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Bike Week rolls into Sandusky

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    Scenes from last year's Bike Week.

    Jen Gore

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    Bikers arrive for last year's Ohio Bike Week in Sandusky.

    JEN GORE

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    Scenes from last year's Bike Week.

    JEN GORE

When Mindy Schutt’s nephew Mathew died from brain cancer three years ago, it was a traumatic time for the family.

But the Curtice woman’s extended family was there to shoulder some of the pain.

Ms. Schutt’s husband, Dale, has been a biker for 30 years. Ms. Schutt will hop on the back of his bike to enjoy the freedom and exhilaration of a summertime ride. When Mathew died, their biker friends were there to support the family, not only emotionally but also by starting the annual Mathew’s Hope ride to raise money for cancer research.

JEN-9-82-jpg

Bikers arrive for last year's Ohio Bike Week in Sandusky.

JEN GORE Enlarge

For many, bikers carry the stigma of being outlaws or troublemakers, but Ms. Schutt says the opposite is true.

“We go on multiple charity runs throughout the summer — a lot,” she says. “Bikers all have families, and if one of our friends’ kids or parents are sick, or if any of our friends need something, we are there.”

It is a spirit embraced by the organizers of Ohio Bike Week, which kicks off in Sandusky on Wednesday afternoon and runs through Memorial Day.

“We work with a half dozen local charities and raise between $50,000 to $100,000 for local charities each year,” says Brad Stofcheck, co-owner of Advantage Entertainment, which acquired the event in 2009. “Charity seems to be the driver of the biker culture.”

Last year, $10,000 was raised to help pay for a double transplant for a dying mother. Beginning Thursday, charity rides (those in cars can also participate) leave each morning out of Mad River Harley-Davidson on Milan Road in Sandusky. Highlights are a Thursday run to Kelleys Island and Saturday’s Founders Day parade, which will see thousands of bikers rolling through downtown Sandusky. Memorial Day’s ride will be an attempt to break a Guinness world record for the number of people participating in a poker run, meaning participants receive a playing card at each stop and the best hand at the end wins.

But Ohio Bike Week is not just about charity. It has turned into one of Ohio’s biggest food and music festivals. There will be 40 food vendors set up in downtown, and free concerts will take place on two main stages near Sandusky’s State Theatre and at other locations around town. Rock bands Fuel, Great White, and Jackyl will headline shows, along with country acts the Kentucky Head Hunters and Phil Vassar. But live music will be found somewhere from early afternoon to the wee hours of the morning

Sandusky will be the first biker rally date for Mr. Vassar this year. He will also headline the Sturgis Motorcyle Rally in South Dakota in August.

“When did I become the biker king?” Mr. Vassar says, chuckling. “I love it. I used to ride. But when I had kids, I said that I should put this off for a little bit. I figure I’m in the music business, and that’s dangerous enough. Some of my best friends are big riders. I think it’s so fun, to experience it, to be on the road on a bike.”

Mr. Vassar continues to be a big name in Nashville, despite being in town since the 1990s, first as a successful songwriter for dozens of artists (Tim McGraw, Jo Dee Messina, and Alan Jackson) and then as a solo artist with multiple No. 1 hits, including “Just Another Day in Paradise” and “In a Real Love.”

“2017 was the biggest year I’ve ever had — ever — and I haven’t had a No. 1 hit in years. I can’t explain it. I’m having more fun playing than I ever have. I don’t have that pressure of having to worry about what I need to do to get my music on the radio. I can be myself and do my thing,” Mr. Vassar says.

He recently returned from a tour to Europe and has been finishing up taping of the latest season of Songs from the Cellar, which will air on PBS in the fall. There will be 20 episodes, which will include interviews from his Nashville wine cellar with guests like Mike Tyson, Carrot Top, and Peter Frampton. But he will also feature some of music’s top songwriters.

“I don’t get dazzled by a lot of the new stuff anymore, but every show I have these amazing hall of fame songwriters: Tom Douglas, Jeffrey Steele, Steve Crawford, and Brenda Lee. It’s crazy to hear these stories about Elvis and the Beatles. Brenda is like, ‘Yeah, the Beatles opened for us.’ Wow,” Mr. Vassar says.

But he isn’t ready to give up the singing gig yet. Each night is an adventure for Mr. Vassar, who does not use a prepared set list. Instead, he reacts to the crowd and takes requests. He is looking forward to the energy of the Sandusky crowd.

“The biker rallies are a blast. We’ve done a bunch of them. Those bikers are good people,” Mr. Vassar says. “I remember the first time being around them, and they are these big guys who are all tatted up, but they are the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”

Ohio Bike Week has its origins in the 1999 and 2000 with the state H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) Rally. Members liked the area and the rides available on the nearby islands. It grew into an event that attracted more than 150,000 people and has been embraced by the community. The bikers get the headlines, but Mr. Stofcheck says about 7 out of 10 guests are nonbikers who come for the food, free music, and to see all the bikes.

“This is a festival. It’s an incredible experience,” Ashli DeMore Bartow of Advantage Entertainment says. “You will drive through Sandusky, about the farthest north you can get before the water. By the time you park, you are in the middle of a giant festival.”

This will be the 13th or 14th year of attending the event for Ms. Schutt and her husband. For them, it provides the opportunity to camp out with friends and to hit the road for multiple rides.

“Dale and I always encourage people to go to Sandusky. Each biker event is different. They are a lot of fun. But if you are going to a biker event for the first time, Sandusky is a great breaking-in type of event,” she says.

There will be a lot of tattoos visible on rugged-looking bikers, but there is also a good chance visitors will see someone they know from another walk of life.

“These bikers are doctors and lawyers. Today’s biker is not what he used to be,” Mr. Stofcheck says. “These are some of the most honorable, charitable people I know. There are bikers who are cardiac surgeons who like to dress it down, put the leathers on, and get out and ride.”

Ohio Bike week runs from Wednesday through Memorial Day on the streets of Sandusky. Schedules and additional information can be found at ohiobikeweek.com.

Contact Brian Dugger at bdugger@theblade.com or on Twitter @DuggerBlade.

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