From Black Rats to Rolex Riders
July 12, 2005
If you’re like most people in the Roaring Fork Valley, your connection to the valley’s motorcycling culture is mainly visual and aural.You see the big bikes herded together in Aspen’s Fourth of July parade, and hear them blasting up Main Street like so many thirsty bulls headed for water after a long, dusty drive.Or perhaps they come roaring past you on the highway, solo or in a group, eliciting squeals of delight from the kids in the back seat and disapproving frowns from the adults up front.Or you catch sight of bikes stacked up along the curb in front of this bar or that one, and you might even pause to inspect the iron. Depending on the nature of the bikers and the bar, once you enter they’ll either be quite noticeable – a carousing knot of rough-looking types in denim and leather – or they’ll have blended into whichever part of the crowd they hang with.
But Aspen’s Fourth of July parade is well over (except for the usual bickering about all the Harley-generated noise). And the massive, annual Sturgis, S.D., rally is still several weeks away.That puts the valley’s biking community (at least those riders who make the yearly pilgrimage to Sturgis) in a state of what we’ll call hyperactive calm. They’re eager to be off, even antsy about it, but content to wait for the weeks to roll by. And while many are independent types who skitter away from reporters and photographers, The Aspen Times managed to get a few of the valley’s Harley riders to sit still for a chat and a picture.When speaking of “the Roaring Fork Valley’s motorcycling culture,” it is best to keep in mind that what once may have passed for a relatively cohesive bike community has generally disintegrated into middle-aged mellowness or bristly independence. Just about every brand of bike imaginable is represented in the valley, although Harley-Davidsons seem to rule the roost. As noted by Bob Snyder, who runs the Aspen Valley Harley-Davidson dealership in Glenwood Springs, the company has grown from an output of about 57,000 bikes a year in 1987 to an estimated 300,000 a year today. And it shows no sign of slacking up, he maintained, revealing that his dealership alone sells around 200 new bikes (and 75 used rental bikes) every year. If you look around the valley, Harleys are the bikes you will see more than any other, and it is Harley riders that are the focus of this story.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a number of bikers migrated into the valley and, to some extent, merged with the established skiing culture. Settling up and down the valley, many were not Harley riders at first, but a majority soon converted to the brand (your writer, in the interest of full disclosure, is a Moto Guzzi rider, with no particular prejudice against other brands.) The valley’s bikers laid claim to the Midland Bar and the Frying Pan in Basalt, The Pub in Aspen, Doc Hollidays in Glenwood Springs and other watering holes too disparate to list.Never very interested in group activities, other than riding for sheer pleasure with a few friends, local riders did not go in for clubs. Occasionally there would be a visitation from the Hell’s Angels chapter in Denver, and once the California-based club came east on a run that stopped at Officer’s Gulch in Summit County, prompting statewide alarm. Now and then some Sons of Silence or Outlaws or Bandidos would wander through, but that was about it for organized bike-gang activity.There was a “club” known as The Black Rats in the late ’60s and early ’70s, according to veteran rider Skip Bell, of The Pour House bar and restaurant in Carbondale. But he recalled that it had a small membership of maybe a half-dozen riders, and that the hallmark of the “club” was its lack of rules, meetings, dues and any real organization. At the time, Bell was only a partying affiliate – he didn’t own a bike, but would drive the support vehicle for riders headed out on a “run,” and party alongside them like a Viking on shore leave.For whatever reason, however, others remember things differently.
“There was only one Black Rat, and that was Dave Jenkins,” declared Pitkin County jailer Rick Brebner, who came to the valley in 1967 by way of Chicago and California. He said he never knew anyone else who claimed to be a member of the Black Rats.The closest any local riders came to a connection with traditional “biker gang” culture, at least as far as research for this article is concerned, was when Basalt businesswoman and Harley rider Diane Zamansky handled local sales of the HA Leathers line of goods manufactured by the Hell’s Angels. She and her husband, Dave, run Novus Auto Glass Repair, and she worked with an Angel named Little Joe from the late 1990s until about 2003. On different occasions she rode with members of the gang on runs to Sturgis, in California and around Colorado.”They’re a very nice group of men,” she said, and she recalls the clothing with considerable admiration for its quality.
