The little town of Sturgis, South Dakota, population just over 6,600 turns into a motorcycle haven for one week a year in early August. It houses over a half million motorcycle enthusiasts that come from all over the world. Now on its 77th annual rally and none of us here at Lowbrow Customs have ever been, I asked if I could see what all the fuss was about. It also helped the convincing a little more that Michael Lichter invited me to show some of my photography at his "Motorcycles As Art" show held at the world famous Buffalo Chip. With the approval to go, I packed up my sissy bar and hit the road on my trusty 2006 Harley-Davidson Sportster.
The trip from Cleveland to Sturgis is around 1300 miles and no one rode with me. This was the first long trip I had ever done on my own while riding my bike. The guys here at the shop, at least one friend or even my beautiful wife Kat are usually always by my side riding with me on on my adventures. This made the trip just a little more interesting and different for me right out the gate.
The first day I started heading west on the treacherous I-80 turnpike. It's just long, straight, boring and filled to the brim with orange barrels. Do you know what the the O in Ohio stands for? Orange barrels... The rain was off and on the entire first day and I grew tired of putting on and taking off my rain gear. I personally will ride in the rain all day long as long as it's lightly falling but when it down pours I'll make a point to stop under a bridge if possible. It's really dangerous, not so much the handling part but more for the visibility of those driving around me. I have the smallest tail light and with 10% visibility I feel like a Semi Truck will just run me over.
My plan was to make it to my friend Dick Chavez's house in the middle of no where Illinois by nightfall. I made it to Dick's around 10:00pm because of the heavy down pours off and on all day long. When I finally arrived I was greeted with open arms, a garage space for my bike, a warm couch, and some really amazing ice coffee.
Getting little sleep and waking up groggy I packed my things and left Dick Chavez's house early continuing to head west. With breakfast in mind, I kept riding finding nothing town to town. There was absolutely nothing around me for what felt like forever that morning. Dick lives in the middle of nowhere and I'm pretty sure his town was the only place to get breakfast and I didn't even think to stop and look before leaving.
As I made my way through the lonely back roads of Illinois, I spotted a lone Honda Silverwing parked on the side of the road. I felt obligated to stop for some reason and see if the rider was around, if they needed help or a cell phone to call for a tow. I called out a few "Hello's!?" but no one was around. Shrugging my shoulders I snapped a few pics of the lone Honda and continued on my way. It was a really strange moment but it reminded me of my Dad, growing up he had a Silver Wing pretty similar. It's crazy how somethings just bring you back to early moments in your life.
Riding by myself felt great at times but for photos it caused a bit of a challenge to come up with new and interesting ways to shoot. It made me really appreciate the times I have ridden with so many close friends and my wife over the years. Having them as my main focus points of my trips when shooting always makes days go by faster too. Thinking about what I could shoot next in Iowa, I rode up on a really amazing El-Camino. Grabbing a few shots of it as I rolled by decelerating, I gave a hard look behind me to learn a F900 humongous truck was coming right up on my tail. He wasn't braking and I remembered my brake light wasn't working either. I ripped the throttle and blasted into the right lane as fast as I could watching the F900 fly passed me not even looking at me. It was a pretty tense moment of anger and happiness that I didn't just get run over.
As I reached Minnesota I finally started to see more bikes heading the same way as me to what I could only hope was Sturgis. The problem was most of the bikes were on trailers. Not just regular bikes but huge comfy baggers, on trailers. Those things are like couches on wheels, ride them! I also rode up on a handful of guys on baggers, in which I finally got a little excited about seeing some other people riding the same way as me, only to see their plates and find they were from Minnesota. They were probably just having a little day adventure which is great and all but in two days and not seeing really anyone riding to Sturgis really threw me for a loop.
Waking up at a KOA behind a little motel in Jackson, MN proved to be a great little spot to sleep. Only $20 to camp, a little bit of a weird surrounding but it was very peaceful. The goal for my third day was to make it to the Badlands in South Dakota and try to explore a bit more inside the park than I have done in previous visits.
Making my way off the Badlands exit, everything started to look a bit more familiar. I stopped at the gas station/trading post before the main entrance of the national park to fill up and grab a snack. While "snapping into a Slim Jim" a dude walked up to me and asked where I was coming from, I looked over and told him "Cleveland". He wasn't impressed, dressed to the nines in custom leathers, head to toe, that actually looked really cool. It wasn't your typical Harley store purchased type stuff. He reminded me of a character straight out of a Mad Max movie. He said to me, "That's cool man, me and my dude over there have been riding the last 6 days from Brooklyn, NY. We are heading to Sturgis and then we are trying to do some more exploring before heading home." He then introduced himself as Damien which was fitting for his eccentric look.
