Harley-Davidson’s 75th Anniversary Brick Ride To Sturgis Rally

Shuttling 75 Bricks Through a Snowstorm to Celebrate 75 Years of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

You don’t want to know where photographer Josh Kurpius was standing to get this shot.©Motorcyclist

Harley-Davidson Motor Company surprised no one this spring when it announced an agreement with the city of Sturgis, South Dakota, naming Harley-Davidson as the Official Motorcycle of the Sturgis Rally for the next 75 (!) years, ensuring the Bar and Shield will shine over the City of Riders until at least the year 2090, good lord willing and Bear Butte Creek don't rise.

Wait a minute—Harley-Davidson wasn't already the official motorcycle of the Sturgis Rally? Could have fooled us. Come the first week of August you can practically hear the so-familiar-it-was-almost-trademarked potato-potato V-twin rumble clear to the Wyoming border. Wander down Main Street during Rally Week and a sharp eye might spot the occasional Gold Wing trike and a growing number of Polaris products, but the vast, overwhelming majority of motorcycles ridden, roped, or trailered to town that week are Milwaukee-made. Making The Motor Company the Rally's official marque is akin to certifying Catholicism as the official religion of Vatican City or sanctioning the Chicago Cubs as patron saints of underachievers everywhere.

Not rain, not sleet, not even snow could stop Harley-Davidson from delivering 75 bricks from Milwaukee to Sturgis by motorcycle.©Motorcyclist

Still, a branding opportunity presents, so in advance of this year’s 75th anniversary celebration—the rally was first held in 1938 but suspended for two years during WWII—luminaries including Sturgis Mayor Mark Carstensen and Harley-Davidson heir Bill Davidson gathered before a small crowd on a sub-freezing morning at the corner of Main Street and newly rechristened Harley-Davidson Way (formerly 2nd Street) to break ground on the Harley-Davidson Rally Point, a permanent, year-round gathering place for fans of the Bar and Shield brand to meet, greet, and even to get married. There were no gilded shovels at this new-generation groundbreaking—instead, AMA Pro flat-track racer Brad “The Bullet” Baker dug a trench with the rear tire of a brand-new Street 750, while freestyle motocross star Carey Hart—grand marshal of the 75th rally—liquefied the rear tire of a LiveWire e-Bike. There was nary a Softail or Fat Boy in sight.

The #BRICKRIDE stopped to visit many H-D dealers along the way.©Motorcyclist

In order to draw a physical, if not spiritual, connection between the Milwaukee Motherland and this new outpost, Harley-Davidson transported 75 bricks—74 ripped from the facade (and courtyard) of its fabled Juneau Ave. factory and a single cornerstone brick taken from its museum building—to Sturgis to be incorporated into the plaza structure. Which is how I found myself in Milwaukee a few days earlier, saddling up on a seemingly carved-from-chrome 2015 Harley-Davidson CVO Street Glide and setting out in a driving snowstorm headed for Sturgis, with a load of “traction-enhancing” masonry packed into the saddlebags.

The #BRICKRIDE was the brainchild of Harley Owners Group (HOG) Regional Manager Thor Robinson, who, despite the fact that he lives in Wisconsin and definitely should know better, first suggested the idea of schlepping the bricks via HOG instead of flatbed in late March—a notoriously volatile weather time in the upper Midwest. Of course it was 50 degrees and sunny the day before the #BRICKRIDE began then 28 degrees and blowing snow at 8:30 a.m. Monday morning when our group went kickstands up at H-D’s corporate headquarters.

Jim Wilcox, owner of Ernie’s Harley-Davidson in Algona, Iowa, was one of the few foolish enough to join the ride.©Motorcyclist

It was sweet irony, then, when Robinson was the first one to dump his bike, parking his $40K CVO Road Glide Ultra tires up at 2 mph in the snow-covered lot of Oconomowoc Harley-Davidson, midway between Milwaukee and Madison. I somehow managed to keep my own CVO Street Glide upright, despite increasingly inhospitable conditions the farther west we rode, deeper into the heart of the storm. What started as a few slushy inches of “wintery mix” in Milwaukee degenerated into nearly a foot of standing snow by the time we arrived at our lunch stop on the banks of the Mississippi River, in Prairie du Chien. “Are the snowmobile trails still open?” our waitress asked quizzically as we trudged into a roadside diner for lunch. “Oh, no,” was all she said after we explained our insane mission. “On motorcycles? On a day like this? Oh, no…”

Eyeballing an original 1980 Low Rider Sturgis edition.©Motorcyclist

It was more sweet irony that we couldn’t escape Wisconsin, even on this most miserable riding day, without first collecting a “performance award” from a Crawford County sheriff. It was written to [name redacted], a Harley-Davidson employee clocked at 69 in a 55 aboard his Freewheeler, making him, as far as we can surmise, likely the first person in the history of motorcycling to be ticketed for speeding on a Harley-Davidson trike. When motorcycles are outlawed, only outlaws will ride trikes.

