STURGIS, S.D. — Early every August for going on a century, eastern Wyoming and western South Dakota experience a surge in two-wheeled visitation.
From Spearfish to Rapid City, highway speeds are reduced to that of your average Fourth of July parade. Room rates triple, if they can be found at all. Beer goes for $10 a red Solo cup.
This rural Black Hills blowout is the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally — 10 days of nonstop party-’til-you-flop, black leather brouhaha.
This year marks the 83rd annual celebration that will draw some half-million to enjoy concert-going, shopping and plenty of elbow-bending. It began Friday and runs through Aug. 13.
This is Woodstock with wheelies, spring break for baby boomers. It’s a bikers’ Burning Man that has gentrified over the decades, but still packs enough debauchery to turn from PG-13 to R when the sun sets.
I’m seated at the counter of a local spot in Rapid City next to a man who is agitated, ravenous and wounded. It’s 1:45 am, and they say nothing good happens after 10.
The man’s right forearm is clumsily wrapped in gauze. He works nervously on a stack of hotcakes as blood seeps through the bandage and streaks the countertop every time he reaches for more syrup.
“You’re bleeding on my counter,” the waitress says.
Her nametag reads “Maude” and she is every bit that, likely a veteran of every waffle house, luncheonette and truck stop diner this side of Tecumseh.
“Sorry,” the biker says.
“Well, warsh up or git out. I can’t have you ruining the dining experience for the other customers,” she says.
I’m the only other one in the building. They both fix a gaze my way. I shrug.
The biker sighs, drops a crinkled $10 next to his plate and crams his maw full with a folded-up pancake as he stomps out.
Native Americans dubbed this craggy desolate area of western South Dakota “The Badlands.” That’s about right in every respect.
Too Big To Fail
Just how big a deal is the rally?
The numbers are astounding. A city of some 7,000 residents hosts 70 times that many sweaty bodies every August.
More than 500,000 descended on the City of Riders last year. That was down 5.4% from 2021’s 525,000. The 75th anniversary of the famed gathering in 2015 drew nearly 750,000.
Sales tax revenues to the city amount to somewhere between $1.5 million and $2 million for a 10-day run. And it’s not just from beer and T-shirt sales.
The lodging industry lives for the first two weeks of August. Rooms in Sturgis, Rapid City, Spearfish and Deadwood book out a year in advance. RV spots rent like five-star Vrbo experiences.
There are more than 40 pawn shops in the Black Hills area, most run extended hours during bike week.
Indian Motorcycles, J&P Cycles, Sturgis Harley-Davidson, RideNow Powersports, Midwest Motorcycle, Sasha’s Cycles of Sturgis and Chub Bros. Hot Rod & Custom are just some of the bike-related outfits that will run nonstop to serve the masses.
More than a dozen area retailers rent motorcycles for those without a steel horse.
Too far to ride? There are at least 15 companies that offer white glove shipping of your hog to Sturgis from anywhere in the U.S.
Official vendors hawk everything from jewelry to Jack Daniels. The Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame might see five visitors all day on a Saturday in October. During the rally, if the air conditioning is working, it’ll be wall-to-wall until closing time.
To A T
There’s hubbub at a popup souvenir stand. A bearded biker the size of Mount Rushmore is admiring a “Sturgis MC, Est. 1938” T-shirt with elaborate graffiti artwork.
An irate Pakistani woman with a Square credit card reader in one hand and a laminate event lanyard reading “Official Vendor” hanging from her neck is giving the biker the what for.
“This isn’t some souk in Dubai. This isn’t a Saturday garage sale. We don't dicker,” exclaims an exasperated hawker. “I paid $1,500 to be here and you are going to pay $27.50 for that T-shirt if you want it.”
“I don't know,” says the man sheepishly. It would take a herd of heifers to supply the amount of leather he is wearing on this 88-degree day.
The vendor snatches the shirt back from the biker and begins folding it neatly. Her fingernails as long as golf pencils and sharpened to a point. She mumbles to herself in Urdu.
T-shirts say everything you need to know about this Black Hills region. From Deadwood to Rapid, this is T-shirt country; proud of its bands and beer. AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pantera intermingle with Pabst Blue Ribbon, Budweiser and Coors.
If chinos mark Californians, flannel the Midwest and pearl snap shirts say Texas, western Dakota — especially during bike week — is all about the T. Women sport tank tops reading “Ride This” and men wear anything with a skull or a flag on it.
Sturgis is 4,593 miles from Paris, France, but it feels like more. Fashion for this crowd is wallet chains, skull rings and beard braids. These are loud Americans to a T.
Try This In A Big City
All eyes were on Sturgis in 2020 when a decision was made to hold the rally despite the pandemic. With the world firmly in the grips of COVID-19 — shelter-in-place mandates, masks everywhere and air travel all but grounded — the boisterous bike rally was greenlighted anyway.
