This past August, I attended the 64th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. It was my first time attending, so I was a “Virgin Sturgian.” I am not a big crowd person or a Harley guy, but I think that every motorcyclist, regardless of what make of bike they ride, should attend Sturgis at least once in their lives. Since my riding club, The Top Cats of Illinois, have made the pilgrimage every year for the last decade, they’ve got the drill down to a science.
Victory Motorcycles sweetened the deal by offering me a brand new Kingpin outfitted with the Touring Package to enjoy for the trip.
If you read my article on the Top Cats trip to the Little Sturgis on the River Rally in Davenport, Iowa, you’d know that any road trip with the Top Cats is well organized, and safe, and they go first class.
On Wednesday, August 4th, 15 motorcycles lined up to leave downtown Barrington Illinois, after a lengthy pre-ride briefing. Other members would meet us out in Sturgis later on in the week. We rode north on Route 12 up into Wisconsin past Madison and Baraboo to Route 33. Heading northwest on Route 33 took us through Wisconsin’s Amish Country and into Wildcat Mountain State Park, where the road gets twisty and your throttle hand gets itchy. It was my first chance to really enjoy the power and crisp handling characteristics of the Kingpin, but certainly not the last. We continued on Route 33, crossed the Mississippi River at La Cross Wisconsin and picked up Route 12 in Minnesota heading west. By late afternoon, we’d ridden about 450 miles and reached the Holiday Inn in Mankato for our first night’s stay.
The Top Cats are known for staying at the best places in town and eating at the finer dining establishments – this trip would be no different. But, after 450 miles in the saddle, we opted for convenience in Mankato. Right outside the rear entrance of the Holiday Inn is an establishment called Mettler’s. Mettler’s is a combination restaurant, where the huge prime rib dinner only costs $12, ($8 on special that night) and bar. Oh, and did I mention they also featured topless exotic dancers in the bar area? And apparently, full contact lap dances are legal in Minnesota. But as they say, “What goes on in Mankato, stays in Mankato.”
The following morning we continued to head west on Route 14 with the memories of Mankato lingering in my mind. The scenery became a bit monotonous with the rather flat landscape and cornfields lining both sides of the road. Near the western end of the state, however, we rode through hundreds of acres of beautiful sunflowers, which as you may or may not know, turn to face the sun. On the north side of the road it was a sea of beautiful yellow and black flowers; while on the south side of the road, the back side of the plants offered up a sea of green. Like myself, you may not have known that sunflowers in this area attract millions of beautiful butterflies. I’m not sure what kind they are, but they weren’t Monarchs. These were a bit crunchier and left a sweeter aftertaste!
By late afternoon, and about 350 miles from Mankato, we reached Pierre, South Dakota. The Kelly Inn Motel’s sign read “Welcome Back Top Cats.” Fortunately, we arrived just in time to unload the bikes before a torrential thunderstorm hit the region. After the shower subsided, the Top Cats made their way on foot to the famous cowboy bar, the Longbranch Saloon, for a cold one ahead of dinner. The beers were great but we didn’t stay for dinner, as Top Cat tradition called for a visit to the finest Italian restaurant in Pierre, La Minestra, a 4-star restaurant located in a restored tavern building dating from 1886.
Chef Mark Mancuso was waiting for our party with an assortment of appetizers and Top Cat-specific dinner specialties including Veal Pepperanata, Potato Crusted Walleye, Lobster Fra Diavola, and 25 different fresh pasta dishes. I had a taste for calamari, which wasn’t on the menu, so Chef Mark whipped up a dish of grilled calamari in a spicy Ariabatta sauce served over homemade Linguini. Outstanding. With a few bottles of wine from their vast wine cellar to wash down the copious amounts of food, no Top Cat left hungry, just wondering if they’d have to adjust the shocks on their bikes the next morning to accommodate a heavier load.
Friday morning we left Pierre heading west towards Rapid City, South Dakota. About an hour out we stopped at a very old gas station in the middle of nowhere. It was there that I spied a Harley-Davidson from the early 1920s, looking quite original, with grungy leather saddlebags and the rear fender laden with luggage. An old gentleman, who looked like he was the original owner, dressed in corduroy breeches, matching vest, faded knee length boots, and a leather helmet that looked like a WWI flyers helmet, walked slowly up to the bike.