We woke up the next morning in Mason City, Iowa, greeted again by sub-freezing temps and seven of the filthiest, most cosmetically corrupted motorcycles ever seen. Four of the seven in our convoy were CVOs—H-D nomenclature for Custom Vehicle Operations—denoting these as exclusive (and frightfully expensive) limited editions dripping with chrome and custom paint, the sort of hardware most HOG aficionados only dream about owning. There’s a uniquely perverse pleasure in following a salt-spraying snowplow down a slushy highway aboard a $36,000 machine that most owners wouldn’t even park outside on a cloudy day. Call it moto-karmic payback for all the Dyna Glides transported to Sturgis and other “biker” events hermetically sealed in enclosed trailers. Our guilty pleasure each night was reading the irate commentary unrolling under Harley-Davidson’s daily social media updates, with many of the fans absolutely livid that we would even dare subject these gorgeous machines to such inclement conditions.

Schoony chose the trike specifically to stay out of trouble. Yeah, that didn’t work.©Motorcyclist

To their credit, road captains Robinson and Kris Schoonover, H-D’s racing manager, never backed down or batted an eye, even as we charged down snow-covered highways dodging stuck cars. These guys ride hard. Say what you will about some Harley-mounted weekend warriors, but there are plenty of KTM Adventures that only see dry pavement and sunny skies. And I would wager there are more six-figure-mileage Electra Glides on the road than BMW RTs. It wasn’t until snow turned to bone-chilling, base-layer-soaking rain that melted some of the soft-shelled journalists that Robinson and Schoonover finally relented and allowed us to load the bikes into Rebel One, the post-apocalyptic Freightliner chase vehicle assigned to tail us at the last minute, just in case.

Day three dawned in Rapid City, South Dakota, mercifully close to our final destination of Sturgis. In preparation for our arrival, I brushed up on rally history. The first “Black Hills Motor Classic” was held in 1938, reportedly attracting 200 participants for a “gypsy tour” through the Black Hills and flat-track racing on the short track just outside of town. JC “Pappy” Hoel, a Sturgis Indian dealer and founder of the legendary Jackpine Gypsys riding club, organized the first rally. Pappy’s event grew steadily, attracting 800 people in its second year and eventually snowballing to its modern megalithic status, expected to attract no less than 100,000 fans this anniversary year.

Maybe it's just coincidence that the Sturgis Rally was inaugurated by an Indian dealer and Indian racing fanatic active during the height of the Harley-Indian wars, but this struck me as particularly poetic on the eve of Harley-Davidson's 75-year partnership announcement. I couldn't help but wonder which OEM will lay claim to the rally 75 years from now. Brammo? Hero? But reality kept me from being too critical. My inner cynic scoffed at The Motor Company's outsized excitement over something so inconsequential as changing a street sign, but it was impossible not to be affected by the mayor's heartfelt appreciation for all that Harley-Davidson has done, financially and otherwise, to support this tiny city of barely 7,000 residents over the years. And it's equally impossible not to recognize Harley-Davidson's authentic motorcycle boosterism—go ahead and laugh at pirate-dressed poseurs all you want, but no other motorcycle company inspires more loyalty or ultimately puts more butts in saddles than Harley-Davidson does.

The groundbreaking ceremony turned out to be another endurance event—28 degrees, with a bitter-cold wind blowing down Vanocker Canyon and making the local news anchor’s bare legs look like plucked chicken. But once the dust settled from The Bullet’s rear tire and the last Sturgis civic booster retired to the uterine warmth of nearby Weimer’s Diner and Donuts, the sun finally broke through the clouds and cut in with what felt like the first warmth in days. Thor rounded us up for the ride back to Rapid City and wryly noted that we had more than an hour before the airport shuttle would arrive to begin our journey home. Anyone feel like taking the long way back?

Bill Davidson at the groundbreaking.©Motorcyclist

Robinson lead our small, tight formation out the south edge of town and straight up Vanocker Canyon Road, a perfect stretch of twisty tarmac I’d ridden many times in the past but only during rally week when it’s a fender-to-fender parade of slow-moving baggers. That morning we had the road entirely to ourselves, and, even though it was barely 30 degrees and small pyramids of sand stood sentinel at the apex of every corner, my Harley-issue heated jacket liner kept me crispy and the 110ci Screamin’ Eagle V-twin engine pulled strong and hard. Thor set a quick but careful pace and the Street Glide, unburdened of its brick payload, carved clean, close lines.

I could do exactly this, I thought happily, for another 75 years.