Have you ever thought you might have an iron butt? After riding 9000 miles of Alaskan roads in 17 days ["Thad's Big Adventure," Feb. '05], I sure felt as if I did. The experience got me thinking about the whole Iron Butt thing and all the amazing rides and riders I'd heard and read about over the years. I'm not quite crazy enough to go after any real long-distance records, but I figured it might be fun to earn an Iron Butt certificate of my own. So when I got back from Alaska, I checked the Iron Butt Association's Web site (www.ironbutt.com) to see what was what.
Turns out there's an IBA ride for nearly every rider-or at least anyone with a desire to mistreat their glutes in a harsh way. For starters, there's your basic 1000-miles-in-24-hours ride called the Saddle Sore. The more ambitious can try 1500 miles in 36 hours, or 2000 in 48. Then there's the Bun Burner-3000 miles in 72 hours. For some strange and unexplainable reason, the 3K/72 ride seemed to be the one for me. If you're really insane you can do a 5000-in-five-day or 10,000-in-10-day ride. But I figured a nice three-day burn would be a good intro to the club.
Next on my agenda were maps. I had some fun planning my route: gas stops, daily mileage, overnight stays, imagining how the ride would go, etc. What sort of weather would I run into? Would the roads be OK? I'd have to keep my average speed up or forget about sleeping and ride all night. That's when it dawned on me this ride could adversely affect my insurance premium. Better quit thinking about what could go wrong and just ride. That's my motto.
The last essential item on my pre-ride list was a bike. Luckily, a message or three on Editor Mitch Boehm's voice mail is usually enough to find out which new test bike needs some numbers on the odometer. In this case a Suzuki V-Strom 1000, big brother to the 650 I rode in Alaska, was the steed of choice. Judging from the smaller 'Strom's performance, reliability wasn't going to be a factor. Whatever else happened, at least my posterior wouldn't turn to metal, as the big V-Strom has one of the most comfortable seats around.
So, it's the evening before departure and I'm getting my gear ready. The last thing to do is print out the Iron Butt Association log sheet I'd use to keep track of time, date, location, mileage and any other documentation to verify the ride. That was when my wife Jody noticed the one rule I hadn't: You have to finish 1000 miles in 24 hours to qualify for any of the longer rides. Oops. Note to self: Read rules thoroughly next time.
But all was not lost. I had a plan.
Maybe I could get Phil Schilling, former editor of Cycle magazine, to vouch for the fact I was along on the infamous cover story in Cycle's October 1988 issue-"The 1000-Mile Day." To paraphrase Schilling's lead, we left Westlake Village, California, at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 15, and ended up outside Taos, New Mexico, at 1:30 p.m., Saturday, July 16. Tim Carrithers-associate editor at Cycle back then-came along and called it "the trail of tears." Journalist-turned-advertising-mogul Ken Vreeke was there, too, so I had someone to race around with. And who could forget Matthew Miles.
Matt's the managing editor at Cycle World these days, but he was a rookie intern in '88 and that trip was his first real magazine job. Man, was that boy green-especially around the gills-when all the gas station restrooms near Canyon de Chelly were either locked or out of Charmin. I wonder if he still dreams about that waitress at the Denny's in Needles?
Anyway, I roll out of the driveway at 4 a.m. aiming to cover 2400 miles over the first two days. The plan is to take it easy on the last one and find some time in between to take photos. My route was as diverse and photogenic as I could make it while staying within a 500-mile radius of my home, just north of Los Angeles. By sunrise, I was crossing the mountains that flatten out into Death Valley. Then, with my second gas stop in Tonopah, Nevada, almost in sight, I learned exactly how far a V-Strom 1000 goes once that little yellow gas pump on the instrument panel starts flashing-not far enough. But I only lost 45 minutes standing there with my makeshift need gas sign. Many thanks to the guy who works at the local Ramada Inn with the 1-gallon gas can in the back of his PT Cruiser.
