The rainy rally

No fair-weather bikers here

Laconia, N.H., June 13–21—A motorcycle rally in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region in mid-June is always a meteorological gamble. We keep our fingers crossed for a hot and sunny climate, but this year, the weather dice dictated a cool and rainy start to Laconia Motorcycle Week. It was just before sundown when I arrived at Weirs Beach, ground zero of the rally. There was a chill in the air and the ground was still wet from the day’s downpour, yet a fair number of riders were out and about.

Laconia Motorcycle Week, in its 86th year, is the oldest and third biggest rally in the country, with only Daytona and Sturgis bike weeks experiencing higher attendance numbers. Even with long, snowy New England winters and wildly varying weather the rest of the year, New Hampshire has the highest number of registered motorcycles per capita of any state in the U.S.

What is it that draws so many motorcyclists to Laconia year after year, knowing that it will almost certainly rain for a good part of the rally? For starters, the state has little traffic (with the exception of Motorcycle Week), many miles of delightfully twisty roads, and no helmet law. Most of the riders I met in Laconia this year planned on sticking to their touring plans, regardless of the weather.

A hardy bunch
Riders who travel to Laconia are a hardy bunch that won’t let a little rain keep them from enjoying the dramatic scenery and challenging terrain. Although many of them piss and moan about the damp and cold, the bragging rights can’t be beat. One of my neighbors staying in the motel room next door told me, “I rode up Mt. Washington on Monday, and halfway up, it started sleeting.” He also reported that two bikers dropped off the side of the mountain’s Auto Road while trying to navigate around one of its tricky curves. Mt. Washington is New England’s highest peak, and the weather extremes are quite dramatic. Snow still covers the mountaintop even in June; in fact, locals brag that it has the world’s worst weather. Mt. Washington has the highest wind velocity ever recorded by man. In 1934 the world record of 231 mph was set, and it still stands today. And on one frigid day in June 1975, the mercury dropped to eight degrees (the temperature has been known to fall to -45 degrees in the winter months).

A number of guided and self-led tours took place during Motorcycle Week, and included all-time favorites such as a covered bridges tour and a ride on the Kancamagus Highway with its twists and turns and stunning scenery. An often-overlooked riding destination is the Castle in the Clouds, a 5,500-acre estate in Moultonborough, only about 20 miles from Weirs Beach. The castle is located on a 1,300-foot peak that’s part of the Ossipee Mountain range, and the road to the top offers a few challenges. For more adventure, there are 45 miles of hiking trails offering spectacular views and even a stunning waterfall that channels down into a swimming hole—quite refreshing on a hot, sunny day.

It’s not unusual for folks to ride an hour or so to Maine just for lunch, and maybe a little farther to tour the lighthouses. And the southernmost part of Quebec is only about 130 miles north of Laconia; so if you’re in the mood for long-distance touring, bring your passport! On the other hand, we noticed even more Canadians traveling to Laconia this year. It had rained all morning on Friday and was starting to clear when I saw a guy sitting next to his bike, dumping water out of his boots while his socks were drying on the exhaust pipes. His wife told me they rode down from Sherbrooke, Quebec, and that the weather was even worse up there. “We’re used to it,” she said, while wringing out her do-rag. “We love coming here. This is great! It’s beautiful!”

Even some of the local merchants were using the wet weather as an excuse to drum up some business. After three days of rain early in the week and the forecast calling for more, Granite State Harley-Davidson in Lebanon, New Hampshire, about an hour west of Laconia, sent an e-mail to its customers titled, “We’re not scared of a little rain!” and offered a free H-D rain suit to anyone buying a new or used Harley. The dealership also put on free barbecues every day during the rally, rain or shine.

Something old, something new
Many riders who visit Laconia tend to gravitate toward the same attractions year after year. One of the most popular is Weirs Beach, where bikes line Lakeside Avenue and vendors hawk everything from T-shirts to bike parts. Even in the rain, bikes were parked four-deep (although this year it was quite easy to get a parking spot even on the nicest days) and people were shopping and strolling along the street. As soon as the sun came out, though, it was like turning on a switch. People poured out of the bars and restaurants and rode in from who-knows-where to congregate at the epicenter of the rally universe.

