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Herding Motorcyclists

July 15, 2012

Port Dover without MotorcyclesOn Friday, July 13 (2012) approximately 140,000 people streamed into the small Lake Erie town of Port Dover (population: 6,500).  About a third of them arrived on motorcycles; the rest were in cars, trucks and vans (although only two-wheeled vehicles were actually allowed into the downtown area; those arriving on four wheels were required to park in farm fields  outside town and walk or be shuttled into town). Why – you may ask (if you don’t already know) – would people from all over southern Ontario (and many places beyond) travel to this tiny town for a single (hot, hot, hot) day in mid-July? Well, because it was Friday the 13th, that’s why.

Now, I own a motorcycle. My husband and I bought it so we could ride it. We enjoy travelling the back roads of our province, seeing new sights, exploring new places. We occasionally (read: not very often) stop for a drink or a meal while we’re out; we rarely (read: almost never) ride with other people (someday I’ll write a post about the most ill-fated duo journey on two wheels ever attempted).  We never (and I mean NEVER) go to Port Dover on a Friday the 13th.  We just don’t ‘get’ it.

Port Dover with Motorcycles: Friday the 13thFor those who don’t know the story, the gathering of motorcyclists (and gawkers) in Port Dover on Friday the 13th started back in 1981 when a group of guys met at a bar in Port Dover on Friday, November 13th and had such a good time, they decided they’d do it every time the 13th fell on a Friday. Well, as the old theory of exponentiation goes, each of them told a couple of friends, who told a couple of friends, who told a couple of friends … and a tradition was born.  By 1986 (when the 13th also fell on a Friday in June) about 500 people (primarily bikers) rolled into town; by August 1999, more than 25,000 arrived; in July 2001 there are some 50,000 attendees. It’s just grown bigger and bigger since then (note that not all the people who show up these days are driving motorcycles – a good number of people come just for the ‘show’).

A typical Friday the 13th in Port DoverIf the 13th falls on a Friday between September and June, the local schools shut down and the school buses are used to shuttle people in and out of the downtown core.  Residents have to have a ‘pass’ to allow them access in to (and out of) the places where they live and work quietly the rest of the year (most stay indoors, lock their doors, and don’t even think about venturing out); police (including the local authorities as well as members of the provincial force) are everywhere.  Naturally, there are a few infractions (DUI, public drunkenness, lewd behaviour, noise) but all in all, it’s fairly tame. Most local shopkeepers and bar owners earn more on a Friday the 13th (particularly when it falls in the summer) than they do the entire rest of the year.  Many local farmers/landowners generate a little extra pocket money by renting their property for camping and/or parking.  A significant number of residents simply hate the whole thing for the disruption and inconvenience it causes. Still, every year more and more people turn up.

Waiting to get into town: Port Dover, Friday the 13thWhat I simply don’t understand is why anyone would want to drive all the way to a small lakeside town for the day just to park their bike (or car, or whatever) and walk up and down the street. Sure, they buy souvenirs, eat the odd hot dog or some fish and chips, quaff a few beers. But there’s no entertainment other than gawking at the bikes (and some of the oddball characters who drive them), sporadic shopping (vendors do show up to sell motorcycle and bike-related clothing, jewellery, etc.) and eating/drinking.  People line up for hours just to get into town, have to jockey for a parking spot (assuming they’re on a motorcycle; if they arrive in a car or other vehicle, it’s a long trek or bus ride into town), and then a few hours later, get back in/on their vehicles and reverse the process to go back home. Why bother?

Sturgis Rally 2012There are lots of bike ‘rallies’ held around the world.  In the U.S. alone, for example, there are at least three dozen events scheduled in 2012 (the biggest and longest-running being the Sturgis Rally in South Dakota in August, and Daytona Bike Week in Florida in March [with Biketoberfest in October] – both of which have been around since the late 1930s, and both of which can trace their beginnings to actual motorcyle races). What differentiates these kinds of events from PD13 (as it’s known) is that they run from at least three days (a weekend) to a week long, and feature activities and events like live bands (including some very well-known musical headliners), dance parties, field events, contests, drag and road/track races, tributes, rides, and more (at Sturgis you can participate in ‘machine gun shooting … your chance to shoot real ammunition from real automatic weapons AND get the training required for a 35-state concealed carry permit’ – God, isn’t American great!?!?!?)  At PD13, there’s not much to do except look at rows and rows of parked bikes, do a little shopping, and (line up to) eat and drink (and while some people go on Thursday and camp overnight – and/or stay through Friday night and go home on Saturday – it’s considered a ‘one day event’).

