Ninety motorcycles and their owners have gathered over the course of the past few days in the Doubletree Hotel parking lot east of Denver, Colorado, for the running of the 2005 Iron Butt Rally. The 91st entrant, Don Arthur, a man on almost everyone's list of potential top-10 finishers, was seriously injured on August 17 en route to the event. Everyone associated with the rally --- organizer, worker, and contestant --- sends their combined best wishes to Don and his family to aid in his speedy, complete recovery. He is one of the sport's great, tireless friends.
Lisa Landry, who supervised the 2003 rally as well as the weekend gathering of long-distance riding enthusiasts earlier this year in Omaha, is once again at the helm of this massive enterprise. Iron Butt Association president Mike Kneebone, for years in charge of every aspect of the 11-day event, has found a simple way of indicating his abdication of power. His name tag now reads: "Ask Lisa."
Assisting the rallymaster is a crew of dedicated IBA employees and volunteers. They have spent days stuffing envelopes and cranking out route packages, releases, name tags, ID tags, and toe tags. They stack up rally identification towels. They check riders in and wipe their bitter, salty tears away. They sell T-shirts, pins, hats, and assorted swag. They conduct seminars on how to deal with the media, videotape the riders signing away their lives, liberties, and sacred honors, and run up and down and in and out and around and about until you just want to sit them down and shove a bucket of Xanax down their sweaty throats. Still, they move on.
Iron Butt veterans Dale Wilson and Tom Austin run the technical inspections of the motorcycles, a job that for years I (in my capacity as the association's director of legal affairs) have repeatedly begged Mike Kneebone to abandon for reasons that any attorney even modestly attuned to the liability arts would instantly applaud. I am heeded not. Wilson, Austin, and their associates thus proceed to poke, prod, and probe the bikes, paying particular attention to auxiliary fuel containers. A good chunk of the rally's rules deals with just this arcane subject.
All but two of the machines have additional fuel tanks, enabling the riders to travel for six hours or more without stopping. It might sound like torture to you, but for the endurance rider, it's a virtual necessity. A minute spent sitting still at a gas station is a minute lost to your competition, a minute thrown away, or, worst of all, a minute lost to precious sleep. Texan Morris Kruemcke, a mechanical engineering graduate from SMU, once strapped 38 gallons of high-octane fuel to his Gold Wing and rode from Butte, Montana, to Wichita, Kansas, a distance of over 1,200 miles, without once putting a foot on the pavement.
The thought of such gasoline bombs running around the country in an Iron Butt Rally must have kept Mike Kneebone awake at night. A rule was instituted years ago that limited a bike's total fuel capacity to 11.5 gallons.
Now the game is to see how close you can get to the edge without exceeding it. Eddie James, endurance riding's Dennis the Menace, came in at 11.47 gallons during inspection. Another rider beat that by two-hundredths of a gallon. Rick Mayer overslopped at 11.79 gallons and was instructed either to find a “displacement device” or go home. Mayer returned with two empty, capped Snapple bottles, slipped them into the fuel cell, baffled them with pieces of foam, and smiled happily when the tank retested short of the magic limit. NASA engineers should be so resourceful.
Eventually all the motorcycles survived inspection. Tonight they sit in the impound lot. When you look at them, you are stunned by gadgetry run amok. The fuel cells are just the start. These bikes carry global-positioning satellite receivers, eye-searing driving headlights and fog lights, CB and XM radios, cell-phone mounts, flexible map lights, reader boards, and scrollers. They have tank bags and saddlebags and top bags and bags to hold other bags. Mr. Harley and Mr. Davidson might recognize the normal bike on the road today, but I promise you that to their eyes the endurance rider's machine might as well be from Planet X.
Beyond the basic cost of the bike, this kind of improvement over the manufacturer's original concept has a price, easily the most significant percentage of the costs associated with the rally. Paul Taylor, the winner of the 2003 Iron Butt, estimates that he spent more than $8,500 in entry fees, preparation of the bike, and expenses on the road.
Still, he was able to recoup some of that when he sold his bike this year to Sean Gallagher for $12,000. Not satisfied that Taylor's winning bike was really up to his specifications, Gallagher immediately poured another $11,000 into the BMW for further modifications and alterations. Gallagher laughs that while the bike may not return to the winner's circle this year, it will easily win the prize for the most expensive mount to leave the paddock.
Which it will do tomorrow when the hammer drops at 10:00 a.m. Tonight it sits, patiently waiting. Its owner sleeps, or tries to, also waiting as patiently as possible through a long, chilly, Rocky Mountain night.
Day 1: Lift Off
I have been at the start of every Iron Butt Rally since 1991, eight in all, and in seven of them I have, in my role as the association's director of pastoral affairs, blessed the field at the opening banquet with varying degrees of success. In 2001, since I was a contestant on the rally, my spiritual duties fell that year into other benevolent hands. Unhappily, that benediction too failed to achieve its intended result. Gary Eagan ran off the road not 27 miles into the rally, becoming one with a corn field.
It was a record (of sorts) that we hoped might stand forever. It didn't stand for even two years. In 2003 I returned to the banquet pulpit, cast devils from the assembled crowd in a fiery incantation, and watched the following morning as a rider dumped his bike five feet beyond the start line, breaking Eagan's record by approximately 26.999 miles. Nothing could top that, right?
You wish. Last night I skipped the benedicting part altogether and just threatened all the riders in the room that if they didn't come back in 11 days 1) safely, 2) healthy, and 3) happy, then I would track them down one by one in my capacity as the organization's avenging angel and make their lives even more miserable than they already were. As you might expect, this sort of inspiration-by-fear tactic had a mighty effect: This morning one rider was on his face 200 feet short of the starting gate. I submitted my resignation as the Iron Butt Association's chaplain not long thereafter.
Following last night's dinner, rallymaster Lisa Landry ascended the dais, took the microphone with a steady hand, waved an envelope of bonus instructions at the riders with another hand, and said, "Ahoy." Moments later, when the packages were distributed and opened, her cryptic comment became altogether too clear: The riders found themselves staring at 25 pages of directions to locations --- spread throughout the entirety of North America, from Seattle to Key West and from Los Angeles to New Brunswick --- almost every one of which involved an association with water. There were lakes to be visited, along with rivers, dams, lighthouses, swamps, reservoirs, oceans, waterfalls, hot springs, aqueducts, bridges, ships, a flood museum, a lifeguard tower, a naval acoustic research center in landlocked Idaho, and the Panama Canal. As I thumbed through the maze of papers, I found myself becoming slightly seasick.
A basic feature of the rally had also been altered. But before I turn to that, first permit me a moment of backtracking for the benefit of the seven people (out of the 2.6 million who read these posts) who are not completely familiar with the rally's essential design.
It has always been the case that the rally has a start and finish in one city with three additional checkpoints, generally located in the corners of the continental U.S. In years past it has been permissible for a rider to travel along the base route from one checkpoint to the next, earning points for showing up on time, and arriving at the finish in one piece. If you did nothing more than that, you'd beat the 20 percent of the field who routinely and invariably break down mentally or mechanically.
To gain additional glory, however, most riders normally will visit various bonus locations that may be (but usually aren't) along the base route. Each bonus stop has an associated point value. The more points you acquire, the higher your final standing. In general, the more difficult the bonus is to obtain, the more points it is worth. Final point totals are usually, but not always, positively correlated with total miles ridden. In past events, running the base route might require traveling just 7,500 miles in 11 days; the top 10 riders, on the other hand, will be cranking out 12,000 miles or more. No one ever said it was easy being a big dog.
This year the rally's basic structure has been changed in two significant respects: 1) Denver is both the start and the first checkpoint, and 2) there is only one other checkpoint, not the customary two. The riders will leave Denver today, return to it as the first checkpoint on Friday evening, depart for the second checkpoint outside Portland, Maine, and return to Denver for the finish by the end of the 11th day. To counter the argument that the "base route" is really from Denver to Maine and back (with the lazy, scurrilous rider having spent the first four days of the event sleeping 16 hours a day in a Walmart parking lot in a Denver suburb), Lisa requires that a minimum number of bonus points --- 60,000 --- be collected in order for the contestant to be considered a finisher of the event. The top 15 riders will come home with more than 80,000 points and the podium finishers will corner even more than that. As I said, woof woof.
After the dust had settled, Lisa took questions. There weren't many. The banquet hall quickly emptied as riders hustled back to their rooms to plot strategy with friends and other riders. In the old days that work would have been aided by road atlases, four-function calculators, and wax pencils. These days they hunker down with electronic spreadsheets, computer mapping programs, and fax machines. Kneebone and Landry know that they can't control outside assistance when a rider is putting a route together so they don't even try. A brilliant solution to the leg's routing problem is one thing; riding all those pesky miles is something else. It is, after all, the ultimate sticking point. The rally's focus may change a bit from year to year, but the bottom line --- sitting on that seat and twisting that throttle --- never does.
