For Larry Malec, there’s not a bad road in or out of Johnstown.
As one of the motorcycle enthusiasts who drives the back country roads in this community — located 70 miles east of Pittsburgh — Malec is amply familiar with the scenery and the good stops in the countryside.
So, it’s a perfect fit that Malec is one of the local volunteers who welcomes the hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists who visit Johnstown each year for the annual Thunder in the Valley motorcycle rally, being held this year June 25–28.
“There’s a ride for every kind of taste,” Malec said.
Johnstown, about a three-hour drive from Washington, D.C., is located in a river valley, surrounded by high hills that frame the downtown. Its riverfront location was necessary for early commerce, but also made it susceptible to flooding — perhaps most notably when the infamous Great Flood of 1889 claimed 2,000 lives.
Beyond the flood
While the community has honored its past with a museum that commemorates the tragedy, Johnstown has also embraced tourism and outdoor activities. That’s one reason local tourism officials created Thunder in the Valley in 1998 as a way to draw even more tourists to the area.
“We needed to come up with ways to entice visitors to our community,” said Olivia Bragdon, who promotes the area.
It’s been growing ever since and is now “our signature event,” according to Bragdon. “It is what our community is known for.”
Thunder in the Valley draws more than 100,000 visitors each year, doubling the community’s size. Visitors are drawn to the open country roads and free activities held throughout the rally. There’s no cost to attend Thunder in the Valley, although some club rides do charge a nominal fee. Johnstown and the surrounding towns embrace the rally, holding events including free concerts, pride rides, and demonstrations.
“Most people who come, come back,” Malec said. “This is a very family-friendly event.”
Malec and other volunteers from the Greater Johnstown Touring Club help staff a welcome booth in the city’s downtown that serves as the kickoff point for the event.
Riders receive a program book that gives detailed maps for ride destinations. There are also four stages with live music, from oldies rock to jazz, and a number of motorcycle manufacturers set up displays.
“We have pamphlets and brochures that detail all you can see in the area,” Malec said.
Some popular rides include a club ride that travels to the Flight 93 Memorial, about 40 miles from Johnstown. It’s there, in Shanksville, where passengers on a fourth plane hijacked by terrorists sacrificed themselves on Sept. 11, 2001, crashing it into a field to prevent harm coming to others. The Quecreek Mine Memorial — the site of a miraculous mine rescue — is also another popular destination.
But, perhaps the biggest must-ride attraction is the Johnstown Inclined Plane, which carries riders up a steep hill that frames the town.
Insider tip: Johnstown’s incline, the world’s steepest, takes visitors up more than 1,000 feet for a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside. And, yes, motorcycles can ride up in the incline’s cars.
“Johnstown is known for its incline,” Bragdon said. “You can ride your bike to the top, visit restaurants, tour the area, and ride back down.”
One of the biggest appeals for riders is the welcome they receive from the community, Malec said. Thunder in the Valley has become an institution in the area, and an event the locals look forward to each year. Plus, there’s great camaraderie among the riders.
“Everyone has a common interest and bond,” he said. “Whether you are a hard-core rider, or you ride for fun on the weekends, we all have something in common.”
For more information
Johnstown Tourism: visitjohnstownpa.com