Freewheelin' in Paradise
Vroom! Motorcyclists are taking to the Valley's byways in unprecedented numbers. Our writer went to see what the excitement is all about, and discovered that bikers are as different as the macines they ride.
Freewheelin¡¯ in Paradise
For motorcycle riders of all types, the Hudson Valley offers glorious room to vroom
by Steve Hopkins
Each spring, around mid-April, something changes in the Hudson Valley. In every town and village, on every country lane, you see them. Mounted on motorcycles, reclaiming the blacktop they had ceded the November before, they suddenly materialize. They come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Young hotshots careening around on candy-colored crotch rockets. Groups of organized riders in stately formations, a number of women among them, riding proudly atop gleaming hogs, like peacocks in a parade. Couples mounted comfortably aboard plush, tricked-out roadsters. And men of a certain age, dressed in black leather, riding muscular Harley-Davidsons and the many brands that emulate them, exude an aura of controlled menace ¡ª that is, until you get close enough to see their blissed-out smiles.
On weekend afternoons, many devotees of this large and varied subculture convene in biker-friendly enclaves like New Paltz, and along picturesque main drags in Rhinebeck and Woodstock, Tarrytown and Nyack. Listening to them talk about their motorcycling lives, one¡¯s preconceptions melt away, and it becomes clear that, as far as bikers go, the exception is the rule.
Man of Peace
Today¡¯s biker, no matter how imposingly turned out, is a far cry from the stereotype of years ago. Rather than a gang activity, riding in the 21st century is a friendly, highly codified sport. Ninety-nine percent of those who ride today, attracted though they may be to the accoutrements and the mythology, run the gamut from perfect gentlemen to out-and-out pussycats.
Consider Carl Raymo and his wife Debbie, cruising on Carl¡¯s gleaming two-tone blue 2002 FLHTCUI Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Peace Officer Edition. They head south on 9W through the town of Esopus, going precisely the speed limit. In his faux officer¡¯s helmet, Carl can easily be mistaken for a CHiPs highway patrolman, albeit a few thousand miles off his beat. They turn off the main drag, wending their way slowly down country lanes before stopping at a house with a for-sale sign out front. Their Saturday ride has a mission: Debbie is house-hunting.
A retired policeman, Carl is a committed member of the Blue Knights, an international motorcycle association that raises money for charities. (To be a member, you have to be an active or retired law enforcement officer.) He also belongs to the Woodstock Harley Owners Group, or H.O.G., which is associated with Woodstock Harley-Davidson, a major dealer of bikes, clothing, and accessories, where he got his bike. ¡°You have to be a former member of law enforcement to get those particular colors,¡± says Carl, ¡°plus Harley gives you a nice police discount.¡± Carl¡¯s bike listed at $20,000, and the discount got it down to $18,000 before he started piling on the accessories: chrome rings around the lights, stereo, and a shiny chrome trailer hitch, to which the Raymoses often hook up a 1,000-pound cargo trailer. ¡°You go away for a week or two, you don¡¯t want to wear the same clothes day in and day out,¡± says Carl. The Raymoses ride every day they can ¡ª on day trips through the Valley and on longer rides to places as far afield as Montreal and Las Vegas.
Like many bikers, the Raymoses solicit special provenance from a higher power for when things get a little hairy out on the road. The Blue Knights hold an annual ¡°Bike Blessing¡± in May at Pleasant Valley Recreation Park, where $13 gets you coffee, tea, donuts, and your biked blessed by Joe Doherty, a Blue Knight and a deacon in his Catholic church.
No Man is an Island
The Hudson Valley is bursting with motorcycle clubs. Besides the H.O.G. in Woodstock, there are versions in Orange County, White Plains, Wurtsboro, Congers, and Albany, each sponsored by a Harley-Davidson dealer. But it¡¯s not all Harleys and H.O.G.s, either.
There are local groups, like the Catskill Mountain Cruisers and the Ramapo Motorcycle Club; cop groups like the Blue Knights; women¡¯s groups; Christian groups; gay groups; and gray groups. All promote an array of rides, usually as fund-raisers for charity.
