Granite State gypsy touring

Oldest rally stays true to its roots

Laconia, N.H., June 12–20—The first Laconia rally was held in the summer of 1916, a year before the Federation of American Motorcyclists—the forerunner to the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA)—sanctioned the first official Gypsy Tours. These events were so-named because riders traveled a long way and camped in tents on the side of the road. Although camping along the highway next to the racetrack at Loudon, New Hampshire, was banned in 1975 (today’s campers are now confined to campgrounds), hordes of riders continue to converge on Laconia every June for the nation’s oldest still-running Gypsy Tour.

My ride on Friday, the day before the official start of the 87th annual Laconia Motorcycle Week, went quickly as I traveled through New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, joining up with New Hampshire Routes 10, 9 and 106 for the last 100-or-so two-lane miles. It’s a quite scenic ride, with a handful of small, charming towns interposed between long stretches of undeveloped woodlands. The weather was sunny and mild, and without a hint of rain; giving me hope that the weather for the rest of the week would follow suit.

Those hopes were dashed by the drizzle that accompanied several hundred riders on the Peter Makris Memorial Ride that kicked off the first day of Motorcycle Week on Saturday. The rain didn’t last long, though, and rest of the day turned out beautifully. For the most part, rallygoers enjoyed great weather, with Wednesday the only notable exception, when scattered showers caused the evening’s fireworks to be postponed until Thursday evening.

Racing’s in their DNA
The Loudon Classic, the longest-running motorcycle race in the U.S., also celebrated its 87th anniversary this year. The race itself has moved several times since its inception, the last being the relocation from the Belknap Mountain Recreation Area, now known as Gunstock, in 1964. It’s now run over the road course at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (NHMS) in Loudon during the first weekend of Laconia Motorcycle Week.

My preference, though, runs more to watching antique bikes race, and on Monday I watched the U.S. Classic Racing Association Vintage Grand Prix, also held at NHMS. A gypsy tour leaves from rally headquarters at the Weirs Beach waterslide Monday morning, and upon arrival at NHMS, the entire group makes several laps around the track.

There were 15 races that day, and another thing that makes the USCRA races unique is that several classes—except for sidecars—are usually combined in each race. The sidecars are always a crowd favorite, and some of the most exciting moments are when the sidecar “monkeys” toss their full body weight from one side to the other during cornering, often scraping body parts on the ground in the process.

The 18th annual hill climbs were held on Wednesday at Gunstock in Gilford, New Hampshire. Several years ago, Ridge Runners Promotions moved to another hill that’s lower and not as challenging. To increase the excitement factor, another lane was added, so the climbs are now side-by-side drag races. This year, some of the bumps were smoothed out so that everyone could reach the top at higher speeds and lessening the chance of crashes and injuries.

The first-ever Supercross race during Laconia Motorcycle Week took place on Friday at The Lodge, a dog track in Belmont, just a few miles up the road from NHMS (and closer to The Weirs). Promoter Craig Harmon was quoted as saying that they are exploring the idea of hosting the event on the closing weekend of the rally next year. This could be the start of a new Bike Week racing tradition!

Show us what you got
It’s been some years since any big-name bike shows have made appearances at the rally, but a handful of smaller competitions take place. The first show of the week was Vin & Deb’s 3rd annual Bike Show at the Galley Restaurant in downtown Laconia. The Galley was a new location for the show, and the hope is that it will grow in future years.

Local businessman Dick Cartier, who has organized and judged countless bike shows over the years, had his hands full this week. Tuesday was a bike show at the Fun Spot on Route 3, just south of the Broken Spoke. The Fun Spot is one of the vendor locations in Laconia that considers itself the demo headquarters of Motorcycle Week. Crowds were fairly constant all week, with CanAm Spyder and Royal Enfield being the most popular demo rides. Indian Motorcycle also had their rig set up to display their 2010 models.

On Wednesday, the Lobster Pound at The Weirs hosted a ride-in bike show in its Laconia Roadhouse. The Lobster Pound, one of the major vendor locations for Bike Week, also hosted an eight-day biker build-off with six shops competing in a people’s choice vote: Acme Choppers of Laconia, Old School Choppers of Manchester, New Hampshire; Green Mountain Performance of Mendon, Vermont; Satan Cycles of Selkirk, New York; SDS Cycles of Hill, New Hampshire; and Manch Vegas Choppers of Manchester, New Hampshire. This year, Stephen Thompson of SDS Cycles walked away with $5,000 cash for his chopper named “Sore-Ass.”

Laconia Harley-Davidson held a bike show on Thursday, which was the first time at that location, and the same day, the annual bike show was held at the historic train station just a few blocks away from City Hall. The final bike show of the week was the 6th annual Laconia Bike Show at Opechee Park, with entry and attendance fees benefitting the City of Laconia. This year, there was a new twist—a swap meet held at the park. The swap meet was small, but the plan is to expand the event in future years.

