Plenty to go around

Staging a Strip insurgency

Las Vegas, Oct. 1–4—At a fuel stop just off I-15 in the hiccup burg of Jean, Nevada, I noticed a secondary road running somewhat parallel to the freeway, and seeing as how it was a picture perfect day for riding in the Mojave, I was open to the possibility of prolonging the experience for a spell before being sucked into the noisy neon vortex of Vegas. I asked the lady working the counter at the gas station where the seemingly lonely road led, and she informed me—with what seemed a hint of pride—that the road was in fact Las Vegas Boulevard, the humble headwaters of what would become in 30 miles the Las Vegas Strip.

I headed up that sparsely-populated stretch of two-lane blacktop and entered Las Vegas by the backdoor, riding the length of the city to my destination at the Golden Nugget on Fremont Street, and getting a familiarity with the town I hadn’t had and hadn’t particularly needed before, but which served me well at this year’s BikeFest.

For the first eight years of its existence, BikeFest had been a sequestered affair, confined for the most part to the immediate vicinity of the Fremont Street Experience, the historic old town of Vegas, and the Cashman Center sports and exhibition complex located a mile—and a quick shuttle ride—north of there. For the four days of BikeFest, that sector housed and entertained tens of thousands of BikeFest attendees in their own exclusive enclave, two miles and a world away from the routine tourist hubbub of the famous Strip. It was a smart way of going about things in the beginning when questions loomed about the very feasibility of hosting a major bike event in the midst of a major metropolitan area, and it worked well as the event continued to grow and prosper. So effective was it and so established has BikeFest become on the big event calendar in fact, that when the lay of things was given a reshuffle this year, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference.

BikeFest has been nothing if not resilient over the nine years since its shaky beginnings on the heels of the 9/11 tragedy, and of all the major adaptations and minor tweaks brought to the event’s format by producer Full Throttle Productions, arguably the most significant up till now was moving the dates from mid-September to early October to take advantage of the 10–15 degree cooler conditions in the desert that time of year. It was a calculated risk, but one that’s proven smart by and large, and explains why my ride across the Mojave this year was pleasantly cool rather than stinking hot.

That was a big one, but not as big as moving the principle host hotel and lion’s share of activities away from the Fremont Street district entirely, which is what occurred this year, with the Sahara Hotel and Casino at the north end of the Strip replacing the Golden Nugget as the nerve center of the doings. A momentous move for sure, and one that grew out of BikeFest’s frustration in coming to terms with the Fremont Street Experience on the one hand, and the Sahara’s enthusiastic wooing of the event on the other. Under those circumstances, the choice was simple. For its part, the Sahara rolled out the welcome mat and hosted a number of activities at their various facilities, including a Molly Hatchet concert on Thursday night, a nightly BikeFest After Party at the Nascar Café, and the Ultimate BeerFest and BBQ held poolside on Saturday with music provided by The Iron Maidens and Freebird.

The Golden Nugget, and Fremont Street generally, continued to play a role, and expanded roles were allotted to BikeFest satellite venues around town. Also serving an expanded role was the Cashman Center, which in addition to serving once more as the massive indoor/outdoor vendor bazaar, pageant and contest staging ground, and main daytime party zone, served for the first time as the setting for Saturday’s huge Custom Bike Show which had previously spilled down the canopied concourse of the Fremont Street Experience.

Start with art
After my arrival in town, the first order of business was attending the reception and award ceremony for the Artistry in Iron Master Builder Championship. Now in its sixth year, Artistry in Iron has established itself as one of the premiere haute-custom competitions and exhibitions. Entry is by invitation only, and the judging is performed by the participating builders themselves, giving the title special significance. The competition annually brings 20 of the custom craft’s leading lights and noteworthy up-and-comers to the Cashman Center to display their handiwork in spacious cordoned-off surroundings, and the builders make themselves available during the weekend to sign autographs and talk with fans and the curious.

