The population of the great state of South Dakota doubles when approximately 600,000 bikers decend on Sturgis.
It is during our darkest times that we most feel the need to live. Perhaps something on the order of the Great Depression or WWII six and a half decades ago inspired motorcyclists to build the basis for classic events that would stand the test of time, both in Daytona Beach, Florida and Sturgis, South Dakota.
Sturgis (current population 6,000) can’t have been much of a metropolis back in the ’30s, so what could have possessed the resident bikers of a small northern outpost to gather others in their neck of the woods? It could have been the recent unveiling of the final face on Mount Rushmore; or perhaps the stellar roads that lined the area. Regardless of the reason, on August 14th 1938, nine men (watched by a handful of spectators) lined up for a race that would eventually become an event that would increase the size of the town by a hundredfold. For one week a year, the population of South Dakota nearly doubles.
Today the racing that started it all is an afterthought. While most rally-goers have heard of the Jackpine Gypsies, most don’t attend anything like organized racing. Which is a pity, as the short track itself on the Gypsies clubgrounds is a very nice venue that gives spectators an intimate view of the close racing on a blue-grooved surface.
No, mostly Sturgis today is a social event. You can hang in one of the thousands of area bars and watch the eye candy (of both the metal and flesh varieties) dance by, or meet old friends, or some new ones. Then there’s the ride. Looking at a population density map of the U.S., you’ll notice that Sturgis is precisely in the middle of nowhere. Comparing notes with East Coast attendees, I noticed that it’s only a couple hundred more miles from East Coast population centers than it is from my Southern California home, 1700 vs 1500, although the way I took was closer to the 1700 the right coaster’s rode.
Junction and Lazelle, this is the Hollywood and Vine of Sturgis, where the two main drags form the center of town. Riding in Sturgis can be a nightmare if you don’t know the backstreets.
With attendance estimated at over a half million people (with some estimating as high as 600,000), it’s no wonder that Sturgis is spreading out to nearly two weeks. The officials from the state of South Dakota estimated that as of the Wednesday before the rally, there were already 300,000 additional people in western South Dakota to “beat the crowds,” something I heard about people doing back in the early ’90s, except now, apparently the vendors show up early too. With that kind of pull, predictably the both the state and the city if Sturgis (not to mention Rapid City, Deadwood and all the rest) are keen to make sure they get their cut. Vendors frequently complain of aggressive tax police sniffing around their operations. It got to be a good investment for the tax authorities, as in Sturgis alone, there are close to a thousand temporary vendor tax licenses handed out, and that obviously doesn’t include the homegrown businesses.
Riding in the Black Hills, it’s worth noting that this is no Daytona. While the racing is decidedly more world-class in Daytona, the riding is not. The roads of the Black Hills are mostly smooth and winding, through some of the most scenic country imaginable. Few are particularly challenging, but even the most experienced rider can find something that entertains (if a few speed laws are trampled on). Some of my favorites are Nemo Road and Vanocker Canyon. Spearfish Canyon and Iron Mountain Road are also good, but only if you wake up mighty early to avoid the crowds.
Riding in Sturgis itself is a bit of a nightmare unless you have a very light clutch pull, a gargantuan grip, or ride a scooter. There are temporary stop signs everywhere along the main drags, so it is constantly stop and go, five feet at a time. The smart Rallyite will buy or download a map of the area and find all the back ways around town. While some would spend half an hour (and countless squeezes of the clutch) to go a few blocks, a smart rider can get anywhere in town in less than 10 minutes.
The attractions in Sturgis proper are along three streets: Main, Lazelle, and Junction. Main is the old center of town where hundreds of small vendors and bars dot the drag and people walk and ride up and down it in a constant display of biker chic. Lazelle runs parallel to Main and is the main east-west artery. On Lazelle you’ll find most of the “national” vendors in town, most of the aftermarket companies, and bike builders who wanted to be in Sturgis itself. Junction is the north-south byway, it’s the first exit that most come to in Sturgis, and intersects both Main and Lazelle near their busiest points. It’s got some vendor action as well, though far less than the other two. Also on Lazelle but on the far side of the freeway is the demo ride area, and in that same general vicinity is the Jackpine Gypsies Clubgrounds, where all the racing entertainment is held.
Sturgis is a place to see and be seen. One glance through the photo gallery and you will notice that the thong/assless-chaps theme runs strong.
But Sturgis itself is just the beginning. There was a while that the term Black Hills Classic was used to describe the rally, and that is a more apt moniker. As the years go on, the Rally Sprawl continues. A friend noted in his late-date search for a hotel room that his travel agent first suggested staying in Cheyenne, WY… 300 miles away.
While there are numerous communities that support the rallyers with bars and small vendor areas, there are also the main sprawl campground targets. Just east of Sturgis in rolling pastureland are the source of the fiercest partying and some big name concerts. Out east they even have their own big vendor areas and bars: Thunder Road and the Chop Lot are home to national-caliber exhibitors and bike shows, while the Full Throttle is the self-proclaimed world’s largest biker bar.
The first full-fledged other town that is a rally epicenter unto itself are the twin towns of Deadwood and Lead (pronounced leed). Deadwood, made famous in numerous westerns, is the local gambling paradise with a vibrant old downtown with casinos, fine dining, and yes, bars. The historic Deadwood train station is usually packed to the gills with bikes and people.
Custer, SD and Hulett, WY both hold their own parallel events during the rally, and both are about 70 miles away. Hulett gained notoriety in the past for wild bacchanals, but these days that torch has been passed to the Sturgis campgrounds. Just 27 miles East on I-90 is the local “big city” of Rapid City. There are a ton of events around the town, but the two biggest places to visit are the H-D dealer (on the interstate) and the Civic Center, where Harley Inc. holds all of their events. Another growing destination is the Journey Museum, which hosts various motorcycle art receptions, as well as the Metzeler Custom Show.
Given the huge number of choices of activities during the week and the remoteness of the location, attendees are struck with some tough decisions of what to do with their time. In my case 11 days were about as much time as I had to devote to Sturgis. Most of seven days were spent traveling to and from the rally, leaving four days and five nights for the rally itself. Yea, I could have taken the interstates straight through both ways and saved a day or two, but what fun would that be?
Partying at Sturgis is only half the story, getting there and back again takes you through some beautiful country.
Which is why I don’t really understand trailering. Half (and perhaps more) of the fun of going to Sturgis is exploring some of the most beautiful scenery our country has to offer… on a motorcycle! That said, I’ll admit that I did it most of the way back, as the friends I was coming back with both had parked their rides on the trailer, and my choices were ride alone with a truck (and no bikes) for company or help drive. Well, it can’t hurt to see how the other half lives, right?
It turns out, with multiple drivers in an air-conditioned cab, we made pretty good time back to LA. As burned out as we all were after the rally, it might have taken four-five days to get back, even on the interstate. As it was, it just took a little more than 48 hours, with a couple detours to see some awesome scenery, like the Valley of Fire near Lake Mead. I may never understand why we didn’t pass through it on the way out.
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