Ups & downs in the Black Hills
Smaller crowd equals more fun
Sturgis, S.D., August 6–12— Sturgis has always been cyclic in nature, with one year peaking and being overcrowded to the point of madness followed a few years later by a reduction in attendance due to the masses suffering rally burnout. This was one of those ebb tide years that riders long for. After a week of effortless rallying, those who attended will carry home tales that will spark the interest of friends and in due time, it will be mania once again. This waxing and waning cycle has gone on for years and gives the Black Hills Motor Classic a certain personality of its own.
Attendance fell a full 13 percent for the 67th running of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Races, to 456,000 from 525,000 in 2006. And while these figures only represent those visiting Sturgis during the official rally week (and do not include early arrivals or those staying beyond the close), it was obvious to everyone that numbers were down. With the slowdown in the overall motorcycle industry, lower attendance at most rallies is not a new phenomenon and those few who are witnessing a surge are definitely the exception. Sturgis vendors were especially impacted by the resulting downturn in sales and were heard to say that the ’07 rally was the worst they had endured in 15 years. So what did that mean for those “few” who were in attendance this year? With modest traffic, barren venues, brief waits for everything from gas to food and vendors willing to negotiate prices in lieu of dragging home unsold merchandise, this was one of the best Black Hills experiences in recent memory.
Brave new venues
Despite the leveling-off of the motorcycle economy, new venues continue to be developed in the areas adjacent to Sturgis in hopes of luring in clientele. How many the rally can support remains to be determined. Some are on shaky ground already. Last year, Jay Allen, owner of the Broken Spoke, opened the huge Sturgis County Line, just past Bear Butte. There were definitely more vendors and campers on the property this year, however, attendance had its ups and downs depending on what activities were taking place at the time. And even though several “celebrity” bike builders had set up shop on the premises, the long lines of adoring fans were not present as in times past. (Hopefully that strange craze has seen its heyday.) There were reports that quite a few customers showed up on Tuesday, as Sturgis County Line was the finish line for the Million Dollar Ride (a few top builders who got together to show their creations built especially for the Heritage Rally that was aborted earlier this year). And there were around 4,000 people present on Wednesday for a “celebrity bartender” night when famous bike builders took turns behind the bar. Adding to Allen’s woes was a group of local Native Americans who maintained a prayer encampment near the base of Bear Butte and conducted ceremonies dedicated to the protection of this sacred mountain. They requested that bikers avoid riding past Bear Butte during their weeklong services. From the looks of Allen’s parking lot, the mojo was working.
The Top 50 Rally Park is another venue that was in its second year and experienced a similar trend. Located off I-90 in Piedmont halfway between Sturgis and Rapid City, it seems to be separated from just about everything. But additional activities were added for this year and included freestyle motocross and extreme stunt demo riders, a hot rod car and bike auction, fashion shows, and several charity rides that did actually bring in more folks than in 2006. The biggest day was the Legend Top 50 Bike Show on Thursday with about 100 very cool and classy bikes entered. The place was packed, even in the scorching midday heat.
Another big venue, Thunder Road, across from the Full Throttle Saloon a few miles east of Sturgis proper, hosted bike shows every day during rally week. On Tuesday, I caught the judging of the fifth annual Metzeler custom bike contest that featured Metzeler tire-equipped custom V-twins. This year though, there were only about 30 bikes entered, probably due in part to American Motorcycle Dealer’s so-called official world championship of custom bike building that monopolized many high-end customs from Saturday through Wednesday at AMD’s new Champions Park on Lazelle Street. And although Champions Park seemed to be ideally located and centered near the heavy-hitting S&S Cycle booth, it suffered poor attendance throughout the week.
Any venue with the name Michael Lichter attached to it continues to shine and draw in the crowds. This renowned biker lifestyle photographer has paid his dues and the motorcycle world acknowledges his accomplishments year after year. On Tuesday evening, Lichter held a reception for his choppers and chopper art show in the Thunderdome. This year’s theme was One World Choppers and featured 24 foreign-born builder-artists, some who live in the U.S. and others who shipped their bikes and art from overseas. The show, open to the public all week, was intended to demonstrate how builders from abroad have influenced and contributed to the custom bike scene on this continent. Foreign-born artists also provided art for wall displays.
The Full Throttle Saloon tried a new twist this year—the Black List Tour. According to a recent press release, it was to be “a hard-core fusion of skateboarding, Moto X, hot rods, custom bikes, music and art, designed to redefine and revolutionize rally entertainment, and provide the ultimate platform for cross-generational expression.” (Whew. What a mouthful.) Had I not seen the press release beforehand, however, I wouldn’t have noticed much difference other than a relocation of the builders and vendors and the addition of the stunt show and a stage for bands, meaning that we could no longer park in the paved area in front of the Full Throttle, but rather had to ride through and park in the field in back of the venue. There was also a huge Jesse James exhibit, but Jesse wasn’t there the day that I was. Some of the builders were to construct a bike on stage to be given away on Thursday. Although the Black List Tour got off to a rather shaky start this year, it’s scheduled to appear in Daytona during Bike Week next spring, with promises of better coordination and more exciting events. (I wish them luck, but if I was into skateboarding and needed a cross-generational infusion, I’d tune into the X-Games.) The biggest drama at the Full Throttle happened a few days after the rally’s close when the FBI raided the business and, in conjunction with the IRS, confiscated or froze its assets. According to local news sources, the raid was criminal in nature. However, as of press time, no further information was available.