The mysterious German traveler on his early 20s Harley-Davidson on the way to Sturgis. What do you think about riding all the way from N.Y. at 50 mph?
I began a conversation and quickly learned that he was German, but I couldn’t get much more out of him. Fortunately, one of our members had some friends of his on the ride who were from Germany. We learned that the 82 year-old-gentleman was from Nuremburg, and had shipped his bike over from Germany, rode it all the way from New York and was heading to Sturgis. He was on a schedule, so we snapped a few photos as he puttered off up the road. I couldn’t imagine riding a vintage bike all across this country, not speaking the language, and having to deal with the inevitable breakdowns, and mechanical failures of an 80-year-old motorcycle. Out of the 500,000 bikers who went to Sturgis, I’ll bet this guy had one of the best stories to tell.
Actually, another great story was the German fellow who rode with us. Karsten Striewe is a Sales Director for a packaging company in Augsburg. He has spent the past few summers in the States traveling to Sturgis with the Top Cats and touring the U.S. He’s a Harley-Davidson freak who keeps an Anniversary Edition Sportster in the States for his travels. This year, he brought his lovely girlfriend Lisa with him. Together they rode to Sturgis and beyond, two-up on that Sportster. And by the end of their trip, they were still together. I’d nominate Lisa for “Girlfriend of the Year.”
As we neared Wall, South Dakota, we took Route 73 south a few miles to hook up with Interstate 90 that leads into the Badlands National Park. I was anxious to see the Badlands as I’ve had it described to me as “you’ll think you’re on Mars” or “it’s got to be the weirdest looking place on Earth.” Some just said, “I can’t describe it, you’ll just have to see for yourself.”
The 2004 Victory Kingpin fits right in at Badlands National Park. The two tone version you see here retails for $15,299. Victory equipped our test bike with their $749.99 semi-hard saddlebags and $499.99 touring windshield to help keep Ken rolling in comfort.
Well, I saw it for myself, and I still find it hard to describe. The scattered oddly shaped soft rock formations at times look like they could have been carved by some ancient civilization, or just a freak of nature and millions of years of wind and water erosion. Even the photos don’t do it justice. We rode through the winding scenic road, stopping often to take pictures and to just take in the unique scenery. You could see miles of flat grassland, broken occasionally by huge rock formations that seemed to be dropped from outer space. Some areas looked like sand dunes, other areas like gravel pits, with brush and odd vegetation dotting the landscape. Perhaps the best way I can describe it is that it looks like where God dumped the excess building materials when he was done with making the world.
After the trip through the Badlands, we headed north for a short trip to Wall, South Dakota, home of the famous Wall Drug. Wall was a town of 326 dirt-poor farmers in 1931, during the height of the Depression, when a young pharmacist and his wife, Ted and Dorothy Hustead, bought the tiny drug store on Main Street with a $3,000 legacy left after his father’s death. Mount Rushmore was under construction, but still several years away from completion. They scraped out a meager existence for the next five years, filing prescriptions for the locals and serving up ice cream sodas at the fountain. There was an ever increasing amount of auto traffic on the nearby highway, with travelers making their way to the Badlands, and to Mt. Rushmore to see two of the four presidents busts carved into the mountain. Also, Yellowstone Park was drawing more vacationers.
The Husteads wracked their brains to find a way to attract some of those drivers. Finally, in the terribly hot summer of 1936, Dorothy Hustead figured out that all those hot dusty travelers would want something that Wall Drug could supply. So she painted up some signs that she and her husband put up along the highway urging the travelers to “Come to Wall Drug for FREE ICE WATER.” People came by the hundreds, then thousands, to cool off with a glass of free ice water. They never were lacking for customers again. Wall Drug is a testament to good old American free enterprise. Come up with an idea, fill a need, and the people will cut a path to your door.
Later that afternoon we cruised into Rapid City and parked at the cordoned-off area right in front of the Hotel Alex Johnson, the host hotel for the Top Cats Sturgis ride for the last 10 years. Rapid City is the perfect location for enjoying the Sturgis Rally. It’s a great little town with a vibrant downtown district, located within a half hour’s ride to almost any of the attractions in the area, such as Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Custer State Park, the towns of Deadwood, and Lead, and of course, Sturgis. It’s also far enough away to be out of the craziness that surrounds the rally.
