For 11.5 months each year, Sturgis exists as a sleepy South Dakota hamlet. Then, August. The dog days of summer herald an infusion of people that increases the town’s population of 7,000 by upward of 12,000 percent, bloating the Black Hills with bevies of motorcycle-riding bacchanals. Rowdy, tattooed bikers swarm the area for the infamous 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, one of the largest, most historic gatherings of its kind.
The citizens of tiny Sturgis, meanwhile, lock their doors and head for the hills as their hometown is overrun by boozehounds and bar brawls.
At least, that’s the narrative most people know. These days, however, media coverage is more likely to read “World’s largest motorcycle rally getting tamer” (USA Today, 2017) than to cite grim reports of stabbings and police chases (The New York Times, 1990). And longtime attendees like Tom Brenden, general manager at the Harley-Davidson outpost in Alexandria, have noticed the changes in recent years.
“This year will be my 28th in a row,” he explains. “When I started going, there might have been 150,000 to 200,000 people in the crowd. Now, I’m 57, and guys my age are pretty common. You don’t see a lot of young people anymore. It’s not nearly as wild and crazy as it was back 25 or 30 years ago.” In other words, as rally goer Robert Huddleson of Vista, California, so eloquently told USA Today, “There aren’t so many naked ladies anymore.”
In a way, as the rally grows tamer, it’s returning to its roots. Nearly 80 years ago, the event originated under the moniker Black Hills Motorcycle Classic. According to Sturgis legend, in 1938, J.C. “Pappy” Hoel hosted a dirt-track race with nine riders; it was eventually sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Association. Back then, motorcycle culture was wholesome and family-oriented, and people who joined a club bonded over their love for racing and the art of the motorcycle as they spent the day on the track with family and friends.
But as these clubs grew more popular, so did their “outlaw” counterparts, a term used to describe clubs that weren’t affiliated with the American Motorcyclist Association. They quickly became known for wreaking havoc, racing on the streets of small towns that lacked sufficient law enforcement to stop them. In 1947, a group of 500 outlaw motorcyclists caused a riot in Hollister, California, when they “rode their motorcycles into bars and restaurants, through traffic lights, tossed bottles into upper-floor windows, and relieved themselves of the beer they had been drinking in the streets,” Daniel Wolf writes in his book The Rebels. This riot turned the tide of public perception against bikers, associating them with rowdiness, violence and organized crime.
Then, in the sixties, as Daniel Krier and William Swart explain in “The Commodification of Spectacle,” their incredibly detailed cultural history of Sturgis, “a new genre of biker-themed cinema became widely popular. Especially important was the 1969 film Easy Rider, [which] depicted motorcycle touring as an expression of the rising youth movement. To young people disenchanted with establishment values, the outlaw/hippie biker embodied countercultural desire for freedom in an authoritarian world.” During this time and in the decades that followed, many of these outlaw organizations attended Sturgis, and the sheer number with which motorcyclists descended upon the town often overwhelmed its law-enforcement resources, causing an uptick in crime.
Even as late as the nineties, media outlets like The New York Times published stern articles bemoaning the “virtual occupying army in black leather, boots and tattoos” that took over Sturgis each year. With crime reports citing drunk driving and indecent exposure, blame was easy to place — and the media coverage often failed to mention the millions of dollars spent during those 10 days, virtually bankrolling the town’s budget for the rest of the year. The well-known (and extant) Buffalo Chip Campground made moralizing headlines especially easy to write, hosting events like its fake orgasm and homemade bikini contests, “midget bowling,” “beers and burps,” and “women of wrestling’s wringing wet and wild throw down.”
In the past two decades, however, this imagery has become more of a faint echo than a reality. These days, the crowd is as likely to be filled with bankers, doctors and lawyers moonlighting as badass bikers as it is with authentic rogues of the road. Part of the reason, of course, is economics. Simply owning and operating a motorcycle requires a hefty financial investment; on top of that, Sturgis itself has reached unprecedented levels of price gouging, taking financial advantage of its cult status. A room at the Holiday Inn, for example, typically goes for $94 a night but runs upward of $600 during the rally. Camping and other lower-cost options have burgeoned in recent years, but food and drink costs have simultaneously skyrocketed. This price gouging means that the affluent are often the ones who can afford to attend.
Tom Brenden explains that at the 75th anniversary rally in 2015, he heard people complaining about the aggressive pricing and swearing they’d never return. “And they didn’t,” he says. “I haven’t seen them since.”
Neil Johnson of Trapper Creek, Alaska, makes the trip every year and notes that rally goers rarely purchase souvenirs until the last day, when vendors lower their prices. “Last year, T-shirts were three for $50,” he says. Like many others, he works hard to find the best deals in town. He stays at the Elk Creek campground for $25 a day and eats his meals at the Lutheran church ($7 for breakfast) and the American Legion ($10 for dinner).
The town, for its part, has gone to great lengths to cater to rally goers. It required historic zoning to ensure that facades of bars remained in a Wild West aesthetic, and massive campgrounds, music venues, parking lots, cafeterias, snack shops and bathrooms were constructed to host the masses — and of course to profit from them, too. Experiences like Sturgis, Krier and Swart suggest, are evidence of a new type of luxury taking the travel industry by storm. Much like a vacation to Europe or the Caribbean, hopping on a motorcycle and heading to a rowdy biker rally provides a departure from normal everyday life. Instead of a stay at the Four Seasons, one can visit a town essentially constructed in the image of an American mythos. It’s like a real-life version of Westworld — sans the creepy futuristic scheming, the robots and the blood baths.
The 2018 rally, if it follows the trajectory of recent years, may well be the tamest yet. In 2017, Sturgis Police Department statistics showed a decline in nearly every crime committed during the festivities. With no citations for indecent exposure or careless driving and only three citations for throwing burning items from a vehicle, the rally, at least on paper, is technically the safest it has ever been. Plus just 32 people “deposited filth in public” last year as compared to 44 people in 2016. So there’s that.
The lower crime rate, smaller numbers and aging crowd are symptoms of a trend in recreational travel that extends well beyond Sturgis. Last year, for example, Harley-Davidson, which represents half of the United States’ big-bike sales market, sold far fewer motorcycles than expected. Research firm AllianceBernstein cites millennial habits as the reason: “Our data suggests the younger Gen Y population is adopting motorcycling at a far lower rate than prior generations,” analyst David Beckel told Business Insider last year. “Gen Ys are aging into the important ‘pre-family’ cohort of riders, and Boomers are increasingly handing over their keys to the smaller Gen X population.”
Tom Brenden’s experience at his Harley-Davidson shop underscores these findings. “We can’t get 18- to 35-year-olds on motorcycles,” he explains. “When I was young, I wanted to go on rallies and poker runs, but there aren’t very many young people who want to do that anymore, and the industry is really suffering.”
Why is this happening? “If I had the answer to that question, I’d be a rich man!” he laughs. While many attribute this decline to millennial spending habits, others suggest that motorcycle makers need to market lower-priced models, slimmed down and modernized for a new era of economic efficiency.
As much as Sturgis is aging, says Brenden, there’s still something very special about it that makes it worthwhile. “Once a year, bikers invade this sleepy little nothing town,” he notes. “It’s unlike any rally based in a major area — Daytona Bike Week, Laconia Motorcycle Week, Arizona Bike Week. People from all over the world come to Sturgis, but the majority of them are from the Midwest. They’re friendly and outgoing. You can sit down for a beer, and the guy to the left of you might be a world-famous surgeon while the guy to the right of you pumps gas at the Cenex down the road. It doesn’t matter at all. Everyone just wants to talk about their Harleys.”