Born to be Mild

Our on-the-scene correspondent rode in to the Weirs atop a metal machine that throbbed with the power of two horses and 49 screaming CCs. By the time he rode out again he had made new friends, learned important lessons and lost nothing but his dignity.

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“Why would someone ride a bright red moped to Laconia Motorcycle Week?” you ask.

You would not be alone. In fact, many people (police officers, outlaw bikers, mental health professionals) asked me the same thing. It’s not because I had some great appreciation for Austrian motorized push-peddle transportation from the 1970s. It’s because Motorcycle  Week, the one-time symbol of machismo and lawlessness, is finally accessible for wussbags like me.

Since before Brando was a Wild One, Motorcycle Week has had a reputation as a Mecca of sin, of danger and of ultimate coolness. But over the years, the biker event has become more and more gentrified, with touristy commerce, well-behaved crowds and corporate sponsorship. Today there are more concealed weapons on the floor of the N.H. House of Representatives than among the thousands of leather-clad riders who descend upon the Lakes Region each June.

I figured the event had finally become so pansyfied that I could do the once-unthinkable: pull into the Weirs on a 49cc bike with a 32:1 oil/fuel mixture and rumble with the big boys.

There is no doubt that the motorcycle rally and accompanying events make up one of the state’s largest tourist draws, with between 200,000 and 300,000 people attending each year. Laconia is one of the “Big Four” bike rallies in the U.S. and arguably the oldest. About 150 riders attended the first unofficial Laconia rally in 1916. For decades, the attractions were limited to racing, sight-seeing and skirt-chasing.

By 1965, a new tradition was added: rioting.

Faster than you can say “Sweet Clean Corpse of James Dean,” the Laconia rally got the reputation (deserved or not) for being a gathering of outlaws and hooligans. In other words, someplace your parents would have six heart attacks apiece if they knew you were going.

I pulled into the Weirs looking pretty badass on my red 1977 Puch moped. You may not think that 2 horsepower sounds like a lot, but when you go downhill, bugs do get caught in your teeth and little tears form in your eyes. Not quite exhilarating, but definitely titillating. On a moped, a wipeout probably wouldn’t kill you, but it would likely leave a really big rip in your Lands’ End chinos.

As I rolled down the main strip, I could tell the other bikers were checking out my colors. I was wearing a custom vest declaring me the “Mo-Man” (That’s because it takes mo’ man to ride a mo’ped). The vest was covered with patches declaring my grit, like “Don’t Tread on Me,” “Live Free or Die” and “Tumble dry, low heat.” Underneath the vest I had on a T-shirt that made my back a billboard for glory: “If you can read this, the milk crate fell off.”

Riding in, I met another journalist. He said he was a photo-grapher for some kind of wildlife magazine (I think he said it was “Beaver Hunt” or something …) and asked if he could tag along. Of course, I said. The Mo-Man likes mo’ friends when he makes the scene.

“Wow, that’s something,” said Tracie Curtis of Manchester, who, after a dozen years of coming to Laconia, claimed to have never seen anyone arrive on a moped. “That just means you have balls, man.”

Curtis was among a growing number of attendants who had discovered the softer side of Motorcycle Week. (Remember, it’s “Motorcycle Week.” Don’t call it “Bike Week;” it hurts their feelings.) She said she had no problem bringing her kids to a place where only a generation earlier you’d be afraid of contracting diphtheria from a public toilet.

If I thought I would be immediately accepted into the fold of the Brotherhood, I was wrong.

Not every biker was picking up what the Mo-Man was putting down. There was some finger-pointing, some laughing and the occasional death threat. I needed to do a little more to fit in with the crowd.

The Weirs was packed with tents and tables selling all the accoutrements of two-wheeling.  Leather was the predominate offering, because in a crash it won’t tear like other clothing material and because polyester doesn’t hold up after being BeDazzled with steel spikes. I could have purchased everything in leather I needed to ride: jacket, gloves, boots, skull cap, saddlebag, ponytail holder, butt-less chaps. (I learned that all chaps are butt-less. Otherwise they’re called “pants.”)

