Among the rumbling V-twin engines, the half-naked, body-painted women and wet T-shirt competitions, the black leather jackets and majestic beards, a gnawing question keeps coming up: Has the world’s biggest motorcycle rally lost its edge after 77 years?
There’s no question Sturgis remains wildly popular. An expected 500,000 riders are flocking to this tiny town in the Black Hills this week, filling hotel rooms and renting out homes, parking their RVs in fields and setting up tents on lawns. They’re buying gas, pulled-pork sandwiches and T-shirts commemorating the trip. They’re riding the curvy, hilly pavement for hundreds of miles around the city, and doing anything conceivably motorcycle related, all under the single-word description: “Sturgis.”
But this storied weeklong biker rally is no longer the raucous spectacle it once was, when motorcycle gangs fought in the streets with wrenches and set fire to foreign-made bikes. Today, you’re more likely to find doctors, lawyers and accountants than Hell’s Angels, although you’ll still see them too, selling patches alongside corn dog vendors and scantily clad women hawking motorcycle insurance at an event that celebrates everything fast, loud and powerful.
Just maybe not so rowdy these days.
“There aren’t so many naked ladies anymore,” said longtime attendee Robert Huddleson of Vista, Calif., who makes and sells custom motorcycle helmets.
Huddleson has attended Sturgis for more than a decade, and misses — a little — the rowdiness that once permeated the streets, which today are patrolled by polo-shirted police officers recruited from departments across the country. Many are high-ranking officers who have taken vacation to work Sturgis, which pays, houses and feeds them for the week.
Officially known as the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, much of the event's focus is on Harley-Davidson, the storied manufacturer of American-made bikes with V-twin engines and that distinctive rumble. Riders come from every state and dozens of countries to share in a camaraderie that’s virtually impossible to understand unless you’re a rider. And there’s three parts to the package.
First, of course, is the riding: cruising Main Street, whipping through the Black Hills, rumbling past Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. The pavement here is smooth and gravel free, with sweeping turns and vistas that make riding a joy. Eastern riders marvel at the wide pavement and staggering views. California riders marvel at how little traffic there is. In short, there’s something for every rider.
Second are the concerts. With more than a dozen musical acts performing each day in Sturgis and the surrounding campgrounds, including the rambunctious Buffalo Chip amphitheater that can hold about 50,000, this is one of the nation’s largest music festivals. Ozzy Osbourne is headlining this year’s Buffalo Chip concert series, joined by Night Ranger, the Doobie Brothers, Blue Oyster Cult and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Last, but not least, is watching everyone else. Saloons with seating for thousands of people line the two major streets in Sturgis, benches and stools facing out so patrons can drink and eat and people-watch all at the same time. Body-painted women with strategically placed Band-Aids sashay down the sidewalks, sharing space with men in jackets proclaiming frequent Sturgis attendance via annual patches. Diners crane their heads to watch women in leather shorts walk past or admire a particularly loud and flamboyant chopper.
“It’s loads of fun, great people and excellent people watching,” said Amanda Augustine, an elementary school teacher from Phoenix, before she climbed a viewing stand on Main Street. “People think bikers are something they really aren’t.”
For many Americans, Sturgis conjures up images of an anything-goes motorcycle festival, where drugs flow, fists fly and nudity runs rampant. But the reality is that most attendees today are professionals with too much to lose if they get arrested. Surprisingly, the top three professions at Sturgis are doctors, lawyers and accountants, said city manager Daniel Ainsley.
Doing the math makes that statistic easier to understand: New Harley-Davidson or Indian motorcycles start around $20,000, although high-end models can hit $50,000, and that’s before any real customization. Then there’s the logo-wear clothing, the gas, the insurance and even the ability to take a week’s vacation.
These aren’t Easy Riders, living a carefree life on the road. These are aging Baby Boomers with kids and mortgages and nice cars. Read the headline in one local paper this week: “Has Sturgis gotten too grey?”
The most risqué thing you might see on the street is Cierra Browning’s airbrush-painted torso. Wearing fishnet stockings and a lacy thong, Browning, 21, a restaurant manager, this week stood outside the Tattoo Cellar, calling out to passersby, cajoling them into getting inked.
Her outfit consisted of an eagle with an American flag painted on her back, and another eagle, wings spread, across her bare chest, her nipples covered by stickers. Man after man stopped to take pictures with her, and she tucked $20 bills into her waistband as she scanned the crowd.
Along the next block, young women in miniskirts hawked legal representation to motorcyclists, and across the street Progressive Insurance created a free popup tattoo parlor and barbershop.
Around the corner, accountant Lisa Frushour celebrated her 50th birthday by getting airbrush painted. Her two wishes for the milestone: To ride to Sturgis with her husband from their Maryland home, and to walk, body-painted, around the festival. An artist sprayed on a design of a snake curling around her chest, with one of her breasts painted to look like an apple. A pair of large Band-Aids covered her nipples, keeping her legal in the eyes of the police.
“I love it,” Frushour said as she looked out at the passing crowds of bikers.
Frushour and her husband are exactly the kind of guests Ainsley wants to encourage. The city runs the festival, with help from corporate sponsors, and Ainsley said the shifting demographics of bikers means the rally needed to change. Older folks want an experience that feels edgy without ever truly being dangerous, he said, and sponsors want them to feel comfortable enough to test-drive $40,000 motorcycles.
“It definitely has a history and a legacy of being quite rambunctious,” Ainsley said. “It is not by any means now. It is a very tame group. It’s people who have the disposable income to afford motorcycles and all the toys that go along with that. They are incredibly polite.”