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3rd March 2005

Opinion: Daytona - A Postcard from the Edge

A wonderful experience, not to be missed? Martin Gelder didn't think so when he traipsed along Main Street a few years back...

There are two kinds of motorcycle at Daytona Beach; Harley Davidsons, and the rest. And there are two kinds of visitor to Speed Week; Harley owners, and motorcycle enthusiasts. This sweeping statement might give the impression that the two sets of people are mutually exclusive, and that isn't necessarily the case. In general though, most of the visiting population will fall neatly into one of the two groups.

Southbound on I-95... Every SUV has a Harley in the back, while the hearse has to manage with a trailer...

An impression starts to form during the cruise southwards to Daytona on Interstate 95. There are bikes on the road, riding in groups of three or four in the seventy mile per hour traffic flow, but for every motorcycle travelling under its own power there are maybe a dozen strapped securely onto trailers or lashed into the back of pick-ups.

America is a big country, and much of the mid-west is still gripped by winter, but there are very few out-of-state license plates heading south for the sunshine. Most of the people making this journey are within a single day's travel of their destination. There are full-dress tourers on trailers too, not just 'motorcycle as art' low-riders or peanut tanked sportsters.

In down-town Daytona Beach there is the inevitable traffic jam as too many vehicles converge on the narrow strip of land off the Florida coast. Although there are now many more two-wheelers to be seen, a combination of the bizarre US 'no lane filtering' law and the general population's law abiding nature sees the bikes sitting stationary in traffic alongside hire-cars and pickups.

All very shiny, but...Walking down Main St, with every imaginable variety of 'custom' motorcycle parked up and funnelling pedestrians onto sidewalks lined with bars, tattoo parlours and tee shirt emporia, impressions start to congeal into suspicions. As the open piped and highly polished Harleys cruise slowly across the intersection of Main and Noble, those suspicions are confirmed when a glance to either side reveals that within ten yards of 'biker street USA', middle-american suburban life is carrying on regardless.

This isn't Europe, and Daytona isn't the Isle of Man or the Bol D'Or. Main Street is the focus for an event of a completely different nature to anything that might be experienced on this side of the Atlantic.

Patinated but loved, or just wheeled out for Speedweek once a year, and then put away again?Passing through the portal to any big European event (race meeting or rally, custom show or classic concours) there is a sense of abandoning 'normal' society, and entering a world where everyone present shares a unifying common interest. It might have been the journey travelled, or the means of travelling, or maybe just the event itself, but it's present and sometimes so strong you can almost touch it. A shared passion.

Daytona is different. The passion is there, and more of that later, but Bike Week is a place where everyone can be a biker for a week. Imagine a TT where instead of thousands of motrocycling visitors descending for a fortnight, the Manx population simply wheel Fireblades and Gold Stars out of their garages, don leathers and helmets, then carry on with their lives as before.

The only bikes travelling to the Bol D'Or on trailers are those destined for the track rather than the campsite, and once the crowds start rolling in, the police throw away the highway code and concentrate on quelling the worst of the rioting. The trailers hauling Harleys to Daytona will be shipping jet-skis to Lake Woodruff in a month's time, and their owners will be back on the golf course next week. The idea of deliberately flouting the law simply doesn't occur to them.

This is a place to be seen, where being present and being one of the crowd is maybe more important than the event itself. Back on Main St there's a roaring trade in the special sticker-covered fibreglass pudding-basin helmets that almost everyone wears. Equally popular are black souvenir tee-shirts, presumably to be worn next week on the golf course. Florida is the retirement state, and this is reflected in the grizzled features and lifted faces of many riders cruising past.

There is a shared passion here, but it's not the one that Daytona's image would suggest. Hidden amongst the people who have come to celebrate their ownership of a particular brand are those who have come for the ride, for the experience. People who have worked long and hard preparing motorcycles for the first outing of the year.

Check out the tassled grips...

Trawling through the cloned bikes that line the road, the occasional tank badge will stand out. These are the individuals in the mass, the exceptions worthy of comment in a sea of similarity. There are British bikes that have been cherished, others that have been used. A couple of classic Honda twins from the sixties are parked up, one for sale, the other still being restored. Off Beach Boulevard are the Harleys that the time forgot (or that the factory wished time would forget): Italian four stroke and two stroke singles showing the ravages of Florida's maritime air, and ninety cc mini-bikes being wheelied in a flagrant display of lawlessness and recklessness. A lone side-valve Indian is parked slightly apart from its modern cousins, perhaps symbolising the gap between enthusiasm and mere ownership.

And to think we were worried about getting seats.

The contrast between image and reality extends to the Daytona 200 race where Scot Russell runs away with his fifth victory in six years in front of a sparse crowd perched high above the famous banked track. Earlier in the day a Triumph T595 and a Buell 1200 had fought tooth and nail for the lead (which the Triumph eventually held) in the Pro-Thunder race creating a genuine buzz of excitement that failed to materialise for the '200 miler' main event. Billed as the most prestigious motorcycle race in the world, the atmosphere is strangely subdued and the field of riders (with a few notable exceptions) barely world-class. As each VR1000 (Harley Davidson's Superbike racer) loses touch with the leading pack, the crowd's enthusiasm dips until spectators start heading for the exits to miss the rush of traffic when the racing ends.

The reality and danger of riding a bike at two hundred miles per hour on a steeply banked race track fails to impress the race-goers, who travel home having enjoyed the motorcycle experience in a safe, clean and controlled environment. That night a hurricane hits Florida, sweeping the streets of the last remains of Bike Week, and clearing the way for 'Spring Break' and the thousands of students who will descend on Daytona Beach for their week of partying and cruising. Fluorescent bikinis replace black tee shirts in the shop windows, and Tecno Bass Beats replace ZZ Top in the bars.

Being at Daytona without a motorcycle should be a frustrating experience, but it isn't. Those who have flown to the Isle of Man, hitch-hiked to the Kent Show or taken a bus trip to the Bol D'Or will know how the longing for a two wheeled journey home can hurt. Speed Week isn't that kind of event. It's unique, bizarre, fascinating. But ultimately, it's about all of the periphery of motorcycling with very little of the core.


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