The Blessing of the Bikes in the tiny Calvert County town of North Beach, on the Chesapeake Bay, is an unlikely mixture of rock-and-roll, beer and religion. During the last two years, more than a thousand motorcyclists have roared into town on the first Sunday in May to drink, meet friends and pray for a safe summer riding season.
But this year, many residents and some Town Council members want the May 4 event canceled, saying it distracts from North Beach's long effort to transform itself from a rowdy summer resort into a family-friendly bedroom community.
Their worries have been heightened by Calvert Sheriff Mike Evans (R), who warned town leaders last month that the Blessing of the Bikes could be an occasion for violence between two rival motorcycle gangs, the Pagans and a new Hells Angels chapter.
"They have a history of violence against each other," Evans said. "That's a concern for law enforcement."
The issue has set up a potential showdown between the event's opponents and Mayor Mark R. Frazer, a Harley Davidson-riding dentist who brought the blessing to North Beach in 2001.
Town Council member Barbara Gray, the event's most vocal opponent, said she will try to force a council vote next month on whether to stop the mayor from using any of the $10,000 approved for North Beach's weekend-long Springfest to cover town expenses associated with the Blessing of the Bikes, which is part of Springfest. That would bar the town from paying clean-up costs and providing extra police patrols for the blessing, which effectively would kill the biker event.
"We're saying if we don't want it, we don't have to spend on it," Gray said.
The debate over the blessing has touched a nerve in the town of 1,800, about 35 miles southeast of Washington. Although four of the council's six members have spoken out against the event, only Gray has committed to vote against it. But Frazer said he would cancel the blessing only if police told him there was a "specific threat of violence."
Motorcycle enthusiasts in the area, many of them educated professionals, said the concerns are overblown, and some local business leaders, who said the event brings in customers, have circulated petitions in favor of the blessing.
"This is a very spiritual event," said Craig Collins, a North Beach resident who helped the mayor organize the blessing in 2001. "Blessing a bike is very important for us who ride."
Members of the Hells Angels and Pagans have remained quiet in the debate. They declined to comment for this article. But people who know them said their outlaw reputation is undeserved. "They're all employed, upper-middle-class, real-life people like you and me. They're not scourges," said Doug Barber, a North Beach photographer who runs a local biker Web site.
Tom Crockett, owner of Tan's Cycle Shop in North Beach, said the town would certainly not be rid of bikers if it banned the blessing.
"Whether you have the blessing of the bikes or not, they're still going to be riding around," he said.
At last year's blessing, along the North Beach waterfront, rock music blared from several amplifiers, and a local motorcycle club sold beverages from a beer wagon to raise money for needy children.
Riders lined up their bikes in several rows along the waterfront, where they were blessed by a protestant minister and a Roman Catholic priest, each with a Bible in hand. The Rev. Gary Fruik, the pastor of North Beach Union Church, put his hand on each motorcycle's handlebars and said, "Bless this bike for those who ride it for the following year."
"It's just a very enjoyable time," Fruik said.
The event was peaceful, but some residents complained it was tense. Fears surfaced that a turf war was brewing between Southern Maryland chapters of the Hells Angels and the Pagans. The FBI has classified both groups, on a national level, as "outlaw motorcycle gangs," allegedly engaged in drug dealing, gun trafficking and other crimes.
Last year's blessing took place not long after a group of about 10 Calvert men broke off from a local motorcycle club and began forming a Hells Angels chapter, authorities said. The county sheriff's office began monitoring the group, and federal and state law enforcement officials said the emerging Hells Angels chapter raised the prospect of violence, because North Beach, and Maryland generally, had long been considered the turf of the local Pagans, based in southern Anne Arundel County.
Just as the Hells Angels group in Southern Maryland was forming last year, other chapters of the Pagans and Hells Angels had deadly clashes over territory in Philadelphia and Long Island, N.Y., authorities said. So, during last year's blessing, more than 60 county sheriff's deputies patrolled the North Beach waterfront to keep the two groups apart. Some officers were armed with rifles and stationed on the roofs of businesses, so they could watch over the crowd.
Sheriff Evans said a cache of pipes and clubs, wrapped in a blanket, was found at the blessing. A couple of arrests were made for disorderly behavior. "It was not a family event," said Town Council member Denise Phelps. "I didn't bring my children down there for it, and when I went down there, I was glad I didn't."
A month after the blessing, an Anne Arundel County man who police said was a former member of the Pagans was arrested and charged with attempted murder. He allegedly fired a gun at a member of the aspiring Hells Angels group at the club's hangout in Deale, a few miles from North Beach. The charge was reduced to reckless endangerment, which the former Pagan did not contest. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail.
The Calvert men have since formally become Hells Angels, Evans said, and the threat of violence with the Pagans is greater. He promised a large show of force by police if the blessing is held this year.
For some residents, the police presence and the threat of violence conjure unpleasant memories of the town's rowdy past.
Jean Rupard, 73, remembers North Beach in the 1960s, when slot machines were legal, 10 bars occupied the city's nine blocks, and rival biker gangs sometimes brawled on the streets.
"There used to be bad fights right in the streets," Rupard said. "If trouble broke out again, people would really worry."
In the last decade, North Beach has tried to rehabilitate its image. Many of the town's abandoned buildings have been razed. A hotel and condominium complex are planned for the waterfront area. Antique shops outnumber bars 3 to 1.
"We like it that way," Gray said. "We don't want to be identified all over again as a biker town."
But Mayor Frazer, who has been given a lot of credit for the town's turnaround, said the blessing is a celebration of North Beach's heritage. He got the idea for the Blessing of the Bikes from a similar event in St. Mary's County and thought a North Beach event would give the town a boost before the summer tourist season.
A 62-year-old dentist, Frazer dons leather riding chaps every summer and takes his 1996 Harley Davidson Soft Tail on long runs to biker events across the country. He said most bikers are regular people like himself, and he accuses the blessing's opponents of "biker profiling."
"There are some people who want to put a big sign out that says 'No Bikers,' " Frazer said.
He said the North Beach's biker past gives the town character. And embracing the past, Frazer said, does not mean halting progress. "A one-day event does not constitute the return of the town's environment in the '50s and '60s," he said.