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Motorcycle Riders Break Biker Stereotypes

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Kealey Bultena
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SDPB
Chris Nelson posts a photo of herself on social media as she leaves Sioux Falls for Sturgis.

The 75th anniversary of the Sturgis Rally this week could double the population in South Dakota. If you somehow haven’t encountered bikes in person, you can’t escape them in the news. As part of our continuing coverage of the rally, here is one story that profiles some of the people you might encounter gliding through the state on two wheels.

Motorcycles emit a familiar rumble, and the low vibrations intensify across South Dakota during the Sturgis Rally. As you hear the bikes growl, you can probably imagine what those bikers look like. People use words including big, burly, buff dudes, bandana, beards, ponytails, intimidating men, and tattoos. 

It’s true. Some bikers are daunting beefy, bandana-wearing, bearded, long-haired, tattooed men. And some? They’re senior financial advisors with global companies.

"Ten years ago or so we started talking about ways to get together as riders, and we thought a Friday breakfast might be a good way to end the week on a high note," Larry Hamre says. "We ride our bikes here, weather permitting, on good days. And some days there’ll be two of us here and some days there’ll be 12 of us here."

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Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
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SDPB
Larry Hamre, Myron Rau, Mike Dalsin, and Rob Oliver meet for breakfast and talk motorcycles.

Hamre wears dress pants and a Merrill-Lynch polo shirt. He sits at a table in a Sioux Falls restaurant with three other men. They talk about the route some plan to take to get to the Sturgis Rally and the place in Deadwood where they stay.

None of these men has greasy hands or shredded jeans. They don’t have long hair, and they aren’t plastered with tattoos. But these guys are bikers, and they claim they’re part of a guild. The guild has rules, they say. Even their server understands. She says she noticed someone pulled up in a car, and that means that person pays for the meal.

They explain that anyone who doesn’t ride a bike is at risk of picking up the tab. On the last Friday of the month, the last person who arrives in a car buys. But sometimes the newest member dishes out money for the group’s check. They have more regulations, but it quickly gets complicated.

Myron Rau claims they make the rules as they go, but two of the others balk. They say they're jus tthe messengers.

Three of the riders have customized, newer model Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Longtime construction leader Mike Dalsin breaks from the pack. He says his bike has ape-hanger handle bars, shiny chrome, and is powered by a 50cc weed whacker motor.

"When we're out riding and we stop with a group, nobody ever asks us what we do."

The other men joke about his bike, but they approve because it has two wheels and he's happy. They also refer some questions to a supposed committee in Chicago.

Rau used to be in law enforcement and now works for the South Dakota Automobile Dealers Association.

"There are a lot of inside jokes here that we can’t really talk about," he says. They claim it's to protect the innocent and the guilty.

People at the table laugh – a lot. They say that’s the point. They meet because they want a place to indulge in their motorcycling hobby with other people who love the open road. Although the white-collar guild members shatter many stereotypes, they do fit one common description of the motorcycle rider: black leather. 

Rob Oliver is president of Augustana College. When he isn’t in an Augie polo, he dons what others in the guild call his costume. But Oliver embraces that black leather is an equalizer. He says riders aren’t shackled by their credentials. 

"When we’re out riding and we stop with a group, nobody ever asks us what we do. That’s a really wonderful thing," Oliver says. "We don’t have to talk about work; we don’t have to talk about what we do.  We just talk about our bikes, we talk about the weather, we talk about where we’re going, where we’ve been."

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Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
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SDPB

On the other side of Sioux Falls, before 6 o'clock in the morning, the parking lot at J&L Harley-Davidson in Sioux Falls is deserted. An illuminated American flag sways in the breeze, and its tie clinks against the flagpole as the sky melts from blues to oranges and pinks. Then an engine breaks the calm. Chris Nelson glides into the lot.

Nelson cuts the engine, and the helmet comes off – revealing a shock of blonde hair against her bandana. At her day job as vice president of operations at a collection agency, she dons dress clothes and high heels. Not today.

"I am wearing blue jeans, riding boots – I would never ride my bike without boots on, I would never ride it without jeans on – and chaps, got riding gloves, jacket, and I have my helmet actually that I started wearing recently," Nelson says.

She matches some of her t-shirts and accessories to the almost-fluorescent orange of her bike, and her sparkly manicure coordinates with her motorcycle.

"My nails have been painted to match my bike for the week," she says.

Nelson is on her way to Sturgis for this year’s rally. She says her brother lives in the Black Hills and that a friend called him when he found out Nelson’s husband was already out west and she planned to ride on her own.

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Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
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SDPB
Chris Nelson starts her motorcycle as she leaves for Sturgis.

BULTENA: Do you think he would have had that reaction is you would have, if you were a man?
NELSON: No! Never. He had that reaction because he was a girl being on my bike by myself.

Nelson says women are riders, and they don’t have to pretend they aren’t feminine if they ride a hog.

"My other hobby is quilting and so my husband is very open to when we travel we do hit quilt stores every once in a while, so I get a lot of looks that way too when I stop at a quilt store and here comes the biker kids coming through the door buying fabric, and it’s always a little bit entertaining too having the Harleys sit out in front of a quilt store," Nelson says. 

Nelson says women are not relegated to the sissy bar on the back of a man’s motorcycle. She says women – and everyone else who doesn’t fit the biker stereotype – should have the confidence to embrace their passion for riding.

"It amazes me, too, all the different types of people you do meet. I know our accountant from the company I work for, he took off yesterday to go riding. And you would look at him and you would never imagine. The attorney for our company – we have an in-house attorney – she and her husband are already out there. They left two days ago. My husband’s a plumber," Nelson says. "I mean, it’s just a variety of the walk of life. When you’re on your bike, it just gives you that freedom and power, and you’re in your own little world. You don’t have your phone ringing at you. You don’t have emails bouncing at you. You don’t have kids yelling for you. You just are in your own world, and it just let’s all the stress of life go behind you."

As Nelson’s kickstand flips up and she turns her handlebars in a straight line to Sturgis, she’s one woman who’s proof that the face of motorcycle riding isn’t necessarily what you’d expect.

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