Sturgis. It is what you make it.

BILTWELL STURGIS RALLY 2016_051

Since 1938, the great Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has ebbed and flowed its way from Jack Pine awesomeness to middle-aged mediocrity. In a town of less than 7,000 full-time residents, The Rally brings in an estimated $800 million bucks for the state of South Dakota each year. Last year was the 75th with a reported 739,000 official attendees. Estimates are based on several factors, but are just that—estimates. With no entry fee into the town, no admission required and no way to accurately track riders, the town that wants you to come back compiles data like: number of weddings held, tons of trash hauled and tax dollars collected. Official guesses haven’t been released for 2016, but according to the 6.35 people I spoke with, they estimated it at about half of last year’s crowd. Despite any downturn in attendance, several hundred thousand riders still showed up, and it felt like a pretty big crowd to me.

This was the first year I’ve attended the rally, and I flew in and rode a chopper that was trailered there. My friends and I recently built that bike by hand and I probably rode it 500 miles or so in the few days we spent there. The fact that I rode an airplane to Sturgis instead of my two-wheeled freedom machine kind of rules out any legitimate self-righteousness on my part. I’m not alone however, as the Rally Director went on the record in 2005 with the statement “Less than half the attendees actually rode here.” We had a big plan to ride out and camp along the route but life got in the way and we ended up taking the most expedient methods possible just to make the rally at all. I’ve long said that shared hardship breeds camaraderie, and I’m sure that not riding out made the event a little less awesome for us. Riding for a week to get somewhere to party for a week and then ride home for a week can’t possibly be not fun, right?

This year we hooked up with some friends, hosted the Sportster Showdown at the Buffalo Chip and jammed around the Black Hills on choppers. If you do it right, there are plenty of things in and around Sturgis worth doing. Here’s a few:

1. Riding. The riding through the Black Hills and the Badlands cannot be denied. It is world class. The scenery is as good as it gets and the roads are in the best condition of any state I’ve ridden in. Get an early start in the morning and you’ll have a better chance of getting some twisties to yourself instead of getting stuck behind the boozy slow-movers later in the day.

2. It’s a family reunion. Other than riding the Black Hills, my favorite part was meeting up with old friends and meeting a few new ones. Bear hugs from Roadside Marty, hanging with Led Sled Pat, riding with Bobby from NYC and getting to know the classiest of brothers from Kansas topped the list. If you know a few people, it’s great to see ‘em again. If you don’t, it’s a perfect place to add some new people to your list.

3. People watching. If it’s your sport, this is open season. Folks from all over the world converge on one tiny town and the surrounding venues to provide entertainment the entire time. Most are easy to talk to should you elbow up to the bar. Of course no one is actually from Sturgis so even for someone like me with a decided lack of social graces, it’s pretty comfortable to strike up a conversation with someone over how many times they’ve made the rally, what they are riding, etc.

4. Racing. Hooligan flat track. Hill climbs. Drag racing. Stunt shows. These are the hidden gems that are worth going to. Seriously, nothing beats sitting in the stands watching run-whatcha-brung drags. I always thought V-8 motorcycles were stupid until we watched ‘em rip down the 1/8th mile.

5. Small bike shows. The Horse show at the Full Throttle showcased hand-built choppers from all over as well as yard games, stunt show and a guy hanging a 12-pack off his pierced nut sack. Yup. Our Sportster Showdown at the Buffalo Chip gathered 40+ customized Sporties from around the country in one place. Mothership played the after-party and rumors is that a fantastic Sportster chopper got donated to the band. Joe’s FXR show featured over 50 modded versions of Harley-Davidson’s finest motorcycle.

6. Deadwood. This neat little historic town has good food and a little less of a rally vibe. This is a fantastic place to stay or at least visit and the ride there from Sturgis is short but fun. I’d love to go back here sometime when the rally sin’t in town and stay a few days using it as a base camp for day rides.

7. Riding. Did I mention ripping through twisties with Patrick from S&S on his fire-breathing Dyna?

It’s easy to bitch about the rally, or point out its shortcomings, but even easier to just relax and have fun. If you want to make the trek to this epicenter of Bikerdom, the secret to success is twofold: ride there, and do some research in advance so you know what fun stuff is worth doing.

– Bill