Thursday, March 08, 2007

Bike Week in Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH -- A few families romped on the wide hard sand, and even a few college Spring Breakers hung around, though tourism officials here discourage them. But this week, the real action comes from adult Spring Breakers with two wheels between their legs and (mostly) good-natured rabble rousing on their minds. For the 66th year, it’s Bike Week, and on Day Five of our Florida Spring Break tour, Daytona Beach was Hog wild.

You see the bikers on every roadway, at every restaurant and hotel – even the parking lot of the local Barnes & Noble. This is because there’s not a single center of action, but three, and the streets around town are filled with bikers moving from one to another. Some 500,000 bikers come during the 10-day fest, dropping in excess of $350 million, says Kevin Kilian of the area Chamber of Commerce.

It’s not all fun. Last year, 16 people died in the deadliest Bike Week ever. This year, four have died, reports the Daytona Beach News Journal. As you weave through traffic, you understand how easily things can go wrong.

Stop One was at legendary Harley-Davidson dealer Bruce Rossmeyer’s mega store north of town, at 109,000 square feet the world’s largest. The plaza around the shop become a street fair of beer, bands, barbecue, bikes and bike-stuff: everything from fringed leather saddle bags to airbrush paint jobs executed on the spot.

Both the bikes and those who ride them spanned as wide a range as you can imagine. Purple choppers, baby-blue retro models, wide-tired crotch rockets, yellow polka dotted roadsters. The people, too: Bikini-clad girls hawking beer, a burley leather vested man clutching a lap dog, moms with babies in strollers, a chic gray-haired couple who looked like they belong in a Scottsdale art gallery. Even a retired minister in a Buffalo Soldiers shirt, Ronnie McLaughlin, and his wife, Ardelia, from Greensboro, N.C., who said they’d been coming to Bike Week for seven years. The scene was amazingly polite – even genteel. At least at mid-day.

The set-up was much the same at the Daytona International Speedway, where vendors selling all things bike oriented stretch from one end of the parking lot to the other.

But by late afternoon, the center of insanity was Main Street, just blocks from the famous hard-packed sands where the region first earned the name, Birthplace of Speed. It’s the ultimate see-and-be-scene. Bikes are parked wheel-to-wheel for a dozen blocks along the sidewalk. Bikers and enthusiasts crowd barbecue stands, make-shift beer stalls, music stages and T-shirt shops where they’ll custom-design a shirt in your size in just minutes. More bikers cruise the street, gunning their engines as the crowds roar approval. There’s plenty of bare skin, and more promised as the night grows closer.

Jason Kolenc of Ohio was soaking up attention at his first-ever Bike Week, thanks to his biking buddy, “Buffy,’’ an honest-to-goodness bison head a Daytona bar owner had given him earlier in the week. Next to him were regulars Fred and Barbara Hale from New Hampshire, who have come since the 1970s. “There are more people, and it’s a younger, crazier crowd,’’ than in earlier years, she said. But still nice; you just avoid the troublemakers.

As if to prove the point, a guy roared up and asked if I’d like a ride. “No time. Working,’’ I told him. A good excuse … and true.



Top: Jason Kolenc of Ohio with "Buffy,'' a bison he got from a Daytona Beach bar owner.
Center: Ronnie and Ardelia McLaughlin of Greensboro, N.C., are attending Bike Week for the seventh year.
Bottom: Daytona's famous beach.

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