Motorcycle culture thrives in Modesto


art mitchellMODESTO — He doesn’t dress all in leather, and he certainly isn’t a rebel without a cause, but Art Mitchell could still be considered the unofficial leader of the Central Valley’s motorcycle culture.

Born and raised in Sunnyvale, Mitchell moved to Modesto in 1975.

The married father of five and grandfather of eight first learned to ride a motorcycle before he was barely old enough to attend school.

“I’ve always been involved with motorcycles,” Mitchell said. “My dad brought me home one when I was 5 years old. It kind of became a static babysitter for my parents, I think.”

And you could say he has not stopped riding since.

Young Mitchell became a proficient rider and eventually raced bikes during his high school years. He went on to work at a local Sunnyvale Harley-Davidson store before venturing into business ownership himself.

Mitchell is the namesake of Mitchell’s Modesto Harley-Davidson, an authorized dealer of the iconic American motorcycle manufacturer.

The Stanislaus County dealership was originally established in 1938 on 9th Street. Mitchell assumed ownership in 1987 and eventually relocated the shop to its current home on north Carpenter Road.

“The industry has changed a lot,” Mitchell said. “There are so many more riders than there ever were. When I bought the store, our total allocation was right at 50 for the year. Now we’re around 300, and we probably do close to that many in used (motorcycles).”

Besides the showroom and service department, Mitchell’s Modesto Harley-Davidson also boasts a retro-themed restaurant that patrons can frequent.

“I’m an owner of this business as an enthusiast before a businessman,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s motorcycle reach extends beyond Modesto as well. He acquired his second Harley-Davidson store – this one in Jamestown – in 1995. Additionally, he has been the owner of Stockton Honda Yamaha for the past 15 years.

Besides reliability, Mitchell believes what sets Harley-Davidson apart from other motorcycles is the brand’s mix of an old-school feel with new-school technology.

“People like the nostalgia,” Mitchell said. “Everybody likes nostalgia. That’s why they bring the Camaro back. That’s why they bring the Challenger back. That’s why they bring all these things back, for the guys who couldn’t afford one when they were a kid.”

“Harley-Davidson is trying to put the new in and keep the old feel,” he added. “It would be real easy to build something very modern, but that’s not what people want.”

Mitchell considers the culture of the Central Valley motorcycle riders he interacts with to be as much a lifestyle as it is a hobby. And it’s a lifestyle that people from all walks of life engage in.

If his 28 years in Harley-Davidson business ownership have shown Mitchell anything, it is that the typical biker stereotype is nothing more than a myth. In fact, Mitchell’s client base includes everyone from grandmas to CEOs.

“I have neurosurgeons that ride, doctors of different varieties that ride, and nurses that ride,” he said. “Name a profession, I probably have them. I don’t have a stereotype anymore because I see every single person come through the door. It’s moms, it’s grandmas, it’s dads, it’s grandfathers. About any person you want to imagine is riding right now.”

One of those riders is self-employed electrical contractor Anthony Ball of Modesto. Ball has been a repeat customer at Mitchell’s Modesto Harley-Davidson for the past 10 years.

“The difference between a Harley and any other motorcycle is there’s a family unit that seems to go with it,” he said.

Ball has also been involved with the Modesto Harley Owners Group (HOG), a riders club sponsored by Mitchell’s. The club plans more than 70 rides per year and is composed of 150 members from town.

Mitchell, his Modesto shop, and HOG members are regularly involved in community-oriented outreach, from providing security for local events to helping collect donations for charity. Examples of popular events include the annual Corporal Michael D. Anderson  Jr. Memorial Ride, the Sierra Hope Ride, and the American Graffiti Festival.

“When somebody wants to put an event on to raise money for something, they go to motorcycle people because they’re very generous,” Ball said of the HOG chapter’s fundraising efforts.

Looking to the road ahead, Mitchell is transitioning ownership of the shop to his son, John Bilyeu. You can bet that even when Mitchell is no longer owner, he will make time for his lifelong passion.

“There’s nothing like it,” he said of riding. “There’s nothing like being up in Yosemite on a motorcycle. I’ve got convertibles and everything else. There’s nothing like being on a motorcycle. It’s incredible.”

“If I had to describe it, you wouldn’t understand it,” Ball echoed. “I don’t know that there is a way to describe it.”

One unlikely selling point? Stress relief.

“It’s better than going to a therapist, that’s for sure,” Mitchell joked. “It’s therapy on two wheels.”

If you want to know what he is talking about, you might just have to try it for yourself. No leather clothing or rebel attitude required.



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