MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Gripping the handles of his sport bike, David Young spearheaded a fleet of 15 bikers along the South Carolina roads he knows so well. The DC Sportbike Riders pushed past 80 miles per hour on Highway 31, heading to a cookout for hundreds of black bikers.
Their route took them along Kings Highway, past two-story motels announcing “Welcome Bikers” and barricades warning “No Thru Traffic” stationed between palmetto trees. They parked their bikes at a townhouse in North Myrtle Beach without ever entering the struggling, historic beach town that coveted them the most.
For black families from Baltimore to Atlanta, the four-block hamlet of Atlantic Beach was once the summer hot spot. In fact, it was the only spot. During the days of segregation, families came from all over the coast to the lone place in this region where black residents could relax on sugary sands and taste the saltiness of the ocean.
The annual black biker rally, which Young describes as “the second best thing, right after Christmas,” started in Atlantic Beach more than three decades ago. Back then, it was a small, family-friendly event that provided an alternative to the overwhelmingly white Harley-Davidson Week in neighboring Myrtle Beach.
But the lure of the Atlantic Beach Bikefest could not be contained. Hundreds of thousands flocked to the fest, and it began to spill into a string of seaside towns and cities known as the Grand Strand, transforming the event into a tawdry beach bacchanal.
“You’re gonna see some things,” Young, a brawny 42-year-old Prince George’s County firefighter, advised “A-Jay,” one of the youngest members of his club. Sweet bikes. Hot girls. Wild parties.
Most of those things won’t be in Atlantic Beach. While the bikefest remains the town’s biggest event of the summer, it also reveals just how much has been lost.
Riders sleep in other cities’ hotels. They dine in other cities’ restaurants. They make memories on other beaches, while Atlantic Beach’s significance slips away.
As neighboring towns were annexed into North Myrtle Beach to widen its tax base and woo developers, Atlantic Beach decided to stand alone, like it always had.
“We wanted to preserve our story,” said Retha Pierce, the town’s outgoing mayor. “But we couldn’t get developers. Everyone else did.”
Now a fence separates her community from a pink, 18-floor resort with rooms for $350 a night. On the other side are wooden townhouses, filled to capacity. Between those borders are Atlantic Beach’s barren sands and scraggly brush, hosting little more than history.
“What we want most from the weekend is the chance for a homecoming,’’ Pierce said. “There is still a chance for them to remember our beach, the Black Pearl.”
As this year’s bikefest gathered momentum in the days before Memorial Day, the city of Atlantic Beach was relatively quiet, with just a spattering of sport bikes rolling through. One biker stopped in front of a boarded-up ranch home and asked: “Where is everyone?”
Even Young, who appreciates what Atlantic Beach represents, wasn’t sure he’d get over to the town. There just wasn’t enough to do there.
He began coming here in 1999, drawn by a gathering of bikers who looked like him and riding bikes he only saw in magazines.
Motorcycles have been Young’s passion ever since the neighborhood kids got jealous of him riding on the back of his mom’s boyfriend’s ride, a 1978 Honda CB-750 Four. “I felt like such a badass,” he laughed, because so few of his friends had seen a black person on a bike.
A 27, he bought a sport bike — nimble and speedy with its forward-leaning riding position that was surging in popularity, especially in black communities.
He spent $12,000 for his current Kawasaki Ninja, a muscular green and black bike that can reach 188 mph. He popped wheelies. He hit three-digit speeds on the highway. He bent the rules of the road so much that he started calling the vehicle “the Illegal Beagle.”
At bikefest, he smoked cigars, partied hard and cruised along Ocean Boulevard, where tattooed and bare-chested buffs hollered at scantily clad women strutting on heels or clinging to the back of bikes.
Young’s biker nickname is “Party,” but a dozen years later, his bike week is low key. He’s 42 now, with a mortgage and a daughter as old as some of the girls here. He breaks rules so infrequently that his club members now just call his ride “the Beagle.”
“We’re almost 50 now,” said Young’s friend, Tony “Res-Que” Anderson, a 48-year-old retired firefighter from Fort Washington. “The party scene isn’t for us anymore.”
They avoid Ocean Boulevard and rent an oceanfront townhouse in the tony town of Surfside Beach, at the Grand Strand’s southern end. The younger folks, they can have the girls. He and his friends have golf.
“I won the last game,” Anderson recalled, smiling.
“You won a round,” Young retorted. “I won a round.”
In some ways, bike week has been on the opposite trajectory from Young and his friends. It’s gotten progressively rowdier since 1980, when the Carolina Knight Riders started the Atlantic Beach Bikefest to help reinvigorate the Black Pearl.
In the late ’90s, after Atlanta clamped down on Freaknik — a spring break for historically black colleges — promoters brought the partying to the Grand Strand. In less than five years, an event that first drew 100 started pulling crowds of 300,000.
“We didn’t even recognize the event anymore,” said Eva McMillan, the Knight Riders’ spokeswoman.
Few advertised it as the Atlantic Beach Bikefest. It was now Black Bike Week.
The bigger the event got, the more neighbors seethed over trash, traffic and noise. But efforts to shut the party down by closing businesses or imposing helmet laws didn’t work.
So the tradition of bikefest lives on. On a Thursday night in Myrtle Beach, vehicle exhaust and hip-hop beats floated on the ocean breeze.
The patio at the Beach House was filled with men and women sipping Sex on the Beach from fishbowls, rapping to Nicki Minaj. A mother and son with matching mohawks and vanilla ice cream cones joined the throngs watching custom-made sport bikes cruise alongside Buicks rolling on 24-inch rims. The air was peppered with “hey baby’s ” and “yo, wassups” as a street pastor shouted there was still time for these sinners to repent.
Past the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, a mass of black bike riders were clogging traffic near Bad Kitty lingerie and 4:20, “the adult novelty superstore.” Police were directing them into one lane to get into Atlantic Beach.
The smell of fried fish wafted through the hamlet’s dimly lit streets, as vendors complained about the smallest crowd in years. The crowd was mostly local, women walking in Daisy Dukes, sifting through T-shirts and faux Gucci purses being sold at booths on empty lots.
Dueling speakers — a vendor blasting gospel, a bar blasting reggae — clashed above the bass of sport bikes revving in and out the strip.
Driving through were yellow Suzukis and red Yamahas. And then, a muscular green and black Kawasaki appeared on the road. It was Young, gripping the handles of his Beagle.
He’d decided to come after all. No trip, he concluded, would be complete without a sojourn to Atlantic Beach.
“This is where it began,’’ Young said. “It might just be guys selling mix tapes and CDs, and people eating turkey legs and drinking beer. But without this, I’d have no Black Bike Week. I have to pay my respects.”
He walked around for about an hour. Aside from a few friends from Richmond, there were few other people he knew. The text messages on his phone were telling him to return to Myrtle Beach, where hundreds of bikers were gathering for another party. That night’s big destination? Hooters.
Every summer, Washington heads to the beach, decamping by the tens of thousands to shore towns that stretch from Delaware to South Carolina. For many, the surf and sand are accompanied by beloved rituals: boardwalk bike rides or sunset barbecues or Fourth of July fireworks. This occasional series will explore those touchstones of summer, what they mean to us and why the beach beckons year after year. To see previous stories go to washingtonpost.com/beachguide.