American Iron Butt: Conquering A SaddleSore 1000
“The mountain is the mountain, and we are the people who go there.”
You know, I’ve thought long and hard, over many hours – 24 of them, in fact – and the quote above sums up the most rational reason for doing an Iron Butt Association SaddleSore 1000 ride. For those who like things distilled down to their most concentrated form, the only real reason is, as George Mallory famously said, is “Because it’s there.”
Otherwise, undertaking a SaddleSore 1000 is irrational, foolish, and without real merit – all of which makes it absolutely essential for a MOron, like myself.
Ever since I heard about Iron Butt rides, way back in my motorcyclist infancy, the idea of completing one has appealed to me on a basic level. Considering that it took me this long to actually do one is kind of shocking. After all, I’ve competed in three 24-hour races and volunteered for a fourth. I’ve ridden cross-country multiple times – sometimes with an arrival deadline which forced me to log long days in the saddle and other times with no schedule at all, allowing me to follow my impulses. I’ve ridden to the Arctic Ocean and back from Los Angeles, including the more than 800 miles of gravel roads – on a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra. I’ve impulsively split off from a guided ride at the original Yamaha FZ1 introduction because the Rock of Gibraltar was there in the distance – and I needed to be there, too.
Without exception, every single great motorcycle adventure I’ve had was the result of an irrational impulse. Some were acted on immediately without thought. The rest fermented below the surface until they bubbled up through any levels of resistance I had. So, when boss-man Kevin Duke asked for ideas on how we should compare our two Harley-Davidson touring bikes to see how a fork-mounted fairing or a frame-mounted unit affect virtually identical motorcycles, I piped up with my idea about doing a SaddleSore 1000. Much to my surprise, Tom “Electric” Roderick said it was on his bucket list, too. Even more to my surprise, E-i-C Duke thought the ride was a good idea.
So, an adventure was born.
Measure Twice, Cut Once
While I suppose you could just hop on your bike and ride out I-40 for 500 miles, then turn around and ride back, that doesn’t sound like much fun. If you’re taking the SaddleSore 1000 seriously (and you should), you’ll need to plan a little. First, if you want official proof of having completed a SaddleSore 1000, you’ll need to document your trip for certification by the Iron Butt Association. Who is the Iron Butt Association? Aside from being “60,000+ members… dedicated to safe, long-distance motorcycle riding,” as stated on the organization’s website, the IBA holds the keys to the kingdom. If your ride is not certified by them, you don’t become a member of the Iron Butt Association, making all those hours in the saddle nothing more than a good fish story. So, you’ll want to look up the rules for a SaddleSore.
The rules are simple but fairly strictly enforced and can be broken down into four steps. First, you need to plan a route. Remember, if you’re riding anywhere other than on an interstate, you need to make sure that you will be able to find open gas stations in the middle of the night. It would be a tremendous bummer to have an attempt thwarted by being stranded in East Nowhere, waiting the three hours remaining until the station opens. Planning the route also allows you to consider things like weather during your ride. Our initial route would’ve put us above 8,000 feet in the mountains, at night, in early February – just a couple days after snow had fallen. Not too smart. However, being able to look at the route in detail allowed us to shift the whole thing slightly southward and largely (but not completely) avoid the high altitude riding.
Second, with the safe route planned out, you need someone to sign a witness form at the beginning and the end of your ride. The forms don’t need to be signed by the same witness just someone responsible enough to reply to inquiries from IBA should they audit your application. These witnesses can be anyone – even strangers.
Third, log every gas stop and save the receipt. The IBA has great forms that you can print out on its website. I kept both mine and Tom’s in a three-ring binder on my bike. Our receipts were kept in separate envelopes. Although we were swapping bikes at just about every gas stop (remember, we were comparing the two Harleys). I paid for all of the Electra Glide Ultra Classic’s fuel while Tom paid for the Road Glide Ultra’s. (Imagine the nightmare of sorting out the receipts if we hadn’t been meticulous.)
The SaddleSore 1000 starts with the timestamp of your first gas receipt. So, you’ll want to make sure it has both a printed address and the correct time. For each subsequent stop, make sure the receipt has the address and time. When one station didn’t print the address on the receipt, we simply grabbed a business card that had the station name and address on it as proof.
