Sturgis on the River features all the good stuff people love about a motorcycle rally, without the full-blown drunken party atmosphere. You wanna bring your family to a rally? Well, this is the one.
Every year for the past 10 years the Sturgis on the River Rally, held in Davenport Iowa, takes place over the Father’s Day weekend in June. It started out a decade ago as a rather small event attracting maybe a thousand bikes and a handful of vendors. Over the years, though, it has grown to become the largest gathering of motorcycles in the Midwest.
Situated in Downtown Davenport’s LeClaire Park, along the banks of the Mississippi River, the setting and venue are ideal for three days of music, riding, eating, and partying from morning ’till night. This year, nearly 50,000 bikers, riding all makes and models, came to hear music on three stages from local and regional bands, enjoying the atmosphere and special camaraderie that pervades a gathering of motorcyclists.
Every year my motorcycle club, The Top Cats, plans a long weekend ride the 230 miles to Davenport, as a prelude to our major trip to Sturgis South Dakota (That story is coming up soon – Ed.). The Top Cats is a 10-year-old riding club based in Barrington, Illinois, an upscale northwest suburb of Chicago. While Barrington is more known as an enclave for the horsey set rather than the horsepower set, everyone coexists comfortably in the community. Members of the Top Cats are primarily executives and upper management of corporations, or business owners and entrepreneurs. So while the club provides a place for business networking, it is primarily a riding club for those who have a passion for the road and motorcycles. Of the 150 members, about 75% are Harley-Davidson riders, and the rest, like me, ride metric cruisers, with a few Indians and Victorys thrown in for good measure. Top Cats don’t care what you ride as long as you love to ride. Of course the good-natured ribbing and banter between Harley and metric riders always keeps the conversations at the monthly dinner meetings lively.
On Friday morning, about two dozen motorcycles meet for the pre-ride briefing by Senior Road Captain, Bard Boand. Bard is an executive with Federal Express and has been riding motorcycles since he was a teenager. He also raced Corvettes in his youth, flies an airplane, and can handle his hopped-up Ultra Glide quite well when the roads get twisty.
After issuing the route sheet, and going over all the hand signals and riding protocols that all Top Cats learn in our mandatory Group Riding & Safety Seminar class, the group rides out in formation. Our rides typically range from 20 motorcycles, up to nearly 60, so it is imperative that all riders know our rules of riding, so that every ride can be safe and orderly. Fortunately, we’ve never had a major mishap on any of our 16 scheduled rides per season.
First off, we head west on Route 72. Top Cat rides always try to avoid the boring major highways, preferring the scenic two-lane roads as an alternative. About 70 miles later, it’s time to re-fuel in Byron, Illinois, home to the largest nuclear power plant in the state, and home of the annual Turkey Testicle Festival. (Don’t ask . . . just be aware that there is no connection between the festival and the nuclear plant.)
At Byron, we pick up Route 2 and head southwest on the winding and scenic road that hugs the Rock River. After another 60 miles or so, we arrived at the town of Sterling, Illinois. About this time we’re forced to jump on Interstate 88 which leads to I-80 and the ride to the Quad Cities. The Quad Cities are comprised of Moline and Rock Island, in Illinois, across the Mississippi River into Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa. Once across the bridge, we take the first exit on Route 67, which is part of The Great River Road, a designated scenic route that runs from Minnesota to New Orleans.
Route 67 follows the Mississippi for the 30 miles into downtown Davenport where the folks at the Radisson Quad Cities hotel, located on the river across from LeClair Park, await our arrival. Since we’ve been bringing down a large contingent of motorcycles for the past five years, the folks at the Radisson roll out the red carpet. They block off a section of their secure parking lot for our bikes, prepare rooms for us overlooking the riverfront, and also provide a shuttle service to and from the event that is held only a mile or so from the hotel. The shuttle service is great for those who want to enjoy a few cold ones at the Rally and not have to worry about getting on their bikes afterwards.
