Bikes on Bikes
Words by Drew Rohde // Photos & Video by Samson Hatae
Additional Photos by Drew Rohde
The Black Hills Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota isn’t the typical mountain biker’s road trip destination. However, as a motorcyclist and professional people watcher, it has always been on the list of ‘one day’ trips. Shortly after being left without a job I heard my good friend Samson Hatae was going to Sturgis, to have some of his photos featured in a gallery exhibit, we began to brainstorm with the third member of our trip, Nic Hall. With no job or place to be, I figured this could be the year to check it off the bucket list.
They say that idle hands are the devil’s tools and while my hands may have sat, waiting for guidance during my unexpected situation, my brain was spinning. It wasn’t until I looked at a calendar and realized the 77th annual Sturgis rally would be taking place the week before Crankworx Whistler that the wheels really began turning. Would it be possible to load our mountain bikes on our Harley Davidsons and ride to the two biggest North American bike events in one trip? A little voice urged, “yes.”
This whole bikes on bikes thing started about six years ago. Like the rest of you, I suffer from Lines Syndrome. It’s a terrible affliction that causes you to constantly scan the terrain around you, imagining what line you would take. “There’s gotta be a trail up there,” you say to yourself as you stare out the window. It’s hard enough from major freeways, but now imagine what it’s like while looking at the most epic terrain around you as you drive down desolate, winding highways full of sweeping corners that beg to be carved by a motorcycle. I was suffering from a double case of Lines Syndrome on a trip through Zion National Park and, like Squints famously said in The Sandlot, “I just can’t take it no more!” I was tired of compromising my trips and having to leave one of my favorite two-wheeled machines at home. I got home, built a rack, and have reduced the effects of my Lines Syndrome ever since.
Let’s fast forward to August 2017 where three brave (or stupid) young men strapped way too much shit to their motorcycles with only a few hours of daylight to go. While we would have loved to leave earlier, Nic Hall, who will later earn the name U-Turn, had some work conflicts so we waited, like good friends do. We heard that Sturgis winds down by the second Saturday and on Sunday it’s a relative ghost town, so our Tuesday night departure wasn’t ideal, but seemed safe enough to cover 1,300 miles. Lesson 1 – There is never enough time.
As we left Bend in our rear view mirrors, we sped east on the deer minefield known as U.S. Route 20. At least dusk isn’t the worst time to travel. For those of you unfamiliar with eastern Oregon, it’s not at all like the Oregon you normally see. It is a barren and desolate land filled with nothing. Thankfully that nothingness was interrupted by the town of Burns, a welcome site. We were lucky enough to talk some stoned teenagers into keeping the Dairy Queen open long enough to cook us some burgers and blizzards.
Before the gut bombs settled in we hit the road with a vague goal of making it to the next small town that might have a motel. “If not, there’s always sleeping bags, right?” we said half joking. Well somewhere between indigestion and Burns we missed a turn and ended up heading the wrong direction. Not the thing you want to be doing at 11PM on Day 1. The road we were on was actually one I had driven the previous winter on my way to Sedona, AZ. I remembered passing the Crystal Crane Hot Springs and wanted to go back and visit one day. “I know a place,” I yelled to the guys as we sat in a dirt pullout on the side of the road. We backtracked just a few miles and found the dirt road leading to the hot springs and pulled in. What started out as a screw up proved to be the most epic way to end our first night. A full moon shone down on the glassy black water. We couldn’t put our kickstands down quick enough and raced to pull our board shorts out. We tossed our sleeping bags on top of my tarp and stumbled towards the healing, warm waters. As the three of us sat back and soaked it all in, we felt pretty good. Sometimes getting lost ain’t so bad. Lesson 2 – Don’t always rely on step-by-step navigation. It can rob you of experiences such as these.
The sun and birds woke us early the next morning and we packed our belongings before finding a way to get back on our intended track. All said and done, the re-route didn’t cost us too much time and was well worth it. But, as we’d soon learn, detours quickly add up and time waits for no man. The rest of the morning was spent collecting drone footage, shooting a few pictures and eating unhealthy diner food.
Shortly after noon we were screaming through Boise, Idaho taking advantage of their generous speed limits and trying to make time. With temperatures almost as high as our speeds, we were fading quick and pulled over in Mountain Home, ID for some water dousing and fuel. Lured by the photos and stories of Jackson Hole, Wyoming we opted to jump off the slab and take the scenic route to Jackson.
