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New Hampshire Continues Love Affair With Motorcycles - 2003-06-28

The state of New Hampshire is first when it comes to presidential primaries and motorcycles. According to statistics complied by the Motorcycle Industry Council, New Hampshire has more motorcycles per person than any other state. And that's despite New England's chilly weather.

As the Granite State begins to heat up in the waning days of spring, so do New Hampshire's motorcycles.

There are 5.7 motorcycles per 100 residents of this small New England state, that's higher than anywhere else in the nation. The only ones that come close are Idaho and Wyoming, with about 4 bikes per 100 people. The other top scorers are also Western states with wide-open spaces.

On a gorgeous, sunny afternoon on Concord's Main Street, half a dozen bikes roar by within a few minutes Harleys, sport bikes, vintage bikes in mint condition, and a couple of scooters. And folks say they definitely notice. "Lately I've been noticing there's a lot of motorcycles. I gotta believe it. I mean every day as soon as the nice weather comes. They come out of the woodwork," says one man.

"I came from the Southwest and there aren't that many there, because the distances are so long there. And it's hot during the daytime. Here it's nice and cool. We ride our motorcycle all the time," says Marie Keller. With a nice sun hat that perfectly matches her jacket, and a carefully made-up face, she doesn't look like a motorcycle owner, but she is. "We have 3 actually. A Norton an old English motorcycle, a BMW, and an old Honda 650. We travel around NH all the time, especially during the week so we can avoid the crowds. We've always had motorcycles and when we moved to NH we found we rode more than in Southwest. So it worked out well," she says.

It's surprising because New Hampshire's rural roads are frozen over a good part of the year. But there's an obstinate quality about this state and its citizens.

"We have no helmet law so it's free riding, which a lot of people want even if it's not the most intelligent choice. It's your choice, but you do have a choice. And that's what makes New Hampshire special," says Doug Sally, who runs Freedom Cycle in Concord. "And plain and simple. Live free or die. That's a biker's attitude. It's the last of the cowboys. Old Yankees love to be free, they don't want to be told what to do," he says. "So when you're on your motorcycle, you're all alone by yourself. Running the world the way you want to. It's still New Hampshire, we have a right to be stupid."

Ryan Croteau of Barnstead, New Hampshire is waiting at the counter. He has a tattoo of a motorcycle chain around his bicep. But he doesn't have any romantic notions about why people ride. "'Cuz riding's fun and there's nothing else to do around here. I'm with my buddy, buying parts for his bike. Pretty much everyone I know has a bike, at least one," he says.

Mr. Croteau and his buddy are on their way to the Laconia Bike Rally. It's a week of all things motorcycle dirt bikes, races, contests, shows, and partying. During Bike Week, this picturesque lakeside resort becomes a motorcycle parking lot, with Harley Davidsons lining the Boardwalk next to the shore.

Each year, Harvey Chernin transforms his restaurant, the Lobster Pound, into a huge beer tent, with a music stage, corporate sponsors, and space for corporate displays. He says Bike Week the nation's oldest bike rally attracts motorcyclists to the state, but also turns New Hampshire residents into bikers. "New Hampshire breeds motorcyclists. When you're riding in your car on a family outing, you see these motorcyclists," he says. "It looks so exciting, wind in face, meandering through great roads we have, it gives you that feeling, I wanna be go get a bike!"

Where some see scruffy, leather-clad misfits on Harleys, Mr. Chernin sees wealthy professionals with expendable income. "There's always been a stigma about Bike Week, but if you come here, who do you see? Doctors, lawyers, engineers. It's a status symbol," he says.

After a while here, the whole question of why New Hampshire has proportionately more motorcycles than any other state begins to sound silly. The incessant noise becomes a background drone, and pretty soon you begin to wonder why you're traveling on four wheels cooped up, instead of gracefully on two. The clouds race over the green hilltops, the sun's coming out, and there are miles of winding roads between here and home.