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The rain cleared and the crowds returned to Atlantic Beach Bikefest. FILE PHOTO.

The rain cleared and the crowds returned to Atlantic Beach Bikefest. FILE PHOTO.

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Atlantic Beach, the quiet seaside town at the heart of the Grand Strand, comes back to life this week with the return of Bike Fest — and it will be anything but quiet.

The Atlantic Beach Black Pearl Cultural Heritage and Bike Festival starts Friday and runs through Memorial Day on Monday. Thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts are expected to come to the Myrtle Beach area for the event — often known as “Black Bike Week” — packing hotels, bars and the streets.

“We’re excited that we can all get back to doing what we enjoy doing — just riding motorcycles,” said Aaron Cox, the business manager of the Carolina Knight Riders, which started Bike Fest 42 years ago, “and experiencing everybody getting together, having a good time.”

This event, like so many events to return after a COVID-19 hiatus, will feel a little bit different. It’s one of the last festivals — possibly even the last — to return after the pandemic began. Most other events in the region were brought back in 2021 after vaccines became widely available. Atlantic Beach, however, a town of fewer than 200 people, many of them elderly, took the more cautious route and canceled the 2021 festival, too.

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The Black Pearl Cultural Heritage and Bike Festival continued through Sunday night in Atlantic beach with parties in the street that were only damped when a rain squall moved in late in the evening. Sunday May 29, 2017. JASON LEE [email protected]

Even this year’s bash was uncertain until a few months ago, Town Manager Benjamin Quattlebaum said. The decision to cancel last year’s event turned out to be a good one, he said, noting how the delta variant wave of the coronavirus began in midsummer and was followed almost immediately by omicron during the winter.

The winter wave calmed, but Quattlebaum said town leaders remained concerned as news of omicron subvariants cropped up. The town announced in March it planned to move forward with Bike Fest, but Quattlebaum and some of the town residents still feel slightly hesitant. They just hope the event goes smoothly and doesn’t turn into a hotspot for the virus, which has killed more the 1 million Americans.

“It’s an outdoor event, so I think gives people more confidence about being out,” Quattlebaum said. “We don’t have any indoor events or any programming that’s taking place indoors.”

Denise Gibson, who has spent her summers in Atlantic Beach for decades, said she hopes Bike Fest goes well and that COVID-19 stays in the rearview mirror where it belongs.

“I am excited to welcome the biking community. I’m a little apprehensive because we are still in COVID a little bit, so we don’t know what to expect,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a fabulous opportunity for the community to revive itself.”

Quattlebaum said this looks like it might be one of the best years ever for Bike Fest.

The town has gotten more interest from vendors than it’s gotten in many years, reversing a trend of decline from before the pandemic. Quattlebaum also said he’s heard that hotels near Atlantic Beach are fully booked. The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce said its data is showing hotels will be nearing capacity.

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The rain cleared and the crowds returned to Atlantic Beach Bikefest on Sunday afternoon. JASON LEE [email protected]

The pent-up demand that has had tourists flooding to Myrtle Beach for the last year is headed for Atlantic Beach next, Quattlebaum said.

The return of Bike Fest is expected to inject new life into Atlantic Beach. The town doesn’t rely on revenue from the event to sustain itself — all Bike Fest profits go to support the next year’s event — but the town’s restaurants, bars and shops definitely do.

“The big mystique about the Bike Fest — people think it’s a big economic generator for the town, and it’s not because we don’t have major restaurants, hotels,” Quattlebaum said. “It does benefit local businesses, which is one of the primary reasons and impetus behind supporting the effort, in addition to the history.”

Preserving history

This year’s Bike Fest won’t just be different because of its return for the first time since 2019. The town is also going back to the festival’s roots.

The Carolina Knight Riders, the organization that started the event in 1980, will be more directly involved than they’ve been in years. This time, that includes a bike ride with some of the original Carolina Knight Riders members at noon Saturday, followed by round table interviews the town is conducting as part of a $25,000 grant it received for preservation of the town’s history.

“This celebration came because Black bikers were unwelcome and abused at Harley-Davidson week,” said Gibson, who helped coordinate the interviews and the historical preservation grant. “The Carolina Knight Riders said, ‘OK, we will just go somewhere where we’re welcome and do it a different week.”

Now, she said, Atlantic Beach Bike Fest is one of the largest and most prominent in the nation, up there with “the likes of Sturgis” in South Dakota.

Preserving the town’s history is especially important now as the town undergoes a renaissance of sorts. Since the last Bike Fest three years ago, more than a dozen new homes, many of them short-term rental properties, have sprung up around town, filling in empty lots that were long unused.

Most of the properties are getting a new life from their longtime owners, Black doctors, lawyers and teachers who have owned them for decades, Gibson said. But the changes mean the town will look a little different from the last time people visited for Bike Fest, and they mean that the town needs to start writing down its history now so it isn’t lost in the town’s revival.

