Now in its fourth year, the Veterans Charity Ride to Sturgis© (VCR) takes wounded and amputee veterans on a two-week road trip on Indian Motorcycles to the famous biker rally. This year it left from Las Vegas, Nevada, spending time in Moab, Utah before wandering the backroads of Colorado and Wyoming, then ending in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I was on the Veterans Charity Ride last year and was honored to be back as a veteran mentor on the ride.
The team forms rapidly. Despite the inter-service rivalries that lead to teasing and ribbing, veterans all share similar experiences, regardless of what their job was or what era they served. Add to that a shared love of motorcycling, and the group felt like it had been riding together for months by the end of the first day.
For 2018 I was also back as the pilot for Sara Liberte, the official ride photographer. My background as a sidecar racer and photographer, and being a disabled vet myself, made me feel perfect for the job.
Motorcycle therapy makes sense to anyone that has been riding for even a short time. Trouble at work? Go for a ride. Spouse giving you a hassle? Go for a ride. House being foreclosed on? Torch it and go for a ride.
The same thing is true if there is darkness in your head from a combat deployment. The thing is, a lot of amputee veterans or those with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) don’t ride anymore. By adding Champion Sidecars to a few of the bikes, riders who either can’t ride or who can’t renew their motorcycle endorsement in time for the ride can still be included. Indian Motorcycle has been a big sponsor every year, providing the bikes, riding gear, and a huge amount of support.
Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys remain onboard again this year as well. They’ve done more than just provide funding that makes the ride happen, but even donated a huge 2-axle trailer that hauls all the gear, tools, and support equipment for the ride. That’s one of the things I like about this ride: sponsors can’t just cut a check and get their name on the ride T-shirt. They have to care about the mission and want to genuinely be a part of it.
Sponsors get involved with the VCR for personal reasons over marketing reasons. Here, Judd Hollifield, President and CEO of Rinehart Racing, passes cigars out to VCR riders from his personal stash.
After a day of familiarization with the bikes and each other, the VCR leaves from the Eastside Cannery Casino and thunders up the I-15 in the blazing heat. Riding in a large group through the desert may seem like a strange way for Iraq and Afghanistan vets to relax, but doing it on an Indian Motorcycle is nothing like a convoy in an up-armored Humvee.
Once into Utah the group quickly turns east on Highway 9 toward Zion National Park. The temperature drops a bit and the views are of course spectacular. If you haven’t hit up Zion yet, mark your maps; it could be the state’s crown jewel. Day 1 ends in Bryce Canyon and, unfortunately, sticky-fingered hotel guests pilfer a few pairs of gloves and unattended gear from the bikes overnight. Some things never change, no matter who you are riding with.
The ride seeks out back roads but makes sure to hit landmarks like Zion National Park and the Grand Staircase. Photo: Johnny Killmore.
Day 2: Bryce Canyon to Moab
Fortunately nothing major is missing and the group mounts up for Moab. The ride through Escalante and the Grand Staircase is a surprise. We are hitting roads I had been on during the 2017 VCR, yet I have no memory of them. Shocking views of smooth red rock with hoodoos and hiking trails dispersed as far as the eye could see pass by. How did I forget scenes this unforgettable?
When we stop for lunch at the Stagecoach Grill in La Verkin it dawns on me. Last year we had stopped to get photos of the formation coming through the park. After they passed we shot some scenery and then hauled the mail in an attempt to catch back up. I didn’t remember the views but many of the corners looked familiar.
Most of the ride is through gently wandering roads where the scenery dominates. Photo: Sara Liberte.
At 10/10 speed last year the only thing I remember is braking markers and the feeling of the front wheel shuddering as it searched for grip. This year, at a more relaxed pace, the tunnel vision is gone and I was able to see everything around me. Cruisers are made for cruising, but roads with this kind of scenery is made for relaxed riding no matter what type of mount you’ve chosen.
