They are drawn together by the love of the open road, but the 550-plus riders who attended last week's annual BMW Top O' the Rockies Rally also came to Paonia mostly to enjoy friendship, food and fun, and to share stories.
This is the 43rd year for the BMW Club and Motorcycle Owners of America Rally, the longest continuously running BMW rally in the nation. From Maine to California, more than 60 rallies are being held this year. Paonia has hosted a total of 26 rallies, and has continuously hosted the event for 24 years -- longer than any other community in the country.
"Y'all have got a great place to have a rally," said Chuck Tucker, of Del Rio, Tenn., an Air Force veteran and retired wildlife officer from Florida. A first-time visitor to Paonia, Tucker has attended rallies all over the country.
Tucker and Mark Whaley of Boise, Idaho, met at a rally about four months agp and became instant friends. They agree that one of the best parts about the rallies is the camaraderie and friendship. There is also a great support system, they said. If anyone needs help with anything or breaks down on the road, someone steps up.
Dimitrios Tournas, from Lafayette, first came to Paonia last year. A longtime rider, Tournas collided with a semi nine years ago, but somehow escaped injury. It took him seven years to get back on a bike. Today he is training for the Dakar Rally, an off-road endurance race started as the Paris-Dakar Rally and now run in South America. Tournas is originally from Greece and made new friends upon discovering that the retired couple selling authentic bratwursts, sauerkraut and German potato salad were originally from Germany and Greece.
This year's rally attracted 540 paid riders, which is up from last year's count of 460, according to Scott Kellogg of Paonia, a motorcycle enthusiast who helped man the registration/information desk. It's also well below the 2008 all-time high of 1,200 riders, the year the national rally was held in Wyoming. The closer the national rally, said Kellogg, the more riders Paonia seems to attract.
Riders came from the east coast and the west coast and points in between, Canada, and overseas. The actual number of riders is a little higher than 540, said Kellogg, since not everyone registers. Those who do have the benefits of camping at Paonia Town Park, a catered meal on Saturday night, live music, an afternoon of field games, and 24-hour access to park bathrooms, showers, and coffee at the Ellen Hansen Smith Teen Center.
Area musicians Erik Boa and the Constrictors and the Kipori Woods Band provided live rock 'n' roll and blues Friday and Saturday nights.
On the final evening, local organizer Bob Bushta said the event "is going great," problems are few and "nothing that can't be overcome." He credited the event's success to a number of people, including the local Boy Scouts for volunteering for set-up and take-down duties, the Town of Paonia for the use of park facilities and staff, and KVNF and Thomas Smith for their expertise in running the beer garden. This year's beer garden rules have been simplified, making enforcement much easier. In addition, strands of holiday lights outlined the open container area, giving it a warm feeling, especially at night during the live music.
"The event is good for the town," said Bushta. Not only do local hotels, restaurants and retailers benefit from increased business, so do local non-profits and schools.
Last year's rally paid for new gutters on the park's main shelter, and the event provides the operating budget for the entire year for the teen center, which allowed use of its kitchen, stayed open 24/7, and provided complementary coffee throughout the four-day event and a movie Thursday night.
The PHS senior class earned money by serving breakfasts, and the junior class sponsored field games. The Abraham Connection Homeless Shelter bake sale was almost sold out by Saturday morning, and the KVNF Beer Garden also made a profit, said Smith, who didn't yet have final numbers.
The Kids Pasta Project and Flight of the Eagle Project (FOTEP) served 170 pasta dinners Friday night and earned $700, to be split between the two organizations. Moni Slater of KPP said the money will go toward the organization's teen internship fund and called the event fulfilling "because of all the incredibly positive interactions between the kids and guests, and the fact that everything went so smoothly."
FOTEP also held a bike wash on Friday and Saturday. The event was very enjoyable, said FOTEP representative Cindy Swartzendruber. She and husband Steve used to organize the bike wash for the PHS baseball team. Back then, said Cindy, the rally included a Saturday morning motorcycle parade, and everyone wanted their bikes to look nice for the parade. "It would be nice to see that event come back," said Swartzendruber, but with or without the parade, "We'll do it again next year."
The rally has infused countless dollars into the community over the years. Kathy Linnell, teen center president, said that past rallies raised enough money to purchase an equipment trailer, uniforms and instruments for the Paonia High School band program.
Bikers rode off in a light rain Sunday morning, most heading for the 43rd annual BMW Motorcycle Owners of America International Rally, which opens to morrow in Billings, Mont.