Thanks to the Blue Ridge Crossroads SBDC, four unlikely friends found a way to turn motorcycle tours into transformative experiences and forge bonds among strangers — all while doing what they love.
“This might sound like a cliché, but when you do what you love for a living, it’s not work.” When Wayne Cayton talks about Planet Chopper, you can hear that love.
Wayne met New Zealanders Mark Van Leeuwarden, Mark’s son Ben, and John Devonshire a decade ago at a gas station. “We met on the road riding motorcycles somewhere in New Mexico,” Wayne relates. It turned out that the four of them were going to the same place in Rockingham, NC. They agreed to meet up whenever they arrived, having no inkling that their eventual destination would turn into a joint business venture.
Their company, Planet Chopper, offers one-of-a-kind tours on unique custom motorcycles. Wayne says, “The four of us had been riding together as a group for 10 years. And we’d go on these journeys that were just unbelievable.” With boots-on-the-ground experience in riding, mechanics, and motorcycle tour destinations, they offer life-changing trips to groups of riders throughout the United States. With a company tagline of Where Easy Rider Meets Mad Max and tours named The Kiwi Crusade, The Southern Joyride, and The Sturgis Stampede, you’re bound to attract a diverse crowd.
The four founders share a deep and abiding love of riding on the open road, and their diverse array of skills complement each other. Wayne and John practice the art of chopping, that is, they customize one-off bikes for the tours. Mark brings expertise in international business. Ben focuses on marketing, but he found that establishing local points of contact was difficult. He contacted the SBDC for help with “connecting the dots in the local environment.” Mandy Archer, Director for the Blue Ridge Crossroads SBDC, knew where to start.
“Ginny and Mandy put us in touch with Larry Davidson, founder of Back of the Dragon [Larry’s story is also in this publication]; Becky Nave, the Destination Development Specialist at Virginia Tourism Corporation; and Steve Helms of Primland,” Mark explains. Back of the Dragon is a 32-mile stretch of winding road from Marion to Tazewell, famous among riders throughout the world, and Primland is a luxury resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounded by a 47-mile loop favored by riders. “Their support was invaluable and made all the difference,” says Wayne.
Musing about the experience, Wayne says, “What begins as a group of 15 complete strangers at the start of a trip — not even two weeks later, with the laughter and conversation happening at the table — you’d think they’d been friends and family for decades. That is really cool to see. These are stories that they’re going to be able to tell for the rest of their lives.”