Two-thousand-ten marks the 87th running of Laconia Bike Week, an annual event that got its start as a motorcycle competition in New Hampshire's state capital in 1923. For decades bikers, racers, cops and shopkeepers played nice and local commerce thrived. But in 1965 a fracas between constables and chopper freaks opened the jaundiced eye of mass-media to America's longest-running motorcycle hoedown, and the event was tainted forever.
Fatally blunt license-plate slogans aside ("Live Free or Die!"), New Hampshire is a motorcycle-friendly place to live. More bikes per capita are registered in New Hampshire than any other state. New England winters may be miserable, but the down time gives proud Yankees plenty of opportunity to build or mod their machines. When snowmobile season ends, these hungry throttle twisters are itching to ride.
"We've got customers who put a thousand miles on their shovelheads every weekend," New Hampshire-based bike builder Wayne Ahlquist explains. "The locals are just mental." Unbridaled passion mixed with a dose of cabin fever—everyone has swilled that cocktail at least once in his life. Surely there's more to Laconia than mere sensory deprivation, right? Last month I spoke with entrepreneurs in Laconia to find out what city officials and event promotors are doing right… or wrong. What I learned was sad.
Exactly what attracts American wheelmen to this tiny New Hampshire town? Twisting two-lanes and dense forest form a labrynth of tarmac on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee and its surrounding bays and tributaries. These roads connect whistle stops, cottages, roadhouses and restaurants that spell F-U-N for tourists and locals alike. Given the opportunity to practice their capitalistic voodoo unfettered, the best and brightest of these small-business owners would happily provide all the food, shelter and entertainment any biker could dream of. Unfortunately, no one on the Laconia Bike Week board of trustees seems willing to make it that easy.
Grail at Knucklebuster.com gave ChopCult readers the bad news on our forum months ago. When I had lunch with him at a great little diner on one of Laconia's main drags, he was happy to elaborate. "We wanted to throw another Greasebag Jamboree at Laconia this year, but promotors and city officials imposed so many fees and regulations, it just wasn't possible. We're going to do something again, but where and when remains to be seen." Wayne Ahlquist explained the irony of Grail's dilemma. "We hosted the Greasebag in Acme's parking lot three years running with no sweat from the city. Then one day the city called me and said we had to buy special event permits to do anything on our own property during Bike Week. I asked them, 'What if I want to do a parking lot sale a week after Bike Week?' They said, 'No problem, and no fees.' What's up with that?"
It would seem simple greed is what's up with that.
Les at the Lazy E Motor Inn on Paugus Bay concurred. "The city told us anything we try to do for guests on our own property during Bike Week is subject to additional fees and new regulations. The economy isn't strong enough for tactics like that. Bike Week is around the corner and I've still got rooms available. We've been catering to bikers for years. This is the first time we're not fully booked months before the event."
After hearing Les's tale of woe, I booked a cozy cabin at the Lazy E and chilled by the outdoor fire. My innkeeper's point was clear: bad times demand good ideas. Les is thinking like a smart, friendly businessman, but the city has tied his hands.
My next conversation was with an elderly businessman on Main Steet. The old-timer was hanging a sign on a lamp post.
"What is the town doing to help local businesses promote and capitalize on the event?" I asked.
"They're not doing a thing," was his dour reply.
"Okay then," I quizzed, "when will locals bars and restaurants start hanging "Welcome Biker!" banners over their doors?"
"Some of them will get around to it on day four."
While my Laconian friend lamented the state of affairs, I noticed a beautiful old movie house across from his shop. The Colonial Theatre would be a perfect place to host nightly biker flicks during the rally, or to offer guys like Tyler at Lowbrow Customs a place to screen DVD's. Unfortunately, promotors seem more concerned with permits and crowd control than with putting a welcome face on their moribund event.
When all was said and done, I'm not sure if ignorance or apathy is to blame for the dearth of energy leading up to Bike Week. None of the downtrodden Laconians I met seemed to know or care. Could it be that after 87 years of hill climbs, hoedowns, build-offs, bike shows and wet t-shirt contests, this apple of the mainstream motorcycle community's eye has finally lost its shine?
I visited Dr. Buckle & Mr. Hide in northeast Laconia to hear their perspective on the dilemma, but the leather shop wasn't open. It was Memorial Day, after all, so the good doctor and his crazy alter ego were probably grilling burgers or watching the parade. If I was in the market for some biker-approved biker apparel, Dr. Buckle looked like the place to be. Two-hundred-fifty bucks for a custom-tailored jacket?
Maybe in 2011…