August 12, 2022

As motorcycles flock to Sturgis for the 82nd Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, one bike in particular might stand out: a 520 Trek touring bike, raced by 77-year-old George Salabes of Des Plaines, Illinois in Sturgis.

Salabes, a retired lawyer and community college professor, embarked on the 1,400-mile journey on June 22, christening it the “Because I Still Can” ride. He started and ended the tour in a black t-shirt that read “Sturgis or Bust” on the front and “Because I Still Can” on the back.

The journey took nearly 40 days and a mental toughness that admittedly diminished at times, Salabes confessed. Yet on July 29, he rolled his Trek 520 down the driveway of his good friend Don Kates’ cabin, between Sturgis and Deadwood, encountered a cold beer and frozen pizza.

Not his first rodeo, Salabes has done four major rides since 2010 — including a trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, with the longest stretch being 2,359 miles from Yorktown, Va., to Pueblo, in Colorado.

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Sturgis, his first race in six years, was different. He carried the weight of fleeting time and dead friends. Graduations and weddings turned into funerals, Salabes said.

“I feel like it would be a waste of something that was given to me if I didn’t,” he said.

He found himself in possession of precious time, but also an itch. One more ride – a thirst for adventure and a challenge. Because he can.

“And I think I can still do it,” Salabes said. “I am very lucky.”

Kates and his wife, Deborah, first attracted Salabes to Sturgis in 2013 when they bought a cabin and invited him to participate in the rally. The two professional photographers, Kates and his wife, had credentials that opened VIP doors to the rally – and brought Salabes back in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021.

Notably, the gap years were mostly due to his other bike rides, except for one year due to COVID-19. For 2022, he decided to go around Sturgis.

Sturgis’ attraction wasn’t the VIP credentials, the beauty of the Black Hills or even the rally, however, Salabes said — it was an excuse to see his friends and the trip.

The Sturgis ride began on June 22, but Salabes’ history with cycle tourism began in 1976. The country’s 200th anniversary sparked bicentennial celebrations across the country. A Sports Illustrated article drew his attention to an event called “Bikecentennial ’76”, an event consisting of a series of bike rides on the TransAmerica Bike Path during the summer of 1976.

While Salabes was unable to participate in the Bikecentennial, the seed was planted. However, it would not germinate for 34 years. He continued to cycle in the meantime, but touring took precedence over law school, opening his own practice and teaching real estate part-time.

He eventually transitioned into full-time teaching at a community college in suburban Chicago, where he met his friend Kates, who taught psychology. Full-time teaching meant free summers and a chance to relive the touring bug he had never really shaken off.

A subculture in its own right, cycle tourism could be described as the meeting of cycling and hiking, involving self-guided journeys lasting from a few days to several months. All Salabes rides took place without an assistance 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 in Florence, Oregon; and Des Plaines in Amarillo, Texas. Now, six years after its last race, it was time for Sturgis.

He created his own route in Google Maps, using a combination of GPS and paper maps to navigate through 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.

By car, the journey is approximately 1,000 miles. The extended bike route included the Mickelson Trail, which he picked up at Pringle and passed through Custer, Hill City, and Sturgis. The Mickelson Trail, Salabes explained, is a “trail rails” trail, typically built after a railroad abandonment with grades no greater than 3%.

His only companions were audio books, music and his thoughts. He mostly listened to his own curated, scattered playlists featuring Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart and John Mellencamp. He also loves soundtracks. “Dances with Wolves” made the cut, a fitting listen across what he called the “Dances with Wolves” country.

His trusty touring bike, informally nicknamed “Waldo,” has been with him since 2007. A touring bike, as described by Salabes, ditched the handlebars and geometry similar to a road bike. The tires are not as narrow as road bikes, but narrower than mountain bikes.

The bike was loaded with panniers, tools and miscellaneous equipment such as a compass, knife and first aid kit. He brought three spare tires which he fortunately did not have to use. A cycling superstition: never ask him if he’s had a puncture.

He kept a diary along the way, “me talking to me,” he said in one of his entries. He faithfully recorded random thoughts, events, observations, and emotions each day of his journey.

“Writing about it a day later isn’t the same,” he said. “Once a day has passed, the emotions and flavor of that day are gone and almost impossible to resurrect.”

The past day merges into the cumulative of yesterday, he writes.

The paper chronicled food and motel reviews, descriptions of landscapes and topographies, and battles with the elements, exhaustion, and cattle herders. He wrote train whistle songs, likening them to the rhythmic knocks of door knocks. Parts of the diary read like a reflection, drawing inspiration from quotes from literature or old friends, or reflections on past cycling days.

The journal also captured his accumulated knowledge over the miles – the history of trails or towns and the education of locals. It could tell you who to ask when booking a motel and which ones have the best breakfasts (or none at all).

Reports from news stations paint a picture of “how bad everything is in this country and all the problems we have”, he said, but one thing the tours have taught him: there are phenomenal people in the world.

He said bikers are some of the nicest people he’s ever met. While Sturgis’ tour did not offer as many characters as previous tours, he said he was always greeted with the kindness of strangers.

An epilogue that Salabes wrote for his last diary entry was 1,148.4 miles by bike and 224.7 by car, over 30 days of riding and eight days without riding. He said the journey was time consuming and exhausting, but “worth all the effort”.

“You remember the good times and you take the bad times out of your brain,” he said. “You remember adrenaline and adventure.”

He won’t remember hurt knees or exhaustion. He remembers the adrenaline pushing him up the final stretch of gravel uphill, “because it was over,” he said, and he knew that a cold beer and his good friend l were waiting.

Son concluded the diary with the following words:

“The ‘Because I still can’ race is over. I proved to myself that I was still capable of it. Take me out Coach. I’m finished.”

–Contact Laura Heckmann at [email protected]

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