"You going to Sturgis?"
It's a question I've heard or been asked dozens of times over the years. At some point in our collective Harley experience, we become aware of Sturgis-aware that it's the most famous biker rally in the world and also happens to be a small town in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The name conjures up different images, emotions, and memories, depending on the path you've chosen. As a kid I saw pictures in magazines capturing the Rally's magic. That view of riding, friends, and free spirit would ultimately lead me into living pretty deep within the motorcycling lifestyle. Of course, the rock and roll, cool bikes, and women were another draw. Having only lived within the sprawl of NYC and LA, Sturgis seemed like a distant fantasyland frozen in time through the lens. Situated roughly 1,500 miles from each major city, it was a multi-day ride each way, plus a week there meant a long vacation. A few times plans were made only to fall apart at the last minute. A ride like that definitely requires some planning.
This year marked my fourth Sturgis since joining HOT BIKE, although I never attended the event. Over the past three years I've experienced the annual pilgrimage vicariously through friends and coworkers; witnessing it through stories and thousands of photos I've looked through. This year I got the nod to join HOT BIKE crew on the group ride we put together that included editors from our other American bike magazines, some friends, and a group of advertisers. Based on the experience of the other riders, a route was chosen with predetermined stopping points each day. Our four-day, 1,600-mile tour to SD would keep us off the interstate as much as possible, instead choosing scenic byways and twisty roads.
I packed a brand-new, white 2008 H-D Electra Glide Classic with enough clothes and camera gear for a two-week trek. Based on stories from past Sturgis rides I made sure I had a new rain suit, waterproofed my trusty boots, and packed a roll of plastic garbage bags. The sun was barely peeking over the coast of Long Beach, California, as I thumbed the bike to life. 25 miles later, under a rare overcast summer sky, I was greeted at the HOT BIKE offices by 15 loaded bikes prepared for the journey. Aside from the Classic I was piloting, we also had a Factory Street Glide and two Victory touring bikes to accommodate some of the staff.
We barely made it an hour before the rain started. It was such a fluke that I neglected to put on my rain suit as the rest of the group did. Big mistake. Heavy rains through the Nevada desert filled my boots and soaked my gloves. In Vegas I changed into dry jeans and socks and donned the rain pants. The 'Glide's tall windshield combined with my waterproof leather jacket kept my upper body dry.
First stop for the night was Mesquite, NV. I just wanted to keep on riding, but it was good to dry out.
On day two the group was split into factions based on riding style and route choice. Everyone had the final destination of the day and detailed maps. My group took a detour through Zion National Park. It was already one of my favorite places, but I had never experienced it on a bike before. The weather was beautiful and we managed to skirt thunderstorms all day. Ominous clouds were always on the horizon, but we stayed mostly dry-though my new rain pants would stay on for almost the whole ride out. Just before Grand Junction, Colorado, I led a small group to a Vietnam memorial I had wanted to visit. On display was a real HUEY chopper surrounded by American flags. The scene was poignant considering the great country I had already ridden through-the people, the stories, the history. Suddenly a large thundercloud appeared overhead, unleashing lightning bolts and big raindrops. It was a special moment as I rode East with a brilliant pink/purple sunset in my mirror.
Weather reports were glum for the next day, and we woke to black skies and pouring rain. We blasted out and started one of the big ascents of the day riding through Vail and Copper Mountain. Temps were a brisk 50 but for the most part my gear worked. My full-face helmet got filled with water as I couldn't see through two pieces of rain-covered lexan. Throughout the day different riders from others in our collective group would appear and disappear, only to find one another again at some small roadside town. Sometime during the day we got word that Ernie Lopez's Uncle Vic had bike problems. Grand Junction Harley-Davidson went above and beyond the call to make sure Vic's Dyna got back on the road.
Rocky Mountain National Park took us up over 12,000 feet with views that are hard to describe. The roughly 50-mile ride through the park climbed above treeline to tundra covered rock. Exiting the park was the town of Estes Park where a group of eager elk was blocking our way into town. Once they all got off the road it was time to unpack again, unwind, and refill the body. Group excitement was getting higher, both because of the amazing ride we 'd experienced to this point and that we were also one day away from South Dakota.
Leaving Colorado, we entered Wyoming. A straight shot across the interstate would lead into SD. Our group got split up again early in the morning and I was left with one other rider, Billy Bartels from BAGGERS magazine. He had some alternate routes that would add a half a day to our ride but took us off the beaten path down some rural two-laners. As we approached the small town of Pringle, SD, a monstrous black cloud shaded the sunlight in front of us. Just as we stopped at the first available shelter, golf ball-sized hail began to fall. Huddled under an awning, we watched the hail cover the ground before giving way to driving rain. Traversing the river in the parking lot, I approached the Ultra to find the chromed dash pockmarked with dents. I can only imagine what would have happened if we were still riding. Thankfully, that would be the worst weather of the entire trip and as soon as it started it quickly turned back to sunshine.