The Hotel Alex Johnson was built in 1928 by Alex Carlton Johnson, vice president of the Chicago Northwestern Railroad, to be “The Showplace of the West” and rival the best hotels in Chicago. Johnson knew that travelers would want a first class hotel to stay in when they flocked to the Black Hills area to take in the local attractions that were springing up all over the area. Today, as then, the 10-story Hotel Alex Johnson is still the tallest structure in Rapid City and the hub of the town’s social scene. While the hotel has undergone many renovations and restorations over the years, the lobby still retains the tasteful Native American décor with traditional Sioux patterns on the hand-painted ceramic tiles. The décor of each floor honors a different Lakota Sioux tribe. The hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Back in 1993, Top Cat Bard Boand discovered that even the flea-bag motels were charging outrageous prices during the rally week, and the nicest homes for rent in the area couldn’t accommodate the needs of a large group. He stopped into the Alex Johnson Hotel and practically had to beg the owners of the hotel, Kathy and Jim Didier, to rent them rooms for the following year. He had to convince them that the Top Cats were a different kind of motorcycle club, and they wouldn’t have to worry about having their hotel rooms trashed or scaring off the hotels other guests.
The following year, they set aside 10 rooms for the Top Cats. The Didiers discovered that the club members were excellent guests, who enjoyed the fine dining at the hotels Landmark Restaurant & Lounge, spent a lot of money on fine wines, and liquor, and were popular with the help as a result of generous tipping. More rooms were set aside for each successive year, reaching to about 40 rooms for the 2003 rally.
Today the relationship has grown from a business relationship to a personal relationship. The Didiers often eat dinner with the club and hang out over evening cocktails with the members at the hotel’s sidewalk café. Each year they join us in their Grand Ballroom for the Top Cats Banquet, where Master Chef Dennis Olivier stocks a special Top Cat Fine Wine List, and always prepares a special culinary treat for desert. A few years ago one of the Top Cats was married by the mayor of Sturgis, and they arranged the wedding reception at the hotel. Even though the hotel as over 140 rooms, the Didiers make it feel like an intimate bed and breakfast for the Top Cats.
Each year the Didiers try to organize something special to surprise the club. This year Jim and Kathy led us on a ride to the Crazy Horse Monument where, unbeknownst to us, they had prearranged for the club to go up onto the mountain, where few visitors are allowed to go. So we spent an hour right under Crazy Horse’s nose, admiring the sculpture up close, and enjoying the unique and breathtaking vistas that the monument looks out over.
After a long days ride, the sidewalk café is a perfect place to unwind and discuss the sights and sounds from the journey so far.
The Crazy Horse Memorial is an amazing sight to see and a testament not only to the great Indian Chief and all North American Indians, but to the entire Ziolkowski family who have been working on the project since 1948. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski died in 1982, but 7 of the 10 Ziolkowski children have continued to work towards the completion. They accept no government funds, fearing too much government intervention, so all of the work on the monument is funded by private donations and the admission fees from the thousands of visitors each year.
Visitors can view a dramatic video of the project in the Orientation Center, and tour the Native American Cultural Center, and Indian Museum of North America, which houses one of the best collections of Native American artifacts and art in the Upper Midwest. Right now Crazy Horse’s head is complete, and they’re halfway done in blocking out the 22-story high horse’s head. When completed, the monument will tower 563 feet high, and will extend 641 long. To put it in perspective, all four of the Presidents heads on nearby Mt. Rushmore would fit inside just the horses’ head of this monument. It is truly an awesome sight to behold, and to ponder the work and dedication of one family’s dream. Money is the main impediment to faster completion of the monument, so anybody who would like to contribute can visit the website at Crazy Horse Memorial.org.
While it was exciting to visit Crazy Horse, I was anxious to get into Sturgis to see for myself what that was all about. For the uninitiated, Sturgis is a sleepy little town of 6,400 people. For 10 days each August, it springs to life and becomes a modern day Brigadoon, as hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists come to stroll down Main Street, look over the latest motorcycle models and accessories, eat some good rally food, drink a lot of cold beer, listen to some big name rock bands, people watch, and party hearty. And, of course, some also come to attend the dirt track races and hill climbs, which were the original attractions that started it all 64 years ago.
