2005 Sturgis Rally

August 12, 2005
By Billy Bartels

Day 1 – Rain

“Oh god, it’s raining, but I’m not complaining. It’s filling me up with new life.”
The scenic road around Lake Mead is not just a good road for grandma  but a pretty good sport bike road as well. As evidenced by the two large groups of sport riders I ran into. However  its also the only place I saw anyone pulled over today. On the older sections of roads watch for large ripples in
Getting to Sturgis from L.A. takes you through some beautiful country, like the wide desert expanse of this landscape near Lake Mead.

Okay, is a Depeche Mode reference too odd for a story about riding to Sturgis? Sorry, my Skynyrd CD is missing, so you’ll have to settle. The D’Mode quote just came to me as I was riding east out of Laughlin in sweltering 120+ degree heat. Cresting a hill out of the Colorado river valley, I catch a whiff of ozone, and feel the component of the air that was missing for the last 150 miles: humidity. That alone was enough to make the ride bearable, but the icing on the cake was the storm that followed.

Coming from LA, we rarely have a warm rain. Rain usually blows in off the ocean with a cold wind; if you don’t have a rain suit, riding is miserable. In the Arizona highlands near Kingman it was like a baptism washing away the oppressive heat of the day and making the ride fun again. I was giddy until I remembered that my cell phone was in my pocket and probably getting its little circuits fried.

Day one was one of “those” days. Our group of 15 or so got split up, misled, broke down, and abused. Riding out from LA, the group met up in 29 Palms, and immediately got dispersed. I took off down the road to Amboy to get in front and take some action photography on a salt bed. Two riders quickly caught and passed me, then I sat by the side of the road for near an hour while only one more rider passed me. It turns out one bunch went riding back 30 miles to pick up some gear they forgot, one little group broke down and hailed our chase truck for a ride, and the lead guys… they were an hour ahead of me and hauling ass. Lucky for me, the last guy who passed me waited and we motored on together.

The bike tossed in the trailer ripped its moorings out of the floor, flopped on its side, and spilled its fluids all over the place. I took a wrong turn and went 80 miles out of the way (luckily catching that storm), and the group that went back ended up dodging a far less benevolent storm than mine, complete with gusting winds and a few inches of standing water on the road.

When it rains it pours.

Day 2 – Erosion

Utah s red rock landscapes caught they eye  while challenging roads presented an opportunity to sharpen riding skills.
Utah’s red rock landscapes caught they eye, while challenging roads presented an opportunity to sharpen riding skills.

There is one thing responsible for the otherworldy Technicolor landscapes of Utah: erosion. Erosion took a raised plateau and cut chunks out of it, exposing all the glorious colors hidden inside to the world, and erosion will someday wash it all away back to the sea, so the process can start all over again, but that will be long after we’re gone. For now, we’ve got Utah.

Skill erosion, on the other hand is a far less glorious thing, and it can happen to any of us. It sneaks up on you. It seems like only a couple years ago I was racing up at Willow Springs on a monthly basis, and my skills were at their peak. Never been so fast and so confident on track or street.

Actually, that was five years ago. Since then, my recreational riding has tapered off, my track days amount to one in the past three years. I recently was down to just commuting, and even that has stopped. So I shouldn’t be surprised that I was making all kinds of rookie mistakes in the first truly fun roads we ran into: braking way too much, running wide out of corners, just dumb stuff, frustrating at first, but all the more satisfying when you get your skills back.

And what better place to do it? These roads would be great if they were surrounded by mud. But the roads of Southern Utah are not surrounded by mud. They’re surrounded by Zion, Bryce Canyon, etc. The scenery alone makes your soul sing.

So I spent the day soaking in the splendor while working on my skills and, really, getting to know my bike for the first time. I’ve had it since February, but I hadn’t gone riding in anything resembling twisties – boy was that a mistake. What a fun machine: not quick-steering by any means, but super stable, a nice spread of power, and doesn’t respond poorly to 100-ish pounds of gear being strapped to the back.

Building skills back up is almost as satisfying as building them the first time, and not nearly as hard.