As I continued to chat with Damien, his friend started to walk over towards us. The friend was a bit shorter than me, bald, tough looking and intimidating as all hell. He smiled and reached out to shake my hand while saying to me "Hey brotha, my name is Snake Eyes." All I could do was chuckle out loud and say, "Well my name is no where near as cool as that man, my mother just named me something lame and dumb like, Mikey." He laughed for a few seconds and we Immediately started to talk about tattoos, Brooklyn, people we know in the same circles, our bikes and our trips so far. I must have spent a good 45 minutes or more hanging out with Snake Eyes and Damien. They were extremely nice dudes and it was good to be out of my own thoughts for a little while and in good company. My only regret is I was so busy listening to their stories and conversing with them I forgot to snap a portrait of them.
One of the coolest places in America, the Badlands are a must stop if you are ever in South Dakota. Long curvy roads with beautiful landscapes that go on for miles and miles. Every direction you turn your head is something brilliantly amazing in the horizon to stare at and it makes you feel like you are on another planet. If you are a freak about wildlife, you will see a ton of animals roaming around while you are there too, just watch out for the rattle snakes!
Day 4 - Sturgis & The Buffalo Chip
The World Famous Buffalo Chip has over 600 acres to accommodate thousands of motorcycle campers / RV's. Well mostly RV's, but there were a handful of tents through out the grounds too, mine included. The Buffalo chip is really well known for their extremely affordable concerts and big named acts that come through like Alice Cooper, Kid Rock and this year Ozzy Osbourne. They also do a really amazing job at making everything you could ever need, want or do all in one location. You could literally spend your entire week there and not have to leave once. There is so much stuff to do, different kinds of food to eat and lots and lots of cheap beer.
My first day at The Chip, was just a bunch of roaming around and trying to get my bearings on how the place flowed and functioned. Along with also having to attend an invited builder/artist breakfast, FXR show, and media day at the Michael Lichter's "Motorcycles As Art" exhibit (the main purpose of the entire trip). As I learned the layout pretty quickly I roamed around searching for any life or something that resembled a chopper or custom motorcycle. It's like finding a diamond in the rough and it proved awfully challenging but I eventually found a few gems in the middle of the sea of baggers.
The day was jam packed with entirely way to much to do. I found myself a bit overwhelmed at times but eventually I made my way over to Michael Lichter's "Motorcycles as Art" Exhibit. This year's theme was to put focus on the millennials, "Old Iron, Young Blood" was the name of the show. Michael's goal with this year's theme was to highlight people under the age of 35 that are some of the hardest working and talented people in the motorcycle industry today. To be asked to show off some of my photos in this exhibit was a surreal honor and still today I can't believe I was even considered to be apart of such an amazing show.
Michael introduced every single person who built a bike or had art in the show that was in attendance to the media outlets that were present. It was really fascinating to get know a little more about each of the invited and their builds/art.
After the "Motorcycles as Art" media day party came to a close, AMA flat track racing started up immediately in the middle of The Buffalo Chip. This track was not your typical flat track, it had different kinds of left and right hand turns with even a jump coming out of turn 2. With tons of bikes flying through the air and the grand stands full, the atmosphere felt like nothing I have seen before when it comes to flat track racing. If felt very professional and like the stuff you see on TV.
Day 5 - Experiencing All Sturgis Has To Offer
Roaming around aimlessly not really knowing where to go, I made my way to downtown Sturgis. Filling my belly with "Mcdeath" as Todd calls it and sitting on the corner finishing my coffee an old Unit Triumph rode by me and parked on the other side of the parking lot. I got excited to check it out, like I said earlier it's really hard to find choppers or even good vintage bikes out there. I forget the mans name who owned this Unit Triumph but he rode all the way from Ontario, Canada with his son to Sturgis. His son was riding a Sportster similar to mine. The man proudly walked me through his Triumph. He showed me all the tricks and doodads that he mocked up to make his ride just a little nicer and more convenient. He told me he was also bummed about not seeing more Triumphs and other vintage bikes roaming around Sturgis and couldn't wait to get back on the road to continue the journey.