It was just the kind of thing one would expect of the outlaw spirit alive and well in The Badlands. With the blessing of Gov. Kristi Noem and an 8-1 city council vote, the famed Mardi Gras of motorcycles was held Aug. 7-16, 2020, even as the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention and its soldiers wagged their fingers.
Superspreader event, they warned.
Mayor Mark Carstensen made masks available and urged social distancing, but very little of either was exercised, according to most eyewitnesses. An N95 mask is a hard sell for inked-up bike bangers who often eschew helmets.
The hottest ticket at the rally that year was a T-shirt proclaiming: “Screw COVID. I went to Sturgis.”
Attendance was down, but not by much. An estimated 462,000 and change forked their bikes, grabbed their ape hangers and flaunted Fauci’s pleas.
When the event was later blamed for a surge in COVID cases, Noem said hogwash. “Fiction,” “made up” and “back-of-the-napkin math” is actually what Noem called a San Diego State University report that stated some 260,000 or more positive cases were linked to Sturgis.
The next year, with the variant Delta surging and fear-mongers again forecasting doom, Noem doubled-down. Not only did she endorse the event in 2021, she attended, taking part in the Buffalo Chip Legends Ride on her own Indian Motorcycle.
“The Sturgis Rally is one of the biggest gatherings for motorcycle enthusiasts in the world. While the rally has always promoted an independent spirit, these past two years have taken on a new meaning of freedom,” Noem declared on Facebook in August 2021. “Many of the visitors to whom I’ve spoken say they’re coming to South Dakota specifically because it reminds them of the America they grew up in. Free. Independent. Unburdened by the constraints and headaches that big cities and liberal ideology force upon them.”
“No, man. Just no.”
A squirrelly guy behind the counter of a pawnshop in Spearfish, who could pass for Steve Buscemi’s brother, stares down a pimply kid who is wailing a Guns ‘N Roses lick on a used Gibson 70s Explorer. It has an $899 price tag dangling off it, so it must be some kind of knockoff. The real deal goes for over 2 grand.
“That’s a forbidden riff,” continues the pawnshop clerk who has more tattoos than teeth.
The kid holds his hand over the strings. The Orange Crush amp buzzes. He’s still not getting it.
“No ‘Smoke on the Water,’ no ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ no Nirvana whatsoever. It’s basic etiquette, man. Everyone knows this.”
The kid scans the clientele for sympathy.
“It’s true,” pipes up a guy dressed in camo testing the rigging on a compound bow the next aisle over.
“How many times you think they’ve heard that riff in here butchered by some jukebox hero?” adds a skinny longhaired dude wearing in a vintage Metallica Damage, Inc. 1986 tour T-shirt and twirling a drumstick with some degree of skill.
“Too many,” assures Buscemi’s brother. After a pause he addresses the drummer dude. “How much’ll you take for that T-shirt?”
“So, you’re saying I can't play certain things on this here guitar that I might want to buy because you’re sick of hearing them?”
“That’s about right,” bro Buscemi says.
“I guess you don't want to make a sale that bad.”
“No, not that bad.”
This annual two-wheeled wingding is not your grandmother’s Coachella. Wait, that’s not true anymore. It is exactly your grandmother’s Lollapalooza.
One look at the 2023 concert lineup should be an indication of the festival’s target audience. Styx, REO Speedwagon, Def Leppard and ZZ Top were banging out hits on vinyl and cassette tape to teenagers some 50 years ago.
It’s this generation that has the disposable income to park a $50,000 bike outside a $300-a-night 2-star motel for 10 days of concertgoing at $86.38 per show (souvenir T-shirt and biker patch not included).
Actual motorcycle owners and riders are aging out as well. Since the 1980s, the average age of bike owners his steadily climbed from 27 years old in 1985 to 50 in 2018.
It’s been a minute since “Easy Rider” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild” in 1969.
While the average age of Sturgis-goers is generally trending toward AARP, a recent study by Texas A&M University found a slight decrease in ages since 2015. The average age of attendees in 2022 was 50.8, down from 53.1 just seven years ago.
Truly, the shift in demographics at Sturgis has been felt in recent years. Event programming and marketing has been tweaked to attract first-time attendees and bikeless tourists, said city manager Daniel Ainslie.
Today’s rally attendee is similar to those original outlaws in the 1940s, the renegades through the 1970s and the hipsters of the 1990s. The difference is everything they’re wearing now is brand new, their purchases are made with platinum cards and Metamucil replaces methamphetamine as the drug of choice.
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has not quite gone corporate, but it’s not exactly the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club.
One thing this tailgate wingding has come to personify, a brand that is alive and well on Main Street Sturgis USA and reverberates louder than the throaty exhaust pipe rumble of 100,000 motorcycles, is a message of freedom.
Like the state’s governor puts it, “Under God, the people rule — and ride free on the open roads of South Dakota.”