“What’s the riding gear for?” the airport shuttle driver asked.
“I was just in Sturgis for the bike rally, riding Harleys,” I told him.
“Yup,” he retorted, “if you’re gonna go to Sturgis it’s gotta be on a Harley.”
Harley-Davidson held its 2012 model introduction in Salt Lake City, but a few journalists, me included, were invited to ride a selection of their new 2012 bikes from there, through Wyoming, to the famed biker rally in the Black Hills of South Dakota, 1,200 km away.
The first time I attended the Sturgis Rally was more than two decades ago; it was a trip filled with delinquency and debauchery, and I remember it well – the way you’d remember where you were the day you were told of the passing of a good friend.
I’ve returned several times since, each time on a Harley. And why not? After all, the two go together like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.
Alas, my hair was longer then, I was svelter and facial hair clung to my face the way vine clings to brick. I was also a bit more hardcore, making the 5,800-kilometre round trip from Montreal on a Sportster.
TO THE BLACK HILLS ON A BLACKLINE
In an effort to reconnect with my youth while appreciating the raw experience of the ride, I forfeited the added security of a full-face helmet in favour of an open-face lid and shades, and chose the minimalist Softail Blackline (C$16,999) for the ride into the Black Hills.
No bags, no windscreen, no frills, just bare, unadulterated V-twin metal. I was even tempted to strap my gear atop the headlight, like you used to see in Dick Mann’s Easyriders illustrations. Alas, I toned down my wild side a smidgen and threw my laptop and extra underwear into Harley’s chase truck.
With a far reach to the narrow handlebars and lowered, forward-mounted footpegs that rather limited cornering clearance, the Blackline was all it promised to be: A low-slung cruiser designed for shorter trips, not a long-haul travelling bike.
The Blackline’s clean lines and lack of chrome struck a chord with me, and I appreciate the return to a narrower rear tire on a Softail chassis, but I’d replace the awkward, split handlebars for a traditional pullback handlebar on risers. I’d also put straight footpegs in place of the lowered ones that are standard, thus gaining a few degrees of lean angle.
The long haul on a short haul bike took its toll and by the second day my eyes burned crimson-red from the constant wind and dust, and the neck pain provoked by the extended reach to the handlebars made me feel every bit my 46 years.
If I was to arrive in Sturgis without feeling every bit double that age, I was going to need a more suitable steed.
SWITCHBACK TO STURGIS
Salvation came in the form of a more comfy Dyna Switchback (C$17,559) — a new model for 2012, with bags, screen and oh-so-inviting ergonomics.
With styling cues that hark back to Harley’s four-speed FL models of the 1950s through the 1980s, it’s a classy-looking affair that appears much better in the metal than in photos.
Having said that, I find the oddly designed five-spoke cast wheels out of kilter with the overall design. Laced wheels, or even a reintroduction of Harley’s older nine-spoke cast wheels, would better suit the classic lines of this machine.
The Switchback is what Harley calls a convertible and the windscreen and saddlebags can be quickly removed for a stripped down appearance. Its rubber-mounted engine produces a level of vibration through the chassis that feels more visceral than Harleys using the counter-balanced Twin-Cam B engine without being intrusive.
The saddlebags are on the smallish side, though with some squishing I managed to fit my oversized, half-filled backpack into one, and my rain gear, spare jacket and camera in the other, with a little room to spare for trinkets.
This bike handled quite nicely on the highway, with unwavering stability at 80 mph and barely nudging in crosswinds. However, the windscreen did produce buffeting, expected from its upright, un-streamlined design, though it wasn’t a head-shaking buffeting and was highly preferable to the alternative – no screen at all.
The Switchback also felt right winding through the twisty roads approaching Sturgis, with neutral steering and enough cornering clearance to maintain an exciting pace. Suspension compliance was quite comfy, though the roads were also pretty smooth and untaxing.
FAT BOY ON A FAT BOY LO
Watching nearly-naked biker chicks with stars for nipples and bearded, badass bikers on overstretched, slammed-to-the-ground choppers cruise Main Street alone would make the trek to Sturgis worthwhile, however it’s the roads that intertwine within the Black Hills that appeal to me the most.
