About a week ago, a group of 100 motorcyclists left California headed for Arlington. They will arrive sometime on Friday with several thousand of their friends, fellow soldiers and civilians alike, to pay tribute to veterans who served, were injured in combat, or never came home.
That same day, a group of men from the Patriot Harley Davidson dealership’s Harley Owners Group (HOG) club discussed their plans for the eighth annual Ride of the Patriots rally, which will leave the Fairfax Boulevard dealership to meet up with the larger, national Rolling Thunder Rally at the Pentagon early Sunday morning, May 28.
So what does it take to put on an early morning event that combines local politicians, police and fire and rescue officers and as many as 3,000 motorcyclists?
“We start thinking about this in December, and things start coming together in January,” said Don Withrow, chairman of this year's Ride of the Patriots.
More than 100 volunteers help to get vehicles organized, speakers lined up and motorists into and out of the Patriot dealership parking lot, Withrow said. “We’ve got about a quarter of that number doing parking lot duty. We have a designated place for certain people, like some of the veterans, the police and EMTs, the politicians, to park, and it’s important that everyone is in the right place because the parking lot can only hold so many people,” he said.
THE BIKES begin lining up Sunday, at 7 a.m., shortly after Fairfax City Police block off one of the eastbound lanes of Fairfax Boulevard. A short parade will travel down the road between Fairfax High School and the dealership, beginning at 7:45 a.m., which will include U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-11), State Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-34), Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-At-large), Fairfax City Mayor Rob Lederer and guests Rear Adm. Mark Harnitchek and U.S. Army Col. Robert W. Trost.
“Between 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., we’ll have about 2,500 bikes rolling in,” Withrow said. “The line stretches back the better part of a mile, from the dealership to the fire station.”
In 2002, the line of motorcycles went back nearly a mile, to a shopping center near the intersection of Routes 50 and 123 in Fairfax City, he said. An estimated 2,800 motorcycles are expected this year, compared with 2,500 bikes in 2005.
A dance team from Fairfax High School will be selling Ride of the Patriot pins for $5 each, a portion of the proceeds from which will go into their fund-raising account, Withrow said.
Once the parade reaches Patriot Harley Davidson, guest speakers will welcome the riders in the parking lot as they prepare to join the larger national rally, which will be gathering at the north parking lot in the Pentagon, Withrow said.
“Veterans are a big part of the community ceremony,” said Bob Trost, a HOG member who will be joined by his father, Robert Trost, an Army veteran who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
However, “the involvement of the first responders, like the police and firefighters, help to make sure they don’t feel like they’re second fiddle to the veterans groups,” he said.
This year, a bugler from the United States Marine Corps will play “Taps” from the roof of the dealership at about 9 a.m., before the first group of riders departs down Route 50 toward I-66, which will be blocked off from Nutley Street to the Pentagon, Trost said.
“One year, we shut down the Beltway,” said Tom Herrity, a committee member. “Our line of bikes was about 11 miles long from start to finish ..when the first bike was getting into the Pentagon, the last bike was at Braddock Road,” he said.
In 1999, when the first rally took place a month after the dealership opened, only about 50 riders gathered at Patriot, Withrow said. In the years that followed, as the event grew, members of HOG have begun to work with county and city police departments to ensure a safe event for riders and onlookers alike.
“The city puts up cones and directs traffic. They let us use their stage,” said HOG chapter director Harry Avila. “They let us borrow their stage and set up bleachers for people to sit on.”
THE RELATIONSHIP between the motorcyclists and Fairfax City government wasn’t always easy, but by the third Ride of the Patriots in 2000, “they were making suggestions for things to do differently,” said Rick Richardson, staging team coordinator.
Those bikers who arrive in the Washington area on Friday can attend a candlelight vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at dusk. A group will depart from Patriot Friday, at 6:45 p.m., said Ken Lyons, media coordinator for the HOG chapter.
The main event for the weekend, the Rolling Thunder ride down Constitution Avenue, will include up to 350,000 riders from across the country. The ride begins from the Pentagon’s North Parking Lot at noon and lasts for several hours.
For the past few years, a man has been standing at the edge of the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge while the bikers ride across the Potomac River from Virginia into Washington to being the final stretch of their trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Richardson said.
“This is not a young guy, but he stands there, every year, in his dress uniform,” he said. “He stands perfectly still in a salute for the entire time until the last bike rolls by,” a statue of respect for the veterans who gather to remember those who have served.