Although it sounds simple, remembering to track the mileage and receipts on the ride gets difficult in the middle of the night. We tried to establish a routine of recording the mileage before pumping the gas as a means of making sure that we had all the information we needed to record. How seriously does IBA take this tracking? If you’re riding a loop that has the potential for cutting corners and reducing the actual miles ridden, stopping for gas/receipt at the corners of the route is recommended to prove you covered the whole distance.
Once the trip is completed, you’ll need to finish filling out all the forms, copy the receipts, and send all the documentation to the Iron Butt Association. Then the waiting begins, and during the busy summer season, the wait could be a couple months. The IBA has a great explanation of why the process takes time, and it’s worth giving it a read:
We realize this is a long time to wait for your certification. However, our certification process is very thorough. In fact, the entire certification process is what gives your certificate value. It would be very easy for the Iron Butt Association to simply take money and print up a generic “you rode a 1,000 mile day” certificate, however, the value of the entire certification program is in the fact that not just anyone can get an Iron Butt Association ride certification. The downside is this process takes time… We can only offer that when you receive your certification you know that not only you earned it, and so did any other rider that you meet with the same certification.
Remember, you’re depending on the hard work of volunteers, so don’t get grumpy. When your trip is verified, you’ll receive a package with a certificate, an Iron Butt Association pin and a plastic license plate emblazoned with “Iron Butt Association – World’s Toughest Riders.”
Preparation Is More Than Just Paperwork
Okay, so you’ve planned a safe route, and you’re prepared to handle the paperwork. Now, it’s time to ride, right? Not so quick, Sparky. Let’s consider some creature comforts. I can tell you with the voice of experience, that not considering the weather and your time of travel can lead you to the considerable discomfort of arriving in Las Vegas during peak evening traffic in 116° weather while wearing a black Aerostich suit.
So, take a gander at your route and the time of day you’ll be riding through desert or mountain passes. Tom and I did, and our route determined how we approached our gear. Since we considered the potential low temperatures we could encounter in the wee hours of the February night, I selected a Spidi 4Season H2Out Suit while Tom selected a Firstgear Thermosuit along with a selection of electrified gear from fingers to toes.
|Shoei Neotec Helmet||Arai helmet|
|Spidi 4Season H2Out Suit||Firstgear Thermal suit|
|Kanetsu AIRVANTAGE Electric Vest||Electric: Firstgear jacket liner, pants liner, socks, waterproof gloves|
|Alpinestars Supertouring boots||Alpinestars Supertouring boots|
|RevIt base layer||Spidi Multitech armor jacket|
|Racer Stratos Goretex II Gloves||Alpinestars MX knee braces|
|Spidi Alu-Pro H2Out Gloves||H-D rain jacket|
In the interest of shortening our stops, we both packed various forms of sustenance that could be eaten while standing next to the bike at the gas pump. Tom’s rations included a half dozen nature bars and two thermos full of Unleashed Muscle Uprising (for energy). True to form, I packed: two foot-long Subway sandwiches for us to share, a few bottles of water, a bunch of progressively sad looking bananas, granola bars, and a 4-pack of Starbucks double shots (in case of emergency). After watching the two of us on this ride and other touring rides, these two lists pretty much reflect the way both of us travel.
|Evans’ Packing List||Tom’s Packing List|
Regardless of which school of touring you subscribe to, we were planned, organized and prepared for a variety of potential outcomes.
Once More Unto The Breach
With a ton of excitement (and a tad of trepidation), Tom and I began our ride in true MO fashion – stuck in detour traffic trying to get to the freeway. Once we cleared the construction and got on the freeway, the rain began to fall, and the SoCal traffic stacked up. Nonplussed, we stayed dry as we split lanes towards the eastern horizon.
Tom’s Notes: The right bike is important. This much seat time in 24 hours will exacerbate every comfort shortcoming of your current motorcycle. We had the convenience of choosing two very comfortable Harley-Davidsons for our trip that are tailor-made for the combination of freeways and two-laners comprising our route. A Honda Gold Wing would be equally nice, as would a lot of adventure-bikes or sport-touring models. Amenities such as vents and power outlets are your friends.
Eventually, the weather and traffic cleared, and we began to rack up the miles. About 20 miles before our first gas stop, however, potential disaster struck. Although the temperature was a balmy mid-50s, Tom had his electric gear plugged in, even though he wasn’t using it. For a moment, I saw the main power cord dangle from Tom’s bike before it leapt to freedom. Despite our best efforts, the cord was never to be found.