Not long after we left the highway Nic, we’ll just start calling him U-Turn from now on, nearly caused a 3-motorcycle pile up at about 65-mph by stopping right in front of us to let us know he was low on gas and was unsure if he’d make it to the next town. After the smoke cleared and the smell of burnt rubber passed we decided to press on rather than backtrack. U-Turn didn’t make it. Only about a half-mile from town too, so close. No worries, we thought, he’s got a fuel bottle on his bike so we rolled ahead to wait at the station. We didn’t know his fuel bottle wasn’t filled up. He managed to get about 1,000 more feet before he ran out again, but was able to coast into the station. Lessons 3 and 4 – If you’re gonna carry a fuel bottle, put fuel in it. And, much like a group mountain bike ride, take the time you think you could complete the ride alone, and add X minutes for each person. I’d say 50 minutes per day is a fair cushion.
With tanks full we roared through Craters of the Moon before stopping in the small and interesting town of Arco, ID. The town’s claim to fame is that it was the first in the world to be lit solely by nuclear power. After an obligatory photo stop we found a diner that was slinging Atomic Burgers, so naturally, we had to get some. In a one-horse town there’s not too many places to dine, and a writer for the local paper just so happened to be eating dinner and ended up interviewing us. We made the big time in Arco! After dinner we pressed on as the sun set behind us. Eastern Idaho is about as desolate as eastern Oregon, and the only thing that stood out from that next stretch was passing another Harley rider with a KTM in-tow. It was quite a site and made us a bit jealous.
After finding another random place to camp that night, we packed our bags and rolled down the highway to a small town diner for breakfast. It was there we realized that our optimistic mileage goals were nowhere near what we were actually covering. The pressure was starting to creep in. We agreed to make a quick stop in Jackson, but to press on with hopes of making it to central Wyoming. Back on the road we entered the Grand Teton / Gros Ventre Wilderness boundary and wound our way up towards the sky. The mountains were steep, rocky and covered with beautiful trees that filled the air with a fresh scent. The miles snaked along and we crested the peak in a hard-sweeping left hand turn and the mountains parted. A view several thousand feet down into the town of Jackson greeted us, and we were impressed.
Twelve geared-up mountain bikers raised their fists and shouted as we rounded the corner and interrupted the jaw-dropping view. Almost in unison the three of us pulled over and said, “We gotta find out where they’re riding ‘cuz this looks too perfect!” This was one u-turn we didn’t mind making. Sadly by the time we waited for the cars to clear the riders had dropped in. Sammy and I looked at the posted map while Nic pulled up his Trail Forks app and researched our ride options. “It looks like this is the ride we wanna do,” he said while pointing at his phone. “About six miles and 2,000 feet of climbing – we should be able to do that pretty quick,” U-Turn continued. The decision was made. It was time to swap bikes and ride Lithium. Lesson 5 – No matter how short of a ride you think you’re going on, always pack water and a snack, especially in a foreign land.
Choosing to believe the app’s information, I opted to not pack anything with me in the name of saving time. I will pay for this decision later. Out of the parking area we climbed a service road and admired the beauty around us. It only took about 15 minutes to realize I was already dehydrated, but it was too late to turn back now. “You’ll survive,” I told myself, “we’ve already climbed a good amount so there shouldn’t be too much left.”
Well, I was right, there wasn’t too much climbing left. On the way to the descent that is… We didn’t know that Lithium was about to drop us nearly 3,000 vertical feet from the top of the Teton Pass. Far away from our motorcycles and my DrinkTank full of water. Before the misery commenced however, the three of us were treated to utter ecstasy. Lithium packed everything you could want from a trail in one long punch. It goes from high speed alpine fields full of blooming flowers, to steep and insanely fun rock gardens, to bike parky berms and jumps to root-littered loam pockets. The good times easily bumped this trail onto our top 10 list of all time.
Even with the uncontrollable smiles and hooting, I couldn’t help but notice the highway, my reference point back to the motos, was getting farther and farther away as we sped towards the town of Jackson below. As we pedaled out from the bottom of the trail, we entered a paved parking lot. The road into the lot pointed downhill and a bike path pointed up. U-Turn was convinced that we would be able to intersect the road quickly by going up the path as his Trail Forks map made it, “Look like they’re right next to each other.” What we soon learned was that they did run parallel, but there was about 800 vertical feet of difference in elevation. Since we didn’t want to drop down the road and lose more elevation, we decided to pedal up the Old Road back to the top of Teton Pass. I still didn’t have any water, and the little bit Sammy and Nic brought was long gone. What came next was sheer hell and one of the roughest ride/hikes ever. On a normal day, this wouldn’t have been a terrible climb, but in our current state it soon became every man for himself.
