First day of Thunder features food, music, motorcycles

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On a hot, muggy Thursday afternoon, thousands of motorcyclists and Johnstown-area locals descended on downtown Johnstown for the first day of the 20th annual Thunder in the Valley motorcycle rally.

“It’s a wonderful event,” Brad Zepka, the owner of Johns-town motorcycle dealership Zepka Harley-Davidson, said.

“It always brings an economic boost into our area and showcases the Johnstown region to motorcyclists from all over the USA … It’s a great week for us and our business.”

Zepka said that by 3 p.m. Thursday, Thunder attendees from places across North America, including far-flung destinations like Canada, Florida, Texas and Arizona, had passed through his shop.

“A lot of them have local ties that bring them back into the area, but others come because they heard it’s a beautiful area to ride in and they decided to come check it out,” Zepka said.

Event organizer Lisa Rager, the executive director of the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the good weather, combined with loud music and a broad assortment of vendors, made the first day of Thunder a success.

“I rode down through town past Central Park and saw quite a few bikes, so it looks like we’re building up a nice opening day crowd,” Rager said. “It’s not raining. It’s warm and humid, but it’s nothing we haven’t dealt with before. I think everyone’s ready to come out and have a good time.”

Zepka, too, said the weather gave his business a boost.

“As long as Mother Nature cooperates, it’s our best weekend of the year, and this year it’s sunny and dry,” he said.

Live music sounded throughout the city for most of the day Thursday, including from a stage at Peoples Natural Gas Park, from the Central Park gazebo and from the courtyard of St. Mark’s Episcopalian Church on Locust Street.

“I came by the train station, and (the music) was sounding pretty loud and pretty good,” Rager said.

“I think we’re getting ready to rock!”

At booths set up throughout downtown, vendors offered T-shirts, motorcycle leathers, bandannas, gun holsters, free legal advice, motorcycle insurance, portable jump-starters, stainless-steel jewelry, “energy bands,” therapy, tattoos and much, much more.

Several rally attendees got to meet the famous Budweiser Clydesdales, who will be housed at Peoples Natural Gas Park for the duration of Thunder.

Stunt riders, too, had a presence at the rally.

The American Motor Drome Co. offered a thrill-riding display at a two-story “Wall of Death” structure set up in a parking lot, while St. Louis-based Ill Conduct, which bills itself as “one of the top all-Harley-Davidson thrill shows in the country,” popped wheelies and did burnouts along a blocked-off section of Johns Street outside Point Stadium.

Ill Conduct owner Cole Freeman, an “Evel Knievel-style” daredevil jumper, said he and his teammates travel all over the United States, putting on shows at motorcycle rallies and other events. The team has been coming to Johnstown for Thunder in the Valley for the past three years.

“We love it here,” Freeman said. “Great event, great crowd, always a crowd at our shows, really enthusiastic. They’re always really helpful and supportive of us. They help us by buying shirts, so on and so forth.”

Two members of the team, including 13-year-old Shawn Elmore, are still in their teens.

Freeman said that he offered to teach both teenagers how to stunt-ride after they reached out to him on Facebook.

Ill Conduct will put on shows on Johns Street at 1, 3 and 7 p.m. every day until Sunday.

Rager urged Johnstowners to come downtown and visit Thunder on Friday or over the weekend.

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Craig Ballantyne

I love anything to do with Harley Davidson and have two beautiful children and a beautiful partner. In my spare time i like building websites and love anything to do with the internet.

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