"Spring has arrived," declared Vic Crookston, of Taylorsville, who has been a member of the club since 1979 and now rides a 2005 Harley-Davidson Road Glide.
Sunday's 90-mile ride out to Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele County and back had a special significance for the 114 members of the SLMC it is the 70th anniversary of the club, as well as the 35th anniversary of the Polar Bear Ride, the first big ride of the season in Utah.
With the conditions ranging from "blah" to "bleh" all day, the ride with about 350 motorcycles from clubs around Utah began at Harley-Davidson of Salt Lake City on State Street and finished up at Midvale's Copperview Community Center. At the finish line, meaty bowls of chili with mountains of raw onions and shredded cheddar awaited the riders, along with drawings and raffles with proceeds earmarked for the various charities the club supports. Nearly $21,000 has been donated since 2003.
The chilly weather and forecasts of precipitation kept many riders away, said Fred Schuman, of Herriman, who first rode a two-wheeled motorbike when he was 15 and delivered copies of the Sunday Salt Lake Tribune on his Cushman scooter. SLMC members said past Polar Bear Rides have gathered as many as 2,000 participants.
The first Polar Bear Ride began in the late 1970s with no more than 20 members riding from one home to another home, Crookston said. The next year the number grew to 35, and then the next year there were 65, and then 85 the following. In 1981, he said, the ride included more than 200 for the first time.
At 65, West Valley City resident Marnie Pendleton is the SLMC's president, and while she didn't ride Sunday she was in charge of cooking the chili she had just changed the oil in her 2005 Suzuki Boulevard and is ready to begin riding soon. "When I get on it, I feel like I'm 20," she said, with her ebony hair mirroring the black leather worn by most.
Of course, many riders didn't wait until Sunday to begin riding their choppers, cruisers or crotch rockets, as several past weekends were blessed with warm conditions and dry pavement. Willie Carton, of West Valley City, has already been out several times on his 2008 Honda Gold Wing, though his wife, Ann, will join him to ride pillion soon. Carton first rode a motorcycle in 1957 when he was stationed in Japan with the Air Force, but he and his wife first began riding seriously when their children left the nest, Ann said.
Quebec native Claude Champagne, of Park City, is the historian of the club and didn't start riding motorcycles until 2002 when he traveled to Utah to watch the 2002 Winter Olympics. He fell so much in love with the area that he bought a house in Summit County. (He also started snowboarding in 2002 when he was 62, saying that "skiing is for old people.") When Champagne is not snowboarding, he rides his 2005 Honda Gold Wing; on Wednesday, he rode 178 miles out and about Dugway.
Riding a motorcycle is a necessity for Utah residents, Champagne said, because the scenery is "absolutely out of this world."
At rides such as Sunday's, Champagne couldn't help but take a dig at Harley-Davidsons in the long-standing rivalry between Japanese and American bikes. He likes to ride near the back of the pack to collect the parts of Harley-Davidsons that have fallen off, Champagne joked.
Ouch that's so cold it's polar.