We took turns carrying Sammy’s heavy camera bag and made several stops at spring crossings to dip our heads in the cool water. The temptation to drink the flowing water was almost too great to ignore, but the inner debate of 45 more minutes without water versus days of diarrhea while riding a motorcycle kept us parched. Since U-Turn was in the best shape and had the most snacks and water for the ride, he volunteered to go ahead and get the jet-boil hot to prepare a Good To-Go meal packet. I pulled up just a few minutes later and collapsed by my motorcycle. Just then my phone rang with Sammy on the other end, “Dude, I died. Come get my body,” he said. Luckily the bike path had an opening wide enough to fit a motorcycle and U-Turn rode down the hill to tow Sammy back while I shoveled protein powder into my mouth and swished it around with water from my bottle.
Just as Sammy and U-Turn pulled up, a kettle corn truck came sputtering around the corner and pulled into our turn out. With cramping legs and a mouthful of peanut butter protein powder, I fast-walked over to the truck. As he sweat over the engine I asked if he had any popcorn we could buy. I think he saw the look on our faces and replied, “Yeah I’ve got two leftover bags up here. You want sweet and salty?” Before he could finish I just said yes and handed him a $20. “How about some Cokes?” he asked. “Yes!” I replied, “I’ll take three.” Needless to say it was the best tasting popcorn and coke we’d ever had. We went from being zombies to being super amped on our epic adventure. As we packed our bikes, we shared the smoked three-bean chili meal that had been boiling and relived the glorious descent. It would definitely be enough to get us down the hill and into town for a burrito.
What was supposed to be a short 6-mile ride turned into a 6-hour mission and once again pushed back our intended camping spot for the third night in a row. As we sat in a sophisticated burrito shop, surrounded by Patagonia clad yuppies, we realized that we may be in a bigger world of hurt than our recent climb back up the pass. The local Motel 6 was charging $275 a night and everything else was approaching the $400 mark, and booked! Apparently dirt bags aren’t welcome either as there weren’t any places to camp in the billionaire’s playground. Just as we started to get stressed about our lack of options, a tattoo wearing, long-haired guy with a Jackson Hole Bike Park shirt walked up to our table and asked if we had the bikes outside. “Yeah man, that’s us,” we replied. We introduced ourselves and asked if he had a recommendation on a good place to pitch a tent for the night. Our new friend Rico replied, “Nah man, there’s not really a lot, I mean there’s a place outside of town but it’s down a long dirt road that’s pretty beat up and it may be full. You guys can just crash at my house if you want.” Just like that.
Mountain biker’s hospitality never fails to amaze me. After Rico and his daughter finished their burritos they led us to the local grocery store and then to his house. He made room for us on his floor and we swapped stories and watched bike videos until we passed out. The next morning we awoke to the smell of a delicious breakfast being cooked by Rico. Much better than the granola bars and bananas we were planning on eating. We packed up our bags, thanked Rico for his hospitality and swore that we’d be back to ride the Jackson Hole Bike Park, where he worked as a trail builder. After some goodbyes and a group photo we set off to try and beat the crowds through Grand Teton National Park.
The Tetons were a spectacle and truly special treat to see so early in the morning. We got to enjoy them a bit longer than we wanted to since U-Turn’s first cargo dump occurred about 30 minutes into our ride. Secure loads just aren’t his thing. Shortly after that Sammy’s taillight started falling off as it rattled it’s way loose. Another mechanical break, another delay. We were really moving now! The roads east through the park were immaculate and the scenery was inspiring, but just when you think you’ve seen enough greenery to last you a lifetime, the road descends into the town of Dubois, Wyoming. A Technicolor masterpiece of reds, oranges and white soil were a welcome change for this desert rat. I’d never heard of Dubois, but if you’ve seen UnReal, you may remember the segment with Brett Rheeder, Tom VanSteenbergen and Cam McCaul riding through painted hills with wild horses surrounding them. That was Dubois – a town I wish to revisit with some more time.
As we entered the town a gas station sign reading World’s Largest Jackalope pulled us off the highway and gave us a good place to refuel and buy souveneirs. We met some locals and a friendly couple that were passing by on their mountain bikes. After some nice conversations we hit the road east, determined to make it to Sturgis that night. Lesson 6 – Being cheap doesn’t pay off on the road. Replace any parts that you think may be questionable.
