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Local motorcyclists share their passion for Montana roadways

May 28, 2018 GMT

The joy of the open road. It’s something motorcyclists know well.

It’s hard to encapsulate what riding feels like in a single word, but “freedom” comes pretty close to perfect.

There’s the wind whipping over your body, the way the bike seems to weave and hug the asphalt through turns and the unparalleled excitement of a new vistas unobstructed by a shell of glass and metal.

“Going down the road you smell all the smells, you feel all of the wind temperature changes - you’re in the environment, you’re not looking at the environment,” said Steve Kelley, local motorcyclist and Serious Motorcycle Enthusiast Group organizer. “We have, in the state of Montana, three of the top-10 most wonderful rides in the United States, that being Beartooth Pass, Going-to-the-Sun and Highway 12, Lolo Pass, believe it or not. People travel for thousands of miles to ride these byways and highways because it’s a wonderful, wonderful state to ride in.”

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Kelley’s local recommendations include Highway 200 toward Thompson Falls, heading out to Libby or for a shorter venture, Whitefish Stage Road or Columbia Falls Stage Road.

In the Flathead Valley, Kelley said you’ll see mostly cruisers - think classic Harley Davidson-style bikes - but these motorcycles also share roadways with dirt bikes, dual sports, adventure touring bikes and metrics, the latter being slang for anything not American-made.

The scene is growing too, Kelley said. And he would know, having ridden since the late 1950s.

His advice for new riders is simple: take a safety course and follow the golden rule by treating others the way you’d want to be treated, no matter their bike’s make and model.

“You can have a full-tilt Harley guy and he sees a Honda broken down on the side of the road and he’s going to stop - it’s just a rider thing,” Kelley said.

While motorcyclists take care of their own, each individual rider is responsible for their own safety, too. The on-road safety course, for example, is not only essential in getting a motorcycle license, but in preparing riders with key driving lessons.

“It made me a better car drive because it opens your eyes. The main thing they teach you ... is when you’re on the road, just consider yourself invisible. Nobody is looking for you. You’re looking for everybody else,” Kelley explained. “I’m not a fan of riding while intoxicated or anything like that because I’ve lost four or five friends. It’s a hard lesson to learn.”

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While safety is key, the heart and soul of local motorcycle culture is about camaraderie - and a good ride.

“It’s not outlaw bikers - it’s just a bunch of working folks that have a hobby and they like to get together, have fun and do stuff in the woods that’s not going to hurt anybody,” he said.

The vast majority of motorcyclists are a far cry from “Sons of Anarchy,” although there are a number of organized groups such as the Glacier Chapter of the Harley Owners Group and the Harvest Riders of Flathead Valley, a local chapter of the Christian Motorcycle Association.

Local Christian Motorcycle Association president Steve Benson said the mission of his group is part riding and part motorcycle ministry. Members use their shared passion for motorcycling to reach the biker community, which otherwise might be less receptive to their message. And they’re not passing around Bibles - for the Harvest Riders, it’s more about doing good deeds, sharing stories and perhaps gathering for a prayer.

“We use that as an outreach to get to biker groups. If you don’t ride a bike, it’s really tough to even talk to them,” association member Timber said. “There’s some of them that will actually ask for prayers. We’ll do prayers over bikes.”

For Benson, faith and biking naturally intersected in his life before he became involved with the Christian Motorcycle Association.

“I used to drink so much, I’d go to bars and I’d get up in the morning and look outside to see if my motorcycle was there because I didn’t remember driving it home,” Benson recalled. “I actually prayed one night and I said, ‘God, I’ve gotta have help.’ And I woke up the next day and never drank since then. My faith is stronger because of what he has done for me. I like the Christian bikers because I like riding motorcycles, but it’s also an easy outreach because you can go to a gas station and people see your motorcycle - I got a jade green Harley - they’ll come up and talk to you because you ride a motorcycle.”

Members look out for other bikers on the road and do charitable work - their annual diaper drive brought in more than 15,000 diapers and 22,000 wipes this year alone.

But their faith and good works aside, it all comes back to the ride.

The group does half-a-dozen journeys a year ranging from day trips to overnight adventures.

“Sometimes you get the idea that Christians are stoic people,” Benson said, “but we have fun.”

Kelley even has a name for the special kind of fun unique to travel by motorcycle.

“We call it throttle therapy - even to go and ride for an hour after work, it just settles me right down,” he said. “You are on the road, hurtling down the highway, you can’t hear a cellphone, it’s just a chance to get out and just clear your head. It’s like a meditation in that you have to pay attention - you’re focused on something, like having fun and not dying - everything else goes away, all your troubles, all your worries ... We call it freedom.”

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.