June 7, 2014

Biker rallies are big, noisy — and welcome

The roar of motorcycles carrying hundreds if not thousands of bikers has become an increasingly common and even embraced sound of summer. Many of the biker events are fundraisers for charity. These are rebels with a cause.

Missy Bedell still has two weeks to go before she kicks off what is always the most ambitious event of her year — Helen’s Hilltop Biker Bash in Tonganoxie — and she can’t keep her mind from racing.

Six volunteer rock bands to confirm. Girls in bikinis for the motorcycle wash. The custom pinstriper. Food and drinks for hundreds. Last year they had the rolling tattoo bus, but the artist has since retired. She wants another ink master.

“So busy. This takes months of planning,” said Bedell, 36, a proud biker with purple streaks in her black hair, black-lined eyes, red lipstick and a palette of tattoos that include a sleeve of roses on her upper left arm and shoulder.

When the all-day and all-night event is in full throttle at Helen’s Hilltop Bar & Restaurant, as it will be on June 21, it’s said that the growl and rumble of hundreds of motorcycles can be heard at least a mile from the bar’s perch on a hilltop on McLouth Road. The ground vibrates.

Throughout the Kansas City region, the roar of motorcycles carrying hundreds if not thousands of bikers has become an increasingly common and even welcome sound of summer. This weekend marks its unofficial beginning, with no fewer than 16 motorcycle events in Kansas and Missouri, including in Lenexa and Sugar Creek, according to calendar sites such as CycleFish.com.

Next weekend: 20 more. From June to the end of September: 130 biker events — more than there are days of summer.

Many of the biker events are fundraisers for charity; the bash in Tonganoxie raises money to combat child abuse. These are rebels with a cause. The fact that today’s biker is more likely to be a dentist or retired accountant than anyone close to a Son of Anarchy has made them even more welcome.

Generally, the events “have been really good for Tonganoxie,” said banker Steve Christensen, president of the Tonganoxie Chamber of Commerce. “Those folks are great people. We’ve really enjoyed having them.”

Just this year in Oskaloosa, Kan., population 1,000, the owner of Stinky’s bar was part of a group that worked to receive permission from the town’s council to allow bikers to gather downtown on the third Sunday of each month beginning in May for the Oskapalooza Bike Fest, with vendors, a band and open drinks allowed in public.

Convinced that the bad-seed image of bikers was far outdated, Mayor Eric Hull of Oskaloosa supported the idea as a way to stimulate commerce. Some council members, he said, envisioned the gathering turning into something he described this way:

“Bikers. Riffraff. Gangs. Drunks. There was worry it was going to be some big drunkfest on the square,” he said.

On May 18, some 300 to 400 bikers rolled into town in waves. Noise prompted a few complaints, Hull said. When the bikers rolled out of town, they left a few red beer cups littering the streets, but they also left money in the tills of shops that normally saw little business on a sleepy Sunday.

“It went real well,” Hull said. “Stores opened up. The variety store sold popcorn and cookies. It was good for everyone. We’re actually looking forward to the next one.”

It’s next Sunday.

At 62, Mike “Ringo” Ringgold, president of ABATE of Kansas, offers the long view on biker gatherings.

“Thirty years ago, you could hardly find a rally anywhere,” he said. “Now, every weekend, there is so much to do.”

He knows of what he speaks.

Formed in 1972, ABATE — which originally stood for the American Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactment — is a federation of state groups that was organized to fight what its members deem to be restrictive state and federal regulations on motorcyclists, such as laws requiring helmets. The group is not against wearing helmets but would rather it remain a personal choice.

Thirty-nine years ago, ABATE of Kansas started what was then one of the few motorcycle events in Kansas or Missouri. Over the decades, its National Labor Day Rally has grown to become one of the largest annual motorcycle gatherings in either state. Held at Paradise Point on Perry Lake near Lawrence, the event brings in a sea of more than 4,000 bikers in leather and bandanas who camp out for all or part of a three-day weekend of near-continuous music.

