LACONIA — With just five years to go before Laconia Motorcycle Week makes its 100th run, it's unclear how today’s smaller crowds and an aging population will translate to the future once it reaches that milestone.
Young people may be in the minority at this year's 95th annual event, but the same thing that attracts the graybeards remains a draw for the younger riders, too.
Michael and Jackie Fournier of East Ryegate, Vermont, are typical of riders gathered along Lakeside Avenue in The Weirs. Jackie said they have been coming to Motorcycle Week for the last four years, attracted by the chance to see “lots and lots of bikes.”
“There’s not a lot going on in East Ryegate,” Michael said. “We come to look at the bikes and might go to a show.”
He said they used vacation time to make the trip on their 2001 Vulcan Vaquero that they purchased used.
Fournier said Motorcycle Week provides a chance to meet and ride with a broad contingent of motorcycle enthusiasts. “I don’t ride with a lot of older people in Vermont,” he observed.
He said they are happy with what Motorcycle Week offers and at first couldn’t think of anything to suggest that would make it better.
Then, “I’d like to see less cars,” he said. “This many bikes and cars don’t mix very well.”
A young rider from Nashua who identified himself only as Brandon said this was his first Motorcycle Week. Riding a Ducati, he came with friends from work who had been here before.
“I’ve heard about it forever,” he said. Although he grew up in Connecticut, Laconia’s reputation as having the oldest motorcycle rally in the nation was well-known to him.
Speaking as he and his friends were preparing to check out the vendors, he explained why he chose to purchase a Ducati: “I grew up on dirt bikes,” he said. “When I was ready to move up to the streets, this one had the right stance with the handlebars — it was a good transition.”
Everyone seems to agree that the Lakes Region itself is one of the main attractions of Motorcycle Week.
Gov. Chris Sununu commented during the kickoff to the week: “We know what this week is all about, but it’s not just a tradition of New Hampshire; it’s really a big part of who we are here in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state. It’s really an opportunity to showcase who we are.”
Doug Asermely of Sick Boy Motorcycles said the Lakes Region and New Hampshire as a whole offer one of the most scenic places to ride, which gives it a natural advantage over some other rally sites.
Ron Egalka, director of Winnipesaukee Chapter 2529 of the Harley Owners Group and a board member of the Laconia Motorcycle Week Association, said his decision to move to the Lakes Region was a result of his coming to the Laconia rally. He has missed only one rally since experiencing it for the first time, and he retired to Gilford.
“This time of year, New Hampshire is at its most beautiful,” he said. “And it’s one of the most beautiful areas to visit. People looking for places to vacation will come here, so it’s not just about motorcycles. The state tourism board and tourism departments all over the New England recognize the draw that Motorcycle Week has, and what it can bring to the region, and what the region can provide to visitors.”
For that reason, Egalka has no fear about Motorcycle Week passing away into history.
“Both the Tower Street Hill Climb and the Gunstock Hill Climb are big hits, and part of the reason that the renaissance of Laconia Motorcycle Week will extend and grow in popularity beyond the 100th anniversary."
Strengthening the event
Asermely believes the main draw during Motorcycle Week is the chance “to see what people drive and what the girls look like,” and he said the “big-number years” like the 100th have a natural appeal.
But is that enough?
“I would hate to see Laconia die after the 100th,” Asermely said. “I think they need to have a master plan, focusing beyond the 100th. You have to have a bigger plan, and this is something that needs to be addressed. You can’t just live on being the oldest rally in the world and expect everybody to come.”
He even had a few ideas.
“Bike shows are a great thing,” he said. “Maybe they should spend more money and bring a bigger prize to attract more bikes. With the massive amount of people looking for something to do, maybe do a bike show in the middle of the street.”
Another suggestion he had was to provide a police-escorted ride from downtown Laconia for the motorcycles that participate in the hill climbs.
“The newest thing now is beach racing, featuring prewar bikes and cars,” Asermely said. “I don’t how feasible that would be here, and it would be massive undertaking to figure out how to do it, but that’s the sort of thing that could boost attendance.”
Regardless of the events, Asermely said advertising Motorcycle Week should be the primary focus. Businesses that rely on the rally have limited money to spend, so they need to make sure that the advertising they buy will reach the people who would come.
Nobody has unlimited funds, he said, but, “We need to saturate all of Washington, D.C., to Ohio, and the whole northeast,” he said. “There are so many people who live two, three, four, or five hours away who could come. The Sturgis rally in South Dakota is responsible for $2 billion in tourism, but they have to do more to draw people because the people are coming from a further distance. The majority here are still a one-day ride away.”
Asermely had a final suggestion that came out of Sturgis: the “drunk bus.” He suggested having a shuttle bus that could take people from one venue to another when they might find themselves too inebriated to drive safely. While watching a concert, he said, it is not difficult to consume too much alcohol, and having that option would be valuable to people who don’t want to take a chance.