A two-wheeled tribute to America's armed forces will be rolling through the north metro on Saturday in the form of the fifth annual Patriot Ride.
The 75-mile motorcycle ride, expected to draw about 1,500 bikes, is a visible salute to service people, veterans and the war dead. But it is also a fundraiser for the Minnesota Military Appreciation Fund (MMAF) and the Patriot Guard.
Over the past five years, the MMAF has given 10,000 grants, totaling more than $6 million, to Minnesota combat veterans. The Patriot Guard is perhaps best known as the bikers who stand vigil at fallen soldiers' funerals and burials, but the group also contributes about $100,000 a year to a variety of veteran-related causes.
"We're not paying $25 to go on a motorcycle ride," said Doug Bley, state captain for the Minnesota Patriot Guard. "We're donating $25 to a great cause, and we get to go on a motorcycle ride."
In anticipation of last year's ride, people along the route pulled up lawn chairs to watch the bikers pass. And this year, city officials are effusive in their praise of the ride's organizers.
"I think it's a good cause," said Ham Lake Mayor Paul Meunier. "This is for heroes in the war that have made the ultimate sacrifice, to honor them. I think it's neat they chose to do it in Ham Lake."
That's after a controversial ride in 2008, when congregating motorcyclists clogged city streets around Fat Boys in East Bethel, drawing residents' ire.
On Saturday morning, riders will assemble at Lions Park in Ham Lake, before setting off at noon on a loop up Hwy. 65 to Cambridge and back along Highways 47 and 9 in Isanti and Anoka counties. They'll have a celebration afterward at the park.
Increased communication also has meant fliers delivered to every home along the ride, an amended route -- and a firetruck escort -- in Cambridge, staggered starts to allow several 10-minute traffic gaps along the loop and a city block closed for reassembly north of the St. Francis City Hall.
"It's about communicating," Bley said. "We have to respect that not everybody believes what we believe. We live in these communities. We want to be good neighbors and a good visitor."
For him, the ride is a way to give something back, and drive home the enormity of the sacrifice made by service people and their families.
"So many things are accomplished on that day," he said. "We remember the fallen, celebrate the currently serving, celebrate our veterans who have served. We can never say thank you enough."
Last year a few hundred current service people attended the ride and the ceremonies afterward.
"When you have 2,000-3,000 people cheering for that soldier standing there, they have to be able to go home and say it was worth it because someone cares, someone said thanks," Bley said. "It makes you feel good without getting stuck on the current military situation. It's about letting these military veterans know we care, we appreciate you, we thank you."
But for him, the most moving part of the ride is the "last mile," near its end; National Guardsmen stand along the roadside, bearing signs marked with the names and insignias of service people who have died, along with their ranks and the date of their deaths.
"I've gotten to know these families personally," Bley said, noting that several Gold Star Families ride along. "Every year I need 15 minutes by myself to collect myself again. ... I can't imagine what it's like for them to see that sign of their son or daughter."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409