STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “For a lot of reasons that are often contradictory, the sight and sound of a man on a motorcycle has an unpleasant effect on the vast majority of Americans who drive cars.”
Historically, the middle class disdained bikers, who, tattooed, leather-clad and long-haired, roamed the country in gangs, threatening female virtue and insulting bourgeois values.
You didn’t let your daughter date a boy with a motorcycle.
This weekend, more than 25,000 bikers will descend on the county for the Four Corners Motorcycle Rally in Ignacio. Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said although such a prospect used to provoke cries of “lock up your daughters, hide your wives” during the last 20 years, biker culture has undergone a revolution. Today’s bikers are more likely to be lawyers than law breakers, he said.
“Durango retailers certainly feel that a lot more money is spent in the downtown district during the biker rallies than was spent, for instance, during the Pro Cycle Challenge,” Llewellyn said.
Emily Meisner, owner of the Patio restaurant and president of the Ignacio Chamber of Commerce, said an economic-impact study conducted by Fort Lewis College concluded that last year the Four Corners Bike Rally brought in $2.2 million to the Four Corners in a five-day span and the money was turned over about seven times.
The gentrification of biker culture is already evident in Durango. Chuck Wages, who rides a Harley and is general manager of the Durango Mountain Institute, said, “The people that I know are primarily professionals, in the medical fields, lawyers, doctors, federal officers, everything you can imagine.”
Gayle Cheverie, chief operating officer for San Juan Health Partners, said:,“Some biker gangs are left. And there are nice people in that culture, too, but they’re not the kinds of motorcyclists I know in general. Most of us are middle-aged or older, professional couples and fun to be around.”
Izzy Tucson, a barber who is sure to attend the rally this weekend, said, “When I first started riding, police profiled me. But since the biker world came to Durango, people stopped viewing you as a dirtbag. We’re mostly professionals.”
Like many bikers, Tucson was defensive about motorcycling’s standing in Durango.
“We don’t get all the cool events cyclists get,” he said. “I think bicyclists have taken over, and we need more recognition in the community.”
Jeff Murray, owner of Durango Harley-Davidson, said motorcycling was a natural fit for Durango.
“The Million Dollar Highway is rated the fourth-best motorcycling road in the country.” For good measure, he added, “Bicyclists here, they always have their head down, and they’re peddling and grimacing. Whereas, we’re just cruising.”
Texas native James Cole, owner of Cole’s Chop Shop, has been in the motorcycle-repair business for more than 25 years and started riding motorcycles when he was just 17.
“I ran with some rough guys,” Cole said. “Inevitably, you’d be at a bar and sure enough somebody’d say something, and the fight would be on, usually over women. I lived that, and it’s still a part of me, but I’m also a businessman. I can still go schmooze with the hard-core ‘1-percent clubs’ (biker terminology for outlaw motorcycle gangs) and I can sit with you at a bank committee meeting as well.”
Cole said his clientele has transformed. Today, only 40 percent of his customers are “the harder old guys.”
Jeff Grigsby, owner of Indian Motor Works, said traditional biker cultural was all but gone.
“Hells Angels – it was all machoism and gang culture. Now, it’s softened a bit because there’s such a bigger percentage of nice people riding Harley-Davidsons. Look at who spends money over Labor Day – they don’t have tattoos, they’re not one-percenters. They’re driving $30,000 to $40,000 machines.
“I refer to it as three-piece-suit by day, leather by night,” Grisby said.
Cole said women’s embrace of motorcycles is the single biggest revolution in biker culture.
“Back in the day when I did it, women weren’t even allowed to have their own motorcycles, and that was how we liked it. Whereas now I encourage women to ride. Twenty-five percent of the bikes I work on are women’s,” Cole said.
Grigsby said, “Twenty-five years ago, Harley-Davidson got real smart and anticipated the trends of society – women becoming independent and spreading their wings. The recent infusion of women is by far the biggest change.”
Cheverie, who rides a Harley, said when she began riding 15 years ago, “there were next to no women. Now I see women everywhere.”
Jeanette Wages, a real estate agent at The Wells Group and director of Ladies of Harley, said motorcycles are a feminist hobby because “you can be as good and as fast as a guy as long as you’re willing to do it. The machine is an equalizer.”
Heather Hormell, who works for Mercury and rides a black Suzuki GSX-R600 that cost $8,000 four years ago, got her first dirt bike when she was 4 years old.
“I’ve probably spent more time on a motorcycle than in a car,” she said. “Some find my riding intimidating, others are inspired, mostly other women.”
Grand old days
Cole said while motorcycle culture had transformed from a bar-brawling, criminally inclined fraternity despised by the respectable into a moneyed, middle class and feminist-inflected activity embraced by the American mainstream, there was some continuity.
“Back in the day, we were still caring people; it wasn’t all marauding and raising hell – we loved our kids and girlfriends and wives and dogs. Times change, and you have to change with ’em,” he said.