After the passing of actor Dennis Hopper earlier this year, television news programs showed clips of the iconic film Easy Rider. For some of us, meeting a group of bikers on the highway conjures images of Hopper’s counter-culture character, and we flip the locks of our car doors.
According to Door County biker Rol Grabenkort, violent “bad-ass” bikers account for about one percent of the motorcycle population. Other local riders agree with him.
While Grabenkort might look intimidating on his bike, he is very much a good citizen, an attorney who retired from a law practice in Chicago before moving permanently to Northern Door. In some respects, he is typical of the motorcyclists in Door County, and for that matter, in the entire country.
Many people are not aware of the biker culture that exists on the Door Peninsula, the number of clubs and the diversity of bikers. And few know of the shifting demographics of motorcycle enthusiasts that have occurred since the 1969 premiere of Easy Rider.
In Pursuit of Freedom
But while motorcyclists range in age from teenagers to those well into their sunset years, and run the spectrum of income levels and occupations, one constant is their reason for biking: freedom.
“I can’t tell you exactly,” Grabenkort said of riding his Honda Gold Wing. “I love it, the freedom you feel, leaving the world behind.”
His retired teacher wife Susan, who rides a Honda Gold Wing trike, agreed but added, “I like the outdoors. I like to be in touch with scenery. My Honda is so quiet it doesn’t disturb the activities of nature, the birds and animals.”
Eighteen-year-old biker Lars Ribbens, who rides a 1979 Yamaha XS750, said, “It’s the age-old concept of freedom…nice for summer when cars are backed up and a little bike can zip around them.”
Tom Zwicky and Andy Stimers, both teachers, like being outside on a motorbike. When Zwicky is on his Honda Shadow he can “focus his attention on the road and what’s going on, be open to the elements.” Stimers finds that when he rides his Suzuki SV650 “you see everything, smell things, feel the temperature, and are more in tune with your surroundings.”
Member of the Titans MC and a retired demolition explosive technician, Owen Bergwin, rides a Harley Davidson Softtail Springer. A biker since he was 12, he also likes the freedom. “You’re in the open,” he said, “the wind in your face, wildlife to swerve for, close to nature, beat up by rain and sleet!”
Bergwin’s son Michael, who has his own landscape business and rides a Harley Bagger (deluxe touring model), said, “I like to ride bikes for the same reason I drive a Jeep Scrambler; you’re open to the sights and sounds and interact with nature.”
Karen Nicholson, also a member, finds that it makes her “feel free, clears your head. It’s exhilarating and relaxing at the same time.” She rides her Harley FXR “for the same reason people garden: therapy.” In addition to her office job in a tattoo parlor, Nicholson works as a landscaper.
“Honda had an ad years ago,” John Kellner said, “that claimed some people see a psychiatrist and some ride a Honda. You never see a Honda at a psychiatrist’s office unless the doctor is riding it.” Kellner’s Honda is a 1988 Gold Wing with a collector’s plate. When not biking, he works in a school maintenance department.
“Some people go for a walk or a run. I jump on my bike, go for a ride, and see where the road goes,” retired Milwaukee firefighter Kenneth Schultz said. As he is now 79, he has had his Gold Wing converted to a trike.
Owner of LeFevre Tire and Auto, Dennis LeFevre also enjoys taking his Gold Wing “out in the open, to ride in the country. I love nature, like to see what’s going on, like being out in the open air.”
The open air also attracts Viking Restaurant owner Dan Peterson, too. He used to put in 12,000 miles a year on the road with his Harley Ultraclassic touring bike, but he has cut back.
On the Open Road
While some local motorcyclists enjoy using their bikes to commute to work (as do Zwicky and Stimers) and occasionally to shop and run errands (as does Susan Grabenkort), for many the road trip is the ultimate freedom quest. The rally at Sturgis, South Dakota, for example, has become a mecca for a number of local riders. Crowds of bikers gather from all over the country for the opportunity to listen to music, to visit with vendors, and to socialize with other like-minded enthusiasts.
Others enjoy extended road trips, often with a friend or as a part of a group of bikers. Peterson likes to load his bike on a trailer and leave Ellison Bay sometime during February or March, often with his companion and co-rider Wendy Smith. When he finds warm weather in the south, he parks his truck, mounts his bike, and usually rides from Florida to California. Typically, he’ll put in a total of 2,000 miles on his truck and 5,000 on his bike during one of these trips.
He is especially fond of epic journeys. “[For] my biggest trip,” Peterson said, “I left from my restaurant on my bike February 20th [a bit cold that day!], picked up Wendy at the John Wayne Airport in California, went through Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, spent a week, dropped her off at the John Wayne Airport, and headed for home,” a 7,000-mile round trip.
But Peterson doesn’t find his Harley mileage impressive. On one of his trips he met a semi-retired couple who puts in 30,000 miles a year on their bike. “Some guys travel 100,000 miles a year!” he said.
Many local bikers ride far fewer miles, often in the county or on day trips to destinations in the northeastern part of the state. But most have longer road trips they remember with pleasure.
Schultz recalls one with his wife into the Canadian Rockies. “We went all the way into the ice fields and British Columbia,” he said. “That was one nice ride.”
A Zen moment for LeFevre happened last year at a rally in Spring Green, Wisconsin. “I was leading a group of 10 or 12 bikers,” he said, “and near the end of the ride an eagle flew above my bike, leading us as we rode Golden Wing Hondas!”
Kellner laughed at a memory that was definitely not Zen. He and his wife Sherry “were in southwest Wisconsin going down back roads and never saw a barricade as we rode into the town, but all of the side streets were blocked off and people were lining the main street waiting for a parade. So I’m going down the street blowing my horn and waving, and people are clapping and waving [back]. My wife said, ‘Stop this! I am so embarrassed!’ but I said that we’ll never have this opportunity again.”
