The decision to attend the 2020 Sturgis Rally was not an easy one. My family had been hyper-vigilant in our quest to keep my 81-year-old mother healthy since the pandemic hit. Attending meant I’d also need to quarantine from my wife and kids when I got back home, and their hugs and kisses are the thing I crave most upon after a couple weeks on the road. Some states were still mired in lockdowns, countless small businesses had shuttered, and many meals were eaten from the seat of my motorcycle. I hadn’t traveled far from home since covering Daytona Beach Bike Week back in March, and just about every motorcycle event after that had been cancelled because of COVID. Whether there would even be an 80th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was up in the air until the proverbial last minute when the Sturgis City Council bucked the national trend and opted to hold the 2020 rally with an 8-1 vote.
Sturgis has always had an outlaw spirit to it, and true to its rebellious nature the rally stood to be the brightest beacon in the COVID-created wasteland of major motorcycle events in 2020. In a time of darkness, it gave motorcyclists a glimmer of light, an opportunity to heed the call of the open road and feel alive again. For many like me, every summer Sturgis beckons like the Sirens, its spell strong and undeniable as I long to once again breathe in the beauty of the Black Hills. Confessedly, curiosity also fueled me as to what the rally was going to be like. One way or another it was going to be a historic year, and as a journalist I felt compelled to be there to document it.
And I’m glad I did. The mainstream media hadn’t been there 24 hours before it was already spreading its misleading narrative, reporters and cameras flocking to Main Street, eager to point their cameras at maskless mobs. The world tuned in, hanging on every narrowly focused camera and loose-lipped commentary. But if those news outlets would have looked deeper than the hysteria they helped spread, they might have seen one of the many magnanimous lights that were shining brightly at the rally. There was the Sturgis Meals on Wheels 80th Rally fundraiser initiated and supported by motorcyclists that raised $15,885 for some of Sturgis’s most vulnerable citizens. Indian Larry Motorcycles held its 6th annual Aidan’s Ride at the 2020 Sturgis Rally, raising much-needed money to battle against Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a potentially fatal childhood disease that can be thwarted if caught early enough. The 18th annual Mayor’s Ride raised over $30,000 for the Sturgis Fire and Police departments as well as other Sturgis Rally charities. Thanks to philanthropic pursuits like the 13th annual Legends Ride and the 2nd annual Rusty Wallace Ride, the Sturgis Buffalo Chip has raised over one million dollars to date for the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame and charities like the Black Hills Special Olympics. Somehow these stories failed to make national headlines.
Sturgis had the distinction of being one of the only places to host live music in 2020. Musicians were starving to play just as much as fans craved a concert and Sturgis bravely brought the two together. There’s an unmatchable energy at a live show, pulses racing as the band strikes that first chord, lights exploding and the crowd electrifying as music flows through their bodies. One of the only places you got that experience in 2020 was Sturgis. Factors like spacious outdoor amphitheaters at venues like the Full Throttle Saloon and the Buffalo Chip worked in favor of safety protocols. Motorcycles spread out about The Chip’s arena as bikers enjoyed the show in their own little space next to their bikes. As expected, attendance was down, and even on the busiest nights I had no problem navigating the Buffalo Chip’s crowds. Granted, there were still people pressed in to the front of the stage at some of the shows but it was easy enough to avoid them and enjoy a band from the periphery. Music and motorcycles go hand-in hand and nowhere is this truer than the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. It’s amazing what a dose of live music can do for the spirit.
By the time August rolls around this year, I anticipate more riders than ever are going to be itching to get out. Hopefully by then vaccinations will have helped stem the COVID curve and the 2021 Sturgis Rally will feel a little bit more normal. But the theme of this year’s rally should be the same as last year’s – personal responsibility. “I would highly encourage people to take personal responsibility for yourself,” said Sturgis Chief of Police Geody VanDewater in regards to the 2020 rally.
“We’re going to encourage social distancing, encourage people to wear their masks, but if they have concerns, then don’t come. If they do come, if you have concerns about going into an establishment to have a drink or supper, try the next place. Or if you go into a vendor that has t-shirts and it’s too crowded, then go to the next one. There’ll be other places you can go and still practice social distancing and either get your food or your drink or t-shirt or whatever,” added VanDewater. These tenets will certainly be carried over to this year’s rally.
Personal responsibility also includes current COVID-19 safeguards like washing your hands frequently, carrying hand sanitizer that’s at least 60% alcohol, keeping disinfectant wipes handy and wearing a mask if you’re in a big crowd, particular in a closed environment. Elbow bumps with close friends are a good replacement for handshakes and keeping a close inner circle is sage advice.
There’s other measures you can take, too. Bike shows generally have a lull mid-afternoon in between morning set-up and late-afternoon trophies which provides a prime opportunity to mill around and check out all the custom motorcycles with fewer people around. Often you’ll find the builders hanging around their bikes during this time, a bonus if you’re like me and like to hear the story behind the builds. In fact, timing is everything in regards to doing the rally safely. If you want to check out vendors on Main Street and Lazelle, hit them up early in the day. In you want to people watch, I visited Main Street a couple of times midday and easily navigated the sidewalks without having to waddle through crowds but there was still enough entertaining characters and cool bikes to check out. Another great way to socially distance is to ride more. Sturgis and the Black Hills are blessed with a bounty of breathtaking beauty. Again, get up early to beat the crowds. There’s also plenty of places to explore that are off the beaten path, from the Friendship Tower on Mount Roosevelt to the purportedly haunted old mining town of Galena. Get the heart pumping with a hike up Bear Butte or enjoy a less strenuous jaunt to a waterfall in Spearfish Canyon and bring a picnic basket. Traditionally, crowds aren’t as big if you come to Sturgis a couple days before the first weekend or if you come late and stay the last few days of the rally. With a little planning, it is possible to do Sturgis safely.
While we can’t gaze into a crystal ball and predict the future, intuition tells me that by the time the 81st anniversary rolls around, the Sirens of Sturgis will be singing their song louder than ever for rally-starved riders. By then, hopefully our nation is back on an even keel, travel restrictions have lightened (we missed our international friends last year!) and vaccinations have helped turn back the COVID tide. Sturgis will take what it learned last year and take measures to protect people the best it can but in the end common sense and personal responsibility still rule. Exercise your freedom of choice wisely. One things for certain. By the time Kid Rock hits the Buffalo Chip’s main stage August 8, there’s going to be a bunch of bikers more than ready to fly their party flag high as they help write the next chapter in the history of Sturgis.
Bryan Harley has served as an editor, writer, and content creator in the motorcycle industry for 15 years, reviewing motorcycles and covering events and rallies for industry-leading companies like Motorcycle-USA.com, American Iron Magazine and J&P Cycles. You’ll also find my work in Men’s Journal, Motorcyclist, Rider, Hot Bike, RoadRunner, Cafe Racer and Thunder Press magazines.