The annual pilgrimage to Atlantic Beach got off to a thunderous start Friday as hundreds of motorcycles rolled through the tiny neighborhood to pay homage to the festival’s humble origins, and were greeted by an enthusiastic crowd that numbered in the thousands.
Bikers in leather pants and cuts mingled with senior citizens and families with young children, as they shopped at the vendors that lined the blocks leading to the ocean hawking t-shirts, leather jackets, funnel cakes, shrimp and macaroni and cheese.
Carleton Jinks of Atlanta has been coming to the Bikefest for five years for the camaraderie of fellow bikers, and said he’s met fellow travelers from as far away as Los Angeles.
“There are some beautiful people here,” Jinks said, as a group of ladies in bikini tops strolled by and checked out his Harley Davidson.
Arthur Grant, an 80-year-old attendee from Savannah, Georgia, didn’t mince words about why he has attended Bikefest for 30 years: “I like to look at the pretty ladies.”
Police officers from different law enforcement agencies huddled in groups along every corner and directed traffic from the “chute” along U.S. 17 Business and into the neighborhood.
Many attendees weren’t happy about the travel restrictions surrounding Atlantic Beach. One lane of the main thoroughfare was off limits to bikers, so instead of cruising up and down Atlantic Street, bikers could only make a one-way pass and then were forced back into traffic on Highway 17.
Joann Williams has been coming to Atlantic Beach for Bikefest since 1994. She says the elimination of the two-way traffic pattern defeats the purpose of the event, which is to watch the motorcycles cruise by as the drivers show off their expensive and well-kept bikes.
While traffic restrictions are in place throughout Myrtle Beach, Williams questioned the need for any traffic control in Atlantic Beach.
It was fun back in the day, we didn’t have any restrictions, we didn’t hold up traffic.
Bernard Terry of Greenville, South Carolina
“Nobody is fighting here, there’s nothing to control,” Williams said. “It’s just a big family reunion.”
Many folks in Atlantic Beach said they intended to spend the entire weekend there, and had no plans to venture out to Myrtle Beach or anywhere near the 23-mile traffic loop that will be enforced by police this weekend to cut down on traffic jams and prevent the sudden eruption of street parties.
“It was fun back in the day, we didn’t have any restrictions, we didn’t hold up traffic,” said Bernard Terry of Greenville, South Carolina.
It was during a street party on Bikefest weekend in 2014 that resulted in a shooting that killed three people.
Violence marred this year’s rally before it officially began with two shooting deaths in Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach.
Keith Richard Curry, 19, was arrested for the Windy Wills area shooting Thursday night of 33-year-old Aaron Chestnut of Loris.
Curry told police that he also ran over Chestnut with his vehicle as he fled the scene near 37th Avenue South, said Pat Dowling, North Myrtle Beach spokesman.
The second shooting occurred at 2 a.m. Friday at the FountainBleau Inn, the scene of shootings that occurred during the 2014 bike rally. Pierre Allen, 23, was killed, police are still searching for the shooter.
The crowds came early this year, forcing officials to block off roads approaching Ocean Boulevard on Thursday evening. By Friday afternoon, the Grand Strand settled under the dull roar of Harley Davidsons and thousands of other bikes that will mark the festival’s 37th year.
Bikefest faces a possible washout as the season’s first tropical weather is expected to slam into South Carolina’s coast, threatening to dampen the festivities through Memorial Day and beyond.
The National Weather Service issued a tropical storm warning for the Grand Strand to hit as early as Saturday morning, bringing with it gusty winds and dangerous rip tides.
John Arnold of Highpoint, North Carolina, said he’s not concerned about wicked weather heading this way.
“We’ll all be right here. We ain’t going nowhere,” Arnold said.