Oct 1, 2019

Making Friends Wherever We Go

A little more than 20 years ago, my oldest daughter lived in Daytona Beach. My grandson was born there. When she first moved to that beleaguered city, she really loved the place. She lived easy walking or bicycling distance from the ocean, work was a short bike ride every morning, the weather was almost always perfect, her rent was cheap, and the hospital where her son was born (prematurely) was very competent. And then the first month of March rolled around and with it rolled in a half-million bikers and their noisemakers. Her last year in Daytona, 2000, was a record breaker (until 2006) with 15 motorcycle deaths highlighting the 10-day “event.” The noise and pollution from that many illegal motorcycles in a confined space with “law enforcement’ turning a blind eye to everything from burnouts on residential streets to guns fired at all times of the day and night to wannabe gangbangers hanging out anywhere there was something to slouch against convinced her that Florida was no place to raise a kid. It also made things a little tense between us for a while, when she was reminded of my daily motorcycle commute. 

My experience with biker events started long  before that. In 1974, my local (Nebraska) Suzuki dealer was looking to make a dent in the off-road racing sales and service and winning an event or two at the Black Hills Motor Classic was one of his marketing targets. I got tagged to help with his entries in the hill climb, the motocross, and the cross country races. I planned to ride a TM250 for the last two events and we both thought we’d take a shot at the hill on a TM400 Cyclone with big paddle-style tires. 1974 was the first year, I think, for vendors and he’d brought stuff to sell; dirt bike stuff. I think we knew we were in the wrong place with the wrong stuff the moment we drive into the pit area. The motocross event was so normal it was practically non-existent. There were only a few riders, mechanics, parents, and people who looked like they belonged at a motocross and a lot of people who looked like they came straight out of a Dennis Hopper-cast biker movie hanging around the vans, trailers, and any bike that wasn’t being watched closely. We immediately scrapped out plan to camp out in the pit area in tents and opted for waiting to see how things played out at the first races. 

Later that day, the kind of stuff for which Sturgis became infamous began to happen; fights, drunks staggering through the pits looking for fights, tools and bikes stolen, motorcyclists hassled by bikers, and it was really obvious that this wasn’t a motorcycle event. Sore loser performance art? I was pretty much stuck in South Dakota until my friend made up his mind. Since the only things I’d brought were my riding gear, I snagged a ride east with some folks who had also decided to give it up for lost and go back home. They dropped me off in Rapid City and I found a bar near a motel on the west end of town and a phone booth (remember those?). I called my wife to let her know she didn’t have to worry about me getting banged up on the motocross track. A few hours later, my Suzuki dealer/friend showed up; frustrated, bummed-out, and angry. Things back in Sturgis got worse after I left and he’d seen all he needed to see of bikers and the Black Hills Motor Classic. Almost 50 years later, I do not remember what his past experience had been with the event, but I am pretty sure he’d raced there at least a few times previously. We drove straight back home that evening. Back home, there was lots of bad press about the gangsters and hoodlums who had run wild in South Dakota. Being known as a motorcyclist wasn’t a good social move for a long while. 

The next motorcycle rally/event I intentionally experienced was the Steamboat Springs Vintage Motorcycle Weekend in Colorado that ran from 1981 to 1998. Steamboat ended, when the high-rent development in that once-really-cool-town ate up all of the rideable real estate and priced motorcycles out of town. I started going to Steamboat in 1992 and went every year from then to the end. It was a great motorcyclists’ event. For at least 5-6 years, the event was really popular with the local folks, too. That is UNUSUAL! Typically, the locals hate motorcycles, motorcyclists, and bikers by the time an event is over. I’ve spent a lot of miles prowling around South Dakota and if you aren’t on a Harley you will often get an earful of what the locals really think of bikers and the Sturgis train-wreak. For a surprising number of years, that was not the case for Steamboat Springs.

For one, the only noisy bikes at Steamboat were the race bikes--on the track --where noise and race bikes belong. For two, Steamboat wasn’t a gangbanger event, but a motorcycle event that was more about motorcycles and riders than any of the previous two described events could ever hope to be. Instead of partying like drunk circus bears, the late evenings in Steamboat were often folks sitting around a campfire telling adventure touring or racing stories. The motorcycles, both the competitors’ and the fans’ motorcycles, were unusual. No chrome and LED gunked-ujp hippobikes or suspension-mangled sportbikes, but lots of odd and interesting stuff I never saw before and haven’t seen since; outside of coffee table books. The thing to takeaway from Steamboat is that motorcyclists and motorcycles don’t have to be Public Enemy #1. as weird as it sounds, a motorcycle event could be about creating good will between the 99.999…% of the public who do not ride motorcycles and those of us who do. Otherwise, it’s safe to assume motorcycling’s days on public roads are numbered and we’re likely to end up as the same kind of history as horses and buggies and all of the other unlicensed recreational vehicles. Think about it.

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