LEESBURG, FLA., APR. 25-27—The hype for the 18th annual Leesburg Bikefest started right after Daytona Bike Week, and by the last weekend in April, this quiet town of less than 40,000 was busting at the seams. It is estimated that over 350,000 people poured into the rally this year, causing the normal problems with traffic and such, but more so with hotel accommodations since there are only a few in town and another 10 or so within a 25-mile radius, along with a few campgrounds west of town and near Ocala National Forest. None of these issues change the fact that the Leesburg Partnership rolls out the red carpet and welcomes us with open arms every year. After all, it was reported that $190 million poured into the five-county area in just four days. Whatever the reason, they like us there and want us to have a good time.
The event has been billed as the largest three-day rally in the Southeast, and some of the kick-off parties start a day early. No one expected the rally to grow to this size when it began in 1997 as a one-day event with a couple of local bands and a few vendors. Now it encompasses 20 city blocks, 75 bands and over 100 vendors—a plethora of music, food, bling, leather and other biker-related offerings.
I started my weekend at one of the kick-off parties on Thursday night. Actually I was the one kicking it off since I was pulling duty as the DJ at a bike night sponsored by Vengeance Cycles at Irene’s Bar in Tavares, a few miles south of Leesburg. Riders stopped in for a bit and then headed to Gator Harley, The Rat’s Hole Bar or the 5th Street Whiskey Bar, which were all open and rocking with bands like Control Freak, The Swamp Juice Band and 3 Ring Circus.
I planned to spend the latter part of the night at the Biker Party Zone for the performance of Big Engine, a rock band out of Jacksonville that has gained immense popularity in the last couple years. That gave me plenty of time to peruse the vendors and catch a performance of Jerry Paladino, a retired motorcycle cop whose entertaining, 30-minute “Ride Like A Pro” show presents good tips for riding and safety on the road.
While reviewing the brochure I realized one of the four beauty contests (Ms. Bikefest) was scheduled in Towne Square during the same time as Big Engine on the other side of town. So I could go watch Tony and Hans rock the crowd or take in the sights of some cute little half-naked gals. I know some of you would disagree, but I chose the former so I missed the beauty competition. Besides, I was going to be serving as a judge for the Ms. Rat Mate Contest, so I didn’t feel too guilty.
Saturday morning I was on the road by 9:00, already having a plan in mind. The only place I had to be at a specific time was the Leesburg Partnership office at 2:00 p.m. to check in for my judgeship at the Ms. Rat Mate Contest and the Rat’s Hole Tattoo Contest at 5:00. (I certainly didn’t want to miss the Rat Tat contest, as half my family would be entering.)
Behind the library building about a block off Main Street and behind the Budweiser bar was a performance of the Disconnected K-9’s from Jacksonville. I’ve seen them before at the Starke Rally, and they show what can be done with lots of work and some smart four-legged students. They catch Frisbees, jump through hoops and do various other routines and tricks.
I always like to catch the tattoo expo on the south end of town. It’s nice and cool inside with the cleanest bathrooms in town and usually has some interesting folks lurking about. On my way, I stopped for a cold drink and, in so doing, realized that the rally was getting on board with the Daytona pricing schedule. My fountain drink in a small plastic cup was four bucks while the guy next to me plunked down $30 for three mixed drinks and a tip on top of that. Reminder to self… drink water at a buck a bottle!
A few of the artists at the tattoo expo were doing some sketches and a couple of folks were adding ink to their collections, but it was still rather early as most tattoo artists tend to be late risers. From the ink factory, I headed back up Main to check out the Rat’s Hole Bike Show, but on the way, I stopped to listen to Dreams The Band. Laura and her husband Seven have been around for quite a while playing their own style of vintage rock from the 60’s through the 80’s. Their performance of any Fleetwood Mac song will take you back to another era and, besides all their talent, they are just great people.
The 20-class Rat’s Hole Bike Show had over 100 limited-edition awards waiting to be taken home. Bikes displayed every color and style, and each was like a beautiful flower with its own fragrance and uniqueness.
Upon arriving at the Leesburg Partnership office, we judges were given a quick briefing on our Ms. Rat Mate Contest responsibilities. We would be judging the young ladies on biker wear, bathing suit and personality. I’ve been a judge in bike shows, tattoo contests and chili cook-offs in the past, so I figured I could easily look at the gals and convert my opinion to a number between 1 and 10 for their appearance in any form of clothing.