Locally, only the annual Bikers for Babies ride, now in its 20th year, may be bigger. The one-day event, held this year on Sept. 21, attracts more than 5,000 bikers who take to local roads in what often seems like a never-ending, thundering mass to raise more than $600,000 for ill children and the March of Dimes.

Charity causes that bikers now help support run into the dozens, from events that help abused kids (Bikers Against Child Abuse) to breast cancer (Bikers for Boobies). There’s a ride to help families of police officers and firefighters with medical expenses (KC Guns N Hoses Benefit Ride), one to support suicide prevention (Ride to Silence the Stigma) and events to raise money for the American Red Cross, childhood cancer and childhood brain tumors.

“Everybody is having a bike night these days. You’re just seeing a lot more than you used to,” said Chris Campbell, 38, who with Dave Carrel and Paul Harper run Turkey Creek Cycles, which builds custom motorcycles in Merriam.

The business not only helps sponsor other events but runs its own Knock the Dust Off Block Party each year in May as a benefit for Children’s Mercy Hospital.

“I started it seven years ago,” Campbell said, “mainly just to have some fun. The first one had 300 people. Now, I mean, we’ve outgrown our space. I probably had 1,500 people come through.”

Some events are more intimate. Next Saturday, Post 56 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars is holding a run out of Leavenworth, now in his fifth year, to honor the late Col. James E. Trafton, an Iraq War veteran who died in 2010 doing what he loved — riding a motorcycle.

At Helen’s Hilltop, Bedell said this year’s event will be particularly poignant for her and others. In early March, one of her best friends, Lisa Barnett, who would help work at the Biker Bash every year, died after suffering from depression. Her memorial had even been held at the bar.

“It’s going to be hard,” Bedell said. “It’s going to be be tough.”

But like family, many in the biker community have helped her get through the loss, she said. This year’s bash is being dedicated in her friend’s honor.

Also like family, many in the biker community have grown older.

“You know,” said Police Chief Jeff Brandau of Tonganoxie, “you generally find, when you go up there, that the biker crowd really isn’t young. Probably the crowd over 40 outweighs the crowd under 40.”

It’s an impression supported by data compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation showing that for at least the last decade, at least half of motorcycle owners have averaged age 40 or older. In 1985, the median age of motorcycle owners was 27.

Ringgold of ABATE of Kansas sees it at his own event. In the past, only tents were allowed at the rally. Now organizers allow recreational vehicles.

“Everyone is getting older now,” Ringgold said. “Now it seems like there is a lot of handicapped people.”

Older often equates to calmer.

“I don’t think we’ve ever even written a DUI (driving under the influence) up there,” Brandau said. Plus, others added, bikers don’t like driving drunk. Nor are they stupid.

At Bedell’s event, which runs from about noon until 2 a.m., the crowd tends to shift when the sun starts going down. It’s then, she said, that many bikers head home to swap out their motorcycles for cars or trucks. Nighttime on a country road?

“Deer,” she explained. It’s the last thing a biker of any age wants to broadside at any speed.

Ask avid bikers and they can reel off the names of the circuit of biker bars and restaurants that host rides and events in the region as well as they can name U.S. presidents:

Antoinette’s Restaurant & Lounge in Kansas City, North; the Red Eye Bar in Kansas City, Kan.; Kobi’s Bar & Grill in Bonner Springs; Fro’s Hideout in Linwood, Kan; Slow Ride Roadhouse in Lawrence; Hog Holler Saloon in Ozawkie, Kan.; Helen’s Hilltop; Stinky’s …

Kansas tends to see many biker events for a prime reason: No helmet law.

As much colleagues as competitors, the owners of the various biker bars said they are just as likely to promote an event that kicks off at another bar, since riders rarely desire to sit still. Events that start at one venue almost invariably move on to others.

Otherwise, what’s the point of having a bike?

“The more stuff (events) you have out, the more it benefits everyone,” said Steven Campbell, 38, the Fro of Fro’s Hideout. “You don’t want to just sit on your bike. It ain’t about sitting and drinking; they don’t want to get drunk. They want to ride.”

To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or send email to eadler@kcstar.com.

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