SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Motorcyclists from around the world travel to South Dakota this week for the 78th Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. As Jim Kent reports, the rally's rowdy reputation is mostly a thing of the past.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLE REVVING)
JIM KENT, BYLINE: The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally's about to start as I make my way along the streets of the small South Dakota town. Vendors line the sidewalks, hawking biker gear, tattoos and the obligatory rally T-shirts. Harleys and Hondas are parked along the side entrances to bars and restaurants, but traffic on the roads is pretty light.
I'm thinking the town is much quieter than I've seen it in the past, when rowdy bikers were backed up at four-way stop signs for a city block. Police Chief Geody VanDewater clarifies my perception about the rally size and mood.
GEODY VANDEWATER: It's not the wild stuff it was back in the '60s and '70s. But then again, it's a different clientele. The wild people now are the elderly - the older people that are still coming here.
KENT: Even so, an increase in crime is to be expected, says VanDewater, when a small town of 6,700 becomes the largest city in the state for 10 days with a population over 200,000. The most notorious incident was a barroom brawl in 2008 involving the Hells Angels and Iron Pigs, a motorcycle group for police and firefighters.
VANDEWATER: There's illegal activity, there's crimes, there's assaults. You name it, we have everything here. But yet, I think everybody, in general, comes here just for one reason. That's to have a good time.
KENT: Down the road apiece, I meet Alex Bergers, a vendor who's one of the oldies, even though he's only 29.
How old were you when you first started coming here?
ALEX BERGERS: Thirteen - came to fold T-shirts.
KENT: He accompanied his father, Denny, who first hit Sturgis in 1982. Alex recalls hearing stories about the rally before he arrived.
A. BERGERS: Just like, the craziness of people, like, ladies walking around nude and all. That first year, I went through, like, three disposable cameras just taking pictures of everything.
KENT: Corporate sponsorships and aging bikers have mellowed the rally over the years. Bikes are also much more expensive than they once were, and that's changed the type of person who rides them. Denny Bergers is Alex's father. He says the days of hardcore bikers he saw back in the early '80s are pretty much gone.
DENNY BERGERS: Their first few years, it was all black T-shirts and, you know, bikes that dripped oil and just the biker that would ride a hundred miles or whatever - 200 miles and work on his bike. And, you know, the technology has changed so much that it's a new man's game, we'll call it.
KENT: But not a man's game completely. Irona Cliver is a biker, former U.S. Marine and year-round vendor in Kansas who's in her second year at the rally. Cliver says she loves it - the bikers, the atmosphere and the energy of this adult-themed playground. But Cliver knows that images of wild bikers are exaggerated.
IRONA CLIVER: Most motorcyclists are not your, you know, big, bad, you know, image that's portrayed in the news or national media or anything like that. Most your bikers are blue-collar, hardworking people. You know, they have jobs. They pay for their expensive toys. And it's more of a camaraderie like you would find in the military. You know, you have something in commonality with other motorcyclists.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: KNKL, welcome to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET IT ON")
THE POWER STATION: (Singing) Get it on. Bang a gong. Get it on.
KENT: As one local business owner put it, Sturgis is a big costume party where people leave their year-round jobs and come to get it on as a big, bad biker for a few days. For NPR News, I'm Jim Kent at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET IT ON")
THE POWER STATION: (Singing) Well, you're dirty and sweet, clad in black. Don't look back. And I love you.