Bike Week is racing, spring break, cole slaw

More than 400,000 fans are expected to flock to Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Fla., this year. Jim Tiller/AP Photo

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Christian Gee, a Marine stationed at Parris Island in South Carolina, recently was given a 30-day pass.

The possibilities for vacation were endless.

But he had decided long ago to hop on his 2009 Harley-Davidson street bike and drive four hours to Daytona Beach to celebrate the 72nd annual Bike Week.

The event, which began on the beach in 1937, is a celebration of the sport of motorcycle racing, the love of street bikes and spring break. More than 400,000 people are expected over the 10 days.

"For years, I was reading about this event in the magazines and watching the races on TV, but I hadn't been here," said Gee, 29. "It's so cool because everything has evolved. I'm a person of color on a bike. I also see women on bikes. Everything is changing. I'm here to do it all."

The Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau said the area, which is about 45 minutes northeast of Orlando, has always had a great love affair with biking.

"Everyone knows about NASCAR and Speedweeks, but bike racing on the beach actually was before cars," bureau spokeswoman Tangela Boyd said. "We have a long fascination with bikes. It's just a part of our area as well as the advent of the automobile. We love our bikers."

The event, which ends Saturday, begins slowly with vendors and snowbirds setting up last weekend and enjoying some casual fun. It kicks into high gear today through the weekend with Saturday's Daytona 200 and cole slaw wrestling at the Cabbage Patch Bar.

David Dion of Turners Falls, Mass., has been coming down to Daytona Beach for nearly 15 years. He loves propping his bike up on Main Street, watching the tricked-out bikes go by and seeing the latest equipment. He missed a few years to raise a family, but now that they are grown, he's back and enjoying himself.

"It's pretty easy why I come down here: It's all about freedom," said the 59-year-old Dion, who has a winter home in Florida. "It's riding your bike and feeling the fresh air and just watching what's in front of you."

Joie Chitwood, president of Daytona International Speedway, said Bike Week has never really gotten the national exposure it deserves. It might be because it's a couple of weeks after the Daytona 500 and there are more activities this time of year.

"I don't know about any community that ties in so many things together: racing, cruising on Main Street, seeing all these vendors and spring break," Chitwood said. "It sounds like a cliché, but we have something for everyone."

Some of the activities include:

• Motorcycle enthusiasts can test ride the latest motorcycles from top manufacturers with free demo rides.

• People can take their bikes for two laps around Daytona International Speedway’s 3.56-mile road course.

• The annual Hooters Bikini Contest and Hot Leathers Fashion show, among the other activities at the track and various sites throughout Daytona Beach.

And the Daytona 200 kicks off the Motorcycle AMA Pro Road Racing season with a 200-mile battle on Daytona's road course with America's top motorcycle stars.

"It's funny to me that some people in Daytona Beach don't even realize there is a major pro cycling event, but that's what Bike Week is about," said Josh Hayes, who won the 2012 national championship. "You smell the gas in the air. You hear the sounds. It's big excitement this time of year."

Chitwood of the Speedway concurred.

"It doesn't matter if you are a professional rider or a leisure rider -- you can come down to Daytona and see everything and experience everything," Chitwood said. "I still get excited about this tradition. It's such an American success story."

Boyd of the Visitors Bureau said the event will bring in more than $250 million to the area's economy.

"We're a very biker-friendly town. We encourage riders to retire here. We welcome everyone," she said. "And then we do it all again in October for Biketoberfest!"