WEST VALLEY CITY — The distinctive sound of thundering Harleys starts to fill the air at the first hint of spring.
I know how the geese get here when the seasons change, but where do all of the motorcycles come from? And who is riding those big bikes?
Most of the big bikes are pleasure cruisers — not commuting vehicles — so many of them stay tucked away in the garage all winter. And since it's easy to drop more than ten grand to buy a new Harley, a common thread among riders is a steady income that allows them to spend that much money on something that doesn't have to get them to work. A top-of-the-line 2012 Ultra Classic Electra Glide will set you back $37,249.
If the stereotypical images of a Harley rider are creeping into your mind they might include a motorcycle cop or someone decked out in black leather.
It's the makeup of the black leather crowd that isn't just the wild and dangerous lot it used to be.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is a Harley rider. He even used it in his presidential campaign. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's love of the big bike took a heightened profile after he took a bad spill in 2010. A riding group called the Patriot Guard, largely comprised of veterans, provides an honor guard at military deployments and homecomings — and funerals. The Temple Riders is a group of Mormon riders that take their bikes on temple trips. BACA, or Bikers Against Child Abuse, use their rumble and imposing leather to let would-be child abusers know someone's got an eye on them. And of course there's the Jazz Bear.
Lance McDaniel is a retired sheriff's deputy who still works as a reserve officer in Utah County and is an evidence technician in the Utah Attorney General's office. He said he rides with a group that includes the owner of a computer business, an architect, a real estate agent and some other state employees.
The thing they have in common: They love Harleys.
"You know the chrome, the loudness, the excitement of the motorcycle, the rattle, the vibration; all that stuff makes the riding of the Harley that much more enjoyable for the average person riding down the road," Utah Highway Patrol Cpl. Donavan Lucas told me.
A Utah Highway Patrol Trooper like Lucas fits one of the personas you would expect to see on a Harley: the motorcycle cop.
He and McDaniel are friends — became such thanks to their common interest in Harleys. McDaniel sports more of the biker look, but points out that weather leather is not just part of the culture, but something riders wear for safety. It's easiest to find — in black. And at a Harley shop, which means it's also gonna have that big ol' Harley logo on it.
The logo is the only thing big about Carrie Johansen, whose works in a tidy, quiet office as the assistant human resource director at C.R. England.
People typically react with surprise when they find out Johansen handily wrestles a big bike.
"They're just shocked," Johansen said. "They say, 'I can't believe that you rid that. You're just a little girl.'"
She doesn't look like a grandmother, but she is one. She doesn't look like a biker when she's sitting at her desk, but the picture behind her astride a big, yellow chopper suggests otherwise. She's petite enough a good stiff wind could knock her down, but after work, she's manhandling a Harley that weighs almost 800 pounds. Her husband has one to match — but she's also happy to leave him home to mow the lawn while she rides with a couple of other women who love the big bikes as much as she does.
Bikers also like to get together for group rides. The Harley dealers and related businesses — including a few biker bars — have more than 80 group rides sponsored so far this year. Many of those are for charity. "We ride a lot for charity," Johansen said.
Johansen said a brotherhood develops among riders. While a rider doesn't have to be on a Harley to be welcome in a group ride, the Harley is still king of the big bikes. "Harleys are true to the heart of America. They're made in America," we love them," she said.
There are still some bad dudes out there on big bikes. Lucas said they're so vastly outnumbered by the new breed of Harley riders that the baddies are called "one percenters." Some even put that label on their jackets to distinguish them from the charity-riding do-gooders on bikes.
Lucas also said the return of motorcycling season brings an uptick in crashes. He reminds motorists to be on the lookout for bikes, and he reminds bikers to check their hardware and sharpen their skills before taking to the road.
"Make sure that you get your skills back up before you come out here," Lucas said, hours after handling a downtown motorcycle crash he believes was caused, in part, by rusty riding skills. "I have a feeling that had a little bit to do with it. The guy's not used to riding yet, and he was injured because of it."
The UHP motor squad has moved to European-built BMW motorcycles. But Donovan said new troopers training on motorcycles still start on a Harley.