In the Company of Bikes
For most riders, biking is recreation, but it also provides a social component. Nicholson, for example, rides her bike not for the independence she experiences but “the camaraderie of getting together with others that ride.” She laughed, and added, “Bikes are more fun than people!”
Again and again, motorcyclists point to the sense of companionship they enjoy as a major reason for participating in their sport.
“It doesn’t matter what you ride or look like,” Kellner said, “there’s a camaraderie among motorcyclists. I’ll pull up to any guy on a Harley chopper with my Honda, and he might wear leather and have tattoos, but he’s like your next door neighbor.”
The “hog doctor,” an informal group of riders that includes Graberkort, demonstrates this bond. “If a visiting biker breaks down up here,” Grabenkort said, “they can call us and we make sure they are taken care of at no charge other than for materials.”
The community of bikers takes many forms. Ten years ago Kellner organized an informal Sturgeon Bay-based group called the Door Area Riders. About 30 bikers meet Wednesday nights for a “hamburger run.” With a number of spouses as co-riders, the outing includes a stop to eat. Once a month the group also takes a day-long Sunday trip.
Many of these riders belong to formal bike clubs as well, and some are members of several organizations. In addition to the clubs already mentioned, groups include the Gold Wing Road Riders Association, the Northeast Wisconsin Bikers Association and the Door Devils, reportedly one of the oldest clubs in the nation as it was organized in 1948.
Typically, clubs attend rallies and organize events. The Titans, for example, sponsor club parties open to the public that include bike games, music, and refreshments.
For a Better Image
Motorcycle organizations are well aware of the negative image that many people have of them. Bikers can be intimidating, especially in large groups and if they have tattoos and piercings, wear leather and beards, and ride loud “crotch rockets.”
While the image of hyper-masculinity may seem threatening to others, motorcyclists dismiss that aspect of their sport as an attraction for them. “The manly thing you like the first year,” 30-year-old Stimers said, “but I grew out of it.” His observation is one echoed by other riders.
“One time in Sturgis,” Schultz said, “I was talking with a guy who had dirty torn clothes and a beard. When he walked away, another guy said, ‘You know who that guy is? A brain surgeon from Chicago!’”
Michael Bergwin wears impressive ink, an assortment of piercing jewelry, and leather when he rides his Harley; nonetheless, he is an articulate young man who owns a small landscaping business in Door County and volunteers for local non-biking community organizations.
Bergwin said, “In the 34 years of [the Titans] being around it has donated in excess of $50,000 dollars to such groups as the Wellness Center in Sturgeon Bay, Special Olympics, Sunshine House, fire departments, and to individuals” who have financial difficulties because of health concerns or loss of property.
Like the Titans, most of the other motorcycle groups raise money for charities. The Recylists Motorcycle Club, for instance, recently donated to HELP of Door County.
The Wisconsin Motorcycle Memorial Park was a project spearheaded by Owen Bergwin and brought to fruition through the efforts of many volunteers. The park is located off Highway 57 north of Sturgeon Bay on land leased from the Door Devils. Bike enthusiasts may purchase tribute stones for themselves or others in this unique setting.
Bergwin also helped organize a contingent of Door County riders in the LZ Lambeau ride this past year, a tribute to Vietnam veterans that brought bikers from all over the state to Green Bay.
While some people might see a group of motorcyclists and think Hell’s Angels, the reality is that biking is often a family affair. There may be a co-rider spouse who, as Kellner said, sometimes nods off during the ride and, frequently, sons and daughters ride bikes with their parents.
And while the relative vulnerability of a rider might make the sport seem dangerous, safety is a priority for motorcycle clubs. Kellner noted that he has a collection of safety videos for his group, including the co-riders, to watch – material that he will share with others outside the group.
Michael Bergwin said that the Titans enforce safety for their members, both in regard to the condition of the bike and the gear of the rider. “Safety is a group thing,” Owen Bergwin added. Riders may make choices regarding their personal safety, such as whether or not to wear a helmet, but not in matters that affect the well being of the group.
“An accident with a motorcycle has the chance of being more serious [than with an automobile],” Kellner said, “but the chances of avoiding one on a bike are much greater.” If the rider is attentive, has good reflexes, and drives at moderate speeds, a bike can stop more quickly and, because of the size of the vehicle, maneuver more easily.
The groups of bikers that you might see in Door County are most likely not only good citizens, but might be contributing to the local economy as tourists. “We have different groups that come in the restaurant during the season,” Peterson said. “One group has 18 to 20 people, and when they come in the lounge, a lady hands a drink list to the bartender!”
John Jarosh, Director of Communication and Public Relations for the Door County Visitor Bureau, said that because businesses welcome motorcyclists, the bureau advertises in magazines catering to bikers hoping to attract them to the area. Motorcycle tourists bring with them significant disposable incomes for lodging, dining, and shopping.
Ultimately, motorcycle enthusiasts defy stereotyping. “There’s such a diversity of people,” LeFevre said, pointing out the fact that their informal group includes shipyard workers, former mayors and police chiefs, and a retired airline pilot. “We all ride together; it doesn’t matter who you are. We might poke fun at each other sometimes, but we all ride together.”
An informal survey of riders suggests that the demographics of motorcyclists have changed since the debut of Easy Rider:
- The mean age of bikers is older. Retired riders are more likely to be able to afford expensive motorcycles and to have the free time to ride them.
- Bikers are riding at older ages, not only because of increased life expectancy, but because today’s motorcycles are more rider-friendly.
- Today, more women bikers ride their own motorcycles.
- For many riders, biking has become a family activity.
- A greater percentage of bikers choose to ride independently rather than become formally affiliated with motorcycle clubs.