Putting a spin on ‘party’ politics
Austin, Texas, June 10–13—There’s a Hindu belief that rain on your wedding day portends good luck. (Apparently it’s harder to untie a “wet knot.”) As I pulled out of the gas station and pointed my front wheel for Austin, a smattering of rain pelted my face and I wondered if the same doctrine would hold true for the big “knot” of riders headed to the Republic of Texas Biker Rally. But true to form, as in most years, the ROT would remain dry all weekend, only adding fuel to what is without a doubt the center of the hottest biker action in the Lone Star State.
A severe line of storms on Wednesday afternoon the day before the kickoff of this year’s ROT Rally turned sections of rally central (the Travis County Expo Center) into a quagmire and played hell with those camping in the grassy areas. But by Thursday, the place had dried out fairly well and by Friday, there were no lingering signs of the deluge. Scattered clouds kept me company during my ride over from Houston and provided just enough relief for a near-perfect ride with temps only reaching the high 80’s—and that’s more than reasonable for June in Texas. And although the Bluebonnets had all burned off last month (the third hottest May in recorded Texas history), there were still spotty patches of Indian Paintbrush, Mexican Hat and Texas Thistle decorating the roadside. But the question remained just how the ROT crew would decorate this year’s rally. Last year the Republic of Texas celebrated a notable milestone, their 15th birthday, capped by a 180-foot motorcycle jump by Robbie Knievel at the very steps of the State Capitol. How can ya top that? I’m here to say, they did a pretty damn good job.
Party downtown—pass it on
While the rally opens their gates on Thursday (there was even a ROT-Eve Party at Cowboy Harley-Davidson that night), the majority of attendees usually arrive on Friday afternoon. And this year was no exception. The main draw for making the Friday roll call is being a part of the huge free party held in downtown Austin. This year the stage was erected on Congress Avenue that leads to the Capitol’s front door and people were lining the streets as early as six that evening, although the kickoffparade from the Expo Center to downtown wasn’t slated to leave the rally site until 7:30. While the ROT Rally at the Expo Center is designated as an 18-years-and-older-only venue, the downtown party is family oriented anddesigned to embrace those of all ages. And the streets werepacked with kids, from tots to teens and all in between. The rally coordinators had even stationed offsite merchandise trailers downtown for those who want that 2010 ROT T-shirt but maybe can’t quite make the age restriction at the rally entrance. It’s a win-win for everyone—the kids get the chance to hang with the bikers downtown on Friday and we have the chance to get a little crazy at the rally without fear of terrorizing any youngsters. And hanging with the bikers was simple, since more than 4,500 riders were in the 11-mile parade from the Expo Center, filing down 11th Street and making a left on Congress Avenue before making a U-turn at 6th, riding back up the other side of the street and finally parking in the shadow of the State Capitol Building. It was a very long parade.
Of course there were a lot more than 4,500 motorcyclists downtown this night since while not all bikers like riding in a parade, all bikers do like a party. And just when you think you’re accustomed to the bizarre behavior of Texas riders, they will amaze and dazzle you as parade participants put on displays of totally weird riding apparel, including Lucha Libre (masked Mexican wrestlers) and a fully-plumed American Indian war bonnet (that can’t be comfortable at 60 mph). After the parade, several damn good bands took to the stage along with a energetic quartet of dancers from the Coyote Ugly Saloon, one gal even playing the hell out of a fiddle as they stomped, swirled and enticed. Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider even made a surprise visit to wish a happy birthday to rally coordinator Denise Garcia’s 15-year-old daughter Elayne Fisher, proving this part of the rally is definitely for all ages. Number estimates for Friday night’s celebration exceeded 100,000 people. That’s a party, even for Texas.
But there was additional action going on other than the downtown party that evening. That’s when the Austin PD initiated an undercover sting operation to shut down a group selling counterfeit ROT wristbands. Yep, for a mere $20 you could buy two illegal ROT wristbands from this scurvy crew. While there was the possibility of losing a sawbuck if discovered, that was overshadowed by the embarrassment of being turned away at the gate. And while not all were caught, many were.
Saturday started early for some, with riders gathering in nearby Georgetown for the March of Dimes Ride with Dee. Led by Dee Snider, a staunch supporter of MOD, 185 riders participated in a ride through the Hill Country, arriving at the rally destination site around 4:30 that afternoon. Those with a little extra change in their pockets could upgrade to the Ultimate Ride-VIP Access that included extra goodies in support of a great cause. A tidy sum of just under $20,000 was raised during this ride.