Friday night, everyone is on their own to do what they wish. Some choose to attend the rally and enjoy the music and sights; others will head across the street to the Rhythm City riverboat casino to visit the money they left there the year before. Since I had been in Las Vegas the week before, I felt that I’d already contributed enough money to the gaming industry, so I headed over to the Rally.
Three bandstands were in full swing, with some of the local and regional bands belting out different sounds from rock, to blues, to country. This year, the guest MC for the Rally was The Big Schwag, of Monster Garage fame, who introduced the acts and entertained the crowd.
Everyone always complains about there being too many rules. Well, sometimes a little structure ensures that everyone involved has a good and safe time – like when you ride with the Top Cats.
Throughout the weekend one could find music to suit any taste. And speaking of tastes, one can sample the local culinary delicacies offered by the numerous food vendors. Authentic Iowa corndogs (a hot dog on a stick, wrapped in cornbread and deep fried to a golden brown) are always a favorite. And the Bar-B-Q pulled pork sandwiches are outstanding. Hey folks, this is Iowa, where there are more pigs than people, and come September, “the corn is as high as an elephants eye.” Since I am a graduate of the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, and claim the moniker of Hawkeye, (the university’s team name) this is always a coming home of sorts, and cholesterol be dammed, I’m eating some “Iowa Soul Food.” Tomorrow night is for gourmet dining, but tonight, Rally food is the preferred bill of fare.
Saturday is always a ride day for our group, and I am the traditional Road Captain for the ride. In past years I’ve taken the group and headed northwest to Anamosa, Iowa to visit J & P Cycles, the huge aftermarket catalogue house on the outskirts of town. After a tour of the facility and dropping some cash, we head then into town to visit the National Motorcycle Museum that J & P’s owner John Parham has built. It’s a beautiful museum filed with antique, classic, and other significant motorcycles that John has collected over the years. This year, however, I decided to reprise a ride from a few years ago, and I took the group south along the Great River Road to Burlington, Iowa, where we’d stop by Heartland Harley-Davidson and have lunch at a famous restaurant, Big Muddy’s.
At the morning pre-ride briefing, we got a surprise visit from Glen Rohm and his partner C.J., the owner of Indoor-Outdoor Productions, the promoter of the event. They came to welcome us to Davenport and see us off on our ride. Before leaving, I appointed member Joe Rabanus, who owns a sales consultancy company, to act as our tail gunner. Since he’s the last bike in the group, I tossed him my first aid kit, figuring that if there was any mishap along the way, he’d be in the best position to know about it and deal with the situation. As it turned out, it was a good idea.
We left the hotel and took Riverside Drive south to Route 22 towards Muscatine. This was an impossible route to track on Mapquest, since we were using the smallest secondary roads, so I just had to be vigilant and trust that the Great River Road signs would be posted to lead the way. Fortunately, they were, as we snaked through Muscatine, and continued south towards Burlington.
The scenic road meanders south and in some parts hugs the Mississippi River, and in other spots takes a turn about 10 miles inland. The scenery in the Midwest is a striking contrast to that in other parts of the country. It doesn’t have the flavor of riding the canyon roads above the Malibu coastline in California. It lacks the grandeur of the sights one enjoys while riding the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. Yet, there is a certain majesty about traveling down a road where one can view the neatly planted rows of corn as far as the eye can see spread out in every direction, broken only by the sight of a white farmhouse, a red barn, and tall cylindrical shaped grain silos. This is America’s Heartland, the breadbasket of a nation, and in fact, the world. It’s a part of American life that most folks don’t see or think about today. But while riding down a lonely two-lane road on a two-wheeled freedom machine, it gives one time to think about it, and appreciate it.
