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From pop culture, it might be easy to get the impression that motorcyclists all ride in gangs and are about nothing but guns, drugs and fighting.
In Southern Maryland, motorcyclists interviewed said that’s far from true. Riders range from married couples seeking different ways to enjoy one another’s company to retired people looking to add spice to their free time. For all, the road when ridden on a motorcycle represents a unique brand of freedom.
Dave Russell and his wife, Christine, of Mechanicsville insist that motorcycling is not the province of the big, burly and tattooed. They offer classes for advanced motorcyclists to help them focus on polishing their riding techniques based on the riding style of motorcycle police officers, all in the interest of safety.
The Russells are the franchise owners of Ride Like a Pro of Maryland, which is a subset of the national Ride Like a Pro program based on the lessons of Jerry “Motorman” Palladino, a police officer from Florida who began teaching classes in 1999. The Russells teach primary classes at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf. Christine is an office worker at Naval Support Facility Indian Head, while Dave works as a home contractor around the area.
“Most riders today that have taken classes, they’ve generally gone through community colleges or the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and so forth,” Dave said. “Overall, those do a good job, but there are some things within the programs that end up leaving riders a little short. A lot of riders today have difficulty handling their bikes at slow speeds, particularly with making turns. The real benefit of motor officer training is that the techniques will make it much more stable and comfortable, particularly when turning and leaning the bikes. When we take those techniques and boil them down into one lesson, riders come away with a tremendous sense of confidence, generally, in applying techniques by learning them firsthand.”
He said with many bikes, the difficulty is finding a balance in speed. When moving slow, he said, many bikes tend to fall over because of not gaining enough momentum, but it becomes easier at higher rates.
Dave said he was inspired after he met Palladino at a conference in Nashville in 2006. At the time, Dave said, he himself had been a student of Palladino’s DVDs, and became curious as to how he could teach himself.
“All the other franchise operators are police officers,” Dave said. “We’re the exception to that rule. We do this on the side. We host and conduct classes and so forth based on the techniques and principles he shares in his DVDs and classes, and it’s been very well received.”
As franchise owners, Dave and Christine are responsible for all classes and events within a 200-mile radius. However, if there is no closer franchise in a particular town, then the pair will travel there. Because of this, the Russells have traveled as far as Ohio to teach their classes. Aside from the monthly group classes, they also offer people group lessons and will hold demonstrations at conventions and other gatherings.
The Russells say women who take their classes are often the best students and prove to be the most adept riders.
“They’re there on a mission. They want to get it,” Christine said. “With men, a lot of it is because so many of them have been riding for so long, there’s a lot of pride. We’ve found they just know how to get from Point A to Point B in a straightaway.”
The classes are open to 12 people at a time and usually fill up. The most recent class was on a Sunday morning in late August, where riders from as far away as Pennsylvania came to see these techniques demonstrated firsthand and to learn them themselves. Although Christine was not present due to a scheduling conflict, Dave taught the class as usual with the aid of a family friend who had taken the class himself at one time.
The participants rode a course that ran the length of the stadium’s parking lot, and began by focusing on simple techniques like proper turning. From time to time, Dave would call the riders back to gather around him, during which time he would explain the group’s next exercise. These exercises ranged from learning how to ride in a circle and properly distribute one’s weight on a bike to simple but often done wrong tasks such as learning how to properly pick up a motorcycle that has fallen down.
The Russells share a lifelong fascination with motorcycles and the road. Growing up in Prince George’s County, Christine, a slender and vivacious woman, said she was “a bit of a tomboy” and spent a lot of her time helping her father work on cars in his garage. As she grew older, she spent many weekends traveling with friends down to races at Budds Creek, which she found fascinating. Dave, also a native of the region, had ridden in his youth, but stopped for a time to tend to his family. These days when they are not busy with work or teaching their classes, the Russells enjoy riding as a couple, both on one bike and separately as they both own their own motorcycles.
“The most wonderful thing about it is being able to be one with the road,” Christine said. “You ride along these backroads, and you just get a whole different experience.”
“Absolutely,” Dave added. “In the spring, you can ride through five miles of just honeysuckles on some stretches of road, and in the fall and winter you smell fireplaces burning in peoples’ houses. It’s liberating.”
A happy addiction
For Bill Stearns of St. George Island, motorcycles have been an on-again, off-again fixture.
Stearns has been riding motorcycles since he was 9 in Minnesota. His father sold Indian Motorcycles before the company went bankrupt in 1953, and his mother rode as well.
“I took some time off for the Navy, my children and other things, and then started back again when I retired from the Navy and could spend some more time with it,” Stearns said.
He spent 21 years in the service, riding occasionally on “someone else’s motorcycle” when he did.
“My Navy career was quite full. I spent from 1965 to ’71 in Vietnam … when you were home, you were home with your family,” Stearns said. “We came here right after Vietnam and there just wasn’t time to get involved in basically anything but our home life.”
Following his Navy retirement in 1975, Stearns became a civil servant at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. That’s when he bought his first motorcycle, which he primarily used to ride in charity events such as Rolling Thunder.
“You’re in the office all the time doing your work, and it’s just a way to get out and relaxed and have a good time,” Stearns said. “Riding these back roads in Maryland can be really nice. There are some nice, winding roads, and you’re not in thick traffic which can get hairy because people just don’t look for bikes and motorcycles, they look for other cars, and just kind of ignore you. You have to ride defensively at all times.”
