PORT DOVER, ONT.—This week, hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists will visit Sturgis, S.D. — a small town near Mount Rushmore with a population of less than 7,000.
The Sturgis event bills itself as the largest motorcycle rally in the world. Last year, organizers claim more than 467,000 people visited the town at some point during the week. The numbers are hazy, of course, based mostly on traffic counts and almost certainly counting some of the same people several times over, but they’re still impressive.
(To be fair, Daytona Beach probably attracts a similar number to Bike Week in Florida every March, though the area is well organized for constant tourism.)
The South Dakota town is almost identical in size to Port Dover, here on Lake Erie’s north shore, just an hour’s drive south of Hamilton.
Last June, on Friday the 13th, an estimated 120,000 people rode into town on their motorcycles. They do this every time the 13th of the month falls on a Friday, though attendance is considerably greater on warmer days.
But breathe easy. There’s little chance Port Dover’s event will grow to the size of Sturgis.
Port Dover’s Board of Trade manager, Jan Overend, says visitors come for the beautiful scenery and the area’s beaches, though the bikers come mostly because it’s an easy ride south from Toronto. When they arrive, there’s hotdogs and perch and beer and water and souvenirs and loud music everywhere, all laid over a cacophony of motorcycles.
On those days, only residents are allowed to have cars inside the town limits and many of them just leave to find peace elsewhere. Some rent their homes or storefronts for a quick and easy profit.
Organizers tried to expand the event to include the whole weekend and surrounding communities, but without success, says Overend. “We’ve had concerts in other towns but the off-site stuff just doesn’t seem to work — people want to be in Port Dover.”
The town’s bylaws were changed recently to allow street vendors to sell to people arriving on Thursday afternoon, but no vendors are permitted on Saturday. That’s when the overnight motorcyclists are expected to leave and let the town get back to normal.
In Sturgis, however, the rally lasts two weekends and all week between them. There’s not a hotel room to be found within an hour of town.
The Black Hills are a destination ride, with beautiful roads, the presidents’ heads carved in rock, and barbecues and booze at every impromptu campsite. There’s no helmet law in the state.
Last year, the Meade County sheriff jailed 412 people and rally-related deaths on the highway dropped by a third to just six.
It’s difficult to overestimate the Sturgis rally. It began in 1938 when the Jackpine Gypsies motorcycle club organized some races in town, with nine participants, and grew to a peak in 2000 when an estimated 633,000 people attended.
But attendance dropped soon after — and not because of the recession. The bikers are growing older and their children are not replacing them.
“We’re targeting new groups,” says Christina Steele, public information officer for the city.
“This year, for the first time we have an area dedicated to sport bike riders. We have vendors for young people, like Monster energy drinks, and events like freestyle motocross.
“We’re kind of at that tipping point where the people are older and still able to ride, but I think that in five or 10 years, that older group won’t be there. And that’s our million-dollar question: Do we change it enough so we get different things going on?
“Do we showcase the rock bands, or the new-age bands and more of the tattoo and piercing conventions and lifestyle, or do we stick with what we’ve done for so long and showcase the motorcycles and more traditional things? It’ll be a learning experience to see.”
Port Dover’s police has visited Sturgis to learn about the event management, says Const. Mark Foster, a spokesman for the Norfolk County OPP, but the event here is different because it rotates throughout the year. In June, up to 400 provincial police officers patrolled the town on the day and directed traffic, most with smiles and a warm welcome. “I think everything was very peaceful and quiet this year,” says Foster.
There won’t be another summer event until 2018. There’s one in May 2016, but all the others are in cold winter months. Several thousand people will still attend them, but the event will be much more manageable.
And if the weather’s hot on that May Friday and attendance suddenly doubles, swollen by motorcyclists impatient to wait till 2018?
“We’ll plan accordingly for that,” says Foster. “We can call on a lot of other officers if we need to. We all work together to maintain the public peace.”
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