There were five beautiful young ladies who entered, but I don’t think I was judging them on the same “qualities” as the male judges. They seemed to focus on certain assets that I just considered part of the overall package. I found it more challenging to judge their outfits since their “biker wear” consisted of chaps over a bathing suit. And then those little bikinis magically reappeared in just minutes for the bathing suit competition—biker chick to beach bunny just by unbuckling a pair of chaps? Truly amazing!
When it came to the personality rating, I found this to be the most difficult part since the exposure to the girls’ character consisted of them answering a few simple questions concerning men or their choice of drink. Nonetheless, I turned in my score sheets with totals I honestly felt were legitimate and, wouldn’t you know it, the young lady I thought would win came in second. I think I’ll stick to judging bikes and tattoos unless I can wrangle a position judging men in chaps and bathing suits.
I had just enough time to grab something cold to drink and then find a good spot back at the stage for the tattoo competition. The classes were broken down into male and female black and grey and color. There were seven guys entering the black and grey contest and five in the color. Then the ladies showed up and blew the boys out of the water with only four in the black and grey class, but eight in the color class. A few of the gals had some serious back pieces with beautiful color. But as I mentioned earlier, the contest this year became a family affair for me. My daughter Kim LaFrance once again took first place in the ladies’ color class with an impressive phoenix artfully done by Danny Wells at Stigma Tattoo in Orlando. The greens and blues are striking and cover almost the entire left side of her shoulder, back and hip. My ex-son-in-law Chris Bohnsack took first place in the men’s black and grey competition, and although my grandson Tanner didn’t win the men’s color competition, his memorial tattoo for several of his friends was enthusiastically applauded by the crowd.
With dinner bells ringing in our stomachs, my daughter and I decided to find a place to eat. There are only a few restaurants in the downtown area; most of the food offerings are typical of fairs and rallies—hot, greasy and served with a side of Rolaids. If you want to eat something at a table and cool off… plan early. The three restaurants my daughter and I tried Saturday afternoon all closed by 6:00 p.m. We did manage to find one place that would let us in the door, but they warned us as we sat down that they closed promptly at 6:00 and we would have to order quickly.
Later on, Bobby Friss hit the stage at the Biker Party Zone on 4th and Magnolia. I honestly think Bobby has a twin because he seems to be at every bike rally in the U.S. I’ve seen him in Leesburg, Sturgis, Daytona, Myrtle Beach, Panama City and Key West. Then, a few minutes before 10:00, I headed toward Town Square to catch a few minutes of Jackyl, although I knew I wouldn’t last long. Harley boots are great for riding, but they can be unmerciful after 12 hours of walking the pavement in 90-degree heat.
Although the party continued right up through Sunday afternoon with bands on five stages and the adult beverages still flowing like a mountain stream, the highlight of Sunday’s itinerary was an attempt to snatch the Guinness World Record title for the “Longest Chain of Bandanas.” The current record was held by the Hiratsuka Coming of Age Committee in Japan set in 2011 with 2,450 bandanas tied in the chain. To break the record, specially printed bandanas were sold at Gator Harley-Davidson and at booths around the rally. For $10 you got two bandanas—one to keep and one to add to the chain. The ceremony was held at 9:30 a.m when the last bandana was tied onto the chain and the final count was 2,545. The data was sent to the folks at Guinness, however, it can take up to 12 weeks to receive validation of the new record. Not only was the record brought home, but all the proceeds from the sale of the bandanas will be donated to Folds of Honor, a nonprofit organization that provides funds for education and scholarships to children and spouses of servicemen killed or disabled in service to our country.
Uncle Kracker was the last celebrity act slated for Sunday afternoon, but after three days at the rally, I’d had enough and decided to skip the concert.
Back in the early days of this event, the main goal was to host a good party for the public, bring more revenue to local businesses and to treat those attending the rally better than any other in the state. That’s still the goal even though Leesburg Bikefest has certainly surpassed all expectations. Event promotions state, “It’s your town, your party… no bike required.” And while maybe not everyone needs a bike to attend, I personally believe everything is better when you’re looking over handlebars!