As luck would have it, a Radio Shack (remember those?) was just a few miles from our first gas stop. So, with the help of an X-acto knife borrowed from the cashier, Tom was able to cobble together a new power cord, thus assuring he didn’t turn into a popsicle after dark. Still, after this combination of delays, we found ourselves about an hour behind our planned schedule.
Watching the day progress through dusk and into darkness from the seat of a motorcycle charging across the desert – mostly without other traffic – is an experience not to be missed. Shortly after dark, we came to the Algodones Dunes that make up the famed Glamis off-road riding area. The big bikes muscled their way through the prevailing westerly winds which were strong enough to blow sand across the road in our headlights and occasionally push us off line. Like a marathoner just hitting their stride around mile six of 26.2, we settled into a comfortable groove through the rolling desert countryside.
All too soon, we encountered our next delay. A seemingly endless train of tractor-trailers carrying oversized loads stretched out before us. The heavy loads caused them to slow down to as low as 35 mph on uphills. Downhills saw them reach a blazing 50 mph. Communicators helped us leapfrog the rigs relatively safely, with the lead rider calling out clear road to the trailing one. Eventually, we found open highway and assailed the night with our combined high beams.
Tom’s Notes: Evans and I had communicators which kept us in close contact with one another as well as the outside world. My wife checked in occasionally to make sure I was safe, and I talked to my brother – who was fireside in his backyard in Ohio drinking a beer – about our upcoming shared vacation. All this chatter helps break up the monotony and pass the time during stretches of long, straight blackness. I now know what band Evans would take to a desert island, and having him along as a wingman not only helped pass the time, but acted as another layer of comfort knowing someone was there to help if things went south.
Getting Into A Groove
With the nine-day-old moon waxing gibbous above us, we cruised north on Highway 78 up to Interstate 10. In the darkness of Highway 95, we had no way of knowing that we were occasionally riding a stone’s throw away from the Colorado river, though the ramrod-straight section just north of Blythe, CA featured all of the smells of the agriculture that the Colorado’s water allowed to flourish in the desert. Before long, the road began to dance its way along the edge of the Chemehuevi Mountains on our way into Needles, CA for our second gas stop.
While we were pumping gas and eating the first of our Subway sandwiches, the cashier closed the station and came outside to wait for her ride home. When she found out we were traveling north on 95, she told us that we were lucky because 95 to the south (which we had just ridden) was “like a roller coaster,” and we wouldn’t want to do it after dark. We just smiled, knowingly.
The road north alternated between two- and four-lane rural highway. With relatively low traffic, we made good time. Soon, the moon’s light had to compete with the glow of Las Vegas reflecting off of the increasing cloud cover ahead of us.
We dove into Henderson, NV, skirting Las Vegas on I-515 to I-215 to I-15. Eventually, we found ourselves in an endless series of stoplights on NV 160 west back out of civilization. At each red light, I felt the weight of our average speed lowering. Since we tended to lollygag at gas stops, keeping our feet on the floorboards between them was important. Although the 500th mile was about 20 miles west of town, Las Vegas marked the emotional midpoint of the SaddleSore 1000.
We plowed through Pahrump, NV around 11:00 only stopping when fuel lights demanded. Soon, but not soon enough, we left the lights of civilization behind and headed back out into the desert. From here until Beaty, NV (where we previously overnighted on our Baggers Brawl) we traversed the wide-open spaces on the northeastern side of the Amargosa Range that defines one side of Death Valley. Unincorporated towns, like Amargosa Valley, NV cropped up along the way and whisked by in the blink of an eye. The land outside of our headlights became flat and featureless as we gradually lost the moon to cloud cover. Traffic was sparse and getting sparser as the hours wore on. Remarkably, Tom and I weren’t yet experiencing any signs of fatigue.
Since we both expected to be feeling the effects of 12 hours in the saddle, we were surprised at our freshness. During the night, I developed a theory about this. Riding at night, on two-lane highways, requires such a level of mental focus that we never had time to get tired. The luxury of having a partner in crime to talk to throughout the ride was also a boon. I didn’t realize how much of a role rambling on about a never-ending list of topics was helping to pass the time until Tom’s communicator ran out of juice an hour outside of Tonopah, NV.
