Wednesday, April 16, 2014

California Rambling: Iron butt

Top IBR riders are revered by their fans. Photo by John Poimiroo

ROBERT NYE attracts fans in the parking lot of the Marriott in Rancho Cordova at the start of the Iron Butt Rally. Photo by John Poimiroo

Eleven thousand miles in 11 days. That’s the length and duration of the Iron Butt, the world’s toughest motorcycle rally.

The 16th Iron Butt Rally (IBR) passed through El Dorado County this month in search of Pony Express-related bonus points, as its 96 bikes followed a transportation-themed route laid out by the long-distance rally’s route master and chief scorer, Tom Austin of El Dorado Hills. Tom and Helen Austin have participated in many IBRs, mostly from behind a desk while managing the race, rather than from behind their handlebars.

That’s understandable, considering how difficult this ride is. “More people have been shot into orbit than have finished the Iron Butt Rally,” wrote IBR reporter Bob Higdon who describes it as “the most demanding motorcycle tour ever imagined, essentially a scavenger hunt that has at one time or another covered every navigable highway in North America.” Fatigue and breakdowns prevent 25 percent of those who start from finishing.

Its 90 individual riders and six, two-up teams, average 900 miles a day, sometimes enduring up to 20 hours in the saddle in a day.  One couple rode 1,500 miles in 24 hours. “To put that in context,” said Austin, “the average motorcyclist will ride at most, only about 4,000 miles a year.”

IBR riders are to its fans what gladiators must have been to the Romans. Dave Martz, a fan from Danville, rode his bike to the Sacramento Marriott Rancho Cordova just to watch the riders finish the IBR’s California leg, then gawk at their chariots. He spoke reverentially of the difference between ordinary motorcyclists (like him) and top-level IBR riders, “It’s like the difference between being able to pitch a 75 mph fastball and a 90 mph fastball.  You have to understand how different these guys are from us. They’re super human.”

IBR staffer Jeff Earls describes the event as “a life-altering experience.” Begun in 1984, the IBR was stopped for a few years, and was resurrected by Mike Kneebone in 1991. It has been conducted biennially, since.

“This is not a race,” Austin emphasizes, “it’s a rally.”  The objective is not to ride the route in the fastest time, but to document having visited the most number of point-generating locations within the time allocated, over three legs. That requires route planning. Austin’s role was to plan the IBR, detailing its theme, checkpoints and the many locations between those points where riders could earn points.

Riders know the checkpoints ahead of time, but not where points can be earned. On the night before the first leg and on the morning of the final two legs, they get packets that specify where they can earn bonus points. It’s up to each rider or team to plot a route to pick up the maximum combination of distance and points. Some bonuses require riding to Canada, others across Pennsylvania, or to the south tip of Florida. As in life, a rally is all about the planning you invest, the choices you make, your endurance and luck.

“Figure that you can travel, on average, 65 mph,” Austin explained. “Once the packets are distributed, the clock starts ticking and you have to plot that leg’s ride. Every hour you spend planning means you’ve lost 65 miles to ride. But, if you don’t take time to plan, the route you choose may not include the most number of possible points or may waste time, taking you needlessly out of the way.”

Mark England of Sacramento explained, “It’s 99 percent mental. Once you pick a route, at 2 a.m. there’s nothing to do but think, ‘Did I make the right choice?’  You ride, questioning your decisions, asking yourself, ‘Why don’t I see anyone else?’”  On two-person teams, the second-guessing is twice as bad. “Not only are you questioning your decisions,” he continued, “but there’s someone leaning over your shoulder whispering in your ear, ‘We shoulda taken that other route.’”

Second-thoughts overwhelm physical comfort. Riders have to keep motoring, whether it’s raining or hellishly hot. They don’t stop to eat, preferring to stay hydrated and consume energy bars. Rest stops are 15 minutes long, just enough to gas up and relieve oneself, then it’s back on the road to the next point-generating location.

Rhode Islander Rob Nye’s approach was not to go after the big bonuses, many of which were at the Pony Express stations, including Yank’s Added Station at South Lake Tahoe, Webster’s Sugar Loaf House in Kyburz, Sportsman’s Hall in Pollock Pines, the DuRoc House in Shingle Springs, and the Pleasant Grove Station in Rescue. Instead, he stayed focused on finishing, saying, “I rode conservatively, from sunrise to sunset, always getting six hours sleep in a room. On an 11-day event, fatigue builds and has a cascading effect. It’s brutal. I stay on the bike, not stopping to sit and eat.”

The bikes, mostly Yamaha FJR 1300s, BMW R1200GSs and Honda Gold Wings roll to checkpoints at day’s end, windshields and Plexiglas headlamp protectors splattered with the dried milky fluids and skeletons of bugs.  They’re all business, outfitted with extra LED headlamps to illuminate pitch-black backroads, double GPS units to plot routes, electronic spot trackers, mobile phone carriers, satellite radios for entertainment, 1-gallon water jugs, saddle bags that carry tools, electric air pumps, tire repair kits and a few changes of special wicking under garments, and auxiliary gas tanks that increase fuel capacity to 11.5-gallons, providing a range of 300 to 400 miles.

As Nye rolled up to the Marriott, IBR groupies gathered around, though Nye asked for time alone to record what he’d accomplished. Nye spent another hour alone in thought, revisiting the route he’d just ridden. Nye finished in 31st place, overall.

Winner of the 2013 Iron Butt Rally was Derek Dickson who rode 11,799 miles in 11 days, accumulating 92,524 points. Dickson’s efficient route planning was key. As, the next-best finisher rode 12,963 miles for 90,065 points, every one of them iron hard.

Day-by-day coverage is found at

John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.


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