A few notes from today:

Colorado s Grand Junction was our resting place for the evening.  They get this view at sunset  every day of the year.
It may not be Zion National Park or Captol Reef but the sun setting off the bluffs around Grand Junction makes for a beautiful sight.

Zion is great, Capitol Reef is even better. Just a few miles northeast of Zion, it’s a killer ride and the massive scale of it just had me in awe.. so much so that I didn’t take any pictures. It’s like a palisade of red rocks, hundreds of feet high.

Special thanks to Saddlemen, who made this whole thing possible in two ways: The massive pile of junk on the back of my bike wouldn’t have held together without the support of their bags. And the ride itself, thanks guys.

On a down note, two of our group are in the hospital (one in critical condition) when a horse trailer that was being passed by our group of 10 bikes decided to turn left into a driveway. Luckily everyone else escaped what could have been even more carnage. Get well guys, my thoughts are with you.

And on a light note, I’ve been informed that when I have my BBQ rain cover on the massive pile, I look like big fat dude with a gray rain suit on from behind. “Does this rain cover make my ass look big?”

Day 3 – Solitude

There’s something to be said for a big group ride. There’s camaraderie, the shared experience with good friends, and (importantly) the support if something goes wrong. Then again, if you all are meeting up at the end of the day anyhow, why not split up? I for one, travel much quicker if I don’t have to worry about other people’s issues. Or maybe you just want to go at your own pace, like I did.

Here s the jam itself.  It s especially irritating being from California  as I could just split the middle at a steady 35… but not here.
I-70 delivered a nasty bumper-to-bumper traffic jam as Bartels approached the Eisenhower Tunnel.

For the last two days, our routes have been taking us 12 hours to complete. Afterward we go to dinner, and then I have to file these reports. So with three nights totaling 13 hours of sleep, I was ready to do something different. Nevertheless, I got talked into traveling with the group again.

After about 15 minutes of Colorado’s “freeway twisties” I was through. I passed the group, waved sayonara, and headed for the horizon. It wasn’t that they were too fast or two slow, but stuck in the middle of the group having to watch what everybody else was doing and respond, and mostly not getting to get a good roll-on coming out of these fabulous sweepers, was just irritating the crap out of me. Despite its Interstate designation, I-70 is a really nice piece of pavement and I wasn’t getting to enjoy its flow.

Besides, I reasoned, if I hauled ass to Loveland (tonight’s stop) I could take off for a little ride on one of the many good roads in its vicinity, or, more likely, get in with time to pound out this article before everyone else arrived.

The first half of my day was without fault, flowing through the deep green canyons of central Colorado, and not really missing the two lane experience at all. After a gas stop, I looked up at a sign that read Denver – 85, and only another 40 to Loveland from there. Then I hit traffic. I’m not talking about a little congestion (c’mon I’m from LA!) but real stop and go traffic, way out here in the middle of nowhere, and with no end in sight. I waited for about an hour to get to the Eisenhower Tunnel, the seeming source, only to have it back up again not far on the other side. I got off at the cool little town of Georgetown. Checking my map, I found a route that skirted Denver, and as an added bonus, I was able to get my twisties in before I get to the hotel.

Despite delivering me no where near where I wanted to be  this section of  119 was a paradise of wide  clean tarmac with minimal cars to screw it all up.  You can still see a bit of snow on the mountains in the distance.
To escape freeway traffic and bypass Denver the back roads provided some relief. A couple of wrong turns led straight into Denver anyway but with scenery like this it’s hard to complain.

Sometimes you’re not as smart as you think you are. Multiple wrong turns had me ending up in Denver anyhow, but least I was out of the traffic and with some good two-lane to boot. In the end, I got away with just 8 hours on the road, and, as predicted, as I type this, still no sign of the group.

Day 4 – Majority Rules

I haven’t been on a road trip in awhile, so I was mildly surprised that waving is apparently in vogue again. I wrote a story years ago about how divided and screwed up our little motorcyclist niche had become that most people didn’t wave anymore, certainly not to people not on the same kind of bike as them. In that article, I concluded, sarcastically, that we should all just flip each other off instead. That seems to have passed, as all through California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, most people we passed waved, regardless of brand or style of machine. Maybe it helped that we had a mixed group ourselves.

