Sturgis 2003: Three lessons about riding partners

I’m getting riding fever.  I keep thinking the doctor will say, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” He doesn’t.  So the fever grows. Maybe I’m feeding it.  I checked, moved and reorganized some of my older photos, some from the 2003 Sturgis Rally.

The cranky riding partner stops to take a photo

That was the last year I rode my 1978 Superglide to the Rally.

I keep thinking every year I’ll ride it there again, but it hasn’t happened yet. I promise I will, one of these years.

2003 was a tense year for several reasons.  The woman I rode with was cranky (to put it mildly).  I

Junction Inn, Sturgis SD

couldn’t do anything right as far as she was concerned and I paid the price with an ass chewing at every stop.  But God was on my side, and He sent a serpent to prove that even a serpent is better company than a cranky riding partner.

The two of us had ridden a fair amount that year, but this was a stellar example of discontent and classic blame-shifting.

It happened at the little gas stop along Highway 85 south of Buffalo, South Dakota near Redig.   She took off on her little 883 Sportster ahead of me after getting fuel.  I hurried to catch up, but in my haste, I didn’t crank down on one of the gas caps on my fat bobs gas tanks.  The cap popped off and flew to the ditch.

Like a geyser, gas sprayed out of the tank all over me and the bike.  I stomped on the brakes and skidded to a stop.

I jumped off and back ran to the ditch where I thought the cap flew off.

I looked back at my bike and the smoke was rolling!  Yikes!  The gas was igniting!

Nope, it was just the smoking tires from skidding to a stop.

I started combing the ditch looking for the cap.  A group of riders pulled over to help me. Ironically, they were from Stanley, North Dakota, just up the road from where I lived at New Town, North Dakota.  But this was our first meeting.

They gave up, we couldn’t find the cap.

Meanwhile, my riding partner was still gone.  She had headed down Highway 85 toward Belle Fourche. Apparently she had no intention of checking back to see if I was in trouble.


Lesson #1: Ride with people who will watch out for you and not abandon you.  Remember the rule that you’re responsible for the rider in your group who is right behind you.


I searched in the knee-high grass.  It was dry and crunchy.  The sun was warm, but it was a pleasant day for being out in the sunshine.  With all the light, you’d think a shiny chrome cap would show up.  But it didn’t.  So, I stopped and prayed.  “God, you know everything.  You know where this cap is, please show it to me.”

Confident of His help to come, I resumed my search.  I didn’t know how He’d help me.  One more step, “kkkksssssssssshhhhhh!”

That unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake.  It was near my feet and warning me not to step any closer.  I obeyed.

“Aw, come on, God!” I complained.  “A rattler?  Not much help.”

I stood still, it slithered away.

I’m a teasing kind of guy so just to make it think that I wasn’t scared of it, I took a step after it and stomped on the ground.  It coiled and hissed.

I froze. It moved on.

I stomped the ground again.

It coiled and hissed.

I froze. It moved on.

After a few moments of this play, I went back to the search for the gas cap, but now I was even more careful of the next rattler that lay in the weeds.

I turned and there it was.  My gas cap.

When my riding partner didn’t return, God sent more friendly help, a rattlesnake.

I got back on my bike and headed down the road. It had been 20 or 30 minutes since I last saw my riding partner.  Then, up over a hill I spotted a bike at a gravel road intersection. There she was.  Waiting for me.  She chewed my ass for making her wait there all by herself.

“Oh well,” I thought. “It’s got to get better than this.”

It didn’t.  Things got worse, especially after one of my initial rides through town.


Lesson #2: If your riding companion starts off cranky, it’s not going to get better.  Either toughen up, or turn around.  Most riding groups or couples hit that ugly third-day burnout. That’s to be expected. But when the tension starts before you’re at your first gas stop after leaving home, it will only get worse.


If you’ve been to the rally, you know about the slow ride down Lazelle Street in Strugis on a hot August day. The snail’s pace was too slow for my old air-cooled engine;  the shovelhead overheated.  It got so hot the oil and transmission fluid were useless. They had the consistency of hot water.  The bike quit on me.  I wrongly suspected there were major issues with the bike. I wasn’t sure where to go or what to do about it.

I looked around for ideas of what to do next. My riding partner complained that we were in traffic.  Duh!  Where else do you break down?  In your garage on a hoist?

At the Sturgis Rally, every front yard, every side yard, every back yard of every home is a gypsy campground.  I pushed my bike off the street to the first house on the east end of the business district. The guys there in the shade watching the bikes roll past,  came over and pointed out a dyna-tune portable trailer up the street. There in the dentist office parking lot was supposedly a hot rod mechanic.

