Sturgis. Few single words in motorcycling conjure up so much imagery, history, stories and legends. The annual Black Hills motorcycle rally, known by its shorthand name ‘Sturgis,’ has a single defining characteristic that elevates it above all other rallies in North America: The riding. Once riders arrive into the Black Hills of South Dakota, they’re hooked. The scenery is breathtaking. The roads are generally great. Riders understand why Native American tribes consider the Black Hills a sacred and holy place. But there’s one problem with Sturgis. Getting there. For the majority of riders who ride from the east, many of the routes are a bit lackluster and options are limited. And unlike most rallies, the ride to Sturgis is still a major part of the experience. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a better route? This is what the J&P Cycles crew talked about on the ride back from South Dakota to Texas last year. And the answer was found in thinking completely differently about the rally itself.

If you’ve attended the Black Hills rally in the past few years, you’ve no doubt seen more adventure bikes mixed in with the American-made Harley-Davidsons and Indians. Look at their license plates and you’ll see they’re from as far and wide as their American cousins - Wisconsin, New York, Florida, Minnesota, California, even Canada and Mexico. More importantly, talk to these riders and they’ll fill you in on the secret: The map of rides to and around the Black Hills gets a whole lot bigger when you add non-paved roads to the equation. Locals have known this for years. The best rides around the Black Hills in August is ABA, “Anything But Asphalt.” Truth is, the great paved roads in the Black Hills are very crowded during the rally. Some days they are literally a parking lot. And you don’t have to be a rally veteran to know there are virtually no speed traps on the gravel roads of South Dakota. Given this, we decided we were going all-in on the adventure-touring route this year.

Anthony Todd, VP Operations, was the first to take the plunge when he bought a 2019 Suzuki V-Strom 1000. He quickly upgraded a few choice parts, replacing the stock muffler with a Two Brothers Racing Carbon Fiber S1R Black Series Slip-on Exhaust and slapping on some Dunlop Roadsmart III tires. In order to live off the bike for ten days, he added some capacious Givi Outback 37 liter side cases in black. I found a well-loved 2013 Triumph Tiger 800XC and replaced the stock muffler with the new LexTech SP8C CF Hex Silencer and added a MadStad windshield. Meanwhile, Countersteer’s Managing Editor, Bryan Harley, would be setting out from LA on a 2019 Honda Africa Twin and would rendezvous with our crew in Colorado (Be sure to check out his Road to Sturgis on the 2019 Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports article).

The final hold out was J&P Cycles President, Zach Parham. Zach has ridden to Sturgis for 22 years, almost all of them on Harleys. When BMW was gracious enough to loan J&P Cycles a 2019 F 850 GS to review, Zach was the obvious choice (and held presidential veto power!). The GS literally established the adventure-touring niche. BMW’s International GS Trophy competition is one of the most prestigious and challenging showcases of offroading skills around, held in extreme landscapes from Tunisia to South Africa to Patagonia. Our objective wouldn’t be quite as daunting, some fire roads and light trails in the Rockies, but we were just as eager to put the F 850 GS to the test.

With 90 hp @ 8,000 rpm and 63 lb-ft of torque @ 6,250 rpm to play with, the 2019 BMW F 850 GS has plenty of hill climbing power. It’s 853cc Parallel Twin engine resides in a new steel bridge frame. Between its riding modes, Automatic Stability Control, Electronic Suspension Adjustment, and toggable ABS, the electronics package of the F 850 GS makes a rider feel spoiled and we couldn’t wait to test out the generous 8-inches of travel of its capable suspension.

Adventure-tourers allow you to get off the beaten path. 

And while the base GS package is mighty fine, Givi came through with a long list of goodies to make it even more suitable for the long haul including Givi Outback cases, tank bag, handguard deflectors, engine guards, and skidplate. A MadStad windshield was also added to the GS.

With the bikes prepped and ready, the crew started studying the map for roads we’d never taken. For example, State route 129 heading north out of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is a top pavement route according to Butler. Alas, the road a dead-ends when it turns into a national forest logging road. But looking at the Butler OFF-Road map, that very same logging road is a highlight of the Backcountry Discovery Route. Sold! We found we were actually able to ride more sections of world-class paved roads as a result of being able to connect them with sections of (world-class) off-road. First World Problems Solved.

Another alternate route we charted was Cottonwood Pass in south central Colorado. None of us had ever ridden it before, primarily because it is paved up one side and gravel down the other into the town of Gunnison, so most riders take Highway 50 instead. While Highway 50 is a great road, it’s the main thoroughfare for semi-trucks and tourists in RVs. With an adventure bike, your mindset changes. We rode up Cottonwood Pass which is a must-ride, through the section of dense conifer forest and then above tree lines to arrive at its 12,126-foot peak. Unfortunately for us, the road was closed. We were hoping to be either the last to ride its legendary gravel descent or the first to ride it as completely paved. We would get neither. Wet weather had delayed construction. Anthony even asked the construction crew “When do you guys break for lunch hour?” knowing we only needed one hour to ride the gravel section and dodge the heavy equipment. Remember me saying mindsets tend to change when you’re on an adventure bike.

So indeed, the roads less traveled to Sturgis were more epic. But what kind of reception did four ADV guys get when they arrived into the wild west town of Sturgis itself? Well, that’s part of the beauty of the rally and the people, the global brotherhood and sisterhood of riders is more inclusive than ever. When people saw our adventure-tourers questions like “What roads did you take?” and “I’m thinking about getting me one. You like yours?” soon followed. Maybe it was the three days of caked-on adventure the bikes wore that piqued their curiosity. Probably more so were the [email protected]#%-eating grins on our faces. And yes, no motorcycle trip to South Dakota is complete without riding some of the excellent forest roads through the sacred Black Hills. Even during the rally, with hundreds of thousands of riders everywhere, a rider can find new challenges and solitude-inducing rides on an ADV.

Finally, anyone who’s ridden on a multi-day adventure knows that the ride home is often the worst part of the journey. You’ve been living off your bike for days, you’re tired, you have mixed feeling about returning back to the grind of everyday life. And for many of us, deadheading for 1000+ miles on the interstate slab is just too much to take. This is when the J&P Cycles crew moved from being converts to being evangelists. Even before we crossed the state line signaling home, we were planning our next adventure.

“You know that stretch of Kansas that follows the river?”

After riding adventure-tourers to Sturgis this year, we've got ADV fever and are already planning next year's journey.