The most ambitious new venue had to be the BoneYard Saloon in Whitewood, an entertainment complex about midway between Sturgis and Spearfish. Favorite rally bands like Foghat, Canned Heat, Jimmy Van Zant, Pat Travers, Quiet Riot, The Georgia Satellites, Blue Oyster Cult, Blackfoot, The Marshall Tucker Band, and Steppenwolf were scheduled to play every evening during (and a few days before) the rally. I stopped in early Wednesday afternoon and, in front of the big, impressive stage I saw a huge, paved expanse with a quad burnout pit and a mechanical bull but not much else. The few people present took shelter under the covered outdoor bar. Two inside bars (one for the general public and one for VIP ticket holders) were fully air-conditioned and had small stages for more live music. According to the staff, quite a crowd turned up for Vince Neil’s performance on Monday night, but things had been rather slow since then. The BoneYard Saloon really is quite an impressive place, complete with food and merchandise vendors and even restrooms with flush toilets—a rarity at most bike rallies. The venue was off to a slow start this year but has great potential.
Breakfast of champions
One event that continues to gain in popularity is the Sturgis Builders Breakfast. This notable function was the second to be sponsored by Choppers Inc. and was held at the Broken Spoke on Tuesday morning. And this year, the sold-out affair didn’t run out of food as it had during their initial offering. More than 30 bike builders and artists joined Billy Lane to donate one-of-a-kind items for an auction that brought in over $14,500 for Make-A-Wish of South Dakota. The event was so popular last year that it’s been expanded to Daytona Bike Week and scheduled for Destination Daytona on Tuesday, March 4.
Colors and cops
New for 2007, the owner of One Eyed Jacks, the biggest saloon on Main Street, decided to enact a No Colors policy due to harassment of their customers by club members in previous years. Flyers were distributed across town challenging the policy and calling for a boycott. State Representative Jim Putnam is supporting the boycott and considering possible legislation to protect riders wearing club colors if the ban continues. Mr. Putnam rides with the Lawmakers and was denied entry into One Eyed Jacks during the rally because he was flying his patch.
With attendance figures down, there were only five rally-related deaths this year. Arrests were also down and by the end of the week the cops had obviously become bored and seemed to be willing to write a ticket for the most minor of infractions. One gentleman driving a truck and pulling a bike trailer paused to allow two riders to cut in front of him. He was ticketed for obstructing traffic and fined $104.
Hear me roar
With the motorcycle industry desperately seeking fresh avenues to attract new customers, it’s no big surprise that during the ’07 rally there was a strong focus on female riders. Earlier accounts predicted that 2007 would be the Year of the Bagger. Apparently we got it wrong and now women will be the vanguard resuscitating a lethargic two-wheeled economy. The nearby town of Lead blazed the path last year by presenting their first Show ’N’ Shine, a female-only bike show followed by a lingerie show and auction. On Tuesday, Lead put on a similar series and saw an even stronger following. On Thursday, Harley-Davidson had its first-ever Women’s Day, including women-only demo rides, as part of its exhibit at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City. Also on Thursday, a women’s ride from Sturgis County Line to the H-D exhibit was scheduled. However, that ride didn’t take place. According to Jay Allen, a better-planned and better-publicized women’s ride is being planned for next year. (Barring additional mojo.)
And on Friday, Jesse Jurrens, who runs the Top 50 Rally Park, scheduled a women’s day to honor women bikers. A rather modest Top 50 Bike for Breast Cancer Charity Ride to benefit the American Cancer Society took place and Lisa Baker of Baker Drivetrain was presented with the first Industry Leader award for women. Kristen Whittle from Sunder- land, Massachusetts, won a riding jacket from sponsor ICON Motorcycle Gear and saddlebags from Saddlemen/Travelcade. Jesse plans to step up his efforts next year and get a lot more participation from women in the industry as well as general female motorcycle enthusiasts. He’s also collaborating with Rapid City fabricator Jesi Combs to develop a new motorcycle frame designed specifically for women.
Although some of the female-oriented exhibits this year missed the mark, most of these efforts are worthy, whether it’s designing specialized motorcycles, creating riding gear, or acknowledging the female contributions to the industry. But it does bring up an interesting question: What will be the next big thing?
This year we were offered a huge slice of the female biker experience. But we also had the chance to meet “kid” builders—brothers Joey (16) and Cody Cihak (12) from St. Petersburg, Florida, displayed their creations at Thunder Road for the first time this year. While one banner strung across Main Street declared pork as the “Official Meat of the Sturgis Rally,” another one farther down the block announced Sony as the official electronics company of Sturgis. What? On Junction Street, a house owner had set up a front porch business selling lattes and espresso. You laugh, but there was always a line of customers. In Rapid City a company was offering Biker Yoga: A New Way to Refuel (at $50 a person for a 45 minute session). CrumGobbler Press had their booth on the corner of Main and Junction and was hawking their latest book, a rally-based children’s picture book about the misadventures of two dogs that ride in their owners’ sidecar rig and go to the Black Hills. This was across the street from Gunner’s bar, where not that long ago shots rang out between rival bike clubs. And at any time you could log onto one of five live webcams and check out the action on Main Street or Glencoe CampResort (now with the click of a mouse you can witness the happenings and decide whether the party is worth leaving your house or RV).
She’ll get over it
There are signs of hope. The road to Van- ocker Canyon was finally paved all the way to Sturgis and saw a huge influx of riders. And just in time, the town of Nemo (located on Vanocker Canyon Road) has reopened several establishments under new management and is offering a great beer break, restaurant and cabins. Tent camping in the locals’ front yards is apparently seeing a resurg- ence as an alternative to high-priced campgrounds. And as long as Needles Highway, Iron Mount- ain Road, Spearfish Canyon and Custer State Park are available for two-wheeled cavorting, this event may have its cyclic mood swings but will remain one of the finest rallies in the world. Shadow contributed to this article.