It didn't take long for a consensus to develop. Although the first leg's bonus points were fairly equally distributed in the four quadrants of the country, by bedtime almost half the riders had made plans to head for Key West, Florida. That dead-end town, 2,200 miles from Denver and a hopeless sucker bonus on every Iron Butt Rally since the dawn of time, was becoming a siren call to the heavyweight sailors. A smaller number had decided to head west to the closer bonuses along the coasts of California and Oregon. Those locations have a slightly higher value than in other sections of the country, but there is also the downside risk of nightmare traffic jams. A final 10 or 12 riders took deep breaths and geared up to visit a lighthouse on an island in New Brunswick, almost 2,400 miles from rally headquarters.
Are you kidding me? Denver to Key West and back in 4.5 days? To the end of New Brunswick and back? If you're normal, you're laughing at the thought of such bravado. Yet this is what they live for, these men and women who dance fitfully along the edge of both geography and reason. And as hellish as their goals might seem to the rest of us, the riders know one other fact to a moral certainty: These are the easy days.
Day 2: Tempest
From the balcony of the Iron Butt Rally administration suite on the top floor of the Doubletree Hotel in Denver, Colorado, you can see the staggering wall of the Rocky Mountains all the way from Pikes Peak in the south to far beyond Boulder's Flatiron Mountains in the north, a sweep of more than 100 miles. On summer afternoons like this the storms routinely boil up along the length of the front range and begin smacking the tops of the mountains with lightning strikes and sheets of rain. In a few hours things will calm down and the landscape will retreat from being actively frightening to merely forbidding. As many times as I have seen this show, I never tire of it.
Another kind of rain, the sort that turns the Great Plains into a sea of whistling wind and hard, gray pellets, reduced speeds on I-70 in Kansas yesterday afternoon from 80 mph to under 40. Morris Kruemcke, who knows something about rain in a riding career that includes more than 160 thousand-mile days, was muttering darkly to himself. Dean Tanji called his former riding partner, rallymaster Lisa Landry. "It's definitely bad," he said grimly. Morris was drying out when he reached a toll booth in Kansas City. The attendant looked at him and asked cheerfully, "Are you with the Iron Butt Rally?" Not having much else to do, Morris considered that question as he rolled eastward through the next couple of states. Were there really that many riders ahead of him on the way to Key West?
He didn't know. We don't know. No one knows. We receive bits of information now and then, and there is a web site that is plotting the tracks of 13 --- well, 12 now, but more on that later --- riders who have been outfitted with satellite transponders. But beyond that, in times like this your crack IBR administrative staff is as essentially out of touch with our motonauts as Houston is with their space cadets when the lunar module has wheeled around to the other side of the moon. So rather than just admit we don't have a clue what's happening out there in the void, in the great journalistic traditions of the New York Times, Washington Post, and National Enquirer, we just make things up.
Still, while we may not know exactly where these riders are, we do know who they are, and without any question at all this is the finest group of motorcyclists ever to assemble for the event. It is literally a Who's Who in endurance riding that is fanning out like flies across North America tonight. Take Eric Jewel, for example. He rode on the legendary last leg of the 2001 rally with George Barnes, time-barred at the end but unforgettable nonetheless. Landry says she'd be happy with a field composed of 100 Eric Jewels. Or Jim Owen, who has never had a bad rally. Or Ed Phelps, the great hope of the BMW Bikers of Metropolitan Washington, and the winner of the Mason-Dixon 20-20 rally earlier this year. Jeff Earls hits long balls with the best of them. George Zelenz? All he's done in 2005 is finish high up on the Cal 24 and White Stag rallies and win the Utah 1088.
The list goes on. John Ryan, the only rider ever to do three consecutive 1,500-mile days within 72 hours, scans the skies for bad weather. "The worse it is, the better I like it," he says without a smile, making everyone around him even more nervous than usual. Then there's the Minnesota Wrecking Crew led by Mark Kiecker and Marty Leir, who finished second and third overall in 2003 respectively. Their co-rider then, Will Outlaw, came in fourth. He couldn't run this year, but in his place are more Team Strange Minnesotans, Andy Mills and Tim Conway. These guys are young, rude, talented, fast, tattooed, pierced, and fearless. If they finished first through fourth this year, no one would be surprised.
But to do that, they're going to have to strike out the Murderer's Row of long-distance riding --- Shane Smith, Peter Hoogeveen, Rick Morrison, and George Barnes. Before Chris Sakala broke it in 2003, Smith held the record for the fastest time from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Key West. He has three top-10 finishes in three Iron Butt rallies, his best being a second overall in 2001. It was a ride that left Paul Taylor, the 2003 IBR winner, in the dust. Canada's Hoogeveen has five top-five placements, including two agonizingly close second-place finishes. It is a record of accomplishment that no one is even close to touching. Morrison won the IBR in 1997 and finished second in 1999. At one time or another he has held every long-distance record worth chasing. When most riders see Rick's bike in the parking lot, they mentally adjust themselves to shooting for second place.
And then there's George Barnes. In 1997 he was just behind the leader Hoogeveen at the second checkpoint. His bike blew up on the next leg. In 1999 he held off a final charge by Morrison to win. In 2001 he entered the final hours of the rally with a secure lead over Bob Hall and Eric Jewel. Five things had to go wrong between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Huntsville, Alabama, to deny Barnes another victory. Five things went wrong. Having seen who I believe are the best riders of my time, I'd have to put George and Ross Copas at the very top. They actually competed against each other one time at the Bite the Bullet rally in Nevada in 1993. Naturally, they tied for first.
The rain has disappeared from the deep blue mountains to the west. The sun has set and a pleasant coolness has returned to Mile High City. Bill Watt, on his way to New Brunswick last night, reported that it was freezing. Others picked their way cautiously through cold, Canadian fog. At the same time riders on their way to Key West were motoring through a steaming, soaking sauna. Tonight, wherever they are, a merciful sleep bonus awaits them. They will stop at a gas station after midnight, obtain a time-stamped gas receipt, sleep for at least six hours, and return to the same pump for a second receipt. It's being paid for resting, a bonus that they just can't afford to pass up. And for at least a few hours, they can forget about uncaring weather.
A reader sent an email accusing me of softening up now that I'm receiving Social Security checks. How come you didn't name the poor guy who dropped his bike while trying to leave the parking lot, he asks. What gives?
That's easy. There are basically two ways to guarantee being mentioned in the rally reports: 1) Do something spectacularly daring, brilliant, or courageous; or 2) Do something incredibly dumb. As for the parking-lot incident, that was just bad luck, not purposefully stupid. I wrote: "I can't name him. A low-speed face plant under those circumstances could happen to anyone. The pressure on those poor bastards is absolutely unbelievable. There are cameras everywhere; there is noise, congestion, and terror in every direction. Your heart is racing and your adrenal glands are the size of volleyballs. Nah. That would be the worst sort of cheap shot."
Day 3: Apogee
There is a website this morning that showed a picture of North America that truly was worth more than my next 1,000 words. The site pinpoints the current locations of 13 motorcycles, each of which is equipped with a device that communicates with global-positioning satellites that orbit the Earth. It is the ultimate response to that anxiety-inducing question you used to hear on the radio: It's 2:00 a.m., and do you know where your child is? At Star-Traxx the answer is always yes, at 2:00 a.m. and at every other hour of the day or night.
For the past several days the bikes have been spreading out from Denver like concentric ripples from a disturbance on an otherwise calm lake. Because the rally's starting location is also its first checkpoint, what left here last Monday morning ideally and inevitably will return here by Friday evening, as if drawn back by tiny rubber bands. Now almost halfway through the first leg, the bands have begun to grow maximally taut; they will pull their riders back to Colorado from the four corners of America. Star-Traxx has dutifully recorded the ebb and flow, but you still cannot quite make out the little rubber bands.
Consider the analysis that led to the unique distribution of the bonus locations on this first leg of the rally. Mike Kneebone and Lisa Landry constructed a matrix that balances out the competing factors of time, speed, distance, geography, point value, and a maze of other variables in remarkably fair, yet dramatically different, ways. You say you like a long roll on interstate highways into the Turkish bath of Florida in August? Go to the Keys. If your preference is to freeze your buns on an even longer ride, head for New Brunswick. Perhaps your inclination is for a shorter but more demanding tour, particularly if you don't mind battling traffic and congestion. The bonuses in Southern California and on the Pacific Coast Highway were made for you, bubba. Ditto a visit to the Northwest, which has a dizzying variety of bonus stops from Yellowstone to Seattle and down the coast of Oregon. No matter which route is chosen, they all work out to approximately the same bonus-point value. That, my friends, is not an easy thing to do. It can be an even more nail-biting task to try to put the entire array into logical perspective.
For Mike Kneebone though, the choice was obvious. "The Northwest," he said, when I asked him which was the easiest of the possible routes. "You can pick up almost as many points as by riding east, but you can do it in a fraction of the distance." Bob St. George and Jim Frens apparently agreed, but even the best plans occasionally bump into one of Mother Nature's jokes. They were near the Tacoma Narrows Bridge this morning, trying to take a photo of a lighthouse that was utterly invisible in a dense fog. They walked toward the sound of a fog horn, but each step was actually taking them farther away from the lighthouse. In moments like this, when the ticking clock is acting like a brass gong against the interior of your skull, you can understand what it's like to be crazier than a rat in a coffee can.
