Sturgis is all about running in to old friends. Buffalo Chip ‘Mayor of Fun’ Bean’re shares a laugh with his buddy, Betsy Huelskamp.
The storm ushered in the evening, purple clouds blotting out the sky just over the hill. Boughs bent in the gusts and rattled the leaves in the trees. Pulling into the Legendary Buffalo Chip, pop-up tents rolled across the campground like tumbleweeds before being pinned against the chain link fence. A giant backdrop on stage whipped like a sail before blowing off altogether. Fingers of lightning lit up the horizon, the storm circling the natural bowl of the Chip’s amphitheater while the Bella Donna sang onstage, her black chiffon skirts and blonde hair whipping in the wind as she looked every part a Welsh witch conjuring a storm when she began singing the first lyrics of “Rhiannon.” Old-timers spun their partners as they danced next to their Harleys, the song returning their youth. Others stood mesmerized by Stevie Nicks enchanting voice, unfazed by the threatening thunderstorm or the outside world, for at this moment the magic of Sturgis had once again cast its spell over the Chip.
Seeing Jeff Bridges, Stevie Nicks and John Fogerty perform was the highlight of our Thursday night at Sturgis 2011, but let’s back it up a bit and look at the rally as a whole. This year followed an anniversary year, which are always huge, so
Stevie Nicks cast her spell over the audience at the Buffalo Chip as a thunderstorm swirled off in the distance.
attendance and vendors were down in comparison. According to a report in the Rapid City Journal, reservations for campgrounds and hotels were down six percent and vendor licenses were down about the same but still numbered over 700. It felt like there were less people than there’s been for a few years, though.
It looked like we might be headed toward a fatality-free rally until about mid-week when the first casualty of the rally was claimed, a 70-year-old rider who lost it in a curve. Sturgis is a beautiful place to ride, but there are some challenging roads around here. Add unfamiliarity with every twist and turn and you have a recipe for disaster. The roads are ready to punish people who ride above their ability. We may never know all the circumstances that went into the crash, we only know it’d be nice to go to a rally where nobody needlessly died. In all, four motorcyclists made it to the party but won’t be riding home.
For the most part, rally goers were fairly chill this year. The South Dakota Highway Patrol reported 212 DUI arrests and 42 felony drug arrests. The major incident was a beef between the Mongols and Hells Angels which broke out on the street next to the HA clubhouse and brought every cop in the vicinity scrambling. Though fatalities were down considerably (nine were reported in 2010), SDHP said injury accidents were up, with 80 incidents reported. We caught the tail end of one of these in Spearfish and witnessed the shaken face of the teenage boy who took out a rider that was whisked away by ambulance.
(L) Our man Heed rips a big burnout at the Broken Spoke Saloon aboard a 2012 Harley-Davidson V-Rod. (M) There was some serious competition for the title of Miss Buffalo Chip 2011. (R) Getting ready to ride out of Deadwood during the fourth annual Legends Ride.
Sturgis for us would start states away. Victory Motorcycles held the press launch of its 2012 lineup in Park City, Utah, a town where ski jumps cut into the forest at the top of the hill and Olympic banners strung around town are reminders of the winter games held there in 2002. We met for the presentation of the bikes and learned we would be riding the 2012 Victory Cross Country Tour to Sturgis. New fairing lowers, a taller windscreen, a huge topcase, a couple more speakers for the audio system and Victory’s Comfort Control System, a collection of vents and deflectors which allow you to control the flow of air, give the Cross Country full-blown touring credentials. We’ll tell you more next week in our first ride review of the motorcycle.
We were surprised during our arrival to see custom builders Athena “Chickie” Ransom and Laura Klock there. Athena’s been a hardcore Harley girl all her life, but I knew Laura had used Victorys as a customizing platform in the past. Turns out the two were part of the “World’s Longest Test Drive,” a promotional event conjured up by Victory which pits two rides together, one a pro-Victory rider and the other not. You know which role Athena got to play. Regardless, she was excited to be riding the leg from Park City to Sturgis. Coolest part, Victory is donating the Cross Country Tours used in the ride to the Wounded Warrior Project after the promotion is over.
The next morning began with a sunrise photo shoot at a ridge overlooking the Wasatch Mountains before hitting the road. The air was crisp and clean as the first rays crept over the peaks. Before long, we joined a group of about 20 riders and attempted to make some miles. Road construction and missed turns complicated the day, as did the logistics of dealing with a big group of riders. After lunch, I was able to break out with the lead pack. Ahead of me, Victory’s Vice-President Mark Blackwell set a brisk pace, flanked by the venerable Alan Cathcart. I matched their speed, anticipating passes, mirroring their moves. I savored the moment like a fine wine. What an honor it was to be riding with two men who I admire, one a former world class off-roader and the other the most distinguished voice in motojournalism. Factor in seeing a friend in Athena and this trip to Sturgis was getting off on the right foot.
