Down in Bikertown
The wild, the innocent and the First Street shuttle
Las Vegas, Oct. 2–5—First come the hours of high-speed desert crossing on featureless I-15, and then a slow global excursion past, in short order, Venice, Paris, Rome, New York, Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, Hollywood, Egypt, Medieval England, the Mediterranean and Caribbean—among other places—before dropping down off the elevated superslab into the old downtown district of the city. That brings you into the Fremont Street precinct, and if everything in Las Vegas has a theme these days, the theme here is pure uncut, unpretentious old-school Vegas; gloriously tacky and gritty beneath a thick veneer of neon glitz like makeup on an aging hooker. This is what remains of the real Las Vegas, and while its venerable hotel/casinos—places like Binion’s Horseshoe and the Golden Nugget—draw but a tenth of the tourist traffic that swarms the sensational Strip, those visitors tend to be the more single-minded gamblers and hard-core revelers. They’re not here to shop boutiques, play make-believe or go to the circus.
Score one for Fremont Street. Add to that the district’s cheek-by-jowl concentration of hotel rooms, gaming floors, restaurants and bars, its close proximity to the extensive exhibition facilities of the Cashman Center, and the street-level concert stages of the canopied Fremont Street Experience pedestrian mall and you come to realize why it’s proven such an ideal locale for what, on the face of it, has seemed from its inception an unlikely scenario: a successful biker rally in the middle of a major metropolis.
It’s a city within a city, Fremont Street, segregated from the hype and hoopla of The Strip and possessing a character and authenticity all its own, and for the four days of BikeFest it is a city of bikers, as upwards of 30,000 of them roll in annually and make it their own. Bikefest has undergone numerous changes over the course of its eight years as the event’s formula has been refined and fine-tuned by event producers Full Throttle Productions. While most of those changes have been incremental responses to, as they say, conditions on the ground, several have proven transformative in taking the event from its shaky star-crossed debut the week of 9/11/2001 to the blockbuster event it has become.
The most transformative change came in 2003 when Bikefest commandeered the capacious Cashman Center—a 55-acre sports complex and convention center on the city’s north side—and moved the vendor village and the lion’s share of daily activities from Fremont Street to that facility. The entire exhibition hall and the parking lot out back accommodate the more than 300 vendors in attendance, representing most of the principal American motorcycle manufacturers, custom and performance parts producers, and accessory suppliers of every stripe. There are bands onstage under a parking lot pavilion throughout the day, food and beverage concessions galore and plenty of shaded table seating for the crowd.
The Center’s 1,900-seat theatre is the setting for the BikeFest pageants that have become a central component of the event: the Bikini Contest, the Ms. Las Vegas BikeFest Competition, and the Mr. Las Vegas BikeFest Competition. This place is bar-none the most upscale venue of any biker boob contest anywhere in creation, what with plush theatre seating and professional-grade stage lighting. The contestants—the female ones, anyway—also tend to be professional-grade, which should come as no surprise. This is, after all, Las Vegas, and there’s a wealth of local pro and semi-pro talent hereabouts eager to vie for the lavish prize money being awarded. In the case of the Ms. BikeFest Competition, the first prize is a whopping $1,500 and it goes to the whoppers of Adrian Reynolds from—of all places—Las Vegas. She won the title last year, too. The $500 for first place in the Bikini Contest goes to another local girl, Zaya Taylor. A third beauty pageant conducted as part of the official BikeFest program, an actual Wet T-Shirt Contest, is also held out at Las Vegas Harley-Davidson (where slinging buckets of water around is a more practical proposition than inside the Cashman Center theatre), and that $1,000 prize is awarded to still another Las Vegas beauty, Fallon Johnson—who also notched third place in the Ms. BikeFest deal, and was last year’s Bikini Contest winner. See a pattern here?
The Cashman Center’s exhibition hall is also the site of what has become one of BikeFest’s signature attractions, the Artistry in Iron Master Builders’ Championship. Established in 2004, this annual display of haute-custom creations from a number of the industry’s premier artisans has become one of the most prestigious events of its kind in the country. Entry is by invitation only, and the winner is determined by peer-judging of the participants. There are 20 builders in attendance this year and a mind-blowing assemblage of machinery, and when the balloting is complete the winner is Roger Goldammer. Again. This is Roger’s third win in the five years of the competition, having won as well in 2004 and 2005, and he didn’t even compete in 2007. That’s a remarkable track record considering the rarefied level of artistry in this league and the obvious difficulty in bribing the judges. All of the builders involved in the show make themselves available to meet the public and sign autographs for several hours on both Friday and Saturday.
Other venues have been pressed into the BikeFest constellation for the weekend, most notably Las Vegas Harley-Davidson, where besides the aforementioned Wet T-Shirt Contest, there were demo rides aboard the new 2009 Harleys being offered, but it’s Fremont Street and the Cashman Center that are the main axis of activities for the long weekend. Most attendees are at one place or the other most of their visit, and to facilitate the constant flow of bodies from point A to point B, BikeFest has its own mass transit system, and it’s a humdinger. It’s also a damn good idea, since the distance between the two points is just over a mile and few bikers are eager to go out to the hotel parking garage, unlock the bike, ride it a mile and park it at a distance from the entrance to the Cashman Center. Especially drunk. The only thing they’re less eager to do, generally, is stand in a line for ages waiting for a bus, but that’s not the case here. A fleet of shuttle busses shuttles back and forth from a loading area on First Street adjacent to the Golden Nugget right to the front door of the Cashman Center, and it does so with breathtaking efficiency. I should know. I’ve been a frequent flier, bouncing back and forth to cover one spectacle or another, and at no time have I had to wait more than 10 minutes to catch a ride, even when the queue at the Cashman Center was a good 50 yards long.
