95th pilgrimage: World-renowned gathering of motorcycle enthusiasts returns with Bike Week

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There are two warm-weather traditions "unlike any other" — the Masters golf tournament in April — and Laconia Bike Week in June.

An annual rite of summer for motorcycle enthusiasts throughout the northeast, the 95th pilgrimage of untold legions of weekend warriors to Lake Winnipesaukee began on Friday, June 8 and will conclude on Sunday, June 17. In years past, the event has drawn as many as 300,000 people.

Around the Granite State, scores of local bikers have revved the engines of their choppers, sport bikes, fatboys and sidecars up Interstate 93 to meet other enthusiasts, and enjoy all the week has to offer, including demo rides, vendor displays, live entertainment and on-track racing and off-track stunt shows at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon.

While motorcycle culture has long been viewed by many through the lens of intimidating outlaws in skullcaps and leather and popular television programs like "Sons of Anarchy," which have brought the world of criminal motorcycle gangs into the spotlight — the vast majority of the riders attending Bike Week are everyday, law-abiding desk jockeys and laborers who morph into weekend warriors when they punch the clock on Friday.

Local clubs ride on

Many of the motorbike enthusiasts in New Hampshire this week are members of small motorcycle clubs who use their passion for wheels and handlebars as a way of growing their social circle.

In Derry, a local chapter of a national motorcycle club known as the Freedom Cruisers counts around 25 riders in their membership, said Daniel "Moose" Hartung, president of the Derry club.

A truck driver by day, Hartung, 40, said the average age of the club's members is around 50. He said he first joined the Plaistow Freedom Cruisers when he was living in Massachusetts, but joined the Derry club after moving to the Granite State three years ago.

"I'm the youngest guy in it, but it's a diverse group," said Hartung. "Some guys are religious, some not. We have members working in construction, management, all walks of life. It's all volunteer, you're here because you want to ride." 

With Father's Day falling on the last day of Bike Week, the Derry Freedom Cruisers are looking to head up to the event in two small groups throughout the week, take in some music and food, get some patches, T-shirts and other souvenirs and, most importantly —  log a few hundred miles on their hogs.

"It's a big family thing. All the guys bring their wives or girlfriends, and we have members who bring their kids to ride along," Hartung continued, adding that some of the club members have adult children with bikes of their own who ride alongside their fathers. "We're hoping to get at least half of the members up there for Father's Day."

How many miles do the Freedom Cruisers put on in a year? Hartung said he rode 16,000 miles during his first year with the club, but was limited to 7,000 last year after receiving an arthritis diagnosis. But he's back on the bike now thanks to an old adage — "A body in motion stays in motion."

The Derry club has no membership dues, initiation fees, or mandatory meetings, and doesn't require that members ride a certain type of bike, though Hartung said all of the members prefer large cruiser-style bikes.

"We don't have any sport bikes, and we're split in half with the cruisers. Half ride Harley's, half ride something else," said Hartung, adding that the lone requirement for membership in the Freedom Cruisers is that you must complete three rides with members of the group a year.

"We typically will do rides to the beach for a meal during the summer, find a 10-cent wing night or a two-for-one lobster deal," he continued. "We'll do short rides, day-trips, long rides ... it's invigorating. It wakes you up."

While the club is based in Derry, its membership is spread out around the region, with members riding up from Massachusetts and Nashua, and smaller communities like Hampstead and Danville.

Dealerships going strong

The allure of riding on the open road, with the wind blowing through one's hair, is still as strong as ever, according to Dan Stay, a manager at Seacoast Harley-Davidson in North Hampton.

Southeastern New Hampshire is a huge region for Harleys — there are four official Harley-Davidson dealers within a 20 mile radius — the North Hampton dealership attracts motorcycle aficionados from all over eastern New England, many of whom will likely be making the trek to Bike Week.

"We're a destination shop, so we get people from Boston to Portland (Maine). All kinds of people — young, old, riders, weekenders," said Stay. "A lot of them love hill climbs, so probably most of them will make it up (to Laconia) at some point this week."

While he declined to say how many bikes they've sold over the last six months, Stay said that the dealership is on pace to match sales from the previous year. 

Among the most popular bikes at the dealership are Street Glides and Road Glides, two types of larger touring bikes which start at around $21,000 and are great for leisurely cruises along Hampton Beach. 

"It gets busy up here every summer," he said. "People up here just love to ride."

A patch on Hartung's leather jacket reads "It's Not A Hobby, It's A Passion" and that sentiment is shared by bikers of all stripes. As such, Stay finds himself flat-out during the week before Father's Day, tending to the needs of bikers passing through either on their way to Bike Week or just enjoying a cruise on Route 1 or Interstate 95.

But Stay is optimistic he can get away to enjoy some of Bike Week for himself.

"It's a busy week for us, but I'll try to get up there," he said.

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