Sara Huggins stood next to her 1961 British Triumph orange motorcycle and said she’s been swept up in a longtime love affair.
When she and her husband bought their first, inexpensive vintage British bikes, they took them to a rally in the north Georgia mountains. That was 30 years ago.
Now they go to rallies every year and have their own British motorcycle repair and restoration shop at their home in Hendersonville. They are two of hundreds of bike lovers who are attending this weekend’s Bull City Rumble, a vintage bike rally organized by Ton Up NC along Main Street in Brightleaf Square.
Huggins, like the others, dismisses the notion of owning a bike just to take it into a shop and throw money at it. It’s about working on the machine, listening to it, and immersing oneself in a culture of “gear-heads.”
And with the vintage British bikes, people have gained an appreciation for the clunkier appearance that people dismissed decades before as ugly.
“This motorcycle in this condition is probably worth 12 grand,” Huggins said, pointing to the orange Triumph she had found at an old tobacco farm in Madison County. “It’s a matter of rarity.”
Sun sparkled off the polished chrome of hundreds of bikes lining Main Street. Families pointed and took photos. Men walked around wearing leather vests. Women carried helmets. Visitors smoked fresh-rolled cigars or drank a few beers in Casbah.
Ton Up NC co-founder Marcus Rogers said this is their ninth annual festival, the largest of its kind in North Carolina, and people from all over the world attend. Rogers said they have visitors this year from as far as Japan and France.
Rogers, who lives in the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood of Durham, said the club is a nod to the ‘50s café racer culture in England, that of rock-and-roll rebelling youth. The idea was concocted after a meeting of the motorcycle minds at Lilly’s Pizza in Raleigh.
“The idea was that you owned, you worked on and you raced your own motorcycles,” Rogers said. “It’s basically a DIY culture.”
He said they especially focus on British and Japanese vintage bikes, though all are welcome. When he got into the mechanical craft about 20 years ago, he said he went with British vintage bikes because they’re inexpensive and look like “Christmas ornaments” – They are the right mixture of chrome and plastics that makes a classic masterpiece.
On Saturday, guys in Ton Up NC T-shirts sleuthed for a sparkplug wrench or directed two-wheeled arrivals into their parking spaces. The Casbah venue would offer a tasteful burlesque show for the adults later, and Ton Up hosted tech sessions throughout the day.
Rogers’ bike, a 1974 black 850 Norton Commando, was parked in the middle of the Casbah dance floor. He described it as the superbike of its time, the flashy ride that all the vets wanted upon their return from Vietnam.
That afternoon they were going to immerse the crowd in shoptalk by demonstrating some valve adjustments and taking a look at its charging system. Sunday, they would all take a ride around the Durham countryside.
“It’s really a sense of freedom,” he said. “Your heart is kind of pumping. It’s exhilarating.”
Combustion Cycles in Durham had a vintage SYM Wolf Classic on display along Main Street for $3,000, and people stopped to stare.
Josiah Dubose, a 27-year-old motorcycle tech, had just started with Combustion a week ago. He just arrived from Orlando as a recent Motorcycle Mechanics Institute graduate.
Dubose said he has owned bikes since he was 11 – his first was a little 1986 Suzuki dirt bike.
“Once it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood,” he said.
He said he’s normally high-strung, but working on bikes is a meditative process for him. He buys old bikes that are either broken, wrecked or simply old, and he’ll restore them, ride them for a while and then put them on the market. There’s life in the vintage ones, Dubose said, the same reason people like to go antiquing.
After a long day of working on a motorcycle and breathing life into it, there’s an instant reward, he said.
“When you get to ride the bike, you get to cool off and feel the breeze,” he added.
Down the street, Todd Reynolds from Murrells Inlet, S.C., sat underneath a giant umbrella in the shade. He bought his first motorcycle when he was 16. Years later, in 1982, he would become the national champion of endurance racing.
An almost-perfect replica of the bike he used to race toward a championship was parked on Main Street. He combined parts from his old practice bike and parts he found on eBay and Craigslist to make the 1233c Superbike, a Honda.
He would participate in 24-hour races, where four drivers on a team would switch off every hour. They’d be going almost 165 miles per hour. Adrenaline keeps the rider going at the beginning, Reynolds said, but in the last 15 minutes, the rider is hoping for the cue to switch off.
“It’s a war on wheels,” he said.
He turned the key in the ignition, and the Honda began to purr. It likes colder weather, he said. He then hit the throttle, and the engine’s angry roar echoed down the road. A crowd gathered, taking photos.
A black and white racing photo of Reynolds was displayed – he was taking a turn during the race and was at less than a 45-degree angle with the pavement. His right knee was touching the ground, the leather peeling away from his pants. Racers wear metal kneepads now. But back then, when he felt his knee begin to burn, he knew to pull back.
He’s 65 years old now, and he said sometimes people think back to a year in their life they would like to relive. Maybe it’s because of a hobby. Maybe it’s to revisit a significant other, a long-lost boyfriend or girlfriend.
He pointed to his endurance racing championship, to the number, “1982” in big black letters.
“This is the year I would relive, right here.”