For those not riding with Dee, early morning Bloody Marys for breakfast were the best solution for a Friday night that had extended into a Saturday dawn. (There were three onsite bars erected this year, along with a drive-through beer barn.) Once braced with a healthy dose of liquid veggies, you were fully equipped to tackle the job that lay ahead—visiting 326 vendors, listening to more than a dozen bands (more than 40 music acts performed on four different stages over the entire weekend) and cheering stunt show daredevils, comedians and bike rodeo maniacs. Organizers tossed in a tattoo contest this year along with their own ROT’s Got Talent show allowing rally attendees to strut their stuff. One of my favorite additions to this year’s rally was the outrageous comedy of Gallagher. But be forewarned: If you’re thin-skinned or easily insulted, this jokester’s social commentary may not be right for you—he blasts everyone and pisses off many during his quest for laughs. Gallagher offered those with a twisted sense of humor three hilarious performances at this year’s ROT.
Old school, new school and those in-between
ROT still carries a hardcore group of dedicated attendees who believe that the only honest method to get a true taste of this rally is to camp—tents, bags and mosquitoes. To another large group, their idea of roughing it is running out of Crown Royal in their room’s mini-bar. But there’s a third category that continues to surge each year—RV owners. I was told by the rally number crunchers that 2010 experienced a three-percent no-show in preregistered campers. That’s probably due to the bad weather that blew through on Wednesday. At my hotel (hey, I like my mini-bar), the numbers were also down, with only 80 percent occupancy. (Normally the hotels in downtown Austin are completely filled four months before the rally.) But those RV devotees once again showed up en masse, establishing their own little metallic hamlets. Each year, registration for RV space opens online at the stroke of midnight on New Years. This year, 1,100 RV spaces across nine separate lots were completely sold out in 30 minutes. It seems the attitude is, “I may not be able to make Sturgis this year, but damn it, I can afford to drive this bus to Austin for ROT.” And no matter where you stand on the toy-hauler concept, these guys are definitely the coolest folks present, with hundreds of portable swimming pools inflated and filled with water supplied by the Expo Center—mini-lagoons and oases providing respite from the blazing sun and supporting the local bikini-clad wildlife. Overall gate figures showed a slight increase over last year, with just fewer than 42,000 registered (not counting those counterfeit illegals who escaped capture.)
The diversity of the crowd shows not only in their selection of accommodations but also spills over into their bikes of choice. This was proven during the ride-in bike show, where the top three places in the American Cruiser class were won by a Bourget, a Big Dog and an American Ironhorse, while a Honda Goldwing and a scooter took 1st and 2nd in the Antique class and a 1978 Yamaha 650 won the Rat Bike award. ROT remains an all-brand event.
Saturday night was highlighted by back-to-back performances by Leon Russell and Bret Michaels. Sandwiched between the two acts, the Military Bike Give-Away had a new twist to it this year. Although the give-away has been a part of the rally for several years, this was the first time it was combined with the Big Texas Chop-Off, a bike show competition between professional bike builders. The Chop-Off this year included three competitors: Jason Barron of Primer Inc. Customs, Troy Nichols with Lightning Customs and Bronson Willard from Southern Metal Choppers. For 2010, the lucky finalist in the Bike Give-Away was given the choice of selecting one of the three Chop-Off bikes as his prize, which would also determine the winner of the build-off contest. The giveaway was open to anyone who was either a current or retired member of the military. Over 3,000 entries were received with retired Army Sgt. Lewis Jarvais of Killeen, Texas, being selected as the winner. Sgt. Jarvais served his country for 20 years in the Army and is a veteran of both Operation Desert Storm and the conflict in Somalia. His bike of choice was the metallic green FXR creation built by Southern Metal Choppers. Bronson Willard received $15,000 for winning the competition.
After 15 years, the Republic of Texas Biker Rally has mastered what it does and the result is one of the most organized and well-run rallies anywhere. Like a finely-tuned motor, this well-oiled event has the help of an unlikely ally, the City of Austin. This symbiotic relationship has been forged over years of diligently working together to make the event not only safe but also profitable for both the promoters and the City. Several years ago, ROT took over as the leading event to be held in Austin (that honor had been previously held by the annual South X Southwest Music & Film Festival). And Austin expresses its gratitude for our annual pilgrimage with a nonaggressive police presence, ample city-owned signage along major thoroughfares reminding drivers to watch out for bikers, and a genuine attitude of gratefulness by area businesses who appreciate our monetary injection into the town’s economy—a welcome and refreshing change for both sides.