Features and Tips

August 22, 2009

Love What You’ve Done With The Place - Americade 2009

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Tim Poupore’s high-seas-touring BMW LT is the kind of machine that americade organizers love to see in their Adirondack town—but Tim himself is not so easily convinced.

“It rained in Toronto last night. A lot. And it’s headed your way. You should get an early start,” said my wife, who always checks the weather when I’m travelling. I tend to prepare in advance and take whatever comes, and as I rode southwest through Valleyfield toward darker skies, I missed a turn which would have saved time and distance and rode even closer to the storm front. Idiot.

I crossed into New York State farther west than planned, and eventually made it to the road my friend Richard had recommended. “Take Highway 30 south from Malone, then 28, then 9 into town. It’s a great ride.” On a normally sunny summer day, sure, but as Richard was trucking it with his wife Andrea and a trailer full of toys down I-87 I was watching the temperature plunge to 3 degrees Celsius with a 70 km/h side wind driving the snow, yes snow, horizontally into my neck. And tomorrow would be June 1st., opening day of americade 2009.

If you’re a history buff there are lots of reasons to go to Lake George, New York, the home of americade. It was a strategic site in many wars over the last three hundred years (Iroquois vs. Algonquin and/or Mohawk, English vs. French and then American vs. English) and later an Adirondack playground for the rich and famous who battled over who could build the bigger lakeside mansion or commission the faster wooden boat. Most of the rich have gone elsewhere but in these more egalitarian times it’s comforting to see that a few of their castoffs have been lovingly restored while the rest of us just gawk from passing cattleboats. The only battles still being fought in the area are of the marketing kind, with everything from trendy period diners and elegant waterfront resorts vying for your dollar. And in the first week of June every year for the past 27 years, the two biggest motorcycle tribes in North America, the Honda and the Harley, have been brought together with the minor tribes for a week of merriment, competition and commerce. Let the festivities begin.

I go to sign up at the local Holiday Inn—registration central for attendees—and am most grateful to be whisked past the already lengthy early morning line-up to the press desk where three attentive and delightfully charming women volunteers do everything they can to “maximize your americade week experience.” More than 100 volunteers augment the full-time staff of ten, but no one seems happier to see me than Leon Morelli. I come to America and the first person I connect with is a French guy from Laval working the “Ici on parle Francais” table, and I’m the only other person in the room who speaks any French. Upon hearing my feeble “bonjour” he grabs me and starts giving me the americade story in Canada’s other official language while the three easily impressed ladies giggle at what they do not realize is my horrible French. Leon has been coming here since 1989 and is the link that connects Quebecois riders to the joys of americade. He claims that many who arrive don’t speak any English at all, so I’m sure they’re grateful for his annual contribution, even if they can’t fully participate in the otherwise-unilingual event.

Leon directs me to page 57 and 58 of the 80-page show program for a concise snapshot of the week’s events. There’s no way two pages of mouse type could list in detail everything that’s going on, and there truly is something for everyone over the course of the week. Daily free battery and tire inspections are only the start. There are classroom seminars that appeal to the technically inclined, be they novice (“Tires 101” and “What are these wires for?”) or advanced (“Touring Motorcycle Suspension Improvement”). Riding technique is explored for the more aggressive in the group (“Improve Your Street Riding with Track Day Skills”) and also for those who are happy to still be riding at all (“How to Ride a Motorcycle with Missing or Damaged Parts - On You, Not the Bike”). A training outfit called Total Control offers parking lot demonstrations almost every day, but there are no on-bike training courses offered, and this points to perhaps the one area open to future improvement. After seeing a guy get his knee down on a Gold Wing in the parking lot demo I thought: Where do I sign up for that?

On the social side there are dinners, breakfast and dinner boat cruises, group rides, “celebrations” serving nothing stronger than coffee, evening entertainment featuring speakers such as Clement Salvadori (High Priest of All Who Tour) and goofy competitions such as “Loony License Plates” and “Stuffed Animals” which are good-natured but as decidedly hokey as their names suggest. I can easily imagine someone spending money to get this year’s winning plate - LV2BNLG (Love to be in Lake George) but I can’t imagine riding around with it all year long. At least you can put on a shirt to cover a tattoo. (There are no tattoo competitions at americade, incidentally, at least not yet.) They have a fuel economy challenge, scavenger hunts, brand judging (with a full day set aside just for the multitudes on Gold Wings) and prizes for everything. You can even go to Church on-site every day but Monday, and everyone is welcome to join the closing parade, but then who would watch?

