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Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Gets Mellow

The streets of Sturgis may be quieter than they once were, especially during rally anniversary years, but there are still plenty of bikers who come to visit the vendors and local businesses.
Jim Kent for NPR
The streets of Sturgis may be quieter than they once were, especially during rally anniversary years, but there are still plenty of bikers who come to visit the vendors and local businesses.

The legendary Sturgis Motorcycle Rally draws bikers to South Dakota from around the world.

Vendors line the sidewalks hawking biker gear, tattoos and the obligatory rally t-shirts; Harleys and Hondas are parked along the side entrances to bars and restaurants. But traffic on the roads is pretty light compared to the past, when rowdy bikers were backed up at four-way stop signs for a city block.

In fact, the "rowdy rally" is looking pretty mellow in its 78th year.

At this rally, Janet and Andy Sadowski of Clifton, New Jersey stroll along Main Street...strolling, because they're not bikers.

"We were in Montana as part of our national parks tour," says Janet, sporting a Sturgis rally tank top. "We flew into Rapid City, visited Mount Rushmore and the Badlands and thought, 'Let's drive up to Sturgis.'"

"It's a once in a lifetime event," says Andy. "You have to see it...just to see what it's all about and experience it."

Janet has met quite a few bikers so far and thinks they're great.

"No problem. Very nice people."

Wild To Mild

"We see more and more people every year who are not even on motorcycles," says Dean Kinney. Kinney has lived in Sturgis his entire life and now runs the Loud American Roadhouse, a long-established bar and restaurant in the heart of town.

Kinney notes the rally has gotten mellower and non-bikers are slowly starting to make their way into Sturgis for it.

"They're just here because they heard it was a great place to have an outdoor party."

Police Chief Geody Vandewater supports Kinney's view.

"It's not the wild stuff it was back in the '60s and '70s," Vandewater says. "But, then again, it's a different clientele. The 'wild people' now are the elderly. The older people that are still coming here."

Even so, an increase in crime is to be expected when a small town of 6700 becomes the largest city in the state for 10 days, with a population over 200,000. 

The most notorious incident to take place here was a barroom brawl in 2008 involving the Hells Angels and the Iron Pigs, a motorcycle group for police and firefighters. 

"There's illegal activity, there's crimes, there's assaults," says Vandewater. "You name it, we have everything here. But, yet, I think everybody in general comes here just for one reason. That's to have a good time." 

New Bikes, New Rally

A vendor from Michigan, Alex Bergers, is one of the old-schoolers, even though he's only 29.

"I was 13 when I first started coming here," recalls Alex. "I came to fold t-shirts."

He accompanied his father, Denny Bergers, who first hit Sturgis as a vendor in 1982. Alex recalls hearing stories about the rally before he arrived.

"Just like the craziness of people," Alex says. "Like ladies walking around nude. That first year I went through like 3 disposable cameras just taking pictures of everything!"

Corporate sponsorships and aging bikers have mellowed the rally over the years. Bikes are also much more expensive than they once were, and that's changed the type of person who rides them. 
Denny Bergers says the days of hardcore bikers he saw back in the early '80s are pretty much gone.

"The first few years it was all black t-shirts and bikes that dripped oil," recalls Denny. "And the biker that would ride 100 miles or whatever, 200 miles and work on his bike. The technology has changed so much that...it's a new man's game, we'll call it." 

Of course, it's not only a man's game. 

Irona Cliver is a biker, former U.S. Marine and a year-round vendor in Kansas who's in her second year at the rally. Cliver says she loves it: The bikers, the atmosphere and the energy of this adult-themed playground. But Cliver notes that images of wild bikers are exaggerated.

"Most motorcyclists are not your big bad image that's portrayed in the news or national media or anything like that," says Cliver.

And for the most part, they're also not the new stereotype of a biker: The high-earning professional who gets out from behind a desk to roll a high-end Harley to Sturgis.

"Most of your bikers are blue-collar, hard-working people,
" she says. 
"It's not about the one percenters. Yes, they are up here; they do their thing. But just like in regular life, people agree to disagree. The majority of it's all for fun.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jim Kent is originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. A freelance writer and radio journalist who currently lives in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Jim can be heard on a variety of radio programs including National Public Radio, South Dakota Public Radio, and National Native News Radio. He is also a columnist for the Rapid City Journal and a guest columnist for the Lakota Country Times.