The Great River Road takes you through some small towns with names like Wapello, Fruitland, Grandville, and Kingston. Many are just a block or two long, with a few houses, a general store, and a café. At Toolesboro, the 55-mph limit quickly shuts down to 25 mph in order to take a vary sharp right hand turn to follow the road. It was a few miles past that point that I noticed that the tail end of our party had disappeared from sight. Up in the front, we had been enjoying the long sweeping turns at a pace above the speed limit on the deserted road, so I slowed to let the back of the group catch up. After a few miles, and no sight of them, I pulled the group into a gas station near Burlington.
I got off my bike, and checked my cell phone, and sure enough, I had a message from Joe, my tail gunner. The last four bikes in our group were running through the hairpin turn at Toolesboro, when they saw a solo rider heading in the opposite direction who didn’t heed the slow down signs and braked too late to make the turn. He locked up the rear wheel, and skidded off the road. The bike and rider separated and both ended up in a ditch.
The crashed rider should be happy to buy Top Cat Tail Gunner Joe Rabanus, a beer or maybe even dinner, should they meet again.
The Top Cats pulled over and swung into action. We have a complete section on Accident Scene Management in our Group Riding and Safety seminar, so my guys were familiar with what to do. First they called for paramedics. Next two of the guys cleared the scene and managed traffic around the crash site, while the other two assessed the rider’s injury situation. Fortunately, he did not appear to be seriously injured, but they kept him calm and still while they used the first-aid kit to attend to a gash on his helmetless head. Within 10 minutes the paramedics arrived, and our guys related what happened and gave up the accident scene to the professionals. The rider was fortunate that our guys were on the scene when the accident happened, and in true Top Cat fashion, were not about to leave a rider in need, just to keep up with a group ride.
About 15 minutes later, the four Good Samaritans met up with us at the gas station, and we all proceeded on to Heartland Harley-Davidson. There are two things that Top Cats love to do beside ride motorcycles: spend money at Harley stores and eat good food. Heartland satiated one appetite, and lunch on the deck overlooking the river at Big Muddy’s satisfied the other.
For our return trip up the river, we pretty much used the same route. Arriving back at our hotel in the late afternoon, there was just enough time for a relaxing drink at the Radisson’s bar, and to get cleaned up for the banquet that night at Duck City Bistro located a block form the hotel.
Duck City Bistro is the finest restaurant in Davenport, and perhaps in the entire state of Iowa, since 1991. In fact I’d say it stacks up well against any fine restaurant in the metropolitan Chicago area. The owners, Charles and Melissa Moskowitz have been gracious hosts to our band of bikers for the last five years. While Charles is a master chef himself, the kitchen has been turned over to their son, Chef Jeremy, who graduated from the world renowned Le Cordon Bleu, in Paris. They reserve their outdoor veranda for our group, which numbered 43, as many of our members rode up on Saturday, just for the dinner. Several of the experienced wait staff who have served us for all these years, will volunteer to work a double shift, just to enjoy the festive atmosphere that permeates our dinner. And the best thing of all is that one can enjoy an appetizer, dinner salad, main course, and even a slice of cheesecake with raspberry sauce, for about $55, including a nice tip. A similar meal in Chicago would cost nearly twice that amount.
After dinner, most of us waddle back to the hotel to take a shuttle to the Rally, where we’ll listen to music and stroll the midway admiring the thousands of motorcycles parked in neat rows. Like any large rally, you’ll see dozens of eye-catching custom bikes, tricked-out Harleys, and dressed-up cruiser bikes of every make and model. Then there are the trikes and touring rigs with matching trailers, and a sprinkling of sportbikes thrown in for good measure. And the rally also had a large array of vendors, selling all kinds of motorcycle gear and products. I picked up a beautiful glass cube with a laser etched image of a chopper for only $10, including a lighted stand for it. Looks great on my desk.