There’s no way I can take it all in, which explains why three-quarters of attendees are on at least their second visit. First-timers like me are invited to an introductory briefing session hosted by the man who started it all, Bill Dutcher, and he’s about as down-home personable as it gets. A life-long believer in the “brotherhood of motorcycling,” Dutcher was Harley Davidson’s Director of Public Relations in the AMF years, but walked away rather than move his family to Milwaukee from Lake George. He had attended one of the first Aspencade rallies, and saw how manufacturers were able to attract huge numbers of riders to touring bikes growing in both size and popularity. The trend was obvious and the opportunity clear to Dutcher. Begun as Aspencade East in 1983, the success of Americade is indisputable, its value to the town of Lake George and environs an estimated $50 million U.S., or roughly $1,000 per participant—making it the envy of other municipalities even as it shifts from a whisper-quiet Gold Wing event to more of open-piped Harley rally.

Despite the influx of noisier brands, it’s still a totally wholesome American Family Experience, but if you’re looking for controversy, and I assure you I wasn’t, it’s just up the line in Warrensburg where a rag-tag bunch of disgruntled folk the next town over have started a class war against the slickers down the road. The rebels are led by a military surplus vendor named Don Bagwell, upset at his town’s exclusion from the festivities down the road. This year they’ve declared their independence by pronouncing Warrenburg Bike Week open the Friday before Americade starts. Situated on one of the main highways leading into Lake George from the north, this newer event is positioned to attract early arrivals and siphon off some of the revenue intended for Americade, if only by appearing first in calendar lists of local goings-on. But it bears little resemblance to the more posh events down the road and seems to target a different motorcycle milieu, specifically those more interested in beanie helmets, skull-and-crossbones do-rags and vaguely erotic tank art. 

A friendly guy who’s just trying to earn a living for himself and his community, Bagwell tugs on the listener’s patriotic heartstrings with claims of support for the local contingent of the VFW while selling surplus military MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and camouflaged clothing out of a tent. The show has a strong military focus, with Orange County Chopper’s weird Army Bike as its centerpiece. Festooned as it is with baseball grenades and large-caliber bullet belts. There are American flags everywhere—even more than in Lake George. Bagwell tells me this new show is patterned after the other annual Warrensburg claim-to-fame: The World’s Largest Garage Sale (You Will Find Everything!). I can see the resemblance.

All of this is more than a little irritating to Bill Dutcher, meanwhile, who momentarily loses his folksy composure when I ask him why the good folk of Warrensburg seem to have this confrontational attitude. “They’re parasites!” he says at the mention of the town. “They want to cash in on what we’re spent years building. People come here to americade for a quality experience and they should get what they pay for, and those guys in Warrensburg don’t understand that.” I try to be conciliatory and suggest that perhaps an Olympics-style venue-sharing arrangement could work to everyone’s favour, but Dutcher is well past the point of conciliation, and his years in the marketing trenches have prepared him for a different kind of tactical response. “You know what I did this year? I left their town off the map.” Sure enough, all the specially printed americade madmaps do not identify Warrensburg, and although two of the “self-directed ride routes” go through the town, it does not officially exist. Presumably we are to pass by without stopping, our eyes fixed straight ahead on the prize that is Lake George and the glory that is americade. The twinkle in Dutcher’s eye makes it clear that this is America, where the people are free to pursue their dreams and crush those who piss you off.

Which brings me to another aspect of the trip: riding. I almost forgot, what with everything else going on. Let me tell you this. It does not matter what you ride, or how well you ride it, you will love the roads in this part of the world. They go up, they go down, and they go over and around the Adirondacks in long, linked curves that can grind a Road King’s footboards to mere metallic memories by lunchtime. Friends Richard and Andrea (of warm, dry, I-87 fame) have been coming for about eight years, but only for the riding—they don’t register or do the events anymore—and they were kind enough to shepherd me around their favourite routes.