Wyoming continued to amaze us and was my favorite stretch of the trip. Soon after we left the painted hills we met with the Big Horn River and followed it north to the town of Thermopolis. The ride along the river was amazing and we were excited to fill up and see more. However, after fueling up U-Turn looked down at his bald rear tire and saw threads and Kevlar poking through. A collective, “shit” was all we could say. In a town of less than 3,000 people located in the middle of nowhere, our prospects of finding a Harley tire were not promising. By luck, I spotted a guy riding a Harley back and forth near a big industrial warehouse a quarter mile away so I rode over to take a look. Sure enough he was a “mechanic” test riding a bike for a customer. What’s more, he had about six tires on a rack, and one of those fit U-Turn’s bike!
We ate our greasy lunch on the floor of the shop as they wrestled the tire back into the frame. What we didn’t find out until later however, was that the mechanic put the wheel in wrong and the brake rotor was wedged between the piston and the back of the brake pads. Excited at our seemingly good fortune, we pressed on at a high rate of speed, passing cars and dragging floorboards trying to make up time. We blazed through the unique and awesome town of Ten Sleep before climbing one of the most amazing roads into the Bighorn National Forest. Once out of the park boundary we sped down the hill burning fuel as fast as we could. Pulling into Buffalo, Wyoming ,U-Turn nearly dumped the bike as he said, “I don’t have any rear brakes!” We looked below his bike to find metal shavings and immediately felt the heat radiating out. Let’s say it together this time… “Shit!”
After pulling off the saddlebag and seeing a chewed up rotor we found the culprit. His rotor wasn’t where it was supposed to be. After dropping the exhaust bracket and battery out of the way, we were able to remove the brake caliper and drop the brake pads out and U-Turn completed the ride without a rear brake. While we worked on U-Turn’s bike, a rather lively guy rode up. I’d call him a gentleman but he’d probably be offended by that. He came to show his disbelieving wife what he had seen earlier that day while on the road. We were also thankful for his great comic relief and stories about previous trips to Sturgis, motorcycles and cocaine.
Just as we started putting away the tools, raindrops began to fall. The sun was fading and we still had 200 miles to go with no rear brake on U-Turn’s bike. All we needed was rain thrown into the mix! Anxious to stay ahead of the storm we sped out of town and jumped on the 90. Not more than 10 minutes later, U-Turn flagged us down saying he dropped his GoPro and my brand new Evo Gimbal. (See why he earned the nickname yet?) We spent 20 minutes laying on the side of the highway watching him search through tall grass and cracks in the concrete. Casualties included: 1 GoPro, 1 new Evo Gimbal and 1 SD card full of amazing footage. Lesson 7 – Only mount your GoPro in vulnerable places when needed, then put it away. Don’t trust plastic mounts.
A tank of gas later and we were there. The flashing lights of the electrical storm we rode through were replaced by neon signs of downtown Sturgis, it was a sight to be seen. More motorcycles than I had ever seen lined the streets as stereotypes were being lived and displayed in force. We were grinning from ear to ear. The first leg of our trip was over. We took a victory lap through town and parked the bikes. Hungry and beaming, we decided to walk around the party to find some overpriced food to eat while we stare at the shit show before us. After checking some of the bars and entertainment options, we decided to cash in our chips for the night. We had a busy day of bike repair and sightseeing ahead of us.
As it turned out, mechanics from all over the US travel to Sturgis to work long shifts and crank out repairs from road worn riders like ourselves. An energetic East Coaster named Slippery Pete manages a pop up shop in a dirt alley and had been doing so for over ten years. He knew the right people, if you know what I mean, and was able to source some hard to find products in short order. Long time mechanic and motorcycle legend from southern Utah, The Desert Doctor, got to work on the bikes while the three of us cruised around downtown Sturgis. Demo rides, bands, parties you name it – it’s there. After the repairs were made we rode our bikes three blocks away to the Fox rig. The brand we mostly know for making quality mountain bike suspension is making a big push in the Harley world and their big rig was set up to make an impression. And make an impression they did. They were swapping out shocks on the spot. Sammy and I had already installed the game-changing shocks on our baggers, but U-Turn was feeling left out. During a lull in sales the Fox guys jacked up the brown bomber and changed U-Turn’s world.
Looking for a good loop to test out the new shocks we pointed our front wheels towards Mount Rushmore. After checking out the monument and enjoying the scenery nearby, we took the back roads to Deadwood. The historic town was once a lawless, unincorporated territory outside the rules of the United States and was made famous for its mining and rugged streets. Among the many men killed in Deadwood, the most famous is most likely the legendary Wild Bill Hickock, whose “death chair” sat on display in one of the downtown saloons.
