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The Drive That Separates a Biker From a Motorcyclist

Motorcycle culture in the U.S. This week, in South Dakota, is the Sturgis Rally, a major event. Transcript of radio broadcast:


Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Barbara Klein.


And I’m Steve Ember. Hop on -- this week our subject is motorcycles in America.



If you love motorcycles, then this is the week to be in the Midwest for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Around half a million people are expected in Sturgis, South Dakota, for a week of concerts, races, charity rides and other activities. Bikers can buy from eight hundred sellers of motorcycle products and clothing.

And they can join organized rides to nearby places like the Black Hills, Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument.


Sturgis has a population of six thousand people. The rally is supposed to last a week, but riders come early and stay late. A city spokeswoman, Tyler Lamphere, points out that the area’s roads include lots of winding turns -- perfect for riding.

The first event was held on a single day in August of nineteen thirty-eight. A small number of people gathered to watch nine racers. There was no rally in nineteen forty-two because of wartime fuel restrictions.

The Sturgis Rally is called a celebration of motorcycling. Organizers estimate that attendance has been as high as six hundred thousand people, back in the year two thousand.


The United States also has other big motorcycle rallies.

Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Florida, takes place during the first full week of March, plus three extra days.

Events manager Kevin Killian says Bike Week also gets about half a million riders, though counting has stopped lately because of the cost. But he says it is the largest motorcycle event in the world. It brings more than three hundred fifty million dollars to the local economy.


The rally began in nineteen thirty-seven when the Daytona Two Hundred motorcycle race was first held. Early races took place on the beach, before moving to the Daytona International Speedway in nineteen sixty-one.

Bike Week also includes concerts along with rides to raise money for charities.

Riders say one of the highlights of Bike Week is riding down Main Street in Daytona Beach. People go to see and be seen on every kind of bike -- from old ones with the paint worn away to beautifully styled new ones.

Thousands of motorcycles move slowly down the street in a kind of never-ending parade that continues all day and night.


Motorcycle rallies can be found in just about every state. Some are held by local riding groups. Others are held by motorcycle makers and their fans.

The Iron Butt Rally takes place every two years. Riders must travel more than fourteen thousand kilometers over an eleven-day period. They earn points by arriving in certain areas within a certain time period and by visiting additional places in between. The Iron Butt Association says the rally is not a race, but a test of strength and riding skill.


Another rally is called Rolling Thunder. Thousands of riders gather in the nation's capital each May to show support for current and former members of the military. This year, President George Bush welcomed leaders of Rolling Thunder, and their bikes, to the grounds of the White House.


People who go to motorcycle rallies get to explore new places and get new ideas. But more importantly, they get to meet other riders to share stories and talk about bikes.

In the Internet age it might be called social networking. But many riders call it a vacation from their normal lives.

Motorcyclists have jobs and professions like anyone else. For some, a motorcycle is just transportation. For others, it represents freedom and individuality. Gone are the days when the image of a biker was a rebellious young man with tattoos. Old motorcycle films like "The Wild One" and "Easy Rider" only fed this image. So did the Hells Angels, a violent, real-life biker gang.


You still see young men and tattoos. But you also see lots of middle-aged riders -- male, female or couples.

Classic bikes share the road with new bikes built to look like classics. And there are sport bikes, cruisers and big touring bikes.

And then there are the custom choppers. These are personalized bikes built as road-ready art with lengths of metal and imagination.



Newer companies like West Coast Choppers in California and Orange County Choppers in New York State get a lot of attention. But the biggest American motorcycle company is Harley-Davidson. William Harley and Arthur Davidson started producing motorcycles more than a century ago.

Since then, other companies have come and gone. Indian Motorcycle is another name that goes back to the beginning of the nineteen hundreds. Indian bikes went out of production. Now, they are coming back again.

The Web site of the Indian Motorcycle Company declares, "America's first motorcycle." But as a recent press release noted, the controlling shareholder is now an investment group based in London.

A blog on the Web site says the first production vehicle for the two thousand nine Indian Chief was finished in July.


The Motorcycle Safety Foundation says only one kind of motorcycle was available until the nineteen fifties. The most popular kind built today is the cruiser. A cruiser is long and has a low seat. The most important thing is appearance.

Performance is most important in a sport bike. Sport bikes are designed for racing.

Touring bikes are built for comfort over long distances. Newer ones even have heated seats. Touring bikes generally have music systems and two-way communications between driver and passenger through headsets in their helmets.

Twenty of the fifty states require all motorcycle riders to wear a helmet. Four states have no helmet requirements.


Japanese and European motorcycles are popular in the United States. But Ty van Hooydonk at the Motorcycle Industry Council says Harley-Davidson is currently selling more motorcycles here than any other single manufacturer.

Harley spokesman Paul James says the company sold two hundred forty-one thousand bikes in the United States last year. He says the company sold ninety thousand bikes in other countries.

Prices start at about seven thousand dollars and go up to more than thirty-five thousand dollars.



The American Motorcyclist Association has three hundred thousand members. Spokesman Peter terHorst says the average member is in his mid forties, and nine out of ten are male. But he says the membership is changing as children of older members join the group.

Peter terHorst says it is difficult to know how many people have started riding a motorcycle because of high fuel prices. But his group follows sales of new motorcycles, and has found that sales of smaller bikes have increased in the past six months. Also, members of the association have reported more use of their motorcycles for short trips and for riding to and from work.

Industry council spokesman Ty van Hooydonk says more than nine million people in the United States rode motorcycles as of two thousand three. New findings will not be ready until the end of this year.


Part of the fun of riding a motorcycle may be the sense of danger. But deaths of motorcyclists have more than doubled since nineteen ninety-seven.

The government says the latest numbers show that crashes killed more than four thousand eight hundred riders in two thousand six. That was a five percent increase from the year before. Motorcyclist deaths now represent eleven percent of all traffic deaths in the United States.


Crashes often involve alcohol. In two thousand six, among all drivers killed while legally drunk, the highest percentage, twenty-seven percent, were motorcyclists. Says researcher Patty Ellison-Potter at the Department of Transportation: "It's really unforgiving when you're on a motorcycle."

Robert Gladden is with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides guidelines for states and training for riders. He says each state has its own requirements to operate a motorcycle, but in every state, riders must pass a written test and a skills test.

He says studies show that riders who receive professional training have fewer accidents than those who do not.


Motorcyclists with years of experience say they have learned to ride as if other drivers cannot see them. People who buy mopeds or other scooters may not even need a motorcycle license. That only adds to the concerns of some experienced riders. The concern is that people riding motorcycles or scooters just to save money on gas may not be as well prepared for the road.



Our program was written by Nancy Steinbach, who rides a touring bike with her husband. Our producer was Caty Weaver. I’m Steve Ember.


And I’m Barbara Klein. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs are at Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.