I continued to venture down the main road and I saw in the distance to my left a dark blue Shovelhead with an extended long springer front end. I immediately slammed on my brakes and turned off on the first side street I could find to park and inspect more. It felt like I was hunting vintage bikes and choppers in the wild. As I got closer I realized it was our friends at Bling's Cycles. There was a couple of Shovelheads and a really nice Panhead sitting by the street. Next to their booth, I noticed my friend Will Ramsey of Faith Forgotten Choppers was sitting on a road barrier texting away on his phone. What a small world we live in, never did I think in a million year's I would run into him randomly on the side of the road at Sturgis.
Will and I hung out for awhile talking about motorcycles at Fuel Cleveland, and he even shared some Cleveland restaurants with me I have never heard of or been to. Will is a big foodie and knows the best places to eat even in my home town! Eventually it came out that it was my first time ever to Sturgis. He told me I defiantly needed to check out Main Street (which I thought I was already on, but I guessed wrong) and to also swing by the Full Throttle Saloon later in the day to check out a chopper show The Horse Magazine was throwing. I snapped a few more shots of the bikes at the booth, said my goodbyes, and headed off to Main Street.
Mike & His '41 Knucklehead
Walking towards Main Street I stumble up on a 41 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead in the middle of a ton of baggers. As I snapped a few shots, I noticed the wheels, they were magnesium and original. The W&W Cannonball wheels were based off these things, nerd stuff I know but it was so cool to actually see a real set. I snapped a few more shots off and this guy behind me says hello and asked if I liked the bike I was drooling on. I looked back and it was an older gentleman, he had a battery in his hand and what looked to be his woman standing by his side. I told him "You don't see many of these Knuckleheads around here, let alone one with these wheels." He laughed and said "Oh you know a little more about motorcycles than some of the "guys" around here, do ya?" as he pointed around the entire parking lot. I explained where I worked and what we did and he seemed really interested as he started taking apart an Evo next to his Knucklehead. He then introduced himself and said his name was Mike, we both chuckled knowing our names were the same.
I hung out with Mike and his wife for a half hour or more, helping him put in a new battery in his wife's Evo. She said it was cranking really slowly while trying to start it and they couldn't remember the last time they changed the battery. That's one thing I will say Sturgis is good for, finding new parts when you need them. There is a store or guy selling stuff on every square inch of the city. Mike and I talked more about his bike while putting in the battery. He told me he built it from the ground up well over 40 years ago and he even did the paint job, the gold leaf and all. You could see in his eyes how proud he was of her and rightly fully so, it was a gorgeous bike. While we were talking, someone even came up to him and asked if he would ever sell it. Mike told the stranger "Yeah when I'm dead you can call my wife and she will sell it to you, but I don't plan on going anywhere anytime soon." The stranger and I both laughed out loud with Mike smirking at his wife. You could really tell how much he loved that bike, something about a man and his machine, it's a bond you can never break.
Main Street - Sturgis
As I said my goodbyes to Mike and his wife I continued my path towards Main Street. Getting closer to the rumbling sounds just a few blocks away. I finally saw the main strip of parking and it looked exactly like what I have seen on TV. Two rows of bikes in the middle and a row on each side of the street for as far as the eye could see. It was breath taking to know that many people were all in one area, with one thing in common, riding motorcycles.
I walked the 8 blocks of motorcycle parking and would come across another gem every now and again. Mostly it was stock vintage Panheads and Knuckles with the occasional chopper and vintage Indian sprinkled in. For every one of those amazing bikes I found, there would be 400 of the same right off the showroom brand new stock baggers. It was a bit discouraging and sad really but at least they were riding something two wheeled. I also have never seen more trikes in all my life.
Full Throttle Saloon
Walking in downtown Sturgis most of the day I remembered I needed to head out to The Full Throttle Saloon for The Horse B.C. chopper show. As I looked up directions on my phone, it died and shut off instantly. With no charger, I asked someone for directions and headed in the general direction of what I thought was the correct way. It wasn't complicated at all to find, though with the old Full Throttle Saloon that burned down, the sign still on the main road made for a little confusion. I still found it ok, but noticed a ton of people pulled over by the local law enforcement. A piece of advice if you ever attend Sturgis. Put your feet down and wait the entire three seconds at stop signs. If you don't you will get pulled over, also don't speed. The cops will get you for going 5 mph over. There are cops everywhere, I probably saw someone pulled over every 500 to 1000 feet of road, no exaggeration. They are looking for every and any reason to pull you over and see if you have been drinking.