Other good riders --- Rob Nye, Brian Roberts, Eddie James, and Tom Melchild --- also went north and west. Unfortunately, Roberts, before dawn yesterday, was forced wide in a sweeping turn on I-90 northwest of Missoula, Montana, to avoid a worthless deer and lost the bike in a gravel shoulder. Brian is all right, thanks in no small part to some Samaritan-like assistance from Melchild, but the motorcycle is awaiting ascension to Bike Heaven. It was one of the transponder-equipped machines. You can see it on the Star-Traxx map, not having moved much in the last 30 hours but looking better on the web site than it does in person, I'm told.
Opting for the southwest route were big dogs like Rick Morrison, George Zelenz, and Jim Owen, the latter another blip on the Star-Traxx map. That kind of technology doesn't interest Morrison, who used to compute distances on a road atlas with a Marlboro cigarette. From the filter to the tip was 200 miles. Flip it over end to end? Another 200 miles. Do that another five or six times and you have the day's route. Nothing to it, and when you're through, you get to smoke the calculator.
Rick has evolved from those primitive days to the point where his bike now carries a GPS unit. Admittedly, the model that he's using is so low-rent that it might have come from a Cracker Jack box. Worse, Rick may not be quite sure what the thing is supposed to do. Still, loading him up with all the electronic gear that the other boys and girls carry is like giving a rhinoceros a grenade launcher. He doesn't need it; he's a rhino, for God's sake. Isn't that scary enough?
About a dozen riders headed for New Brunswick, a continent away to the northeast. They included Bob Todd, Dean Tanji, Jim Winterer, Bill Thweatt, Rick Martin, Shane Smith, and George Barnes. Shane had originally been heading for the Keys but switched direction in St. Louis. "Giving George a 100-mile lead probably isn't the best idea I've had in this rally," he told me wryly. True enough. The best thing to give rhinos like that is some room, but 100 miles might be a little too much.
That left the remainder of the field, half the riders altogether, heading to Key West. Doug Chapman's Star-Traxx bike apparently has been in the lead from the start. Not far behind was the Wrecking Crew, accompanied by Steve Steller aboard a 450cc Vespa. Don't ask me how a scooter can keep up with those headhunters from Minnesota. I never thought that Ed Otto would finish the 1995 Iron Butt on a Honda Helix, but I've been eating that crow for 10 years. Others sighted in the Keys: Ed Phelps and John Ryan, with the Fontana Dam already in their pockets; John Bolin, en route now to Scottsbluff, Nebraska; and Bob Mutchler, whose sidecar has wiggled free but is awaiting reattachment. Allen Dye, Paul Meredith, Dick Fish, Beverly Ruffin, Peter Hoogeveen, and Bill Shaw have also come and gone. What will separate these riders in the first scoring round will be how many bonuses they manage to obtain on the way to or back from Florida.
An orbiting object reaches its apogee when it is most distant from the object it orbits. Gravitational rubber bands are now beginning to pull the riders on the east coast back to Denver. Those who hurled themselves to the west will start to feel the force sometime tomorrow. The weather reports show clearing across much of the country, except for a disturbance south of the Florida keys. There Tropical Storm Katrina is bubbling up. She won't be a problem on this leg of the rally --- the group now in Florida will be long gone before she arrives this weekend --- but if past Iron Butts are prologue, one of the big bonuses on the next leg will be, of course, Key West.
No, my children, Katrina isn't your problem. What you should be worrying about in the days to come is the next weather bomb in the alphabet: Tropical Storm Lisa.
Day 4: A Day At the Dog Track
With not much else to do as we wait for our greyhounds to make the turn into the final stretch of leg No. 1, the odds makers at Iron Butt Central have been re-evaluating the competition. As usual, finely tuned assessments are made on the bases of breeding, history, weight, hearsay, blood level of anabolic steroids, rumor, map-folding skills, and reasoning by false analogy. Here, then, are our current thoughts, which are subject to revision, if not total denial, 40 milliseconds after this post hits the web.
Hans Karlsson, age 11.3 in dog years (he will be 11.4 in October), remains an even-odds favorite to finish, principally because we have heard nothing from him other than that he headed for Key West on his mammoth Gold Wing and apparently arrived there. It may be the same bike that he used last year to slog through 11 time zones in Siberia and Russia, becoming the oldest dog on the heaviest bike ever to make that vicious ride (and cruelly breaking the record that your esteemed scribe held for almost two whole weeks).
The ratings of Dave Mishalof and Joe Mandeville have been revised from Like Silent to Like Tomb-like. Mishalof confided on the evening before the start that he would head back home to Los Angeles. The next morning he confided that he'd changed his mind. He has confided nothing since. In the 1991 IBR Mishalof and Mandeville rode together, taking it easy and still finishing tied for seventh overall. That year Dave won his second mileage contest that the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America holds from April to October of each year. He's won at least two more since then. And Mandeville is no stranger to the contest either. In 1993 he won it by racking up over 106,000 miles in six months. Experience has taught us that when these guys are quiet, they can only be up to something no good.
Trivial problems --- Rebecca Vaughn lost a key, Rick Morrison and CHP sergeant Steve Hobart lost the use of their fuel cells, Brian Boberick lost confidence in his GPS, and Michael Smeyers lost Kerry Church, for example --- are par for the Iron Butt course. We hardly mention them except for a cheap laugh, and only rarely do they affect a doggy's odds. But with disasters continuing to wash over her like waves on a beach, Coni Fitch's chances have been downgraded from Doubtful to Circling the Drain. She had interrupted her ride to Denver to fly to Missouri to be with Don Arthur's wife following his accident. By the time she reached the rally headquarters, her headlight's low beam had become no beam, delaying her technical inspection and odometer check. Her bike was reassembled just before the start and just in time for a problem with her GPS receiver to erupt. She was, by more than an hour, the last one out of the gate but the first one to lose her gas receipts. Could it get any worse? Sure. An hour later she broke down with a massive oil leak near Death Valley. The K1200LT was towed to the BMW dealer in Las Vegas. Technicians have been looking at it and they're not smiling.
Not only smiling but moving up in class is Vicki Johnston by virtue of a big ride to Chicago via North Carolina and Key West, the same route adopted by the Wrecking Crew. On your scorecard change her classification from Middleweight (23rd overall and the highest-placed woman on the 2003 IBR) to Light-Heavyweight and adding attractive pounds with each passing mile.
Speaking of the gauchos of the Minnesota pampas, there appears to have been a change in the Wrecking Crew's composition. Tim Conway is evidently having some sort of fuel problem, seriously cutting his range between gas stops. He was dropped by Kiecker, Leir, and Mills back in Kansas. He then teamed up with a hard-charging Allen Dye, the favorite son of an internet group known as the Chatty Morons. It now seems that Dye has forged ahead of Conway in the eastern plains, forcing a reduction in Tim's status from Big Dog to Dog.
Taking Conway's place, in the tradition of true Iron Butt zaniness, is Brett Donahue and his 1,200cc Harley Sportster. Because of a fuel-petcock error, Donahue left the start with practically an empty tank. He stopped within the first couple of miles to fill up, grinding his teeth and watching Kiecker's group leave him in the dust. Hours later, he passed the Crew. Then the Crew passed him. They leapfrogged this way all the way to the Keys, at which time he apparently became inducted into the Crew as the fourth musketeer. That was good enough for Iron Butt Central's prognosticators to upgrade Donahue from Low-octane Dog to Is This Guy for Real?
Since more than 40 percent of the leg's 73 bonuses are in California, Oregon, and Washington, there is a staggering number of possible routes through the point maze. We don't have any idea, except by reading tea leaves, where one-third of the field might be hiding along the Pacific Coast. Our handicappers are consequently at a complete loss to calculate even laughable odds for them. They rarely call; they never write; they apparently don't miss us at all, though we think of them all the time. A couple of the ones we're thinking about tonight are Rick Morrison and Jim Owen. Morrison's route, after he gobbled down a big bonus in southwest New Mexico, is a mystery, but he promised before leaving to do "an efficient route." Read: few miles, big points. That looks exactly like what Owen has done when you follow his path on the Star-Traxx website. It is possible that he might have picked up as many as 25 bonuses so far with more to come in the final 24 hours. If so, you could easily be looking at the top dog tomorrow night. And if Owen can figure that out, can Morrison, one of the canniest of the endurance riders, be far behind?
Motojournalist Jerry Smith, who had been assigned by Kneebone and Landry to act as an observer at the Bandon Lighthouse bonus in southwest Oregon, got a glimpse of a rare west coast specimen yesterday. Actually, he heard Bill Crittenden's Boss Hoss before he saw it, a 350-cubic-inch Chevy V-8 engine strapped to what looks like a bicycle frame. Even heartless touts know a good story when they hear it, so for managing to shove that 1,300-pound thing this far down the road from Denver, we're adjusting Crittenden's odds against finishing from 100-1 to 47.3-1. And while a Hoss surges, a top-seeded Big Dog takes a dive, straight into a hot tub. George Zelenz reported that, even before the sun set yesterday, he was unable to resist calling it a night at an upscale spa in Ukiah, California. Say what? IBA's bookies think that's barking up the wrong tree. It's puppy chow for you tonight, George. Woof.