Then there are cyclists who eschew group activity altogether ¡ª unless it¡¯s to hang out. On Saturday afternoon, the scene in front of P&G¡¯s in New Paltz is just getting cranked up. Big Bill Roarabaugh stands out front, resplendent in a pair of leather riding chaps and basking in the reverence people pay to his jet-black hog. ¡°It¡¯s an FLH 2001, 1450 ccs ¡ª 88 cubic inches,¡± says Roarabaugh, not accustomed to answering questions, but not unfriendly, either. He comes to P&G¡¯s to socialize, after a fashion. ¡°A lot of bikers come up here to have lunch.... On a decent summer day, you can have up to 200 bikes in the area. Bikers are pretty friendly toward each other. We have a camaraderie.¡±
Roarabaugh comes off as a classic lone wolf. ¡°I¡¯ve been riding since ¡¯68. I was a part of the Orange County H.O.G.s, and went on a lot of group rides, but now I tend to stay away from that. I ride as much as I can, wintertime, summertime, if the roads are dry. I like to ride alone¡¡± Suddenly Roarabaugh exposes himself as a mush-hearted romantic: ¡°¡or with my fianc¨¦e, Cathy.¡±
A fianc¨¦e? ¡°I built her a bike,¡± says Roarabaugh. ¡°She¡¯s with her bike right now at a baby shower.... I found her a gem, an ¡¯87 Honda VT700 Classic; they only made 1,000 of them. I completely restored it. Her name is painted on the sides with roses; it came out really, really pretty.¡±
So much for the lone wolf theory. So when¡¯s the big day? ¡°August 7. It¡¯s going to be kind of a bike wedding at a local park. We¡¯re looking forward to it.¡±
Roarabaugh¡¯s softer side extends to thoughts about his home turf. ¡°The Hudson Valley is one of the nicest places anywhere to ride,¡± he offers. And what about those mean-looking chaps? ¡°Actually, they keep you warm; they protect you from the wind and bugs, and if you happen to go down, you don¡¯t skin your legs. I always wear chaps or heavy leather.¡±
An Alternative Perspective
Saugerties native Richard Massena is typical of the hard-to-pigeonhole new breed of rider in the Valley. Massena, who now lives up in Greene County, is a goldsmith who makes fine jewelry for sale in art shows and local stores like Hummingbird Jewelers in Rhinebeck and Clouds Craft Gallery in Woodstock. He favors sleek European bikes, and owns a BMW, a Moto Guzzi, and a Ducati, among others ¡ª all classics.
¡°It¡¯s a heavenly area for the sport, when the weather¡¯s right,¡± says Massena, whose longtime mate Annie Landfield rides behind him. The globetrotting Massena may keep a bike in Rome, Italy, and another in Puerto Rico, but he maintains strong roots in the Valley. ¡°Most of the young, wherever they¡¯re raised, feel the need to leave,¡± he says. ¡°The bikes let me see my home area for what it really is, and I didn¡¯t feel the need to blow out of here.¡±
Indeed, most of the couple¡¯s riding is done close to the nest. ¡°We try to pick new, great loops, and to stay away from traffic,¡± says Massena. ¡°Being on the highway is absolutely of no interest to me. I like the little back roads ¡ª that¡¯s what the whole motorcycle thing is about, the dance. It¡¯s the turning, the leaning. It¡¯s not about droning down the Thruway. It¡¯s a sport.¡±
Massena and Landfield are articulate about the sensory aspect of motorcycling. ¡°Annie¡¯s into dealing in key words, such as ¡®smell,¡¯ and it is really a fabulous aspect to traveling on a bike that you don¡¯t get in a car ¡ª you know, early in the spring when the lilacs are blooming ¡ª if you are thrilled by olfactory experiences and amusement,¡± says Massena. ¡°It¡¯s a real textural thing. It¡¯s a little hard to have people understand it; they have preconceived notions.¡±
The utilitarian beauty of the machines Massena favors may have something to do with the immediacy of his riding experience. ¡°European bikes are usually lighter, smaller,¡± he says. ¡°There¡¯s a lot of emphasis on function. They¡¯re very spare, and they¡¯re artful too. Did you hear about that show at the Guggenheim a few years ago, The Art of the Motorcycle? It was an exquisite thing. One of the beauties of these things, and I think what captured me ever since I was young, was that in many cases, nothing¡¯s hidden. Every component has to be beautiful.¡±
King Don the Last
Some enthusiasts, like Don Gomo of Hyde Park, enjoy the Harley experience as well as something sportier. Among a slew of other bike activities, Gomo serves as director of the Buell Riders Adventure Group (BRAG) ¡ª Buell being the brand of sport bike produced in association with Harley-Davidson, which owns 98 percent of the company. Gomo owns four bikes: two Harleys and two Buells. He and his wife Athena (who is the treasurer of BRAG) ride all over the Valley.
He¡¯s also a member of cycling royalty. ¡°Up in Lake George, at last year¡¯s Americade, I was voted to be the King of Americade for this coming year. I might be the last one, actually, because they¡¯re going to put the contest on hiatus after 21 years. They take into consideration your riding skills, to see how you handle a motorcycle in slow conditions, because the person who wins has to lead a parade through Lake George. And the other side of it is an interview, to see how you are personally. They want someone who represents Americade, because it¡¯s basically a PR job. They want to see if you can talk to people and that you don¡¯t freeze up in front of cameras.¡±
Gomo is an able spokesman. ¡°Motorcycling is a massive sport, and women are probably the biggest demographic, at this point, buying bikes. You see all the marketing these days being addressed to younger riders and to women.¡± He touts the Valley as well. ¡°The Hudson Valley area was featured in a Rider magazine write-up as one of the nicer areas to go riding in,¡± he says.