However, the closer we got to Sturgis, the less it happened, at first I wasn’t sure whether to attribute the wave deficit to hand fatigue or a bunch of new poser bikers not knowing the deal. But weird thing was, when we hit a patch with less bikes, the waving would start back up again. A few minutes later it hit me. Waving is a sign of solidarity between fellow members of a proud minority. When we’re the majority, such as is the case around the Black Hills this time of year, just our presence shows our commitment to the fraternity. And it does make it harder to use the clutch with your hand off the bar all the time.

When I say majority, it’s not just a small one, bikes outnumber cars at least 10-1. Sometimes you have to look around for something with four wheels. I would have taken more pictures of the carnage but a) I’ve got all week and b) I was too busy dodging drunken idiots to ride with my camera out. Not that drunken idiots are a majority, but they’re definitely a proud minority. Maybe they should wave at each other?

The Wyoming state trooper didn t know what to make of me. I was practically giddy while he was writing me for 87 in a 65. He even made a special note to tell me that if I didn t pay I d get my license suspended in California. What he didn t know was that I was pushing 120 a little earlier.
Billy was going to get to Sturgis sooner or later, but not before a receiving a cute little reminder to do so while observing the posted speed limit.

Other stuff from today:

I love smell of brewing beer. I have a couple breweries about 20 miles from where I live and I always love riding by them. I smelled the Budweiser plant in Ft Collins, CO before I saw it. People who live near one probably get sick of the smell or just learn to ignore it, but I don’t think I ever will get my fill.

The Black Hills really look black from a distance; it could be the contrast with the never-ending greenish-yellow rolling pastureland that precedes it.

I’m renting a room in a house right in Sturgis, but across the freeway from most of the craziness. Just far enough so I get to hear the “bike rally rumble” faintly in the distance, but not close enough to hear anyone’s individual engine. I like it, but I’m not sure if I’d hear a storm coming.

Day 5 (actually night 4) – Nightlife

The drunken debauchery that consumes the nights (and for some, the days too) at Sturgis deserves its own update. Everyone’s seen the pictures of someone’s grandma wearing something a stripper would be afraid to wear, and I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but there is far more depth and complexity to the whole scene. The nights are owned by the bars, down Main Street and Lazelle (and a hundred surrounding communities), the place is thick with them. In between the bars are tons of people just wandering around, drunk or high or just spectating.

Nighttime in Sturgis is a focused activity: drink  see and be seen  drink.
Nighttime in Sturgis is a focused activity: drink, see and be seen, and drink some more.

I’m staying at a house in Sturgis, just across the freeway from the real madness. The family I’m staying with went down to town to check out the freakshow and soak it up. I had never really thought about where the locals fit in in all of this. So when I got downtown I started seeing them for the first time. If you knew they were there, you could spot them a mile off, families with young ‘uns taking pictures, teenagers thankful for something to do on a warm summer night and sneaking in some smoking, and just folks who didn’t have the look of a “participant.”

Life on the main drag is split into roughly five categories: Local, Worker, People Watcher, Exhibitionist, and Too-Drunk-To-Notice-Anything. The exhibitionists are the most entertaining. They either ride up and down the street trying to get attention, or walk around in something outrageous. They’re typically very friendly and love having their picture taken. Don’t mistake a drunk for an exhibitionist though, they are sometimes dressed the same, but far less friendly. They are, however, easy to outrun.

Obviously there is some blurring of distinctions. Some of the booth workers are drunk or exhibitionists, most of the exhibitionists are at least mildly intoxicated, as well as a good number of just about everyone else.

Day 5.5 – The Godfather

A sea of chrome and flesh as far as the eye can see. There are observation towers that you can climb into to take photos for a mere  5 to a local charity.
Sturgis in the less bleary-eyed daylight packs even more bikes and people onto the streets.

Harley-Davidson has an odd relationship with the Sturgis rally that glorifies its name over all others. On the one hand they embrace it wholeheartedly, with special shirts bearing their logo commemorating the event, multiple spots for demo rides, a huge Harley Owners Group hospitality area, and a civic center full of all their new models and accessories.

