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Image: Ernest "Zip" Lanicek at Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
Copyright 2011, Jeffrey M. Levine
Ernest "Zip" Lanicek, 73, of Dallas, Texas, has been riding his Harley to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally almost every August for the past two decades. "You've gotta keep active," Lanicek said.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 8/15/2012 12:39:41 PM ET 2012-08-15T16:39:41

Each August it happens with the reliability of Old Faithful: More than 500,000 bikers overtake sleepy Sturgis, S.D., and other nearby towns with rumbling engines, sprawling campgrounds, raucous concerts and audacious stunts.

Visible everywhere are tricked-out motorcycles, ornate tattoos, overflowing biker bars and topless women wearing pretty much nothing but body paint from the waist up. But these days, if you look carefully enough, you’ll spot other burgeoning staples of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally: hand and shoulder massages to help relax stiff joints; cushy RVs equipped with comfortable beds; biker goggles outfitted with bifocals.

The Sturgis rally is in its 72nd year — and that’s about the same age as some of its most devoted attendees. Unlike other massive outdoor festivals that appeal mainly to the 25-and-under crowd, Sturgis continually draws an array of colorful regulars who are in their 70s and 80s and haven’t seemed to notice.

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Take Ernest “Zip” Lanicek, who’s about to turn 74. He’s been riding his Harley to Sturgis from his Texas home for two decades now. In fact, he can tell you the precise distance to the rally from his driveway in Dallas: 1,131 miles.

Lanicek can’t stand the thought of missing out on tent-camping at the rally, meeting other bikers and taking in multiple wet T-shirt contests — so he keeps making a vacation out of it, year after year.

Video: Motorcycle fans ride into Sturgis for annual rally (on this page)

“People always ask me when I’m gonna retire and I always say, ‘When they throw dirt in my face,’” said Lanicek, who installs commercial restaurant equipment for a living. “How many people do you know who hit retirement age, hang it up, and they’re dead in three or four years? You’ve gotta keep active. You’ve just gotta keep active.”

Dr. Jeffrey Levine, a geriatric specialist based in New York, views Lanicek as emblematic of a new generation of septuagenarians: People who simply are not slowing down. In most cases, Levine said, these 70-somethings have a lust for life and a clear notion of what they love to do.

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“They enjoy life,” Levine said. “There’s a lot of negativity and darkness associated with the stereotype of old age. And of course, yes, there is pain, and yes, there is loss, but there also is energy and vitality. And fun.”

Image: It's common to see gray hair amid the good times at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.
Copyright 2011, Jeffrey M. Levine
It's common to see gray hair amid the good times at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota.

In addition to practicing medicine, Levine travels the world photographing and blogging about older people who are aging well. Last year his journeys led him to Sturgis.

“There are a lot of people in their 70s at Sturgis,” said Levine, 58, who noted that the number of aging motorcyclists is growing across the United States. “You’ll see people with all these Sturgis patches on their jackets from past years. These are regulars.

“And you know what? Hope, passion and something to look forward to — including next year’s Sturgis — is something that keeps people alive.”

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Sturgis ain’t cheap
Daniel Ainslie, city manager for the city of Sturgis, said another factor makes the motorcycle rally popular with middle-aged and retirement-age people: Money. It turns out that the Black Hills of South Dakota are a downright expensive place to be in August.

Image: Older biker wearing a chicken beak on his face at Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota
TMax Photography
City officials in Sturgis joked that the older generation kicking back and having fun at the motorcycle rally can be the most apt to do outrageous things. 

Houses in and around Sturgis can rent for $5,000 a week or more, and hotel rooms are astronomical. The costs of fuel — and sweet motorcycles — tend to be steep for Sturgis-goers, and even camping spaces, concert tickets and restaurant meals are spendy.

“Given the economy, there just are not a lot of 25-year-olds who have that kind of disposable income,” Ainslie said, adding that Sturgis is growing in popularity among Motocross enthusiasts in their early 20s.

“There are more motocross and dirt-biking events for them than ever before ... and I honestly believe that three to five years from now, that demographic will be stronger,” Ainslie said. “But I’ll bet people in their 20s and 30s will still be struggling because of cost.”

So perhaps it stands to reason that Sturgis’ little comforts will keep increasing as the rally keeps welcoming visitors who are established enough and affluent enough to make the trip and stay a while. In fact, it’s common to encounter people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond who are recuperating from heart surgeries, knee replacements, motorcycle accidents and more, but who just couldn’t stay away from the rally. They make a huge effort to go while taking pains to remain as comfortable as they can.

Camping in comfort in the Black Hills
Just ask Jerry North, 72, of Clayton, Calif. North has been making the trek to Sturgis most years since 1958. He and his wife, Norma North, 70, love to ride their Harleys together through the stunning Black Hills of South Dakota and on into Wyoming — so they’ve devised a plan to ensure that will happen.

Image: Biker goggles with bifocals for sale at Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota
Daniel Ainslie  /  City of Sturgis, S.D.
Need a pair of biker goggles equipped with bifocals? No problem: You can find them at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

For the past 12 years or so, the Norths have driven a comfortable motorhome to Sturgis while trailering their motorcycles behind them. This provides them with comfortable sleeping quarters for their whole journey.

“If we didn’t do it that way, at 72, I’d be too tired to ride anywhere once we got there,” Jerry North said with a laugh.

“When I was younger, the lure of Sturgis for me probably would have been the party. But now, the lure is the beautiful scenery. It’s just a beautiful area to ride your bike. ... This year we rode 2,300 miles together.”

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North underwent heart bypass surgery 18 years ago and he’s been doing fine since then. He said he’s grateful that he and his wife of nearly 50 years are both in good health.

“You know, age is your body, mostly,” North said. “In your mind, I’m not sure you age much. I like doing the same things that I liked to do when I was a teenager.

“One of my goals was to keep going to Sturgis ’til I was 70. Now my goal is 75. And if I make that, my goal will be 80.”

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Motorcycle fans ride into Sturgis for annual rally

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