To see and be seen
For many years, Lakeside Avenue at The Weirs has been a major rally hot spot, with thousands of bikes parked on both sides of the street and forming a double row of parking down the middle, with riders and spectators winding their way between sidewalk and boardwalk vendors and bikes. Bars and restaurants offer promotions and food and drink specials, along with live entertainment. It’s also a great spot to watch the fireworks set off from Weirs Beach. And here’s a little-known fact—the lead pyrotechnician is Charlie St. Clair, executive director of the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association (LMWA).

Across the street, the Lobster Pound restaurant offers great seafood and a bird’s eye view of Weirs Beach from the upstairs deck. The adjoining Laconia Roadhouse has bands playing on stage from noon till after midnight, with other entertainment like wet T-shirt and bikini contests taking place between music sets.

The Wide Open Saloon next to the Weirs Beach Drive-In is the new kid on the block. Brandi Baldi purchased the former Weirs Beach Smokehouse and renovated the saloon, which now serves western-style meals. During the rally, a Budweiser beer tent with live music was set up in the back parking lot.

Just four miles up the road, Laconia Harley-Davidson put on a host of events, starting with a Marshall Tucker and Foghat concert the first night of the rally. Vendors were set up in the dealership’s lot, and visitors were entertained by the Ball of Steel stunt show and live music. Also on Route 3 is the Broken Spoke Saloon, where you might happen upon the daily Loud Pipes contest or the tattoo competition, or maybe hear a top-notch band perform. Dave Perewitz and his daughter Jody were building a custom bike that combined vintage sensibilities with modern design elements. Dave and Jody shared the stage with Wink Eller, who was building a streamliner for land-speed racing. It wasn’t exactly a build-off; rather, a showcase of different bike-building styles.

The riding rally
Both LMWA executive director Charlie St. Clair and director Jennifer Anderson are avid riders. According to Charlie and Jennifer, the LMWA strives to keep the rally what it’s always been, and they’ve kept the focus on the Gypsy Tours to give riders an opportunity to enjoy what the Granite State has to offer. Of course many riders explore the Lakes Region and the White Mountains themselves, but there are countless rides and tours that anyone can join up with, like the Ron Meade Toy Run from Meredith to NHMS, a Gypsy Tour to the Kancamagus Highway, the women-only ride sponsored by Laconia H-D and H.O.G.-led rides such as those to motorcycles-only days at Mt. Washington Auto Road.

The 17th annual POW-MIA Freedom Ride took place on Thursday, starting from Winnipesaukee Crossing and continuing through Weirs Beach and on to Meredith for a vigil in Hesky Park. On Saturday, Jay Allen, Dave and Jody Perewitz and Wink Eller led about 100 bikes for a 40-mile ride to Hawg’s Pen Cycles & Café in Farmington, and back to the Broken Spoke again. One new ride was a 75-mile Gypsy Tour to Bentley’s Saloon in Arundel, Maine. Organizers expected 15 or 20 bikes for this first-time ride, and about 130 showed up. Bentley’s also has a motel, campground, food and live entertainment. It’s a biker’s haven, and we hated to leave.

Keeping in character
Efforts have been made recently to bring visiting bikers back to downtown Laconia. Years ago, riders would cruise down Main St., some on their way to the races and some just some hanging out in the city. For the fourth year, the Harley-Davidson Road Tour was set up at the City Hall parking lot, this year adding and changing vendors and entertainment to draw more people in and get them to stay longer. Other, smaller events took place downtown, as well; such as the pancake breakfast at the Easter Seals Day Center, the barbecue at the Laconia Rod & Gun Club and the New Hampshire Motorcyclists Rights Organization meet ’n’ greet buffet at the Brick Front Restaurant.

The closing weekend of the rally brought the best weather the event has seen in years, also bringing the biggest crowd in several years. Charlie St. Clair gave a conservative estimate of 250,000 to 300,000 people, which exceeded last year’s attendance. Staying true to its roots has paid off for the oldest motorcycle rally.

Other new events were thrown into the mix, continuing the trend of expanding the rally outside of the Laconia area. The first-ever Kanc Freedom Fest, a mini-rally in North Woodstock and centered around the Kancamagus Highway, took place that week, as well as the 3rd annual Rally in the Valley in North Conway, also taking place during Bike Week. And the Gypsy Tour to Maine took the rally outside of New Hampshire, making Motorcycle Week a true regional event.

This expansion is also evidenced by a reduction in vehicle traffic around The Weirs because events are now spread out over a much wider area. That said, traffic was still backed up occasionally along Route 3 between Meredith and Weirs Beach, especially on those hot, sunny days.

Believe it or not, Charlie and Jennifer fielded numerous questions about the 90th anniversary of the rally in 2013. For now, I’m content to start planning for next year.


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