Mar 9, 2009

2001 Iron Butt Rally - A Look From The Rookie's Seat

Climbing out from under my bike and surveying the scene, my thoughts turned to Madison, Alabama. Lowsiding into a guardrail is not something that would normally make a person think of the small suburb of Huntsville in northern Alabama. But I did. The start of the Iron Butt Rally was exactly a month away, and there I was with my rally mount wedged into the Ohio dirt on a drizzly Sunday morning.

On that oily, slimy I65 off-ramp north of Columbus, motorists quickly pulled over to help me extricate the bike and right it. I was still wearing my helmet, sunglasses, and gloves as I shook hands all around in thanks. Damage was mostly cosmetic, which is never cheap. Most troubling was the left saddlebag and the right-hand mirror. The left saddlebag was shattered from making contact with the guardrail. The right hand-mirror was also smashed, but worse yet, its supporting framework was bent back several inches. The light socket was also MIA, its wires pulled out and dangling haphazardly.

I wondered then about my participation in the rally. I had a last minute spot offered to me in 1999, but was not able to take it. I decided that I didn’t want to miss this one too. Some applicants wishing to ride the Iron Butt Rally never do, the waiting list usually runs into the hundreds.

I replaced the bag with a used one of a different colour, bought from a member of the ST1100 mailing list. The mirror I replaced with one I had ordered and waiting at a Huntsville Honda dealer. The rest of the damage stayed.

I’ve ridden many organized endurance rallies, and have a few other big rides under my belt, but finding myself in Alabama a month later, this felt different. The mystique behind this event is quite daunting to a newbie competitor like myself. I was ready, but who knows what lies beyond that wall. Out there past seven or eight days would be new territory for me.

Rightly so, my priorities were first to stay safe, then to finish, followed closely by finishing well. Successful winners of this event in the past have mixed and matched those priorities in various orders. Indeed to win, one must be willing to hang it way out there on the edge. What it is hanging out there depends on that competitor’s appetite for risk and how bad he or she wants to win.

My wedding day was two weeks after the finish, so I had good reason to stay healthy.

I stuck to my plan, but no plan is perfect. No one has full control of one’s surroundings. Over 11 days and 17 or 18 thousand kilometers, almost anything can happen. Lest you misinterpret, I’ll state up front that I finished, and finished well. I experienced no accidents; not even a single tipover.

Fortunately for me, the events which may have impeded or even sidelined me were equalized by a few of amazing serendipity. For instance, the odds of getting struck by lightning are incredibly remote, but I came close to it. Or rather it came close to me! On the first leg, in the middle of the night somewhere in New Mexico, a massive explosion occurred at the base of a white column of searing white light in the ditch a hundred feet or so to my right. That made me think. It made me think about the full fuel cell inches from my butt, and of the tall CB antenna whip wired into speakers on either side of my ears, and eventually through the electrical system to two electrodes I had my hands wrapped around – better known as grip heaters.

Even before that, I had managed to forget to re-apply the fuel cap of the fuel cell at a fuel stop. I discovered this fact somewhere in Texas, and managed to scrounge a few rubber gloves to stretch over the fill neck. After two days of asking, I did eventually find a replacement at a gas station in California.

Hours before the first checkpoint in Pomona, California, my wheel bearings began to fail. I still needed to ride through the morning LA freeway miasma to get there. A ride wrecker? Nope. I was carrying spares, and the checkpoint was a BMW dealer. The next roadblock: they wouldn’t work on my Honda ST1100. Down the road I go to the nearest Honda dealer who agreed to shuffle the schedule to accommodate me. While there, I just happened to meet a member of the Edmonton police force that I knew from my regular participation in the Alberta 2000. He gave me his hotel room to sleep while the bike was being worked on.

All of this occurred in the first two days of the rally!

Days later I decided to go for big points by taking a detour up to the Alaskan panhandle between the Washington state checkpoint and Maine. I once more question my participation in the rally as I spend hours attempting to negotiate a twisty and rigorous mountain pass on my way to Hyder, Alaska. It wasn’t just the monsoon-like rain. The proverbial pea soup fog and bears running out in front of the bike had also taxed my ability to cope. Of course this all occurred after more than five solid days on the road.

Once in Hyder, I merely had to ride around the rain-filled potholes the size and possible depth of Superior, take a Polaroid of a sign, then stash it all and make for Maine. Did I mention the driving rain?

Again, I benefited from the providence or just plain luck of a fortuitous happenstance. At the start of the rally, a fellow competitor gave his beaded seat cover to me. It changed the ergonomics of his riding position to an uncomfortable degree. I would never recommend making any kind of change to your gear this close to a big ride. But for some reason, I took him up on his offer. I am glad I did, too! Those beads kept my rear from soaking on a wet seat, and for the first time ever, I stayed dry during a long ride in the rain. And boy were they comfortable, possibly due to the air circulation they permit.

Crossing the continent, I used the same route I had used earlier in the year setting a record of 59 hours and 45 minutes across Canada. Fatigue would slow me from that pace, but I at least managed to ride past that evil rest stop where I had broken down in July. As if sensing the proximity to this place, it was right around then that I sensed the bike running rough. This slight vibration persisted for the remainder of the rally. I surmised that it was because I was overdue for a valve clearance check and carburetor synch.

It turned very cold in northern Ontario and Quebec. No amount of luck could allow a rider to continue on through that. My heated clothing allowed me to ride on, and I slept inside truck stops in the driver lounge instead of outside on picnic tables.

Along this stretch, I linked up with another rider. Our differing riding styles caused some friction, but as luck would have it, his headlight blew and I had a spare to give him. Later on and not paying particular attention, we became separated. This was just as well as I had reached my wall in Quebec, and I needed to stop and sleep for several hours. We ended up crossing paths again later on, however.

At the Maine checkpoint, I was in the top twenty. But there were many riders going to northern Alaska who as yet had few or no points tallied. I knew I would drop down many places once everyone was counted, back at the finish. Feeling quite fatigued, I collected few bonus points between Maine and the finish two days later back in Madison.

Going to Hyder was worth enough points to give me a gold medal, an extremely satisfactory result for any rider, let alone a newbie. All this was good for 32nd place, again very good in this competitive field. I forfeited a top spot in this rally by choosing not to go to Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska. This decision was driven by my desire to not beat up on the bike, and a wish to have a standard checkpoint to checkpoint rally experience. Seeing the bikes that had been in the far north only confirmed for me I had made the right decision. These bikes displayed varying degrees of trauma. Most had massive fairing damage and some had even boiled over due to radiators plugged with mud.

As expected, the top riders did pull out all the stops. Bob Hall won after riding to Prudhoe Bay from the Washington checkpoint. George Barnes wasn’t so lucky. That same desire to ride near the edge that garnered him a rally win in 1999, caused him to overstretch while riding a similar route to Bob Hall and he time-barred at the finish.

Knowing where that line is so that one may ride as near it as possible is the mark of a successful competitor. I can say that I know much more about the limits of my own performance envelope than I did before the Iron Butt Rally. What that means for the next one, only time will tell.

The vibration turned out to be a failing U-joint. It eventually seized the rear end in the spring of the following year, causing damage to the swingarm. Fortunately, it didn't cause me to have an accident or even dump the bike. It happened at about 80 km/h about an hour from my home. It was a scary experience.

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