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By the seat of their pants
Iron Butt riders go to extremes for motorcycling

February 06, 2005


These folks don't need an exercise video to show they have buns of iron-just a durable motorcycle and the will to ride it hundreds of miles in a stretch.

For this they enter an exclusive group, with only 16,700 members around the world, the Iron Butt Association.

Some members have ridden their bikes 125,000 miles in a single year.

Mike Kneebone has been stalled at 1.4 million miles for two years.

"I've been trying to get to 1.5 million but I can't seem to reach it," said Kneebone, 46, co-founder of the Chicago-based organization. "When you get older, all sorts of things tie you up-like a day job."

That seems like a lot of miles until you consider the group's flagship event is the 11,000-mile, 11-day Iron Butt Rally.

More than 2,000 riders signed up for 120 slots in 2003 the most recent rally. Each were prepared to pay $1,500 for almost two weeks of discomfort of traveling around the U.S. with five required stops.

The rally structure is simple. Riders must be present at the five checkpoints within a two-hour window to be qualified finishers.

The winner is the one with the most miles ridden in the shortest amount of time. No allowances are made for weather, and temperatures along the way can range from 120 degrees in Death Valley, Calif., to freezing in the Rocky Mountains.

The rally takes place in alternate summers, though there have been some gaps.

The first rally was held in 1984, organized by Dick and Fay Hoffman of Montgomeryville, Pa. The concept and the name were dreamed up by Mike Rose, a local motorcycle boot maker. Kneebone attended his first rally in 1986 and thought he could help structure the association.

But it isn't until you wrap your head around the idea of covering 1,000 miles a day (triple what most riders would call a long day) that questions of what it takes to accomplish the task arise.

Kneebone says Iron Butt riders average 34.5 m.p.h. for the basic trip and 45 m.p.h. if they plan to attain the bonus points.

"The way to think is if you maintain the average, every hour you're gaining 20 minutes rest time. If you go faster, you gain more time but you tire yourself out. And if you get speeding tickets, you can lose a lot of time."

Comfort is critical, and the top riders tend to favor heavy tourers, such as the Honda Gold Wing, Harley-Davidson Glides, BMW K1200LT, Yamaha Venture, Honda ST 1100, Kawasaki Concours and BMW R1150GS.

Honda and Harley declined to comment about their use by rally riders, but Rob Mitchell, BMW's manager of corporate communications, talked.

"It does fit the BMW profile quite well and many round-the-world travelers ride BMWs-even before the GS [a large adventure-tourer motorcycle] was introduced.

"When the first Iron Butt took place, we, gave a bike to a good long-distance rider and said it's not official but we'll provide dealer support. [The rider tied for first.] The first year was a four-way tie with only about 11 or 12 riders [overall], all very passionate about riding long distances. It's grown tremendously, and the way people train and study nutrition and technology is amazing. Long rides have always been part of the lure of motorcycle riding."

So what does it mean to the riders willing to circumnavigate the U.S. in 11 days or go coast-to-coast in less than 50 hours--or there and back in less than 100--two other Iron Butt tests?

Rallyist Joe Zulaski, 47 of Seattle, put 105,000 miles on his first endurance bike--a 1998 Honda ST 1100--and now rides a 2002 Honda Gold Wing. Zulaski's ancestors came west on the Oregon Trail in the 1800s, and such rides make him feel like he's tracing their steps.

"All of us in this sport have what I'd call wandering souls," he says. "It's a desire to see what's over the next hill, then the next one after that."

To undertake long-distance riding, Zulaski cut his hair so it would fit in his helmet. He started riding to work every day and sold his truck. He got Lasik eye surgery to eliminate his glasses. He quit drinking to train for the 2001 Iron Butt Rally. He learned to solder wiring for road repairs. He gave up deer hunting to have more time for endurance events. He volunteered to help on the 1999 Iron Butt Rally to learn how it was organized. Finally, he started organizing rallies and is on his third.

Road racer and endurance rider Rachel Dwyer has ridden thousands of miles with no seat on her Ducati because she is short and couldn't put her feet on the ground. Dwyer lives in Seattle but grew up in the Midwest and describes herself as "one of those people who takes things to extremes."

"When I started running, it was one mile, then six, then marathons," says the 39-year-old.

Dwyer's main problem was that at 5 feet 3 inches and 100 pounds, the bikes that she felt would suit her best don't fit her. Most of the serious tourers are too heavy for her, and she doesn't like recumbent cruisers.

But Dwyer found a Suzuki GS500 she could ride and did 2,500 miles in four days, then bought a Ducati 750 Monster. She narrowly missed a Four Corners of America (from Blaine, Wash., to San Ysidro, Calif., to Key West, Fla., to Madawaska, Maine) record last year after mechanical problems in Texas delayed her one day.

Her next target is the coast-to-coast in 50 hours. She's tried it twice but got stopped by a snowstorm in Montana and a bike that was so misaligned she was exhausted by the time she got to Columbus, Ohio.

"It's a mental challenge, and I crave it. Anybody can train to finish a marathon physically, mentally it's a whole different ballgame."

Dwyer says she has endurance riding in her blood.

"It's hard to explain and it annoys people. Most people want to ride then sit in a cafe. If I can't . . . be on my way in 10 minutes, I have anxiety attacks."

Gary Eagan, 1995 Iron Butt Rally winner, took a couple of moments before heading from the Midwest to California to explain what long-distance riding means.

"I'd say it's nothing but Zen. If you have to define it or explain it or completely understand it, you're missing the point entirely. The idea is to toss yourself into the middle of life, surround yourself with it and enjoy what rubs off, good and bad."

