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A stranger in a strange land

One Kawasaki in a sea of Harley-Davidsons… Welcome to Sturgis

"So y'all ride a Harley?" the nice lady from Maryland asked. She looked disappointed when I said no. "Whitcher ridin?" Dale, Tim and three or four other people asked. "What even is that?" was the least encouraging version of the same question. When I say the word "Kawasaki", there's normally a nod, sometimes accompanied by a faint look of pity. I'm at the Black Hills rally in Sturgis, South Dakota – and if you couldn't have guessed already, it's very much a Harley-Davidson kind of event.

I got a hint of this as I was riding in from my overnight stop outside Ogalala – I stayed in the hotel attached to a casino on the Lakota Ogalala reservation. The further north I went, the more bikes I saw. Almost all of them were Harleys. Stopping to fill up, I had a brief and stilted chat with a couple - in the leather waistcoat (it's called "a cut") and bandana of the locals, but they were Spanish and Italian and living in Lugano in Switzerland. They'd hired their Harley in Colorado and ridden to Sturgis. They seemed puzzled that I'd be here on a bike that wasn't a Harley.

Iron Mountain Road: better than the Tail of the Dragon

The ride in through the Black Hills was absolutely fantastic - despite the intermittent rain. These are great roads, through the Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park. Even though it's been recommended, I don't take the Needles Highway but stay with highway 16A – the Iron Mountain Road. Partly because I know it has some crazy single-track tunnels, complete looping corners and looks twistier than twisty thing, but partly because it leads more directly to Mount Rushmore.

If you squint, you can see Rushmore through the tunnel

What I didn't appreciate until I ride it is that the tunnels seem to have been cut to frame the view of Mount Rushmore. Riding it this way, as you come to a tunnel you see the four heads cut into the mountain ahead of you. Fabulous! Though almost impossible to photograph (I end up asking a German tourist to take a picture with his fancy SLR and email it to me!). The ride is excellent – and popular... there must be 300 Harleys on the road with me...

Trying to look dignified and presidential...

Mount Rushmore itself is a little bit strange, when you think about it. Four presidential heads carved on a mountain. But it's fabulous as well - and seriously busy. Even though it's National Park monument, my annual pass doesn't work its magic here and I have to pay $10 to park in the underground car park. It's still worth it...

As I leave, the road curls round the side of the mountain and there's an unexpected bonus - helpfully signed as "the profile view". There's George Washington, looming above the road in profile. Very surreal. But slightly cool, too...

The profile view of Mount Rushmore. Cool...

After that, there's more good riding to Deadwood. I had to come this way (the alternative was through Keystone... and I've had one brush with the law already on this trip - I'm not risking getting stopped by the Keystone Cops...). The volume of bikes on the road and especially once I get into the town is simply staggering. I've done big European bike meets – the BMW one in Garmsich, the Austrian event that was originally called TriDays, even the massive Harley rally in St Tropez. I've never seen anything like this. I'm not even in the same town as the rally and bikers have taken over this one too. Later, Don from Wisconsin tells me the rally brings in $800 million to the area and takes over all the nearby towns as well as Sturgis.

Loads of Harleys… and one Kawasaki

I start counting bikes as I continue to Sturgis. Looking for non-Harleys. I see a couple of BMW K1600GTs, a Yamaha MT-07, a handful of Ducatis, two GSs (TWO! I've never seen so few GSs in my life!) and of course a fair few Honda GoldWings. My rough estimate is that 98% of the thousands of bikes here are Harleys, another 1% is other American-made bikes (Victory, Indian or the Wing) and the rest of the world contributes the final 1%. I think I'm on the only Kawasaki in South Dakota...

If anything, Sturgis seems even more Harley-centric. I park on Main Street – it's absolutely rammed, but well-organised. Chock full of Harleys – I spot less than a dozen European or Japanese bikes there. Still, everyone is very friendly. Even if they apparently think I'm mad or deprived not to be on a Milwaukee twin.

Four rows of bikes on Main Street, for block after block... and on side streets too. Almost all Harleys

The afternoon in town seems to be the warm-up, rather than the main event. People ride in to see and be seen, to park up and wander up and down past the tattoo parlours, biker-gear stores (how much for today's T-shirt? Want something with a skull on it?) and of course the bars. There are a couple of bands playing – but there's a sense of time being killed. The real action will happen tonight, when there's less riding and more drinking. It feels almost like a 10,000-person family wedding – and we're in the bit between the service and the reception (or maybe between the meal and the bar being opened...). The stuff that legends are made of, the tall tales that will be told, will happen later. Who knows what might happen?

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