The Horse B.C. Magazine ride in chopper show was well on its way by the time I rolled in. Seeing tons of friends and people I have worked with over the year's everywhere, I finally felt a little more like I belonged. Choppers were parked through out the entire bar area. I'm pretty sure it was the most I saw the entire time at Sturgis. Scantily clad woman walked around selling shots, and BBQ smells were floating in the air. People were laughing and having a good time. The vibes there were definitely better than the downtown area.
After the show awards were given away, there was a small show put on by Circus Una. Three girls on a weird Motorcycle incline high wire shoe riding back and forth and doing crazy acrobatics. They spun around and around on this wire hanging on for dear life, no rope, no nets just pure strength. It was pretty incredible to see and stand right underneath them. I also ran into my friend Rhett Rotten who was riding his wall of death. We got to catch up a little and I got to catch another one of his death defying shows. He's really pushing it lately, trying more and more sketchy tricks, I even saw him touch the safety wire with his frame rail at this show.
Black Hills Riding
One of the biggest reasons people go to Sturgis is to experience the incredible riding the Black Hills have to offer. No matter what route you take, there are just amazing views and great roads to rip on. I had the chance to ride with some incredible people after The Horse Ride in show. We needed to go back to The Chip to meet up with some other friends, so I followed Pat Patterson who led the pack in his hotrod with Brad Gregory, Christian Newman, Eric San Miguel, and a few others behind.
Christian Newman and I eventually met up with the Courthouse Custom Crew and my friend Dennis Fauerbach for a ride out to Spearfish Canyon. Not paying attention to the time, the sun still overhead and warm I didn't even think to grab a hoody or jacket. The mountains are a mysterious place, one moment it's warm and sunny the next minute you are riding in the shadows and shivering your balls off. We experienced the cold shadows for most of the trip but I didn't let it ruin the ride, I just goofed off a bunch, took a ton of photos and took in the scenery.
Day 6 - The Kiwi's, The Cops, Wrecking, and Stunt Shows
Walking through and taking photos at the Michael Lichter exhibit on day 4, a man walked up to me and in what seemed like an Australian accent asked if I knew the person who shot the photos that were hanging on the wall by the front entrance of the exhibit. A little puzzled and shocked of the coincidence that the man was pointing at my photos I stated, that they were mine and that I took them. A huge smile came over his face and he reached out to shake my hand while introducing him self and his friends that were with him. Duncan was his name. He then asked me if I took photos while riding like it said in my bio. I again awkwardly answered back with a yes and let him know that it was one of my all time favorite things to do. As he smiled again, I immediately asked him the obvious question, "You guys aren't from around here are you, are you Australian or something?" He got upset and says to me, "Nooooo mate, we're Kiwi's, you know New Zealanders!" I immediately interjected with "That's a little fruity, don't you think?" while laughing. They got the joke and laughed with me saying they liked my style and then asked me to come hang out with them in a couple days to check out their camp and go on a ride through the Black Hills with them.
The morning came where I promised the Kiwi's I would come out to their camp to check it out and go ride with them. Groggy, tired and a bit hungover from hanging out with Pat Patterson all night long for the third straight night. I finally rolled out of my sleeping bag, jumped on my bike and ventured off to their camp which was in Nemo about 20 miles south of Sturgis. Once I got passed the un-experienced slow riders, the roads became a lot more fun getting to the Kiwi's camp. It blew me away how slow some people were riding through those mountains.
After getting introduced to the entire Kiwi crew and getting the grand tour of there absolutely incredible campground we hit the road. I started doing my thing weaving in and out of guys taking their photos, just my typical ride with not a thought in my mind other than what I was doing, when I realized the road's berm was gone and it was just a white line then ditch. The roads in the Black Hills are no joke and curve in and out quite frequently. As I turned around from taking a shot behind me of Duncan I felt my bike leaning more to the right, grabbing the bars again I realized this wasn't going to end well. I pretty much ran out of road and started to roll off the white line into the deep ditch. With only two things on my mind, one was to save my leg and the other was my camera. I threw the bike down towards my left, hiked my leg up over leaning to the right and tucked my camera up like a baby. The bike slid down and immediately turned itself and me 180 degrees sliding backwards. I banged my head into the ground then pulled it up while continuing to slide, thank god I was wearing my helmet. I eventually came to a stop, I jumped off the bike and immediately looked over myself for broken bones or ripped clothing in shock. Then inspected my camera and bike.