Meanwhile, trying to prove that they're the best in show, George Barnes, Brian Boberick, and Shane Smith are following the poet Robert Frost's advice and have taken the road less traveled back to Denver from New Brunswick. It's via a dam in western North Carolina, which means that if they straight-line it to Colorado from there, they'll have averaged almost 1,200 miles per day for the first 105 hours. Will it be enough?
We'll know tomorrow.
Day 5: To Stand and Wait
It will take someone more clever than I to construct, in Steve Martin's immortal phrase, interesting word usements that will make the Iron Butt Rally seem to be just another walk in the park. I can't do it because it isn't that; it never has been; it never will be. It is unapologetically what it is, an extreme form of getting from A to B for no other reason than the ride. And because it is so singularly unforgiving, the attrition rate is always high. I recall seeing Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas in a documentary about surviving the 1960s. "It was a war out there," she told the interviewer, shaking her head. "Not everyone made it home." She could have been talking about the Iron Butt.
Five days are beginning to take their predictable toll. It is the BMWs, half of the bikes on the starting grid, that are taking the worst hits. We noted that Coni Fitch's K1200LT ground to a halt yesterday. Last night John Bolin's R1100RT lost a rear-drive bearing. He looked down and out in Platte City, Missouri, but heroic assistance by the dealer in Kansas City may have saved Bolin's day. He struggles toward Denver even as I write. Bob Mutchler's R1150RT, dragging a sidecar around that has had mounting and shock-absorber issues on its own, lost an alternator belt, the same problem that stopped a half-dozen BMWs in their tracks two years ago. He too struggles toward the finish line tonight. Dick Fish has stopped struggling; his BMW GS blew up. Why? Who knows. The turn will come in good time for the other brands. In the Iron Butt no machine is immune.
Rains that were sweeping the riders off the Great Plains on the first day of the rally returned on the fourth day with even greater violence. Morris Kruemcke wanted nothing to do with two large bonuses in downtown Chicago but rode north to the Windy City anyway just to avoid storms in Missouri. Torrential rains stopped Phyllis Lang cold and may time-bar her at the first checkpoint. Nine horses yesterday were swept away and drowned in floods of Biblical intensity in Kansas. Far to the north in Montana the Boss Hoss rested safely in a metaphorical corral as its owner, Bill Crittenden, peacefully slept. And slept. And woke up so late today that he has no chance to arrive before the checkpoint window slams shut in Denver tonight. Thus does the brief career of the largest horse ever to run the Iron Butt end, not with a 300-horsepower bang but a snore and a whimper.
Those riders and machines who've survived have been drifting in for the past six or seven hours. Soon the penalty clock will begin to click at five points per minute. After 9:00 p.m. tonight they're time-barred. Their next stop will be back home. It will be a personal disaster for the rider, but for the wife or husband or lover who has been waiting through these long, tense hours, it will be nothing but relief. For them the war is over. Their soldier didn't win, but that hardly matters anymore. In some cases, peace at any price may not be such a bad thing after all.
In a couple of hours the war resumes. For the riders who nervously await the start of the next leg to Maine, their battles will be waged on the road. For their significant others, the waiting war begins anew. I've become a pen pal with some of them. "I feel connected to him through you," one writes. And they tell me things that they can't tell their husbands. "This is not fun being at home worried. It is a shame that it takes something like this ride to really realize how much someone means to you and how dangerous this madness is. But he loves it." I try to assure them in my uncomfortable role as father confessor that things will be fine, and most of the time they are. Tonight an air of real gaiety surrounds the hotel. It is hard to find a frown, even from the riders who've screwed up a bonus or lost a gas receipt. The rally has truly been as carefree as a dance around the maypole. But we all know that . . . well, we know.
She had calculated that he should be coming in at one in the afternoon. She wandered back and forth under a tree. By two he hadn't arrived. She couldn't take her eyes off the entrance to the parking lot, where he should be now, must be, just has to be. She knows the bike as well as he does, its headlight, its shape, its silhouette. She can recognize the motor's sound. 2:10. 2:15. At 2:20 he rounded the corner. Her head sagged forward momentarily in a kind of desperate relief. She stood, steadied herself, and walked quickly toward him. Before he was off the bike, she had her arms around him. I had to look away.
One of John Milton's most famous poems concludes, "They also serve who only stand and wait." Only? Only? Some days it is a full-time job, a job so hard that simply to stand is to prevail. I'm sorry. There's nothing "only" about that.
Day 6: The Right Stuff
Today is travel day at Iron Butt Central. The administration is winging it to Maine. If we look carefully down from our window seats at 37,000 feet, we might see a string of motorcycles heading into the morning sun. Most of the riders know where they're going. The severely map-challenged have been instructed simply to head east on I-70 until they hit I-95, then turn left. With luck, we should beat them all to the checkpoint before it opens early Monday morning.
The scores were posted just before 9:00 p.m. last night. There were few surprises. Jim Owen, despite losing a 1,000-point bonus for keeping gas receipts, had a lead of almost 4,000 points over Eric Jewell. They had taken the west-coast route, as had the third- through fifth-place riders. Tied for sixth were George Barnes, Shane Smith, and Brian Boberick, the riders who had gone to New Brunswick and North Carolina on a gigantic loop. Jewell was efficient, picking up almost eight points per mile. Shane was the master of brute force, riding almost 1,300 miles farther than Jewell for 4,601 fewer points.
The gang of seven that swept through Florida, Fontana, and Chicago is tied for 13th. Mark Kiecker would have been with them but he too lost a 1,000-point gas bonus. Other scores are strewn across the board like sand on the beach.
In 49th and 62nd places are Bob Mutchler and John Bolin. That may not be impressive to you, but each had epic struggles just to make it to the finish with literally mere minutes to spare. Not everyone was so fortunate. You'll see some scores of zero at the bottom of the list, those belonging to riders who have been time-barred. Fitch: motor; Fish: motor; Roberts: down in the Bitteroot Mountains; and Crittenden: fatigue. Dan Lowery bombed out before the start in 2003. He didn't get much farther this year. The last victim of the rains in the plains was Phyllis Lang, more than an hour late at the final bell. She had run the Key West route, clearly much too ambitious a ride for such a small woman on such a large Harley. We'll miss her bright smile on dark nights.
Sometimes they make it too easy for us here at The Daily Planet. Our cub reporters in their capes and blue tights scurry around all day looking for the lead story. Yesterday one of them --- the story, not the cub reporter --- fell right into our lap. Take a look at the scores of Eddie James and George Zelenz, for example. Eddie is in fourth place today, trying to figure out how to ride 10 straight miles without cramping, creaking, or cringing. George Barnes tells rookies that they must adapt their bikes so that the machine is the most comfortable place on earth for them to be. Eddie's bike isn't like that these days. He's trying to recover from a terrible accident in the final hours of the last Iron Butt Rally. His isn't a BMW dual-sport bike; it's an ordeal with wheels. His leg locks up; he can't walk without an occasional shiver of pain wrinkling his face; aspirin is another basic food group for him. Instead of being on a motorcycle, he needs to be pruning his skin in the hot tub where George Zelenz hangs out.
At the Cabrillo Lighthouse bonus in Mendocino, California, Eddie entered by the handicapped access road and took the required photo. No one at the scoring table would have questioned for one second his right to do exactly that. But some fellow riders saw him and a few predictable razzes were shouted out. Eddie knows a no-win situation when he sees it, having created a few of them by himself in the past, so he curled back around into the main lot, limped a quarter-mile toward the lighthouse to take a second photo, and headed off to his next stop, grimacing a bit as he usually does these days.
That's one way to do it, what we call the good faith effort. George Zelenz took a different approach. In the main parking lot he tossed his identification towel on a bush, took the picture, and departed. Total steps taken: maybe eight. When Zelenz presented the photo at the scoring table last night, an immediate problem arose: No one could identify a man-made structure anywhere in the picture, much less a lighthouse. The issue was bounced up to Tom Austin, the chief scorer. Austin saw the vague, tiny outline of what may have been a tree, but the lighthouse apparently was behind even that. Tom showed me the photo and asked if I could see anything. "I'm sure I'll be able to," I said, "as soon as I run this crap through an electron microscope." Bonus denied. Zelenz said he would protest. "Be my guest," Austin shrugged. I'm not sure how the appeal was decided, but the laughter heard in the chambers of the Supreme Court probably don't bode well for the rider.
Eddie James might make it to Maine. He might even make it back to Denver if his painkillers hold out. When it's over, he won't be in fourth place. You can ask only so much of bones and muscles that hurt too much already. He can drive you absolutely crazy, but he can also shine, sometimes as brightly and intently as the Cabrillo Lighthouse.
George Zelenz, in the meantime, wallows in 65th place. He doesn't ache the way Eddie does, and because he has a raw, natural talent for this kind of sport, he'll probably climb up in the standings almost as fast as Eddie will drop. Along the way he'll learn some things about the Iron Butt and the people who focus a good part of their lives on it. One day he might learn that this game isn't just about miles. It's also about how you ride them.
Day 7: Downhill
Just before midnight EDT last night I posted my latest update in the continuing road saga known as Iron Butt 2005: The Early Years. A few minutes later the witching hour clanked, at which point the riders had officially crested the halfway point of the event. For them, as well as for your crack team of paper shufflers, microanalysts, and wordsmiths at Iron Butt Central, it is all downhill now --- literally, physically, figuratively, allegorically, and psychiatrically.
