An Idiots' Guide to Sturgis

Aaron and Ari do America

By: Ari Henning, Aaron Frank, 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…”

The Gun Show
All that molten rubber and magic smoke only made the natives restless, so we strapped on our lids and peeled out of there, eastbound and down on Highway 34. We didn’t make it more than 3 miles before Ari was literally stopped in his wheel tracks by a roadside sign reading “SHOOT Machine Guns!” Guns of Freedom advertises itself as “The Ultimate 2nd Amendment Experience.” For a modest fee, you can very immodestly exercise your constitutional right to spray hot lead at a variety of household refuse with your choice of more than 80 fully automatic weapons. No I.D. check, no breathalyzer, no prior experience or proof of mental competence required: Just make your selection from the world’s most lethal photo album, pay a few bucks to the lady behind the counter and the man at the gun table passes back a cocked and loaded weapon.

As a lover of freedom and all things heinously high-powered, Ari spent half his paycheck unloading an AK-47 into an old washing machine and splintering bowling pins with an HK-UMP. He even emptied a few rounds from a Smith & Wesson 500 .50-caliber revolver—a handgun so brutal the owner had only shot it a half-dozen times. “Like fielding a line drive with your bare hands,” is how Ari described the experience. For his finale he took a seat in the “Lawn Chair of Death”—a tripod-mounted, belt-fed, .50-caliber Browning M2 “Ma Deuce” machine gun, spraying a pile of rusty hubcaps with 10 rounds in less than 2 seconds. “Go big or go home,” bikers like to say, and Aaron took this ethos to heart. Never mind that he had never shot a gun in his life; that didn’t stop him from firing a .50-caliber Barrett sniper rifle—the ballistic equivalent of learning to ride a motorcycle on a turbocharged Suzuki Hayabusa. “That’s a hell of a first gun,” was all the range marshal had to say before turning our firearm virgin loose with the long-range arm-cannon. Yes, we earned the commemorative, blaze-orange “GunsofFreedom.com” can koozie each shooter gets at the end of his session.

Great Balls of Fire
High on gunpowder and only mildly concussed, we staggered across the street and entered The Legendary Buffalo Chip campground: Ground Zero for “The Real Sturgis Experience.” The Buffalo Chip is a city unto itself—a self-contained and completely self-sufficient 500-acre compound that becomes the temporary home to 30,000 hardcore party-people every rally week. There are even on-site medical facilities, as well as a church where one can repent his inevitable sins.

Pocketing a pair of Executive VIP all-access passes lifted from Harley-Davidson’s communications officers when they weren’t looking gets us a 10-cent tour with Lon Nordbye, The Chip’s Director of Corporate Partnerships. Sturgis old-timers separate rally history into two distinct periods, Nordbye explains: BBC (Before Buffalo Chip) and ABC (After Buffalo Chip). During the BBC epoch bikers squatted in Sturgis City Park, until inadequate facilities and constant harassment by cops led to a riot that culminated in bikers dousing a dozen porta-johns in gasoline and setting them on fire. The Great Sturgis Sh*tter Fire of 1981 inspired local lawyer and notorious Sturgis party animal Rod “Woody” Woodruff to establish a bikers-only campground and party-pit on the edge of town, where bikers could be free to park their machines without being hassled by The Man. The Buffalo Chip was born.

Touring the compound with Nordbye in the back of a Polaris side-by-side, the Buffalo Chip looks like the set from a Mad Max movie. Campers roam dusty dirt roads on all manner of crazy homemade conveyances including motorized couches, go-karts pulling kegs on trailers and countless minibike choppers. Portable stripper poles and dancing cages outnumber picnic tables in this campground.

“Wanted: Fun, topless women,” reads one sign. Don’t we all? Private Property privileges means anything goes at The Chip, and everywhere we turn we see evidence of more outrageous, alcohol-fueled, adults-only madness. Pickle-licking contests. Midget bowling. Bra auctions. The random gay cowboy, complete with dyed-pink goatee and de rigueur assless chaps. Thankfully, before we gamble away all our beer money trying to ride Colonel Tom’s Crazy Bike (which goes left when you steer right, and vice-versa), the opening chords of “No More Mr. Nice Guy” ring out from the main stage and remind us it’s time to catch the show.

In addition to the campground chaos, The Buffalo Chip bills itself as the World’s Largest Motorcycle Music Fest, each year hosting dozens of international touring acts. Legendary shock-rocker Alice Cooper is tonight’s headliner, and we beat feet to the concert venue, taking advantage of the “Chip Zip” zip-line—of course there’s a zip-line—to soar like superheroes 50 feet above the sweaty, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. “I’m coming through with a group of young corporate executives,” Nordbye says into his handheld with a completely straight face, and soon we’re standing in the Top Shelf VIP lounge, watching Alice and his ace five-piece burn through blistering versions of “School’s Out” and “Eighteen.” Two hours later, Cooper ends an epic set by ceremonially beheading himself with a giant guillotine. Instead of cheering, the assembled crowd—most of whom are sitting on motorcycles—rev their engines. Cooper reappears for a three-song encore, head firmly attached to his neck, proving once and for all that loud pipes really do save lives!

Bikers4Life
We beat it out of The Buffalo Chip shortly after Alice’s encore. Having survived the burnout pit, the machine-gun range and the backstage buffet line, we feared sticking around for the after-party might be pressing our luck, even for a couple of Sturgis-caped crusaders like us. Quit while we were ahead—and while Aaron’s nose ring remained intact. Considering all the chaos we courted, we came away unscathed. Despite a debauched reputation, Sturgis is an overwhelmingly friendly event. Even our photographer, Tom Riles, commented on the mellow vibe. “Daytona and Laconia are a bunch of East Coast wannabe thugs. All those guys want to do is show you how tough they are, and how much noise their bikes make,” Riles says. “This is the Midwest. These people are way too nice for stupid bullsh*t like that!”

So, what’s not to love about Sturgis? Riding in the nearby Black Hills is stunning, whether you’re dragging boot heels on the serpentine roads of Wind Cave National Forest or dodging buffalo, elk and antelope in Custer State Park. And where else besides The Buffalo Chip can you toss a midget, jam out to Def Leppard and fire off a few .50-caliber rounds with just one wristband? Sturgis was full of surprises—the biggest one being that we didn’t see a single bare breast! The imported talent working the bars wasn’t giving anything away for free, and we undoubtedly left The Chip too early for the complimentary cabaret to get underway. That was probably for the best, however. It was already going to be hard enough to explain to our wives why our luggage smelled like gunpowder and burnt rubber. At least we didn’t have to explain away any errant coco butter or glittery stripper dust…

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Deauville_2010
Your article has left me undecided on whether death by motel fire or attending the biker rally would be worse.
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