To say the 75th annual Sturgis Rally is significant is an understatement. Sturgis is tradition, and taking part in it honors the millions who have ridden to the Black Hills in the past. It’s an adventure, as no two rallies are the same, and more people pride themselves in riding to Sturgis than any other rally. The ride out deepens the adventure. It brings about fellowship, kindles emotions from chance encounters with long-lost friends, provides ample opportunities to make new ones. It is history, presidents’ faces carved in rock, buffaloes roaming the range, trampin’ in the woods, sleeping next to your motorcycle in City Park. Like everything, it has changed with the times, but listen close and the unbridled spirit of its past still speaks in the shadows of Bear Butte.
With this in mind, it seemed only fitting that our trip to the 75th Sturgis Rally started with a history lesson. This particular lesson was based on a man with strong ties to Sturgis, one Willie G. Davidson. Willie G. is the feature of a special exhibit at the Harley-Davidson Museum, one we had the pleasure of seeing the day before beginning our journey to the rally.
While I’ve always known him for helping save The Motor Company from the AMF years and for the bikes he designed, I never knew the full breadth of his talents as an artist. I wasn’t aware that he didn’t start out in the family business, opting to attend the Art Center School in Pasadena instead. While his name is synonymous with the 1971 FX Super Glide and the 1977 XLCR Sportster café racer, how many knew how talented he is painting with watercolors? Industrial design, automotive, cityscapes, abstract art, he’s demonstrated proficiency in all. Like many artists, he draws inspiration from a myriad of influences, from beadwork on Native American boots to collectible wind-up toys of the Depression era. He was the first design director Harley-Davidson ever had. And while his work speaks for itself, Willie G. is most loved for being one of us, riding among us, with us, a true man of the people.
So I felt highly honored when I got an invite to join two of his offspring, son Bill and daughter Karen Davidson, for the ride out to Sturgis this year. It is the 26th year Bill and members of the Davidson family have made the road trip to the rally from Milwaukee. It’s a special year for Harley at Sturgis as well, from the recent agreement it reached with the City of Sturgis to be the official motorcycle of the rally for the next 75 years to the construction of the Harley Rally Point on Main Street. Harley’s history with Sturgis runs deep, and to be able to celebrate this relationship with members of the founding family will make the 75th a rally to remember for me.
A faint sprinkle greeted us Wednesday morning as we prepared to hit the road. I stuffed a few day’s necessities into the saddlebags of a 2015 Road Glide Special, thankful for their depth and width. Before piling clothes into the left bag, we pulled it off first and tightened up the suspension with a couple clicks of the knob. Running around town the day before the rear felt a little soft for my preference and body weight, but two clicks later it was dialed for rider and load.
The late night shower cleansed the air and kept temperatures down. Rolling through a few construction zones on the way out of town made me grateful we adjusted suspension on the rear as one bump literally bounced me out of my seat. Made me thankful the Road Glide Special’s seat is thickly padded, too. The rider’s triangle is pert near ideal for my six-foot-tall frame and the new raised bars fall naturally in hand. My left thumb keeps busy toggling through radio stations until I’m rockin’ and rollin’.
Soon as we’re out of town, the sweet smell of roadside flowers filters through the air. White, yellow and blue petals of wildflowers stand out against blankets of green. We roll through endless miles of dairy land, red barns and silver-topped silos above waving rows of corn stalks. The road is arrow straight, the scenery broken now and again by the occasion rolling hill.
Karen and Bill Davidson join our entourage just out of town. Karen shoots our group the peace sign as she rumbles to the front of the pack that is now 20-plus bikes strong. It doesn’t take long for us to synchronize, a column of Harleys flowing through traffic in a unison of seasoned riders.
We pit stop for gas in Wisconsin Dells. I power up on regional favorites summer sticks and cheese curds. As they say, “When in Wisconsin …”
The first leg of our journey wasn’t without incident. First, the soft saddlebag of a member of our pack went tumbling down the middle of the road, the rider oblivious his belongings are bouncing behind him down the interstate. A scarier moment came a little further into our journey when the back tire of a loaded-down Crossbones smoked up and blew. Fortunately, a rider in our group shot up next to the young guy on the Crossbones signaling for him to pull over to the space in between the fast lane and the middle divider. He did so just in time as the tire fried and a battle for control of a bike with no traction and useless rear brakes ensued. The ending wasn’t pretty, the rider having to bail last second after kissing the middle divider, but injury was avoided and tires can be replaced. Wouldn’t be a journey without a little drama now, would it.
While cloudless skies and moderate temperatures greeted us the rest of the day, the battle against strong winds was constant, the tides shifting from head-on to crosswinds. Grips remained tight on controls. The giant windmills of Dexter didn’t seem to mind, the winds spinning their triad of propellers in smooth, power-generating arcs.
Riding with Karen and Bill, I see the resemblance to their father in the way they embrace Harley fans. Neither thinks twice about taking time to stop and listen to people that come up to meet them, each with their own tale to share because everyone that approaches them has a story to share about Harley-Davidson. The approach took Willie G. far, and it’s refreshing to see them carry on in the same manner as their father.
Case in point. On our final stop of the day at Bergdale Harley-Davidson in Albert Lea, Minnesota, we met a local old-timer who called himself Willie B. He regaled Bill and me with the story of how Willie G. had stopped inn Albert Lea back in 1989 and how he joined Willie G.’s group for the ride to Sturgis. He also told us his first bike was a 1937 Harley Flathead he bought for $17 that was divided between three boxes. He closed our conversation with the story of how he rode to Alaska at the prime age of 81, the wiry gentleman shooting final words of wisdom our way. “Getting old ain’t for wimps,” he said, a wry smile on his face. Willie B. added he’s headed to the rally Saturday, his 26th year in row. It’s also Bill’s 26th year. Hard to believe their meeting was by chance.
- Hmm, which one should I ride to the 2015 Sturgis Rally on?
- Today's ride to the rally was a trip through America's heartland.
- We spent the day riding through Wisconsin's dairy lands on our way to the 2015 Sturgis Rally.
- Willie G sports a "No AMF" t-shirt after helping rescue The Motor Company from its clutches.