Main Street in Sturgis is about eight blocks long, with Lazelle Street running parallel to it. During the rally every square inch of real estate on and between those two blocks is devoted to motorcycles. Many of the towns’ stores and businesses will close and remove everything inside down to the bare walls, and rent their spaces out to vendors of all kinds.
Main Street is like an Arabian Bazaar, crammed with food vendors selling a wide variety of items from hamburgers and Buffalo burgers, to chicken on a stick, hot dogs, gyros, and Bar-B-Q beef, pork, ribs and chicken and other delicacies. One can’t even imagine how much beer is served during that week since there are outdoor beer gardens on both sides of every block in town. Non-stop music blares out from each one of them, from morning until very late at night. T-shirt shops, leather goods, bike accessories, jewelry, artwork, and everything you can think of that is motorcycle related can be found on Main Street. Motorcycles are parked nose to nose down the center of Main Street, and they line both curbs on each side of the street. If you haven’t found a place to park on Main Street by 10:30 a.m., chances are you won’t find one. And cruising those eight blocks in the middle of the day can take almost an hour.
Lazelle Street is where you’ll find the huge semi-trailer trucks parked up and down the street. The big companies like Arlen Ness, Drag Specialties, Progressive Suspension, Parts Unlimited, Big Dog Motorcycles, American Ironhorse, Performance Machine, showcase their wares on Lazelle. Companies like Samson Exhaust, and J & P Cycles actually own their own huge buildings, which are open for only 10 days each year. They also use their large parking lots to rent out to other vendors. One would get the impression from walking around Sturgis that every motorcycle vendor in the world is set up in downtown. However, that isn’t true. The local campgrounds set aside plenty of space for businesses to set up shop, as well as the huge parking lot of Black Hills Harley-Davidson in Rapid City. And the local car dealers clear their lots, so that some of the motorcycle manufacturers like Victory, Triumph, and Yamaha, can set up staging areas for their weeklong test ride operations.
At the east end of town, the Broken Spoke Saloon anchors the party atmosphere in Sturgis. It is a huge saloon whose walls are decorated with motorcycle paraphernalia, and you can see many of the pristine vintage bikes from the collection of owner, Jay Allen. And while the Broken Spoke is only open for 10 days each year, Allen knows how to pack a whole year’s worth of partying into a fortnight. Not only can patrons quench their thirsts with cold brews, they can walk around the latest creations of custom chopper builders on display, enjoy almost non-stop live music from bands like Molly Hatchet and Dr. Hook, watch wet T-shirt contests, the Easy Rider Calendar Girls, burn-out contests, and more. If you’re looking for a good time in Sturgis, the Broken Spoke is the epicenter.
For those who want a more “earthy” Sturgis experience, the Buffalo Chip Campgrounds and the Glencoe Campgrounds are the places to stay. At either of those two sites one can pay reasonable rates to pitch a tent and rough it, or park a truck and trailer or RV and enjoy a more rustic experience. The campgrounds are home to some excellent music each night with big name bands performing for the thousands of spectators that show up each night for the concerts. From dusk until dawn, those campgrounds can also get a bit crazier than the bars in town, as the local police seem to take a more relaxed attitude there. If you’re the type that likes to turn in early to bed, you’ll want to take a pass on the campgrounds.
For the Top Cats and tens of thousands of other riders, the allure of downtown Sturgis and the partying is just a small fraction of the reason to attend the rally. What makes the trip so rewarding is the riding. The Black Hills offer some of the finest roads to ride a motorcycle on in the country. Not only are the well-paved twisting roads so challenging, but the scenery surrounding them is incredible. And the best part is that all these roads lead to some really great attractions and sights.
Each day, one of the Top Cats Road Captains would lead a ride to some destination. One day we headed south from Rapid City on Route 16 through the town of Keystone and on to Mt. Rushmore. Mt. Rushmore is as grand a site as you’ll ever see for a man-made creation. While most photographs of the monument only show the 4 president’s heads chi