It didn't take long for the armchair endurance riders on the web to begin a discussion, once the bonus listings were posted on the IBA website, of how they would have run the first leg. Much of the discussion, somewhat to my surprise, was fairly reasonable and instructive. But curiously, even though they could plainly see the dramatic inefficiencies in terms of points per mile that had hammered the riders who'd headed east on leg No. 1, many of them would have opted for New Brunswick or Key West anyway. It demonstrates the powerful lure of the simple ride and the corresponding aversion to the complex one.
That was clearly illustrated in the routes the real riders chose. In the first 4.4 days of the rally George Barnes, Shane Smith, and Brian Boberick made just two bonus-location stops in over 5,500 miles. They went almost as far east as you can go and still not hit Europe. Jim Owen, on the other hand, rode west and stopped 28 times for bonuses in under 4,900 miles. He leads Barnes, Smith, and Boberick by 8,304 points. And it would have been 1,000 more except Owen lost a gas receipt. The former put their heads down and bulled their way into the sun; Owen, Eric Jewell, and the other top-placed riders took their time and picked their way through a minefield.
Some of the initial routing decisions were made with surprising speed. Good, experienced riders --- Kiecker, Leir, Ryan, and Barnes, among many, many others --- seemed to ignore the western bonuses altogether. Within an hour of the distribution of bonus packets all of them had announced decisions to go east. But it seems so clear in the cold light of a week's worth of dawns that the real bang-for-the-buck was on the Pacific side of Denver. Yes, it required delicate planning because many of the bonuses had time restrictions on them. One of the biggest depended upon the ocean's tide. The constipation of traffic on the west coast clearly frightened away more than a few riders. But there is no escaping the results: If you were both efficient and committed, you did well on the first leg. If you were just committed, you'll be making up ground for the rest of the event.
The second leg, which terminates tomorrow morning at Reynolds Motorsports outside of Portland, Maine, has essentially transported the field from the west to the east. Pick up some bonuses, if you can, but be rested and ready to go for the haul back to the finish. Naturally, the water theme of the rally is continuing with a vengeance, even as Katrina gathers terrifying steam in the Gulf of Mexico. There were three basic courses that could have been followed in this leg: 1) the northern route to Wawa, Canada; 2) the middle route via Niagara Falls and the Erie Canal; and 3) the southern route via bridges in Missouri, West Virginia, and eventually New York. The first has some good points; the second is conservative with frequent bail-out options; and the third, the one with the highest bonus value, will need a prayer that everything goes right. For travelers on I-95 on a summer Sunday afternoon and evening, that will require a mighty prayer indeed.
Irrespective of the route chosen to Maine, the riders had better be well rested when they arrive. Do you think they will heed that admonition? We don't. We think half of them, as usual, will show up baked. Three times in Missoula at the start of the 2003 rally Lisa Landry told the riders that they absolutely must not arrive at the first checkpoint tired. You will need to be thoroughly rested for the second leg, she said, again and again and again. And did they listen to the warning? Almost one-third of the riders arrived late, took penalty points, and from that moment on were basically riding just to finish. Paul Taylor listened. He stood 28th overall when the first leg's scores were posted, but he was also coming off of eight hours of sleep. He won that rally in no small part due to his ability to manage rest.
Some readers have cited Taylor's "recovery" in that event as proof that there is still room for picking yourself up off the floor to make the great comeback. I love the idea too. But when Taylor began to move up on the second leg, there was 87 percent of the rally still to ride. When the troops began the second leg from Denver last Friday night, 40 percent of the rally was already in the bag. When they leave the second checkpoint for the ride back west tomorrow morning, fewer than four days will remain. Time, the eternal enemy of the long-distance rider, is rapidly running out.
In the meantime the clock has stopped for Dave Mishalof. Citing problems at home, he has bowed out of the rally. Ditto Quek Cheng Chye. Joe Mandeville may be forced to withdraw because of an emergency. Bobb Todd headed for New Brunswick on the first leg, rode 4,996 miles to pick up exactly one (1) bonus, and now has withdrawn. He thinks the rally this year was too demanding. If I'd gone to New Brunswick and back with him, I'm sure I'd have agreed. Instead of the wilds of provincial Canada, I'd have suggested to him that we visit San Francisco for a couple of days. It's a hell of a lot closer to Denver and much more scenic. If we'd done that, we might have wound up in a hot tub with George Zelenz and Bobb would still be in the rally.
Mike Senty and his sidecar were hammered down in the standings after the first checkpoint. Then things got worse, as not infrequently happens on the IBR. His rear wheel cracked. Senty had it welded. It cracked again in a different place. He had it welded again. The tire began to leak, so he stuck a tube in it. Then he noticed that he couldn't make better than 65 mph before the old Gold Wing would turn into a paint shaker. It seems that the various welds had deformed the wheel. Enough, Senty said, is enough. "This new format about missing one checkpoint is killing me," Mike told Lisa Landry. "But that's the way it should be. I hate withdrawing, but I love the rally."
Rick Morrison has also withdrawn, the victim of worn out front and rear sprockets. The big V-Strom had problems from the start, losing part of its electrical system in water crossings the first evening in New Mexico. Rick had picked the right route but in this rally that often isn't the end of the story. He'll be back.
Brett Donahue was run into a median strip last night by a truck, an unequal match up even for a Harley. But in a heroic ride he'd managed to keep up with Kiecker, Leir, and Mills almost to the bitter end. The bike sustained some twisted parts but the rider was unhurt. His wife, Jodi, sent an email: "I am glad we are racers and not strangers to crashing or I would be totally freaked out." The rest of his Wrecking Crew stayed around long enough to see that Brett was able to move, albeit somewhat slowly, toward Maine, then they pushed off. They have since been joined by Eddie James, another Minnesotan, forming a team that is now referred to as J-K-L-M.
In roughly 12 hours the final push begins. Iron Butt rallies have run-for-the-barn legs that are traditionally brutal. Riders who sleep well tonight will move up in the final standings; those who sleep not will lose ground. Lisa has repeatedly warned them. We'll soon see who has listened.
Day 8: Rising and Falling
They made it to the checkpoint in Maine, most of them, a little wetter and somewhat worse for wear, but still smiling. Those coming up I-95 saw the road shut down in both directions for a while Sunday night because elephants had managed to escape from a circus truck. Someone asked me if I believed the story. Of course I did. I've been marooned and adrift on that ugly road off and on since I was a teenager. Elephants? That's nothing. It's the electric eels slithering through the toll plazas that give me the willies.
As they rolled in, a few of the riders appeared to be actually rested, or at least they said they were. I'd quiz them when I saw a suspect case.
REH: "Suspect, don't lie to me. Are you tired?"
REH: "Are you lying to me?"
REH: "Would you tell me if you were lying to me?"
I learned this interrogative technique in law school, as I recall. As a method of truth detection, I find that it perhaps could use refinement, though it remains elusive exactly how I could pry actual truth out of the suspects short of coming at them with a funnel and a bucket of molten lead.
No, real truth is in the eye of the beholder of interim checkpoint scores. They were posted on the front door at Reynolds Motorsports this morning just after 11:00. Because the leg was basically a transition for the riders from Colorado to Maine, we expected few major changes in standings and few changes of substance did we receive.
Jim Owen held onto first place by 3,584 points over Jeff Earls. Eric Jewell dropped a spot to third. Chris Sakala jumped over seven riders into fourth place. We thought Eddie James would be in free fall by now, but he slipped just one place to fifth. Shane Smith, continuing to plot routes with a sledge hammer, broke out of a tie with George Barnes and Brian Boberick, gained one position in the standings to sixth, but lost more than 600 points to Owen on the leg. Unless he's stopped soon by rogue elephants on the highway, Shane is on a pace to set a record for total miles ridden in the event. We try to tell him that the points matter more than the miles, but by then he's already in the next county.
Jack Savage dropped from fifth to seventh but is still looking calm. Tom and Rose Sperry, in sixth place in Denver, tanked to 39th in Maine after a disastrous ride. Rounding out the top 10 are the Wrecking Crew's Marty Leir and Andy Mills, tied for eighth overall, and Peter Hoogeveen, rising from a tie for 13th to sole possession of 10th place.
Think about this: Do you have any idea what it takes to be among the top 10 riders in this event with just four days remaining? I ask not to demonstrate what may be your woeful lack of comprehension of things iron and butt; I ask because I don't know either. Not one-hundredth of one percent of the readers of these diaries will ever know what it takes to achieve that kind of stature. They are different, those guys; they do things that you and I can't. Sometimes I am not sure that even they know what sorts of skills they have. They may discover how they do it one day; you and I will never know.
Sixty-eight other riders are still in the hunt, but absent extraordinary circumstances, they're riding to finish now, not to win. Look at Keith Keating and Paul Meredith in 17th and 21st places. They won't be in the top 10 when this is over on Friday, but they're doing a lot better than they did in 2001 when they were on 125cc bikes and struggling simply to make it from one checkpoint to the next on time. In that rally they asked themselves just one question when choosing roads: Do I have to climb a hill? If so, forget it. The bikes were underpowered even when coasting downhill with a tailwind. Can you imagine what it must have been like for Keith and Paul to plot and thread their way through the Rockies? Neither can I. But they did it, and they finished on their feet.
