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Anyone who has attended a large-scale rally will tell you that there is a certain point, after the front wheel has turned for home, that a feeling of emptiness can set in, a sensation, as the events of the past few days pass out of sight in your mirrors, that can call into question your very reason for being. OK, not really, but I’ve spent hours reminiscing about a rally as the miles rolled by underneath me on my way home. So, grab your gear and take a virtual ride home with me.
As expected, the 76th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was smaller than last year. Anniversaries with fives and zeros tend to be big with gatherings of this sort. Although the official attendance numbers have not been released, and the response I received when talking with the organizers in preparation for this article was: “In a couple of days.” So, since I’m on deadline, I’ll have to go by my impression and those of other industry folks I know. The consensus was that the 76th was smaller than last year, with participants being roughly on par with a typical non-anniversary year.
This smaller crowd may be undesirable for vendors who are pursuing the American Dream, but attendees experienced some tangible benefits. First, getting around Sturgis proper was significantly easier. Yes, traffic in event centers, like Sturgis or Deadwood or any of the other local hamlets, did come to a stop/crawl in places, but the wait times were shorter and less heat stroke-inducing given the almost ideal temperatures. Out on the highways, the experience was the same. Yes, there were lots of bikers on the roads. However, congestion didn’t slow speeds to a painful level, like in bigger years past.
The South Dakota Highway Patrol posted statistics revealing another benefit of lower attendance. First and most importantly, fatalities were way down in 2016 – to the tune of three compared to 14 last year. The number of injury accidents also moved in the right direction from 114 to 46 injuries. Citations and warnings were up compared to last year, which could point to why the other statistics dropped a little more than would be expected. Ironically, DUI arrests remained relatively constant (or went up per-capita, if you want to look at it that way) from 177 in 2015 to 162 DUI arrests this year. Drug arrests were higher than last year – up six to total 166. Go figure.
While many people attend Sturgis to look at bikes, flamboyantly dressed people (or undressed – as long as they meet the requirements of Sturgis Municipal Code 12.09.01: INDECENT EXPOSURE), and buy cubic tons of t-shirts, a select few schedule their nuptials during the rally. How many? Well, according to the official Sturgis Motorcycle Rally statistics, 122 couples tied the knot in Sturgis proper during the 2015 dates. While that may sound like a lot, the number was 197 during the 60th anniversary at the turn of the century – even with almost 100,000 fewer attendees than on the 75th. Nevertheless, an entire cottage industry seems to have cropped up to fight for those wedding dollars in and around the rally cities. If you like, you can get hitched in a mass wedding for just $150!
If you’re the type that wants to customize your bike or buy souvenirs, last year 916 vendor permits were issued in Sturgis itself – with over 100 of them being listed at the Buffalo Chip alone. Even with the anticipated lower attendance, the vendors were out in similar force this year. A rally attendee could most likely find any motorcycle-related merchandise desired from sidecars to side-draft carburetors, from open-face helmets to open exhausts, or even hand-laid pinstripes to handmade frames, or hand-crafted bodywork to having your body hand-painted.
One of my favorite rally pastimes – aside from watching the shenanigans of the attendees – is looking at the t-shirts, assuredly the vox populi of the rally-goers. As with perhaps every rally I’ve attended, with the possible exceptions of Americade and the Honda Hoot, once you exclude motorcycles (which are featured in almost every design), skulls/skeletons/bones appeared on the highest percentage of shirts – followed closely by innuendo referencing the size of assorted (or is that sordid) body parts. Great stuff to while away an hour or so waiting for dusk to fall and the crazies to come out.
As with t-shirts, every rally has its patch and sticker vendors. I noticed a big uptick in politically-themed wares this year, with the almost ubiquitous t-shirt of the Republican Presidential candidate’s head grafted onto a biker astride a big V-twin of some ilk (though, try as I might, I was never able to find the one featuring Marilyn Monroe as his passenger that I kept bumping into at Daytona Bike Week). While the vendors were clearly cashing in on the Trump obsession – and/or Hillary hate – I didn’t see any information about actually voting. But that’s a topic for another time.
What makes Sturgis a rally that I enjoy attending is the riding. Like the aforementioned Americade and Honda Hoot, Sturgis is nestled in a slice of God’s motorcycle country. Consequently, it is a rider’s rally. When I checked into my first hotel in the heart of Deadwood, I was handed a map that listed many of the popular rides in the area – complete with color coding for difficulty. Taking this as a challenge, my goal became sampling as many of the roads as possible, while maintaining the semblance of doing the job I was sent to do. Sadly, remaining employed meant skipping my planned trip to Badlands National Park because I needed to write my MGX–21 Flying Fortress review. (The sacrifices I make for this job!)
Halfway through my stay in South Dakota, Moto Guzzi pulled up its stakes at the Deadwood hotel and took its deep pockets closer to the demo ride area in Sturgis. So, I was forced to move to lodging that my employer deemed more suitable for my station in life. And what a stroke of luck that was. The Microtel in Rapid City not only gave me an aluminum water bottle to fill and toss in my saddlebag for my jaunts but also threw a welcome barbecue for its guests, grilling up burgers and brats with free keg beer. When the weather turned ugly – complete with hail – the party moved inside, everyone grabbing a seat wherever they could. It was in these cramped quarters, with a beer or two in their bellies, that the riders started telling their stories – which is what I love about motorcyclists.
When it was time to board my plane back to the Left Coast, I did so with a dull ache at the base of my skull to remind me of the miles I’d logged in South Dakota and Wyoming while (somehow) remaining ticket-free – though a highway patrol car did try to push me to my breaking point by leading me for 11 miles through Spearfish Canyon at 34 mph. Out of spite, I returned the next morning on a Moto Guzzi Stornello at twice the speed, living dangerously by pointedly ignoring the pleading of the fuel light. But now, all that remains are the memories, some bug guts that simply won’t wipe off of my helmet, and the deadline I am about to meet with this text.
Until next time, Sturgis.