“We have a rich history, and we are a vibrant community,” Gibson said. And now, “We’re strong and growing”

Cox said the interviews with bikers will help ensure the truth behind Bike Fest and the Carolina Knight Riders is not lost. Many people, he said, have the perception that the Carolina Knight Riders are a “biker gang” and that Bike Fest is an event that attracts crime. Neither is true, Cox said.

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The Atlantic Beach Memorial Day Black Pearl Cultural Heritage and Bike Festival kicked into gear on Friday afternoon with thousands of bikers cruising into Atlantic beach for the annual event. May 26, 2017. JASON LEE [email protected]

Instead, the Carolina Knight Riders are a group that engages in community service work, such as escorts for funerals and charity rides for nonprofits, including a ride each December to raise money and collect toys for the Longs Head Start Center.

And yes, the group happens to like motorcycling, a recreational activity that is fun, safe and legal. Watching bikers as a child, Cox said he fell in love with the community.

“It was a type of recreation that was fun and safe and didn’t have a lot of violence associated with it,” Cox said. “So I grew up thinking, ‘Oh man, once I get older, then I’ll be able to participate in the club like that.’”

Cox wants the history of Bike Fest and the Carolina Knight Riders that he grew up on to be what people remember, not the misconceptions of Atlantic Beach and Bike Fest being unsafe. Quattlebaum even went so far as to note that the town had just two arrests in 2019 during Bike Fest — one for someone selling fake luxury bags and another for disorderly conduct.

“Most bikers and bike clubs and social clubs deal with very good people who are taxpaying, law-abiding citizens who love riding motorcycles and love and appreciate motorcycles,” Cox said.

In actuality, Cox, Quattlebaum and Gibson all said Atlantic Beach is a sleepy seaside town with one of the best views of the ocean, thanks to the lack of high-rise hotels dotting the coastline.

“This is my happy place,” said Gibson, as she stared out at the water from her front porch.

Cox and Quattlebaum also noted that Bike Fest benefits far beyond just the Atlantic Beach community. The town is just four streets wide — not even remotely enough room to accommodate all of the visitors Bike Fest attracts. All of those visitors have to stay at hotels and eat at least some of their meals outside of Atlantic Beach. So, the four-day event not only generates money to support the next Bike Fest but also brings in millions of dollars in revenue for the rest of the Grand Strand.

“Everybody up and down the Grand Strand benefits from people coming down” for Bike Fest, Cox said.

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The Atlantic Beach Memorial Day Black Pearl Cultural Heritage and Bike Festival kicked into gear on Friday afternoon with thousands of bikers cruising into Atlantic beach for the annual event. May 26, 2017. JASON LEE [email protected]

In the past, the city of Myrtle Beach has taken an aggressive stance toward Bike Fest, implementing a traffic loop that forced all traffic on Ocean Boulevard to run south, away from Atlantic Beach and directing much of the traffic going north to Highway 31 on the outskirts of town. This year, however, Myrtle Beach does not plan to implement the traffic loop, which was at the center of a 2018 lawsuit by the NAACP. A judge ultimately ruled in 2020 that the loop was in fact discriminatory — but still legal.

“I would just like to see, rather than any type of antagonistic effort to try to kill the event … to make something positive out of it, to help support it,” Cox said. “We’ll try to make the this one of the greatest events for bikers in the United States,” he added.

What to expect at Bike Fest

How will Bike Fest look throughout the weekend? Here’s what to expect.

  • Carolina Knight Riders Memorial Ride: Noon on Saturday
  • Live music: Musicians and bands performing day and night
  • Food and shopping: Dozens of vendors selling food and souvenirs
  • Competitions: Bike Fest will have seven competitions that bikers can enter their motorcycles in. Categories include best sport bike, best Harley, best trike and best street bike.
  • Masks: Some places, such as Town Hall, still require the use of face masks. Be sure to have one with you just in case.

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Bikers arrive in Atlantic Beach on Memorial Day Weekend for the annual Atlantic Beach Bikefest. The Atlantic Beach section of the Grand Strand is turned into a street party during the course of the event. JASON LEE [email protected]

The hours for the festival are 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. on Friday; 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday; and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, Memorial Day.

“With COVID being in place, it has crippled a lot of things. People are just ready to to move forward,” Carolina Knight Riders member Reggie Dyson said. “Now that things are opening back up, that things are happening, I believe that this should be a big turnout.

“I just want everybody to come in to have a good time.”

This story was originally published May 24, 2022 11:24 AM.

Chase Karacostas writes about tourism in Myrtle Beach and across South Carolina for McClatchy. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2020 with degrees in Journalism and Political Communication. He began working for McClatchy in 2020 after growing up in Texas, where he has bylines in three of the state’s largest print media outlets as well as the Texas Tribune covering state politics, the environment, housing and the LGBTQ+ community.