Not everybody has the kind of job where they can grow their hair long enough to fit in at the party. I — being a weekend man of leisure — was able to rock the Fu Manchu mustache, but the Mo-Man still needed his — I don’t know what they call it — his je ne sais something. That’s when Stan Dworkin of New York offered me the ultimate in headgear: a bandana with long biker hair already attached. Dworkin, who in 1994 ran as Howard Stern’s running mate for Governor of New York, has traveled the country selling his faux hairpieces at motorcycle gatherings for dozens of years. He said many “normal” looking people attend the Laconia rally and wear the hair to fit in. C’est la mode!

As I tried to walk around and look at the different bikes, every few feet some denim/tattooed ruffian would hand me a little book. It was a biker’s Bible (I assume a mopeder’s Bible would be even smaller). The Good News was being passed around by one of the many Christian-oriented motorcycle clubs who come to Laconia. Like lambs among lions, these guys walk among the sinful hordes and try to deliver them from evil.

“Laconia is pretty receptive,” said Louis Nobs of Hibbing, Minnesota, the national vice president of the Soldiers for Jesus Motorcycle Club. He said his fellow riders were “planting seeds,” bringing The Word to bikers.

“The East Coast gets a bad rap,” he said solemnly. “It’s not nearly as rough here as some other places.”

Other than thinking WWJR (What Would Jesus Ride?), I had to admit that biking with the Lord — while cool — was not the rough-and-tumble image of motorcycle gangs I’d hoped would rub off on me at the event.

So I wandered over to a tent where a big guy with a tattoo on his face was selling “Support Your Local 81” T-shirts. First off, the dude wouldn’t even tell me what an “81” was or how close it was to my house. Second, he got really emotional when I asked if the bikers in Laconia were so tame now that they should wear mascara. The guy (I think his name was “Snake Bite”) tried to give me a hug, but I kept telling him I didn’t think it was that kind of rally. He must have been really worked up because when I walked away I heard the crash of glass pipes shattering and the sound of him shouting for his friends to let him “do it, just this once.”

No matter how manly Motorcycle Week was, it has never been what the French call a festival saucisse complète. (Translation: total sausagefest.) There are plenty of ladies who enjoy bikes and the men that ride them. I wanted to spend more time talking to these women and examining their clothing for purely anthropological purposes.

Enter Kimberly Conrey of Orlando, Florida, who was wearing bunny ears and tight leather chaps while selling cold beer. Surely she was a victim of rude remarks, cheap suggestions and fanny pinches.    “No, this crowd has been very nice so far,” she said. “They just like the scene. No one has given me any trouble.”

I left her there (’cause that’s how the Mo-Man rolls) and took a look around see which way the wind blow [stet]. Of course, all the chicks were diggin’ my moped. I could totally tell by the way they ignored me and stifled their laughter that they were playing hard to get. And it wasn’t long before this real hot mama saddled up to the Mo-Man.

“That’s a really nice bike,” she said without a trace of irony. “It’s a Puch Maxi, isn’t it? Late ’70s?”

I brushed back the long waves of my flowing faux-hair. “You know it is, baby.”

She smiled coyly, then took out a ballpoint pen. “Do you have insurance for it?” she said. “Because I’m from Allstate.”

Holy Dennis Hopper! The whole place had gone commercial! I felt like Charlie Brown at Christmas time, except instead of wearing a corduroy hunting cap I was wearing a helmet with an “I Break for Moose” sticker on it.

It was at that moment that two physically-fit bikers decided they had seen enough of the Mo-Man. They each grabbed the frame and picked up the moped (with me still on it) and carried me off Weirs Beach. Then I ran into that “81” guy who proceeded to do things to my face only Chuck Norris was supposed to be able to do. Afterward,  I wobbled into Funspot where I was further assaulted by a group of fourth graders on really sweet BMX bicycles.

If I thought that this was some kinder, gentler Bike Week, I was wrong. The regulars at the rally have become tolerant — even welcoming — of the non-bikers who go native and enjoy the spirit of the event. But it seems that some bikers are not so tolerant of the yahoos who come to Laconia and disrespect it. This was my experience, but as they say, your mileage may vary.

I suppose I was a little bit crazy thinking I could ride down the strip on a red Puch (maximum speed: 25 mph) and not incur the wrath of the Hells Angels, the Diablos, the police and the Red Hat Society. But I did discover one thing: No matter how badly a gang of leather-clad roughriders mangles your moped’s transmission, you can still peddle home.

Categories: Opinion & Humor, Things to Do