It is Sunday morning, and I am riding shotgun in a Toyota Tacoma barreling across the state of Virginia with a Harley-Davidson Shovelhead engine strapped in the bed and Rick James' "Super Freak' blaring through the stereo speakers. We are traveling as fast as can be expected in a four-cylinder truck with a maximum payload in an effort to make it to a gathering of like-minded motorcyclists and skateboarders under an I-95 overpass.
Just a typical weekend for the chopper crowd and an enthusiastic outsider like me.
Lemmy, RevZilla’s self-proclaimed “Good Harley Guy,” was piloting the tiny truck as we made our way back from a filling station just outside of Front Royal, Va. We had left Philadelphia just before 5 a.m. in an effort to reach our destination by 8:30 a.m. Our mission: to swap a brand new Harley Evolution crate engine for a freshly rebuilt Shovelhead motor. That done, we headed back to Philly to attend “Ride to Skate: Eight,” a chopper rally raising money for the FDR Skatepark.
While Mr. James sang about his kinky lady, Lemmy educated me as to why one would want to trade a brand-new crate engine for one that was 40 years older.
“First of all, the engine I am getting is a bastard child. It has got aftermarket cases and is basically a pile of parts assembled as a 'Cone Shovel,' which would have been manufactured from 1970 to 1984. The frame I am going to use on my new build will accept this engine without any modification,” he explained.
“Under normal circumstances my crate engine would not be worth as much as this Shovelhead. However, due to a current production lull in Evoline crate engines, mine is carrying a bit more weight than normal.”
While it all made perfect sense as it was explained to me, it was far from common knowledge in my daily motorcycle vernacular. I can break down the differences between every model in Triumph’s lineup over the past 20 years or explain why you would want to use the carbs off of a 1978 Honda CB550 when you are rebuilding a 1976 CB550, but this was a brave new world I was entering into.
We coasted off the exit ramp in South Philadelphia and Lemmy steered the truck toward the entrance of FDR Park. Hidden in the very back of the park, underneath the support pillars for the I-95 freeway, was the FDR Skatepark. A collection of concrete and rubble, the skatepark has been featured in Thrasher magazine and even made an appearance in Tony Hawk’s 2005 video game, “Proving Ground.”
Founded by Joe Zito and later supported by Mike Clarke, as well as countless others, Ride to Skate was now in its eighth year. What started out as an excuse for 15 guys to revisit their misspent youth with a mixture of beer, skateboards, and motorcycles has turned into an event with well over 300 bikes and a Saturday night pre-party, which raged its way into the early hours of Sunday morning.
The event featured rows of hand-built machines of both American and foreign vintage, with quite a few modern rides thrown in for good measure. Dirtbikes and homemade choppers with full knobby tires were taking runs on mountains of mud while shaggy-haired kids whizzed around on four wheels, taking turns showing off for the crowd. I asked Mike to explain the correlation between skateboards and motorcycles.
“Half of the guys I know that used to skate or ride pedal bikes now ride a motorcycle,” he said. “Ask anyone why they ride a motorcycle, I would bet you could apply some of those same reasons to why we rode a skateboard. From cheap transportation, to the feeling you get when you push yourself beyond your normal comfort level.”
It made sense to me. My friends and I would buzz around the high school parking lots of our youth on BMX bikes and skateboards until the administration would kick us out. Here in the shadow of I-95, it was great to see guys in their 40s and 50s cheering on these young rebels turning tricks on their boards. It was a refreshing change for a lot of these kids to see adults actually supporting their pastime.
“We have raised a couple thousand dollars for the park over the years,” Mike stated. “The park is privately funded and it takes money to maintain it and build new things. The city lets them use the land but everything that you see there only exists because they came up with a way to make it happen.”
All in all, the event blew away whatever preconceived expectations I had about modern chopper culture. This was a refreshing change from normal motorcycle shows. This was a group of motorcycles and riders I could relate to. These were not shiny, chromed-out show bikes. To the contrary, these were machines with oil-soaked engines supported by hand-welded frames, most of which could only be started by a hefty kick from a thick-soled boot. These bikes had been ridden to the event, not trailered, from states as far away as Massachusetts. It was clear to me that Ride to Skate was not an event focusing on what people were riding, but rather it was a celebration of the varied roads we all took growing up that led us to our love of two wheels.
“My only plan for now is to keep doing it until it isn’t fun anymore,” Mike said when I asked about the future of the event.
As long as there are guys who find value in trafficking classic engines across state lines at 5 a.m., there will be events like Ride to Skate to offer them a place to display their Frankenstein-like creations.