Charlie Thomas is the kind of fellow who hops on his six-cylinder Kawasaki 1300 and rides 500 miles on a slow day. And that's just around home _ in his case, Manassas. When he really wants to get away, Thomas takes in whole continents. "Back when I lived in Germany," he remembers, "we'd sometimes ride to Spain for the weekend."
This man is a serious motorcyclist. He took up the sport at 12 and now, 38 years, two wives, seven children, two broken arms, two broken legs and dozens of motorcycles later, he operates Sunday poker runs for Washington-area enthusiasts three times a season out of Manassas. "We all want to take so many trips," says Thomas, "that I can't do more than three runs this year."
Thomas's wife, Marge, often travels with him, but there are exceptions. "Not when he crosses the country in 48 hours," she says.
"Not 48!" he says. "It was 42 hours. Los Angeles to Manassas. I broke the national record, but it was unofficial."
Thomas is president of the Citizens Radio Federation of Virginia, a club of CBers and ham radio operators. Naturally, his bike is rigged with enough radio gear to command an army. Between his marathon motorcycle tours, Thomas stages poker runs to raise money for the radio buffs, many of whom also are bikers. The fee is $5 per bike.
A poker run is a mass motorcycle ride involving up to 250 miles of country roads, prizes, trophies and assorted group fun. A traditional poker run, such as those still staged by the National Capital Motorcycle Club in Prince George's County, involves picking up playing cards along the route and winning prizes according to one's poker hand at the end of the trip.
"A real poker run means keeping 50 people busy who are not really enjoying themselves," says Charlie Thomas. "So that's why we dropped the cards and just draw numbers for the prizes now."
The numbers drawing at the opening poker run of the season was staged in April in the Tastee-Freez parking lot at Front Royal, Virginia, the first stop of the day. Winners took home motorcycle wax, engine oil and bungle cords. The second and final stop -- it was a short 87-mile run -- was at the Kac-Ka-Pon Restaurant in tiny Wardensville, in mountainous West Virginia. The trophies went, as usual, to: Bike with the Most Chrome, Oldest and Youngest Riders (66 and 17), Newest Bike (three days old), Biggest Bike (a Harley, natch) and -- a new category -- First Lady Rider.
Since there were only two women riders (but many women passengers), each had a 50-50 chance of winning. The largest trophy, appropriately, went to the smallest winner: Youngest Rider, a five-year old girl who spent most of her time waving to other riders from beneath a billed white helment as she sat behind her father.
Poker runs are always scenic, occasionally exciting, but usually rather tame in terms of speed and handling because of the numbers of riders involved -- sometimes up to 300. You don't see people doing cartwheels at the Boston Marathon, either. It is mainly the camaraderie that counts.
At the start -- Manassas Mall for Charlie Thomas, Clinton Cycle near Andrews Air Force Base for the National Capital Club -- riders limber up and make sure their machines are lubed and bodies properly warmed for the day's tour. The subsequent stops are, figuratively speaking, tire-kicking time. Nobody ever actually kicks anything, but other bikes are inspected with the gleam of jealousy and admiration in the eye. The ensuing conversation voluble, having much in common with the talk among fishermen.
After a pit stop in such watering holes as the White Star Restaurant -- where the beer costs sixty cents and the hindquarters of a deer are mounted over the bar -- people begin trickling back to the mainland in unorganized groups and singles. It's like meeting strollers one vaguely knows on a favored evening walk. Some stop for good, others for drink, others for gas. Some stop for gas miles from a filling station. I pulled up beside a stranded "triker" (he rode a three-wheeled motorcycle) whose two-gallon tank had gone dry on darkest I-66. We jury- rigged a piece of castaway tubing from the petcock of my gas tank into a one-pint can enough times to get his wheels rolling again. CHECK TO YOU
The poker run is one of the most civilized forms of motorcycle fun. Several rides are scattered across the summer season. Charlie Thomas's schedule includes a run to Colonial Beach, Virginia, on May 16 and another mountain run to Edinburg, Virginia June 13. The Potomac Road Riders Club also plans a run on May 16 from Sportsman's Cycle at 6733 Richmond Highway in Alexandria. The National Capital Motorcycle Club, the area's oldest, has poker runs June 6, August 29 and October 3. Riders should gather at Clinton Cycle, on Old Branch Avenue near Andrews Air Force Base, at 11 a.m.