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Las Vegas Bikefest

By Terry Roorda

Las Vegas, Nev., Sept. 29–Oct. 2—It’s Friday night on Fremont Street and Elvis is in the house. And so are Pee-wee, Anna Nicole, Spongebob, Jacko and Spidey among a mind-bending host of other A-list celebrities. The house bands are no slouches either, with AC/DC, Guns and Roses, Ozzy Osbourne and The Doors taking the stage over the course of the evening and well into the night.

They’re all impostors, of course—costumed panhandlers and tribute bands—but never mind that. This is Las Vegas where illusion trumps reality every time, including the illusion of fast fortunes to be made, of glamorous beauties to be casually laid, and of a decadent $9.95 surf and turf supper to be feasted upon that isn’t comprised of a butt-cut of old Guernsey and a dwarf rubber lobster.

And nowhere is illusion more concentrated and accessible than on Fremont Street, beneath the dazzling electric canopy of the Fremont Street Experience.

The return this year of BikeFest to its home on Fremont Street after a couple of years of reluctant exile in the wilderness of the The Strip is cause for celebration. This is where it all began in 2001, and it was the shrewd decision to center the event here that made it not just conceptually possible in this chaotic big-city sprawl where 30 or 40 thousand bikers would otherwise simply dissolve in the mix, but also a success that now spans over a decade. This is Old Vegas, where the city itself began, but also a part of town that had fallen far out of fashion with the tourist trade, overwhelmed by the glitz of The Strip and relegated to a nether region frequented by hardcore boozers and threadbare gamblers priced out of the action at the high-rise midway two and a half miles to the south.

The decay of Old Vegas had only recently been arrested when BikeFest came to town in 2001, and it was the ambitious Fremont Street Experience (FSE) project—a five-block-long pedestrian mall beneath what is essentially an immense electronic movie screen—that halted the slide. BikeFest literally took over the precinct, staging big-name concerts and the custom bike show there, and creating a city within a city—a city of bikers.

That all ended in 2009 after the FSE authorities reneged, for the second straight year, on coughing up their agreed-upon share of the ballooning law enforcement expenditure being levied by the city. Reluctant to once again foot the whole bill in a collapsing economy, BikeFest allowed itself to be wooed away by the Sahara Hotel, down at the north end of The Strip, which had wisely figured that Fremont Street’s loss could be their gain.

It wasn’t a great fit, though. Logistically things became complicated since now the event wasn’t simply a north Vegas affair comprised of Fremont Street and the Cashman Center, a mile north, where the vendor village was sited, but was instead a constellation of three far-flung sites that made the event’s admirably efficient shuttle service—a signature feature of BikeFest—a confusion of comings and goings to the various destinations.

At that point, the Golden Nugget on Fremont Street, a lavishly refurbished and expanded hotel/casino that had remained an integral part of BikeFest despite the move, set about wooing BikeFest back to the neighborhood. It didn’t take much. It helped that the city had now realized that they were paying for law enforcement at Fremont Street whether BikeFest was centered there or not, and all the Golden Nugget had to do was corral the other hotels and businesses there that had likewise suffered from the absence of BikeFest and coerce the FSE board into playing ball.

And play they did, and the timing could not have been better. Shortly after FSE and BikeFest came to terms, the Sahara announced that it would be closing its doors in May of this year, leaving BikeFest homeless. Whew.

With BikeFest back at Fremont Street, the party picked up where it had left off in 2008—sort of. In its absence, Fremont Street’s popularity had grown among the conventional tourist trade and a new feature had been added, a set of zip-lines were now suspended over part of the mall. That combination precluded bringing the bike show back to the street, and it remained out at the Cashman Center where it’s been for the last two years. Nevertheless, this year has the distinct feel of a joyous homecoming.

Take me out to the ballpark
The Cashman Center, a baseball stadium and convention facility located a short shuttle-hop away from Fremont Street, serves once more as the site of the vendor village and the focal point of daytime activities during BikeFest. It’s here that the long list of competitions and pageants take place—the World’s Strongest Biker Contest, Bikini Contest, Mr. and Miss Las Vegas BikeFest extravaganzas, Custom Bike Show, and the prestigious Artistry in Iron Master Builders’ Competition. There are bands playing throughout the day on an outdoor stage, and while the vendor population has contracted with the economy, declining by 23 percent since 2008, there remain well over 150 booths set up inside the convention hall and spread across the asphalt plain out back.

A pair of new features has been brought to the event this year as part of an effort on the part of the organizers to entice some of the elusive youth demographic to the festivities—a common fixation in the industry these days, never mind that these kids have no money. Team Empire stunt riders Nick Brocha and Ernie Vigil are here performing their wheelie/stoppie/burnout daredevilry hourly and filling the grounds with the piercing whine of their steroidal mosquito bikes until you could just about strangle the boys. Also onsite is the Limpnickie Lot—a loose confederation of youngish bike builders and parts purveyors with a cool name—and it proves a puzzling disappointment. The hype about the Lot has promised “a skateboard course, entertainment and music, as well as celebrity builders autograph signings,” but try as I might, visiting the Lot a half dozen times over the course of the weekend, I’m unable to observe any action at all to speak of. Perhaps it’s just a matter of bad timing on my part, but a small, lonely grouping of trailers and awnings attended by a few enervated bed heads amidst a few modular sections of plywood ramp scattered randomly about are all I’m able to discover. It’s too bad, too, because I appreciate the concept behind the Lot and the talents of the young guns involved, and I’d hoped for more.

Haute moteur
The Artistry in Iron Master Builders’ Competition has, over the eight years of its existence, established itself as the premiere bike show of its type—meaning one that’s strictly by invitation only and judged by the competitors themselves, providing the winner a heady dose of peer endorsement in addition to the $10,000 purse.

