NEAL DuSHANE knows about motorcycle gangs: the tattoos, headbands, chains; the hard drinking and roaring black bikes. No wonder, he says, that when the townspeople of this upscale Rocky Mountain resort community heard that 3,500 motorcyclists were descending for an early-August rally, the impulse was to lock up the women and children. But Mr. DuShane, a former hardware wholesaler from Fort Collins, Colo., rides with a different crowd. Standing beside a spit-polished, burgundy-colored Honda Gold Wing - the Japanese company's top-of-the-line motorcycle, easily capable of doing 130 miles an hour with little more than a whisper of noise, and probably worth $15,000 - he could hardly be mistaken for the knife-between-the-teeth rowdies he dismisses as mere ``bikers.'' DuShane doesn't ride a ``bike'': He drives a ``touring motorcycle.'' And he does it quietly, calmly, and with a sense of humor.
``They say that when we ride into town,'' he chuckles, ``no salad bar is safe.''
As national operations director of the Gold Wing Road Riders Association (GWRRA), DuShane has hit a lot of salad bars in the 7 years he's owned a Gold Wing. The 39,000 active members of this 10-year-old, Phoenix-based international organization joke that the club's initials stand for ``Gold Wing Restaurant Research Association.'' Organized into local chapters around the nation and overseas, the members typically gather on weekends, sometimes driving 200 miles with nothing more than an untried restaurant as their goal. Full membership is open to anyone who owns a Gold Wing, subscribes to the club's motto of ``Safety, Knowledge, and Friendship,'' and pays yearly dues of $25 ($30 overseas).
Judging from the 6,000 registrants assembled here for the GWRRA's eighth annual worldwide ``Wing Ding,'' the association attracts a slice of middle-American demography that would have delighted Norman Rockwell. Most Goldwingers are middle-class and blue-collar folks - taller (and perhaps stouter) than average, easily capable of manipulating an 800- to 900-pound Gold Wing. The average age is somewhere north of 45 - although officials at the Aspen rally signed up one 14-year-old and knew of several members in their 80s.
Crucial to the group are the associate members, usually the wives of members. The typical Goldwinger, in fact, is married and arrives at rallies riding ``two up'' on his vehicle's sofa-soft seats, talking with his wife over an intercom wired into the helmets. Increasingly, however, women are members in their own right.
A fashion-conscious lot, the typical couple dresses in matching outfits color-keyed to the motorcycle - and to the trailer they often pull behind or the sidecar that carries one or two offspring. Helmets and highway courtesy are in: Wild driving, high speed, and hard drinking are definitely out. ``They just aren't drinking people,'' says DuShane, who notes that no alcohol is served at GWRRA rallies. A foremost goal of the association, he explains, is to ``improve the image of motorcycling.''
Not everyone in Aspen knew the group's intentions, however, before they arrived.
``Aspen didn't want us,'' says Jim Bailey, a cheerful, outgoing maintenance welder at a Chesterton, Ind., steel mill. With his wife, who runs a beauty salon, he drove some 1,200 miles to stay at GWRRA rally headquarters at nearby Snowmass Village, where the Goldwingers came to roost after an Aspen City Council member, Michael Gassman, took public umbrage at their coming. Other Aspen officials, more accommodating, hung a welcoming banner over Main Street.
Between rally events, the Wing Dingers, wearing their trademark denim vests hung with pins and medals from previous outings, wandered among the boutiques, helping produce what the city estimated to be a $500,000 uptick in the region's economy.
For Bailey and his wife, however, the real fun of motorcycle touring lies not in destinations like Aspen, but in getting there. Quietly cruising the open road, ``you actually become a part of nature,'' he says.
Now that his three children are grown, Bailey and his wife spend much of their free time on the road - on weekend trips with their local chapter, and on summer vacations that frequently cover thousands of miles. On an average day, Bailey covers about 450 miles, he says, doing all the driving himself.
And that, says Swiss-born Daisey Bacher of Waterville Valley, N.H., is about as much as either a rider or a driver can take. One day during their 2,300-mile trip out to Aspen, she and her restaurateur husband, Armin, covered 700 miles - not, she says, something she'd like to repeat. A lifelong motorcycle rider, she enjoys the American version of the sport.
``Motorcyclists in Europe are different,'' she says, noting that on the Continent, sheer speed seems to be the goal. There, she says, ``at 45 miles an hour, you're a hazard.'' Here the pace is more leisurely.
Or at least it is for Goldwingers, who form the largest of the various associations based on a single motorcycle product line. They are also known as the most sedate - and perhaps the most accessory-conscious, with pin-striping, extra chrome, citizens band radios, stereos, and dozens of lights bedecking nearly every machine.
GWRRA chapters appear to thrive simply on what Ed Lewis of Concord, N.H., the association's Northeast regional director, calls ``the family feeling of the association.'' That's evidently a strong draw: The association's numbers have doubled in four years. Last year the group's monthly magazine, Wing World, grew from 40 to 80 pages. All of which once worried Honda executives, who several years ago locked horns with the group over the trademark Gold Wing name. Now that the issue is settled, says Mr. Lewis, Honda and the GWRRA are ``the best of friends.'' The association, maintained largely by dues, gets no financial support from Honda, which builds all Gold Wings at its plant in Marysville, Ohio, largely from US-made parts.
And that, for an American worker like Bailey in an import-sensitive industry, is significant. You wouldn't catch him, he says, on a ``riceburner'' - the Goldwinger's slang for a Japanese-built bike. Besides, he likes the feel of this association, whose membership book he carries wherever he goes. If he breaks down, he explains, all he needs to do is get on his CB and call for help.
After all, he adds, ``I've got 50,000 friends I haven't met yet.''