Man and machine roar into the Lakefront City this month as one of the country’s largest motorcycle festivals revs up for another year of nonstop excitement. From stylish bikes and live entertainment to unforgettable motorcycle shows and bikini-clad women, Leesburg Bikefest is certain to get your motor running.
Story: James Combs
Leesburg Bikefest: The 20th anniversary and a little history
Orange roadsters, blue choppers, and black cruisers line the streets of downtown Leesburg as their chrome glistens in the afternoon sun.
Leather-clad, vest-wearing bikers enjoy the warm weather and proudly show off their power-packed machines while swapping tales of the open road.
The tantalizing aroma of food—bratwurst, corn dogs, sausage, tacos, cinnamon buns and popcorn—wafts down Main Street and its many side streets.
Live bands deliver heart-pounding music, delighting the hordes of fans gathered around the stage.
Indeed, the sights, sounds, and smells of Leesburg Bikefest are quite spectacular. At least that’s what the 300,000 bikers and spectators who attend the event will tell you. Simply put, Bikefest has fired on all cylinders since debuting in 1997.
Its success is attributed to the vision of Joe Shipes, executive director of the Leesburg Partnership. He dreamed up the idea of a motorcycle festival that would draw people throughout the state to downtown Leesburg and allow local merchants to showcase their businesses. Never once did he doubt such an event could thrive in a rural and largely conservative area. But he encountered plenty of opposition in the beginning.
“I remember when I first pitched the idea of Bikefest to the board of directors at the Leesburg Partnership,” he says. “It wasn’t a wildly popular idea. In fact, you could hear a pin drop in the room. I was looking to put together a niche event. Everyone was already doing arts and crafts shows and car festivals. However, there were few motorcycle festivals other than Daytona Beach and Sturgis.”
Board members reluctantly agreed. That inaugural Leesburg Bikefest in 1997 was small and much more subdued than today’s. The one-day event featured four vendors, several local garage bands, and 5,000 motorcyclists.
“I remember when I first pitched the idea of Bikefest to the board of directors at the Leesburg Partnership… you could hear a pin drop in the room.” — Joe Shipes
In 2002, the event was expanded to three days and grew exponentially from there. Suddenly, hotels throughout Lake County were booked more than a year in advance. The event was attracting household-name bands such as Skid Row, Quiet Riot, Molly Hatchet, and Candlebox.
By 2009, Leesburg Bikefest proudly claimed the title of “the largest three-day motorcycle and music event in the country.” One aspect that makes Bikefest unique, Joe says, is the festival component.
“This is not designed as a rally,” he says. “At a rally, bikers ride to numerous destinations. Ours is a festival because everything—shows, vendors, and entertainment—is centralized in downtown Leesburg. I can tell you this is one of the most respected events in the country. City administrators throughout the country have contacted me because they want to have a similar event in their community. We’ve set the bar for a top-notch, well-run machine.”
Leesburg Bikefest’s Unsung Hero
Preparing and planning for this massive festival requires hard work and sacrifice from hundreds of behind-the-scenes volunteers. They do everything from manning the beer tents and serving alcohol to cleaning up trash in the wee hours of the morning.
One faithful volunteer is Kim Higgins, an administrative assistant at Lake Griffin State Park.
Kim began volunteering at Leesburg Bikefest 10 years ago. She was in charge of coordinating and ordering merchandise such as T-shirts, sleeveless denim shirts, and patches for vests and jackets. During the event, the Leesburg Partnership set up four merchandise tents—three downtown and one at Gator Harley-Davidson on U.S. Highway. 441.
“your adrenaline is pumping so much throughout the event that you don’t feel tired until it is over.” — Kim Higgins
“I really enjoyed doing that,” says Higgins, a resident of Fruitland Park. “I would typically approve the merchandise artwork in the late fall or early winter.”
Five years ago, Kim assumed an even larger responsibility. She now manages inventory on all alcoholic products purchased and sold and sets up 25 beer tents and bars.
“Every March, I begin ordering beer, liquor, and wine based on how much we sold of each during the previous year,” she says. “When the event arrives, we have two belly Budweiser trucks come in with 150 kegs in each. Then we have another belly truck loaded with hundreds of cases of beer and a semi loaded with kegs for backup. We also start the event with approximately 500 cases of liquor.”
