Laconia Bike Week, the third largest motorcycle rally in the United States, officially kicked off over the weekend. It is also the oldest motorcycle rally in the country.
New Hampshire officially considers this to be the 89th year of the annual run but the event actually began seven years before that. It was not recognized by the forerunner of the American Motorcyclist Association as part of the official Gypsy Tour until 1923. Races began at Daytona, currently the second largest rally, in 1937. Sturgis, the alpha rally, began in 1938.
The event continues to be a vital element of the New Hampshire economy. About 300,000 people are expected to attend this year. And, the rally is beginning to show its age.
Bad Old Days
The New England Gypsy Tour was a mostly sedate gathering for its first 42 years. The clubs that attended were typical AMA clubs and events include a hill climb and a competition for best dressed club. In typical AMA fashion, the criteria by which clubs were determined to be well dressed included “General Appearance” (shirts, caps, breeches, boots and ensemble “alike”), club size, the “safety effect and practicability of the club uniforms”, the “general conduct” of the club, the percentage of members in uniform and the club’s “popularity.” Thrilling competitions like these may partly explain why the rally disappeared in 1964.
Although the real problem may have been that organizers were afraid of what the emerging outlaw motorcycle clubs might do. A week before the rally was scheduled to begin in 1965 New Hampshire passed two new laws aimed at Bike Week tourists. The first allowed police to arrest any biker caught loitering in a group of three or more. The second was intended to punish anyone who started a disturbance with a $1,000 fine and three years in prison. The state ordered 200 National Guardsmen to bivouac near Weirs Beach. The heavy hand did not work. There was a “motorcycle riot” anyway. Rocks were thrown, cars were burned, buildings were vandalized. 100 people were arrested and 60 were injured. The next year the state sent in more National Guardsmen.
The rally almost disappeared in the 1970s. It became a three-day event but hung on through the 1980s and rebounded after the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association convinced local officials to pass a series of laws that made the rally more biker friendly in 1992. By then Harley-Davidson was successfully attracting upscale bikers and the rally evolved to make them happy and safe.
Shiny, Safe Police State
There were a couple of sensationalized incidents after the great and legendary riot but the rally, as it has been for the last 20 years, is geared at prosperous bikers who are expected to pump $200 million into the Granite State economy this week. And, this rally like most rallies provides an excuse for police to push their weight around in the name of safety. There have been so many official police statements this month that Laconia, like Hollister a few years ago, is starting to sound like an event that exists mostly to guarantee overtime for police.
Governor John Lynch issued a statement last week that said in part, “Law enforcement does a great job not only ensuring public safety but making sure people feel welcome to Motorcycle Week as well.”
Chris Adams, Laconia’s Police Chief told The Associated Press that last year arrests during Bike Week were at an “all-time low and that there had been zero fatal motorcycle accidents. “It takes a lot of people to get that number to zero, including the people who attend this event, who are becoming responsible,” Adams told the AP. “If they’ve had too much to drink, they call a taxi or walk. It is a group effort that goes into that low number, and we hope that this year we see it again.”
So be safe. Be extra careful. Don’t run with scissors and have lots of safe and sane fun.