South Padre Island BikeFest
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, TEXAS, OCT 11-14—Eighteen years ago, a group of Rio Grande Valley locals formulated a scheme to host a motorcycle rally on the most beautiful beach in Texas. Known across the nation as one of the most popular spring break destinations, South Padre Island is the very last in a group of barrier islands that skirt the Texas coast, terminating at the very bottom of Texas, near the Mexico border. This enthusiastic group understood the untapped resource that was their backyard, a playground of sand and surf interwoven with a history of outlaws, pirates and dark-skinned señoritas. And they had faith that a fall event in such a beautiful setting would be embraced by the riding community. I made my first appearance for the rally during their third offering in 1996. It was my first major journalistic effort and the event organizers welcomed me like an old friend. That first opportunity opened the door to my writing and photography career with Thunder Press. So my history with SPI BikeFest and its people is long and rich and as vibrant as any Island sunset. So whenever I cross that two-mile span tagged the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge, it’s always like going home.
And my ride south this year was exceptional in regards to the weather, with a cloud-studded sky across the expansive King Ranch (70 miles between towns and services) being an unexpected treat. Normally dry and arid, recent rains following last year’s statewide drought had left the territory south of Corpus Christi all the way to Mexico green and lush with wildflowers while the clouds provided cover from the parching sun. It was a good day to ride.
Also known as Roar by the Shore, BikeFest is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that raises funds for deserving charities across the Lower Rio Grande Valley. This year’s BikeFest had a full slate of events on tap starting with the Buns on the Run Burger Bash on Thursday night. Beginning at Mad Boar Harley-Davidson on the mainland in nearby San Benito, the ride ended with free grub on Padre at the Schlitterbahn Water Park. That was followed by a welcome party featuring live music and the start of the Ms. BikeFest Competition.
Friday kicked into gear early with demo rides at Mad Boar beginning at nine. The South Padre Convention Centre, home to BikeFest, opened at the same time with participants trickling in. It was a laid-back day with riders coming over the causeway in no particular hurry. And that’s all part of the temperament in this region of the state—you leave all the busyness of life behind, checked baggage left on the other side of Laguna Madre, the bay that separates Texas from paradise. Slow down, amigo; relax, indulge—you can pick up all that crap on your way out, back to reality.
The weigh-in for the South Texas Fighting Championships was held that afternoon with 12 young scrappers that would be featured in a half-dozen matches during Saturday night’s Fight Fest. And while no national names appeared on the card, these men are well known throughout the Valley and are a big attraction at BikeFest—so much so that over the last two years Fight Fest has garnered such loyal support from the bikers that the rally doesn’t even feature a headline musical act anymore on Saturday, relying on the rowdy crowd’s favoritism towards cage action instead. Also on Friday, Biker Bras presented their Dunk-a-Babe booth, where $3 would buy five balls and the chance to drop a cute chica into a tub of chilly water. Biker Bras is based in nearby McAllen and is in their third year of fundraising on behalf of uninsured women in the Rio Grande Valley. They began in 2010 during BikeFest with their Biker Bra Bash held at a local nightclub, Louie’s Backyard. They immediately came to the attention of the rally and have been a part of BikeFest for the last two years. They encourage civic groups, businesses, clubs and individuals to donate decorated bras to the cause with the best of the best being auctioned off on the main stage on Friday night. A most memorable-mammary auction was followed by Lance Lopez, a Texas guitar badass who has received national and international recognition, along with numerous kudos from his peers including Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck and B.B. King.
Saturday proved to be the big day at BikeFest with tons of day trippers rolling in for a one-day visit. Before the afternoon was over, volunteers would be pulled from other stations and have to endure emergency training in order to reinforce the day-pass registration booth when the crowds overwhelmed the normally very efficient staff. BikeFest Decathlon registration began as soon as the doors opened, with more than 160 bikes taking part in a 100-mile loop ride that visited 10 different business establishments across the Lower RGV. At each stop, the Decathlon participant was required to compete in some contest of skill. Those contests included target shooting, knife throwing and eating jalapenos (these boys and girls definitely know how to show us gringos a good time) with first-, second- and third-place winners receiving $1,000, $750 and $500, respectively.
The bike show proved to be a dismal affair with only nine bikes competing. Although there were hundreds of blinged-out touring bikes and refined choppers scattered throughout the Convention Centre’s massive parking lot, no one seemed interested in entering. (It was so bad
that the only bikes entered in the Vintage Class were two Evos, while many a Panhead and Shovel cruised the Centre.) The One Wheel Revolution Stunt Show was set up outside the Convention Centre, so that even a casual passerby could enjoy the talents of the showmen (that ride only Harleys) without paying admission. The stunters saw constant crowds, probably attesting to the number of people that continue to show up without ever actually buying admission to the rally, choosing to hang in the parking areas with friends and party for free across the island during the weekend. One added incentive to actually purchasing a rally wristband was the Harley-Davidson Seventy-Two Sporty that was to be given away after the cage fights on Saturday night. That alone should be enough to warrant the $15 day pass fee. The field events saw a much larger participation factor than the bike show with Stand the Can, Ball Catch, Wienie Bite, Slow Race and a Jousting Contest (a strange one involving two riders on one bike and a cue stick) keeping the crowds on their feet and shouting for their favorites. And, in a somewhat bizarre sign of our changing biker ways, there were also several 12-step meetings scheduled on both Friday and Saturday inside the Convention Centre.
Riding into the sunset
The always-anticipated Iron Horse Memorial Sunset Parade assembled on the mainland in Port Isabel a little after 6:00 p.m. But we didn’t see the first bikes charging down South Padre Boulevard until well after 7:00. The parade has been part of BikeFest almost since the rally’s inception, but was renamed as a memorial event after the tragic collision of a runaway barge with the causeway in 2001 just a month before the rally. A 240-foot span of the bridge collapsed and, in the dark, six vehicles plunged 85 feet into the deep, killing eight people. Repairs took more than two months and SPI BikeFest was held in the nearby town of Harlingen that year. This year’s parade lasted for more than 45 minutes and included every model of motorcycle imaginable and quite a few sombreros and luchadore masks, such as those worn by Mexican wrestlers.
As soon as the parade arrived at the Convention Centre, the finals of the Ms. BikeFest Competition were held on the Budweiser Main Stage with the petite Alejandra Campos taking home the sash. And then… at 9:00, a fight broke out. Luckily it was inside a wire cage. The place was packed as the slugfest began and, take my word, this crowd loves a good fight. And while most ended in the first round with either a KO or TKO (one only lasted 20 seconds), the main event between Joe Rodriquez from Edinburgh and Mike Mendez from San Benito stretched out for all three rounds, with Mendez besting the highly favored Rodriquez in a split decision. After the brawling, everyone said their prayers and held tight to their raffle ticket… and then watched as that much-coveted candy-apple red metal flake Seventy-Two Sportster was won by Dan Reeves. Soon afterwards there was an outbreak of island zaniness; beach parties erupted, bayside madness raged, sunrise was delayed. It was a typical Padre weekend.
If you’ve never been to South Padre, you owe it to yourself to go before your college student beats you to the punch and spends all that tuition money. Mexico is nearby and despite all the scary stories, towns like Progresso are a pretty safe haven for American shoppers and especially savvy bikers. Island hotels and condos are more than reasonable at this time of year (some as reasonable as 75 bucks a night), the seafood so fresh that the cook wears waders, and a night life proportionate to the heartiest of co-ed partiers. And those sunrises on the beach—how do you think that drink with the cactus whiskey got its name?