One of the first big pieces I did for The Sun News, maybe 14 or 15 years ago, about what we then called Bike Month – May included the massive Harley Week and the Atlantic Beach Memorial Day Bikefest – involved trying to document the growth of Bikefest in particular. The Harley event is decades older than Bikefest, which began in 1980 inside the four-block Atlantic Beach as what some described as a fish fry and was sponsored by a local black motorcycle enthusiasts club.
How did Bikefest become something bigger than Atlantic Beach, and in many ways, largely disconnected from that town and even the love of motorcycles? The best, most plausible explanation is that it grew through word of mouth. That word-of-mouth came in the form of videocassette recordings of the event, which morphed into something that is more an experience than an event.
The videos – which some of my friends and I watched while I was an undergrad at Davidson College in North Carolina (I graduated in 1995) – were mainly filmed by young men and featured young women, many scantily clad, doing things that would excite young men. Think of it as an early version of “Girls Gone Wild” – or behavior that is on display in every spring break destination that attracts a large group of young people whose sole purpose is to have as much risqué fun as possible. It is on display in Myrtle Beach throughout the summer and senior weeks after high school graduations.
Those early Bikefest videos were recorded and copied and mailed out – via snail mail – to friends, who’d send them to other friends, who’d brag about them, to the point of exaggeration. The videos ultimately became more legendary than Bikefest itself – even as they distorted the overall tenor of the experience. Most of what has become known as Bikefest is boring, people walking and talking up and down Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach for hours on end during essentially nothing more than checking each other out.
This was long before iPhone cameras and social media, which are simply being used today to continue a tradition that began with camcorders and VCRs. The intent remains the same, to sell the atmosphere as one of pure revelry. And the claims being made by some on websites today – about there being an anything goes expectation – is as deceptive as some of the claims made by those who made those videos of yesteryear. None of them mentioned the overwhelming police presence and the feeling by many participants that it was akin to a police state. None of them mentioned that the Department of Justice sent agents for several years to monitor the treatment of participants because of those complaints. Bikefest has never lacked a large, dedicated law enforcement presence and plenty of arrests for mostly minor, and some serious offenses.
The problem is and remains one thing and one thing only: lack of organization. Bikefest doesn’t attract the number of people the Myrtle Beach area attracts for the Fourth of July, for instance, but the crowd feels more overwhelming nonetheless because the Myrtle Beach Bikefest crowd congregates in large groups of cars and pedestrians in relatively tight areas and commences to participate in what they believe is a weekend-long street, open-air party, which is long and loud and frenetic. Neither relatively new social media nor yesterday’s camcorders could change that, and only a few things could.
One of those things was the 2000 NAACP boycott over the Confederate flag, which helped push down the number of Bikefest participants after it peaked in 1999, a year it was responsible for shutting down traffic throughout the area. The event has not been as large or rowdy since, despite what some believe.
A concerted effort by Myrtle Beach to make Bikefest participants welcome, including the deploying of Friendship Teams and special traffic routes, was the only thing to bring some semblance of organization to Bikefest – which was a large reason why it stopped attracting so much attention, because complaints went way down.
To ignore this complexity and history and implement policies that are designed to be hostile to Bikefest participants would be foolhardy on the part of Myrtle Beach officials. Can the crowd be thinned out if the aggressive tactics some are urging Myrtle Beach to adopt are used? Of course. But it might come at too-high cost.