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Thousands of motorcycles descend on Washington, D.C., each Memorial Day weekend to honor military veterans, missing servicemen and women, and prisoners of war. But after 2019, Rolling Thunder will stop holding its annual “Ride for Freedom” event.
Rolling Thunder’s last ride is fast-approaching. Over May 24-27, the group will host its iconic four-day national motorcycle rally in Washington, D.C., for the 32nd — and final — time.
Here is a schedule of events, per Rolling Thunder’s website:
Friday, May 24
5 p.m. | Washington National Cathedral | “Blessing of the Bikes”
9 p.m. | Candle Light Vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Saturday, May 25
9 a.m.–9 p.m. | Thunder Alley (22nd Street and Constitution Avenue NW) | Vendors and biker-related goods.
Sunday, May 26
6 a.m. | Reveille | Vietnam Veterans Memorial | Wake-up call for all riders taking part in the Rolling Thunder XXXII First Amendment Demonstration Run | Bikers rally in the North and South Pentagon parking lots at 7 a.m. for a noon departure.
9 a.m. | Thunder Alley Opens | 22nd and Constitution Ave. NW
12 p.m. | Rolling Thunder XXXII First Amendment Demonstration Run (Bikes leave the North Pentagon parking lot to begin their run through the Mall area. After the run, police will direct riders to West Potomac Park, where they will pay tribute to their fallen brothers and sisters).
1:30 p.m. | Rolling Thunder Speakers Program (Lincoln Memorial)
3 p.m. | Musical tribute to veterans — TBA
8 p.m. | Memorial Day concert at the Capitol.
Monday, May 27 | Memorial Day
9 a.m.–5 p.m. | Thunder Alley is open at 22nd and Constitution Ave.
9 a.m. | WWII Memorial Wreath Laying Ceremony
11 a.m. | Wreath Laying Ceremony | Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington National Cemetery
1 p.m. | Vietnam Veterans Wreath laying ceremony
2 p.m. | Annual Memorial Day Observance at Vietnam Veterans Memorial
2 p.m. | National Memorial Day Parade | Marching bands and veterans’ units from all 50 states. Begins at the corner of Constitution Ave. and Seventh Street NW.
3 p.m. | National Moment of Remembrance
Held since 1988, Rolling Thunder’s annual “Ride for Freedom” event has seen hundreds of thousands of motorcycle riders come together in Washington, D.C., over the years in support of United States military veterans, as well as to call attention to soldiers who are missing or have been held as prisoners or war.
So why is the “world’s largest single-day motorcycle event” on the outs?
Rolling Thunder Vice President Pete Zaleski says that the $200,000 cost is the biggest reason. Security, porta-potties, and event cleanup make up a large part of it, but even more frustrating seems to be the coordination needed with the Pentagon.
“We had so many problems in the last two or three years with the [Pentagon Police] and the parking facilities after we leave the Pentagon parking lot,” Gus Dante, a board member for Rolling Thunder, told WTOP.
Even though the group had planned a stage event at the Lincoln Memorial, police directed cyclists to other areas in the National Mall instead. And though they had paid $60,000 to reserve the Pentagon parking lot, riders were being turned away from there, too.
And with the lack of press coverage in recent years, Rolling Thunder organizers have finally come to the conclusion that, sadly, it’s just not worth the energy and resources to plan a national event. The 90 regional chapters across the country will continue to hold their own events, however.
Rolling Thunder first began as a demonstration by Vietnam veteran Ray Manzo (CPL, USMC), in an effort to raise awareness regarding the thousands of POW and MIA still unaccounted for, more than a decade after the Vietnam War ended.
The organization’s website states:
“Choosing Memorial Day weekend for the event, they envisioned the arrival of the motorcycles coming across the Memorial Bridge, and thought it would sound like ‘Rolling Thunder.’ The first Run in 1988 had roughly 2500 motorcycles and riders demanding that the U.S. government account for all POW/MIA’s. It continues to grow every year, becoming the world’s largest single-day motorcycle event. Now with over a million riders and spectators combined, Rolling Thunder has evolved into an emotional display of patriotism and respect for all who defend our country.”
According to Rolling Thunder, there are still 86,590 soldiers unaccounted for.