We counted Rick Morrison out last night. The '97 IBR champ was an early favorite who has unfortunately suffered a series of electrical and mechanical problems. He somehow made it to the checkpoint in Maine but will be unable to continue until he can replace his bald sprockets tomorrow morning. He stands 42nd and is no longer worrying about devising a winning route plan. His next critical decision will come when he must decide between lobster or crab cakes for dinner this evening.
In 51st place is Al Holtsberry, never a threat to win on his 1977 BMW R100/7. It is an entrant in the aptly named Hopeless class. Al has had his share of big rides --- he once held the record for the earliest completion of the Four Corners tour --- but this year he is paying a courtesy call on history: The bike is the same one he rode to a successful conclusion in the Iron Butt Rally of 1986. Does anyone care whether Al finishes 50th or 500th? Of course not. Do they care that he will finish at all? You know it. Hopeless? There never was and never will be a hopeless dream.
Other members of the Hopeless class battled on during leg No. 2. Duke Dunsford's 250cc Ninja, the smallest bike in the field, holds close to a 1,000-point lead over George Zelenz' FJR1300. Steve Steller's Vespa motor scooter had a great second leg. He gained 705 points on Zelenz and closed the day just 92 points back of the FJR jockey. This fight promises to go right to the wire.
Beverly Ruffin, an accountant from Houston and a rookie, sought my advice at the start. "I'll make this easy for you," I said. "Whether you bust your ass or dog it from start to finish, you're going to finish in the bottom third of the pack. As your attorney, I advise dogging it. It has always worked for me." No, she's not going to win the Iron Butt either, but she gained six places on the second leg, stands 52nd overall, and will almost certainly finish in the top half of the field. So much for heeding sound legal advice.
Hans Karlsson, by eight years the most senior rider in Iron Butt Rally history, sadly has withdrawn. With Hurricane Katrina bearing down on his home in New Orleans, and unable to reach his wife and son by telephone, he has been forced to abandon what was, win or lose, a magnificent effort. It is at least fitting that it took a catastrophic natural disaster to stop him. The rally couldn't do it, and it has stopped scores of people half Hans' age in the past.
Fourth from the bottom of those still chugging is Joe Mandeville, a rider of exceptional talent and determination. There are rallies where nothing goes right. This is that event for the California judge, starting with his recalcitrant GPS. "I've named it 'Sondra,' after my ex-wife," he says. "That [expletive deleted] sent me to more places I didn't want to go than I can count." He won't win the rally this year, but that long ago ceased to matter. The IBA website lists seven men as having ridden more than 100,000 miles in a single year. Joe's name is there, but he didn't need a year. He did it in under six months.
When the scores went up on the door this morning, one of the younger riders turned to me and smiled. "The guard is changing," he said. I knew what he meant, and he may be right.
Day 9: Waiting
If this report makes it to 200 words it will be a miracle. The long and short of it is that we know next to nothing about what is going on, other than what we learn from the occasional telephone call, an email that reports a sighting, or the Star-Traxx web site. We're mushrooms, sitting in a dark, damp corner, waiting for someone to come along and throw some more manure on us. One day we may bloom, but it won't be tonight.
When the riders left Buxton, Maine, yesterday morning, they had basically four days to make it back to the finish in Denver, a straight-line distance of just under 2,100 miles. The largest bonus of the leg, continuing the water theme of the rally, was at Cape Disappointment, Washington. That adds another 2,400 miles to the basic route, but for the top rung of endurance riders, even at this stage of the event, it's doable. Throwing in more bonuses can run the final total to more than 5,000 miles. At some point even Superman will throw in the towel, but when and where that might happen is anyone's guess. A stack of riders, apparently led by the Wrecking Crew, has been heading along that route for the past 36 hours.
A more modest route is to visit bridges in Brooklyn, New York, and Las Vegas, Nevada, add in a couple of sleep bonuses, and perhaps make a desperate run to the Pacific. It looks like the route that has been chosen by leader Jim Owen, if the Star-Traxx transponder that has been recording his progress can be believed. One of our more paranoid consultants thinks that Owen may have surreptitiously given his unit to a mule to disguise the leader's actual route. That seems extreme to us. Owen has gotten this far by careful planning and hard riding, not by tricks and stealth. If he rides the third leg in the same way he has run the first two, he has an excellent chance to prevail.
Perhaps the most point-packed route to the finish from Maine is first to ride back to New Brunswick. Some large bonuses lurk in the area of Prince Edward Island. For some riders this is more than just another incidence of deja vu; it's a preview of actual hell. Iron Butt vet Tom Loftus has made three round-trips into Canada within one week. It may be a record of repetition that could attract the attention of the Guinness book. Once having cleaned out the bonuses in New Brunswick, they could just give up and return to Colorado. Potentially the most fruitful ride would entail a trip down the congestive entrail of I-95 to the Cape Hatteras area. If something happens to Owen, a rider taking the New Brunswick/North Carolina route could be smiled upon by fickle fortune.
But fortune wasn't smiling on Britain's Paul Allison today. His R1100RT BMW burned out a clutch near Quebec. Salvation could not be found in time to keep his hopes alive. Late this evening we received reports that Tim Conway's BMW was acting up. He has lost top-end power, not just threatening his drive to the Pacific but possibly even his chances to stagger back to Denver.
The pains didn't end there. Starring in a soon-to-be-released blockbuster, Revenge of the Bikes, both Rick Martin and Jerry Harris were smacked by their motorcycles in strange accidents. Harris' bike began to tip over onto him at a gas station. He tripped trying to back away from it, fell, and was pinned by the machine when it toppled onto his leg. He was able to continue for a while, but had to withdraw when the pain grew too irritating to continue. Rick Martin's FJR1300 saw an opportunity for payback while its owner was sleeping. It dropped onto him without warning at a rest stop. Martin is continuing with the ride, but now is watching the treacherous motorcycle like a hawk.
Al Holtsberry's ride on the rally's oldest bike has concluded voluntarily. He couldn't face another ride across Kansas.
That's the news from Denver. It pales in comparison, of course, to the news from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Our hearts go out to those affected, however tangentially, by this awful storm. One way or another, for motorcycle riders spread out across North America and for terrified, anxious people huddling in the wake of disaster, this too shall pass. We just have to cross our fingers and wait.
Day 10: Effort
At 3:15 p.m. MDT today Mark Kiecker was finishing off a hike of three-quarters of a mile back to his bike. He had just photographed a plaque at the base of the lighthouse at Cape Disappointment, Washington, bearing the only poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Crossing the Bar," that doesn't make my skin crawl. He called Lisa Landry to report on his progress. His mood was good. It should have been. He'd just picked up a 30,102-point bonus after having ridden the width of North America in 54 hours, and was planning an additional series of stops along the Pacific Coast that would net him another 16,000-plus points before he turned back east to Denver. It had been an unimaginably long, hard ride, one that had left his Wrecking Crew teammates, Andy Mills and Marty Leir, more than four hours behind him. They had been together for more than a week. Now it was every man for himself.
This is the kind of story that resonates with long-distance people --- watching a fellow rider throwing everything he has at the wall and ultimately punching through it. Dennis Kesseler did it two years ago, as did Rick Morrison with an amazing final leg in 1997. Tom Loegering made courageous runs both in 1993 and 1995. Steve Attwood's last leg in 1993, coming into the last checkpoint on one cylinder with just minutes to spare before being time-barred, is the stuff of Iron Butt legend. Sometimes there is a winner's trophy waiting for the effort, as in the cases of Morrison and Attwood. But Kesseler, already facing large penalties for switching bikes, never had any chance to do anything but finish; his ride was a statement, nothing more. But what a statement it was.
And in Kiecker's case his latest incredible ride, starting the final leg more than 11,000 points behind leader Jim Owen, will be just another heroic statement as well unless Owen breaks down completely or the Earth changes its orbit in the next 24 hours. Because the deficit is so large, all Kiecker can do is close the gap a bit or climb over a few riders from his 11th-place position in Maine to perhaps eighth overall at the finish. He won't be satisfied with that. It will irritate him to no end. He will mercilessly pick his own ride apart in his sleepless moments for a long, long time. But the rest of us will only wish we could have done so well.
As we move into the final hours, the attrition continues. Dave Tyler kept asking himself if he was having fun and kept hearing himself say "no." He's on the way home. Bill Watt wasn't having any fun in Canada last night. Hurricane Katrina, which weather observers thought might turn east, instead continued north into Quebec, bringing the worst rains that Watt has ever seen. He could do no better than to try to plow through it at 25-40 mph hour after miserable hour. He thought he was taking the safe, dry route to Denver; last night it was neither. Bob Mutchler, once again grinding along I-70 near Hays, Kansas, and hoping his clutch holds out for a while longer, is trying to reach Las Vegas. He may be lucky just to make it to the hotel at the finish.