I pushed the bike to his spot in the parking lot.  Several people stood around the dyna-tune trailer.  I politely waited my turn to talk to the mechanic.   He was a flighty, high-strung, wired little guy — very busy.  He agreed to look over my bike but said it would be later.  He had apparently worked most of the night before and needed a little break. So, after his afternoon break, he’d get to it.

He didn’t.  He didn’t get to it that first day, or the second.  But the third day he showed me a cam he claimed he’d taken out of my shovelhead and had replaced.  He changed me $400 for the work.  I didn’t have the cash and I don’t do plastic. So, my riding partner used the moment to chew me out while fronting me the cash to pay for the repairs.  With the loan came a $400 guilt trip.

Me and the Shovelhead at Devils Tower 2003

The next day was time to head back to North Dakota.  It was my only ride through the Black Hills, with one photo-stop at Devils Tower.

Once I got home I had my hometown mechanic who had overhauled the bike before I left look it over to see why I’d need a new cam.

The original cam was still in there.

I paid $400 and went without a bike for two days because I believed this mechanic that I needed major work.


Lesson #3:  buyer beware.  I’ve never seen that tweaked out mechanic again, but every time I go by the dentist’s parking lot on the east of Lazelle Street in Sturgis, I think about losing $400 to someone who didn’t deserve my trust.


I did my first motorcycle road trip in 1971 — alone. Most of my trips I’ve done just that way, alone.  It beats having a cranky riding companion.  Though I’ve ridden in recent years with a congenial partner, every once in a while, I just prefer to go by myself.  If I get in mechanical trouble, I take care of it myself, or have it hauled in to a reputable dealer.  No more desperate first option mechanics again.

What’s your preference?  Do you take long road trips alone?  Have you ever gone to a rally by yourself?

7 Responses to “Sturgis 2003: Three lessons about riding partners”

  1. Shirley Shaw Says:

    My first ride to Sturgis was in 1990 w/ my (then) husband. He has a 1973 Shovelhead, 1 seat…We lived in Grand Junction, Colorado back then; and I had never been to Sturgis and wanted to go so bad. He told me I could go, but there were conditions, I had to do my usual riding on the fender “NO complaining”, if I complained I had to find my own way home; He had only 1 set of saddle bags, I got 1 side to myself, if it didn’t fit in the bag I didn’t need to take it, and if I wanted a suvineer I could mail it home. We were gone for 7 days, and it was the best time of my life, and I rode on that fender just over 1,500 miles; and I didn’t complain/cry until we got home and pulled in the driveway.

  2. Kat Horton Says:

    Awesome well written story! Very entertaining and thought provoking. What a trip that must of been for you. You point out some very good lessons to learn – for all of us. Can’t wait to read the next chapter!

  3. I am quite new to riding. Two years ago, because of rising gas prices and the urging of my wife, I bought my first cycle–a 2005 Honda Shadow Spirit. That bike lasted a year before I felt the itch to upgrade. Upgrade I did, to a 2008 Heritage Classic. I have yet to take a long ride, but have enjoyed many an afternoon riding (mostly alone and under 200 miles) through the Ozarks of Missouri.
    Thank you for the awesome blog posts. I get pumped up about planning a future ride–even if only for a weekend!!

    • You’re on the right track. The first and last ride of too many people is a bike that’s too big for their experience level. Their ride ends with a scoop shovel and eye dropper.
      Planning — much of the fun is in the planning…after all, it’s the journey more than the destination that gives us our thrills. Right?

  4. bayouphoto Says:

    I bought my first motorcycle in 1972(Honda 450) then I got a Honda 750 when I graduated HS. I trailerd it back to San Diego after basic training and rode it till 1977 when I bought a first year model Low Rider. I bought it on Wed. then headed for Louisiana on Friday. In 1986 a friend and I both rode to Sturgis on a shoestring. Sleeping in road side parks on benches everything was so expensive we ended up only staying 2 days. Rode three days up and three days back just to stay two days. I kept that bike till it was stolen in 1997. I bought a 1995 fat boy and rode it till I bought a 2006 Road King. Just last fall I toured the Smoky mountains and plan to do Colorado this spring. I miss the old days but not the hassle of the shovel

    • I’m laughing out loud here. “….the hassle of the shovel…” Yeah, I know what you mean.

      Sturgis is unreasonabaly expensive, but then it’s the journey not the destination. Those road side parks and benches give you bragging rights that no RV with a trailer for the bike can ever provide.

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