Hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists roar into town this weekend to participate in the 24th annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle run. You can expect traffic delays and throngs of gawking tourists at this yearly meeting of burly (and not-so burly) bikers from all walks of life. And amid the sea of tattoos and leather chaps you’ll also find a serious commitment to honoring our soldiers and veterans.

“The whole point of Rolling Thunder is to bring awareness to P.O.W.s and M.I.A.s,” says Jennifer Stipkala, the general manager of Harley-Davidson of Washington, D.C. (9407 Livingston Road, Fort Washington, Md.; 301-248-1200; Stipkala’s dealership is working with Rolling Thunder Inc. to organize events for bikers throughout the weekend, including Sunday’s noon ride from the Pentagon to the National Mall, where speakers including Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullin will address the crowd.

Motorcycle culture and veterans’ communities naturally intersect, Stipkala says. “Riding is an expression of freedom to many people, and that’s what our military fights for,” she says. “We support people who fight for our freedom so we can sleep at night.”
We asked Stipkala to give us some tips on how to appreciate biker culture — even if you’ve missed a few episodes of “Sons of Anarchy” this season.

Strike up a conversation: A hot guy rolls up next to you on a shiny Harley, hypnotizing you with the flashing chrome. How can you get his attention while keeping your cool? “Ask him about his bike,” Stipkala says. “Everybody loves to talk about their bike.” That’s a sure way to engage Stipkala, too: “The most unusual part of my bike is my exhaust. People are always asking me, ‘Is that loud?’ ‘Yeah, it is.’ ‘Can I hear it?’ ‘Sure!’ People love starting their bikes up.”

Drop names: Did you know Liam Neeson rides a Harley? It’s true (at least, according to! “You’ve got everybody from doctors and lawyers to congressmen and senators to Hollywood stars riding,” Stipkala says. “Housewives ride them, college kids ride them.” Dogs, too (in sidecars, of course)! Here are a few more supposed members of the red-carpet biker gang: Cher, Ewan McGregor and both members of Brangelina.

Dress to impress: High fashion at Rolling Thunder means “a lot of denim and a lot of leather,” Stipkala says. So, here’s your chance to bust out those pleather pants. Score bonus points with Harley gear: The Fort Washington shop sells crystal-studded hair elastics and snakeskin belts.

Set the mood: Don’t leave home on Sunday without Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.” It’s not a cliche; it’s a way of life. “A lot of bikers like ‘Born to Be Wild,'” Stipkala says.

Participate: “You don’t have to ride a motorcycle to be a part of [Rolling Thunder], and people sometimes forget that,” Stipkala says. All events are open to the public. If you’d rather watch from the sidelines, “the best place in the world to see it is on the Memorial Bridge,” Stipkala says. “Every year, the pedestrian walkway is lined with people.”

» Various locations; Fri., May 27-Sun. May 29;

Photo by Gerald Martineau