As bikes flock to Sturgis for the 82nd Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, one bike in particular stands out: a 520 Trek touring bike being ridden to Sturgis by 77-year-old George Salabes of Des Plaines, Illinois.
Salabes, a retired attorney and community college professor, embarked on the 1,400-mile journey on June 22 and dubbed it “Because I Still Can.” He started and finished the tour in a black t-shirt that read “Sturgis or Bust” on the front and “Because I Still Can” on the back.
The ride lasted almost 40 days and a mental toughness that admittedly sometimes faltered, Salabes admitted. But on July 29, he rolled his Trek 520 down the driveway of his good friend Don Kate’s cabin between Sturgis and Deadwood and met up for a cold beer and frozen pizza.
Salabes wasn’t his first rodeo, but has made four major tours since 2010 — including a trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with the longest stretch being 2,359 miles from Yorktown, Virginia to Pueblo, Colorado.
People also read…
Sturgis, his first ride in six years, was different. It carried the weight of fleeting time and friends passing by. Graduations and weddings have become funerals, Salabes said.
“I feel like it would waste something I got if I didn’t,” he said.
He found himself in possession of precious time, but also an itch. One more ride – adventurous and challenging. Because he can.
“And I think I can still do that,” said Salabes. “I’m so happy.”
Kates and his wife Deborah first lured Salabes to Sturgis in 2013 when they bought a cabin and invited him to the rally. Both professional photographers, Kates and his wife, had credentials that opened VIP doors at the rally – and made Salabes want to come back in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021.
Notably, the gap years were mostly due to his other bike rides, with the exception of one year due to COVID-19. For 2022 he decided to tour Sturgis.
However, Sturgis’s appeal wasn’t the VIP credentials, the beauty of the Black Hills, or even the rally, Salabes said – it was an excuse to see his friends and the trip.
The Sturgis ride began on June 22, but Salabas’ history with bike touring began in 1976. The country’s 200th birthday had sparked bicentennial celebrations nationwide. A Sports Illustrated article drew his attention to an event called “Bikecentennial ’76,” an event consisting of a series of bike rides along the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail in the summer of 1976.
While Salabas was unable to attend the bike centennial, the seed was planted. However, it would not germinate for 34 years. Meanwhile, he still rode his bike, but touring took a backseat to law school, opening his own practice and teaching real estate part-time.
He eventually transitioned to teaching full-time at a community college in suburban Chicago — where he met his girlfriend, Kates, who taught psychology. Full-time teaching meant summers off and a chance to rekindle the touring fever he’d never quite got rid of.
Bike touring is a subculture all of its own and could be described as biking and backpacking, which involves independent travel of days to months. All of Salabes’ trips were without an escort vehicle.
His first tour was in 2010, followed by rides in 2014, 2015, and 2016. He rode from Des Plaines to Boulder, Colorado; Yorktown, Virginia to Pueblo, Colorado; Pueblo to Florence, Oregon; and Des Plaines to Amarillo, Texas. Now, six years after his last ride, it was Sturgis’ turn.
He created his own route on Google Maps and used a combination of GPS and paper maps to navigate Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He planned to stop at motels along the route whenever possible and eat at local restaurants. He packed camping gear and light snacks just in case.
The distance by car is about 1,000 miles. The extended bike route included the Mickelson Trail, which he picked up at Pringle and rode through Custer, Hill City and Sturgis. The Mickelson Trail, Salabes explained, is a “rails to trails” trail typically built after a railroad with grades no more than 3% was abandoned.
His only companions were audio books, music and his thoughts. He mostly listened to his own curated playlists interspersed with Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart and John Mellencamp. He also likes soundtracks. “Dances With Wolves” made the cut, a fitting listen through to what he called “Dances With Wolves” country.
His trusty touring bike, unofficially called “Waldo”, has been with him since 2007. A touring bike, as Salabes describes it, has lowered handlebars and a geometry similar to that of a racing bike. The tires are not as narrow as road bikes, but narrower than mountain bikes.
The bike was loaded with suitcases, tools and various items of equipment such as a compass, knife and first aid kit. He brought three spare tires with him, which luckily he didn’t have to use. A cyclist superstition: Never ask if you’ve had a flat tire.
He kept a diary throughout the trip, “I’m talking to myself,” he said in one of his entries. His faithfully logged random thoughts, events, observations and emotions of each day of his journey.
“Writing about it a day later is not the same,” he said. “Once a day has passed, the emotions and flavor of that day are gone and almost impossible to revive.”
The past day merges with the cumulative yesterday, he wrote.
The journal recorded food and motel reviews, landscape and topography descriptions, and battles against the elements, exhaustion, and cattle guards. He wrote about the songs of train whistles and likened them to the rhythmic pounding of door knockers. Parts of the diary read like a reflection, drawing on quotes from literature or old friends, or reflections on bygone biker days.
The journal also recorded his accumulated knowledge of the miles – the history of trails or towns and the education of local people. He could tell you who to ask about when making motel reservations and which ones have the best breakfast (or no breakfast at all).
News channel reports paint a picture of “how awful everything is in this country and all the problems that we have,” he said, but one thing that touring has taught him is that there are phenomenal people in the world.
He said bikers are some of the nicest people he’s ever met. While the Sturgis tour didn’t feature as many characters as previous tours, he said he consistently encountered the kindness of strangers.
An afterword Salabes wrote for his last journal entry recorded 1,148.4 miles by bike and 224.7 by car, over 30 riding days and eight non-riding days. He said the journey was time-consuming and tiring, but “worth every effort”.
“You remember the good times and kind of push the bad times out of your brain,” he said. “You remember the adrenaline and the adventure.”
He won’t remember the aching knees or the exhaustion. He remembers the adrenaline pumping him up the final stretch of gravel, “because it was over,” he said, knowing there was a cold beer and his good friend waiting for him.
He closed the diary with the following words:
“The ‘Because I can still’ ride is over. I’ve proved to myself that I can still do it. take me out coach I’m done.”
– Contact Laura Heckmann at email@example.com –