The Kiwi's all screeched to a halt, jumped off their bikes and ran over to me yelling "Are you ok mate?!?" I laughed and said to them, "I think so, that's never happened to me before." They all chuckled and I remember one of them saying "You are F*&$ING crazy mate!" They then helped me pick my bike out of the ditch and pull the insane amount of grass that was embedded into the left side of it off. I took it down the road to make sure everything was still in working order, which it was and we continued on our way.
The biggest thing I took away from the whole experience was never take life for granted, but don't be scared of the inevitable. They always say its not if you wreck but when you wreck. There are a ton of risks when it comes to just riding a motorcycle, there are even more risks when it comes to shooting photos while riding a motorcycle. I will remember that day probably for the rest of my life and I'm extremely grateful I walked away from that with not a scratch on myself, my bike or my camera.
Harry and Duncan asked me if I could get a few shots of them doing some burnouts, and of course my answer was, "hell yeah!" Lining up their front tires together, Harry and Duncan let them rip. Snapping shot after shot I noticed in my view finder a white pick up truck rolling through the frames. Then I noticed red and blue lights flashing on top of the truck when I realized that was a Woods Patrol vehicle and we were busted. Harry looked back as Duncan stopped his throttle to see the patrol truck rolling up to them. He then screamed out of his Sipmpson helmet "WORTH IT, TOTALY WORTH IT!" The rest of the Kiwi crew started laughing and Duncan and Harry were left to deal with the very nice police officers. They both were fined $130 each for destruction of public property, aka the road got tore up.
After saying goodbye to the Kiwi's I made my way back to The Buffalo Chip to find the Sportster show Pat was putting on. As I pulled into The Chip, there was a gated off section of the main parking lot and a ton of Sportsters, FXRs and DYNAS getting loose and sketchy. I parked my bike and immediately ran into the middle of the fenced off area to get a closer look and snapped a few shots. Some of these guys were absolutely insane on a bike, sliding left to right over the entire course and just letting the wheels burn the entire way, it was pretty incredible.
Day 7 - The Last Day
Waking up extremely late after another night of partying till the wee hours of the morning, I found some breakfast and just kinda hung out around camp for awhile. The only game plan was to see some Super Hooligan racing, video the entire Michael Lichter show and hopefully sneak back stage to see Ozzy. Which in turn I stuck to the game plan an accomplished all three goals, though not everything worked out the way I wanted them too.
After a long day of watching racing, I went back to camp to just relax for a while. Sure enough things got a little out of hand and many adult beverages were had. I eventually ended up walking down to the main stage area with my friend Kissa Von Addams. As we got to the back stage entrance area, security was extra heavy, but we just flashed a press she had and my camera and they let us in. It was a little too easy. As I started to walk up the ramp to get on the stage a few guards said, "I wouldn't advise that, no one is allowed on stage but the band," DENIED. I at least can say I have been backstage at an Ozzy concert, yet the only thing I could see was the drummer from far away and on the ground. There were too many amps in the way to see anyone else on the stage. With VIP areas blocked off and no one letting us in we eventually decided to check out Club Skeet where we watched the rest of Ozzy's set and then dance partied the night away!
After another long night of partying, I ended up having to pack up my stuff up early the next morning. The adventure wasn't over. Tyler gave me a call during the week and asked to continue onward and meet up with Kyle and Denny in Salt Lake City. Where then we would head to the Bonneville Salt flats and meet up with Tyler and the rest of the team for a week of racing!
The Adventure Continues on to Bonneville Speed Week 2017
Final Thoughts on Sturgis
Having a few weeks to sit back and reflect on Sturgis, I will say this. Sturgis is what you make it, you could sit back and complain the whole time about how it's a complete bagger show, no one knows how to ride because they are a bunch of weekend warriors, the food is crappy and everything is expensive, blah blah blah. Yes some of those things are completely true but there is no reason to let those things ruin your experience. It's all about your perception and the adventure of the entire week that unfolds.
I surrounded myself with some amazing friends and great people all week long and we made the best out of every situation that was handed to us. If I was a completely alone I'm not sure how or if everything would of played out the same. Some of the experiences that happened to me personally that week will be memories I will cherish and hold dear to my heart forever. I definitely have some stories that will be in my normal circulation of telling for years to come. Sturgis, for most people is a vacation, a "Spring Break" perhaps, but for me it was just a great life experience and a check off the old list of things you must do. Will I go back? I can't say yes or no right at this moment, but I will say if you have never gone, you must go at least once in your life to say you've experienced it for yourself.
Words and photos by: Mikey Revolt