A Canadian in Sturgis

sturgis_title.jpgWords: Lee Malette. Pictures: Lee Malette, unless otherwise specified.


I’d heard the stories. The wild women, the outlaw bikers, the sacrificial burning of Hondas.

At this point in my life, I try to keep an open mind about most things, and unless the “rigueur de jour” was to burn Harley poseurs at the stake, I would be relatively safe from any bodily harm.

Besides, I’m highly skilled in the deadly martial art of Ro Sham Bo (just Google it) and can scream like a schoolgirl.

Simply put, the Mecca of all Bikerdom, the Black Hills Rally—better known as Sturgis—was on my bucket list and 2010 marked its 70th anniversary. More importantly I had the blessing of my lovely wife.

The open road beckoned.



The population of Sturgis explodes every August.

Running from August 9th to the 15th, the Black Hills Rally typically sees several hundred thousand riders descend on a town with a population of just over 6,000 people.

Although the last few years have seen a decrease in attendance (due mainly to the poor economy in the US) the general consensus this year was that most people were fed up with all the doom and gloom reports in the media and needed a good time.

Three-quarters of a million riders were expected to descend on Sturgis this year and I intended to be one of them, along with my good friend and riding buddy Mike – who was itching to put some more miles under his 2009 BMW GS1200 Adventure.

Back in December of 2009, I had mentioned doing Sturgis and less than a week later Mike informed me that he’d already booked his campsite and had also invited his brother-in-law Jeff.


The three Amigos.

Jeff was a welcome addition with his 2007 650 “Wee”-Strom. Not only because he was a good guy and rider, but I figured if the “fit hit the shan” I could sacrifice Jeff and his ‘Zuki to appease the Sturgis biker gods.

Besides, I’d be the only one of us on a Harley, so I figured that I was pretty safe.

I found out later that Jeff had his own back up plan. Since Mike and I are card-carrying employees of the RCMP, in the event of a pummeling, Jeff vowed his dying words would be “Check their wallets!”.



Nearing Sturgis meant that there were long line-ups at every gas station.

A quick check on Google Maps suggested three different routes roughly 2,800 kms one-way from Ottawa to Sturgis. In the end we formed our own route and gave ourselves  three days to get there, departing early on Friday the 6th and arriving in Sturgis by mid-day on Sunday.

I won’t bore the CMG readership with in-depth detail of the ride down but basically day one consisted of taking the Trans Canada Hwy 17 from Ottawa up to the border crossing in Sault Ste. Marie to Manistique Michigan (1,000 kms).

Day two had us cutting across Michigan, through Wisconsin to the I90 S, through Minnesota, straight into Sioux Falls, SD (another 1000 kms or so), leaving us with a comparatively easy final day run of 600 or so kms into Sturgis.



It’s not just famous, it’s legendary. What is a buffalo chip anyway?

Thankfully the Gods of Perpetual Motion were smiling down on us. Sunny skies accompanied us the whole way, but it was hot, as hell. Average temperatures were in the high 30s Celsius and even hit 40 at one point.


Not quite Hollywood …

Clad in black leather and a blissful ignorance of effects of dehydration I motored on down the interstate and through the fabled South Dakota Badlands – a mix of pasture and rolling hills as far as the eye could see, with the occasional buffalo crouching lazily in the tall grass of the open plains in the distance.

By the time we passed the sign saying “Sturgis 11 miles,” a welcome sense of relief, accompanied by growing excitement, until the booming sounds of open exhausts signified that we had finally arrived.

Hundreds of bikers were lined up in every direction heading into the downtown core, effectively blocking all progress. We decided to follow another group of riders who were cutting through the back streets of town, bringing us right onto a section of famed Lazelle St and bypassing the masses. And there in the distance was the fabled buffalo sign for our accommodation for the week – the Buffalo Chip Campground


Getting the tents pitched was only the start of Mr Malette’s woes.

We unpacked, put up our tents, and took a quick walk to scope out the campground … and then it hit me: chills and horrible muscle cramping. We’d been warned back in Manastique by a gent who’d been to Sturgis to beware the heat and to drink tons of water.

My two compatriots were smart enough to have worn CamelBaks. I, the chronic coffee drinker, did not. There was a constant, heavy breeze but the heat and lack of shade at the campground only compounded the problem and it would be well into Wednesday before I’d fully recovered from the heat stroke.



