With roars that deafen eardrums and vibrations that make one feel like jumping, Rolling Thunder is aptly named.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Don Withrow, a former director of the Fairfax chapter of the Harley Owners’ Group, or HOG, and a loyal participant and volunteer in the Ride of the Patriots.
Rolling Thunder, the enormous parade of motorcycles from the Pentagon to the National Mall and Vietnam Memorial, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The Memorial Day weekend event is expected to attract record crowds this year, which would hopefully include record numbers of Ride of the Patriots riders too, said Ken Lyons, spokesperson for the Ride of the Patriots, the Fairfax City event held conjunction with the larger Washington event.
Since 9/11, both events have grown to encompass all veterans and first responders, in addition to the Vietnam veterans the event was originally organized to honor. Rolling Thunder began with less than 100 riders in 1987, and last year more than 350,000 bikes participated. Each year, the crowds seem to get larger and larger, both for Rolling Thunder and Ride of the Patriots.
“If 10,000 bikes come [to Fairfax], fine, we’re ready for it,” said Lyons.
Ride of the Patriots attracted around 3,500 bikes last year, and nearly every bike had a passenger, said Withrow. The City of Fairfax began providing more support to the event in 2002, since it expected a larger turnout after 9/11. The city now shuts down a portion of Fairfax Boulevard and provides a police motor squad escort all the way to the Pentagon. It begins on Fairfax Boulevard, west of Fairfax Circle and just in front of the Captain Pell’s restaurant. From that point down to the Harley dealership, 1.1 miles, the roads are blocked off and the bikes are everywhere. Eaton Place serves as an overflow area if Route 50 becomes too crowded.
“We pretty much shut down that part of the city,” said Lyons.
JUST BEFORE DAWN, the sounds of roaring motorcycle engines energize the city, alerting the community that it must be Memorial Day weekend. While it likely wakes up several unhappy neighbors, overall, people seem to appreciate the event, said Withrow.
“Harley riders are a patriotic group,” said Bob De Haven, the CEO of Patriot Harley Davidson, the Fairfax dealership that sponsors the event. “We are proud to play our small part in remembering those who have sacrificed so much in order for us to enjoy our freedom.”
Withrow said it’s amazing to see all of the veterans who attend as well. During a special veterans recognition ceremony at the start of the day in Fairfax, Withrow said all veterans are asked to raise their hands.
“You’d be shocked at how many hands go up,” he said.
A LOW RUMBLE is audible beginning around 6 a.m., said Withrow. By 7 a.m., the noise level about doubles. The bikes begin pouring into the area for the main send off event at 8:15 a.m. The bikers have to get moving quickly in order to find space at the Pentagon. With 350,000 bikes, space fills up quickly.
Since Washington and Virginia law requires all bikers to wear helmets, they are required for both events. For several years, police overlooked the helmet laws since bikers could participate in parades without helmets, said Withrow. But as the event grew larger and larger, the police declassified it as just another parade. Withrow welcomes the added safety component and said the majority of the Fairfax bikers agree.
“I know I wouldn’t be here today with out [a helmet],” he said.
The Fairfax HOG chapter has considered making the Ride of the Patriots a solo event, which would turn it into an all-day city celebration, said Withrow. Instead of joining up with the Rolling Thunder bikers, the day could begin a little bit later and last a lot longer in Fairfax. He said the Fairfax-only event could potentially happen within the next couple of years, but the group still needs to assess what kind of support it would get for it, from both the city and the surrounding communities.
The Ride of the Patriots’ organizers hope to attract a record crowd this year, but they also want people to know that the event is about commemoration, patriotism and respect. Some people might think of some negative biker stereotypes, and thus shun the event without really knowing much about it, said Withrow. He wants people to know that it’s a safe, fun and family-friendly day.
“It’s a very patriotic day,” he said. “Regardless of your political affiliation, that day, you have to be proud of your country … at least once a year, we ought to sit back and appreciate it.”