In the beginning Don held down the service department, while Chris handled the parts counter as well as all other aspects of the business. The small 7,000-square-foot building forced them to push all the motorcycles and four wheelers outside every morning just so you could walk into the building.

After four floods, the old store was no longer safe, so the family built a new store three times the size on a man-made hill to protect it from future floods. The new store was completed in 2003, just in time for Harley-Davidson’s 100th anniversary.

Today Don Thompson is officially retired, although you can still find him at the dealership doing inspections during the month of April and on the occasional home bike delivery. Chris still comes in every day to run the parts department.

Love of Harleys, Motorcycles

For people who don’t ride motorcycles it may be hard to understand the allure. Edwards said one of her employees describes it best.

“He says, ‘It’s the dream machine.’ We make dreams happen here. It’s personal freedom,” she said.

“People get on their motorcycles and they have no worries. They socialize with people.

I think it really is the freedom and bringing people together.”

And from a mechanical point of view, “they are a beautiful machine,” Edwards remarked.

Motorcycles became popular after World War I and II, she said, when military men who had used them during the wars brought them home.

Today the Harley-Davidson company remains dedicated to America’s veterans, said Edwards, even going so far as to customize clutches for riders who are missing a limb.

Harley’s Heroes brings the Disabled American Veterans’ mobile service offices to Harley-Davidson® dealerships and other locations across the USA providing important counseling and assistance to veterans and their families to access the full range of benefits available to them.

Once considered only for men, today’s motorcycles are increasingly ridden by women. In fact, Edwards said she recently read about a study that finds women who ride claim they are more fulfilled than they were before they began riding. She sees it for herself every day.

“I watch women become more confident when they ride these machines,” she remarked.

Harley Is New to Spain

Edwards wasn’t sure what led Harley-Davidson to organize this year’s trip to Spain. The brand isn’t highly visible there just yet with only two dealers.

“Harleys are very expensive over there,” Edwards noted.

This trip to Spain is one of many overseas trips that Harley-Davidson organizes each year for dealers. Some are prizes for winning awards, and others are opportunities for owners to travel and they pay their own way. Don Thompson has traveled to Australia with Harley-Davidson, and the next prize trip is to France.

For Edwards, who had never traveled outside of the United States before, this trip to Spain was enlightening.

“I saw things that I had learned about in school and never thought I would lay my eyes one,” she remarked.

Arriving in Madrid, the group was greeted at the baggage claim area with a Bar & Shield sign that read “Viva la Vida,” or “Live the Life!”

A welcome reception that evening included flamenco dancers, and the next day the group took a walking tour of the century shops and markets of Madrid.

“We were guided through the most historical streets and toured some of the most famous shops, including a cape store from the 1700s that has made capes for royalty and many famous people,” said Edwards.

“We were shown that the street signs are actually beautiful tiles placed on the corner of the buildings, all which are rich in architectural history and design.

“We stood in the courtyard where the royal executions took place and we stood in front of the royal palace that has hosted world dignitaries from every century from all over the world,” she said.

That night the Harley-Davidson dealers were treated to a dessert reception at The Museum de Prada.

“I cannot begin to find the words to tell of how wonderful it was to see so many of the most precious and timeless works of art that tell of the world’s history,” said Edwards.

From Madrid, they traveled by high-speed train to Barcelona where they toured the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia.

“The massive uprising into the sky renders one speechless as you just look up at it in amazement,” said Edwards.

Her favorite part of the trip, however, was a visit to the city of Toledo.

“It was truly like getting to walk back in time,” said Edwards. “It had a very medieval feel to it and is very famous for its swords and pearls and gold art form of damasquinados. You would expect dragons to dive through the sky at any moment.”

Lunch that day was at the famous El Cigarral Vineyard.

Back in Madrid, the group visited Santa Maria la Real de la Almundena Cathedral, treasured for its crypt located beneath the sanctuary and noted for its image of Our Lady of the Fleur-de-lis which was commissioned by King Alfonso VI in 1083, making it one of the oldest images in Madrid.

They also toured the Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia museums.

“Seeing artist works of El Greco, Rubens and Rembrandt and Picasso gave a more modern feel to these museums compared to The Museum de Prada,” said Edwards.

The final dinner of the trip was held at one of the oldest restaurants in Madrid, La Posada de la Villa.

“As we boarded the busses . . . Willie G. and Nancy Davidson stood at the doors and shook our hands and thanked us for our hard work and for being Bar & Shield winners,” said Edwards.

“I came home feeling blessed and thankful for the opportunity to see and be a part of such a culture of history and beauty,” she remarked.

Easter, Restrooms

The Harley-Davidson dealers were in Spain just before the Easter holiday, and the shop owners were busy preparing, Edwards noted.

“Easter is very big in Spain with godparents and their godchildren,” she explained. “The godparents give the children chocolate eggs filled with things that are special to that child, like if they are into soccer or whatever.

“They said people will wait in line on Easter to pick up their goodies.”

The one thing that wasn’t so easy to find, however, were public restrooms, said Edwards. And when they were located, they were small spaces and always in the basement, she noted with a laugh.