This year’s field of contestants included seven returnees from last year’s show, and among those who didn’t reappear was Roger Goldammer, last year’s champion and three-time winner overall. Among the new arrivals was this year’s hands-down winner, Mark Daley of Thunderstruck Cycles, whose strikingly innovative and meticulously executed creation had been completed just in time to participate.

There’s no runner-up in this competition, and Daley claimed the winner-take-all prize of $10,000 for his victory, but were there a separate award for heart and poignancy it would certainly have gone to Michael Barragan of Evil Spirit, whose entry was displayed in mangled pieces on the show floor accompanied by photos of the terrible collision between bike and SUV that destroyed his creation and put him into a coma. He emerged from the coma and, though seriously injured, is on the mend. We wish him a speedy and complete recovery (and I should add that as a rat-bike fancier at heart, I liked his mangled entry best).

Spreading around town
Las Vegas Harley-Davidson continued to figure heavily in the BikeFest scheme of thing this year, hosting a collection of vendors and the Harley-Davidson demo ride fleet. Located a short distance from the Sahara, it was a convenient destination for the multitude of attendees who packed that hotel, and it seemed a goodly proportion of them showed up for the dealership’s annual wet T-shirt competition. (Funny, they hadn’t been there earlier in the day when I first stopped by the place.) Since the contest has generally been a warm-up event for the official Miss BikeFest pageant each year, and since I serve as a judge for that pageant, I lingered only long enough to get some photos and get a feel for the spectacle, and then rode off lest my impartiality be compromised by further exposure. Talk about conscientious.

Not far from that venue is Arlen Ness’ Las Vegas store where things were hopping as well with food and brew and vendors and, front and center, the most businesslike bikini bike wash I’ve ever witnessed; serious detailing going on there, and if watching a pair of game-faced gals get serious about washing and blow-drying a bike is your idea of titillation, this was your porn. Vintage Ness approach to the form, when you think about it.

Out on the eastern outskirts of town, the new digs of Billet Boys was just opening for business after a hurried and harried move lock, stock, and billet goodie to Las Vegas from the company’s previous home in the East Bay of Northern California. They join a growing list of motorcycle aftermarket outfits that have headed out to this area, and owner Charlie Stewart explained that the new location would allow expansion of his current manufacturing and marketing operations, as well as allow him to tap in to the local concentration of finishing and fabricating resources and offer a full-service customizing facility. The shop’s grand opening was slated for Saturday, and featured an autograph signing appearance by Valerie Thompson—a woman of many talents, who in addition to piloting an NHRA race bike and setting a pair land speed records at Bonneville, had previously placed second in the Miss Las Vegas BikeFest pageant.

A number of other venues figured prominently into the BikeFest landscape, among them Count’s Kustoms which threw another Motor Psycho Open House bash this year featuring a musical line-up headlined by the Vince Neil Band. The Harley-Davidson Café conducted their second annual Hog Out maw-stuffing competition with preliminary (h)eats conducted at the Cashman Center, and a grand gluttony finale at their Strip location. Also getting onto the BikeFest roster of happenings this year was the Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth at Mandalay Bay, a separate event with its own roster of entertainment, but a natural partner to BikeFest.

Judgment day
Come Saturday, I donned my judicial robes and set off for the Cashman Center to commence a grueling day of judging bikes and babes, starting with the Las Vegas BikeFest Custom Bike Show which, as mentioned earlier, was moved this year from the Fremont Street concourse to the Center; a less impressive setting, for sure, but a more convenient one for most attendees.

As in the past, the turnout of hopefuls was immense—40 entries in the Custom class I was judging, a like number in the Semi-Custom and a solid 20 Radicals. And again, as in the past, a number of competitors hadn’t taken the contest rules to heart and there were Radicals entered in the Custom class and Customs entered in the Semi-Custom class as people tried to put one over on the judges. Fat chance. (And, strangely, there were also Semi-Customs vying in the tougher Custom class. I don’t know what their problem was.)