Sunday morning we met in the parking lot early, having recovered (well, almost recovered) from last night’s festivities. You’d think that the final day would be a downer, but actually it’s the best riding day of the weekend, so we were all stoked for the 325 miles or so that we’ll be riding. We head out north on the Great River Road, which begins as Route 67. About 65 miles later we meet up with Route 64 east, which jogs into Route 52 north in the little hamlet of Sabula. The next 25 miles on Route 52 is a stretch of fabulous road with a combination of long and tight sweeping curves that at times cut through dense trees, and at other times winds along the river. This is a favorite spot to blow the carbon out of the cylinders and scrub some rubber off the sidewalls. It’s the kind of road that reminds you why you ride a motorcycle.
That little burst of energy takes us into the quaint town of Bellevue, Iowa. We stop at the gazebo in the riverfront park for a stretch and a smoke, take a few photos, and to just share the moment with good friends.
Continuing north, we’ll pass through many small riverfront towns, including St. Donatus, where in the early 1800s a group of German settlers built a small village with a huge spire-topped church up on a bluff. Many of the early buildings are still preserved, and the Church looks like something out of a Gothic novel.
About four hours after we left Davenport, we reach Dubuque, Iowa, and headed east across the river to Galena, which was at one time one of the busiest Riverfront towns in the early 1800s, in the northwest corner of Illinois. Galena was the home of General, and then President, Ulysses S. Grant. The huge riverboats like the famed Delta Queen, and Spirit of New Orleans made Galena a regular docking point, as they steamed up and down the river, carrying cargo and passengers. As a young riverboat pilot, famous American author, Mark Twain often stayed in Galena.
At the end of the Civil War, when the railroads made commerce and travel on the Mississippi River less important, Galena faded. Today it’s a tourist mecca, attracting visitors to the town which boasts over 50 bed and breakfast inns, and the restored historic home of U.S. Grant. Main Street is about 10 blocks long and is lined with the restored buildings from the 1800s that now house dozens of art galleries, fine gift shops, antique stores, and numerous restaurants. Surrounding resorts with championship golf courses and riding stables also draw people from the metropolitan Chicago area.
Duck City Bistro hosts Charles and Melissa with the most important guy in the building, son, Chef Jeremy.
After lunch at the old Paradise Bar & Grill, we head up Main Street for the final leg of our tour. On any given summer weekend, hundreds of motorcycles can be see in and around Galena. Aside from the shopping and sight seeing, Galena is known to bikers as being at the westernmost point of the Stagecoach Trail. As the name implies, in the early days before train travel, this was the main road used by stagecoaches to link Galena, Rockford Illinois, and Chicago to the east. Today, a 40-mile stretch of road still exists and is marked with historical signs.
This is probably the best stretch of road for riding a motorcycle within 300 miles of Chicago. It’s a sleepy, hilly, two-laner with lots of curves and sweepers, and in some spots provides beautiful views of the rolling countryside. But it’s another great stretch of road where you can exercise your right wrist, and test the lean angles of your motorcycle. For this stretch, we break up into three distinct groups. The lead group is for those who like to really grip it and rip it; the second group is for those who don’t want to risk losing their drivers licenses; and the third group is for those who like to enjoy the scenery along the way. This way everybody gets to enjoy the Trail in the way that best suits their mood.
We all end up at the end of the trail in a little town called Lena. Lena has one of the old time drive-ins where a waitress brings the food and attaches a tray to the car, just like something out of “Happy Days.” The logo on the storage shed out back is a caricature of a smiling buxom waitress in a tight sweater, and it is a traditional spot for a group photo. The reality is that most of the current staff is composed of freckle-faced high school kids, and they serve their legendary soft ice cream and sundaes wearing t-shirts and pleasant smiles. But that ice cream is a great way to finish off a great ride and a fantastic weekend.
As we all break up to go our separate ways to get home, we take with us the joy of spending three days on the road and putting about 750 miles on our odometers. We ate some good food, heard some excellent music, and enjoyed a great rally. But mostly, we enjoyed the company of a group of people who all shared the same love of the open road, the exhilarating feeling of having your knees in the breeze, and a bit of the good life.
But that little rally is just a prelude for when we all took to the road again for the Black Hills Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Stay tuned to MCUSA for that report.
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