I was on the road again soon enough, planning gas stops a little more conservatively and looking for some lonely old two-lane where I could make some time. Highway 6 to Ely, Nevada, was exactly what I was looking for. But after tucking in behind the Suzuki's fairing and putting the odometer on fast-forward for almost an hour, I was suddenly bearing down on an unwelcome surprise: colorful flashing lights just a couple of miles ahead. Slowing down, I had visions of that scene in Vanishing Point, where they try to stop Kowalski's Hemi Challenger with a pair of bulldozers. I suddenly hoped the Highway Patrol had more important business to attend to than me. Maybe. Maybe not. Here comes unwelcome surprise number two: The trooper's car was headed straight for me, and in my lane! Just when I figured my ride was about to switch from Suzuki to squad car, the officer told me to stay put on the side of the road to make room for an extra-wide 18-wheeler that would be passing by. I laughed out loud and thanked him, grateful for my good luck.
Day one ended as I pulled up to my old friend Tina Taylor's house in Las Vegas at 9 p.m. after 1200 miles on the road. On day two, I spent the hour before sunup taking pictures of some other colorful, flashing lights, this time on the Vegas Strip. From there, the route led me past Hoover Dam to the Grand Canyon; the place is breathtaking every time I see it. Near the canyon I met two guys who were out on their Harleys for a couple of weeks taking in all the sights they could. I must have looked like I was in a hurry when they asked what I was up to. After I told them, one said, "You must not be seeing many of the sights." "Oh, I'm seeing plenty," I said, "I just see 'em a lot faster than you guys."
I'd be seeing Flagstaff before long, then Phoenix, then south to Mexico via Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. I have to hurry at the border- crossing office to get the official stamp that would prove I was there. Gas receipts prove the where and when most everywhere else. If you can't come up with one of those, it's time to find a trusting soul who'll give up their phone number and vouch for you when the Iron Butt folks call. Gas receipts are easier.
Easy nights are hard to come by on this sort of mission, so I spent my second night at home, mainly because I left my camera-battery charger there, but I also like sleeping in my own bed. Still, rolling in on the wrong side of midnight after 1250-mile day two, I developed a whole new appreciation for these Iron Butt guys.
Day three would be easy-a 550-mile loop through central California. Make a quick pit stop at Laguna Seca to check out preparations for the USGP, and then head south on Highway 1 through Big Sur on an 80-mile stretch of road that's one of the most beautiful and enjoyable in the world.
By my calculations, the three-day ride would hit 3000 miles when I got to Salinas. But since I didn't want to come up short of that magic number and was having such a good time, I kept going: north to San Jose, west over to Santa Cruz, then south down the coast. Fifty miles from home there was one very important stop left to make: a surprise visit to my old friend Phil Schilling. Those of us old enough to remember life before the first GSX-R750 know Schiller as the editor of Cycle from the late '70s through the late '80s. He also tuned Old Blue, aka The California Hot Rod, aka the 750 Ducati that Cook Nelson-Cycle's editor before Schilling took over-rode to win the 1977 Daytona Superbike race. He asked me to ride for a Cycle magazine photo shoot in '79, and it turned out to be the shoot that started my career. Schilling led that 1000-mile day back in '88, and he also hooked me up with my first professional roadracing ride. I have a lot to thank him for.
We had a laugh about our own Iron Butt day almost 18 years ago. Yes, he'd vouch for me about the ride to New Mexico, or anything else for that matter. Schilling doesn't ride anymore, but I know the memories of his motorcycling days still make him smile. I know I'll think back on all this someday and smile myself. But right now I need to get back on the bike for one more hour. I'll roll into my driveway right after dark, just in time for a nice, hot dinner that will be waiting for me.
I do some of my best thinking on a motorcycle. I don't have earphones for music and I've never used an intercom. Some people get bored with their thoughts, but not me. I always have plenty to think about on a bike, especially when I'm covering 3000 miles in three days. I'll bet most long-distance riders are the same way. When I see other people riding by, I feel like we're all part of the same great, big family-family you talk to when you're a long way from home in some restaurant or gas station. You might be riding by yourself, but you're never really alone.
After a good night's sleep and a long talk with Iron Butt Association president-and nice guy-Mike Kneebone, I got all my certificates, pins, patches and stickers. As it turns out, the entire mission was fun and trouble-free: no tickets, no crashes, no breakdowns. No worries, really. And if my story inspires someone else to get out there and give this Iron Butt thing a try, so much the better.
It wasn't easy. But the rides you really remember rarely are.