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When the Bikes Come to Town

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - June 9, 2011





Some say it’s changed. Some want you to think it’s better and quieter and some want you to think louder and more encompassing.
The truth about Bike Week is that it is and always has been an exciting, hard-to-define event that is as elusive as water running through your hands.

I’ve lived my entire life in the Lakes Region (except my college years), and it has given me a unique perspective when it comes to Bike Week.

Living among the many transplants to this area who think they are natives because they’ve been here 10 or 15 years and remember all the Bike Weeks of that duration makes me smile to myself. In truth they don’t know much about the event that sends a jolt through the area each June.

Although I am a native, I am the first to admit that I don’t know as much about the event as some of the old timers. These are the people who remember the races as the old Loudon Speedway, or when the races were held at the Belknap Area (today Gunstock).
What I do remember are a vivid jumble of childhood images. Bike Week used to be known as Motorcycle Weekend to New Hampshirites. It is a unique phenomenon that is as much about sound and attitude as it is about being a single event (in this case a motorcycle race).
I grew up in Bristol, New Hampshire in a rural neighborhood. We were removed from the Weirs Beach action, but the motorcycles were everywhere in Bristol that one weekend each June. I had the distinction in my family of having been born during Motorcycle Weekend in the late 1950s. My mother often told me how loud the bikes were as she lay in the maternity ward at Laconia Hospital (as it was then named). It was hot that particular June 18, and I can only imagine the difficulty of being in labor in a sweltering delivery room with the sound of bikes humming like a hive of angry bees outside the window!

I have always liked to pretend the bikers are in the area just for my birthday. I still look eagerly at the calendar each year to see when Bike Week will fall in June and I am a bit sad if it misses my mid June birthday.

I remember one particular Friday night when my naïve parents took my brother and me to Laconia to go shopping. I was amazed and a bit frightened by all the bikes. Our old station wagon was like an aging dinosaur trying to edge its way through a sea of young and energized beasts. As I glanced out the rear window, a woman on a bike pulled up her shirt. I hid my face in the seat, embarrassed and a bit amazed!
Country folk that we were, my parents spent the entire car ride through Laconia pointing and gasping. “Look at that Ralph!” my mother would exclaim to my father as she pointed out the window at a leather clad man or woman. “For God’s sake, look at them!” my father would counter while my brother and I rolled our eyes in annoyance in the back seat.

When I was teenager and no longer made to endure car rides with parents who I thought were totally out of touch, I was still a bit in awe of all the noise and bikes. However, I found I looked forward to the event. It wasn’t that I went to Weirs Beach to take in the sights, but there was a definite excitement and anticipation in knowing that all those people came from all over our country to little old New Hampshire just to be with us. I felt like a silent ambassador of goodwill, hoping there would be a big turnout of bikers. The years when attendance was down for one reason or another, or when the bikers didn’t come as heavily into the Newfound area, I sort of missed the noise and the new people.

I was somehow proud that the motorcyclists had chosen to visit my New Hampshire, the place I loved. “Here are our beautiful lakes,” I wanted to say. “How about our rivers and the White Mountains? Aren’t they wonderful?” I could hear myself asking silently when I saw bikers on the road. “Don’t forget to stop at Polar Caves or Castle in the Clouds,” I wished I could advise when I saw a group of bikers stopped beside the road studying a map of the area.

And just where did all those bike riders come from, I would wonder? I wanted to ask them what it was like where they lived, and what they’d encountered on their long bike ride to get here. It was my first taste of the big world outside my hometown and I was intrigued.
Now that the event has expanded to encompass an entire week or more, it seems unbelievable that there was a time when it was a three or at most, a four-day happening. Maybe that’s why it seemed more exciting, more vivid when I was a kid. Everyone had to try harder to fit the event into a few days.

Those who have witnessed the influx of motorcycles and the thousands of riders will never forget the leather, the chrome so bright in the sun that it burns your eyes, the loud roar that becomes more and more frantic and unceasing as the event reaches a crescendo. They will remember the Weirs population swelling to a huge number and what it looked and sounded and felt like to be in the area when the bikes filled our roads and parking lots.

The truth about Bike Week is that it can never really be captured in pictures or words. Those who try know how challenging it is to photograph even a small percentage of the action, and those who do travel writing are aware that Bike Week cannot really be described in words.

The only truth I can find about the event is that one must hear it, smell it and see it to believe it; then one realizes that everything they have heard is true. It is loud. Some years are better than others. Some years the rains come down heavily and some years the sun shines brightly and it seems almost perfect.

But one thing is for certain. Bike Week is a big part of the Lakes Region. Eventually, if one lives here long enough, you realize there is no sense trying to define it. All you can do is roll with the punches when the bikes come to town.

What Do You Think?