Although they had anticipated a possible horror show in the North Carolina area, riders who went south from Maine instead of straight into the teeth of Canadian storms found perfect weather waiting for them. Jeff Earls called last night to thank Lisa for giving him a spectacular sunset at Cape Hatteras. Shane Smith may have been the next one through the region. The miles that he has been stacking up, 300 more than his nearest rival, are taking their toll. "Put a fork in me," he requested late this afternoon. "I'm done. I think I'm gunning for the most inefficient ride in Iron Butt history." We can't imagine what sort of pressure he has been under in the past few days. Last night his wife and daughter spent the night in McComb, Mississippi's high school, one of the few places in their home town that had electrical power. Paul Meredith, Rick Morrison (running again with new sprockets for his V-Strom), Eddie James, and Rob Nye were also seen in the Hatteras area, dry and smiling.
Tim Conway is smiling again, having finally diagnosed and fixed the problem that has plagued his R1150GS BMW for nine straight days. His fuel injection system had somehow defaulted itself into a "safe" operating mode, restricting the engine's RPMs and driving Conway bats. He pulled the fuse, counted to 10, reinserted the fuse, and found himself aboard a new motorcycle, but hours behind schedule. Lisa begged him to turn south from Missoula, Montana. "At least you'll finish," she pleaded. Not a chance. He's heading tonight for Cape Disappointment. He can make the distance, but there's still that 1.5-mile round-trip hike up to Tennyson's poem, not to mention an almost 1,400-mile ride from there to Denver. That's a pretty fair order for the first day of the rally, but to face such odds on the last day? I don't want to think about it.
It takes some work to destroy the bottom end of a Harley but we think Brett Donahue has managed to do it. He could feel harmonic vibrations, hear unwelcome noises, and then he felt and heard nothing at all. He was close --- just four hours short of Cape Disappointment, unless you'd want to argue that he had found an entire acre of disappointment where his broken bike stood --- to snagging the largest bonus on the entire rally, but suddenly he found himself even closer to the dreaded DNF status. While waiting for the tow truck for a ride to the nearest Harley dealer near Seattle, he called Lisa. She got onto the internet and broadcast an SOS: If Donahue can rent a bike and make it to Denver, can anyone take it back to Seattle for him? Enter Karen Bolin, wife of entrant John Bolin. She lives in Seattle, already has a plane ticket to Denver, and will be happy to ferry the rental bike back to its home. Switching bikes will cost Brett a bunch of penalty points, but when his name is called as a finisher at the banquet on Friday evening, he will remember the ovation for the rest of his life. It will be led by his wife and father.
And all it took was a little effort.
Day 11: Until the Morning Comes
As the sun begins to drop behind the mountains to the west, the Iron Butt's corps of workers and volunteers is returning to Iron Butt Central: Jim and Donna Fousek, Ira Agins, Dennis Bitner, Dave McQueeney, Marc Lewis, Dale Wilson, and God only knows how many others I have been too neglectful to mention. They scurry around, preparing for the all-night checkpoint siege. In the parking lot Rick Martin's wife and daughter unload a van with dozens of balloons for their soon-to-be-returning hero. Leonard Aron, the poster child of the Hopeless Class for successfully manhandling an ancient Indian to the finish in the 2001 IBR, relaxes in the bar with a beer and some fans. Friends, husbands, wives, children, passers by, hangers-on, and wannabes crowd the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel.
Over the course of the next 11 hours, returning Iron Butts will add to the mob. We won't be able to begin the party without them. We all --- friend, family, or fan --- can barely wait for their collective return. We want this to be over now, or sooner than now, but of course there is nothing we can do but wait. Now and then the telephone rings. We hope it will be a rider reporting progress or not much progress or negative progress. We can live with those. There can be worse calls. We try not to think of them.
As usual, reports from the front are delayed, confused, erroneous, rendered inoperative, or overtaken by events. Riders we thought were hanging in are hanging out. Rick Mayer missed being time-barred in Maine Monday morning by 12 minutes. He retreated to the nearest motel for some rest. And more rest. By the time Agins and Bitner left the motel the following morning, Mayer's bike was still in the parking lot. We have heard nothing from the motorcycle saddle maker since.
Conversely, riders we thought had opted out have opted back in. Al Holtsberry, depressed at facing yet another pass through amber waves of grain in Kansas, called rallymaster Lisa Landry two days ago to express his displeasure and announce his withdrawal from the traveling circus. The majesties of the purple mountains in Colorado appealed to him, he reported, so he was going to ride around there until the finishing banquet. Lisa tried to talk him out of it but Al had definitely had it with corn. We duly reported his decision, not aware that five minutes after he'd hung up, he reconsidered, turned toward Cape Disappointment, and renounced his renunciation without actually telling us. We're pleased, of course.
Holtsberry's perseverance led him to rendezvous this morning just before 8:00 with 10 other riders at the entrance to Cape Disappointment: Allen Dye, Harry Kaplan, George Barnes, Brett Donahue, Mike Berlien, Keith Keating, John Ferber, Tim Conway, and the team of Jim and Donna Phillips. The site is pleased to receive maybe five visitors a month in busy times. We can't even imagine what the sight of 11 hammered motorcyclists must have conjured up in the mind of the Coast Guard attendant who showed up to open the gate. They all apparently made it out of the area without being arrested and strip searched, which is more than one of our poor contestants can say about his visit to the Naval Acoustic Research Center on the first day of the rally.
As usual, the parade of crumbling machines marches on, this time the BMW R1150RT police bike/sidecar apparatus of Bob Mutchler. For two days his clutch and transmission have been sliding toward the abyss. Earlier this evening he was reported to be almost 500 miles from the finish, flashers flashing, and riding in third gear (fourth and fifth gears having already departed to transmission heaven). He might make it. His wife and parents, waiting here at the hotel, certainly hope so. It is going to be a long night for the Mutchler clan.
Bill Shaw's long nights are now officially over. Caught up in a multi-vehicle crash early in the 2003 IBR and forced to withdraw, this evening at just after 7:00 p.m. MDT he was the first rider to be classified as a finisher to arrive at the hotel. "I know I'm early," he confessed somewhat sheepishly, "but I've been dealing with microbes in my gut for three days and carrying an 8,000-pound gorilla on my back for two years. The bugs are still there but I've finally gotten rid of that damned ape."
Riders not qualifying as finishers began drifting in by mid-afternoon. The first, Jerry Harris, was knocked out of the rally by his bike in a freak accident at a gas station several days ago. Tim Yow, not long after leaving the checkpoint in Maine, hit the corpse of a deer on the road, jolting his cervical vertebrae so badly that all he could do afterwards was crawl slowly and painfully to Denver. He will not have picked up enough points to qualify as a finisher, but he's happy to be here just the same. And Brian Roberts, also victimized by a close encounter with a forest rat on the first night of the rally, is here, still thrilled to have been a part of the spectacle, however briefly.
At 8:00 a.m. tomorrow the penalty points begin to accumulate for riders not yet checked in at the finish. If they fail to arrive by 10:00 a.m., they'll be finished, not finishers. As far as we know, the top 40 riders in Maine are all still running, though realistically only the top half-dozen have any chance to win. If Jim Owen's satellite transponder is to be believed, he is winding down a monumental effort that might be derailed only by mechanical failure. The other highly-placed riders --- Jeff Earls, Eric Jewell, Chris Sakala, Eddie James, Shane Smith, and Jack Savage --- can do nothing now except grind it out through one more long night and hope for the best. We won't be running with them, but we too will be hoping for the best just as fervently as they do.
Three minutes after this story was posted to the web, we received news that Jim Owen's bike, a BMW R1150RT, has failed in Elko, Nevada. We have no further information to impart.
Finale: Riding Home
In 1999 Shane Smith rode to Daytona for Bike Week with Fran Crane from his home in McComb, Mississippi. They had been friends for several years, having first met on a Three Flags Rally. Something about the way he rode appealed to her --- perhaps the three-minute gas stops or the 225 miles ridden without putting a foot down. On their last day together, as she prepared to head back to California, she looked at him and said, "I think one day you could win the Iron Butt Rally."
Their riding styles were similar, as was their focus and their approach to a big ride. They traded visits at least a couple of times a year, covering the 4,300-mile round-trip between Santa Cruz, California, and southern Mississippi in a few days, as befits true long riders. Despite backgrounds that could not have been more dissimilar, they formed a bond that broke only with Fran's death later that year. At the memorial service for her, Shane could not get through two sentences before he broke down himself.
Tonight Fran's prediction came to pass: Her friend has won the Iron Butt Rally.
It was not the kind of event that suited him. This rally required some delicate planning, resembling not so much an 11-day rally as 11 one-day rallies with each phase demanding a different kind of analysis. Sometimes the route would not be immediately obvious. It might reveal itself over the course of hours or even days. No, Shane and Fran preferred the big, long, simple ride, the one where all you do is aim the machine for a thousand miles in one direction, fill it with gas every few hours, take a photo of the bonus object, log the mileage, turn around, and repeat in reverse.
Lisa Landry and Mike Kneebone, who constructed the bonus maze for this year's rally, know that riders like Shane and Fran are not alone in their preference for a straightforward route. Look at the choices available to the riders on the first leg for this year: 1) Go to New Brunswick; 2) Go to Key West; or 3) Pick your way through a briar patch along the Pacific Coast, stopping seven or eight times a day to pick up another cheap bonus. To make the choices even starker, they made the bonuses on the east coast worth a fortune and assigned pathetic little points to the array of stops in the west. It was irresistible not just to Shane but to two-thirds of the riders in the field. "I thought you said this was going to be hard," one rider (who shall remain mercifully nameless) chuckled to me as he headed out of the parking lot for Key West.
