My 2019 Sturgis experience with a few hundred thousand of my closest biker friends.
The first thing that must be done is to get the bike in to Frontier Harley Davidson for a service and check before departure. Serviced and cleaned spotless (mine won’t start if it’s dirty), it’s ready for adventure.
I have a very detailed packing list in my computer to be certain that I don’t leave anything behind or feel like I did as I enter the freeway leaving home.
Friday morning comes to forecasts of heavy rain, famine and pestilence. Just what I want to hear with a meticulously clean bike. Radar shows storms approaching, so I put on all my rain gear, including covers for my boots. Bring it on.
So, Mother Nature did just that, thank you. I ride 200 miles in heavy rain. These are the conditions that separate real bikers from those who only have the tee shirt. The first step is to be certain that you have good tires on your bike, inflated to proper pressure. Hydroplaning in a car is bad enough, but it can be fatal on a bike. In fact, many things can be fatal at 75 mph on a bike.
This is why I have “all the gear, all the time”. I have real motorcycle boots from Harley and jeans lined with kevlar, the same material used for bullet proof vests. My slide resistant jacket has armor pads for elbows, shoulders and a large one for my back. I finish all this with a full face “modular” helmet. Modular means I can flip the front up to take a drink of water as I’m riding.
My rain gear is equally ready for the storm. The windshield on a Harley touring bike is sloped to allow rain water to blow right off. My full face helmet keeps my head nice and dry. I have to stick my head out from time to time to allow the wind to blow the clear visor clean. My vision in the rain is as good or better than a car with good wipers.
My helmet has speakers in it, so I can listen to music and still hear sirens. I’ve got Steppenwolf “Born to be Wild” going on as I ride down the freeway in a downpour that continues for hundreds of miles. My rain gear works well, as I make my first gas stop. I’m still dry as a piece of toast in that discount 99 cent breakfast.
Finally, the rain begins to subside. It comes and goes for a while, trying to decide if it can get me to quit. Sorry, not gonna happen.
I’m on my way to the Black Hills Motorcycle Rally, the center of which is the tiny town of Sturgis, South Dakota. The population is 6,908. In 2015, the 75th anniversary reportedly attracted 773,000 people. Don’t ask me how they know, other than counting all the cans of beer sold and dividing by 50.
As the sky slowly clears, I reach my designated stop for lunch, the legendary Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse in Paxton, Nebraska. Ole opened the place in the thirties and was a game hunter of passion during a time when there actually was game to hunt. The place is filled with his trophies, including a giant polar bear that greets you as you come in.
The interior is ornate wood and very beautiful. I took a seat at the bar and ordered the special for that day, chicken fried steak. The food is fabulous, this is a great experience. Just to prove that this whole trip is going to be exceptional, there is a history husker game playing on the large TV behind the bar. The game–1997 Orange Bowl vs Tennessee, Tom Osborne’s last game. The Quarterbacks were the stuff of legend–Payton Manning vs Scott Frost. Being in no hurry, I had to sit and watch most of it.
I got back on the road to sunshine and fair skies. The ride to Denver was wonderful. The fields were green, the air was clean and the traffic light. Perfect for a motorcycle trip.
I arrived in Denver, checked into my hotel and relaxed. Tomorrow, I will ride the Rocky Mountains. If you thought I’d be going straight to Sturgis, think again. That’s too easy. Day one 470 miles.
Day 2 begins with a dirty bike. I rode 200 miles through the rain to start, so my pretty bike is filthy. I sneak out in the early morning light with a small pan of soapy water, some towels and a squirt bottle of water. I use the soapy water to wash the dirtiest areas and the squirt bottle to rinse. There’s a real cool product called “Bug Slide” that’s in a spray bottle and it melts bug splatter. Used with a micro fiber towel, it’s suitable to clean all lightly soiled surfaces. A little dust or road grime can easily be cleaned using only this product.
Very quickly, my dirty bike is now sparkling clean again. Many of my ride sisters have marveled at how my bike “never seemed to get dirty”, but they weren’t around at the crack of dawn when my “good cleaning fairy” made a visit to my bike. I always joke that my bike won’t start if it’s dirty. Nothing looks better when clean than a whole bunch of chrome.
This day will find me roaring through the Rockies. First, I eat a nice breakfast, as I believe that riding a motorcycle can be a physical and, at times stressful, endeavor. I want my body to be ready, as that helps keep my mind and reflexes alert. I’m not just some little scenic biker out for a Sunday ride, getting in everyone’s way. No, while I do want to enjoy the scenery, I also relish the challenge of some curves.
I pack my bike and go through the complete pre-ride check. I fire that girl up and we merge into fairly heavy Denver freeway traffic. The good thing here is that most drivers are experienced at freeway driving and are reasonably predictable. Traffic flows well and soon I’m on Interstate 70 headed uphill into the Rockies, along with half the population of Denver and it’s surrounding communities.
It *is* Saturday morning. I’m now comfortable that this population shift can be seen from the Space Station. Two lanes of traffic are slowed to a crawl and condensed tightly. Traffic continues to switch lanes as one lane moves faster, then the other. It is so bad (how bad is it?), it is so bad that it takes a full hour to go 20 miles. Yes, I have this travel day penciled in at 370 miles and even a 7 am start is not looking so good.
