The generation gap and spirit of those attending Atlantic Beach Bikefest is as divided as the miles that separate the event — from the historic neighborhood where it was founded in 1979 near North Myrtle Beach, to modern-day downtown Myrtle Beach.
In Atlantic Beach, the once-segregated section of oceanfront property along the Grand Strand nicknamed “The Black Pearl,” Bikefest is a family reunion.
In Myrtle Beach, the event is about cruising the Boulevard, picking up passengers and partying at nightclubs.
In Atlantic Beach, it’s an eight block picnic where parents stroll down the main thoroughfare hand-in-hand with their children eating funnel cakes and fried catfish, pulled pork that has been smoked for days, and whole turkey legs.
It’s where families gather under vendor awnings to play cards and eat chicken and waffles while waiting out the rain that marred this year’s event.
And it’s a shopping bazaar where men can buy jewelry for themselves or significant others, ladies can buy make-up and decorated hats, and everyone is checking out the T-shirts that mark the occasion.
Atlantic Beach is also where Mark “Motorman” Robinson of the New York bike club Road Squadron has been coming for 38 years to show off his motorcycle.
“This whole thing started by the Carolina Knight Riders, they liked the atmosphere, the food, and pretty soon people started whispering ‘go to Atlantic Beach, go to Atlantic Beach,’ and the whole thing was created by word of mouth,” Robinson said.
The festivities migrated south over the years towards Myrtle Beach, where attendees had more room to cruise their bikes along Ocean Boulevard and an abundance of nightlife and entertainment venues from which to choose.
But as the annual Atlantic Beach Bikefest crowd grew to hundreds of thousands of participants, the event settled into two distinctive camps — the old-timers and families who kept mostly to Atlantic Beach, while the younger generation made the cruise through the historic area, before headquartering their holiday fun in Myrtle Beach.
“Civilized people come up here because they don’t want to put up with it,” Robinson said of the growing crowds and traffic jams in Myrtle Beach.
The low point for Bikefest came in 2014, when shootings in Myrtle Beach left several people wounded and three people dead. Local officials created traffic controls for the festivities including the 23-mile traffic loop, which was intended to keep traffic flowing in Myrtle Beach and prevent the sudden eruption of street parties blamed for the shootings.
Down here at Atlantic Beach, you don’t have the problems they have in Myrtle Beach.
John Arnold, Atlantic Beach Bikefest attendee
The restrictions extend to Atlantic Beach where bikers can only cruise Atlantic Street one way before the traffic chute spits them back onto U.S. 17 Business — an annoyance for bikers and those who liked to watch them cruise around the boulevard.
Terry Bernard of Greenville says that the traffic restrictions instead created new headaches for event-goers, so he’s adjusted.
“We get here early to sit here, and not worry about traffic,” said Bernard, who was sitting under an old live oak tree with his buddies, watching the parade of bikers making their pilgrimage through Atlantic Beach.
Carleton Jinks of Atlanta, Georgia, thinks the traffic restrictions are meant to cut back on the numbers of attendees to Bikefest
“I don’t like to call a spade a spade, but it’s a spade. But it won’t detour us, we’ll still come together in Atlantic Beach,” said Jinks, who has come to Bikefest for five years.
John Arnold of High Point, North Carolina, who has been coming to the bike rally for 20 years, said he prefers the Atlantic Beach atmosphere where folks mingled during the day, and danced at night to music spun by a disc jockey near the ocean.
“Down here at Atlantic Beach, you don’t have the problems they have in Myrtle Beach,” Arnold said. “It’s an older generation, more calmer, more older people. When you’ve got a young crowd, it’s going to be chaos instead of calm and cool.”
We ain’t had no bad injuries or killing since I’ve been here.
Joseph Ford, Atlantic Beach Bikefest attendee
Arnold says that violence is a reality when hundreds of thousands of people are gathered from all over the world, and that race isn’t a factor. He blames the Myrtle Beach shootings on parents for failing to discipline their kids like they did in the old days.
“Kids are gonna be kids, not matter what color they are,” Arnold said. “I think they look for trouble more than they look for a good time.”
Having a good time is what Bikefest at Atlantic Beach is all about, says Joseph Ford of Goose Creek who has been coming to the festival since 2003.
“We ain’t had no bad injuries or killing since I’ve been here,” said Ford, who cruised to this weekend’s event on his Harley-Davidson Fat Boy.
The event is also about Memorial Day and remembering lost loved ones. The cruise down Atlantic Street, a salute to the founders of Atlantic Beach and Bikefest, and to those who fought against segregation, Robinson said.
The 61-year-old remembers being slapped by his mother when he was a child in the 1960s and drank from the “whites only” water fountain.
“It’s in here,” Robinson said, pounding his fist against his heart as he talked about honoring the civil rights struggle by attending Bikefest.
“It’s for people who stood up, so we could all stand up,” Robinson said.