MICHAEL BABCOCK Great Falls Tribune G R E AT FA L L S
Montana is warming up to motorcyclists. The state Department of Transportation has put up a new Web site that suggests 10 of the best motorcycle rides in the state and at the same time dishes out a dose of advice for coming back from a ride with leathers intact. Besides that Web site, the MDT has assigned one of its managers to begin a new effort to alert motorcyclists to road construction and detours in a way to allow bikers to choose an alternate route before they get into the construction zone. MDT also joined other federal, state and local government agencies when it declared May as Montana motorcycle safety month. And at the MDT's home Web site (www.mtdt.mt.gov) there is "Share the road with motorcycles," an essay reminding drivers of cars and trucks that the warm months bring out the bikers and offering the drivers safety tips for helping to keep motorcyclists safe. At the new Web site www. RideMT.com readers can review one of the 10 suggested rides, comment on existing rides or suggest their own. They also can take a frivolous time out to design a motorcyclist's mustache based on a three- or fourquestion profile quiz. "What a great site," said Elizabeth Moore of Highwood. "There's information there for the resident as well as the visiting rider. I really like the link for recommending a ride, as many folks will have their own ideas as to what their favorite ride in Montana might be." Moore and her husband, David, are avid bikers who moved here five years ago from Texas. "We did several of these (rides) in our early Montana days, in a car, before we had a bike," Dave Moore said. "This site reminded us of how beautiful these rides were, and how spectacular they would be in the open sky with the wind rushing by us on two wheels. It made us want to go back and find out." "The 'grow your own 'stache' was a riot," Elizabeth Moore said. "I went back and picked different answers each time, just to see how it would turn out." Sam Steffan, one of the directors of the Great Falls area Harley Owners Group, who often leads club rides, said the Web site was great. "I like some of the rides to the east of us," he said. "We hardly ever travel that way." If you click on one of the 10 rides on the motorcycle Web site, up comes a map with distances, fuel stops and lodging. There also is the option to add comment and nominate your own favorite "best ride." Charity Watt-Levis, public information officer for the Department of Transportation, said the project to expand signage advising motorcyclists about unfriendly road construction is in its first year; the new man in charge of the effort is Jim Wingerter of Great Falls, a former project manager for MDT. "This is a pilot project of sorts. This is the first year," Watt-Levis said. "These signs will not be on every project with an unpaved surface this summer, so motorcyclists cannot assume that the lack of the sign means a paved surface can be expected. Watt-Levis said the signs will read: "Motorcycle Advisory, Unpaved Road Ahead, Consider Alternate Route." "An example of placement will be for Highway 212 in the Broadus area. One sign will be at the 'Y' at Broadus for westbound traffic. One sign will be at the intersection at Lame Deer, Montana 29 and U.S. 12 eastbound. And one will be near the Custer Battlefield site area near I-90 and U.S. 212 for eastbound traffic." Another place where the signs likely will be posted is near Glacier National Park on Highway 49. "That surface is not under construction but it is no good," Watt-Levis said. "It is horrible when you end up on a surface you are not equipped for or interested in taking your bike on," she said. "It all boils down to traffic safety." Two years ago, Gayle Fisher, director of the Russell Country tourism region, brought in writers from three national motorcycling magazines to tour north-central Montana as part of the Ridin' High, Flyin' Low media trip. Mo t o r cyc l e Es c a p e, American Iron and American Rider magazines all published articles about their trip. The gang rode Harleys from the Eagle Rider franchise in Fort Benton and hit Fort Benton, White Sulphur Springs, Great Falls, Choteau and points in between. They also flew over the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Collectively the initiatives might remind traveled bikers of the hospitality that South Dakota dishes out to motorcyclists during early August when the state is host to some 600,000 bikers bound for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Uniformed state tourism workers man the rest areas across much of the state and offer free snacks, ice water and advice for bikers. But Watt-Levis said that whi le the Department of Transportation likes the idea of courting more motorcycle tourists, the effort really is aimed at keeping motorcycle riders in Montana alive. Figures from her office show that between 1998 and 2007, the number of motorcyclecrash related fatalities rose from 14 to 36. Analysts are unsure why the increase but they always consider several factors: there has been a huge increase in the number of motorcycles sold in Montana and the rest of the nation and because many new bikes are purchased by middle-aged males who are either new to or returning to motorcycle riding. Also, most motorcycles are more powerful than they were even two decades ago.