Road to Sturgis - Don’t Eat The Road Corn

A Second Bite of Sturgis

There are two kinds of people who make the journey to Sturgis, South Dakota, in August: those who have been there and those who haven’t. I’ve been there. Twice. First time, I rode from Florida on a first-gen V-Max. My wife was not amused. She wanted a visor, gloves, a jacket, all sorts of coochie-coo luxury items that wouldn’t strap onto the Max’s flared-lip rear fender.

The earth was a cooler, moister place last time. Like 40 degrees and raining. We camped in a leaking tent surrounded by mud. The campground bathrooms were rotten plywood pit-outhouses held a foot above the ground on spindly two-by-four legs. Cold wind blew under the raised portion causing a positive pressure wave that drew a pungent slap of alcohol and sick through the splintered wood toilet seat whenever the outhouse door was opened. Standup work was impossible—one hard gust and you’d be wearing your issue. We had one sleeping bag, no fire, no food, no idea how feral human beings conducted themselves at a motorcycle rally.

She took a plane home.

Now Sturgis gets another chance. This time will be different. For one, my wife won’t be along punching my rib cage in a futile attempt to stop the bike. For two, I am on a huge, fully equipped Victory Cross Country Tour super-highway inhaler. And for three, John Flores (Road Runner magazine), Greg Drevenstedt (Rider magazine), Rusty Creed (Allstate insurance) and I are doing the trip in style, cutting into Victory’s profit margin every glorious mile as the company’s PR geniuses are footing our room and board for this epic journey. This is a company that knows how to travel, so forget the outhouses and cold-water shower. I can guess what you’re thinking right now: The world needs more expense-account heroes. Petty jealousy doesn’t look good on you.

It all starts in Vegas, lending this journey the working title Strip-to-Chip. Leaving the Las Vegas Palazzo hotel’s perpetual twilight, confusing corridors and noisy, desperate casino brings us into 100-degree heat and rain. The big metallic-asphalt Victory slithers over roads wet for the first time in months. Manny Pandya, Victory’s PR savant, has laid out a circuitous, 1700-mile route that celebrates the twisting road, eschews the interstate, and promises a good time for our small group. Our first day’s ride is spent playing hopscotch with thunderstorms and scorching sun.

We rumble into The Valley of Fire not to get burned but to use my National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. The annual NPFRLP costs around $80 and allows unfettered passage into most of our National Parks. Poor Manny is back there forking out entry fees for the other guys. Later, I make a point of telling him how much money he’s saving by having Motorcyclist along. He remains unconvinced.

You’d think there’d be some sort of writerly competition between moto-magazine flacks but the only thing we really seem to care about is branded swag. Flores has a nice collared shirt embroidered with Road Runner’s logo for every day of the week. I got nothing, not even a Motorcyclist sticker for my helmet. Flores lords it over me constantly.

Riding into Escalante, Utah, Airstream trailers and a drive-in theater perch on the side of a normally dry river. This place is cool. Manny has made the Shooting Star Drive-In our stop for the night. We each are assigned a movie-star themed Airstream. Mine is the Key Largo with buoys, nets and a bunch of Bogart and Bacall stuff. Rusty gets the Marilyn Monroe unit complete with blow-up Marilyn doll. Mark, the owner/creator of the Shooting Star Drive-In cruises the grounds on a vintage three-wheel golf cart wearing a Hawaiian shirt. It’s freaky-deaky, man.

Classic cars parked bow-high are the seating for the drive-in. Tonight’s show is “The Wild Ones,” starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin. Stumbling through the dark to the theater, Flores casually mentions to me that no one has ever left the Shooting Star Drive-In alive. Sitting alone in my Cadillac, snatches of conversation blow in with the night air, nervous laughter…. murmurs. Clouds roll over the moonlight. It’s so dark. Besides the flickering black and white scenes of mayhem playing across the screen, the Caddie’s radio dial is the only light. What year is this? Sounds….did someone say road corn? Nah, must’ve been popcorn. Had to have been popcorn. I roll up the window and lock the door. Drafty in here.

Marlon gives the soda-fountain chick his ill-gotten trophy and the movie ends. The screen darkens, the cars fall silent, and a ghostly pall descends. We grope our way back to the trailers. Starlight, star bright, don’t let the chainsaw-wielding mass-murderer get me tonight!

Everything from moonscapes to wild, pink smudge-castles to multi-colored layers of geologic history line Utah’s Highway 95. And if it wasn’t 103 degrees and we weren’t running out of gas, I could relax and enjoy it. These big Victorys are getting around 40 mpg for a 200-ish range. We've travelled 189 miles and the dash computer display is nagging me “Get gas, you idiot!”

