An Idiots' Guide to Sturgis

Aaron and Ari do America

By: Aaron Frank, Ari Henning, Photography by Aaron Frank, Ari Henning, Riles & Nelson, The Buffalo Chip

Our co-workers warned us. “Sturgis is like cheap tequila,” said Tim Carrithers. “Try too much the first time and you'll never touch it again.” Brian Catterson was less ambiguous: “Get ready for lots of bare breasts. Unfortunately, most you won’t want to see...”

Neither of us had much enthusiasm for the booze-boobs-and-bellies lifestyle, thus we typically avoided large biker rallies. The two of us “Sturgins”—shorthand for Sturgis virgins—looked forward to our maiden voyage to the 71st Annual Black Hills Motorcycle Rally with a mixture of boredom and loathing. “I just want to get through this without getting my nose ring yanked out,” was Aaron’s sole request. With such sentiments weighing on us, we felt something like relief when the Rapid City Holiday Inn’s fire alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. the first morning of the rally. This is a fire alarm, a robo-voice blared from the flashing wall unit. Exit the building while we investigate. We just pulled our pillows over our heads and went back to sleep. Death by fire seemed like an acceptable alternative to spending the day in Sturgis…

It’s Not a Motorcycle, It’s a Chopper
The fiery inferno turned out to be a false alarm, so we accepted the inevitable and aimed our Wild Hogs north toward Sturgis. Aaron hit the highway old-school on a raked and flamed Wide Glide, while Ari went the hipster-bobber route mounted on a Nightster 1200. Step one to avoid detection is blending in, right? Recently furloughed from separate, Harley- and Victory-sanctioned press launches, we stood out in our full-coverage protective riding gear, so stopped at the first roadside vendor on the way to Deadwood to purchase some proper Sturgis camouflage.

A bitchin’ biker costume begins with the right sleeveless “blowout shirt.” Just like Cal Naughton’s tuxedo T-shirt, the blowout is classy and casual at the same time. Button-down collars are formal, but fringed armholes say we’re here to party! Bypassing questionable choices like one reading “F**k you, I have enough friends.” or an American-flag embossed “Try burning this one, a**hole!,” Aaron selected a black-and-white tie-dye with a chopper/guns graphic, while Ari opted for a classic jungle-camo pattern with a pinup girl/atomic bomb motif. Donning our “Sturgis Capes” closed a circuit in our brains and calmed our nerves, enabling us to ride into the lions’ den of Main Street.

Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em!
The self-proclaimed “City of Riders” looked more like a “City of Idlers” when we finally rolled into town. Our first pass down the 12-block stretch of Lazelle Street that anchors Sturgis’ commercial scene took a half-hour due to the crowds of bikes, bikers, pedestrians and slow-moving rental cars full of rubber-necking tourists. Oh, well—the better to watch an endlessly varied procession of motorcycles, everything from candy-chromed choppers to grimy rat-bikes to homebuilt trikes and V8-powered behemoths. When we tired of the mechanical sideshow, we shifted our gaze 90 degrees starboard to check out the sidewalk parade. Reading T-shirts—witty, raunchy, courageous or all of the above—was always entertaining. Almost as much fun was eyeballing the amazing variety of bodies held within—occasionally gorgeous, more often grotesque.

The tiny town of 5981 residents looked to be positively overrun with tattooed biker trash and their tag-along tramps—or at least dentists and paralegals ready to play those roles for the next week or so. Lawns were carpeted with tents and vendor stalls, and driveways were transformed into Harley-only oil-changing stations. The situation was slightly more manageable on Main Street, which was closed to everything but motorcycles. Bikes were parked “Sturgis-style” along both curbs and straddling the centerline, leaving paths just wide enough for two to pass by. Overgrown rent-a-cops in gray polo shirts were posted at every intersection, keeping the action orderly. Looking for something a bit more rambunctious, we returned to Lazelle Street and rode right through the front door of the world-famous Broken Spoke Saloon, drawn like moths to a flame by the hand-lettered sign advertising “BURNOUT PIT!”

Even at 2:00 p.m. the “World’s Biggest Biker Bar” is firing on both cylinders. Nearly naked go-go dancers grind against one another on the bar, while glassy-eyed, gorilla-sized goons pound Jack-and-Cokes and glare at Aaron’s “booger jewelry” like they want to rip it from his face. Anxious to cut the tension and build some credibility with the local crew, we make our way to the burnout pit at the center courtyard. The square slab of concrete is covered with skid marks and an ominous-looking oil stain. “Yeah, some knucklehead’s Knucklehead puked its guts last night,” Broken Spoke owner and emcee Jay Allen tells us. “Now, let’s line up those shiny new Harleys…”

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Your article has left me undecided on whether death by motel fire or attending the biker rally would be worse.
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