They brought three bikes with them in the trailer: a Buell and a pair of Triumph Triples—Speed for him, Street for her. They tend to fight over the Street Triple so Richard resigned himself to his 1125 for the duration, ostensibly to keep the peace. A marginally magnanimous sacrifice, I thought, given the 1125’s penchant for roads of this type. We made an odd little group with me bringing up the rear on my Champagne Whale, but I managed to keep up with them despite a pace that was not exactly gentle. We started with an obvious favourite of theirs, Route 9N, which traces the entire west side of the lake all the way up to its northern tip at Ticonderoga before dropping 210 feet straight down to Lake Champlain. This is a road I could ride back and forth all day from picturesque Bolton Landing on up, but that would have kept us from all those other roads, so after a hearty diner lunch in Ticonderoga we headed west on County Road 74. This delightful road was almost completely deserted despite being part of the self-directed Red Route on the madmap. Aside from two cars and three trucks headed the other way, we were alone for the first two-thirds of its serpentine length, and I was wondering just how weird it was that such a road was not filled with motorcycles when we crested a rise and arrived at the town of—wait for it—Paradox.
 
Too tired to ride? Bagged from yesterday’s exertions? Need a new set of tires, or brakes or footboards replaced while-you-wait? No problem. Want to get some flash pinstriping applied or slash-tip pipes installed? Have you finally decided to spring for that colour-matched pet trailer so Harley the Dawg can come along for the ride? Done deal, my friend. If you need anything from a spoke cleaning brush to a brand new ’09 Wing with an air-conditioned sidecar, you’ve come to the right place because almost every vendor who trades in aftermarket parts and accessories for touring bikes is on site and eager to fix you up at Tour-Expo, the vendor area. Anyone who enjoys people watching and shopping should allocate at least a half-day, because it takes over the entire recreational zone in the heart of town. With the cruise boat docks on one side, motorcycle demo rides lined up on the other and a sea of parked bikes in between, just getting to this touring shopper’s heaven can be a chore.

Any town that effectively turns itself over to fifty-thousand motorcyclists must have comprehensive traffic plans, and so the town of Lake George and americade volunteers lay out lots of little orange traffic cones and post signs to direct you down re-purposed by-ways that normally contain traffic going some other way. They also bring in state troopers to keep the miscreants in line. Despite the pylons attempts to clarify the required direction, I was unable to find the entrance to the parking for the Tour Expo. About to go around the block for the second time, I stopped and asked a trooper for directions. Big mistake.

“Excuse me, officer” I begin to ask when he yells at me to stop. But I’m already stopped. “You can’t come in here, go up and do a U-turn and come back down.” I tell him that a sign up there directs people in another direction. “People have been figuring it out for seven years,” he yells, “just do it.” As I begin to suggest that perhaps the sign should be changed, he suddenly demands my licence. “It’s too early in the morning to be dealing with your bullshit, you people are all the same, you can’t follow orders and somebody’s going to die.” Sensing that the comment could be an expression of intent, I hand over my licence and we come to a compromise: I will shut up, disregard the posted signs and do the U-turn like everybody else or he will write me up. I thank the officer politely and ride onto the slippery grass field with a dose of adrenaline coursing through my veins and a head full of smart-ass comments wisely left unsaid.

I’m sure it’s not Bill Dutcher’s intent that his participants be treated this way, far from it. Dutcher and the entire americade crew have a well-organized, deeply nuanced and carefully targeted event that’s been successful for close to three decades. If you’re in their target demographic, you’re going to love it and likely come back again. But a considerable number come once and don’t come back, simply because it’s not for them, and I think I’m part of that group. The bottom line is this: as hard as everyone worked to Maximize my Experience, there were just too many people, too much noise, and too many distractions that kept me away from what is best about the area—the roads. By all means mark the first week of June on your calendars, and come and experience americade for yourself at least once, but next time I’ll choose one of the other fifty-one weeks of the year to come—because you don’t need americade to ride fabulous roads.