By David M. Fitzpatrick
Of The Weekly Staff
HERMON — It was 40 years from the time that J.D. Blaine first fell in love with motorcycles until he opened his shop, PanikSwitch Cycles, on Route 2 in Hermon.
His journey began in 1973, when he was 6 years old. His first bike was a beat-up old 1960s Harley-Davidson Sprint that his father paid for with $20 and a case of beer. It had no clutch cable, no rear brake, bent handlebars, and a beat-up tank. But Blaine was in his glory.
“I rode that thing and I thought I was going to break every bone in my body,” he recalled.
He didn’t, and by age 8 he’d learned how to fix it, and his tinkering continued as he grew older.
But tragedy struck in 1993. While riding with friends, a motorist ran a red light. He and two friends went down; one friend died, and Blaine was injured. It was a wake-up call for a young man with children at home, so he stopped riding for the next 16 years.
In July 2009, a friend asked him to go motorcycle shopping. That’s when the bug hit him again.
“I threw my leg over a bike to test ride it for him, bought a bike a few weeks later, and got back to riding,” he said. “I was like, ‘Man, have I missed this.’”
A year later, a friend who operated a riding school talked him into apprenticing as a riding instructor. That might have happened, but Blaine had his sights set on opening a motorcycle service shop. After a long process — and thanks to his girlfriend, Ashley Donovan, who supported him along the way and even put her finances on the line — he opened PanikSwitch Cycles, doing service, maintenance, rebuilds, custom work, powdercoating, and even detailing.
The grand opening was April 1 at 10 a.m. Not a soul showed up for the first four hours — and then it went berserk.
“From two to six, we had probably 40 people in here,” Blaine. “We filled up the garage with 12 bikes. The next day I had another 20 or so people coming in, and it’s been like that since.”
He gets constant questions about whether he does this or that.
“I should just make a sign out front that says, ‘We do everything,’” he said.
The “we” is Blaine, his mechanic Sean McGowan, and his office manager Tricia Dunton. Between Blaine and McGowan, they’ve worked on just about everything over the years.
“I think, between the two of us, we have enough experience,” Blaine said. “We’ve pretty much touched every brand of bike there is.”
But they’re always eager to learn more.
“Thank God for Google,” said McGowan. “There’s almost nothing you can’t figure out if you’re willing to put a little effort and time into it.”
The pair met in an online forum when Blaine was seeking an answer to a motor problem; as it turned out, McGowan was familiar with the motor. They were surprised to discover they lived near each other in the Bangor area, and they soon became friends. That led to McGowan joining Blaine at PanikSwitch.
“One of the things that intrigued me was that J.D. was like, ‘I want to be able to work on anything,’” McGowan said. “Well, why wouldn’t you?”
It’s tough for old bikes that can’t find places to service them, he says, and he and Blaine have seen many such customers already. One customer had an old Kawasaki 440 that nobody would touch.
“All he wanted was somebody to look at the bike, go over it, and make sure it’s safe for him to drive,” said McGowan. “But when he brings it to a dealer, they don’t want to touch it because of the age.”
Then there was the young guy, just out of college, who had a 1984 Honda Nighthawk. It was uninspectable, but the dealer wouldn’t do the needed work on the old bike. The owner had sold his car to buy the bike, as he’d planned to save money and ride it every day. PanikSwitch did the work and made it safe.
“We know it’s safe,” McGowan said. “We feel good about that bike rolling out of the yard.”
In fact, the shop’s name, PanikSwitch Cycles, is a reflection of safe riding: In motorcycle parlance, a “panic switch” is another name for the red “kill switch” that lets a rider shut the bike down with his thumb in an emergency. The shop’s name echoes how important safety is at Blaine’s shop; he has first-hand experience with the tragedy that can strike when things aren’t safe, so safety issues weigh powerfully on him.
“This is what really gets me: People come in here, and they essentially are trusting me with their lives,” Blaine said. “We take it very seriously 100 percent of the time. It has to be perfection every single day.”
Learn more at PanikSwitchCycles.com. Better yet, jump on your motorcycle and cruise out to Route 2 in Hermon, 1.6 miles past the Sports Arena, and see for yourself.