After spending the next morning people-watching (trust me, when in Sturgis you have to go to Main Street and just hang out awhile), Deeley Harley-Davidson’s PR girl Alex Carroni, fellow journalist Bertrand Gahel and I grabbed a road map (only sissies use GPS units in Sturgis) and headed to Custer State Park, about 120 kilometres south of Sturgis.
For that ride I chose the Fat Boy Lo (C$18,268).
Highway 16A leading to the park’s entrance snakes its way tortuously though the hills, offering magnificent views of eroded granite walls through breaks between the trees.
It’s a tightly wound strip of asphalt – sometimes barely a car wide – that demands your utmost attention, and switchbacks often loop 360 degrees around to get you up or down steep hills before changing direction.
Here, the Fat Boy’s new Twin Cam 103 engine — now standard in all Big Twins except the Street Bob and Super Glide Custom (Twin Cam 96) — readily chugged up the hills in counterbalanced, vibe-free comfort, and the machine lazily flowed into the curves, though the low-mounted floorboards often touched ground, giving an audible, if somewhat premature warning that cornering limits had been reached.
The wide, pullback handlebar and scalloped seat provided all-day comfort, but the lack of a windscreen got me soaking wet in just 30 seconds during a brief downpour.
Having recovered from my earlier Blackline experience, however, I felt like a badass again and embraced the shower with a grin, washing out the road grime the old-fashioned way.
The engine loped along at barely 2,600 rpm at 80 mph on the highway and the massive torque easily handled it, though a downshift was needed from sixth gear to pass at lower speeds. The only thing that didn’t feel right to me about the engine was its smoothness.
Newer Harley riders will probably embrace the lack of vibration, but I’m old school and appreciate a bit of feedback from the big V-twin – not the bone-shaking, fender-cracking quaking of old, but some.
Once at the state park we took the wildlife loop, a chance to see buffalo, pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep for 10 bucks a bike.
Well, all we saw in the park was an ass (prompting us to ponder requesting a refund). The real wildlife proved elusive, smartly evading the constant flow of straight-piped motorcycles riding through.
We did catch a glimpse of a herd of buffalo about three-quarters of a mile away in a field where it was, no doubt, quieter.
We were later treated to an up-close view of a buffalo outside the park, grazing by the side of Highway 87 – and believe me, you should heed the signs warning not to approach these animals since they’re about the size of a small RV and weigh about as much, too.
A day of braless ‘babes’, bikers and buffalo got our testosterone levels peaking (Alex’s, maybe not so much), so in the evening we went looking for a fight, which we duly found in a bar called Budd Ugly’s in Rapid City.
Micro Championship Wrestling may not sound like the ultimate in fighting, but then it does boast the tagline “Half the size, twice the violence”.
We were sold and found ourselves accomplices to a midget wrestling match under the stars behind the bar, where four-foot-three, 135-lb Huggie Cub wailed mercilessly on four-foot-six, 292-lb Meatball.
Huggie won. We became instant fans.
THE STRENGTH OF STURGIS
Our rally experience ended all too soon and we left one day before its official August 8th opening, though it already appeared to be in full swing.
The rally has been held almost every year since 1938 (there were some interruptions during World War II), and though attendance has reportedly been diminishing over the last few years, it looked like a healthy event to me.
Thousands of bikes lined Main Street and countless bikers could be seen roaming the backroads and filling parking lots in the surrounding area.
Harleys are synonymous with biker rallies, maybe because they predate the oldest one (Laconia, 1916), maybe because rallies traditionally attract people on the fringe of society, the same kind of people that, at least in the past, were Harley’s most loyal followers.
Sturgis is probably the most authentic biker rally, steeped in wild-west history (Wild Bill Hickok was shot dead in a saloon in nearby Deadwood) and surrounded by the ominously named Black Hills and its superb winding roads.
In the first full week of August, grab a map and a couple of good riding friends and head west to Sturgis for a most memorable rally experience. I suggest you do it on a Harley for the full effect.