Monday, June 19, 2006

Thundering Herds

New Hampshire's annual Motorcycle Week is over for another year.

My cynical emergency responder friend calls it "organ donor week." The death toll stood at ten as of this morning.

It used to be just a weekend. Some of the rowdier editions of it have been woven into tourist-season legend. Back in the day it involved a lot more open flames and public lewdness.

I had not lived in New Hampshire a year when I stumbled on Motorcycle Weekend. It was 1988. I was training for a double century. My schedule had been interrupted because I had to move from Tamworth, tucked into the southern flank of the White Mountains, to Tuftonboro, on a broad point sticking down into Lake Winnipesaukee.

Early on a Saturday morning I set out to ride around "the big lake" to try to get some kind of longer mileage before the really long ride a week later. It's only about 65 miles around Winnipesaukee by road, but it was all I had time to do.

As a tribute to the challenge of a 200-mile ride, I decided to shave my legs. I'd shaved when I was racing, but grew out the fur when I quit competing. Shaving helped me psych up for the discipline of the big ride. I set out around the lake the morning after a really exemplary shave.

When I raced, my race results were unimpressive, but I always won the shave. No razor rash or missed spots for this boy. I figured if I was going to risk being seen as a freak because I shaved my legs I should at least do a damn good job. No women would razz me. Anything you can shave, I can shave better. Anything below the panty line, anyway.

Off into the cool morning I pedaled, down into the quaint town center of Wolfeboro, out Route 28 to the south, bending down toward Alton. In addition to my freshly-shaved legs, I wore a brand-new set of lycra shorts out of the local shop's bargain bin. I'd gotten a great price because they were red. Hey, I had no money. I was hoping to earn some by doing my double century and then selling articles about it to whatever publications would buy them.

As I got closer to Alton I started to notice increasing numbers of motorcycles. I knew the state attracted a lot of them because the roads are so beautiful. I had never heard of Motorcycle Weekend.

Every motel and restaurant had rows of motorcycles parked out front. Even with all the parked ones, hundreds still cruised by me. As I neared Weirs Beach, at the Laconia end of the lake, they reached herd-migration numbers. At the Weirs they simply dominated everything. There were young studs on Jap screamers, prosperous-looking middle aged types on Gold Wings and Aspencades, BMW heads and tons of Harley-Davidsons.

Vendor tents offered food, drink and souvenirs, and probably tattoos and piercings as well. Four-wheeled vehicles were scarce and I was the only bicyclist.

Only the women -- and not all of them -- had shaved legs.

Interestingly, I never felt threatened. The motorcyclists just treated me like a retarded cousin. This proved to be the pattern through many years to follow. This year was the first time I encountered any passive aggressiveness or hostility. That's probably because motorcycling has attracted a lot of neophytes and posers. Only insecure people need to pick on people they think are vulnerable in order to feel tough.

Until this year, the most static I might get from a motorcyclist would be one of them pulling his feet off the pegs and pretending to pedal. I always got safe passing clearance and often got friendly waves.

The red shorts are long gone, by the way. I did make enough money to get some more presentable biking threads.

This year was different. I got passed close and revved at by a few riders. In one group of six, a couple of them brushed me when they could easily have made more room. Their indifference or insensitivity revealed their inexperience. I was on my way to work.

When I got to town, I found that the ongoing bridge construction had created an epic back-up out Center Street. I floated carefully down the outbound lane, which was currently unoccupied, because the construction crew had everyone stopped, both directions. It was a great time to be on a bike.

It was especially great when I saw the rude motorcyclists embedded in the traffic jam. Without comment, I rode smoothly past them.

"Hey!" yelled one, then "HEY!", perhaps as he recognized me.

Showers threatened soon after I got to work. We looked down from our windows onto the parking lot behind our building as a group of Hell's Posers loaded their shiny Hogs into a box trailer behind a chunky SUV. Real bikers don't box up the bikes and hop into a four-wheeled vehicle at the first sight of a gray cloud. It could even have been the same bunch from the morning commute.

We started coming up with poserwear for the faux biker. How about press-on greasy fingernails? Or a gray ponytail wig that hides a helmet? Stone-washed black tee shirts simulate the wear and tear of days on the open road.

So the official Motorcycle Week fades into history. Motorcyclists will continue to tour up here, because it's a great place for it, but now we'll just have week after week of Boneheads in Cars and SUVs Week until summer finally ends. At least some of them have racks full of bikes hung on the family tank.

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