When he rides around St. George Island, Stearns said he sees that people are starting to overcome the stigma associated with motorcyclists.
“Surprisingly, down here on the island, when you ride the back roads, people will be out in their front yards and they’ll wave to you from the yard because they’re glad to see you,” Stearns said. “There’s none of this stigma that ‘Oh, look, there’s one of those nasty motorcycle riders again.’ They know it’s not like that.”
Stearns normally rides once a week for short distances on his Harley-Davidson 2004 Softtail Standard bike, but last year at the age of 74 embarked on his most ambitious ride to date: With a friend, he rode his Harley Ultra Classic 2004 a total of 4,048 miles over 15 days to Sturgis, S.D., for a large, well-known annual motorcycle rally.
“Taking this on day after day after day, we didn’t know how our bodies were going to handle it,” said Stearns, whose previous longest ride was from his home to Ocean City and back for the town’s annual Bike Week. “We were fine. We were a little saddle sore, occasionally, but other than that fine. After an hour or two, your body says ‘OK, I need to get up and walk,’ and that really helps to break it up with the scenic tours.”
Stearns and his friend divided the trip up into four legs, stopping in West Virginia, Illinois, Iowa and Sioux Falls, S.D., before reaching Sturgis, riding through everything from heavy rain to winding backroads on the way out. They packed light to avoid weighing both themselves and their bikes down. Overall, Stearns said, one of the best parts of the trip proved to be the closeness that he experienced with his surrounding, an experience he said could not possibly be replicated while traveling in a car.
Although he observed the potential for some rough behavior while staying in Sturgis and some “unsavory” characters, Stearns said he felt safe for the duration of his stay.
“Sturgis is this big draw for all kinds … while we were there, we saw some Hell’s Angels, some Pagans, and if you went into town there was a police presence all over the streets,” Stearns said. “If you saw two very large policemen in one area you could bet there were some biker gangs there. But they were staying outside of town ... in town, they kept it clean, they kept it nice, and like I said, 90 percent of people there were just there to have a good time and admire each other’s motorcycles. But those 10 percent though, they’re everywhere, not just with motorcycles. You’ll have that element in any group.”
Stearns said motorcycling is pure escape. “There’s no phone calls or anything, just you, the road and maybe the radio,” he said. “Once you get into riding it’s an addiction. You’ll make every excuse.”
It wasn’t Wayne Sexton’s idea to get into riding motorcycles, but once he did, the Lusby man was hooked.
“I never saw myself as a rider, never aspired to own a bike, and I didn’t want to do it without my wife. About a year or so ago, we were approached by another couple asking us to go to Bike Week in Ocean City with them,” Sexton said. “We talked it over, and she said, ‘Well, why don’t we get a bike?’ I said, ‘You’d be OK with that?’”
To Sexton’s surprise, his wife, Kay, had been interested all along in experiencing the open road on the back of a motorcycle.
From there, they investigated bike purchases together, ultimately settling on a friend’s old touring motorcycle they bought in May. Wayne took a class at Prince George’s County Community College, earned his motorcycle license, and the two hit the road.
“We started riding two-up probably in July of last year, and took it to Bike Week,” Wayne said. “It was a great time.”
After a year of owning their bike, Wayne and Kay decided it was time to hit the open road together for a longer trip, and loaded up the bike for a trip down to the Florida Keys this past June.
“We went on the old cliche that it’s more about the journey than the destination, so we took the backroads down,” Wayne said. “We took U.S. 17 all the way down to Jacksonville, and that’s where we jumped on the interstate.”
Because they took the back way, the trip down to Florida lasted about 4½ days, with the pair racking up about 350 miles daily. Although they’d planned to do some sightseeing along the way, Kay said they ultimately confined their tourism to the ride itself, as they’d end each day too road-weary for further exploration.
To accompany their luggage, the pair bought an apparatus to strap onto the bike. They planned on riding six hours daily to maintain comfort and maximize enjoyment. Despite this, there was an unexpected snag along the way.
“We ended up having to stop in North Carolina for what I thought was a mechanical problem but turned out to be just a heavily loaded bike that was causing some issues with my steering,” Wayne said. “My skills weren’t quite as smooth as the service manager’s, who got on my bike and rode it around the parking lot and proved to me it was fine, so that was good.”
Once they reached Key West, Wayne said they immediately covered the motorcycle and walked everywhere so as to not burn themselves out on riding the bike around. The return trip seemed to go much faster, and save for once when the bike tipped over and they got a bit scratched up, the experience was without incident.
“As tired and sore as we’d be from the day’s riding, when we would get back on the bike every morning to begin the next leg, it was like a shot of adrenaline,” Wayne said. “It just had such a sense of adventure and accomplishment.”
Since returning home, the Sextons continue to go on day trips together on the motorcycle, just as they did before the Key West trip. Typical destinations for the couple, who both cite back roads in St. Mary’s County as their collective favorite to ride They said they also like the Eastern Shore, and they plan on returning to Bike Week this month. Wayne also rides solo at least four times a week.
The Sextons say they’re drawn by the sense of community they find comes with riding. “I used to sail, and I find the bike community to be a lot like that,” Wayne said. “It’s like a second childhood for both of us. The people we meet and the things we have in common with them are just amazing.”
“Even though our kids make fun of us for it,” Kay added.