He wasn't laughing quite so merrily four days later when the scores for the first leg were posted. The correct route had indeed been to the west: More bonuses with smaller individual values, but higher final scores and fewer miles ridden. The message had been written by Landry and Kneebone with red ink in 72-point type: You may have done it before on other rallies, but we guarantee that you will not hammer your way through this one. The final leg is going to be more complex than the one you just finished. Forewarned is forearmed, yes?
Well, not quite. In Maine the bonus listings for the last stage were not in their hot little hands for more than mere moments before a gaggle of riders headed straight for a 30,102-point bonus, by far the largest single item of value on the entire rally, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Did not the bitter experience of leg No. 1 mean anything? Wasn't it obvious that a little planning could produce far more points for a lot less work? Apparently not. And these were some of the best riders in the field who were storming west: leader Jim Owen, Kiecker's Wrecking Crew, Brett Donahue, George Barnes, Allen Dye, and many, many others.
For Owen the route choice was essentially immaterial. His leads of 3,500 points over Jeff Earls and almost 6,000 points over Eric Jewell could not realistically be overcome unless, as indeed was to happen, Owen failed to finish. But some planning would have revealed that a route sweeping up a series of bonuses in New Brunswick and North Carolina would, just as had occurred on the first leg, produce far more points with less mileage than anything else. It was Shane Smith's nightmare all over again. Every nerve in his body was screaming at him to head west. Then Rick Morrison grabbed him, tossed some maps on the floor of a garage at Reynolds Motorsports, and began plotting a route that could take his friend from sixth place to the top. They were almost the last two riders out of the parking lot, but they finally had a plan.
Smith needed more than just that, however. He needed to execute it. That would require tap dancing through unfamiliar roads in Canada, praying for clear sailing from New England to North Carolina, making ferry schedules in the Outer Banks, and slogging through the Blue Ridge Mountains to bonus destinations in southern Virginia and West Virginia. He wasn't concerned about Jim Owen; he was trying to leapfrog over four other riders into second place. Every mile and every minute counted. In the last 25 hours he covered more than 1,750 miles. He also crossed two rivers on ferries and climbed the steps to a lighthouse in Hannibal, Missouri, his last bonus of the 2005 Iron Butt. It had been a water-logged rally from the first day. It stayed that way to the very end.
At the closing ceremonies tonight Lisa called out the names of the finishers, from the bottom to the top. Interrupting the procession before the t10th-place finisher, she paused to acknowledge the magnificent ride put in by one rider who, although leading from wire almost to wire, failed to finish at all: Jim Owen. I have been to seven of these closing banquets now, but this is the first time I have ever seen a standing ovation given to a rider who will return home without so much as a cheap medal for his trials and tribulations. He will remember the cheers and the clapping, however, and we will remember one of the smartest, efficient rides ever put together in the history of this series.
Canada's Peter Hoogeveen finished 10th. It is, I think, his sixth top-10 finish in seven tries, an unparalleled record of accomplishment. Eddie James ran hard to the end, slipping gently to ninth overall. Of all of the rallies the American Motorcyclist Association's director of road riding has run, this surely must rank as one of his happiest moments. Eric Jewell came in eighth, a disappointing finish for him. We hope he'll be back. In seventh place, with a final monster leg, was John Ryan. He climbed 15 places in the last four days of the rally, a truly incredible feat. We can only imagine what his score might have been had he chosen even a mediocre route on what was for him a disastrous second leg of the rally. In sixth place, a modest drop from his third overall finish in 2003, was one of the Minnesota Wrecking Crew's bright lights, Marty Leir, who survived a deer strike on the last night of the rally. He too will be back.
Calm, quiet, methodical book publisher Jack Savage, consistent from start to finish, regained fifth following the drops in position of Jewell and James. He had good route selections and no mistakes of any consequence, which is about all you can hope for in an endurance rally of this sort. Mark Kiecker, taking fourth, proved that his second-place finish in 2003 was no fluke. He lost a 1,000-point gas bonus on the first leg. That stuffed him down in 29th place. Riding hard and smart on the second leg pumped him up to 10th. In the final four days he rode 5,485 miles, winding up with 13,354 miles altogether, three miles short of being a new record for the rally. The Crew's T-shirts proudly read, "Ride Harder/Not Smarter." It is perfect truth in advertising. But if Kiecker, Leir, Mills, and Conway can figure out how to reverse that slogan, perhaps following the brilliant example of Jim Owen, they'll be dominating the podium at the finish of the Iron Butt for the next 10 years.
Jeff Earls never faltered. Steady to the very end, he took the third spot overall. His route selection was superb on each leg. With exceptional efficiency --- he rode almost 2,400 fewer miles than Kiecker yet picked up 662 more points --- he vacuumed up more bonus points with fewer miles ridden than any other rider in the top 10. He has improved every year since 1999 (we're not counting a blown rear end on his BMW in 2003). That can spell only bad news for his long-distance brothers and sisters in 2007.
And then there were two, Chris Sakala and Shane Smith. From the first day to the last night they couldn't turn around without bumping into one another. In Maine Sakala led Smith by 787 points. That night Smith booted a bonus in New Brunswick, dropping father behind his rival. In North Carolina Sakala, hurrying for a ferry connection, had to bypass a lighthouse. His lead had dwindled to just over 500 points. Slowly Smith began putting distance between himself and Sakala. One hour's lead. Two. Three. Soon it became clear to Smith that with an extraordinary effort he could pick up two ferries and a lighthouse before dark of the last night on the road. As hard as he rode, Chris might get one of them, but he'd never get all three. By nightfall Smith had finally nailed down second place for keeps, just as he had done in 2001. Then Jim Owen, with an insurmountable lead, ground to a halt in Elko, Nevada, his transmission in hot pieces. Nearly a dozen hours remained, but the rally was over.
I mentioned a comment one of the riders made to me last Monday in Maine. "The guard is changing," he said, looking at the rider standings after the second leg. It was Andy Mills, one of the Minnesota Crew. He was not at the banquet tonight. Last night his bike went down on I-80 in Wyoming after hitting a tire carcass. Fortunately --- this rally has been absolutely blessed with good fortune --- Andy was not hurt. I was thinking of him tonight as the names of the finishers were called out. The remains of a truck tire on a dark night kept Mills from a top-10 finish.
Motorcyclists are aging in the United States. Every study says the same thing. I have not done an analysis of the correlation of rider age and finishing position, but I am willing to bet that the younger riders in the Iron Butt Rally are finishing in steadily higher positions than they used to and that the older ones are taking corresponding lumps. The senior riders may try to jam the door closed, but those juniors are not going to be denied. Mills is right: The guard is changing. I don't have the slightest doubt.
It is changing in the rally's administration as well. Mike deferred the entirety of this event, basically from start to finish, to Lisa Landry. She found every bonus on the rally with the exception of a few trivial ones here and there. She coordinated everything. As Mike watched from the sidelines, his protege put on an event that was as brilliantly executed as it was imaginative and rigorous. No rider is in any hospital tonight. No major horror story, failure, or oversight ever appeared at any time or at any phase of the event, absent Don Arthur's terrible wreck en route to Denver. Ms. Landry, a veteran manager of the 2003 IBR, can, and does, run this show from the center ring flawlessly. The job is hers for as long as she wants it.
And the guard will change for me as well. Since 1993, at the dawn of a primitive internet web, I first began reporting on progress of the rally to a few friends here and there. This is my sixth time behind the journalistic wheel, and I think the time has come for me to move over and let someone else take over the scribbler reins. I've enjoyed this . . . well, I was going to say "job," but it has never been that. Whatever it is, it's been enormous fun. I've helped the organization grow a bit, have had a chance to meet some friends I can't do without, and have sat for many years now at the epicenter of one of the strangest games in the cosmos. Who could not yearn for such a bizarre experience? But I'd like to move on to something else before I start repeating myself. There are a lot of talented boys and girls who can stand in for me, just as seamlessly as Lisa has begun to stand in for Mike. We move along, just as the Book of Ecclesiastes suggests we should: Seasons, time, and purpose change. We can't, and shouldn't, fight it. And the truth is I'm not going anywhere. I'll be at the rallies and at the gatherings and at wherever these unusual riders happen to be. I am one of them, God help me.
Shane and his fellow combatants will be heading out on a happier, easier ride tomorrow, back to their homes where they will be, as I've said before, welcomed as conquering heroes. It is entirely fitting that they should be. They've all faced down the beast and lived to tell about it. Shane may have the easiest ride of all. He's going back to wife Karen and daughter Sandy, the loves of his life. Hurricane Katrina left their home flooded and pounded. Karen waited in line for gasoline this morning for more than six hours. Life in the little town --- as fate would have it, my mother's home town and where I spent some of the first years of my life --- is unrecognizable these days. Think of the conflicts that Shane has had in this last week, hoping for the best at home and imagining the worst, as if the mental strain of the rally weren't agony enough.
It's almost over now. He can straight-line it all the way from Denver to McComb, just the way he likes it, just the way that he and Fran used to do it, flying through the night without a care in the world. Almost over. Almost.
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