Josh Saslove, an Aspen real estate agent with some 40 years of biking behind him, is a veteran member of The Rolex Riders, a loose-knit local band of Harley owners often mentioned derisively by more traditional, scruffier “hard-core bikers.” The source of the derision ranges from the compulsive cleanliness of the bikes and the bikers; carefully coordinated clothes and accessories; low-mileage use of their hogs coupled with a habit of trailering their bikes over long distances, flying in to pick them up and then riding them around whatever town they’re in; and a host of other qualities cited as evidence that Rolex Riders are not “real bikers.”According to the conventional wisdom, there are local Rolex Riders who only take their bikes out of the garage for special occasions, such as the Fourth of July Parade. Longtime Harley rider David Zamansky relates a tale of one Rolex Rider (he gave no names) who, when Zamansky called recently to invite him on a valley-hopping, one-day ride, demurred for fear of tarnishing his newly washed bike.Saslove, whom some credit with founding the Rolex Riders, said the somewhat whimsically named group actually was the creation of Richie Perez (former owner of RP’s Pizzeria in Aspen, where Pacifica now operates).”He was a real Rolex Rider, because he had a Rolex,” Saslove recounted. “I used to admire that Rolex.”Saslove defies the conventional image of a low-mileage Rolex Rider. He says that at one point he was clocking up 15,000 to 20,000 miles a year on one or another of his various Harleys. His fondest memories of those days, he said, were his runs to the Sturgis rally with the late Archie Archuleta, a well-known, well-loved Harley rider who died about a decade ago when a drunk motorist pulled out in front of him at the Sopris Restaurant south of Glenwood Springs. There’s a tree at the spot where he was hit, planted by Archie’s friends, which gets a peace-sign salute from passing bikers who know what’s up.”We only took motel rooms on the first floor, so we could bring our motorcycles inside with us,” Saslove said wistfully of those Sturgis runs.Many of those contacted for this story downplayed criticism of the Rolex Riders’ style, and pointedly welcomed what they termed “new riders” into the fold.”They have the rep of being bar-hoppers, the parade mentality,” noted Skip Bell. “But they like to ride. A lot of them do ride (to Sturgis and other far-away destinations), and do ride a lot. So the whole perception of them is not what it’s cracked up to be.”
The valley’s biking community is replete with characters, such as well-known local luminary “Baltimore Jim” Worrell, who once was the only biker who rode his hog in the annual July Fourth Parade. He had to think a while this week before coming up with an estimate of how many miles he’s ridden. Since 1999, the first year he owned a bike with a reliable odometer, he believes he’s clocked 217,000 miles. Doing some quick math in his head, he estimated he is quickly approaching the million-mile mark over his entire riding career, which began in Tallahassee, Fla., in 1959. His habit of riding up to 30,000 miles a year has earned him accolades from bikers of all stripes. And his wife, Phyllis, who rides the biggest bike Harley makes, figures she’ll keep pace with him now that she has retired from her restaurant career.
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Addressing the Rolex Rider phenomenon, Baltimore Jim said, “I think they’re the greatest thing in the world to us [the biking community in general] – all the new riders, all the kids with money. Without them, we’d still be riding junk. Where do you think the companies get all their money for R&D? I don’t have any snob attitude. I think, the more the merrier.”Baltimore Jim got his nickname, by the way, from fellow workers at the Aspen Highlands Ski School in the late ’60s, where he was one of several employees named Jim. He had first come to town shepherding a tour group of skiers from Baltimore, where he’d been living, so the moniker was hung on him and stuck.Worrell, like many of those interviewed for this story, tried various bikes before climbing on a Harley, but once he did, he was hooked. “I tried all the British stuff,” he said, but didn’t like them. Over the years he has owned a number of Harleys, some used and some new, but now says, “I only buy new.”Brebner was a racer when he started riding, and tried his hand at flat-track racing in California before moving to Aspen at the invitation of friends who had bought the old Little Nell bar. He said that he was thrilled to get here and find a thriving flat-track community.
