OK, bear with me. This is a kinda difficult confession for me to make – and in public, no less. Here goes: I’ve never been to a motorcycle rally.
For the sake of clarity, in all my years scribbling about motorcycles, I’ve attended more rallies than I can remember. Still, I’ve never really been to one. The distinction is, to me, pretty clear cut. To “be” at a rally, you need to meet a few very simple requirements. The first is that you’re not there for work. Whether or not you’re taking vacation time or simply playing hookie is up to you. It requires some time and effort to get organized, secure lodgings (even if it’s just a campsite), and wrangle your riding buddies (or arrange to meet them at the destination). Finally, you must ride to the event (folks who trailer their bikes to a rally only get half-credit).
Every rally I’ve attended, I’ve been to for work. In most cases, I had a list of tasks to accomplish before I left. Now, before your eyes glaze over, this isn’t going to be me whining about the difficulty of being a motojournalist, the writer’s version of Bob Seger’s Turn the Page. Usually, my to-do list is a fun one: find custom bikes, photograph them, and interview the builders; act as a judge in a bike show; give some sort of presentation to a group of riders; ride a new bike that none of the rally attendees have had a chance to throw a leg over, or lead a ride with readers – often on a course only seen on GPS planning software to sometimes comical results, like 15 miles of gravel roadwith a dozen shiny cruisers.
Most of these rallies, I’ve attended alone. If I’m lucky, I’m spending some of the time with a coworker or photographer or a few other journalists from competing publications. However, even in these groups, our experience is quite different from people who are actually there to participate in the rally. We are observers, there to document the events.
Since I’ve been in the motorcycle industry a bazillion years, I have to look way back to the early 1990s to find the times that I was able to actually be at a motorcycle event. Starting with the Laguna Seca Grand Prix in 1990, I’d only lived in California for a few months and hadn’t built up a group of riding buddies, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from attending my first international race. With no travel plans or even a place to say, I tossed a sleeping bag and tent on my bike and rode up to Monterey. As I stood in the parking lot, sweating in my black leathers outside the ticket sales office, an attractive woman with a baby on her hip walked up and asked me if I was in town for the races. When I answered in the affirmative, she handed me an envelope with two tickets, saying she had won them on the radio and had no use for them.
Back in 1990, things were a little less organized at Laguna Seca. I set up my tent next to my bike in the motorcycle parking lot and got to know my neighbors. They were much older than me – probably in their mid-30s, and they took me under their wings. Most likely because my wild-eyed innocence made them think I needed looking after. I spent the weekend with them, shared meals, helped them carry their coolers of beer over to the fence at the top of Turn 1 where the VIP viewing area is now, watched the races, and then I never saw them again.
The next year for the Grand Prix weekend, I found myself with a motorcycle still in pieces after I’d totaled it on the Angeles Crest, and my riding buddies had to work that weekend. So, I got a ride from a friend of a friend of a friend in his rusted-out Dodge Dart. About halfway up, while I was driving, he informed me that he had neither a valid registration nor insurance, so I better stay under the speed limit. Other than the racing, I remember the track putting on events after Saturday’s practice, culminating with a burn-out contest where the winner was awarded a set of tires. The losers? They had to buy their own.
In 1993, I was back on my bike, and when I couldn’t find my friends at Laguna Seca, I simply rode my bike down the hill behind one of the campsites and set up my tent behind the legal sites, spending Friday and Saturday nights watching roadracing videos on a VCR and rather sizable TV my neighbors had sitting in the trunk of their car, a generator humming in the background.
What all of these events had that my later work trips to rallies lacked was the sense of adventure, that I had no idea what was ahead of me, but I was all in. There’s the camaraderie of spending time with newfound friends, drinking beer sitting in the dust on the side of a track and simply waiting for that moment when it all comes together as the flag drops. Talking with strangers at a shared table in a roadside cafe crowded with riders from all over the country brings the same kind of experience. I’ll take this any day over the boozy Main Street scene where everyone’s waiting for the exhibitionists (both of the internal combustion and the fleshy kind) to show up and make things happen.
Perhaps that is why the rallies that I’ve enjoyed the most are riding rallies and not the hangout-and-talk-about-how-much-we-love-motorcycles rallies. I’d rather go to Americade or the Hoot (in its Asheville heyday) or, now, Sturgis because the locations lend themselves to going out and riding – all day – and spending time with folks you meet along the way simply because you share the same love of the road.
Later, back in the company-supplied hotel room, while duty may require that I sit down at the computer and work, the sunburn and the slight tightness in the back of my neck will remind me of how good it is to attend another rally.