The next day, we set out with our own itinerary. Riding with the group was fun, but at times we were hauling ass across the countryside when we’d blow by photo ops and places of interest we’d like to stop and see. We charted a course for Rocky Mountain National Park. The air cooled while we climbed as the road wound through piney forests and high meadows. We’re only a few miles into the park before spotting a family of moose grazing in the distance. The electronic fuel injection of the Victory Cross Country Tour is having no problems with the elevation as the road winds up and up as it climbs to 12,183 feet. We conduct our own impromptu “Bill Nye, Science Guy” experiment, pouring a little water out at the Continental Divide to see which side of the divide gravity would push it down. We also met our newfound friends from Finland there, one of the
only Victory dealers in the country along with the guys responsible for scribbling Finland’s motorcycle magazines. We poke fun at one of the guys who’s riding the 2012 Hammer S to Sturgis, admitting our guilt at riding bikes that are recreational vehicles of the motorcycling world. He said it was his bike of choice and that the Hammer has a big following in his home country and Europe.
The next day began in Cheyenne. The Depot Plaza across from The Plains Hotel was bustling with energy from the Saturday Market. Fresh baked pastries and local grown peaches served as a tasty breakfast. We broke the monotony of Wyoming’s plains with pit stops at kitschy places like the Fort Laramie Frontier Trading Post. Watching the coal-filled freight cars at Lusk is like turning back the clock a hundred years. Surprisingly, there were few troopers out, allowing us to make good time on the last stretch up I-85 to Deadwood. The first trees of the Black Hills National Forest were a welcome sight, as were 90-degree bends in the road. The Cross Country Tour stuck fast as we leaned it over on the twisting route outside of Lead.
It only took one trip down Lazelle Street to realize attendance was light, fewer vendors were set up and they’d opened up another lane of traffic heading east out of town. We were only in town a couple of hours before we headed out to the Chip. It didn’t take long to notice it, too, had a few new wrinkles, like computer-scanned wristbands, new monitors to broadcast concerts on and zip lines stretched over the amphitheater. We kicked off our first night in Sturgis with the Alice Cooper/Pop Evil show. Cooper’s show was full of signature theatrics while Pop Evil laid it down hot and heavy with driving guitar riffs and growling vocals.
The next week would blend into one continuous stream of consciousness, late nights blending into early mornings, industry parties and benefit rides. We once again participated in the annual Legends Ride. “Big” Kenny from Big & Rich led the 250 rider procession out of Deadwood to the Buffalo Chip. The ride raised over $50K for the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and the Black Hills Special Olympics and culminated with dinner and drinks at the Chip followed by a triple bill of Sweet Cyanide, Buckcherry and Def Leppard.
Ken Tabata from Yao City, Osaka, Japan, and his wife with the winner of the Freestyle Class at the 2011 AMD World Championships in Sturgis.
While checking out motorcycles on Main Street is a popular pastime in itself, Sturgis is also home to some of the biggest bike shows around, including the AMD World Championship of Custom Bike Building. NorCal was representing this year, with our buddy Jim Guiffra and the girls from AFT Customs winning the Performance Custom Class while Satya Krauss of Kraus Motor Co. was the highest-placed American competitor in the Freestyle Class with third place. But it was Japan’s Ken Tabata who stole the show with his Tavax 2011V, a combination of slick engineering and futuristic styling. Tabata’s bike combines sculpted aluminum bodywork with a host of one-off pieces. It has a swingarm that pivots from behind the rear cylinder and arcs over the tranny in a single shock linkage system while suspension on the front begins as a leading link fork before converting to a Springer courtesy of a pair of extra links. What made Tabata’s victory even more special were the humble nature of the winner and the wave of emotions the victory wrought. His wife wept openly on stage and you could tell Tabata was almost overwhelmed by it all, but he did his best to answer questions graciously and to pose for pictures with every well-wisher. Considering the turmoil their home country has undergone recently, Tabata’s victory was a positive they can take back home with them. But don’t think this was a sympathy vote. The man has some serious bike building skills and his bike stood out in a room full of amazing engineering.
We also caught another one of our favorite contests, the Rat’s Hole Custom Bike Show. It’s curious to note how the two shows are judged on different criteria. Several of the bikes entered in the previous day’s AMD show would fare well, but it was Scott’s Insane Choppers (SIC) out of Lake Havusa, AZ, who would win “Best of Show” honors for its slammed and stretched radical called “The Nitemare.” Though this style of bike has run its course, SIC was able to breathe fresh life into radicals by creating a unique intake and exhaust system and cool features like Sprotor brakes.
Not only was she a capable spokesmodel, she also had good taste in motorcycles. The Sin-Sual Shot girl chose the winner of the Rat’s Hole Bike Show to pose with.
