- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2013

It started more than a decade ago, a few hundred motorcycle riders looking for an informal group to join for a 20-mile trip through Northern Virginia to the Pentagon, where nearly a half-million fellow bikers idled before the national Rolling Thunder event.

Now the Ride of the Patriots has become a phenomenon of its own — an event within an event in which more than 3,500 bikers from across the country make the trek to Patriot Harley-Davidson in Fairfax and ride along a closed parade route in honor of the armed services hours before the first rumbles of the larger rally roar into the District.

“It’s become a community event that didn’t exist for a long time,” said Larry Larson, a member of the Fairfax VA Harley Owners Group and former director of the patriot ride.

“There’s a sort of understanding that this is not a Hells Angels group, [the community] knows we’ll take their thoughts along with them. Any monument we go by during Rolling Thunder, we’re representing the community. I think they feel that way, too.”

This year marks the 15th Ride of the Patriots, and the 26th annual Rolling Thunder, an event held during the Memorial Day weekend that brings in more than a half-million motorcycle riders from across the country to recognize prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.

“We wouldn’t have the ride if it weren’t for Rolling Thunder,” Mr. Larson said. “We’re remembering and honoring those who have served and those who have sacrificed, regardless of uniform; everyone who steps up. I think that spirit, and the volunteerism, is what’s really made it grow.”

When the event began, it was little more than a “pickup ride” for about 300 bikers, said Ken Lyons, one of the organizers of the Ride of the Patriots.

By the next year, the number of participants had jumped to more than 1,500. But it also caught criticism from neighbors.

While locals had been happy to see a new business pop up on a rundown lot when the Harley-Davidson store moved in, city leaders and the police department were getting calls from people complaining about too much noise on the days of the ride.

“There was this angst between the community and the riders who were participating,” said Lyndon Abell, the general manager of Patriot Harley-Davidson. “There was a real struggle there, probably for two or three years. I was baffled by the fact that so many in the community viewed this as an annoyance.

Scott Silverthorne, mayor of the City of Fairfax, was a member of the City Council that approved the building of Patriot Harley-Davidson in the 1990s.

“I can remember the first year I went, there were probably a few hundred to a thousand riders,” Mr. Silverthorne said. “Today you can’t even count them. They’re all the way down Fairfax Boulevard, probably 1 to 2 miles down the road.”

As the years passed, the ride grew, and the community learned to accept the event as something to look forward to at the beginning of every summer.

“It’s absolutely spectacular,” Mr. Abell said. “It’s been wonderful, and very gratifying to see its evolution. It’s a very emotional event for a lot of people.”

Sunday’s ride begins with a parade along Route 29 and Route 50 at 7:30 a.m. and includes speeches and a memorial ceremony with local and state leaders. This year’s keynote speaker is recently retired Lt. Gen. Duane D. Thiessen, who commanded the Marine Corps Forces, Pacific.

Riders are scheduled to start their engines at 8:55 a.m. and head for the Pentagon at 9 a.m. along Interstate 66.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon S. Bulova has attended past rides and said seeing the streets packed “shoulder to shoulder” with people on motorcycles, “it’s something you will never forget.”

“You’ve never heard anything like hundreds, if not thousands, of motorcycles,” she added. “I’d never thought a parade of motorcycles could be beautiful, but it really is one of the most beautiful events I attend all year long. It’s moving, highly patriotic.”

Mr. Lyons said the ride includes bikers from across the country, as well as a contingent of Vietnam War veterans from Canada. Mr. Larson said riders have come from as far away as Scotland and Australia.

“After 15 years, a lot of people know they can just come by and know there’s a formalized ride,” Mr. Lyons said. “It makes you feel great that you’re a part of something really appreciated by people.”

• Meredith Somers can be reached at msomers@washingtontimes.com.

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