Austin, Texas, June 9–12—If the Great State of Texas had any future intentions of actually declaring succession from the Union, becoming a separate territory and telling the rest of the country to stick it, you sure wouldn’t have known by the party they threw in Austin on the second weekend in June. That’s when the welcome mat was dusted off and the front door left unlocked—inviting everyone, cowpoke or greenhorn, from Yankee-land to Mexico, to the biggest wingding in the Lone Star State, the Republic of Texas (ROT) Biker Rally.
The original Republic of Texas was just that, a separate and independent nation that flourished from 1836 to 1846. This two-wheeled version of the Republic of Texas has lasted longer than the original, this being the 17th annual event. And with attendance numbers continuing to maintain (or by some accounts surge), ROT has an allure like no other, drawing participants from across the nation to come and discover the uniqueness of both the state and the rally. It also brings in greater revenue than any other event in Texas, even surpassing Austin’s revered South by Southwest, a huge weeklong venue of interactive music and film festivals.
While the rally doesn’t officially begin until Thursday, anyone hitting Austin early was invited to the first-ever ROT Memorial Ride for Fallen Heroes on Wednesday. Designed as a day to honor lost loved ones who served in the military, law enforcement and emergency response, you could submit a name of a departed friend or family member that would be included on a scrolling honor roll at the rally’s onsite jumbo tron. Starting with a free breakfast at Zed’s on Canyon Ridge Drive, the Memorial Ride then traveled to a service hosted by the Cook-Walden/Capital Parks Funeral Home in Pflugerville. The memorial service included a 21-gun salute, the releasing of doves and a bike blessing. This was followed by an afternoon of food, vendors and music at VFW TX Post 8787 in Austin and ending with two area bike nights presented by Spec’s Wines, Spirits and Finer Foods.
While riders were honoring their Fallen Heroes, the Expo Center was a hub of activity with major industry suppliers, mom and pop vendors, big-rig tractors and pull-behind campers all scrambling for their locations in preparation for the swarm of bikers that would descend on Austin the next day. Beer was being iced down, last-minute adjustments to the music stages were attended to and security teams worked out their assignments. Preparing for a tsunami of chrome and steel, ROT braced itself once again.
The Travis County Exposition Center sits on over 200 acres and recently underwent $6 million in renovations. Included in this vast acreage are more than 1,000 RV slots for those pampered bikers who would rather enjoy the comforts of an AC and soft bed in lieu of 80-degree nights in a tent with a sleeping bag. And despite the quantity available, those RV spots go rather quickly, selling out each year in just a few days. Early check-in for RV campers begins on Wednesday when the entrance to the ROT rally becomes a long line of aluminum-skinned homes, Prevost buses and motorcycle trailers. Camps are quickly arranged, portable swimming pools filled (water supplied courtesy of the rally) and neighbors meet neighbors. Many of these “campers” reserve the same RV location each year, maintaining an annual subdivision-type friendship. Ample primitive camping is provided free with admission with water bibs scattered throughout the grassy tent camping section and free cold-water showers available in the old horse stalls at the covered Vendor Mall. And although I’m a common customer in these communal showers, anyone roughing it should at some point during the event indulge and partake of the on-site trailer by Rubber Duckie that provides a hot shower for a nominal fee—make ya feel like a new biker. Unfortunately local regulations do not allow campfires or open-ground fires of any type. But with the plague of wildfires that are scorching the state, this is a sane stipulation.
Thursday saw a continued influx of rally attendees, both on two, four and multi-wheeled vehicles. And while this is definitely the quietest day of ROT, there’s still plenty to do with live music from the Pat Travers Band and the Georgia Satellites who both performed at the outdoor amphitheater. All the vendor booths are up and running by this time along with the Wall of Death stunt show, the Vintage Bike Showcase and an air-conditioned arena featuring nine master builders along with a huge tattoo expo. And of course there’s always Austin proper, with businesses offering all types of enticements (my favorite was the Leather & Lace Topless Bike Wash at Sugar’s Uptown Cabaret.)
Everyone loves a parade
Friday evening is one of the most anticipated times during ROT. That’s when the “Largest Parade of Motorcycles Known to Mankind” takes off from the Expo Center and travels 11 miles to the downtown Austin bash. The parade earned that certification from the Guinness Book of World Records in 2006 and has maintained Texas braggin’ rights ever since. This year’s parade was huge with many stating it was the largest ever. I received one figure of more than 15,000 (but that came from a braggin’ Texan). The stop ’n’ go shuffle maintained a steady 15-mph pace that had bikes overheating and more than one oil leak or blown head gasket as a result. But the parade did eventually arrive, to the cheers of the thousands gathered downtown to witness the spectacle. Although the rally proper sees attendance figures around 50,000, the city estimates that more than 200,000 in total show up for the weekend. And once the parade arrives, the party rocks deep into the night.
