PETALUMA, CALIF., OCT. 6—If the measure of a man has anything at all to do with how he’s remembered once he’s left this ol’ blue marble, then William “Chilly Billy” Walsh Jr. was one helluva cool guy. Remembered annually by an entire community of Bay Area riders who gather together to celebrate the life of a cantankerous and colorful lost member of the Rip City Riders, they memorialize their friend by raising gobs of cash to donate to local charities. There’s a poker run, a huge bike and car show and a badass party that brings out thousands of fun-seeking folks who just want to soak up some sun and share a few giggles. The fact that they manage to raise tens of thousands of dollars to be distributed to a few of the needy organizations in the area is the cherry on the top of an already pretty tasty event.
Though a thick layer of fog greeted the early riders who filled the parking lot of Michael’s H-D on Saturday morning, those 760 hearty souls who shook off the dampness and lit out to gather the hottest poker hand were soon shedding their layers, as the cloud cover burned off quickly. The last card draw was at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma, where the party was already in full swing by the time poker players rolled in.
This year’s car and bike show boasted a whopping 388-entry cast of all things shiny and sleek, as well as ratty and worn. One could easily get lost in the impressive collection of muscle cars, motorcycles and general metal mania, since there were aisles and aisles of machines from vintage to contemporary. Though the bike entries were merely a handful of the total show, it mattered not since the entire display was impressive enough to keep even the most serious of gearheads rubbernecking as they strolled through the sprawling automobile jungle.
The show, however, was just one part of the 60 acres’ worth of bikeresque fare that was amassed by the detail-oriented Rip City Riders. Live music was onstage all day and vendors lined the venue, as an estimated 8,000 partiers gathered on the green to kick back and soak it all up while sipping on suds or tasting some local wines. The many grub options ranged from dogs and nibbles right on up to fresh grilled oysters or a full-blown picnic lunch of half a barbecue chicken and all the sides. This is not your usual ho-hum biker bash; this is an unparalleled over-the-top party with absolutely nothing overlooked.
Originally held at a smaller venue with just a few hundred riders, the news spread quickly that this was an event worth riding out for and the numbers swelled to thousands in just a few short years. The group went shopping for a larger party facility.
“You know, when we first decided to do this run here, we were given one opportunity. The cops told us up front, ‘You get one chance to do this right. You screw up, you’ll never do another event in Petaluma again, ever!’ So, we asked what we had to do and we followed all the rules. It’s a good formula and we’ve stuck to it ever since,” said Rob Anello, the California Rip City Riders founder and president. “As for the charities, there’s an application process where we look at everyone who comes to us—and we have dozens every year. They know we’re gonna get them some real money and we’re legitimate, so lots of organizations come to us for help. We love doing this. C’mon, we get to give money away to places that really need it. How cool is that?”
Yes, they certainly do give money away. Big wads of it, even. A whopping $30,000 was awarded that very afternoon to be divided between the two lucky charities that were chosen for 2012. The grateful representatives from Senior Access, a group that assists more than 6,000 families in Marin County that struggle with memory or dementia-related diseases including Alzheimer’s, and the McDowell Drug Task Force that provides education on the hazards of drugs and alcohol, both took the stage to accept the big checks as the crowd cheered them on.
The spirit of giving pulses throughout this event, and the riding community gets behind the club every step of the way—including many sponsors who have been along for the ride since the beginning. Even the day’s musical headliner, Tommy Castro and the Painkillers, got into the giving groove. In the middle of his second set, Tommy bought $50 worth of bike raffle tickets on behalf of himself and the boys in the band. Tommy takes pride in his several-year association with the RCR and does all he can to support the group, including spending the afternoon crooning cool blues to the fans who mobbed the concrete dance floor. When friend/singer Stacie was invited onstage to knock everyone dead with her killer vocals, he shared that she had brought with her a nine-year AA chip to commemorate Tommy’s nine years of sobriety. To show his sense of humor, Castro followed with a song he wrote back in his wilder days called Nasty Habits, which lit up the crowd. Turned out that it wasn’t in the cards for the band to have to figure out how to split a bike four ways, since after several calls and voicemails the 2012 Street Bob was eventually given away to a local Rohnert Park man, Rick Duncan, after his winning ticket was drawn.
Besides a day of fundraising in the NorCal sun, there were fond memories of life with Chilly being exchanged among his friends. Most everyone seemed to have his or her own version of some wild or wacky experience with him. For those who didn’t know him personally, there was a memorial at the back of the fairgrounds where his famous white-’n’-gold bike was
displayed next to photos and mementos that included everything from love notes to death threats. Apparently you either loved or hated Chilly, and the line between the two was pretty well discernible.
Hanging out near the display we found Dan McCarthy who proudly showed off his R.I.P. tattoo memorializing Chilly Billy. One of his many stories of Chilly recalls a beautiful day when he called up buddy Jeff and asked if he wanted to go riding. Jeff declined and explained that he couldn’t since he was moving a friend, which prompted Dan to ask who he was moving. “Chilly,” was the response and they were, unbeknownst to Dan, moving him into Dan’s house. The surprised Dan responded with, “Well crap, guess I’m not going riding either, then!” and he instead helped get his nomadic buddy settled into his spare room. Billy lived with Dan and his wife until his death in July of 2005. The friend, Jeff Bush, is currently the Oregon chapter president of the Rip City Riders, and several of his crew made the day’s ride down to party with the NorCal members.
This one-day shindig takes the RCR a full year to orchestrate and countless man-hours to pull off, but the rewards for everyone involved are immense. Viewed as the “Boy Scouts of motorcycle clubs,” the Rip City Riders are simply a fun-loving group of bikers who work hard for their community and just happen to have huge hearts. They operate their organization much like a three-piece club, are very selective about who they invite into their little pack and have had to restrict their growth.
Rob Anello told us, “We’re the do-good guys and everybody wants to be a part of that. There’s been a kind of social turnaround. It used to be that everybody wanted to be the bad guys; now they want to be part of us and that’s pretty cool. Several other states have asked for chapters, but I don’t wanna do that. It only takes one bad apple to spoil it for everybody, and it’s good the way it is. I’m happy with the way Jeff is handling things up in Oregon; he’s doing a great job, but I think that’s enough.” Both chapters do, however, invite riders to join them and get to know what the club is all about. Regularly scheduled rides and lunches are posted on the website and the public is invited to spend the day hanging with the cool kids and picking up on that giving feeling that comes with being a Rip City Rider (www.ripcityriders.org).