Monday, February 07, 2005

Remembering Laconia

Bikers dream of the wind in their hair and the sun on their skin.
So they don't wear helmets or riding gear in the American state of New
Hampshire because they don't have to. Instead, their numberplates defiantly
proclaim the State motto: "Live Free Or Die".
And, once a year, bikers from all around the USA come to join them on the
roads of freedom and gather for a 10-day bikers' festival - a mind-boggling
convergence of up some 300,000 bikes on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee.
It is one of the biggest biker events in America - and in the world.
And it has been going for more than 80 years.

Visiting the lakeside township of Laconia at the height of rally and race
week, it was hard to imagine how an added 100,000 people let alone bikes
could have squeezed in. It was wall-to-wall bikes.
Bikes were parked tightly to line the roads - not just parked, but
perfectly parked in complete symmetry like a communal work of art. One
could stand at one end of the street and look down an endless row of
saddles and handlebars.
Chrome dazzled in all directions. Every bike was very seriously polished to
a degree of shimmering overkill which could shame Mr Sheen. And while
there were many of the same models of bikes, no two bikes were the
identical. Each was an expressions of personality and lifestyle. Some were
art in its purest form. Delicate hand-paintings adorned tanks - some
heroic, some demonic, some patriotic and some even Biblical. Some bikes had
designer seats. Some were as sumptuous as leather lounges. One had a
genuine horse saddle, complete with fringes on the handlebars and stirrups.
Some bikes had tooled leather offices attached to the handlebars. Some had
spirit-of-the-road slogans in metallic calligraphy on the rears - and some
had numberplates declaring "speed" or "free".
If anything betrayed the cliched image of the biker, it was the image of
these massed bikers and their bikes. Yes, of course there were burly
tattooed Hell's Angels. Lots of them. And lots of Viet Vet bikers with
their grey beards and pot bellies. But amid a massed cross-section of the
biker world, they were but a part of the throng. There were glamorous
girlie bikers and sedate Mama bikers. Even sinewy granny bikers. There were
obese bikers whose lardy forms splayed across the seats. There were smart
bikers - well-groomed upmarket professionals for whom biking is a weekender
passion. There were bikers who rode with their dogs as passengers. Others
who had teddy bears or soft toys on board. Hardly what one expected of the
studded leather brigade. And even the tattoos were often surprising. One
woman biker proudly flourished a Betty Boop tattoo on her shoulder which
mirrored the Betty Boop cartoon on her bike.
Between the dense fringes of parked bikes yet more bikes drove slowly up
and down the roadways all day long - a constant stream of throaty roars, a
showcase of styles and colors. Sometimes it was simply traffic jams of
bikes. But it mattered not. No one was in a hurry. It was all about seeing
and being seen.
Footpaths thronged with bikers promenading and shopping at the rows of
sidewalks stalls selling everything from mufflers to keyrings, not to
mention chrome polish, insurance policies, Harley bikinis, chainmail
jewellery, leather and denim gear, t-shirts and of course, wholesome
nourishment such as fries, coke, BBQ ribs and fried dough.
State Troopers in their Yogi bear hats, along with SWAT heavies from
Boston, crossed their arms and watched the crowds - just in case of rough
moments, which have not been unknown at other biker events.
After some fierce controversy, local authorities had relented at the 11th
hour on their threats to withhold liquor licences for the Hell's Angels and
the Hell's Angels were happily sucking on their Budweisers in the drenching
heat of New England summer. Against all the biker hype and reputations for
violence, the Bikers Week had a good-natured spirit to it - not quite a
church picnic, but a celebratory diversity of peers.
Rally activities had drawn teams with pantechnicons and big support fields
of mechie-techie activities. These, also, became promenade grounds with yet
more stalls and cheerful consumerism.
Even into the evenings when parties converged in the campgrounds and at
pubs with names like Roadhog Saloon, troubles were few and only three
arrests had been reported at the height of the gathering.
Instead, restaurants and diners for miles around revelled in bumper
business as the thousands of bikers, lights, hair flying on and goatee's
riven in the wind, hummed around the highways and byways seeking all-day
all-you-can-eat breakfasts. And 10 days of monumental bikie extravaganza
came and went - leaving little behind but dollars.

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