Can’t say no
Bad boys being bad boys, there were two guys down on 6th Street that night that just couldn’t seem to settle their disagreement without blades being drawn. Seems two bikers allowed their elevated testosterone levels to get them best of them resulting in a knife duel. Ambulances were dispatched and, although the streets were heavily congested, the EMTs were eventually able to rescue the two hapless individuals and get them to the hospital. Hey, it’s Friday night in Texas.
For the first time ever, the Austin Police Department instituted a “no-refusal” policy to coincide with the ROT rally on Friday and Saturday to combat alcohol-related accidents. Designed not only as a deterrent to keep bikers from having “too much of a good time,” it was hoped the directive would curb cagers from over-indulging and running over riders during the huge influx of two-wheeled traffic. The initiative requires individuals to submit to a mandatory blood test if they refuse a breathalyzer. There were a total of 37 DWI arrests over this no-refusal weekend, 23 on Friday and the remainder on Saturday, which when compared to previous periodic enforcement was not indicative of marauding hordes descending upon the state’s capital. During New Year’s Eve, 24 people were arrested with an additional 50 arrests occurring during this year’s Memorial Day holiday, both being non-refusal time periods.
After Friday night’s haze subsided, many riders took to the surrounding Hill Country for the chance to enjoy some of the best motorcycling in Texas. Two self-guided tours were included in the rally pamphlet that came with your registration packet. One took the back roads to, and around Lake Travis while the second explored beautiful Fredericksburg and quaint Luckenbach. Saturday morning was the perfect time to ride these areas while the countryside still carried the coolness of the night. That little pamphlet contained a wealth of additional information including a map of the rally site, a listing of vendors and events and even contact info for businesses that were handling emergency breakdowns, both bike and RV.
Exploring the Expo
Back at Rally central, registration for the ride-in bike show started at 9:00 in the Vendor Mall with the Thunder Dome opening an hour later. This year the Thunder Dome featured nine custom builders that ROT had hand selected to appear. They included Rick Fairless, Southern Metal Choppers, East Texas Choppers, Desperado Motorcycles, CC Trikes/Hostile Cycles, Lightning Cycle Works, Primer Inc. Customs, Siouxicide Choppers and Sinister Industries. Most of these shops attend ROT every year but are scattered across different parts of the vast area. It was great to be able to admire their work in a collective air-conditioned venue. (And for some unknown reason, although Joe Martin was invited to attend, Martin Brothers Bikes was a no-show at this gathering of builders.) Upstairs at the Thunder Dome, a collection of tattoo and piercing shops were stabled together forming the ROT Tattoo Expo. They seemed swamped with customers at all times and even crowned the rally’s first Ms. ROT Tattoo before the day was out.
Later in the afternoon, Biker Games by Buda held a handful of events back at the rodeo arena inside the Vendor Mall while live music was being pumped out at both the Cowboy Bar and Paradise Bar. And since ROT is an 18-and-older event, it has seen its share of risqué behavior over the years. This year a savvy vendor decided to capitalize on that aspect and offered body painting and airbrush tattoos. As a result, there were quite a few “interesting” examples of the female torso on display throughout the weekend, clad only in colorful pigment and “thoughtful” designs.
And spread across the grounds, more than 330 vendors were available offering one of the widest and most diverse selections of merchandise of any motorcycle rally in the Southern United States.
Two Dyna Street Bobs from Cowboy Harley-Davidson of Austin were given away Saturday night right before the Doobie Brothers took to the main stage. Anyone who had pre-registered for ROT was eligible to win the first one, which was taken home by Richard Duran from Midland, Texas. The second scooter would be won by either an active or retired military service member. Contestants signed up at the Thunder Dome with Sgt. Sammy Sparger of the United States Army becoming the proud winner. Sparger is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and has served in the military for 23 years. After the Doobie Brothers concert, the night ramped up before winding down with the craziness that is the nightly Parade of the Republic, an event that you simply have to witness for yourself.
All braggin’ aside, the Republic of Texas Biker Rally continues to remain a vital aspect of the motorcycle industry and the Austin economy; one that needs no embellishment, no matter how tempting—even from a Texan.