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Catch a falling cycle: When rider's work ends, catchers' begins
JOHN WARNER/Gazette staffKnown as “catchers,” men armed with hooks and tethered ropes are the safety net of the Great American Motorcycle Championship Hillclimb. At right, Tyler Wattles, right, and Jason Halsey rush in while looking to hook a wildly flipping motorcycle as its rider Kevin Porter begins his freefall of 20 feet or so. Below, stationed near the top of the chute, catchers converge on a bail-out with ropes and hooks. Joe Ratcliff, center, left of cycle, is the unofficial crew chief.

You can't pay for the best seat in the house at the Billings hill climb, you have to earn it.

To get the best seats at the hill climb, you have to be a "catcher." The catchers are mainly Billings Motorcycle Club members who work for sandwiches and water. The risk is being run over by a 400-pound motorcycle or getting pelted by rocks. The reward is saving a rider from injury, or worse, and keeping a motorcycle from careening down the hill into the spectators or their fellow catchers.

The Great American Championship Motorcycle Hillclimb has the biggest purse - $35,000 - of any hill climb in the country. The event draws the best riders, in all classes of the sport, from all over the country. But the rush the riders experience for only a few seconds is what the catchers experience all day long.

"It's the best seat in the house, but it isn't free," Mike Smith said.

Smith is a member of the BMC and has been in charge of the catchers at the event for several years. There were about 15 catchers positioned at the top of the hill, in an area called the chute. The chute is a nasty, rutted incline of 87 degrees that covers the last 50 feet of the climb. Many of the riders didn't make it to the chute.

Where the ride ends, the catchers' work begins. The catchers stand on perches they've carved out of the mountain, barely big enough to accommodate both feet. They're tethered by ropes to metal fenceposts driven into the ground for anchors.

When a bike crashes or stalls, a half dozen catchers swarm the bike and attach steel hooks to the front wheel. If the rider is close enough to the top, they attach a three-foot-long candy cane-shaped steel hook to the front axle. The hook is attached to a pickup by a three-quarter-inch rope, which pulls it up over the top.

The catchers toss good-natured ribs at one another and the riders continuously. Tyler Wattles, 20, has been a catcher for four years. This is his second year working at the top of the 400-foot hill. Another motorcycle comes flying up the chute and stalls out. The catchers bolt from their perches and scramble to stop it. The rider lays on the throttle and spits rocks and dirt over the catchers.

"Hey, hey, hey," Wattles and other catchers yell at the rider.

After the hooks are in place and the truck is pulling the motorcycle up the last 20 feet of the hill, the catchers and the rider share a laugh. "Get off that front brake," a catcher shouts at the rider. "That's the longest ride of the day," another said.

"Thanks guys," the rider says sheepishly before he hops back on the bike and starts back down the hill.

Another rider flips his bike 100 feet below the chute on a large ledge that stymied many of the riders Saturday. The bike went sailing through the air, then tumbled to a stop a few feet down the steep slope.

"That's where he belongs," Wattles said laughing.

The nucleus of the group has been riding together for years, and they know many of the local riders in the event. One of their friends, Dave Johnston, made it to the top of the hill and launched over it. His bike hit the ground and cartwheeled over the top of him.

The catchers scrambled to his side, a dead silence enveloping the top of the hill. Johnston remained quiet, kneeling on all fours, struggling to find his wind that had been knocked out of him.

"What a f—ing wild ride," the 41-year-old screamed rising to his feet.

The silence was broken and the catchers went wild. "Dave, that was spectacular," one of the catchers said. Johnston, who thought he broke his collar bone, thanked the catchers before going to the hospital.

The catchers respect the riders, especially the veterans who know when and how to bail out. They jeered those who failed and cheered those who made it to the top. Smith refuses to watch the event from below, and like the catchers, remained at his post all day.

"It's thrilling, the feeling you get when you look into the eyes of the riders," Smith said. "It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up."

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