It was about 2 PM when I landed in the heart of Canada's biggest biker rally. Fresh off a shuttle bus, I found myself in the parking lot of the only liquor store in Port Dover, Ontario. There was country music, deep-fried food, the rattle of motorcycle engines, cigarettes, booze, and, most importantly, an endless supply of rusty-looking bikers filling the streets. Quickly, I began to ask myself why I thought it was a decent idea to spend my Friday surrounded by people wearing shirts that donned slogans like "Biker Bitch," "White Trash Fuck," and, my personal favorite, "Badass Motherfucker."
But it's hard to ignore that much of biker culture has been co-opted by non-Badass Motherfuckers—most young people wearing pre-torn jeans and a leather jacket are probably heading out for a pour-over coffee. On the road, you are just as likely to see a finance dude on a custom-ordered Harley as a mechanic who can actually build their own bike. And from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test right up until the Christ-figure ending of Sons of Anarchy, every aspect of outlaw biker culture has been regurgitated over by pop culture so much that it's hard to separate myth from reality.
That's why, in a remote part of southern Ontario, nestled between hundreds of miles of farmland and forestry, I had to check out Port Dover's annual Friday the 13th biker rally, to see what biker culture means in 2016. Because if you really want to find out who authentically gives a fuck about the outlaw life, what better way than to go to a town taken over by thousands of them for a whole day?
For those not familiar, Port Dover is basically the stereotype of your classic small town—tractors, trailers, general stores, and the rare sign that reads "INTERNET CONNECTION AVAILABLE." The fact that people travel so far to this remote place is a testament to the idea that the road life is far from dead. Since 1981, the rally has drawn an increasingly large crowd—topping 100,000 spectators in recent years—with a vibrant makeup of different biker clubs, gangs, and enthusiasts from all over Canada and the US. Everyone from the Hells Angels to your grandma with a Harley jacket shows up, all to either watch or partake in the takeover of a town that's normally home to a mere 6,400 people.
Unlike the manchildren posing as bikers who pollute the event (decked in vests they don't own, or biker gear that looks hardcore but is really just off-the-shelf gear meant to fool outsiders) the dedicated charters and groups—like the Ontario Hells Angels, who held an omnipresent grip on the entire town—were more reserved in their behavior. Acting like businessmen, they kept to themselves and shook hands. They provided back-slaps, baby kissing, and photos. Despite a heavy police presence, it was hard not to think of the Angels as the temporary authority in the town.
Finding other young people was hard. Much of the rally is made up of older men and women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and those that are in their 20s or 30s tend to be there out of pure dedication. They're gang members, sons of shop owners, or hardcore bike heads. Trying to find someone relatable to my generation—or even fitting the classic bad boy stereotype of a James Dean type—was nearly impossible, but the closest I got was in the company of the Hells Angels.
One man—rocking a HA vest with a "veteran"-ranking patch and wide shoulders—seemed approachable enough. Looking to be in his about mid-thirties, he had unkempt stubble fit for a bachelor and a wide grin. With as much confidence as I could muster, I asked him for a portrait. Despite being warm with others, his tone changed from that of a friendly "Hello" to a cold "No." After giving me a bit of a death stare, he shuffled me slightly aside from his group and told me firmly that, if I was to take photos of anybody in the gang, I needed to take a few dozen steps back, waving his hand away from the tent. Clearly not seeing me as a total shit-disturber—and probably sympathizing with the fact that I was too young and eager to be a cop—he gave me a pass, letting me know that if I eventually did take photos, to make sure nobody noticed me.
Other than brushing up against the HA, the event generally wasn't a high-tension affair: for the most part, the atmosphere felt like a town fair on family-friendly steroids. There was a rock-climbing wall for the kids, disgustingly-long lineups for portapotties, and a "walk-thru" in place of a drive-thru at the town's only Tim Hortons. The kind of sleaziness you'd expect from biker stereotypes (thank you, Kurt Sutter) was there—the drugs, the drinking, the depressingly bad tattoos—but there were also moms, dads, kids, and bike photographers.
A fixture for over 25 years, one guy who drew a lot of eyes was Paul Nurmi—a longtime veteran of the rally, biker and nudity enthusiast. Donning a tight black thong (he is literally known as "Thong Man" by rally regulars), aviator glasses, and a helmet, he told me that the rally gives him everything he needs out of life: a chance to ride his bike and the freedom to express himself fully.
"I've been biking for over 50 years, and I'm a beach bum. This is the perfect place to bring your thong," he told me, almost inaudible over the incredible roar of his motorbike and the numerous people clamoring for a selfie with him.
"You just gotta have a great time!"
Not everybody felt totally at home. Chris Timmins, a 31-year-old bike mechanic, told me he was raised to ride motorcycles by his uncle, a former member of the once-prominent Canadian biker gang Rock Machine. His friends, he told me, aren't into bike culture like he is. He feels like a bit of an outsider.
Still considered a younger member of the bike community, Timmins told me he yearns for the glory days—back when biking was the thing to do, when it was easier to go off the radar for months without the constant presence of society around you. He tells me he thinks that more kids would be interested in bike culture if they weren't so tied down to social media and the expectation to "stay inside the box" of society.
"A lot of these guys, they just want to hit the road and not deal with any of that bullshit, y'know? I know it looks all tough and all that—and, y'know, these guys don't take no shit—but people just want to be left alone and to live on the road. Be respected. This is the kind of day where we get to do that and not give a damn," he told me.
In a small way, Port Dover's annual biker rally does that. It feels isolated—like all of these bike lovers banded together to start their own society. If not for the blazing yellow jackets of the Ontario Provincial Police officers on scene, one could easily assume this was a place built by bikers, for bikers. Everyone I talked to seemed to have some kind of crazy story about the rally—fights, drunken escapades, and bike parades were abundant amongst the people I spoke with.
A married couple who I bummed a cigarette off earlier in the day told me how they had been going to the rally together for years. The man told me that he once got so messed up he and a friend took over an abandoned house for the night and squatted in it. The sleep was rough, and he woke up feeling like shit, but totally alive. That sentiment—of living the biker life even if it was terrible for your well-being—was the common theme in stories I heard throughout the day. For most people in my artisan cold brew-loving generation, this lifestyle seems unfathomable or at least unsustainable, so I asked him, if he could go back in time and do it again, would he?
"Damn right. You can't pass up anything like this."
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