In Denver, Zen and the art of motorcycle muffling

Times Staff Writer

City Councilman Rick Garcia thought cracking down on loud motorcycles would be an easy ride compared with other issues the city grapples with -- homelessness, immigration and the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

But regulating motorcycles is anything but tranquil, as Garcia and the rest of Denver found out last week when the city required that all bikes be outfitted with EPA-certified mufflers. Riders whose bikes lack the equipment can be fined up to $500.

Bikers flocked to the council chambers to object to the law. Some motorcycle shop owners warned they could be put out of business, and Garcia’s office was deluged with calls from across the country.

“We’ve got to create some balance,” Garcia said. “This is about egregious motorcycle noise and neighborhoods.”


But bikers say it’s about discrimination. “They’re just trying to eliminate bikers,” said John Olvera, 48, as he sat astride his neon-blue bike. “They’re trying to take away our pride and joy.”

Many riders don’t have the mufflers, which can cost $400 to $1400 to add.

The American Motorcycle Assn. said that other than Albuquerque, which enacted a similar law several years ago but did away with it, no cities appear to have taken the same approach as Denver.

The problem, Denver officials say, is that police have been unable to enforce noise ordinances limiting motorcycles to 80 decibels, because the Police Department has only one sound meter to measure bikes. And complaints about bike noise have increased as riding has become more popular and as more people have moved to corners of town that were once grittier and more biker-friendly.


So the city is requiring that motorcycles have mufflers bearing a stamp from the Environmental Protection Agency. Such mufflers tend to be quieter.

That means police will be able to pull over motorcycles they consider too loud, citing riders whose muffler isn’t EPA-certified, said police Capt. Eric Rubin, head of the traffic division.

The intention is not to pull over every bike to look at its muffler, Rubin said. “It’s conceivable you could ride a motorcycle without an EPA muffler and not draw such attention that an officer will ever notice you.”

Bikers are not convinced.


Peter Boyles, a talk-radio host and avid biker whose show recently focused on the new ordinance, said police were “going to be able to pick and choose who they want to grab.”

At last week’s City Council meeting, more than a dozen bikers echoed that concern. Amid a crowd mostly in business dress, they stood out in leather jackets, or vests that revealed arm-length tattoos.

“This gives them cause to pull us over for any reason they want,” said a biker who identified himself as Diablo.

Wayne “Lumpy” Ordakowski, who owns a motorcycle shop in southern Denver, said that dealers usually installed EPA-certified mufflers and most after-market shops didn’t stock them. The law jeopardizes small operators like him, he said.


And the city should target bad bikers, not everyone who rides, he said. “If I’m in my neighborhood and someone’s racing an engine, I’ll throw a rock at them.”

Some residents cheered the new law, saying it was long overdue. “We have a real problem with noise enforcement here,” said David Webster, 69, a neighborhood activist and retired engineer.

Webster used to endure 2 a.m. wake-ups on weekends from a biker bar across the street from his house. New management has changed the place, Webster said. “They do jazz in the back now. It’s a phenomenal difference.”

To Boyles, the whole matter is “typical Denver City Council -- let’s kill an ant with an atomic bomb.”


Biker Jim Sena, 50, said he had to rev to live. Only a few minutes earlier, he said, he and a buddy were almost sideswiped by a Chevy Cavalier whose driver didn’t spot them until they revved their engines.

“You need the loud bikes to save your life,” said Sena, who rides a black Harley-Davidson.

Sena attributed the new law to stereotypes about bikers. Handing out a flier for a ride to benefit a scholarship fund in the name of his dead grandson, he started his engine. “We’ve got jobs. We’re part of the community,” he said, and angled into traffic.