Mike Merchen meets peace every time he makes a drive out to Cam-plex.
These days, the seasoned sport bike freestyle rider works alone in a vacant parking lot at the Central Pavilion. No other bikers and few spectators catch the stunt man in action as he effortlessly maneuvers the 400-pound hunk of machinery, turning on a dime and contorting his body in acrobatic positions.
Merchen said “the thrill of controlling something that should be uncontrollable,” is what brought him into the sport in 2007 when he was living in Billings, Mont.
He feels a rush every time he fires up his 2005 Kawasaki 636. Like other extreme sport enthusiasts, his adrenaline flares with the propensity to danger, which makes executing risky maneuvers that much more rewarding.
Sometimes, the 24-year-old has to listen to country music to soothe the sensations that come with riding.
“Hell, yeah, I was born in Wyoming man. I used to hate this stuff growing up,” he said of his music selections. “Every now and then, you have to roll really slow and take it easy.”
There’s a serenity that comes with his early evening rides in the Cam-plex lot that’s hard to find in other places. He spends most of his days working in prevention loss for a local business.
But since Merchen moved back to Gillette to be closer to family, he’s also had to sacrifice the camaraderie that riders in a niche sport enjoy.
“It’s nice to an extent. But with this sport, I feed off other people,” Merchen said. “As much as it’s an individual sport, it’s definitely a team-based sport for me.”
In Billings, the Gillette native rode with a handful of others on 1 Wheel Revolution, a team of sponsored riders that put on several shows and appeared in several films. Back then, motorcycle parts were inexpensive and often free.
A substantial change
Moving back to Gillette has been a drastic change of pace for Merchen.
The veteran rider gets some of his parts through a sponsorship with Alien Ink, a Gillette-based tattoo parlor, but he recently had to make a trip out to Connecticut to pick up his third bike, which is what he rides now.
Between sleeping and driving, the trip east took about 38 hours. He arrived to a world of wonder.
Freestyle riders travel in masses. Parking lot barbecues are standard procedure and the droves of stuntmen out East are a welcoming bunch.
“It’s a big family, man. If you stunt, you’re part of the family,” Merchen said.
After a few days of traveling with a like-minded group of about 30, Merchen waved goodbye to his new circle and made the lone trip back west with a heavily customized piece of machinery that originally cost him $2,700.
A beefed up bike
Merchen’s wheels sport a reinforced upper mount, a radiator cage, beefed up stock rear pegs, a 64-tooth sprocket to increase torque for slow wheelies and custom-crafted handle bars for clearance — just to name a few modifications.
It’s not built for speed — it’s lucky to top 90 mph in sixth gear — but it is ideal for Merchen’s brand of stylistic shimmying.
The stund rider has come a long way since he switched over to the sport from trick BMX riding.
He’s overcome plenty of obstacles — like coming back from an ACL tear — and learned a respectable set of skills.
But his newest challenge, finding others who share his passion, poses a unique set of circumstances.
Merchen plans to travel to Casper soon to search the streets for others of his ilk. He’s not overly optimistic he will find who he’s looking for.
In the meantime, he’s grateful for what he does have.
“I’m lucky to find a spot. I’m lucky Cam-plex hasn’t kicked me out,” he said. “The few cops that have come by have been cool.”
Merchen cruises off into the open strip of pavement, anticipating his next set of tricks. He takes his time about it.
The sky’s losing light fast, but there will always be another sunrise and hopefully another stunt. That much, Merchen does know.