The Coffee Cycle
¡°People who love coffee will go miles out of their way to get a good cup,¡± says Mike Kocan, sitting astride a nearly completed custom bike of his own creation. ¡°I used to, but now I don¡¯t have to.¡± That¡¯s because Kocan, with his wife Christine, is the owner of the Ground Hog in Wappingers Falls, a combination coffee house and motorcycle parts store.
Kocan, who both in appearance and demeanor bears more than a passing resemblance to the actor Mickey Rourke, is proud of his small domain. ¡°You have coffee shops with books, you have coffeehouses with knitting shops, coffee with ceramics, you have computer caf¨¦s,¡± he rattles off. ¡°I think coffee and motorcycles are pretty unique.¡±
One can¡¯t disagree, especially as Kocan spins the tale of his odyssey from bike enthusiast to Harley parts distributor to motorcycle/coffee shop proprietor. A certain amount of vision was required in figuring out what to do with the building he found in Wappingers Falls. ¡°It was pretty messy, and the gentleman who owned it was up there in years. He was going to rent it to me really cheap, and then he says to me, ¡®Hey, you wanna buy the place?¡¯ I didn¡¯t have two nickels to do this with [rubs his thumb and index finger together], but I said, ¡®Let¡¯s see it.¡¯ ¡±
A fixer-upper, the place nonetheless had everything Kocan was looking for: a storefront from which to sell parts, income apartments ¡ª and a second store. ¡°I want to open up a coffeehouse,¡± he recalls telling Christine. ¡°I figured, I¡¯m gonna stay here all day and sell parts, so why go up the street for coffee?¡±
The Kocans completely refinished the place, replacing the tongue-in-groove ceilings and using some of the original ceiling wood for the counter. They hunted in salvage shops for antique fixtures that give the place its charm. ¡°We¡¯ve got such an eclectic group of people that come in here,¡± says Kocan. ¡°Sunday you¡¯ll have a group come in after church, some people will come in with grandkids, and then you¡¯ll have people pull up on their bikes. People of all kinds like to come here.¡±
South on 9W below the Bear Mountain Bridge is sport-bike heaven. Through Stony Point and Haverstraw, riders decked out like Power Rangers crouch atop their powerful crotch rockets, hurtling by at unsafe speeds. Around 4 p.m., with the sun getting lower in the west, the village of Nyack is a hive of activity, much of it involving touring bikers.
Paul Romeo of Stony Point and his friend Anthony Caiafa of Pomona sit admiring the scene. Romeo owns a V-Star 1100. Caiafa owns a Victory. ¡°Polaris makes it,¡± he says. ¡°It¡¯s an American bike.¡±
The friends ride every weekend, with or without their wives. ¡°All through the Hudson Valley ¡ª we go to Newburgh, ride up to Rhinebeck. Route 218, past West Point, you can see the whole Hudson Valley from up there,¡± says Romeo.
¡°You¡¯re riding up on the side of the mountain, snaking up,¡± agrees Caiafa. ¡°Gorgeous.... You can never get lost on a bike. It¡¯s the one time you¡¯re not thinking about anything like work; you¡¯re thinking about riding. There¡¯s no radio; there¡¯s no nothing. It¡¯s a freedom.¡±
A little farther up the street, Mike Donohue of South Nyack climbs aboard an interesting looking bike. ¡°It¡¯s an XLZR, which they made for two years, in ¡¯77 and ¡¯78,¡± he says. ¡°They made about 1,500 of them each year.... It¡¯s the first Harley-Davidson Caf¨¦¨Cstyle bike, which I guess is the only one they ever made. I¡¯ve had it for 25 years.¡±
Donohue is a true loner, with a ready-made excuse. ¡°This seat is not that comfortable for a passenger,¡± he says. ¡°I was thinking about getting another seat, but there¡¯s not much of a spot there for a passenger.... It¡¯s a sportster.¡±
Donohue is clean-cut and wearing jeans and sneakers. No leather. ¡°I was out running today, and I thought I¡¯d finish the afternoon off with a little ride.¡± Like many other bikers, Donohue prefers the back roads and avoids the highway.
¡°In my 20s I was run over ¡ª a guy hit me head on,¡± he confides. ¡°I just went flying, and hit my head ¡ª it was protected by the helmet. I was unconscious for a little bit, and woke up expecting to see my ankle by my ear. Since then, I¡¯ve been extremely cautious. It was a good, healthy experience, I guess.¡±
Donohue tries to start his bike, but the solenoid sticks. ¡°It¡¯s tricky,¡± he says, wrestling with the ignition and an electrical clamp he¡¯s rigged up to bypass things. After a short struggle, the bike roars to life and he eases off into the sunset. ¡ö
To experience the thrill of motorcycling without putting up with all the noise, pay a visit to Designs Through Time: Motorcycles Past, Present & Future, at the Albany Institute of History & Art now through June 6. On display are more than 30 vintage and modern motorcycles from around the world, as well as cycling ephemera and films of bikes in action. For more
information, call 518-463-4478 or log onto www.albanyinstitute.org. Check out the Ground Hog at www.groundhogcoffee.com.