During the three-day event, Kim walks to the various beer tents and bars to ensure volunteers are pouring correctly and not wasting alcohol. “
All the alcohol is measured, and our goal is to have a 95 percent accuracy rate,” she said. “We do not want beer and liquor to go to waste.” Kim typically stays until 1am, goes home to sleep, then arrives back at the festival by 7am. “By the time Leesburg Bikefest is over, you feel like you’ve been run over by a train,” she says. “However, your adrenaline is pumping so much throughout the event that you don’t feel tired until it is over. I typically take a few days off work and get a full-body massage.”
20 years of Bikefest history under one tent
The roar of motorcycle engines. The adrenaline-pumping music of popular bands. The opportunity to meet people from all over the country.
Tim Lampman would not dream of missing any of it. In fact, he has served as a vendor at each Leesburg Bikefest dating back to 1997.
A resident of Sarasota, Tim sets up shop underneath a tent on the corner of Main and 5th Street and sells his popular brand of cigars. To say he has seen many changes throughout the years would be an understatement.
“The first year, the festival was held in a parking lot where the library is now,” says Tim, owner of Sarasota-based Clint Cigars Inc. “It was confined to that one area, and there was nothing happening on the rest of Main Street. But by the fourth year, it expanded into the entire downtown area.”
He says event organizers have done a tremendous job of handling the festival’s explosion in attendance.
“They’ve carefully thought out every small detail, which includes having volunteers manage the portable toilets,” he says. “That is absent at other festivals, and midway through the day, the portable toilets become dirty and are overflowing. At Leesburg Bikefest, they are clean throughout the event.”
He also credits the Leesburg Police Department for making bikers feel welcome.
“I’ve been to the event in Daytona, and there, police set up traps to catch bikers speeding,” Lampman says. “In Daytona, it feels like 12 days of grueling torture. The police in Leesburg have a wonderful attitude and only arrest people as a last resort. Officers are very friendly and helpful.” Lampman has been a vendor at motorcycle festivals throughout the country. Without question, the Leesburg Bikefest ranks as one of his favorites.
“I’m getting older, so it only makes sense that I cut down on the number of events. However, I can promise you that Leesburg Bikefest is the last one I’d give up.” — Tim Lampman
“I tell other vendors all the time that if they want to see how a successful festival should be operated, then they need to attend Leesburg Bikefest,” he says. “I always think that this festival cannot go on forever, but every year it just gets bigger and better.”
There was a time when Lampman attended as many as 35 motorcycle-related events each year. Today, the 77-year-old biker enthusiast shows up at 15 shows. “I’m getting older, so it only makes sense that I cut down on the number of events,” he says. “However, I can promise you that Leesburg Bikefest is the last one I’d give up.”
Schedule of events
Grab your handlebars and hold on tight because the forecast for this year’s Leesburg Bikefest is lots of fun!
April 28 (Friday)
Noon-3pm—1st annual Full Throttle Magazine Ride-In Bike Show
1pm—Ms. Budweiser Hot Body Contest
2pm—Team Extreme Street Bike Stunts Show
7pm—Team Extreme Street Bike Stunts Show
8:30pm—Ms. Bikefest Hot Body Contest
9pm—Team Extreme Street Bike Stunts Show
9:15pm—Leesburg Bikefest LED Parade (a parade with illuminated motorcycles).
10pm—The band Fuel performs on Towne Square Stage.
April 29 (Saturday)
10am-5:30pm—Rat’s Hole Custom Bike Show
10:30am—Team Extreme Street Bike Stunts Show
Noon—Ms. Pin-Up Hot Body Contest
3pm—Team Extreme Street Bike Stunts Show
3pm—Ms. Ratmate Hot Body Contest
5pm—Mr. Luckyman Hot Body Contest
6pm—Team Extreme Street Bike Stunts Show
7-8pm—Drill Team Demonstrations
9pm—Team Extreme Street Bike Stunts Show
10pm—The band Queesnryche performs on Towne Square Stage.
April 30 (Sunday)
8am—Biker Service and Blessing of the Bike
9am-3pm—Rat’s Hole Badass Bagger Show
2pm—Team Extreme Street Bike Stunts Show
3pm—The band Pure Prairie League performs on Towne Square Stage.
3:30pm—Team Extreme Street Bike Stunts Show