37th Annual BMW International Rally: Have Tent, Will Travel

Every year for the past 37 years, the BMW Motorcycle Owners Association (BMW MOA) has held its international rally at a great motorcycle destination—and this year it was in our own backyard.

Johnson City was picked for this year's rally because of the excellent riding that surrounds the area, and thousands of BMW riders from across the country (and around the world) were happy to come check it out, July 16-19.

When I arrived at the rally, I met with Ray Zimmerman, director of BMW MOA for the last nine years, and a member for the past 36 years. He told me several interesting facts about this event, and none where more impressive than that it is 99 percent staffed by volunteers.

"BMW MOA has over 40,000 members," Zimmerman said, "and these rallies are like big family reunions. I can just look around this room and pick out people and tell you who they are and where they're from. Some of the same people volunteer every year, regardless of the location."

This event had never been to East Tennessee, and bringing it here was a huge success. "The Johnson City Conventions and Visitors Bureau and the Sheriff's Department have been outstanding," says Zimmerman. "They have been very helpful, and they have made it very clear that they would love to have us back. Even though the rally officially started on Thursday, we had people coming into town as early as Monday."

When I asked about attendance Ray told me, "The record for a BMW MOA rally was 9,200, set at the 2006 rally held in Vermont. Friday night we had 8,200, so we are getting really close to setting a new record." I found out after the event that the final tally was 8,972, but that didn't count over 137 vendors and their staff. So it's safe to say that if this wasn't the best-attended BMW MOA Rally in history, it was at least tied for first.

Speaking of vendors, the vendor expo alone almost made it worth the price of admission. Nearly all of it was high-quality, specialized merchandise made for serious riders. You didn't find anyone people selling non-DOT helmets made in Istanbul.

Of course, there was plenty of what BMW riders refer to as "farkle." Basically that's anything that you can bolt, bungee, or weld onto your bike that's supposed to in some way make your motorcycling experience better. Need a rack so that you can mount your bicycle to the back of your motorcycle? They had them. Need a wiring system to support your GPS, radar detector, iPod, cell phone, and 50-zillion watt running lights? They not only had it, they would install it. I can see how a set of flamethrower halogen beam headlights could come in handy, but I just had to laugh a little when I saw the sign advertising the sheepskin butt pads.

During this rally, the Appalachian Fairgrounds looked more like a refugee camp than a fairground. It was estimated that over 4,500 people were camping. Go to any BMW rally and you will find people that have ridden long distances and sleep in tents on the way there, when they get there, and on the way back. Maybe it's because of this strange attraction to sleeping on the ground, and the need to carry the stuff to do it with, but it's hard to find a BMW that doesn't have saddlebags, or "panniers" as some call them.

This isn't a new thing; even the old BMWs in the vintage show had factory bags on them. The riders of the GS Adventure bikes seem to have this sort of "ugly cool" thing going on, and the larger and boxier the bags, the better. "Aerodynamics be damned, I've got a cord of campfire wood to carry!" I make fun, but these guys do ride. Anybody who rides so far that they have to stop for an oil change before they get home gets my respect.

Despite its success, the rally won't be back next year. The annual BMW MOA Rally not only goes to a different location each year, but also to a different geographic region. The purpose of this rotation is to ensure that attendees get to ride new roads and see new things each year. Not a bad idea. In 2008, it was in Gillette, Wyo.; this year, Johnson City; and next year it's in Redmond, Ore., only 2,434 miles from Knoxville. Maybe it's time I got some respect for those ugly saddlebags! (Russ Townsend)