“There were a lot of professional racers up here,” he recalled, ticking off such names as Rick Deane and Mike Swanson, whom he called “my heroes.”Brebner’s first bike was a British-made Aerial, followed by a Triumph. But by 1965 he’d settled on Harleys and rode them through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. In 1999 he began searching for a bike with a more comfortable back seat for his wife, Ellen. He tried BMW (“I liked the way they handled, but there just wasn’t enough room”) before he recently switched to a Honda Gold Wing.”Not only does it haul ass, but it really handles,” he said, adding that, “I like the bike better than any of the Harleys that I’ve ever owned, except for the fact that it’s not a Harley,” and doesn’t put out that unmistakable Harley rumble.As for Ellen, he said, “She finds it more comfortable, she’s a lot more confident on it, just because of the way it handles.” So much for switching back to Harleys.Most bikers in the valley hang up their helmets when winter arrives, waiting until the next riding season before they hit the road again. Worrell, however, prefers to go where the riding season can be found. Last November, for example, he and Phyllis were riding on the southern side of the Panama Canal, having gone down through Mexico and several Central American countries to get there. He often will leave his bike in Houston and fly home to Aspen after a trip. That way, if he gets the itch, he can hop a plane, break out the bike and be on the road within a day or two.
Marty Garfinkel, former partner in the Mountain Lids hat knitting business in Aspen and now owner of the Roadside Gallery in Carbondale, doesn’t go to Sturgis these days. But he used to go a lot, and he published a photo book of the 50th Anniversary of the rally. He says he continues to log a lot of miles. Problems with his knees have cut him down to about 15,000 miles per year, he said, but added, “I used to put in around 25,000 every year.” Like Baltimore Jim, Garfinkel does this by garaging his bike in Phoenix in the winter and taking it out for periodic long trips when Pitkin County is snowed under. Plus, he ranges all over the country during the summer and autumn months.For many of the bikers interviewed for this story, the annual run to Sturgis was long the defining moment of the year.Aspen Fire Marshal Ed VanWalraven, another Harley rider who came to the valley about 35 years ago, and who has been riding motorcycles for 43 years, recalled runs to Sturgis when the biggest piece of luggage he carried was his bag of tools and parts.”The joke was, you’d bring more tools than underwear,” he said. And the ability to work on the bikes and keep them on the road despite breakdowns, he said, was a defining part of the culture back then.
“If you didn’t know how to work on ’em, you wouldn’t get there,” he declared, referring to the grueling ride to Sturgis.Saslove recalled 11 years in a row when his Sturgis run would begin in front of Mezzaluna restaurant on Saturday with maybe a dozen riders. By the time the group reached Carbondale it would get to 25 or so. A hundred or more would roar through Glenwood Springs, and the number might be 200 by Wolcott, further east on I-70.”By Cheyenne you were 20,000 strong,” he intoned, explaining that by then they would have joined the gathering streams of what these days is a veritable city on wheels – hundreds of thousands of riders converging on Sturgis from all points of the compass.”If there’s anything you miss,” he said softly of his life now, “it’s the thrill of the ride and the camaraderie of the guys on the trip.”
Asked about the changes in the valley’s biking culture, David Zamansky agreed: “I don’t think there’s the camaraderie-type thing there used to be. Everybody’s busy,” and when he puts out a call for people to join a ride, he gets few answers or none at all.Sturgis, and the Roaring Fork Valley, are both reflections of the changes that have come to motorcycling, and to the Harley-Davidson community in particular.Three or four decades ago, said Ed VanWalraven, when somebody needed a tool or a part, he would give it if he had it in his bag, and help do the work if need be.”It was part of the experience,” he said of the Sturgis ride back then. “Everybody helped everybody else. And that was sort of what we had here in the valley.”
He said there were perhaps two dozen Harley riders in the valley who all knew each other, rode with each other and worked on each other’s bikes as needed. That’s not as true now, he said, because instead of a core of buddies with common interests, the valley’s bikers are a disparate lot, more isolated than before.Still, all those interviewed said the truly core experience remains. What hooks newcomers and keeps the old-timers in the saddle is the joy of the ride, regardless of whether they’re riding alone or with a group, on a long haul to the coast or a day trip over some nearby mountain pass.”It’s a beautiful area to ride a motorcycle,” declared Diane Zamansky. “You never really get bored with the riding.”And, she noted, it’s something that transcends generations. The Zamanskys’ two “kids” – Korinna, 26, and Jake, 24 – both have motorcycle driving licenses. Saslove’s two kids, both too young to drive, have grown up as passengers on his bikes, and he has high hopes for their futures as riders in their own right.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.