Sixteen motorcycles, mostly large, shiny and decked out with expensive paraphernalia, stood in two rows in the parking lot. One sleek new Suzuki 1100, the sensation of the 1980 bikes, stood alone without fairing, trunk, or saddlebags. A full dress Honda GL1000, known to its owner's wry-witted friends as "The Yellow Whale," dominated the rainbow line-up of maroon Honda Cx500s, black Suzuki 750s and a pair of perfectly matched, touring-rigged BMWW RT100s (one white, one red).

Standing alone in the flower show o motorcycling finery was the inconoclast of the pack: a mud-caded, single-saddlebagged Honda 450 of absolutely indeterminate vintage. It's owner, Dave Collins, at 6 feet 4 inches and 230 pounds, one of the largest men in sight, constantly had to shift his feet at odd angles to stay astride his pony of a bike.

"I don't know what you paid for your bike," he explained, eyeing the Susuki 750, which accounts for nearly $3,000 of my life, "but mine cost nothing. I found it in a field."

Inside the Hot Shoppe at Congressional Plaza on Rockville Pike, the assorted members of the raucously named Playboys Motorcycle Club of Montgomery County were deeply involved in one of their chief rituals: eating Sunday breakfast. This is no toney Georgetown brunch, mind you: this is bacon-and-eggs, double toast and, oh, four-five cupds of coffee. This is clearly and purely a man's gathering. Not only are their no women bikers in this crowd (one wonders if there are enough motocycling ladies in the area to form even a single club), but there are no passengers at all. This despite the fact that this is expressly a "touring" club made up of large motorcycles are designed for comfortable passage of two humans. All, that is, except Dave Collins' Honda 450, which looks like surplus from the Reichswehr Signal Corps of World War II. One cand easily imagine Collins wearing a Snoopy-style Red Baron Leather flying helmet with Snoopy goggles.

Breakfast is second only to lunches, dinners and goodly supplies of beer to the Playboys Motorcycle Club, one of a handful of motorcycle organizations in the Washington area. Indeed, one senses that motorcycling is merely the vehicle (no pun intended) by which these men of a certain age and a certain girth get together for days and evenings of drinking, cussing, put-down jokes and eating. A gathering of the Playboys Otorcycle Club is not unlike a group of sailing buffs sitting around a pier at the end of the day; an evening on the company bowling team; a Sunday morning on a news bureau's softball squad. The purpose is convivality, the framework is sport, the game is motorcycling.

Of course, there are those -- like all the beltway motorists who stared in disbelief as our 16 bikes whirred past in double files that Sunday morning -- who don't think of motorcycles as sport. The think of all motorcycles and their riders as outlaws with knives in their pockets and chains around their necks. There are, true enough, some pretty rough motorcycling sorts still about; you read about them under the heading of drug wars in the newpaper, but they are to the sport what, say, car thieves are to motoring. Even your average Harley chopper pilot in denims and tatos is usually looking for nothing more sinister than a cold six-pack and a sunny place to drink it.

Between the chromy choppers and the collection of paunches on the heavy tourers lie several other levels of motorcycling: motorcross fanatics whose idea of fun is a Sunday racing through mud on their high-torque flathead dirt bikes; young men with girlfriends on the back who buzz around town on their Honda Hawks8 Yamaha Midnight Specials or bored-out Kawasaki 900s; and the laid-back couries on the yellow BMWs who terrorize the taxie grade but hold Washington together with their missions of message throughout the city.

Then there are the tourers.This end -- the heavy-metal, high-powered, expensive and least dangerous end of motorcycling -- is reported to be the fastest growing division of motorcycling. One dealer reports he cannot obtain enough of the new Suzuki 1100s -- at $3800 a pop -- to meet the demand. The after-market, or accessories business is going so many directions at once that one does not know where to start -- or stop.

What with fancy windshield fairings, AM/FM/cassettee decks, CB systems, trunks, saddlebags, electric vest warmers, snowsuits, rainsuits, stereo-wired helmets, floorboards, VDO gauges and all the rest, one can easily load a large bike up with enough comforting gear to double the initial cost of the machine. And many do it.

Remember, this is love.

Breakfast finished, insults exchanged and helmets up the Playboys Club begin its rumbling ramble under scudding rain clouds with a spin through the curves and hillocks of the Georgetown Pike -- Virginia 193 -- that runs from the beltway to Herndon. Somewhere past Leeburg, our tour guides -- the two BMWs were the day's ride leaders -- began a series of wrong turns that left us stranded three times in cul-de-sacs of darkest suburbia. The atmosphere drifted from one of general hilarity to high comedy.

We crossed the uncharted backroads of northern Virginia by fits and starts, our planned seafood luncheon on the lower Potomac still 100 miles away. We must have looked like a Chinese fire drill, all 16 motorcycles coming to sudden, bunched-up stops at every new intersection and fork, sometimes inquiring of a passing rustic as to our whereabouts.

The trip became known up and down the line as "the mystery ride."

In a final moment of abandon, the leaders just said to heck with it all and called a roadside pit stop. Sixteen grown men ran into the woods to find a tree, each taking up position like a low-comic version of MacDuff's forces in Birnam Wood. Five minutes later, this rag-tag, motorized posse mounted up and headed vaguely southward.

Our mid-afternoon lunch on the water at Potomac Beach, Virginia, was worth the wait. Crabcakes and seafood platters disappeared only slightly more slowly than pitchers of beer, which lasted just under three minutes a round. Collectively contented to Falstavian proportions, we motored slowly through the nearly-deserted, ghostly remnants of nearby Colonial Beach. In its heyday, it was a bustling resort with a gambling pier that claimed to be in Maryland -- or at least in international waters -- so that it could permit gambling's gone and, apparently, so are most of the people.

The ride home under darkling skies was like all rides home: the horse smells the barn and knows where the water is. By ones, twos and threes, our gaggle of urban escapees -- motorcycling is essentially a form of freedom -- peeled of on beltway exits for returns to the domestic hearth. The phantom tour had run twice as far (240 miles) and twice as long as expected -- but how many wives have heard that one before ("the game went into triple overtime")?

As if giving divine saction to our sport, however, the first heavy drops of the afternoon thunderstorm struck earth just as my garage door went up.