On the other hand, beyond their fleet in the main demo area of Sturgis, they have absolutely no presence in the town itself. True, the “Sturgis” rally is actually the Black Hills Classic, and it includes all of the far flung territories, including the nearest decent-sized town of Rapid City, which is where all things officially Harley have their home.

I made the short 25-mile trek down the interstate to Rapid City to kiss the ring of the Godfather of the whole custom scene.

Harley is far from the only attraction in Rapid, there is also Rapid City Harley-Davidson. Unlike the official Harley event at the Civic Center, you’ll find plenty that isn’t in the “official” H-D universe from custom builders to aftermarket manufacturers. In fact, the dealership was a far more popular destination with traffic backed up to get into and out of the dealer and its vendor area.

Rapid City H-D had a number of cool attractions including a good live blues band, and the mandatory bikini bike wash. Rain was threatening, so I didn’t tempt it by getting the ‘Rod washed.

One can only assume that she practices crashing face down  with her arms behind her.
A quick scroll of the gallery will alert you that thongs seem to be in this year. One can only assume that she practices crashing face down, with her arms behind her.

Earlier this morning in Sturgis, I did a little daytime sweep of the downtown area to compliment my coverage from last night. In the AM, it’s far less rowdy than at night, and far more near-sobriety going on. But it’s actually even more packed.

My first full day was good, a bit of all the sights and sounds. I met up with old friends, who for someone in the business are other people in the business, but even still it’s remarkable to be walking in a crowd of like 100,000 people and bump into someone you haven’t seen in years. Not that me and most people I know are hard to spot.

I’ve been “that guy in the helmet” for the last day or so. Considering that my riding companion who crashed three days ago would have probably walked away from his life-threatening crash with just a mild concussion had he been wearing something more substantial than a “beanie,” I’m pretty much going to wear the helmet all week (he’s still not regained consciousness, last I heard).

Day 6 – Too Much Good Stuff

There’s a town about 35 miles away from Sturgis called Hulett, Wyoming. This little town, in the shadow of Devil’s Tower, had a proud tradition called alternately “No Panty Wednesday” or “Panty Drop Wednesday” that I heard about (but didn’t participate in) my first time here in 1999.

This section of Nemo Road was both spectacular to look at  and filled with smooth  clean sweepers to strafe at high velocity.
If you know where you’re going, there are some great side trips outside of Sturgis. Like Nemo road which winds its way from Nemo to Rapid City.

As early as the late-’80s Sturgis began to grow to magnificent proportions, going a little more corporate, the cops were stepping in to keep the order a little more. Hulett stepped into the void and created No Panty Wednesday as a throwback to a simpler time, when bikers did what they would and chaos ruled the day.

I heard tales of massive public nudity, drunken debauchery, and cops flagging off informal drag races down the middle of the main street with spectators lining the sides of the makeshift dragstrip. Not only did I not go, my (journalist) friends didn’t even bother to bring a camera. Despite the complete lack of evidence, I decided to go the next time I came back.

Well, my next time here was in 2001, and I finally made it. In just two short years it had calmed down considerably, the “outlaw drags” had been moved out of town to a safer locale in a vacant lot by the freeway, and there was far less flashing than had been described. Nonetheless, it was a fun day’s activity with good bands and a somehow more laid back attitude. I was planning on going back again this year. but I didn’t make it.

Not that this is any big loss to you, as I doubt there would have been much of interest that wouldn’t be covered by a big black bar of decency so you could still read this site at work.

There were just way too many things going on elsewhere that were far too pressing to miss. For instance, today was the only day I had to partake of the hillclimb competition or the flat track. Although they run events all week, this was the only day that made sense for me. Also there were two of the more important bike shows as well, with the Independent Cycle/Legend Top 50 Show and the Harley-Davidson Ride-In Show both happening in Rapid City.

The Harley-Davidson Ride In Show features mostly somewhat-modest garage-built customs  like this fully chromed-out Sportster.
The Harley-Davidson Ride In Show features a lot of somewhat-modest garage-built customs, like this fully chromed-out Sportster.

On my way to Rapid City, I bypassed t