What it’s like to go on the Ride of the Patriots during D.C.’s Rolling Thunder

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For a community that dragged its heels to allow the first few Ride of the Patriots events, residents have since opened their hearts to the bikers.

Despite the early hour, hundreds of well-wishers stood along the path of the riders, waving their hands, displaying flags, snapping pictures, and along one block holding signs with photographs of their loved ones who died while serving.

My ride for the day, Ken Lyons, said those signs started popping up only last year. They are a sobering reminder amid the cheers that for every family that welcomes a soldier home, others are mourning a permanent goodbye.

Mr. Lyons has been helping organize the event for years. His beefy black Harley-Davidson comfortably sat him and me, and he turned up Creedence Clearwater Revival from Fairfax to the Pentagon, which made for a perfect soundtrack to an event that is patriotic and falls on a holiday weekend that heralds the start of summer. We rode near the head of the pack — close enough to the front to see the flashing lights of the police escort.

For safety reasons, the drivers are told to avoid waving to the crowds, which takes their hand off the handles, and instead honk their horns. In between blares, Mr. Lyons told me this year seemed more crowded along the overpasses, and that includes other years when the weather has been cooperative.

The ride to the Pentagon was the easiest commute I’ve ever ridden, though I can’t say the same for the handful of cars stopped along entrance ramps by police cruisers. We kept a pretty good speed, just shy of the posted speed limit. Rounding Rosslyn, the D.C. skyline came into view, the Washington Monument and the Washington National Cathedral.

As we passed Arlington National Cemetery, Mr. Lyons turned down his stereo, as did many other riders. In front of each white headstone was an American flag.

Mr. Lyons told me this was one of the hardest parts of the ride, to pass the final resting place of so many people who were friends and family to riders.

By the time we turn off for the Pentagon parking lot, we’re surrounded by a sea of bikes, the heady aroma of exhaust hovering around us. Mr. Lyons had plans to watch the Rolling Thunder ride, rather than participate, so we bid our goodbyes.

Even before the noon kickoff, riders were telling me this year had the best weather and easily could top attendance records.

Although it was strange to travel I-66 with no traffic, the restful atmosphere of the Pentagon was equally as odd — so many bikes, so many people, but silence in many parts of the lot, as riders took their last few minutes to gather their thoughts.

As I made my way to the Pentagon Metro station, my legs sore from the hourlong ride and my face well on its way to being sunburned, I heard that unmistakable sound made by a half-million bikes ready to roll — thunder.

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