As spectacular as Deadwood is, we were now a full day behind. The hopes to explore and ride trails in the beautiful Black Hills were gone and we now had to get to Whistler for Crankworx. We had over 1,300 miles to cover and not much time to do it in. We left the comfort of our first hotel, packed up and made our way towards Devil’s Tower. The detour was short and we ended up on one of the most desolate highways I’d ever seen. We rode for well over an hour without seeing a single house or building and only passed 1 car. As we approached a stop sign the highway ended and presented us with two options, left or right. We made the left and headed west. About a mile down the road was the Stoneville Saloon. This place looked like it was straight out of a western movie. Without hesitation I stuck my arm up and signaled to pull over. The rustic appearance, covered patio with the words Topless Tuesdays painted on the overhang and motorcycles out front were all the proof I needed that this was the place to be.
For the sake of saving time I’ll just say this is the place you see in movies and think, “no way that stuff actually exists in places like that! Out in the middle of nowhere?! No way.” Well, it does in this corner of the world We made friends with dirty old bikers from around the country, shared stories with a lovely roller derby doll who was tending bar and we even saw some saggy old titties. This is what we came for! Lesson 8 – Even if you’re short on time, make weird stops. You’ll make memories that last.
Eastern Montana was a blur, but the town of Butte was memorable to say the least. The birthplace of Evel Kneivel is a shadow of its former self, but we still had a good time cruising through the historic town and admiring the architecture. We made a stop at a real time warp, the Gambler’s Café. We ate Even Kneivel burgers and got .75 cent boot shines from a mentally disabled man who has been shining boots since he was nine years old…in 1951! I asked him if he’d ever given himself a raise and placed a five-dollar bill in his shine box. “Well yes, when I first started I charged .25 cents,” he replied. His work ethic and determination were beyond inspiring and we used his spirit to motivate us to get back on the motorcycles for Whistler.
With Butte in our rear views we made it over the next pass on Interstate 90 bound for Spokane. The stretch of highway into Coeur d’Alene was one of the best of the trip. It had more turns than we could count and the only time we stopped grinning was when U-Turn’s DH helmet flew off his bike and tumbled down the highway, forcing Sammy to take evasive measures to avoid it. U-Turn dropped a couple other things that day but this was by far the scariest.
A quick stop in Spokane gave us time to research campgrounds at the base of the American Alps, our next stopping point. It was a long ways out and since we wanted to make it to Whistler the next day, we opted to ride well into the night. We avoided road kill and deer while trying to stay awake until we made Brewster. Borderline delirious and dehydrated, we pulled into a campground and parked the bikes. Apparently Sammy objected to our camp placement, but were too tired to hear. We all ignored his sprinkler concern and climbed into U-Turn’s four-man tent. Too bad Sammy didn’t speak up louder because those sprinklers went off around 4AM and caused a slight inconvenience…Sammy, who is normally a carefree and happy young chap, was ready to pack up and ride the rest of the way by himself in the dark. As we stood around in our underwear drying off our bags and the draining water, he calmed down and we laid back down to get a bit more sleep.
On the bright side, it was pretty easy to get out of a wet bed, so getting an early start was easy for once. Some road construction delays and a long breakfast later, we were carving turns through the American Alps. The peaks were massive and the scenery was impressive. We wished for some spare hours but chose to press on, as the sound of Whistler Bike Park laps was too much to resist.
After a lengthy interrogation at the border, they don’t like me, I was allowed to join my partners and we skirted Vancouver before hopping on the Sea to Sky. I’ve wanted to ride my motorcycle on this stretch of highway for a decade and I was so happy to finally be doing it. I was even happier that I was with two friends and had my mountain bike on the back. Soon we’d all be shredding some of my favorite trails on earth.
We were thrilled to pull into the Aava Hotel parking lot. The comfortable beds and warm showers were a welcome break from sleeping bags and hot springs. The Aava Hotel is the HQ for athletes and media during Crankworx week so beyond having nice facilities, it was conducive to meeting up with all the people we wanted to catch up with. In fact Barry Nobles and Caroline Buchanan, fellow Harley riders, were out front washing their bikes when we pulled up and were the first to greet us with high fives.
Despite the numb fingers and worn-down bodies we were renewed once we unloaded our gear in the hotel room. “It’s only four and the lift’s open for a couple more hours,” U-Turn said with a nudge. “Alright let’s do it,” Sammy and I said. As quick as we could, we traded leather and boots for Five Tens and polyester. It was Sammy’s first time to Whistler and when we loaded the bikes and sat down on the chairlift it really sank in. We had successfully ridden our bikes to the biggest two wheeled events in one trip. The three of us burned laps until the sun set, and as we made our way back to the hotel we knew the real biker party was just about to begin.