See the Quail run

Bigger than ever, the 2016 Quail Motorcycle Gathering in Carmel, California remains authentic and inviting.

Sometimes it’s hard watching a ballgame or race because you’re thinking, “I want to do that!” Well, at the annual Quail Motorcycle Gathering, you can. Now in its eighth year, the event has grown bigger than ever. Led by promoter Gordon McCall, the two-day celebration uniquely embraces an enormous swath of motorcycling, from early 20th Century machinery to barn finds, from café racers to choppers and from Japanese production bikes to Italian exotics. If you like motorcycles, even just a little, there is something here for you. And you can fully participate.

The event features a 109-mile tour around Carmel and Salinas valley roads on Friday, an elegant dinner on Friday night, and Saturday’s Quail Motorcycle Gathering on the golf course. This year, I entered Friday’s tour on a modest little 1971 Ossa Pioneer 250 Enduro like the one I had enjoyed as a teenager. The Quail Motorcycle Tour’s brisk 109-mile route would significantly test the Spanish two-stroke as it tried keeping up with 100 larger machines. Then on Saturday, I entered a 1955 Matchless G80 CS “garage find” in the Competition Off Road category to see whether a motorcycle left undisturbed for 50 years would register with judges.

If you’ve never ridden in a motorcycle pack, it is something to experience. The group naturally stretches out in a long single-file, or sometimes two-wide, pattern. We flowed along well as a unit thanks to the California Highway Patrol which generously held intersections open for us. Classics, customs and café racers – and even a few touring hogs – all made the pilgrimage from the Quail Lodge to Laguna Seca Raceway, where riders got to take a few laps. There were some interesting lines in the turns!

The tour then regrouped, continuing into the Salinas Valley and ultimately a stop at the Paraiso Vineyards for refreshments. Nonalcoholic! The final stint circled into picturesque Carmel Valley where we ultimately arrived at the new Robb Talbott motorcycle museum. The retired vintner is a lifelong motorcyclist and has relished setting up a place for his favorites. All but a few bikes (sidelined by engine problems) made the entire trip and everyone arrived back at the Quail Lodge in good spirits.

Friday’s dinner was studded with celebrities, including three-time AMA Superbike champion Reg Pridmore, honored as a “Legend of the Sport,” national champ and On Any Sunday star Mert Lawwill, 1985 Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan, motorcycle designer Craig Vetter, and Daytona 200 winner and author Don Emde, whose book on retracing Cannon Ball Baker’s famous 1914 cross-country trek is just out.

On Saturday, The Quail Motorcycle Gathering set a record with 400 motorcycles on the grass, and 237 bikes reviewed by 49 judges – a huge organizational feat. Numerous groupings shared the field, including private collections and categories such as Japanese, Italian, German, British, custom, competition and antique. For 2016 special classes included 40th Anniversary of Superbike, BMW Classics, and Pre-1916 Motorcycles. The scruffy Matchless fit into the Competition Off Road category, its most recent registration sticker – dating from 1966 – now fully a half-century old.

Japanese bikes of the 1960s through 1980s were particularly robust, with glistening restored bikes clearly showing the engineering, attention to detail, and user-friendliness that helped Japan conquer the motorcycle world. Particularly stunning were Kawasakis, known for stunning performance with their rotary-valve intakes and three-cylinder designs, and Hondas with their savvy four-stroke engineering and keenly focused model variations. One special Honda was a CL350 Scrambler with rare psychedelic Flying Dragon paint, an option only available for two years. It placed first in the Japanese category.

Overall, the Quail event does just about everything right, including food. Instead of the normal hamburger stand one might expect at a bike show, here was fine cuisine including tasty barbecue, salads and desserts – served on real plates with real silverware wrapped in linen. The effect is one of substance, which the Quail event most certainly provides. With live background music, onstage celebrity interviews, and finally a gracious awards ceremony, the show is deeply immersive.

If your bike wins something at the show, a judge hangs a tag on the handlebar to let you know. Sadly, the old Matchless did not receive such a tag, but with only 32 awards, the odds were long for everyone. And many deserving bikes were left on the field while others made the stage. It’s a tough call for judges.

After the 4 PM close of the show, I caught up with McCall to ask how it went. “Attendance, custom bikes and overall quality were all up,” he said, summarizing the key points. That’s good news in a still-shaky economy, because the growth enjoyed by The Quail Motorcycle Gathering shows that interest in vintage bikes, and the culture surrounding them, is healthy and growing. Smaller, easier to store and less complicated than cars, motorcycles represent a wonderful and viable second pathway for collectors, and I personally hope more car owners pick up on the vibe. If they don’t already feel it on their own, one trip to The Quail will definitely suffice.

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