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.
Murrells Inlet, S.C.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."