More detours finally led us through Spearfish Canyon just before sunset. It was the perfect end to the 1,600-mile ride before finding the rest of the staff and our rental house. Although I needed rest, there would be none of that. The town of Sturgis is situated in the center of the Rally activities, with dozens of events occurring simultaneously within a 50-mile radius of the small burg. Eric Ellis made sure that my first visit to Sturgis was a good one. We came up with a game plan for the week that would include most of the must see and do things around the Black Hills. His experience helped me organize my time as well as learn shortcuts to get around with ease. A wrong turn could turn a 20 minute jaunt into an hour and 20 minute sit-still experience.
Even with that knowledge, Sturgis was all about riding-clocking 150 miles a day running from bike shows to events to industry parties. Days were long, often 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., and I barely found time to eat. Water was my best friend as the temps hovered around 100 for the entire time. Occasional rain cooled off the air and me just enough. The first day was a getting acquainted with the area day and a search for feature bikes. Walking Main St. at night with ad guy Chris Long, I managed to stumble upon a cool H-D custom from Germany. In a stroke of luck I managed to find Daniel, who built the bike and set up a photo shoot for later in the week. Based on weather and distances, Daniel and I played tag all week until we were finally able to meet up outside Deadwood. We had a ball and it was such a pleasure to hang out and ride with such a cool and talented person.
One of the few planned events I attended was the Hot Bike Charity Ride that benefited the Kids & Chrome charity. About 50 riders lined up at the Legend Top 50 Rally Park to embark on a 180-mile journey through the Black Hills. Lunch and drink stops were planned throughout the day, culminating with a party back at the Top 50. All had a great and safe time.
Bike shows dominated the daylight hours each day, with the AMD World Championship of Custom Bike Building as a major highlight. Customs from all over the globe were in attendance. At a pre-public showing all of the builders proudly showed and discussed their newest rides. High-tech engineering dominated the styles along with the use of vintage H-D motors. I'm hoping that in years to come the organizers mandate that the bikes must be running and ridden into the show. It's harder for the non-North Americans to have running bikes as they have to be drained of fluids before shipping, but it was clear that many of the bikes will never be or can't be ridden. Although motorcycles can be as much about art as machinery, I know many builders went to great lengths to make sure they had a running bike, although it counted for nothing other than pride.
Jay Allen of Broken Spoke fame hosted our annual Hot Bike party at his Sturgis County Line venue. Located on the outskirts of Sturgis past Bear Butte, this Spoke was simply awesome. Before allowing people to park their scoots, riders were made to ride right through the bar. Burnouts were almost mandatory and the air was filled with thick smoke. Motorcycle industry movers and shakers were in attendance for an all out party that included the blistering hot Miss HOT BIKE contest. The crowd was going crazy as crowd applause crowned the newest member of the HOT BIKE family. Although contestants were supposed to keep their clothes on, the eventual winner bent the rules a bit as her ripped t-shirt disappeared, revealing her assets during her dance routine.
Other highlights were Michael Lichter's art show at Thunder Road, the Rat's Hole bike show, the Hard Rock tour, Top 50 bike show, and the Hamsters. Hundreds of the yellow-shirted guys showed up at the Spearfish Holiday Inn as they do every year. Behind the Holiday Inn was the new Hamster compound where they purchased an entire block of condos. I had the unique opportunity to try a 1956 KH rigid that Mark Shadley was gracious enough to let me ride. For the full experience he made me kick the predecessor to the Sportster to life. I haven't kick-started a bike in years, but it was surely worth it.
On the tourist side of things, I made the trek to Mt. Rushmore and to Devils Tower in WY. Strangely, the Devils Tower experience may have been the greatest sight I've ever seen. I had been tipped off by some friends about a dirt road that went around the back side of the monument. Even though the "regular" view in the parking area with the rest of the bikes was amazing the solitude of the backside was spiritual. I spent over an hour with the views and my thoughts without ever seeing or hearing anyone else
After scurrying around the Sturgis area for a week it was time to ride home. I didn't want to leave the beauty and the great riding the area afforded. After barely any sleep for 10 days I decided I wanted to make the trip back to LA alone, not wanting to be on anyone else's schedule and having a chance to really digest what I'd just seen and done. I was never really alone, though, as I exchanged war stories with dozens of riders along the way at gas stops and restaurants. Although I wanted to make the ride in two days, the heat and exhaustion turned it into a three day ride.
This journey was certainly as much about the ride as the destination. Unlike many of the other big rallies this place was made to ride. Although I heard that numbers were down from previous years, the official stats put the number somewhere around 510,000 riders in attendance. This was up roughly 50,000 from last year. It's all a guesstimate anyway, and either way, it didn't really matter to me as I found traffic to be manageable due to the spread-out nature of the Rally. Above all I can now say that I have ridden to Sturgis and back.
I'd like to thank my riding partners from Hot Bike, Baggers, and Street Chopper as well as Renegade Wheels, Mr. Mister (SP?), Keyboard Transport, Performance Machine, and EZ Chock for a great experience.