March 16, 2010

Biker warning: Sturgis ahead

The March 2010 issue of FlyLite, JetLite's inflight magazine, has this essay I wrote about Sturgis in South Dakota.

Any comments welcome, as always.


For miles, the signs have been overtaking me in my little Korean car. Gleaming low-slung bikes with fat tires and riders settled in the seats, sometimes a pillion person too. The riders' legs stuck out in front so they're nearly parallel to the outstretched arms operating the controls, booted feet pointed at the sky -- they rush past on the highway and eat up the miles, these bikes and their leather-clad bikers, their engines throbbing throatily, agreeably. Through the South Dakota plains that give way to low rolling hills as I head west, along straight roads ribboned over the hills, the riders stream past. More and more of them as the day wears on. The ones that have just passed me jockey for position as they ease back into my lane. The ones that get far ahead are like ants in the haze through my windscreen.

Sometimes I'll creep through a tiny town and a gas station will have a sudden collection of chromed bikes, parked in parallel with front wheels tilted just so, their riders exchanging notes or walking across the street and through a door with a sign that says "Budweiser".

By the time I get to Sturgis, I've seen several hundred of these guys. But that's nothing, for this is Sturgis, where every August several hundred thousand bikers congregate for the world's largest biker meet. This year, the 68th of these events. Some years, up to three-quarters of a million bikers. So for that week in August, Sturgis is the largest town in South Dakota, more populous than the rest of the state put together.

And at the campground a little way out of town where I pitch my tent, I'm surrounded by bikes and bikers, more arriving by the hour and pitching their own tents. How glad I am that I made it in time to get one of the last few shaded spots. It's from under that tree that I gaze out at a vista of black tees, black jackets, black leggings worn over blue jeans, and all these folks usually burly and bearded (though not the women), their bikes almost always Harleys and usually black as well.

For avowed lovers of individualism and freedom and nonconformism, serious bikers look and ride and strut remarkably like all the other serious bikers do. As many before me have noted.

But there's a certain allure as well, in these folks.

I say that despite the warning that rang in my ears only a couple of weeks before I went to Sturgis. Indian friend of a friend, perfectly nice bloke who lives in the States, heard I was going to the biker rally in South Dakota and leaned over in a Bandra cafe. "Those," he advised in a low voice, "are not the kind of guys you want to hang around with."

I gulped. But after getting to Sturgis, I'm not so sure.

After setting up my tent, I plan to head for the town itself, to take in whatever the biker horde has to offer. Just a quick wash and I'll be ready. Three bikers nearby will beat me to the horde, judging by their own state of readiness. I watch in wonder as, in almost-practised unison, they put on shades, adjust their boots, shrug on identical black leather jackets, swing their legs over their saddles, start their engines and rumble out of the campground in a line. Like an elaborately choreographed ballet.

Bandra warnings notwithstanding, I think I'll hang around with these guys.

Speaking of rumbling. In Sturgis, the dominant sensation is the constant deep-throated rumbling of bikes by the hundreds, and I mean constant. Nonstop. Loud. Not one bike present, it seems, emits a less-than-ear-splitting sound. These things are designed to make noise and be heard. And then there's Dennis Kirk's Performance Tuning Center, a large gleaming black truck trailer with a ramp at one end, positioned at the start of the Sturgis drag. As far as I can tell, and judging from the delectable sounds that erupt from there every few seconds, this is what happens: You drive your bike up the ramp, and they do something to it inside that produces twice as much noise as anything it could produce earlier, than anything already on the street -- and bear in mind the steady stream of extremely noisy machines on the street -- and you drive out again, ready to make your extra-noisy mark at the bike rally.

That's "performance tuning" for you. I love this place.

A week in Sturgis, and I get intimately acquainted with Main Street, where most of the biker action happens. Both sides of this drag are lined with parked bikes. Without exception, they face into the street -- must be some unwritten biker rule. Two rows go down the middle too. This leaves one narrow lane in each direction for traffic. This means traffic moves very slowly, if noisily.

One evening, I stop outside a tattoo shop for a half hour to people-watch, to bike-watch. This confirms a suspicion that's been lurking in my mind. A lot of bikers simply drive up and down, round and round, over and over. That is, they are indulging in that age-old ritual of the teenager or twenty-something: cruise the main drag. Something I can see most nights on Carter Road in Bandra. Yet these are not teenagers or twenty-somethings, for the most past. The great majority is easily into their 50s and 60s.

Which raises the question: why would middle-aged and older men and women travel across the country to relive teen rites?

I mean, joining me one night for dinner is Ed, who has ridden his bike to Sturgis all the way from Kansas. Had a rough trip, was pelted with lots of hail. It's his 14th trip to Sturgis, he tells me, and I gasp. 14! "Yeah, been ridin' since 1938. And I'll be 80 on Thursday."

80 years old, and he has driven a thousand miles through plenty of hail. But wait, he's come here with his older brother -- older than 80! -- who rode his own bike, and who has cancer. Also along on the trip are Ed's eldest son, a wiry greying man with a ready smile, and two other friends, also greying. Ed's grandson and great-grandson had also planned to come, but the grandson broke a bone in his hand and they opted out.

The younger generation couldn't make it, but five senior citizens rode from Kansas. Why?

"Been ridin' all my life, that's all," says Ed. "My brother and me've biked everywhere together. We did the four corners too" -- touched the four corners of the continental US in one trip -- "and took just ten days."

Key West in Florida to somewhere in Maine to somewhere in Washington state to San Diego and back to Kansas. A lot of driving for ten days, Ed! "Yeah, we should've taken it slower. We saw plenty of white lines, don't 'member much else! But our names're up on the wall in an airport in LA. There's a plaque there, you can go read our names."

My head's already reeling with Ed's tales. But why an airport, why in LA?

"Damned if I know! But they're there all right!"

And speaking of brothers. In a bike accessory store near Dennis Kirk, a poster of a smirking young man on a sleek bike has these words: "You Drink. You Drive. You Crash. You Die. Your brother-in-law gets your bike. Bummer."

The message sinks home. Back from Sturgis, I'm decided. I don't want to hang around with my assorted brothers-in-law.


Ken B said...

Congratulations on selling the piece. As for this: "Without exception, they face into the street -- must be some unwritten biker rule."

Let me educate you. Most motorcycles do not have a reverse gear. You always back it into a down-sloping parking spot so you can drop into first and pull out. It's a Motorcycling 101 lesson.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Ken, thanks for that! It should have struck me, actually, or I should have just asked someone in Sturgis at the time -- now that you point it out it seems so obvious!

rajibkumar said...