Teaching an entire town to ride motorcycles is an ambitious goal, but that’s what Harley-Davidson is attempting this summer in Ryder, N.D., a farm community known for its grain mill, not bikes.
Today, Harley is trying to introduce every willing Ryder resident to motorcycling – with the goal of making it the first town in America where everybody has a motorcycle license.
Ryder is small, with only 85 residents, but the rural town in the middle of North Dakota has a feisty spirit that’s kept it alive through hard times, not to mention North Dakota winters, for more than a century.
In a nod to Harley’s goal, Ryder officials have changed their town’s name to “Riders” for the 2017 motorcycle season. Riding lessons, free to residents, will take place this summer.
“We are all fired up to give it a whirl,” said Mayor Jody Reinisch.
“I got everybody interested … from ages 16 to 75,” he said.
Ryder is about 40 miles south of Minot, not far from the Missouri River. Harley-Davidson executives were smitten with the town’s name and its water tower that’s a dead ringer for one that Harley has at its Juneau Ave. headquarters in Milwaukee.
The company looked at towns with names like Freedom and Independence but chose Ryder for the goal of getting everybody in a town enrolled in rider training through the motorcycle group ABATE of North Dakota.
“We looked at the town and said, ‘Why don’t we turn Ryder into Riders?’ It sealed the deal when we saw their water tank,” said Anoop Prakash, Harley’s U.S. marketing director.
Harley-Davidson has repainted Ryder’s water tower, with the company name on it now, and the town is having a street dance and motorcycle riding demonstrations this weekend as part of the celebration.
Harley will have a stationary motorcycle in Ryder for learning what it’s like to climb aboard a big bike and run it through the gears, without going down the road.
The last big event the town had was in 2006 during its Centennial celebration.
“Everybody’s pretty excited about this one. We had the boys paint some of the fire hydrants Harley-Davidson orange,” Reinisch said.
Ryder symbolizes rural America that hasn’t been touched by urban sprawl. The town is surrounded by farms growing wheat, canola and soybeans.
Ryder doesn’t have streetlights, and some of the streets are unpaved, but it has the heart of a farm town with a grain elevator, a cafe and tavern, a gas station and a roustabout business that provides workers for oil rigs.
“We are a nice little town, a nice place to be,” said Charlotte Smette, bookkeeper at the grain elevator.
A trike, rather than a two-wheel motorcycle, caught Smette’s eye.
“I just saw a little three-wheel thing coming down the street and thought, yeah, I would be able to get on that,” she said.
Reinisch, a farmer by profession, has gone door to door to get people excited about Harley’s plans. Of all the people he’s talked with, Reinisch said, only one has strongly opposed the company coming to Ryder.
“He’s negative on everything, but I am going to work on him,” Reinisch said.
Some older residents are nervous that Harley’s efforts, and the newly painted water tower, will make their town a beacon for bikers.
They don’t want a lot of partying and noisy motorcycles rumbling through town.
“They’re afraid of the destructive part of it. … But I know the Harley-Davidson people are very good. My cousin was one of them,” said Faye Karna, manager of the town’s museum.
Ryder once had nearly 400 residents, multiple banks, hotels, restaurants, machine shops and its own newspaper. Most of that was in the early 1900s when the town was on a busy rail line with passenger service.
In more recent times, people moved to Minot or Bismarck, and businesses folded.
Ryder officials are hopeful that the attention from Harley-Davidson, the world’s largest manufacturer of heavyweight motorcycles, and a marketing powerhouse, could rekindle interest in their town.
Already, bikers are stopping to have their picture taken by the water tower that has Harley-Davidson and Ryder painted on it.
“We’ve probably had more motorcycle traffic in the last two weeks than we’ve ever had,” Reinisch said.
South Dakota gets a lot of attention from Harley-Davidson enthusiasts for its annual Sturgis motorcycle rally that attracts hundreds of thousands of bikers. North Dakota is much lesser known but has some beautiful scenery and wide open highways.
“If you are riding a bike here, plan on looking at a lot of farm fields with tractors and combines,” said Roger Folden, manager of the Ryder gas station.
About 50 town residents are eligible to take the rider training. After they get their motorcycle licenses, Harley-Davidson might take them on a group ride and bring them to Milwaukee for what many tourists do here: tour Harley’s manufacturing plant and museum.
“It would be a wonderful way to end the summer,” Prakash said.