During that period of forced silence, the wind picked up, the road climbed in altitude, and the temperature dropped. Once we got above 6,000 feet, my medium-weight Racer Stratos Goretex II Gloves were no longer enough to keep my digits warm – even with my Aerostich Kanetsu AIRVANTAGE Electric Vest inflated and turned up almost all the way. According to a local thermometer, the temperature was 35° at our third fuel stop. We decided to have a snack and some coffee inside the convenience store to warm up before hitting the road.
Only a half-mile after we pulled out of the gas station, we saw the headlights flip on in the almost empty parking lot on our right. Red and blue lights followed shortly thereafter. With no one else on the road at 3:00 a.m., it was pretty obvious who the trooper wanted to talk to. We immediately pulled over. Our crime? Traveling at 47 mph in a 25-mph zone. I was so busy adjusting my gear to stop a pesky draft around one sleeve that I hadn’t paid any attention to our speed.
After the usual song-and-dance about why we didn’t actually own the motorcycles we were riding, we ended up having a quite pleasant conversation with the officer – and his supervisor, who showed up a few minutes later. After some pretty pointed questioning about our route and repeated statements that, yes, we were planning on taking US 6 over Montgomery Pass to Bishop, CA and not going further north to higher altitude passes, the officers sent us on our way with a warning and good wishes. Once we had the speeding issue resolved, their primary concern was that we’d be taking a route that wouldn’t have us encounter ice. Nice guys. Of course, both of them were motorcyclists.
Ever since my early travels in the Southwest, one sign has consistently given me pause. Open range, for folks who don’t know, is where there are no fences separating critters from the road. While it’s usually cattle, wild horses can also be found in open range. Instances of almost being taken out by a cow and her calf when rounding a blind turn or the time I encountered a cow pie in the middle of a corner have made me wary of open range. So, when we started seeing these signs, my internal governor brought our speed down several notches. I spent the next hours with my eyes straining against the darkness, trying to make out any shadows in the middle of the road that might spell disaster.
As we moved into and out of sections of open range, the road climbed. Shortly before we reached the 7,167 ft high-point of Montgomery Pass, it began to rain. This was actually good news since it meant we were less likely to encounter ice on the roadway. We slowed further as our visibility lessened. Still, we marched on since we knew that a Denny’s awaited us in Bishop, and I had a powerful hunger building in my belly.
With the altitude dropping down the western side of Montgomery Pass, I began to relax again. The rain wasn’t stopping, but the temperature was climbing, further alleviating our concerns about encountering ice on the road.
The Home Stretch
With full tanks and stomachs, we rolled out of Bishop, CA in the rain and the building dawn. We would cross over the 1,000 mile mark just before we arrived in Mojave, CA for our next fuel stop. Highway 395 bisects the Owens Valley from Bishop down past Lone Pine to Owens Lake (another place we visited on our Baggers Brawl). To our west, the snow-covered Sierras towered above with the snow line reaching down to the fields beside the highway. We pushed on, but now we were feeling the weight of 18 hours in the saddle.
Tom’s Notes: Compressing 1,000 miles into a 24-hour timeframe didn’t appear that challenging until daybreak. Having ridden through the night with no more rest than what a gas station provides, it wasn’t until 5 a.m. that I felt the weight of what we were trying to accomplish. A meal at Denny’s and a chance to relax helped, but the next two hours were the hardest of them all. By 8 a.m. with the sun fully up, I was feeling refreshed, but also looking forward to the finish line. We hit the 1,000-mile mark with about three hours to spare. Next time I’ll schedule a short nap.
The clarity of sunrise raking across under the rain clouds could only lift my spirits for so long, and an hour from Mojave, despite the full sun after having ridden out from under the rain, I found myself fighting drowsiness. I radioed Tom that I needed to take a leak, hoping that walking around for a couple minutes would wake me up. It did, and we trundled on towards the 1,000-mile mark.
The rest of the ride was sort of anticlimactic. We took a photo of the tripmeter at 1,000 miles, but to account for speedometer error (and the fact that we were still 80 miles out from our meeting place with the photographer), we didn’t make our official last gas stop for the final receipt and witnessing document until we were back in the San Fernando Valley.
While our accomplishment in no way compares to those of the mountaineers quoted in this article, they do capture the essence of explaining the inexplicable. I know we’re both happy to have performed this foolish feat. Will we ever attempt another Iron Butt ride, a Bun Burner (1,500 miles in 36 hours), perhaps? Never count out a MOron when it comes to a harebrained activity.