Hold on, put away that Leatherman Mr Malette. Sensible riding gear abounds.
photo: Kevin Netz/Harley-Davidson 

As far as the famed Sturgis debauchery and wild women we did see our share of scantily clad young ladies and the occasional flash of nudity – though a few of those had me wanting to gouge my eyes out with my Leatherman.

Truthfully, I’m sure the wilder side of Sturgis and the reputation it enjoys exists in some shape or form, but we either hung out in the wrong part of town or just weren’t out late enough after hours to come across it.

If anything, I found Sturgis to be commercial than wild. Lazelle and Main Street are ripe with vendors of all shapes and sizes with more t-shirt vendors hawking wares than I cared to count.

In conversation with people who have been coming to the rally (some as far back as 1977), it seemed clear that, as recently as ten years ago, Sturgis had a rougher edge to it.


You meet the nicest people in Sturgis. Really.
photo: Kevin Netz/Harley-Davidson 

But maybe that’s not such a bad thing as everywhere we went we met the nicest people. Everyone wanted to know where you were from, how the ride was, and took a genuine interest in what you had to say. It was refreshing, to say the least.

Second, there was no shortage of things to do — in fact, you won’t be able to see or do everything you have planned. That was certainly the case for us.

The surrounding areas are rich in heritage. Things like the town of Deadwood, the Crazy Horse monument, and, of course, Mount Rushmore, are must-sees. The surrounding countryside of the Black Hills lends itself to some fantastic scenic vistas and roads like the Needles Point Highway and Custer State Park. We spent one afternoon simply touring back and forth through those areas.


You gotta go.
photo: Kevin Netz/Harley-Davidson

If nightlife, burnouts, beer joints, and scantily clad barmaids are your thing,  Sturgis has that in spades and we highly recommend the Full Throttle Saloon, the Broken Spoke Saloon and Campground, any bar you can find off Lazelle and Main streets, and, of course, our main choice: the Buffalo Chip Campground.

This year the campground’s price of admission included concerts every night by ZZ Top, Kid Rock, the Scorpions, Motley Crüe, Ozzy, and even Bob Dylan.

Your trip would not be complete, however, without joining the chorus of rumbling thunder cruising daily and nightly down Lazelle Street in downtown Sturgis.



The Scorpions are one of many acts dug up from the grave and hoisted out on stage to entertain all at the Buffalo Chips campground. Sleep? You didn’t come here to sleep!

First off, we all agreed we’d do it again but we’d allot more time to enjoy the scenery and take in roadside attractions like the infamous Wall Drug, South Dakota (advertisements for this place start two states over).


The surrounding area boasts some pretty good riding.

Dress for all occasions (hot, cold, dry, wet) as you can expect everything. Last year, Sturgis was pummeled by hail the size of grapefruit. Two weeks prior to our arrival, the town of Deadwood saw hail and rain that flooded the downtown core.

Book your campsite or hotel early — including any stops you intend to make on the way! We lucked out in Manistique but by the time we got down to Sioux Falls, we landed one of the last hotel rooms available for 150 miles in all directions, and we paid a premium for it.

Keener Mike got his campground booked for $205 for the week back in December, including all the concerts. Me being the procrastinator, I pretty much waited until the last minute and it cost me just over $400 which meant he had to buy more rounds of beer than I did.

If you’re going to book a hotel in downtown Sturgis, you can expect to pay upwards of $300 a night. Alternatively, you can pitch a tent on someone’s lawn for $10 a night and still be close to the action, so you do have options.


There’s also some American history to be found too.

Even so, forget about sleep. The constant rumbling that is Sturgis (or in my case, thanks to the two tents next to me, the soothing sounds of Darth Vader cutting down a forest nightly) doesn’t subside until 4:30 am and bikes start firing up again at dawn to get an early start to avoid traffic.

And despite the commercialism, cost, noise and leathery breasts if you only plan on attending one rally in your lifetime, make it Sturgis. It’s basically a few hundred thousand like-minded individuals looking for a good time!

Oh, and one last thing. If you own a touring bike of any sorts… RIDE THE EFFING THING! They weren’t meant to be trailered, ya dumb ass!

For another perspective and additional photos of our trip, hit up Jeff’s blog at: moondog.wordpress.com. For additional info on all that is Sturgis, go to www.sturgismotorcyclerally.com or check out the official Harley-Davidson rally page at www.harley-davidson.com.


  1. Your right. If you are only going to hit one rally in your lifetime make it Sturgis. I have been going there for more years than I care to tell. It’s the only place on earth that I can destress and have the time of my life. Great article.

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