Manny’s route becomes more diabolical as the trip wears on. He threatened us with epic and I must say he’s delivering. Lanes shrink smaller and smaller until short sections of dirt road appear ahead of the CCTour’s fairing. This is adventure bike territory, not ideal for full-boat touring rigs. Out of their element, the 800-pound Victorys still exhibit excellent off-road behavior (within reason). The anti-lock brakes work well in the dirt. Go ahead and grab a handful—the front won’t wash out.

Colorado roads climb, the air thins and our pace quickens. I’m grinding on tight right-handers, touching down something hard, inflexible, not the floorboards. I’d look under the bike to see what’s hitting but I don’t want these yokels posting more compromising poses on Facebook. Anyway, it doesn’t hit often, and on left-handers even less so. You really have to lean over to get these bikes to touch down. Drevenstedt sounds like a friggin’ body shop streaking by on the Vision, floorboards smashed onto the pavement. Kids these days. I kick up the volume of the four-speaker, XM satellite radio and shower down on the throttle to keep pace with the lead group. I got my pride.

Time to swap bikes, Victory’s version of full-immersion therapy. The Ness Special felt different enough from my asphalt-colored stocker to warrant a check of rear-shock pressure. Zero, just like the CCT’s, it turns out. On the Ness, it’s probably just the short windshield but I swear the bike felt a wee bit tauter and the teeniest bit sportier. The Ness front speakers were also upgraded but it will take a finer ear than mine to hear the improvement; maybe the shorty faring lets in more wind noise negating the bump in speaker-age.

With 40 psi in the rear shock, dragging floorboards becomes a once, maybe twice-a-day event. I thought the bike handled well before but the jacked-up rear end takes 100 pounds off the bike. Of course, that still leaves you 700 lbs. to deal with.

Out of Fort Collins we drop down into the plains of Nebraska and into the Victory Cross Country Tour’s wheelhouse. Long, straight roads, pounding along at 80-90 mph—it doesn’t get any more perfect for these big-boned touring bikes. The CCT is a highway star: comfortable, smooth, lots of wind protection with just enough agricultural clatter to let you know you’re on an American-made motorcycle. The other guys think endless vistas of grasslands and road corn is kind of boring but I’m digging it. It’s nothing like Florida.

Time to swap motorcycles again, a process with a bit of an Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First” vibe. The problem with this Victory-shuffling business is that the damn things have so much luggage capacity that it’s like moving your stuff across town from one apartment to another. Man, I got socks drying on the line, those little green-foil hotel mints melting into the top box, stolen Road Runner wear, two stray cats have taken up residence in the left saddle bag, and it depresses me no end to see what a pig-pen I’ve made of the CCT’s storage in just a few days. You really should hire a maid if you own one of these bikes.

The Black Hills south of Sturgis give us one more taste of freedom, twisting and turning in canyons and buffalo meadows. Long conga lines of slow-moving motorcycles start appearing, requiring not only downshifting to pass but proper lane etiquette to avoid “dissing” the Congolians.

Sturgis is everything you’ve heard. There’s a guy with a dog cage on his bike, another on a custom Victory chopper. Lots of tiny femmes on too-big motorcycles appear ready to topple over at the slightest breeze. The Sturgis rally is Harley-Davidson’s house to be certain but Victory has its engineer boot firmly jammed into the front door.

The closer we get to Sturgis the slower we go. We come to a standstill on Lazelle, smack in the belly of the beast. Creeping along in 100-degree heat, wanting an oil change badly, my Victory has acquired a few extra neutrals in its gearbox. Still, the engine is running fine on both cylinders, which is more than I can say for some of the bikes around me. Or maybe they only sound that way.

We park the bikes at the Victory-Indian tent compound across the street from H-D’s setup. Coincidence, I’m sure. Flores and I walk Main Street. Even the Hell’s Angels have a storefront here, not something you run across every day.

Thumping V-twins of all shapes and sizes shudder and weave on parade. All around is the smell of gasoline, greasy food, humans and heat. The sulfur-eating tubeworms found in the ocean’s deepest abyss would feel right at home feeding on Sturgis’ Technicolor combustion. We’re here sucking it in, man, sailing on an ocean of petroleum haze. One sniff, one glance, and you know you’re the kind of person who has been to Sturgis.

The Cross Country's wheelbase is so lengthy, it’s possible to both enter and exit a hairpin at the same time. The 1700-mile
People in Alliance, Nebraska, have been setting their clocks to Carhenge for thousands of years. Fortunately, they don’t have to be anywhere on time.
Hundreds of flags graced the Traveling Wall Memorial, a tribute to Washington D.C.'s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, at the Buffalo Chip campground.
Everyone at Sturgis makes a special effort on the rally costumes, typically some variation on the pirate or viking theme. The best looking women were paid to be there.
This Suzuki (I think?) rider takes minimalism to a new low, with a clean, Savage 650-based bob-job. If I can’t be like him then maybe he’d let me do his laundry.
The last thing I saw at Sturgis’ Broken Spoke Saloon after I got liquored up and complained about all the noisy Harley exhaust systems.