Sturgis Motorcycle Rally – Touring The Week Before

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally - The Week Before 42
Author outside the Full Throttle Saloon a week before the 75th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

The 2015 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota has kicked off, and I’ve already returned home from my visit. I am not partial to crowds nor do I like waiting and mingling with lots of strangers in close quarters. Little wonder why I’ve never been to Mardi Gras or the Sturgis Rally, notwithstanding all the great stories I have heard.

My pal King lives in Sturgis and says it’s Mayberry 51 weeks a year. He has invited me more than once to visit and sample the air, the great roads and majestic scenery, yet the opportunity to visit has been elusive – until now. But there’s a catch. King rents his place, for two weeks, to one of the big vendors at the rally for their employee housing. He’s got to clear out a few days before the festivities begin at the 75th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, so if I want to visit the Rally, and have a free bunk, it would require my attendance during the last weeks of July – and that is just fine with me.

This invitation, the concurrent postponement of another tip leading to an opening in my schedule, and the thought of visiting Sturgis and riding the Black Hills before the crowds choke up all the great roads was all I needed to start packing and leave on one day’s notice. The fact that Honda’s 2015 Gold Wing F6B Deluxe is sitting in my garage, has cruise control, is gassed and ready to go clinches the deal.

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally - The Week Before 5A quick check of the weather from the Los Angeles area to South Dakota shows that temperatures will be warm to hot with no cold, but precipitation is looming. We had a short but frog-throttling rain here just two nights before departure with more in the forecast. I’ll wear Held’s handsome Camaris/Ravero suit, pack the Gore-Tex liner/rainsuit and wear their Air Stream II gloves with Dainese’s Course Air Out boots and Schuberth’s C3 Pro helmet. I like the way the boots feel and don’t mind getting my feet wet if rain does come my way (it does but the Gold Wing lower fairing keeps them dry). I’ve got room on the F6B to stash a Dainese Air Fraser full-mesh jacket and evaporative vest if things really heat up, and they will.

It turns out that Sturgis, and its environs of Rapid City, Deadwood and Lead (say “Leed”), and ever further away, are chock full of tourists and vendors are rapidly setting up if they are not already open for business. The gorgeous new Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle buildings downtown were crawling with workers trying to put the finishing touches on the construction by the start of the Rally on August 1. Four days later it appeared as though they did finish in time. Yet with all the people there are no crowds, traffic or lines anywhere and it’s a perfect balance of enough people to make things interesting.

By now, T minus about 10 days, the town’s vendor areas are either close to being set up or completed, yet Main Street, famous for photographs of bikes lining both sides of the street and down the middle, is still full of cars and diagonal parking. Along Main Street all of the shops are open and ready. I’ve heard that half of these shops are empty for 11 months a year. This Sturgis Motorcycle Rally period is the town’s whole economic year.

I’m told that during the Rally, for example, the 10-minute ride from Sturgis to the Buffalo Chip can take an hour and a half. When we rode through Spearfish Canyon, the parking area at Bridal Veil Falls observation area had a dozen bikes and cars, and was fairly empty given its length. King tells me the during bike week one might creep along in congested traffic for half an hour just to get a spot to park a bike and view the falls and the traffic is bumper-to-bumper.

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally - The Week Before 18The Black Hills Badlands routes and destinations live up to their reputation as simply amazing to ride and experience. They are perfect for cruisers and bikes that do their best at 70-80 mph and below, to match to tempo of these roads. The nature of the long sweepers would make these great sport bike roads, too, but the speed attainable might land one in jail quickly.

I’m warned that riders might get away with excessive speed in the spring or fall but not during bike week and the weeks before and after. I am also warned that this area may be the full stop capitol of the world. No rolling touch-and-go stops are tolerated here and some offenses require immediate cash payments or off to the hoosegow goes the offender. And since the area is replete with state, county and city thoroughfares they are patrolled by every combination of state trooper, regular and part-time police. Come here to have fun but keep your cool. After 74 years of these rallies law enforcement has pretty well figured out what it takes to keep everyone in harness, and in their clothing.

So the choice is yours. Come early for small crowds and open roads. Come during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally for the insane number of people, long lines, snarled roads but lots of interesting happenings and camaraderie.

The roads around the Black Hills are some of the cleanest and smoothest I’ve seen anywhere, many with new surfaces. We ride the lovely Vanocker Canyon to Nemo on my first day then circle back through Bear Butte and through Deadwood then pickup sushi for dinner at a Korean restaurant. This was risky and not exactly like being in Tokyo.

Our next day and ride took us out in Spearfish Canyon past Bridal Veil Falls, all of which is stunning. Temperatures range from 75 to high 80s depending on the route and the area averages about 5,000 feet altitude. It’s hottest in town, with plenty of 90+ days, and Deadwood and Lead are cooler and cool to visit. Did you know that gambling and casinos are legal in South Dakota? They’re right on Main Street in some towns, like Deadwood, a town etched in American history and lore.

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally - The Week Before 45Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills in 1874 and Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back of the head in Saloon #10 in Deadwood. Colorful stuff and it keeps modern tourists coming in droves.

On our last big riding day we managed to visit all the major monuments including Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial and Devil’s Tower in nearby Wyoming. We covered 330 miles, spent 10 hours in the saddle and stayed on two-lane roads exclusively. This would not be possible during Rally Week and was well worth the time spent and the exhaustion we felt upon returning home. I’d always wanted to see these historic sights and to do so in one loop, that King calls his secret local’s ride, was simply breathtaking. He said he’s been planning the route in his head for some time and I was lucky enough to test it out with him.

There are probably only 90-100 frost-free days a year in these parts. No matter when you choose to visit I wholeheartedly recommend you make it a priority.