The show’s top prize, consisting of $3,000 and an invitation to next year’s Artistry in Iron championship, is awarded in the Radical class and this year went to Kenji Nagai. (Kenji also took Best of Show at this year’s LA Calendar Motorcycle Show.)

At 2:00 the annual Miss Las Vegas BikeFest got under way on the stage of the Cashman Theater. Shockingly, a mere five contestants hit the boards, down from 10 last year, and that was one of the sadder commentaries of the state of the Nevada economy I’ve seen, since it could only be the result of one or both of two factors: 1) The the price of the BikeFest registration required for entry was just too rich of a gamble for many in these thin times. 2) Tips have dried up at the local gentlemen’s clubs and there’s been a mass migration of dancers to Nevada’s recreational ranches in search of greener pastures. Just speculating.

On the upside, it made my job as a judge a lot simpler, since I didn’t have to pay too close attention or develop writer’s cramp jotting down a whole lot of scores in the various competition categories. I actually suggested to fellow judges that we just turn the deal into a Special Olympics type of contest and give everyone a nice plaque, but I got no traction with that idea among my distracted and drooling brethren. And when the scores were tallied, it was Kristina Falco of nearby Henderson, Nevada, who took home the $1,000 top prize. As it turns out, she’d also won the wet T-shirt contest at L.V. H-D the day before, but of course I couldn’t have known that at the time.

Searching for the heart of Saturday night
Old habits die hard when they die at all, and come Saturday night I strolled out ’neath the LED-studded canopy of the Fremont Street Experience, the place where over the years BikeFest came to a foamy head with good—and at times great—bands taking the stages situated at two intersections and the whole kitschy/spectacular overhead light extravaganza projecting biker-themed montages to the thunderous biker-themed musical accompaniment of a gazillion watt sound system. Pure Roman circus, it was.

But not no more. With the loss of official BikeFest involvement, Fremont Street was short on crowds and excitement, but I despaired not, for there remained a most excellent party destination a quick walk away.

Hogs and Heifers Saloon is a block off of Fremont Street and for the four years it’s been in operation, having opened coincident with BikeFest in 2005, it’s provided a real biker bar alternative to the standard casino bar experience (which consists largely of staring at a video poker screen and wondering where the hell to set your drink while listening to an obnoxious jangle of beeps and bells). Bikes park four rows wide across the street in front of the joint, and the wide sidewalk is a popular hangout spot for drinking, eyeballing the bikes and taking a break from the blaring bullhorns and bartop clogging indoors. And when break time’s over it’s back inside for another fair share of abuse. It’s actually habit forming.

Gone with the wind
On Sunday morning the Cashman Center vendor village opened for a final four hours with free admission, giving shopaholics a last crack at the merchandise and giving the Vegas locals who’d been wondering what all the fuss had been about to go have a look for themselves. There was also the fifth running of the Las Vegas Ride for Kids taking place at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and yet another shindig at Hogs and Heifers—the End of BikeFest BBQ—for those BikeFest revelers who weren’t ready to call an end to the party.

I didn’t want to either, but I had a mess of miles to go before I slept, as did a good many other attendees, and exodus out of town began early. And we rode right into a stiff 30-mph headwind that gusted hard on the elevated sections of I-15, blowing debris and bikers helter skelter. Woo hoo.

Fall had arrived with a vengeance in Vegas as it had that day along the entire West Coast, and as I tucked in behind the fairing and bucked the blast across the Mojave, I reflected on the previous three days and the changes brought to the BikeFest formula. I realized that although I’d come to town wary that the spreading out of BikeFest and the relegation of Fremont Street’s place in it all would see the lovable event swallowed up whole into the greater Vegas vortex, that proved not to be the case. The bikers held their own, the event maintained its coherence, and even broadened its reach. I’m told that the Fremont Street Experience may yet again play a central role in the affair in the future, and that would be just fine by me. But if it doesn’t, well, that’s just fine too.


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