The famed “Richie Two-Chairs” (Richard Neider) piloted his own customized Indian Scout with Champion sidecar while acting as a veteran mentor on this year’s ride. Photo: Sara Liberte.
Across highway 24 and up highway 95 puts us back on the slab: this time I-70. Keeping the pack tight means running 70mph, but the 80mph Utah speed limit means gravel trucks and minivans are barreling past us on the left. To get a vantage point for Sara we need to pull out and pour on the power.
Sara has to sit backwards in the sidecar, firing off shots like a .50-cal gunner. Despite the wind I keep the bike steady and we get some solid shots of the formation, mostly made up of 2018 model Indians from their press fleet, but also a few sidecars that have been with the ride for several years now, and even two members riding their own Indians. It’s a gorgeous convoy.
Sara Liberte shoots ride photos on the move. Shooting on the interstate is easy, but twisty roads require smart riding from me and a great sense of balance and timing from her. Photo: Johnny Killmore.
Moab loves veterans. A chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders has come from Colorado to escort us into town along with a police escort. The mayor is there to welcome us. Schoolkids wrote us letters of thanks. It’s a lot to take in. Every vet I talk to says they were just doing their job and the word “hero” feels mis-applied. But it’s still a gesture of gratitude that fills your heart.
Another quick ride along the Colorado River and we are at Red Cliffs Lodge, where we spend the next few days exploring what Moab has to offer.
Days 3-4: Moab
The owner of the Red Cliffs Lodge and all-around amazing human, Colin Fryer, rolls out the red carpet for guests, but he adds a little extra for the VCR. There is a welcome party for us when we arrive and get our room assignments. Then, after a day of horseback riding or rafting (or in my case, a motorcycle ride in the Arches National Park), Colin puts on another dinner for us. The vets gather around afterwards for a private meeting, and in the morning we are up and preparing for some off-roading.
Moab is best known for mountain biking and off-roading, but there are many outdoor activities to try out… like rafting the Colorado River. Photo: Sara Liberte.
Dave Frey has made Moab the home and headquarters for the VCR. His ambition is to launch AdventureVet, a program that mimics the process of the VCR, but adds in the adrenaline of challenging oneself on Moab’s one-of-a-kind terrain. Using his own personal pair of Yamaha XT250’s and a Ural sidecar, the goal was to let vets take on the slick rock and sand beds Moab is famous for.
With partnerships from Royal Enfield and Mahindra, Dave will be expanding the fleet to include RE’s Himalayan adventure bike and Mahindra’s ROXOR, which looks like a small Jeep but has a turbo-diesel engine powering its 4WD powertrain. Being the only sidecar racer in the bunch, I naturally end up on the Ural, with fellow veteran-mentor Richie Two Chairs (Richard Neider) holding down co-pilot duties.
Ural sidecars are a throwback to a different era, but so are gravel roads. these bikes are in their element on a smooth but unpaved road, moving at about 35mph. Photo: Sara Liberte.
We immediately find the Ural’s limits. The first foray off the gravel we hit a rock at a bad angle, sending Richie airborne and nearly out of the sidecar. He’s a paraplegic so his arms have the dual responsibility of leaning to balance the bike and keeping him in the bike. Still, we are managing the outfit together just fine until we get to Fins n’ Things.
The trail is a 5/10 according to the sign, with ATV’s not recommended on the first mile. We immediately begin by smacking the exhaust on a rock and getting stuck in some deep sand. With a bit of a push we are out and plodding along nicely. Honestly I didn’t realize how hard we were working until I started to see pictures during our rest stops. Simple sections I wasn’t even riding hard through had the front tire totally deformed and me out of the seat, leaning way over toward center to keep the bike balanced; no wonder I was getting arm-pump.
Riding a Ural can turn the ordinary into an adventure, even for an experienced sidecar racer. Photo: Sara Liberte.