Fortunately, my turn off at U.S. Highway 40 is only 20 miles up the hill. This is an original travel route from before the days of Interstate highways and it’s a beautiful road. Traffic begins to thin out as people turn off for their recreational destination. It might be shopping, rock hunting, fishing or river rafting, but people are getting outdoors and doing it.
The highway has a very nice road surface and is 3 lanes. The uphill part is 2 lanes, to allow for trucks and slower traffic to stay on the right side and passing is in the left lanes. Drivers seem to be very good here, as there are no turtles hogging the left lanes. The speed limit is 65 mph and there are many 35 mph curves as the road weaves it’s way up the canyon. This is, after all, the Rocky Mountains, with sheer granite cliffs that are not overgrown with vegetation. If you’re going to build a road through these mountains, you’ll be following a stream.
As we begin our ascent from base camp in Denver, the elevation was 5,280 feet. I’m guessing our turn off was about 5600 feet and the thin mountain air sucks the power out of a vehicle. This big Harley doesn’t seem to be all that affected. My girl has plenty of get up and she is ready to show me how it’s done. A slight twist of the throttle and I’m pushed back in my seat. I have a really nice adjustable back rest on my bike. The way the bike pushes my back on acceleration reminds me of my Dad pushing me on the big swing sets in the park. A little push, then a little more and then the big one that really gets you going. Yes, that’s it. Time and time again, as I slow down for a curve, then back on the gas and the thrill of acceleration pulses through me again.
This bike is a monster of acceleration and it does a great job of braking, as well. The front brakes on a vehicle do 80% of the stopping. The Harley Ultra Limited has dual front disc brakes for amazing stopping power at any speed. In addition, it’s equipped with anti-lock brakes (ABS) and “linked braking” (LB). LB means that at speeds over 25 mph, the brake system automatically applies uniform braking to both front and rear brakes proportionally as needed. I’ve always remembered the lessons I learned on a bicycle about too much front brake, so I had no idea how much the bike would allow me to apply. When I have both LB and ABS, I discovered that I never even used half the capability of the bike.
I’ve now got about 50,000 miles of experience on large Harley Touring bikes and it’s difficult to comprehend how a thousand pound, two wheeled machine can be so quick and nimble. I’m not as skilled as those police riders going through the cones, but I’m good enough to safely lean the bike over and scrape the pads on a curve. I’m now ready to do just that and this is the perfect place to do it.
Highway 40 climbs up the mountain going back and forth, with some switchbacks posted as slow as 15 mph. I always try to stay in the outside lane for these, as I don’t trust the downhill drivers to hold their lane and not drift over into mine. Going uphill is my favorite, as there are no other vehicles riding my back end. The low end torque of this machine is amazing and there are no other vehicles who can even come close to matching it’s ability to accelerate out of a curve and up the steep incline. Four wheeled vehicles can always take curves faster than a two wheeler, so even though I’m having fun, I’ll never be the fastest in the corners.
The thick scent of the pine forest is a wonderful background to this experience. I open the visor on my helmet to soak up as much of the atmosphere as I can. Riding a motorcycle enables one to stimulate all the senses and the sense of smell is one that has been purposely diminished for no reason. Our cars now have pollen filters that are often laced with charcoal, lest we be offended by they odor of a diesel truck, or heaven forbid, a cow. Ick. The air in our homes is sterilized by being sealed tight against the outside and filtered to the finest micron. We’re sometimes reluctant to open the windows.
Oh, no a motorcycle stimulates the sense of smell to excess in a situation like this. A rider can smell the pine forest and even the roaring mountain stream. I am soaking this up and loving life right now. I don’t quite understand it, but riding with my visor open seems to enhance my ability to smell. Top speed is 65 and there is very little opportunity to hold that speed, so there’s little reason to close the visor.
This is two wheeled enjoyment at it’s finest. On the gas, hard acceleration, pushed back in the seat and hang on tight, then hard on the brakes. The front dips down significantly, then raises again as you enter the curve. Lean over so far you scrape the pads and have to tilt your neck to get a level view of the road, then lightly apply the throttle again as you pass the apex of the curve. As you straighten out, more power can be applied as the bike exits the curve.
One key to riding a motorcycle is to understand that you NEVER touch the brakes when you’re in a curve. All braking is done before you enter the curve. Riding in the mountains requires serious concentration, as you must be constantly on guard for hazards in the road surface, such as gravel or loose rocks that have fallen down. In addition, there are many parts of the road where there are no shoulders or even guard rails. The penalties for carelessness or even stupidity are serious and non forgiving. This is no place to be messing around or doing anything but paying very close attention to riding.
Part 3–The road over Berthoud Pass
This is one of the more scenic roads in Colorado and is relatively lightly traveled. The original route was first discovered in 1861. At that time, it was determined that it was not suitable for the railroad, but was for wagons.
It has been referred to as a “white knuckle drive”, because of the very steep grades on both sides and the numerous tight switchbacks. I’ve done roads like this many times in cars and a few times in RVs. Riding a Harley on roads like this has some advantages. The