San Benito Street was filled with the roar of motors and the gleam of chrome on Friday, the first day of the Hollister Freedom Rally. The event drew thousands of participants and spectators, with bikes filling the streets and crowds filling the sidewalks.
"The atmosphere is very good," said Michael Anthony, of Stockton, who traveled over on his Honda Goldwing. "Some of the rallies you get concerned, but this one is nice. It's very well maintained and everyone's behaved."
"We enjoy all the bikes and people," said Michael about his attending the event with his wife, Julia. "We haven't seen a whole lot of it yet, but it's fun." This year marked their first trip out to the rally in Hollister.
When asked if they'd return, Julia answered with an enthusiastic, "Oh, yes, yes, yes!"
One local rally-goer was Andrew Williams, of Hollister, who said, "I've come at least one day each year since '98, every year that they have it." Regarding the atmosphere of the event, he said, "It's really calm and nice. I've never seen any issues at the event, out of all the years." He added, "The event is a little smaller than past years, but it's a little more controlled. It seems more family oriented this year."
"We come every year," said Henry Avis, of Watsonville, who brought his eight-year-old son, Ivan. "It's a good atmosphere and the kids love it." He said this year marks the second year for he and his son attending together.
Security presence was noticeable throughout the event, with the Hollister Police Department being assisted by outside law enforcement and correctional agencies from neighboring counties.
"It's gone pretty smoothly thus far," said Hollister Police Chief David Westrick on Friday evening. "We did a lot of work for the rally over the last six to eight months and our preparations have really paid off so far."
Regarding the public reaction to a visible police presence, Westrick said, "I've gotten a lot of high-fives. It's been great. Our officers are coming back for our briefings, which we do about three times a day, and it's nothing but positive."
When asked if there had been any incidents on Friday, Westrick said, "Nothing that I would consider newsworthy." He added, "I'm hoping it'll be a great evening and it'll be a great rest of the weekend, too."
The citywide flow of traffic is another concern for the police department. Westrick said, "We have a traffic plan that we put in place every single year. We go through a process for about three or four months with CalTrans and our own traffic engineers to set routes for traffic that don't want to be downtown."
This year's Friday lineup included a custom bike show, music on two stages, a mechanical bull, a concert with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and numerous vendor booths. The poker walk occurred in the middle of the day. The low hand winner, from Roseville, Calif., had a 2-4-5-6 hand. The high hand winner, with a quadruple nine hand, was a participant from Norway, showing the Freedom Rally's international appeal.
One feature that stood above the crowds was the revamped photo tower, featuring a stairway that led up to a viewing platform which offered a view up and down San Benito Street. Numerous onlookers checked out the tower from the bottom, while only a few braved the climb to the top.
"It's very popular, but they just don't want to pay the five dollars to go up there," said Mary Baca, of San Jose, a volunteer who collected admission to the tower. Of those who had gone up, she noted, "They say it's worth every penny. They love the view."
This was Baca's first year at the rally, but she had already seen enough by Friday to make a decision about future attendance. "I love it. I'll be here again next year."
Working on the top of the tower platform was volunteer Karl Kauffold, of San Jose. "Great pictures up here with the great skies," he said. "What a fantastic view it is. To see all these bikes, you can't get a shot like this anywhere."
Of the overall rally, Kauffold said, "The weather's been marvelous. The bikes coming in have been nice. I get to watch all of them. That's the best part."
Williams was one of the people who went to the tower's platform and grabbed a panorama photo. He said he went to the photo tower's earlier incarnation in 1998, and that it's been absent in the meantime. "They used to have a scissor lift, but it was dangerous." He added, "I had taken a picture years ago, in '98, and I have that picture still. So I was gonna take that and compare it to this year." Of this year's tower design, he said, "It's a lot safer. It's not scary at all."
Sandy Wren, of Hollister, had a different take on the tower, saying, "It's a little eerie."
Wren's husband, Randy, said he loved the tower, "but it should be at the other end." He noted the view from one of the far ends of San Benito Street would have been favorable to the middle view from Seventh Street.
The tower will be up for viewers through Sunday, to either amaze or intimidate.
The Wrens said they've been attending the Hollister rally for three years. "I love it. It gets better and better," said Sandy of her ongoing experience with the rally. "It's worth coming down and spending your time down here."
Randy added, "It's positive, except they can't restrict the bars and shut them down at twelve o'clock. They need more places where they serve alcohol." He said prior years had more vendors.
The city's midnight cutoff for selling alcohol is the result of an emergency ordinance passed by the Hollister City Council in June. Westrick said the city's retailers are aware of the ordinance, and that there had been no problems with it so far on Friday. He noted, "The wind picks up in the evening so it gets a little colder. Riders leave the rally early sometimes."
The smaller event was noticed by other attendees. "It seems a little slow, but it's good overall," said Mario Jimenez, of Los Banos. "Last year it seemed like there were more bikes and people on the sidewalks. The vendors seem a little slim this year. It could be because it's Friday and some people are still working, so maybe tomorrow it'll be a little busier." He added, "Overall it's a good experience. People should come and support it. It's good for the economy and I enjoy being here."
This year marks the first year for ConvExx running the Hollister Freedom Rally.
Paul Christian, of Fresno, noted there might be some jitters to work out of the system. He explained problems with his group of friends' VIP packages, ranging from meal passes having no marked times, to emails with incorrect information, to a back-and-forth parking and pick-up system.
"What I'm feeling right now is, we're being bounced around," he said. "In the future, I doubt very seriously if I'll do the VIP package." However, he added, "I know we'll enjoy ourselves. I was here last year and it was good. We're going to enjoy the concerts and get out there and buy some shirts."
Christian was in attendance among a group of four longtime friends. Jerry Walker was another from their group, and said they'd just arrived. "The ride was great. At first it was hot coming out of Fresno, until we got to Pacheco Pass and it cooled down. We're staying in Gilroy and the ride over here's nice."
When asked what drew the group to Hollister, Walker said, "It's the Hollister Rally, man!" He added that the group was also celebrating Christian's birthday. "He wanted to come here, so we came along with him. It's a bike rally, and that's just biker life." He noted that he was impressed with the volunteer staff he'd run into so far in the day. Christian said he has been to the event at least five times. "Usually in the past it's just been an early morning ride over from Fresno and then turn around and ride back. This time we're staying for a couple of days to try to soak up the whole event."
Other attendees were also visibly excited to arrive and get to touring around the event.
"When there's a motorcycle rally, I ride with my brothers and enjoy the sunshine and the camaraderie," said Brian Day, upon arriving to the rally. Day was visiting from Burbank on his first trip to the Hollister Freedom Rally.
"The best part about this, for our community, is it gives us a chance to show our hospitality off to the rest of the world,” Westrick said. "This is an international event. People come here from all over the place. It really does give us a chance to show how great it is here in Hollister."
The Hollister Freedom Rally runs through Sunday in downtown Hollister along San Benito Street.
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