Across the street is the Lobster Pound, with its vendor community spread over the expansive property, around the seafood restaurant with the same name. Maybe it should be called the Lobster Compound, because on the other side of the restaurant is the Laconia Roadhouse, one of the most popular venues of the rally offering live music, food and liquid refreshments. For the first time this year, the Lobster Pound hosted a biker build-off featuring four New England builders: Scott Porges and Abe from American Motorcycle Service in Framingham, Massachusetts; Rick and Tina Beauregard of Cyclone Cycles in Berkshire, Vermont; Jesse Melberg, his brother Buddy and his dad Big Al from Bristol County Custom Cycles in Bristol, Massachusetts; and Jason Grimes and Matt Harmon of Northeast Chop Shop in Westbrook, Maine. Each shop brought up a completely disassembled (except for the motor) motorcycle plus all the equipment needed to reassemble it in time for the shakedown ride on Saturday. Dave Perewitz announced the people’s choice winner, Northeast Chop Shop, who took home $5,000 and a trophy.

Next door, the Weirs Beach Drive-In is transformed into a vendor village during Motorcycle Week. And just past the drive-in is the Smokehouse, another popular watering hole where a favorite pastime—besides the annual custom bike show and tattoo contest—is watching the procession of bikes flow back and forth on Route 3 where it intersects with Lakeside Avenue.

It rained during the 86th running of the Loudon Classic at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon during practice on Saturday and the finals on Sunday. It rained on Monday for much of the USCRA vintage races held at Loudon, making the 1.6-mile road course even more challenging than usual. There were at least four crashes during the vintage races, and although there were two broken collarbones and some bruises, none of the racers were seriously injured.

Sadly, the Friday night Ben Campanale half-mile flat track races held in Rochester for the past 16 years were put on hold in 2009. The New England Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Dealers Association, major sponsor of Sideways Promotions events for 15 years, could not continue sponsorship this year due to the economy. Rumor has it that flat track races are in the works for next year at a track in Caanan, New Hampshire, about 40 miles east of Laconia. When I had a chance to catch up with Charlie St. Clair, executive director of the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association, he expressed great interest in seeing a lot of motorcycle competition events take place during the rally, reminding me that motorcycle racing has a long and storied history in the area.

This year, Laconia Harley-Davidson, formerly known as Meredith H-D, was the new kid on the block. The dealership was purchased and renamed a few months after last year’s rally by Anne and Steve Deli, owners of six Orlando H-D locations. The same features that made the Meredith dealership so popular during the rally, like quality parts and accessories vendors, live entertainment, and great food provided by next-door neighbors Hart’s Turkey Farm, are still there. However, the Delis have infused a whole new energy into the dealership, really cranking up this year’s Motorcycle Week activities.

On Wednesday, I joined Anne Deli, Riders Edge program manager Michelle Sullivan and a bunch of other women on the female-only ride around Lake Winnipesaukee, enjoying the best weather of the week. Every day during the rally, Laconia H-D featured a different activity, such as dyno shoot-out day, a vintage bike show, safety checks and decibel level checks (no citations issued!), pig roasts and barbecues, and on Thursday, an organized Ride to the Sky to Mt. Washington Auto Road followed by the 16th annual POW-MIA Freedom Ride (it rained heavily for that, too). The dealership also created a special website for the rally featuring five scenic rides, and published a Ride Guide brochure prior to the rally. It’s clear that the Delis understand that most folks come to Laconia to ride.

At the Fun Spot, an amusement center between Meredith and The Weirs, people got a chance to ride someone else’s bikes instead of their own. Fun Spot calls itself the demo headquarters of the rally, and about a half-dozen motorcycle manufacturers were set up there, with several offering test rides to prospective buyers. Can Am Spyder three-wheelers were quite popular and could be seen in little groupings zipping around the Laconia area.