The Road to Sturgis and Back

The first dose on rain catches me on the downhill straight stretch of road out of California and into Nevada. It lacks commitment and cools me off for 30 miles before I-15 curves north toward Las Vegas and away from the dark clouds. I don’t even think about stopping to don my rain gear. The next flurry starts near the border entering Utah from Arizona. Like the first wave, it’s not worth stopping but the sun’s power has been blotted out, it’s neigh on 5 and the rain doesn’t appear to want to abate so I cruised into Cedar City in the late afternoon and called it quits.

I’m out early the second day and get off I-15 just north of Paragonah, Utah. Highway 20 runs through the mountains a short way and I turn north on Highway 89 which parallels I-15 through beautiful countryside to up near Park City and finally I-80. I highly recommend this as an alternative to the Interstate whether by bike or automobile. Shortly past Park City, and just before the Wyoming border on I-80, the sky opens up in Biblical proportion.

In one minute there is an inch of water standing on the road. I hope for and find an off-ramp a mile up, pull in under the bridge and find a Modesto couple who were already taking shelter. We chatted for 15 minutes and the rain lessened in intensity. I’m pulling on my rain suit when they tie do-rags around their heads, mount up, don sunglasses and start the motor. It’s still raining hard and I point out they are not wearing helmets in the rain. He says simply, “Hey, this is Utah” and lets out the clutch. I am dumbfounded. Naturally, now that my rain suit is on, the precipitation stops in 10 miles, not to be seen again for days.

I spend the second night in Rawlins, Wyoming. If you’re ever passing through…don’t stop. On the third day, about 30 miles east of Rawlins my route exited the Interstate and it was two lanes the rest of the way to Sturgis. In this part of the country one rides the high plains with none of the dramatic jagged mountains seen to the south. Here, the waving fields of hay and alfalfa and undulating hills at altitudes ranging from 5,000 to 7,500 feet reign. The views are long and stunning; the roads are clean and fast with little or no traffic. In the West there are two seasons; winter and road construction. There was a fair share of that but hardly worth the telling.

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally - The Week Before43The F6B has turned out to be an excellent heavy (855 pounds ready to ride, claimed) touring rig as I knew it would be. I’d ridden the new Gold Wing as well as the Valkyrie, all of which share the same GL1800 platform. I reckon the F6B is the middle child and the Deluxe model I’m riding adds cruise control, heated grips, center stand, self-canceling turn signals and passenger backrest to the base model. I was happy to have every one of these extras and actually tied my rear seat bag to the backrest.

The self-canceling turn signals really work well and the bike simply devoured the 1,520 miles door-to-door. Naturally, on the interstate highways I wished for the taller windshield found on its big brother but in town and in the Black Hills I welcomed the short screen, sportier look and the much better ventilation. I also enjoyed 43 mpg average fuel economy from a bike this big ridden hard and fast.

This Wing slots in perfectly for the mission of riding around Sturgis. Fast and sure-footed, it was the “Harley killer” many folks I met called it. It also received more compliments on its good looks than I can count. In reality, I saw a few dozen Gold Wings in all my miles, one other F6B (a red 2013) and a bazillion Harleys.

Two things did bother me about the bike; one little and the other big. The USB charger port cable should be relocated from the left rear case to the left front pocket. I use my smartphone as a GPS and need power up front. There is an optional 12v socket for the front pocket that would have solved the problem but it wasn’t installed.

Instead, I used Aspect Solar’s SB-37A 10,000 mAH lithium ion battery pack. This gives me two USB charging ports in a package the size of my phone and just a bit thicker. Running my phone with its screen on all day will drain the battery in 3-4 hours. I plug it into the Aspect battery and it runs for 10-12 hours, gets to my destination fully charged and I still have 1/2 to 3/4 of the SB-37A battery charge remaining. Truly, I never ride anywhere without slipping this battery into a pocket or pack.

The big thing is that the cruise control will lose 7 mph if you set it and drop the throttle. There is a 5 second, or more, delay as the servos pick up the pace. Then I ask myself why are there throttle cables on this bike in 2015? Must it still be all analog? It’s the same action as my friend’s 2006 model. So the rider must set the cruise and continue holding the throttle until a slight pull on the grip signals that the cruise control has taken over.

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally - The Week Before 24I felt that this was dangerous under certain circumstances. Say you add a bit of throttle to an already-set cruise speed to increase speed a couple of miles an hour to pass another vehicle. If you then drop the throttle the bike will lose as much as 5-7 mph and take 5-7 seconds to regain previously saved speed. The answer is to slowly back off allowing the system to catch-up.

It was sure scary the first time I did this, passed a car by a few miles per hour and, when about 100 yards past him, I released the throttle. I was horrified to see the guy I passed almost ram me as the bike took its sweet old time to regain the pace and pull away. I was very careful after that and wish for throttle-by-wire and instant response on future models.

On the way home I was, as King predicted, like a nag wanting to get back to the barn. The first day I rode about 750 miles, off grid, from Sturgis, through Baggs, Meeker, and Rifle then to Grand Junction. No rain, cool weather and the F6B simply hauled ass through all kinds of terrain and 100 miles of 40 mph cross-winds.

When I left Grand Junction early the next morning it was cool and I had a vision of making the 850 miles home in one shot. Upon crossing the Arizona Corridor into Nevada, at 102 degrees, my vision changed to a swimming pool in Mesquite. The Casa Blanca was the best $35 room I have ever occupied and I was in the pool 10 minutes after check-in.

The last day, from Mesquite to Thousand Oaks, was six hours of hell at or near 100+ and then it was over. 3,630 miles in nine days and one fantastic adventure. Personally, I recommend Sturgis a week before the Rally.

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally – The Week Before