Sunday: Ice House Parking LotDon’t get me wrong here – I’m not criticizing the people who go – I just don’t know why they feel the need to!  I ‘sort of’ understand those who want to ride in herds (whether on scheduled poker runs, charity runs, Sunday afternoon group rides in the country of whatever) because of the camaraderie and feeling of ‘belonging’ to a group that many people crave, and while we’ve never stopped at any of the ‘bike friendly’ restaurants we occasionally pass on our travels (like The Ice House in Campbellville, there the parking lot around the restaurant, and the gas bar, always seems to be jam-packed on Sundays), I can see where groups of riders – or those looking for a group to join – occasionally need to stop and refuel (both the bikes and themselves – although drinking a coffee mid-ride means you better plan another stop about 40 minutes out – or less, if you’re over 50!)  And we’ve driven our bike out to Port Dover (on a weekday in the summer), and thoroughly enjoyed the ambiance, the beach, and the foot-long hotdogs – but I wouldn’t want to try getting in and around the tiny town with 139,998 other people bumping elbows with me!

I suppose this is just one of those ‘to each his own’ things – my husband and I prefer the solitude of riding our bike through quiet back roads, away from highways, and other people; we don’t even have a communication system hooked up (if I want something, I just tap on his helmet and holler in his ear, or pat his shoulder and point to something I want him to look at; he reaches back and squeezes my leg when he wants to warn me about a significant upcoming increase in speed or a bump in the road); we ride for the peace and quiet and escape from everyday activities.  However, clearly there are a significant number of people who prefer groups and crowds and noisy pipes and the busy-ness of events like PD13. I think, for me, it just comes down to how I want to spend my leisure hours now that I’m on … the other side of 55.

Solitude Quote

  1. Margie permalink
    October 10, 2012 7:59 pm

    Friday, July 13, 2012 – won’t be a day we forget – my husband crashed his motorcycle that morning!

    • October 12, 2012 8:03 am

      OMG Margie, I didn’t realize it happened on a Friday the 13th. I guess that day IS unlucky for some (although I’ve always seen it as a lucky day for me – because I got a perfect score on a particularly difficult math test on a Friday the 13th in grade 5). I hope he’s recovering and that he’ll be back on two wheels soon. A surprising number of people think that falling off a bike and/or ‘getting in an accident’ means you should give up your bike and take up something ‘safe’ like knitting or fishing; personally I want to keep riding until I can’t swing my leg over the bike anymore, and so does my husband (who’s had his share of accidents in the past and never given up). My best to both of you.


  2. August 12, 2012 9:25 pm

    “I suppose this is just one of those ‘to each his own’ things – my husband and I prefer the solitude of riding our bike through quiet back roads, away from highways, and other people;” Amen… Again you get it…

    Ride safe and I hope we will see you on the road somewhere….

    • August 13, 2012 9:55 am

      Thanks. Who knows who you’ll run into when you’re out riding!


  3. Sharon permalink
    July 20, 2012 2:53 am

    PD13 sure isn’t for everyone. But it is something different for everyone who goes there. Most enjoy checking out all the bikes and visiting with people, or camping over on Thursday and Friday nights so they have time to party together. Others enjoy the drinking and bands at the hotels and beer tents. Some go to show off their bikes, others to promote their biking related business or sell their wares in the parks. And a lot of people just go to gawk at the bikes and the bikers. A lot go just because it has become a biker ‘tradition’ that isn’t related to the stereotypical big-bad-biker theme. It is the largest “one day” bike show in the world and it is something you have to experience to believe. Not for everyone, but everyone should try it at least once just to know what it really feels like.

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