For the third year, Harley-Davidson brought its Road Tour to Laconia City Hall parking lot. Riders could take a new Harley or Buell for a demo ride, check out the new bike models and H-D apparel, visit the Traveling Museum, listen to live bands perform, watch stunt riders, and enjoy a hilarious juggling show. I visited the Road Tour on Thursday to check out the ride-in bike show scheduled for that afternoon. In spite of the rain, 24 bikes showed up for the judging. There were no trailer queens here, and no whining because contestants’ bikes got wet—just a lot of wiping down paint and chrome between raindrops. For a $10 entry fee to be donated to the MDA, entrants had a chance to win $500 in each of 11 classes. When the downpour slowed to a drizzle, we walked a few block to the Black Cat Café at Veterans Square to enjoy some piping hot homemade corn chowdah—the perfect comfort food for this gray, rainy day. In an apparent miscommunication, another bike show was held at the old train station in Veterans Square the same day. There wasn’t a soul around, but nine custom bikes stood in the rain, waiting stoically for an unseen judge to declare the winners.

A tame time
The 17th annual Gunstock Hillclimb was held Wednesday, where this year a crowd of about 10,000 spectators watched a record 258 entrants compete in the side-by-side drag-style races up the hill. Part of the event’s draw is watching for the sometimes-spectacular wipeouts when the rider doesn’t make it up to the top, although for the past few years, the competition has been held on a tamer hill with a lesser degree of incline, making mishaps less likely. Early in the competition, the timing light in the left lane went out and racers had to share the other lane for the rest of the day. This slowed things down considerably, and only the hardcore fans stayed until 6:30 that evening to watch the final runs.

Saturday was my last full day at the rally, and the afternoon provided a break in the dismal weather. I spent the day at The Weirs, looking for some of the wildly garbed, attention-grabbing fun lovers that used to frequent Lakeside Avenue. It seems there are less and less of these folks at rallies nowadays, but I did manage to meet a few interesting characters. Gerry and Lewis Huckons from nearby Belmont were sitting in a rather unique trike, handmade by Lewis, in front of the train station. The couple has been coming to Laconia for about 60 years and hasn’t missed a year yet. I met Wolf and Doom, both of whom were wearing fur-covered horn-adorned helmets. Wolf has been making these helmets since California introduced its mandatory helmet law in 1992. Doom is now making these helmets in Connecticut, so we’ll have an East Coast version!

Speaking of East Coast/West Coast, Jay Allen of the Broken Spoke decided to breathe some more life into the biker build-off concept. His competition pitted Paul Cox from Brooklyn, New York, against Chica from Huntington Beach, California. A shakedown ride took place on Saturday, and that evening, the people’s choice contest culminated with Dave Perewitz (that guy sure gets around) announcing the winner—Paul Cox, by only a five-percent margin. The evening continued with a performance by a real survivor—Edgar Winter, who after 40 years of performing can still tear it up with the best of them. And while other Laconia businesses like JT’s BBQ and Dakota Leathers have closed, the Broken Spoke is thriving, and its Laconia saloon, instead of closing for the season at the end of the rally, will remain open until November 1.

Charlie St. Clair estimates the crowds this year to be in the 220,000-to-230,000 range—not much less than last year’s attendance. He believes that the drop in numbers is partly due to shorter stays at the rally as many people can no longer afford to be on the road for the entire week. Motorcycle traffic was clearly not as heavy as in years past. For most of the rally, the usual 30-minute-or-more backup on Route 3 was reduced to only a few minutes. Some of this was likely attributable to the rain, as many day-trippers didn’t make their usual Saturday or Sunday rides to the rally. The police even relaxed the motorcycle-only restrictions at Weirs Channel Bridge over the last weekend.

Laconia Police Chief Mike Moyer said that this year’s rally was the quietest and most peaceful he’s attended—and that’s 26 years’ worth of rallies. The money saved in unused police overtime will probably offset the lower revenues that the city received in rally license fees this year.

St. Clair made it clear that he’s not looking for record numbers of attendees or sold-out vendor spots. He just wants to make sure that everyone who comes to Motorcycle Week has a good time. And in spite of the soggy weather, the rugged riders who braved the challenges of the unpredictable and ever-changing New England climate had a blast.


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