End of the road for America's biker culture?

Fed up with growling tailpipes, one more city cracks down on the world's largest Harley rally.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Biker-lawyer Tom McGrath is making a lot of noise as he's taking a challenge to Myrtle Beach's new helmet law to court.
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As the women at the SBB biker bar here greet the six o'clock hour by jiggling to a blaring version of Kid Rock's take on "Sweet Home Alabama," Bob Johnston leans back, flips his flip-flops off, and ponders the state of America's biker culture.

The party inside the saloon notwithstanding, the news ain't good, he says.

Just up the road, Myrtle Beach, S.C. – the site for 68 years of the world's largest Harley-Davidson rally, drawing nearly half a million riders annually – has effectively tried to shut down the event this year. Inside the city limits, a local helmet law and a ban on noisy tailpipes is likely to keep most riders at bay.

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As a scaled-down Bike Week begins this weekend outside the city limits, the question is whether Myrtle Beach has gone too far in cordoning itself off from the dinosaur growl of a straight pipe, an unshaven chin, and free-blowing hair.

For Harley riders like the prodigiously goateed Mr. Johnston, Myrtle Beach's crackdown is like Mecca kicking out its pilgrims – yet another blow to the independence of an outlaw "element" increasingly segregated from a squeamish American mainstream.

But for many Myrtle Beach residents, including the majority of its elected officials, the moves are a form of self-defense against what they call nonstop civil disrespect – a month-long May invasion that has outgrown its destination.

For bikers, "it's all about trying to find some independence here in America," says William Dulaney, a consultant to National Geographic's upcoming "Outlaw Biker" series. "Why bikers don't like helmet laws and pipe laws, it's all about choice: If states came out and required bikers by law to ride without a helmet, they'd all wear one, it's that funny."

The problem, he says, "is that there's hardly any common ground for the public and bikers to understand each other's perspective."

Cut to Myrtle Beach, the lumberman's retreat that grew into the 89,000-hotel-room jewel of the "redneck Riviera." Last year, citizens groups began a "Take Back May" campaign that saw families and children at city council meetings holding signs that said, "We want our beach back!" What had begun nearly seven decades ago as a three-day weekend rally had become drawn out to nearly a month, with organizers failing to self-police the events, city officials say.

The city's attempts to address issues of noise, lewdness, and massive congregations of bikers resulted in a lawsuit by the NAACP, which claimed that the rules unfairly targeted one part of the festivities: the younger, mostly black sport-bike rally known as "black bike week."

The city's answer was to "throw everybody into one big basket and say, 'We want none of it,' " says Carol O'Day, a mom-and-pop hotel owner who has filed a civil suit against the city over the helmet law.

City officials concede that there is some truth in Ms. O'Day's assessment. "Let me be clear: We're not against riders, we're against the rally. We don't want to be the center of the motorcycle universe in May," says city spokesman Mark Kruea.

Simply put, residents had had enough, says Mayor John Rhodes. For one thing, students in schools along 29th Avenue couldn't hear their lessons for the roaring of bikes outside, the mayor says.

"All we've ever asked of bikers is to respect people in community, treat it the way you would treat your own neighborhood or city, and if you can't do that, why should we have to tolerate that?" Mr. Rhodes asks.

Tom McGrath, the Harley-riding lawyer who has filed suit against the city to overturn both the pipe and helmet law, has a different take. "What's noise to some people is music to others."

Mr. McGrath is also representing participants in a "Freedom Ride" that took place shortly after the helmet law went into effect, where police ticketed 50 of the protesters for helmet law violations. There's now a chance that all 50 could go to jury trial in municipal court. [Editor's note: The original incorrectly represented Mr. McGrath's role in the event.]

At issue is whether a city can trump state law and make its own helmet laws. South Carolina does not require an adult to wear a helmet. For many riders, that's just too big of an affront to bear.

The result is that, for now, many bikers are likely to scatter to the four winds and attend smaller rallies. New Bern, N.C., is expecting as many as 5,000 riders in response to the Myrtle Beach crackdown.

Meanwhile, organizers here in the Grand Strand region are still throwing a rally, including in Murrells Inlet at the SBB, but the problem is that most hotel rooms are in Myrtle Beach proper, where police are waiting, new noise meters in hand, to see whether some riders will test the new laws.

On a recent weekday, however, the most noticeable two-wheeled vehicles in Myrtle Beach were rented scooters driven by skinny teenagers.

For all the problems that riders bring to Myrtle Beach, the city might end up regretting its decision, especially since today's Harley riders fit into "one of the highest disposable-income demographics you can find," says Mr. Dulaney, the consultant to National Geographic.

Riders have been run out of towns before, including North Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Daytona Beach, Fla. A few years after getting rid of "the element," as the bikers are often called, those places began welcoming the rallies back.

"They'll miss us when we're gone," says Johnston.

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