Each year, hundreds of thousands of bikers come to Sturgis for the breathtaking views, the highway hairpin turns and scenic tunnels, the alcohol-fueled parties and concerts and the unique, two-wheeled camaraderie of the annual motorcycle rally.
But those same conditions also create a recipe for danger and, as a result, each year some bikers do not make it home alive.
An analysis by the Rapid City Journal found that at least 141 people on cycles died in Sturgis-related accidents between 1994 and 2012. Several patterns emerged when looking at how and where those fatal wrecks occurred.
One common element is that more than three-quarters of those who died were not wearing helmets. Alcohol played a known role in about a fifth of the fatal wrecks. About eight in 10 of those killed were men, about 85 percent of those killed were driving the cycle, and the average age of those killed was 50.
The data on 85 fatal wrecks was compiled from state accident reports from July 20 to Aug. 20 over the time period of 2004 to 2012. The Journal also searched its newspaper archives and other news reports to document the remainder of the 141 fatal wrecks. Where possible, the Journal confirmed that the deaths were related to people attending the Sturgis rally.
The 2013 rally saw its first fatality around 5 p.m. Friday when a female passenger on a cycle was killed in a collision with a truck at the intersection of highways 44 and 385, authorities said. On average, about eight people die each year during the rally or riding to and from it. But as the rally has grown, the danger has risen.
About 450,000 people streamed into Sturgis for last year’s rally, the 72nd such gathering. At least 13 people on bikes died in accidents, or in transit to the rally — about one person for each 37,500 rallygoers. That may not sound like a lot, but if that death rate were extended to cover an entire year, it would total 35 deaths per 100,000 people, on par with the murder rate in the city of St. Louis last year.
Most accidents occurred on the winding roads of the Black Hills. Others claimed the lives of bikers as far away as western Montana and eastern Iowa.
In most cases, riders realize there are greater risks at the rally, and most try to be cautious.
Melissa Brings Plenty, 33, of Daytona, Fla., said she tries to be especially diligent during the rally because of the crowds and the nature of the recreational activities.
"With all the drinking and partying people do, you have to be on the lookout," Brings Plenty said.
But bikers also point to other riders and car drivers for making the rally risky. Brings Plenty said she had a close call on Tuesday when her group first arrived in Sturgis.
"We were at a four-way stop. This girl looked right, but she never looked left. We had to slam on our brakes. She's a local, too, so she should know to watch out for motorcycles," Brings Plenty said.
Black Hills a challenging ride
Geography also plays a part in the deaths. A handful of roadways have seen multiple fatal accidents, including the interstate leading to and from Sturgis. But a select few highways in the hills hold curves or intersections where numerous people have died over the years. One treacherous stretch is the hilly, winding 14-mile run on Highway 14A between Sturgis and Deadwood where at least a dozen motorcyclists have died over the past 18 years.
Other danger zones were found at Cheyenne Crossing (the intersection of Highways 84 and 14); on scenic Nemo Road from Sturgis to Rapid City; on Highway 85 between Spearfish and Deadwood; and near Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park.
Many of those roads present riders with varying combinations of inclines, declines and steep curves, as well as narrow or non-existent road shoulders. Navigating such tight and treacherous roads is a challenge for any biker, but especially someone who may not have a years of experience or who is not used to riding with so many other bikes on the road.
“A lot of them come from out of state, and they may not have all these corners that we have here,” said Jiggs Cressy, the South Dakota state coordinator for ABATE, a motorcycle advocacy group.
About 90 of the 141 deaths, or 63 percent, took place in the Black Hills region: Butte, Custer, Lawrence, Meade and Pennington counties, as well as Weston County, Wyo. The roads that crisscross the Black Hills are littered with fatal accident sites: U.S. Highways 14, 85 and 385. Others line the stretch of I-90 between Rapid City and Sturgis. More accidents are strung out along the roads that wind through Spearfish, Boulder and Vanocker canyons.
The remaining 52 fatal accidents, or 37 percent of the total deaths, occurred as riders made their way to the rally, or home from it. The farthest recorded accident took place almost 650 miles from Sturgis, when Clifton Baldwin died in 2008 near Lolo, Mont., on his way to the rally.
Including Baldwin, at least six riders have died in Montana. At least four died in Iowa, all in one accident in 2010 near Little Sioux.
Age of bikers a factor?
Most rallygoers know that Sturgis breaks the stereotype that today's bikers are all young men on souped-up cycles riding as fast as they can.
But the fact that Sturgis bikers tend to be middle-aged or older may be a contributing factor to the relatively high fatality rate, said Rick Kiley, director of the motorcycle safety program for the South Dakota Safety Council. In fact, the average age of bikers who died was 50.
“There are often comments that Sturgis is getting older every year,” Kiley said. “Unfortunately the aging process has a direct effect on our riding ability."
A rider’s vision and reaction time get worse with age, according to Kiley.
Kiley also notes that a generation of middle-aged bikers who ditched their bikes or rode less while raising their families can lead to a lack of experience behind the handle bars. In addition to having time off their bikes, those same riders also returned to the hobby to find far more heavy, powerful and technically advanced motorcycles on the market, Kiley said.
In terms of power and acceleration, “motorcycles today, their performance level is much higher than they were in previous years,” Kiley said. “People who have gotten out of it, had a family and come back … they need to be careful of what they buy initially.”
Under the influence?
Combining riding with knocking back a few beers or bourbons is also a recipe for disaster, the Journal analysis showed.
In 88 accidents where conclusive data was available, 20 of the drivers killed, or 23 percent of those cases, had alcohol in their system. Alcohol at Sturgis “is kind of a culture thing,” said Cressy of ABATE.
"It's a peer pressure thing," Cressy said, adding that riders shouldn’t feel badly about turning down drinks when they have to drive.
Whether they drink and ride themselves, most rally riders acknowledge that alcohol is a part of the rally experience, whether drivers are impaired or suffering the after-effects of the previous night.
Chris Shanklin, 59, of Leawood, Kan., has been riding for 40 years and says he knows better than to drink before hopping on his bike.
Shanklin and his two friends from Kansas were stopped Wednesday outside of Cheyenne Crossing in Lead, a noted danger spot for wrecks. They said they are riding 200 to 250 miles a day during the rally, and have often seen bikers drink and then ride.
"A lot of people think two beers and it is OK to ride," Shanklin said. "I see a lot of people on long rides that will stop and have two beers at one place, and then get back on their bikes and ride for a while and stop at the next place and have two beers."
Drugs, however, may not play as large a role. Of the 66 accidents where conclusive data was available, only one driver who died tested positive for drugs.
Wind in their hair
The most common element among the fatal wrecks studied by the Journal is that about three-quarters of the fatal wrecks involved a rider without a helmet. In the 100 accident reports that had data on helmet use, 77 of the people who died were not wearing helmets.
Kiley said he’d like to see more people wearing helmets.
“Helmets may not necessarily prevent an accident from happening, but it helps prevent and reduce the seriousness of the accident,” he said.