Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Freedom isn't free

Sturgis motorcycle rally is big fun, but bring your wallet

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Thanks to colourful reports from countless friends who have been there and done that, my mind's eye had surely conjured up a reasonable facsimile of what it would be like to attend the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota.

My imagination anticipated hundreds of thousands of leather-clad bikers on chrome-laden iron horses invading an otherwise sleepy town for a week of beer and flesh fuelled debauchery.

Since it was my first trip to Sturgis, I really had no idea what to truly expect, but after a week of absolute motorcycle mayhem it's safe to report my imagination was fairly accurate.

More on that in a minute. First up, here's a little background on my journey.

Rather than ride my 2011 Harley-Davidson Road King to the rally, I opted to haul my custom 1997 HD Sportster in the back of my Chevrolet pickup. As much as riding my new bike to the rally sounded like an epic adventure, the thought of sleeping in a tent or spending big bucks on a noisy motel room wasn't my idea of fun. Instead, I opted to camp in my recently purchased Little Guy teardrop trailer, (it's basically a king-size bed wrapped in swoopy fibreglass).

With the bike safely strapped into the back of my pickup and the Little Guy towing behind me jammed with camping essentials like a mini-fridge and a portable air-conditioning unit, last Tuesday evening I made my way solo to the largest motorcycle rally in the world.

Despite torrential rain throughout North Dakota, the 1,300 kilometre drive to Sturgis was fairly uneventful. I was able to sleep in my Little Guy for a couple of hours at a truck stop along the way and arrived at the Ride 'N' Rest campground just after lunch on Wednesday. With the assistance of a couple of helpful neighbours, my bike was unloaded from the back of my truck and I was finally on two wheels. My campground was only about three kilometres from the town of Sturgis, but it was a slow trek. The speed limit on the highways near Sturgis is reduced to 35 mph (56 km/h) and a seemingly endless parade of motorcycles fills all traffic lanes in both directions.

When I finally hit town, it was a classic case of sensory overload. The streets are not only packed with motorcycles, but every parking lot in town is jammed with vendors selling everything from key chains and patches for a few bucks to complete custom motorcycles valued at $50,000 or more. Although there were more motorcycles than I'd even imagined possible, it was the sheer number of people at Sturgis that really shocked me. Thousands of revellers hoot and holler at the passing motorcycles and the air is filled with the pungent aroma of exhaust fumes blended with myriad fried-food offerings from countless vendors. Hairy men covered in tattoos flank scantily clad women in bikinis containing about as much material as an eye patch. Bohemianism is alive and well in America and a large percentage of the bikers who converge on Sturgis wear their individuality like a badge of honour. Fear not, fellow Manitobans -- despite the sweltering heat I kept my shirt on.

It can easily be argued Sturgis is ground zero for the latest trends in the custom motorcycle world. Nowadays, stretched bikes with extended front forks like the ones built by the Teutel's of Orange County Choppers and Jesse James of West Coast Chopper fame are few and far between. This year it was all about baggers, or big motorcycles with an eye on long-distance touring that feature front fairings that slice through the wind and saddle bags that can easily carry enough gear for a serious road trip. Many of these bikes not only feature insane paint jobs and enough bling to make a jeweller jealous, they also have custom stereo systems that pump out enough decibels to rival most nightclubs. For the first time ever, I witnessed with my own two ears a motorcycle that featured a stereo system loud enough to completely drown out the thunderous roar from the exhaust pipes of every other motorcycle in its vicinity.

The vast majority of the bikes at Sturgis, however, are basically stock Harley-Davidson machines that represent practically every model the brand has ever manufactured. It's not all Harleys, though; if you look closely, you can surely spot every brand of motorcycle ever made. Another trend that was apparent was the large number of trikes, or three-wheeled motorcycles, that were on the streets. As the motorcycle demographic continues to age, it's a sure bet you can expect to see even more of these rider-friendly mounts on our streets in the near future.

After touring town on my Sportster for a few hours, I returned to the campground for a quick shower, then hopped on one of the shuttle buses that cart folks around to the many bars in the area. With a cold beer in my hand at the Knuckle Saloon, I met up with a pair of Alberta brothers who had just received fresh Canadian flag tattoos on their respective forearms. As they were feverishly trying to convince me to also get some ink (I declined), a bell rang and a pair of tough-looking young men climbed into a ring in the centre of the bar. The fight was on. Watching people from the crowd basically throw their hat in the ring, then climb in it to exchange punches and kicks was akin to Clint Eastwood's character Philo Beddoe in the 1978 movie Every Which Way But Loose. At the end of each fight, spectators crumple up dollar bills and throw them into the ring. The winner gets to sweep up the money. At first, I was a bit freaked out by all the violence and the crowd's seemingly unquenchable thirst for it, but after watching for a few minutes it occurred to me it wasn't really that much different than many of the hockey games in which I've participated.

Following the fights, I walked the streets for about an hour, and although the entire scene is a bit overwhelming, I never felt threatened at all. Police presence is abundant. Although I never witnessed any of it, the statistics suggest Sturgis can be a scary place. According to an Associated Press report, the South Dakota Highway Patrol says nine people died at the rally as a result of motorcycle-related crashes. An astounding 251 people were arrested for impaired driving during the event, up from 235 last year. Misdemeanour drug arrests were also up, to 185 from 149, but felony drug arrests were down, to 34 this year from 43 last year. The streets seemed to be getting a little rowdy when the clock struck midnight, so I hopped back on the bus and returned to the sanctity of my campground.

Early Saturday afternoon, I rode over to the Full Throttle Saloon to watch the burnout contest and quickly got caught up in the action. Although my bike doesn't have enough ponies to actually win, I figured my rear tire could afford to give up a little tread in the name of some quality entertainment. My smoke show may not have been the best in the house, but if the slaps on the back and high-fives I received from the crowd were any indication, my little Sportster lived up to its tough-looking paint job. It's a good thing it was the final day of the rally because, as an added bonus, I managed to fry the clutch on my bike in about 37 seconds. I keep telling my conscience (and my wife) the clutch in question was nearing the end of its life, so no real harm was done. I limped the bike back to the campground and hopped back on the bus for the final night of sightseeing.

The rally was big fun, but for me the beautiful scenery and the twisty highways that surround Sturgis was the real attraction. Seeing the Crazy Horse monument for the first time in my very first helicopter ride was without question the highlight of my summer vacation. Witnessing thousands of proud Americans gaze up at Mount Rushmore was also pretty cool.

Ultimately though, there was one underlying thing about the entire Sturgis experience that bugged me: The cost! Case in point -- there is a set of chrome highway pegs for my Road King I've been coveting at Harley-Davidson Winnipeg for a couple of months now. I surmised they would likely be cheaper at the rally, so I looked around while at Sturgis and found the exact same setup. It surprised me they were almost $100 more expensive than here at home. Basically everything from a piece of pizza to a cold beer to new pipes on your motorcycle and even a tattoo is abundantly more expensive in Sturgis. Ultimately, all I bought was a few trinkets for my buddies, a couple of T-shirts for myself and some nice native-American jewelry at the Crazy Horse monument for my wife and daughter.

As much as I enjoyed myself and made some great new friends at the Ride 'N' Rest campground, (a spot I'd highly recommend), perhaps I was a bit too old and dare I say too wise for my first trip to Sturgis. After a week there, I'm looking forward to the serenity of Manitoba car shows. Thankfully there are still a few great ones remaining... and I won't have to break the bank to attend them.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2012 F4

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