We must have music
Though most BikeFest doings are staged at the Cashman Center, Fremont Street remains the hub of BikeFest and the heart of the nightlife. Gambling and carousing are popular, and the nightly sound-and-light spectacle of the Fremont Street Experience—a trippy explosion of plasmatic images on the five-block-long overhead canopy accompanied by music booming from about a thousand unseen speakers—is every bit as riveting as it is hokey and weird. There’s live music, too, with artists performing on the two concert stages on the mall. The caliber of those artists is decidedly down-level from what it once was at BikeFest, and the performers on Saturday night are a Johnny Cash tribute band called Cash’d Out and Kelly J., a local country-rock songstress. BikeFest got out of the big-name band booking business last year citing overcrowding on Fremont Street during the shows as the reason. Nevertheless, attendees do have the option of seeing better-known acts performing at various casinos with tickets discounted to BikeFest registrants; bands like Branscombe Richmond and the Renegade Posse (who have performed for free at the Cashman Center in the past), the Guess Who (who have performed for free on Fremont Street in the past), the Hollywood all-Stars and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. One odd note in all this is the inclusion in the BikeFest program of the Santana concert out at the MGM Grand on Saturday night even though it has nothing to do with this affair and no ticket discounts offered.
Another free music option is offered a couple of blocks off Fremont Street at the Hogs and Heifers Saloon where the cream of the local bar bands rock the house afternoon and night. Hogs and Heifers has been heavily involved with the event since their grand opening at BikeFest 2005 and it’s proven a most excellent addition to the event’s itinerary of party venues. It’s the closest thing to an authentic biker bar in town, and provides welcome relief from the casino scene of Fremont Street. It’s the only place in the vicinity you can actually ride up to and park a bike out front, and it’s the only bar in the vicinity where you can escape the nerve-jangling racket of slot machines while trying to tie one on. To be sure, that racket is replaced by the racket of bullhorn-wielding barmaids who are given to sudden and frequent fits of bartop clogging against a backdrop of booze bottles and brassieres, but it’s a qualitatively different distraction, being human and all. It’s also a blast. And when you’ve had your fill of the shenanigans you can always take your drink outdoors and gaze blearily at all those bikes.
Concours on the concourse
On Saturday morning, the Fremont Street mall is home to the annual Las Vegas BikeFest Custom Bike Show and for the better part of the day is transformed into a three-block-long galleria of spit-polished machinery posed for appreciation and inspection. The range of customization represented is broad and judging is done in three classes: Semi-Custom, Custom and Radical. The purse for the Radical class is a cool five grand, and it comes with a set of Ego Tripp wheels and an invitation to the 2009 Artistry in Iron competition. Anyone registered for the event can enter their scoot, but BikeFest is cautionary about it, advising potential entrants that, “If you prefer not to lose, it may be best not to enter.”
Even with that deterrent, the collection of entries is large, and judging them a daunting task bordering on the impossible. As a judge, I can personally attest to that. I’m judging the Custom class and there are no fewer than 40 specimens to appraise. After an hour and a half of scrutinizing and scribbling, I’m cross-eyed. So much effort; so much quality; such diversity of style. Another 10 minutes of this and I’d probably tear up my results and start over from scratch. I hope that’s some solace to the losers.
When the winners are announced in the afternoon, the Radical class trophy is claimed by Jim Giuffra of AFT Customs in Martell, California, for his extreme boardtracker-styled… Yamaha. It’s the same bike that won him the Best of Show award at the LA Calendar Bike Show in July—the first metric machine so honored—and a gauntlet thrown for all you American bike customizers. C’mon, guys.
It’s in departing on Sunday morning and heading off across the Mojave that the wisdom of one last transformative change to BikeFest is truly appreciated. The temperature is in the 50s, and will rise no higher than 78 all day in the desert, and that’s because this is October. When BikeFest made the decision to move the event out of its traditional mid-September slot and back on the calendar to October, the reason was simple: It’s cooler then. There was some downside in the move in that weather in Colorado is getting jiggy right around then, and there’d be some unavoidable drop-off in attendance from that state, but it sure makes things more comfortable for the Californians who make up the vast majority of attendees. It actually rained on Saturday this year, in fact, as a potent low-pressure system blew in. It was only a trace, and you had to look hard to find it, and that’s too bad. There’s nothing finer than riding in an autumn rain in the desert. Better luck next year.
(Postscript: I can’t leave this subject without bringing up one final thought. While celebrities visiting Las Vegas invariably frequent The Strip and probably don’t even know Fremont Street exists, this year we had our own celebrity staying just a block away from my room at the Golden Nugget. That’s where the Clark County Detention Center is, and where OJ Simpson is billeted after being convicted on all charges in his robbery/kidnapping trial. The verdict came on Friday, October 3, after 13 hours of deliberation, and it came exactly 13 years to the day from his double-homicide acquittal in Los Angeles. And I take back all the bad things I’ve said over the years about Clark County law enforcement.)