And, bad there is. Dwyer remembers suffering frostbite in a Montana snowstorm and being surrounded by little old ladies wanting to ship her to a hospital.

Roger Bays completed the coast-to-coast from Seattle to New York then the motor on his Kawasaki Concours let go.

Faced with a $2,200 bill to ship it home, he bought a junker truck for $500 and drove it home.

Dwight Hageman of Newberg, Ore., was sideswiped by a sleepy trucker in eastern Montana on the 1997 Iron Butt Rally.

He was stitched up by a doctor, "wasted a whole night sleeping" then bought another Gold Wing to finish the rally. He made it to the finish line in Chicago with 25 minutes to spare.

Joe Denton of Sacramento runs the subscription-only Long Distance Riders Web site and one of his favorite "triumph over adversity" stories concerns Ural rider Paul Pelland, who fabricated a pushrod from a drill bit on his way to finishing the 2001 Iron Butt.

"He just wasn't going to quit," says Denton with a laugh.

The desire to finish leads many riders to Dwyer's solution.

"When I left last year, I made sure I had two Visa cards with no balance and a $20,000 limit, so if I had to buy another bike I could," she says. "I know a couple whose bike broke down on the rally. They pulled into a shop, put a new bike on a card and carried on."

- - -

Lessons from the road

The Iron Butt Association, the long distance motorcycle rally association, has maintained a Web site--www.ironbutt.com--which offers the far-flung members a listing of events as well as a sounding board through "The Archive of Wisdom." Here are some tips from the archive:

- If 300 miles seem like a long day don't plan on 500-mile days. Be aware that day 1 and 2 will be the farthest you ride and distances will diminish so that by day 7 you'll be going about 65 percent as far. Plan your trip with loops you can cut.

- High speeds and long distance have little in common. Gas mileage suffers, you get tired and, if you're traveling much faster than the traffic, you'll get a ticket.

- Eat healthy and eat light. Eat at off-peak periods so you can be in and out quickly.

- Prepare your bike before you leave home. Don't waste time getting tires or a chain on the trip.

- Don't pick up your bike from the shop and head out; even the best mechanics make mistakes. Don't try out a new rainsuit, helmet or packing technique.

- Use an electric vest--75 degrees is still 23.6 degrees cooler than you are. Put on your rainsuit before it rains. Drivers may not see you by the road in a downpour.

- Pack wisely so that sun screen, skin lotions, eye drops, a flashlight and a tire gauge and maps are on top.

- Join a towing service. You don't want to be scrambling for a tow company in the middle of nowhere. Carry a cell phone.

- Find ways to avoid boredom--music tapes, or tart candy can help.

- Don't depend on No-Doz and caffeine. Know when to stop. Make sure that closing your eyes for a second isn't the last thing you do.

- Carry a tire repair kit and know how to use it. Upgrade your toolkit.

- Carry a half-gallon of water for emergencies. Always drink bottled water on the road to avoid an upset stomach.

- Carry aspirin for aches and pains but be aware it can lower your body temperature. Carry vitamins.

- Stay away from trucks. A blow-out can knock off a mudflap as heavy as a bowling ball. A truck may run over a muffler in the road you won't see until too late or hit the brakes hard just as you look down at your map.

-- Paul Duchene

- - -

11,000 miles too much?

Besides the biannual rally that takes motorcycle riders 11,000 miles in 11 days, the Iron Butt Association sponsors other endurance events.

They are:

Anywhere in the world

SaddleSore/BunBurner: 1000 miles in less than 24 hours/1,500 miles in less than 36

SaddleSore 1600K, 2000K, 2500K Gold: 1,600 kilometers in 24 hours, 2,000 kilometers in 24 hours, 2,500 kilometers in 36 hours, 2500 kilometers in 24 hours

SS2000: 2,000 documented miles in less than 48 hours

SS3000/BB3000: 3,000 miles in three days

SaddleSore 5000: 5,000 miles in five days

BunBurner Gold: 1,500 documented miles in less than 24 hours

BBG3000: Two back-to-back BunBurner Gold rides for 3,000 miles in 48 hours

10-10ths: 10 consecutive SaddleSore rides for 10,000 miles in 10 days

100k Club: 100,000 documented miles in one year.

U.S. and Canada

50CC: Coast to coast in less than 50 hours

50CC Gold: San Francisco to New York in less than 50 hours

100CCC: Coast to coast and back in less than 100 hours

Trans-Canada: Vancouver to Halifax, Nova Scotia (or vice-versa) all on Canadian roads, in less than 90 hours

Trans-Canada Gold: Vancouver to Halifax (or vice-versa) all on Canadian roads in less than 75 hours.

National Parks Tour: Visit at least 50 National Parks, Monuments, etc., in at least 25 states within one year

48-10: Ride all lower 48 states in 10 days.

48 Plus: 49 states (all 48 continental states plus Alaska) in 10 days

Border-to-Border Insanity: Mexico-U.S.-Canada in less than 24 Hours

Ultimate Coast to Coast: Cross North America from Key West, Fla., to Deadhorse, Alaska, in 30 days or less

Great Lakes

Great Lakes Ride: Around the Great Lakes in less than 100 hours

Great Lakes Gold Ride: Around the Great Lakes in less than 50 hours

Lake Michigan 1000: 24 hours around Lake Michigan

Lake Huron 1000: 24 hours around Lake Huron

Lake Superior 1000: 24 hours around Lake Superior

Lower Great Lakes 1000: 24 hours around Lakes Ontario and Erie

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