The trail quickly comes to a vertical drop so we take the bypass. This leads to a 6-foot, 80-degree drop down some slick rock into a sand pit. Great. Somehow I get us down and only slightly stuck, freeing the Ural by riding side-saddle on the rear fender and hopping up-and-down while trying to steer.
In a show of solidarity one of the other vets makes it down on the little XT250, somehow not face-planting into the sand. She is an experienced rider but doesn’t have much time off road. At first she isn’t sure she can make the steep drop. Honestly I’m not sure either, but there is no turning back. I give her some basic advice to keep her feet on the pegs and gas it hard at the bottom and step away. Seeing the smile on her face after pulling off that drop turns out to be a high point of the entire ride for me.
Using small displacement dirtbikes makes the riding easier and the terrain more challenging at the same time. Photo: Sara Liberte.
This wasn’t even the hardest obstacle, and I leave half the Ural’s clutch behind trying to get up another obstacle… but we make it. Not bad for something originally designed before WW2, no? Richie and I are all smiles despite being exhausted.
Day 5: Moab to Eagle, CO
It was weird being back on the Indian Dark Horse, with more than double the power of the Ural, but it feels great to wander the smooth pavement of Utah with the pack again. Sunrise riding is something we should all do more of; to hell with work or school making us too tired to seize the day when we finally get one off. The air is cool, the colors of the bleak landscape change with the rising sun, and we move together in unison with the road.
We also bring a stowaway in the form of Colin Fryer. He has been so inspired as the VCR came through the Red Cliffs Lodge over the years, he saddled up his own Indian and would be making the trek to Sturgis with us. That’s one thing I love about the VCR; their sponsors don’t just cut a check and get their name on the T-shirt… they are partners who are both inspiring to talk to and inspired by what the ride represents.
VCR Founder Dave Frey with Colin Fryer. After four years of hosting the ride at his lodge in Moab, Colin finally decided to hop on his Indian and join the ride to Sturgis. Photo: Johnny Killmore.
The ride to Eagle primarily runs along I-70, but it happens to be my favorite stretch of interstate in the US. Following the Colorado River for much of its course, the route features gentle turns but also plenty of forest, sheer cliffs, tunnels, and of course the river snaking its way below. The only thing that dampens the ride is a significant amount of smoke from the many wildfires sweeping through the state (and the entire western US for that matter).
The VCR crew received a warm welcome in Eagle, Colorado. Photo: Sara Liberte.
Eagle gives us another welcome similar to Moab. I chat with some WW2 vets and the local Sherriff, then we clean up at the hotel and head downtown to a party hosted by Rever. An app for tracking your rides, Rever is based in Eagle and founder Justin Bradshaw comes in his personal Pinzgauer (look it up, they’re awesome) to drive us to the Dusty Boot Roadhouse. Here we eat and listen to music before clustering in the corner of the place for a game of cornhole (think horseshoes but with a beanbag and a hole instead of a horseshoe and a stake).
Cornhole has become a sort of official unofficial game of the VCR. Quiet but competitive, it’s a great way for vets to share some laughs and unwind. Photo: Sara Liberte.
Day 6: Eagle to Ft. Collins
This stretch of the ride is new and features the best views of this year’s ride in my opinion. Up the 131 and into Tonapas, which is essentially a general store and a few buildings, we push up to Steamboat Springs, who welcome us at the Dude and Dan’s Bar & Grill. Here we pick up lunch and about dozen more riders who want to join in. The VCR fully welcomes supporters who want to section-ride with them. Although sponsored by Indian Motorcycle and Champion Sidecars & Trikes, the VCR welcomes all brands and skill levels whether veteran, active military, military family, or civilian.
The VCR welcomes other riders to meet up with them on the ride regardless of brand, skill level, or veteran status. Photo: Johnny Killmore.
From Steamboat to Ft. Collins we meander through cool peaks and sweltering valleys in the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests. I keep seeing campgrounds I want to stay at, sections of rivers and creeks that I want to fish or swim, and beautiful ribbons of asphalt that I want to drag footpegs along. The thermometer on the bike keeps swinging from about 86 to 98 degrees, and I have no reason to doubt it.
