Every summer a sleepy South Dakota town roars to life with the arrival of 600,000 bikers from across the globe.
Riding with the Harley herd
If you close your eyes for just a moment and stick your fingers in your ears, you could almost be standing in the middle of a proper wild west town in the heart of the open plains of the US. The main street has all the normal attributes of small-town America. Amongst the smattering of junk stores and restaurants, there's a grocery store, a pharmacy and a very cowboy-esque watering hole that really needs a set of swinging doors and a horse tied up outside.
The problem is, sticking your fingers in your ears won't block the noise of the thousands of thundering, V-twin motorcycles lumbering past you on the street. Because this town is Sturgis, and this is the Black Hills Classic. What that means to Nowheresville and its 6,442 inhabitants is that the world's largest motorcycle rally is once again in town, and it is time to party. Founded in 1936 by the Jackpine Gypsies motorcycle club as a series of flat track races at the nearby dirt bowl, the event has escalated to immense proportions and is now estimated to be the destination for more than 600,000 bikers from across the US, Europe and all four corners of the globe. If you're wondering what more than half a million bikes in one town looks like, I can tell you it looks like a cross between a Clint Eastwood western and a scene from a Mad Max film.
With almost every bike being some kind of Harley derivative, you'll get the chance to see almost every interpretation of what constitutes the brand rolling up and down the centre of town. In one short tour, I saw a bike covered in fur, a completely pink Harley and what appeared to be a John Deere tractor bike/hybrid. Other interesting projects included a small delivery van with a bike front end and an old Cadillac rear end oddly mated to a pair of handlebars with a skinny front wheel. At least the rear passengers were comfortable.
You'll also get to see almost every derivative of what can be considered a human being riding up and down. My two-second notion of getting a tattoo on one of my arms quickly vanished as I realised that nothing short of an armful was going to cut the mustard at Sturgis. The street-front tattoo parlours were doing a roaring trade, with teams of artists working in shifts to keep everyone in ink. On the streets, anyone with more colour than skin proudly shows it all off for everyone to see - in fact, clothing seems fairly optional. Some Sturgis regulars should possibly consider covering up for the sake of everyone else's comfort.
Getting a beverage can be an interesting experience as you struggle past the hordes of revelers and party hosts, all hell-bent on having a good time and hopefully not riding home. Luckily, there's something for everyone and, away from the more questionable establishments, there is a fair bit for the numerous families attending the madness to enjoy. The main street in Sturgis is neatly converted into a two-wheeled parking lot, with a never-ending row of bikes down each side and two further rows back-to-back in the centre. This leaves two tight one-way lanes down each side of the street for the constantly rotating mass of cruisers, bike gangs and grandstanders to do their thing. Kind of like how we park cars in Abu Dhabi.
But the seven-day event wasn't just about showing off bikes and tattoos. Of course, there were daily rides around the twisty roads of South Dakota, ribbons of tarmac that seemed built just for this event. Bands headlined by Aerosmith and country singer Toby Keith played nightly, while other events such as Guns of Freedom - an opportunity to shoot machine gunes - and a Burnout Drag Competition gave everyone a chance to, among other things, make a whole lot of noise.
The only shame is that the manufacturers seem to have highjacked much of the event. I love to have a good look at spare parts and new products as much as the next rider, but in true American style even the daily Sturgis Main Street photograph is proudly brought to you by so-and-so company. Bikers are by nature rather anti-commercial, but then if that's what events like these need to survive and prosper than maybe I'm taking it too seriously?
Commercial complaints aside, Harley-Davidson, along with Victory Motorcycles, traditionally uses the Black Hills Classic to launch its new models each year. This time round, the company had three of them on hand for the press and public to try out. The Wide Glide features a shortened rear fender, black trim and a tommy gun exhaust. It also gets a new low suspension setup for shorter riders. The Fat Boy Special has narrower handlebars and cool black footboards for rider comfort, as well as subtle changes to the fenders, wheels and fuel tank. And the Electraglide Ultra Limited includes a range of items that were previously optional, such as more torque, Brembo brakes, a security system and loads of touring kit. It also gets a natty two-tone paint job and cast aluminium wheels.
The three of these fit in well with the huge variety of fat-tyred cruisers. So how do you sum up Sturgis? Well, for a start, it's a must for any Harley fan. With the brand completely dominating the event, you really do see every part of Harley-Davidson's immense appeal. Sport bike riders will feel like the person turning up to the fancy dress party in a dinner jacket. Importantly, you can dive in as deeply as you want, with some riders operating from the centre of town for the whole week, while others camp out in the nearby parks and towns and take a more selective take on the event. Having done the latter, I'd opt for the first option next time, grow a long straggly beard and sport tassels on my leather jacket. If you follow that advice, just don't expect to get much sleep, unless the rhythmic beat of a Harley twin sends you into a quiet slumber. Judging by some of the characters I saw lounging around every corner of Main Street, that may not be quite so far-fetched. firstname.lastname@example.org