World’s Toughest Riders | Behind Bars

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Shasta Willson

Who are the world’s toughest riders? Per their license-plate frames, it’s the Iron Butt Association. Some may disagree. Ask a One Percenter if he’s IBA-tough and he may feed you your beaded seat cover. Ask an ADVrider and he’ll consult his Bluetooth smart phone for the GPS coordinates to a smartass reply.

I’m privileged to know a couple of high-placing Iron Butt Rally competitors. They’re workmanlike, efficient and specialized in the quiet manner of professionals at any complex task. That’s one definition of toughness, but surely not the only one that applies to motorcycling.

Bucket lists are funny things. By the time you know what’s on yours, it’s usually too late to fill it up (which may be the main lesson). You never need excuses to skimp on filling the bucket. Job, kids, money, time and health considerations righteously trump punchlisting your dreams.

Anyway, dreams are more comfortable at a distance. The closer dreams get, the more their pretty mirages resolve into big, hard walls. Easier to imagine "could" than to face "can’t."

But I had this motorcycle, see? A comfortable, easy-natured bike with freshly mismatched tires. Plus an 1186-mile commute to work. The opening ante to IBA membership is a Saddle Sore ride: 1000 miles in 24 hours. I’d wanted to knock one off for years, but my excuses hadn’t failed me yet.

Maybe my wall had a door in it.

Sledgehammering the wall, I resolved to launch for Los Angeles 6 hours after arriving in Seattle off a 2000-mile bimble from Anchorage. A spat with Pretty Wife over the wisdom of this wild hair helped settle my nerves. It also took 18 hours to resolve.

Now I had perzactly one day to deliver the Suzuki V-Strom 650 timely to its expectant owners. Gentleman, start your engine...

Why nervous? I’d been riding 30 years on the street (legally) without oversight from the IBA. I’d launched thousand-plus-mile trips on single-cylinder two-strokes, other people’s bikes and vintage bikes. They all took more prep than, "Hey, here’s a motorcycle!"

Let’s go, then.

Anything’s harder with someone watching, though, and an SS1000 requires documentation. Syllogistic inevitability insists you never know you can do a thing you’ve never done.

Pretty Wife and the Toucan (IBA #104XX, with brass Bonneville plates on his ZX-many-R) signed my dance card after a stout launch breakfast of bacon, eggs, scratch biscuits and coffee.

IBA’s guidelines chastise stimulant use, but also officially pretend their members never ride while fatigued. Because they’re human, Michael Kneebone’s legions are weirdly contradictory. Calling every other rider on earth a big pussy, then whining on about safety like a PTSA meeting? Weird, contradictory ... and human.

Anyway, I never go to work without coffee.

Despite my tawdry descent into the hellish grip of caffeine, my trip was successfully uneventful. Having ascertained that the DL650 would stoppie at need, I didn’t sweat braking or handling. Monkey hold bar; monkey ride to L.A.

Hours of drizzle in Washington preceded the 150 miles of hard Oregon rain precipitating a fatal, multi-car accident near the North Umpqua River crossing. Driving rain and mushwit drivers are standard features of Northwest riding. For some, no cage is stout enough to keep the spirit from moving out.

Due to a worldwide shortage of demo bikes for freelancers, I’d be flying home with carry-on luggage. Because I resent donating gear to TSA, my "toolkit" consisted of the onboard roll, credit card, cell phone, AAA’s RV plan and a half-empty can of lumpy old chain lube—not a flat kit or even a Leatherman.

The accidental goodness of finding myself on a "Wee-Strom" couldn’t be overlooked. In 4000 miles, it never put a tire print wrong without insistence from the punch-drunk monkey at the controls. If you routinely pack torn rotator cuffs, assorted zipper scars and a rsum of old fractures into your Iron- baggage, this is your bike. Neither too heavy nor too light, not too aggro nor painfully slow, it’s Goldilocks’ warm porridge on wheels.

With 21 hours elapsed, I hit the office at 0820, charmed the receptionist with my winsome ways ("Hi, I work here—where’s the men’s room?") and was introduced to the head of security. Turns out we have nice offices. That’s how we dominate international motorsports. That and being the world’s toughest riders...

Somewhere around this cluttered house is an ammo box holding a SCUBA certificate, skydiving picture, some campaign medals and (x-1) divorce decrees. I call it "The Bucket."

It probably has room for the world’s toughest styrene license-plate frame.

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