Ft. Collins has an amazing Veterans Plaza that acts as our official arrival point. In fact, the Northern Colorado Veterans plaza puts on a cookout for everyone, Monster Energy is set up to dispense the cold caffeine and water, while the Healing Warriors Program gives free acupuncture and acupressure to any veterans in need.
Day 7: Ft. Collins to Sturgis
This leg will be a bombing run. As in, we bomb down the freeway in an effort to reach the Black Hills. After a breakfast at the local American Legion (try the biscuits and gravy) we were steaming north on I-25. Sara and I in the sidecar take advantage of the extra lane to strafe up and down the formation for some action shots. The land starts to get flat and featureless as you move through eastern Wyoming, but a light rain gives us extra motivation to shoot still and video, using the unique lighting you can only get when a pack of big V-twins move through a squall.
Photo: Sara Liberte
Photo: Sara Liberte
Before the rain picked up we were greeted by warm breakfast at the American Legion post and an even warmer sunrise. Photo: Sara Liberte.
The rain clears up after about 150 miles, but continued clouds keep the temperature in the low 80’s. After a monotonous drone up I-25 we start to see the first signs of the Black Hills. After this 325-mile leg of the ride I’m glad we are postponing g our official Sturgis arrival until tomorrow. Instead we pull into Kevin’s Cabins, basecamp for our time in South Dakota. It’ a huge, 2-story affair with ample garage space for bikes, hot tub, two full kitchens, cable TV, but no cell service. Perfect.
It would take another full-length article to describe Sturgis. Everything already written is true though. It is a wild place that is becoming more tame over the years as corporate sponsors move in and the wild bikers move up in age. But there are still tons of parties, tons of racing, hundreds of miles of good roads, and tourist destinations like Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse monument, or the alpine slide in Keystone.
There are huge events in town at the Buffalo Chip, with big-name acts like Kid Rock, Chevelle, and Aaron Lewis, along with American Flat Track racing, vendor rows, and camping. Then there is Main Street, which is too crowded for my taste but has to be seen at least once.
Photo: Sara Liberte
My personal favorite this year was a ride through Custer State Park and up highway 89A. Traffic remains heavy and many riders are weekend warriors with little skill, so it’s better to ride for the views than the curves, keeping away from the centerline in case someone coming the other way is in trouble.
The simplest thing to say about the Sturgis rally is, “go.” You don’t need to be a biker. The action is worth seeing once, the terrain and views would easily take a month to explore, and there is an entire universe of campgrounds, restaurants, and pop-up shops for miles around to explore. On top of that there are multiple racing events in and around Sturgis including the American Flat Track series’ Buffalo Chip TT and the Jackpine Gypsies’ hill climb (trivia fact: the Sturgis Rally originated around the hill climb races).
Photo: Sara Liberte
For us on the VCR, the adventure was a time warp. It felt like we were old friends by the second or third day. By the time we got to Sturgis it felt like we’d been on the road for a month. Then suddenly it was coming to an end. Fortunately, Dave and the organizers have noticed this in the past and provide a contact list and follow up calls. If you want to look someone up and call or email, you can. If you fall right back into old patterns when you get home, someone is going to call and check up on you.
Photo: Sara Liberte
They also have the VetFam program, which lets vets from the ride fly out to the Red Cliffs Lodge and share a slice of the adventure with their family. This was in response to previous vets coming home all smiles, causing spouses and children to wonder if home life was the reason for the sadness and strife. The VCR really embraces a whole-world philosophy, knowing that happiness is about your entire surroundings: your routines, your communities, your physical health, and your emotional health.
The ride goes on even after we fly home, because the ride was just one adventure in a series of adventures called life. For more information about the programs or to donate to the Veterans Charity Ride, visit www.veteranscharityride.org. For more information about the upcoming AdventureVet program, visit www.adventurevet.org.