BEIJING (AP) – Harley-Davidson bandanna on his head and black leather jacket zipped all the way, biker Bai Haifeng is touting the advantages a motorcycle has over a car, while standing steps from the gleaming Harleys in China’s newest motorcycle dealership.

“You can’t feel the wind, you can’t feel the vibrations, you don’t get the feeling that you’re flying,” said the 28-year-old Bai, who hopes to trade up his Honda Shadow motorcycle for his first Harley this year.

Bai was among dozens of bike enthusiasts who attended the opening of Harley-Davidson Inc.’s first dealership in China on Saturday, an event marking the American icon’s official debut into the world’s most sought-after market.

“All around the world, (Harley) has been synonymous with freedom, open roads, raw power and good times, and we expect the same things … here,” said David Foley, managing director of the China division for Harley-Davidson Asia.

The 1,800-square-foot showroom and workshop sits on the edge of Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road – about a 20-minute drive from the heart of town – where farmers can still be seen pushing carts on the street.

Parked in the center of the store are a handful of sleek, chrome-and-leather Harley models sparkling under spotlights – highly polished examples of the manufacturer’s trademark easy-riding attitude. Customers crowded around and posed for photos with the bikes.

Also on display were “Beijing Harley-Davidson” T-shirts, earrings, belts, the company’s signature leather caps, jackets and even motor oil. After-sale services will also be offered along with rider training and events including organized rides.

“The spirit Harley-Davidson signifies is the pursuit of freedom, the enjoyment of life. This is not just something special for the American people,” said Hollis Zhao, general manager of the Beijing dealership. “Harley-Davidson has succeeded for 100 years. We hope China will continue that trend for another 100 years.”

Entry to the Chinese market has long been a goal of the Milwaukee-based company, given the country’s population of 1.3 billion people, booming economy and its citizens’ growing spending power.

But market penetration is expected to be gradual, mainly because of riding restrictions in most large cities. In Beijing and Shanghai, for example, motorcycles are banned from most major streets and highways. Shanghai also stopped accepting motorcycle registrations in 2002.

Another challenge is the price of the bikes, which range from $12,000 to $37,450. Urban incomes average about $2,200 a year in Beijing.

“Those are significant barriers for us,” Foley said. “But … we’re taking a long-term perspective. We’re going take our time to build our brand, build our customers. We still believe this market has a great potential.”

Foley declined to provide any revenue projections or give any details on plans for future stores, citing company policy.

Unlicensed Harleys have also been smuggled into the country for years, but Foley said the dealership’s trained staff and factory warranties are competitive advantages.

“What we’ve learned … is that people have been waiting for an official Harley-Davidson dealership to be set up because they want to buy a fully certified vehicle that’s legally imported,” he said.

On Saturday, dozens of motorcycle enthusiasts roared into parking spots on their bikes, many with long hair, beat-up leather jackets and caps or headscarves.

Zhao Hong, a 23-year-old who works in advertising, has a ponytail and an eyebrow piercing. His girlfriend rode on the back of his second-hand, vintage Harley, a miniature dog in her purse.

“Harleys are like no other bikes,” said Zhao, who was first inspired when he saw Arnold Schwarzenegger climb onto one of the models as the Terminator.

“It’s about the spirit. You feel like a hero when you’re riding one. My heart beats so fast when I ride mine, I always have to smoke a cigarette and drink some water afterward.”

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AP-ES-04-08-06 1435EDT