We wrapped up the week with a trip out to Devils Tower, our nation’s first national monument. The ride through the Wyoming countryside was a perfect way to escape the traffic jams and the bustle of the rally. The rocks on the plateaus leading to the tower are an unnatural red. The location is held sacred by the local tribes and a trip on the path around its base reveals some of the reasons why. The rock faces take on a new personality around every bend. The wind Mariah’s voice whispers through the trees as black-winged birds ride pockets of hot air high overhead. Climbers cluster three wide on rocky pillars as others rappel off the vertical face. Majestic and magical, even its origin holds mystery. The fields around it also house some of the biggest prairie dogs around.
We ride back to Sturgis for our final night of revelry. After ten days, it’s time to return the Cross Country Tour to its rightful owners. Victory asked us to return it to their tent at the Buffalo Chip in an area back behind the stage. I tell the guard I’m returning the bike and he allows me in a fenced-off area. Nobody is at the tent so I’m wondering what to do with the keys. Didn’t want to leave the keys to a $20,000 motorcycle just lying around, know what I mean? I head toward the next security gate but realize I don’t have a badge. Trying to figure out a way to finagle my way in, I see four guys pull up on new Victorys including the High-Ball and the Cross Roads Classic LE. They’re slapping high-fives, all smiles and fist pumps after being energized by their ride, a bunch of old long hairs like me. I walk up, explaining to them that I needed to return a bike, wondering if they knew what to do with the keys. They said no problem, they’d take care of it for me, so I tossed them the keys and walked off.
There was still the business of a security guard to get by. About that time, a few friends walked out, including “Teach” Bass and Chris Callen from Cycle Source. I say hello and talk to “Teach” for a few minutes, just long enough for the guys I met at the Victory tent to catch up. I figured hell, I’ll try to walk in with them. The security guard swung the gate wide open, welcomed us with a smile and let us stroll right through. I was in, backstage with the rigs for the bands, the food line for VIPs and the open bar. About that time, our group of five runs into friends from Victory. The guys talk about their ride and how they swapped out bikes so each of them get a little taste of what each motorcycle had to offer. After a few minutes, my new buddies disappear, at which time the guys from Victory turn to me and ask how I knew Tesla.
“What do you mean?” I question.
“That was Tesla,” they said, the little light in my head finally going off. I had snuck in backstage at the Chip with the guys from Tesla, the band scheduled to headline that night.
“Only at the Chip,” I think to myself with a smile.
(L) Bob Beck and Scott’s Insane Choppers out of Lake Havusu, Arizona, won ‘Best of Show’ honors in the 2011 Rat’s Hole Sturgis Bike Show. (M) ‘Big’ Kenny led the Legends Ride out of Deadwood. (R) Jim Guiffra and the AFT Customs girls celebrate their victory in the Performance Custom Class at the 2011 AMD World Championships.
Tesla would be “Comin’ at you Live” later that night. After 25 years of rockin’ and rollin’, the guys can still command the stage. I’m watching from the VIP area in front of the stage with a big grin on my face. The only person happier than me that night was Daryl “Bulldog” Blackley of Obion, Tennessee, who won the Kingpin 8-Ball cruiser customized by Klock Werks Kustom Cycles and the matching Epiphone guitar that went along with it as part of the “30 Years Strong” contest held by the Buffalo Chip and GEICO Insurance.
We headed to Sturgis with a long list of things we wanted to do, people we wanted to see, and places we wanted to visit. And while a week seems like a long time, it’s never enough to do everything we wanted to. We intended on heading over to Devils Tower earlier in the week to ride with Lorenzo Lamas and Ralph Randolph of Knockout Motorcycles to help support the Rumble in the Heartland ride and Operation Homefront. Missed out on a chance to hear Jeff Decker and Michael Lichter talk about the Slant Artist exhibit at the Chip, too, but at least we were able to check it out on our time. Decker’s motorcycle-themed bronze castings are incomparable, and his collection of memorabilia is incredible. There was everything from painting by David Uhl to Kenny Roberts’ leathers from his first GP championship. Decker had plenty of cool stuff from one of his major influences, pictures, posters and cards from Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. His collection of vests from various motorcycle clubs, including a corduroy jacket worn by a member of the 4 Horseman MC from Pasadena to the tattered and torn denim of the Cobras MC out of Nashville was unique, too.
And while I hear grumblings about Sturgis falling into the fickle fingers of commercialism, it’s still Sturgis. The incredible places to ride will forever be there. With a little planning, you can still do it on the cheap. Tents filled the lawns on the houses on both sides of where we stayed. I saw quite a few people tramping outside of town. It will never be the same as the days of camping in City Park, but there’s freedom in the campgrounds at the Buffalo Chip and the Broken Spoke that you won’t find at any other big rally. Then there are the friends you run into. Sturgis gives us a reason to get together once again, to share old stories and make new ones, to embark on new journeys and share in our common bond of motorcycling, premises that never grow old.