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More coming on motorbike to see area

October 18, 2009

More coming on motorbike to see area

Rallies in Sturgis, Red Lodge, Billings draw motorcyclists

Nothing stood out in Montana’s 2009 summer tourism season as much as the preliminary results of a survey that asked a sampling of visitors how they got here.

“Ten percent responded that they came by motorcycle,” said Norma Nickerson, of the Institute of Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana. “We’ve never seen motorcycles jump out like that before.”

Analysts are still working on the data, she said, but preliminary numbers seemed to have caught some tourism officials by surprise.

It’s a remarkable percentage considering that 90 percent of the 10 million or so out-of-state visitors to Montana each summer arrive by highway.

But anyone who spent a day in Red Lodge last summer or took a road trip in Eastern Montana in July or August wouldn’t be shocked. For at least the last 10 years, motorcycles have been an increasing presence.

Industry officials contacted by The Gazette invariably cited two main factors – the proximity of Billings to Sturgis, S.D., where hundreds of thousands of bikers gather each August, and big bike rallies in Billings and Red Lodge that have drawn thousands of bikers.

Billings welcomed its first national biker convention in 1997, when the Gold Wing Road Riders Association held its annual Wingding in Billings. The Road Riders chose Billings again in 2000 and 2007, each time bringing 10,000 or more visitors on high-end Hondas. The Harley Owners Group HOG Rally in 2006 also drew around 10,000 bikers. Smaller groups have visited in the intervening years, including the Gold Wing Gold Rush that brought in about 1,500 bikers in 2008 and the Star Touring and Riding Association that drew about 1,000 people on Yamahas this July.

Red Lodge has hosted the Beartooth Rally every summer for the last 15 years, though not without controversy. Many residents of the small resort community complain of noise from the hundreds of bikes besieging the town.

“Motorcycles are always welcome in Red Lodge, especially those with mufflers,” Red Lodge Mayor Betsy Scanlin said. “We love them. Those without mufflers will continue to be an irritant.”

John Brewer, executive director of the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce, said the welcome that bikers received at rallies here is paying dividends as satisfied customers spread word that Billings is biker-friendly.

“Success builds on success,” Brewer said.

Bike shops around town, in particular, strive to make touring bikers welcome.

“We try to go out of our way to help if they break down,” said Sue McCone, owner of Hi-Tech Motor Sports. “They’re on vacation and we try to get them back on their bikes as quickly as we can so they don’t waste a lot of time.”

Marketing

Kelly McCandless, leisure sales manager for the Billings Area Chamber, said two bike groups have already signed up for next summer.

An international police organization called the Blue Knights will convene with between 800 and 1,000 bikers.

“The magazine for the group in Ireland published an entire section on Montana because so many of its members are excited about coming here,” she said.

The Gold Wing Gold Rush also plans to return in 2010 with about 1,000 riders. McCandless, who traveled to several motorcycle gatherings this year promoting Billings, said she asked members why they decided to come back so soon.

“Most said they felt like they just scratched the surface in 2008,” she said. “They want to dive into the things they missed last year.”

Trends

Joe Walter, a parts specialist at Montana Honda and Marine, said he has noticed a couple of trends. The first is an increasing number of women purchasing motorcycles. The second is that the biking crowd also seems to be getting older.

“Maybe the baby boomers can finally afford them,” he said.

Walter says he doubts that people buying highway bikes are doing it for fuel economy, since the initial investment is expensive.

In Montana, motorcycle registration is also increasing. A big jump between 2006 and 2007 – from 80,095 registered bikes to 95,815 – can probably be attributed to new laws that allowed motorcycles to be permanently registered, the Montana Justice Department’s Title and Registration Bureau said.

But bike registrations continued to jump from there. In 2008, Montana had 112,055 bikes registered. By the end March, the number had grown to 113,963.

Along with the increase in motorcycles came an increase in motorcycle accidents and fatalities, the report said. It said 5,154 people on bikes died on the nation’s roadways in 2007, the latest year for which figures were available. Another 103,000 were injured. The death rate climbed from 55.3 per 100,000 registered motorcycles in 1997 to 72.3 per 100,000 in 2006.

So far this year, 23 people have died in 21 fatal motorcycle accidents in Montana, and a total of 184 people have died in all motor vehicle accidents.

Last year at the end of September, 34 people had died in 35 fatal motorcycle crashes, according to Montana Department of Justice statistics.

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