The award is presented annually at a gala VIP reception on Thursday evening at the Cashman Center, attended by the builders and the press in addition to various industry luminaries including, this year, one of the stars of the ratings-topping Pawn Stars television program, none other than Big Hoss. And before we get to the actual results of the competition balloting, I feel it’s my journalistic obligation to report that Big Hoss ain’t very big. The guy’s just sort of average in stature, if that, and it just goes to show you that, like Vegas, television is a land of illusion.

So, anyway, 19 of the country’s most talented bike builders have brought their creations to the show, representing once again an impressive blend of both well-established builders and emerging upstarts in the industry. And when the votes are tallied it’s Chris Richardson of LA Speed Shop who takes the trophy for his immaculately detailed board track-style Knucklehead. This is Richardson’s second win here in a row, putting him just one win behind the all-time Artistry in Iron champion, Roger Goldammer. Between the two of them they account, amazingly, for five of the eight competition wins.

Game day
Saturday at the Cashman Center the crowds roll in early on shuttles and bikes and a long day of activities kicks off at 10:00 with the Custom Bike Show, sponsored this year by Scott’s Insane Chops (SIC). Three classes of machine are displayed outdoors in the bright morning sun, the Semi Customs, Customs and Radicals. It’s a diverse collection of entries with a goodly number of metric models mixed in with the Americans, and in keeping with the times, a preponderance of baggers in all three categories. When the trophies are awarded the top honors for the Radical Class—an award that carries with it an invitation to next year’s Artistry in Iron Master Builders’ Championship in addition to $2,000—goes to Eddie Wilson of Scottsdale, Arizona, for his eye-popping orange bagger, a positively other-worldly creation that also garners a special award for Best Bagger. Paul Ponkow of nearby Henderson, Nevada, takes the $500 prize for Best Custom, and in the Semi-Custom class, top honors and another $500 check goes to Dana Powell from up in Reno.

Shortly before 2:00 the queue begins to form in front of the Cashman Theatre for the perennially popular Miss Las Vegas BikeFest pageant, and no report would be complete without a thoroughgoing account of this glamorous affair which to a large extent could also be called Artistry in Silicone. Some of the contenders are familiar. They’ve been doing this contest for a number of years and I’d recognize them anywhere except, possibly, in clothing. In a big strange city it’s always comforting to spot a familiar face… or whatever.

These frequent flyers are veterans of the drill here, and know the ins and especially the outs of the Biker Wear and Bedroom Babe judging components of the affair, but this year there’s a kicker they weren’t prepared for. In years past the third and final component has been the Bike Pose, and it involved getting reptilian with a production custom bike sitting center stage—in recent years either a Titan or Big Dog. Not surprisingly, those outfits are MIA at BikeFest this year, and so the whole bike pose deal is off the program and in its stead is a stripper pole. And the thing about a stripper pole is that you either know how to work it or you don’t. There’s no middle ground there and unless you’ve devoted some serious time to learning the basics and nuances of the device, you’re up against it. Of the nine women on stage, exactly one has done her homework. She scoots up that pole like a macaque after a coconut, performs an expert set of maneuvers and ends up upside down and whipping off her top as the piece de resistance. The place goes wild. We have a winner. It’s Kristi Verhoff, who, as it happens, works as a bartender at the Broken Spoke Saloon during the various rallies. Jackie Savitt is the runner-up, followed by the familiar Adrian Reynolds, who always seems to be winning something during BikeFest.

Hogs & Heifers; hoofers & hooters
Ideally situated a block off of Fremont Street and adjacent to an outdoor gallery of historic neon signage, the raucous Hogs & Heifers Saloon is one of the chief beneficiaries of BikeFest’s move back to the neighborhood this year. H&H opened here six years ago and quickly established itself as both a local biker hangout and a must-do destination for bikers visiting Vegas at any time of year. Like its sister operation in New York, it’s famed for its bartop clogging and bullhorn-wielding barmaids, burly beef trust of bouncers, and nonstop pandemonium. There’s never a dull moment at H&H because if there is, somebody’s out of a job.

It’s Saturday night and the street outside the saloon is parked solid four rows across with motorcycles. The sidewalk is jammed with revelers and inside the place is packed to the rafters. And I literally mean the rafters.

It’s a low ceiling in here, and when the H&H barmaids scramble up on the bar for one of their frequent spasms of clogging there’s not a lot of headroom. More and more as the evening wears on and the joint gets rowdier and rowdier, it’s female patrons in an exhibitionist mood that are mounting the bar to perform impromptu flash dances with boozy abandon. There will be hangovers tomorrow.

I might just have one myself, but for now it’s hard to break free of the free-for-all. And besides, it’s a short crawl from here back to my room at the Golden Nugget making Hogs & Heifers the perfect place to burn down Saturday night in full party mode as a fitting finale to the best BikeFest in years.

Adieu to a dynamic duo
Since it began, BikeFest has been the baby of the brother and sister team of Harry and Pam Schwartz, whose company, Full Throttle Productions, has produced the event in partnership with the company of their parents, ConvExx—ably assisted by yet another Schwartz kith, Mindi Cherry. The involvement of Harry and Pam officially ended before this year’s BikeFest, but they were there, as always, helping sis Mindi, who has taken over the operation, bring it off seamlessly. They’ve left to devote their attentions to another business interest, their Ace Hardware in downtown San Diego. Anyone who’s ever been to BikeFest has doubtlessly crossed paths with the dynamic duo, who seemed to be everywhere at once without breaking a sweat. The ongoing success of BikeFest, especially in an economic climate that has seen so many other events falter, is an eloquent testimonial to the energy and enthusiasm they’ve always brought to the task. We wish them all the best.

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