GILLETTE, Wyo. — The sky east of Gillette on Tuesday wasn’t an inviting omen to eastbound motorcyclists, and the parking lot at Deluxe Harley-Davidson overlooking Interstate 90 reflected that.
A few dozen customers parked their bikes outside the two-story store and repair shop — a far cry from the throng that can pack the store and its lots on a busy day during Sturgis Motorcycle Rally week.
Some had stopped for licensed rally gear, others for bike repairs before moving on to take part in the weeklong festivities. Some were just hungry, road-weary and needing a sheltered place to see whether the slate-gray sky would follow through with its threats of stormy weather, which it eventually did.
Tim Larson and his half brother Kurt Travers, both Minnesota truck-drivers traveling with their wives Jodi Larson and Janet Travers, were milling around the east parking lot en route to Sturgis after spending time in Montana and Cody.
Tim Larson’s been to the rally “many times,” but this year is the Travers’ first trip to what many Harley owners consider a rite of passage.
“We took the long way and went up into North Dakota, Montana, and now we’re coming back this way,” Larson said. “Now we’ll spend a few days at the rally. We took the scenic route.”
“He’s never been to the Hills, never been to anything this far west,” Larson said, pointing at Kurt Travers.
“I was a sheltered child,” Kurt Travers said, laughing.
Janet Travers said she’d been to Wyoming as a child, but never to Sturgis.
“I don’t know if that counts or not,” she said.
The four said they were looking forward to the unique sights that converge on the small Black Hills city every year. They’re staying with friends and in area hotels, and the famed Buffalo Chip concerts don’t hold much appeal for them.
“Concerts are meant to be inside because it’s either hot and dusty or raining,” Tim Larson said. “It’s just a vacation. I think it’s just to see the bikes and the people.”
Deluxe is a popular stopping point for the rally-bound. At about 100 miles from Sturgis, it offers a less-hectic place for bikers to get what they need.
Store manager Becca Rang said one couple stops every year to trade in their old Harley for a new one before heading over to the Black Hills.
She said Harley-Davidson used to debut its new model-year bikes around the end of July and beginning of August. It was just in time for folks to have new wheels for the rally, but dealerships outside the Black Hills region complained that they lost too many potential sales to eager customers who wanted the novelty of buying a new bike in or around Sturgis during the rally.
Now, she said, the new models debut around the end of August.
In the west parking lot, posted between the store’s doors and a tent-covered line of shining Harleys, Tami Waldner and Sheila Norris manned the mobile outpost of Gillette-based Tooter’s HomeFire Foods, where burgers and hot dogs have been the best-sellers all week, with a side of directions to gas stations and bars.
It was a slow day, and the women chatted while a couple from Indiana scanned the menu board before ordering. Tuesday’s special was pulled pork, and Norris was excited for Friday’s special: A “Wyoming Cheesesteak” with a bratwurst in place of the roast beef.
Norris said they’ve had customers from as far away as Mexico and Guatemala and a passel of bikers from Canada who’d passed through Monday.
“I guess the most surprising thing is just how far they’ll come to go to Sturgis,” Norris said. “It’s almost like a rite of passage.”
For the previous 15 years, Waldner had spent every birthday at the rally, reuniting with family members who traveled from around the United States to see each other. Her dad died last year, though, and she opted to work with Norris during the busy week this year instead.
Inside, customers from near and far browsed clothing racks and bike accessories, chatting with salespeople and fellow travelers alike. Customers and Deluxe employees sported a mix of leather and denim, with bandanas holding braided hair back from suntanned faces.
Dusty Carlisle was preparing to head to the rally in the next day or so with her husband, Monty. They’re Gillette residents, and Deluxe had just finished tuning up their 1974 Harley.
“We bought some parts from them last week,” she said. “We’re just looking around.”
In the back, Rang oversaw a repair shop where bikes from all over the country were getting attention in their bays — from a simple tire repair to a full-blown $50,000 modification.
It was a slower day than others for the mechanics, too, but Rang said that didn’t mean they weren’t busy. Some simply needed oil changes; one needed stator repairs, and no fewer than five mechanics were busily repairing, inspecting and moving the bikes as owners took advantage of the break from the road.
Cody Wilson was handling the modifications on a black-and-chrome beauty, a project for a Gillette man who planned to take his 2013 Road Glide to Sturgis the next day. He said the work, which normally would take one to two months, was getting finished in three weeks, and he pointed out the stretched gas tanks, saddle bags, fenders, aftermarket floorboards and intake valves as he prepared to get back to work.
“This is completely the other side of the spectrum” from a typical day’s work, he said. “This is completely modified. This has been massaged in a lot of places.”
The Riverton native has worked for Deluxe around three years, and he went to Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Phoenix to get his training. The training definitely helps, he said, but “if you have the drive, if (co-owner) Chuck (Ruiz) sees in you a drive, you want to be here, he’ll teach you everything you want to know.”
An education doesn’t hurt, though, he said.
“I’ve had so many people tell me the customer service, you just can’t beat it here,” he said, adding that the camaraderie and the caliber of work expected from the employees is what brought him back to Gillette and back to Deluxe after a stint living and working in Texas.
Across the cavernous workshop, past a line of roughly two dozen bikes dividing the shop in half, James Clark patiently wrangled a new tire onto a stand, worked an inner tube into it, brushed it with tire soap and worked it onto a rim. It would soon be mounted to a blue-gray bike out of North Dakota.
He said any repair shop could likely fix the tire, but the Deluxe mechanics also check the spokes and ball-bearings in the wheel, inspect the brakes and give the bike a thorough checking-over to make sure nothing else is wrong before the customer hits the road.
He doesn’t plan to go to Sturgis this year.
“Been there, done that,” he said. “This is our busy time.”