By Mark Junkersfeld
Several things strike you as the motor drones at 95 mph across South Dakota:
1. Anyone who fears over population has never been to South Dakota. 2. Man, there are a lot of Harleys on the road! 3. Are these helmetless, wind-whipped cruisers pissed that I’m spinning them like tops when I pass?
Why would I choose to ride 640 miles to Sturgis for THE Rally on a “crotch rocket?” (The popular name for sportbikes amongst the V-twin faithful.) – more on that later.
Sturgis, as I came to discover, is not a one-brand show. But for every other make there are 100 Harleys. You do the math, but with an estimated 600,000 bikes at this year’s 60th Anniversary, that leaves a lot of room for the other manufacturers. While I was afraid to make eye contact at the gas stops along the I-90 route, it was for good reason. Mine was the only “Jap Crap” -as the Sturgis T-shirt proclaims – in the parking lot.
I-90 in South Dakota goes absolutely straight for 310 miles west, then makes a slight turn at Rapid City to send you north to Sturgis about 20 miles up the superslab. But the trip is worth it. The Black Hills offer some of the best riding I’ve ever experienced. The rally headquarters nestle on the eastern slopes of the Black Hills – so named by the early natives because the dense pine trees make the hills appear dark.
When you’re in the Hills looking off into the distance at the receding Interstate Highway, something strikes you as odd. Why are there two black streaks on the freeway stretching out many miles to the horizon? Then you realize that the black lines are actually motorcycles in formation and it is an impressive site. Sturgis is the ultimate celebration of two-wheeled motorized transport.
How many one-off customs do you want to see in a day? A hundred, a thousand? Stock Harleys are as common as dust in the dry mountain climate of western South Dakota. Goldwing trikes, Boss Hoss V-8 trikes with mini 57 Chev tail ends, trikes with V-6 Harley motors and bodies by Jed Clampett abound. Amongst these homemade creations and pro-built art objects are jewels you might never see anywhere else. Like my favorite, an Egli Vincent owned by a wacky guy, who said, “Wait a minute” and returned with a stocker Vincent that was so pristine it hurt.
The only thing better than bike watching is the people parade. If the gangs are at the Rally, they are so overwhelmed by the hordes of Ma and Pa tourists, as to be almost invisible. But there are a lot of characters. How about the cowboy whose saddle on his Harley is a saddle? Or the psycho appearing giant whose T-shirt reads “Nine out of ten voices in my head say Pull the Trigger.” The female fashion statement at this year’s rally was the G-string with chaps combo. For every one woman who deserved a second glance for this get-up there were 100 who should have worn full-figured jeans.
Never saw any violence, public inebriation or even a mild confrontation. Police are everywhere. When I wondered how they could recruit that many gun-toting cops from a small town, a local gave me the answer. “These are just rent-a-cop reserves. Anyone can carry a gun in South Dakota.”
Main Street Sturgis with the classic lineup of bikes on both sides and down the middle is pure commercialism. How many T-shirts does America really need? Judging by the piles left over on the last day, there are going to be a lot of shop rags or K-mart specials. Jewelry is a big thing, tattoos (temporary and permanent) were popular, patches (most common – “I Rode Mine”) and food vendors cover about an eight square block area downtown.
But the real draw is the riding. As dark clouds passed quickly one day and deposited a slight sprinkle, I passed a clover-filled meadow that came alive with the most beautiful fragrance I have ever smelled. Wheat fields are highlighted by sunlight streaming through patches of white, fluffy clouds. The Needles Highway is a twisty challenge that distracts the rider with rock formations and vistas that are magnificent. The wildlife loop through Custer State Park is a ribbon of good pavement that has been unfurled through a wildlife preserve -watch out for those buffalo!
OK, why does a sportbike rider go to Sturgis? I actually got paid. The good folks at Victory Motorcycles needed a certified safety instructor to lead their demo rides and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. One of the things about being part of the Victory team is invites to the right parties. Met Arlen Ness–the godfather of customs, Jay Springsteen, Mr. Miler, Kyle Petty–spokesman for Victory and all the folks from Polaris sales and engineering.
I was impressed by the handling, braking and smooth power of the Victory line. After logging nearly 2000 miles behind the controls of their cruisers, I haven’t converted. But if I wanted the “sit-up and beg” riding position, I would give them a hard look. And I will forever be grateful to Victory for bringing me to my first Sturgis, one of the best weeks of my life. Hell, I even bought one of their T-shirts.