The Sound of Sturgis

From the time I arrived 11 days before the official Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota started, straight exhaust pipes and modified Harleys dominated my senses. At first it was an ebb and flow of exhaust sounds as bikes came and went. I could almost tell how far away they were, and which street each bike was on. As the Rally got closer, any ability to distinguish the quantity or location of bikes vanished into thick air. By the time August 3rd hit it was as if all sound rose to a glass ceiling above town where it would turn into an invisible, booming cloud of noise.

As riders filled the campgrounds and any rentable (and not-so-rentable) spots in and around Sturgis, I often would find myself stopped at a light, then startled to see that I was in the middle of dozens of motorcycles that had pulled up around me. Being on my own cruiser and with a helmet on it was hard to distinguish what I was hearing, so I parked my bike for a few days to walk.

-Photo courtesy of Breonn Peterson of

I’m standing on the corner of Lazelle & 4th Street looking like a lunatic not moving to cross the street. Just standing here staring at bikes and listening. The light turns from yellow to red and riders roll off the throttle giving me a false sense of brief peace. Some riders downshift to brake, the RPMs of their engines pop back up momentarily, the gunshot sound of back-firing follows them. Within seconds there are over 20 bikes staged in a haphazard fashion, staggering left then right as my eyes follow the lineup backwards. A random trike adds mass to the mix.

Like ocean waves crashing up against a cliff, but through some mistake in gravity they are suspended, stubbornly waiting for the cliff to give way rather than turn around to go back out. All momentum, force and energy held back by the color of a stoplight.

I stand in awe of what I’m seeing and hearing. Harleys, with the rhythm of a spastic drummer failing to keep a beat. German BMWs and their precision whirring. Intermittent back-firing of bikes not tuned to South Dakota elevation. Constant thudding from Indians and Victorys. Frantic popping from Japanese V-Twins.

If you’ve ever been in a place where the only sound at night is crickets, you know they don’t chirp in unison with each other. Listen for a while and you’ll hear that one group is a fraction of a beat behind another group, and another behind them, and so on. Like a flute holding a high vibrato note. Given an amount of time, there will come a short period where all groups come together, and suddenly there’s an entire flute orchestra head-banging in unison as they scream the same metallic note broken by short breaths. It only lasts a few seconds before those peaks of sound descend back into a steady stream of discord.

By now there are fifty, 600lb internally combusting crickets stretching back a block. Another 50 behind them. The heat coming off engines and asphalt makes the riders fidgety, which makes the light seem to be taking too long, which creates an air of angst. Someone in the front starts revving the throttle in anticipation, someone behind thinks it’s because the light is about to change, 10 others do the same because fuck it. Now the real noise begins.

It’s like a fireworks show grande finalé. No, It’s like a fireworks show grande finalé in a thunderstorm, with a gunfight on the ground. It’s a battlefield where the enemy is tranquility and stagnation. The decibels rise so high I have to turn my head. The front three riders see the opposing light turn from green to yellow. Instead of revving throttles alternately they now twist and hold, left hand relaxing on the clutch. Someone in the second row notices slight movement in front so he revs and picks up a couple of inches.

The light turns green and throttles snap open. Side-mounted air filters hiss as they suck every bit of oxygen available inside the engine where it gets mixed with fuel, compressed, and exploded out the back of the bike in a fraction of a second. The next bike pulls the air in, now diluted with carbon dioxide and recycles it.

The cliff gives way, and I watch first riders shoot off the front like a fox in a medieval hunt. The sound is so deafening I expect the mass to turn into a sort of horizontal, 50-thruster rocket launching itself forward, but that many bikes can’t move that fast at once. The main body of mass continues revving at high RPMs as clutches are held halfway, these high-horsepower machines ironically limited to a parade’s pace.

I watch 50, 70, 100 bikes go past. The crest of the wave has broken and they are flowing through neatly but slowly. Some riders have had enough of the traffic and make a quick lane change to get off the main drag, accelerating as they round a corner onto a cross street. Other riders happily look from left to right clutching and revving whenever they make eye contact with anyone.

-Photo courtesy of Joe Norfolk-

Before long the light turns from yellow to red again, and the cliff stands back up in front of another oncoming wave. Across the street I see a family of spectators too terrified to cross although the “Walk” sign is on. The mother is trying to decide whether to guard her young son’s ears from the noise or his eyes from the two bikes pulling up with topless, painted female passengers.

The family decides to turn around and go back the other way, but I’m going to stay right here to do it all over again.

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