Long Distance Riders

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Long Distance Riders

Extreme, insane, or just regular folks?

The history of so-called endurance runs in Washington State goes back to 1910 when motorcyclists rode from Seattle to Mt. Rainier and back in two days. Back then a few hundred miles was a long haul. For many of us today, it’s still considered a long ride in the saddle. It’s what Sound RIDER! patterned the 3 Pass Blast after.

So it was a bit disheartening last winter when an email came in from one reader who quipped – "200 miles! I eat that for breakfast." The email came from none other than Joe Zulaski, a Microsoft engineer who participates in a number of long distance runs around the United States, many which put him on the road for 1000 miles or more per day.

As the motorcycle has evolved and road engineering has made it possible to travel at speeds closer to the 70 mph mark, endurance riding on a motorcycle has evolved from the days of manual river crossings in the teens to an entirely new type of game, yet it remains an extreme sport any way you look at it..

As I write, a few hundred riders are making their way from Missoula, Montana to Needles, Arizona on the first leg of the Iron Butt Rally, a bi-annual endurance run that typically takes riders around the four corners of the contiguous United States, 11,000 miles in 11 days. There are smaller runs, if you can call them that, such as a SaddleSore (1,000 miles in one day), BunBurner (1,500 in 36 hours) and the BunBurner Gold (1,500 miles in 24 hours).

There is a lot to consider when preparing for an LD ride.

The first is getting your bike ready for the long haul. Most LD riders outfit their bikes with an arsenal of additional instrumentation. A rider would typically have a GPS, CB radio, cell phone, real time whether device, various clocks and timers, thermometer, radar detector, AM/FM radio & CD player and an Autocom system to tie together all the audio interfaces into a headset in the rider’s helmet. Behind the rider’s seat you’ll often find an auxiliary gas tank which will typically double a bike’s traveling range. LD riders look for a 300 mile range or better when preparing their bike.

And what’s the right bike for spending 1,000 miles a day on? Sport Touring machines are the norm here with this year’s favs being Honda’s new ST1300, Yamaha’s FJR1300 and BMW’s K1200LT. Older models you’ll still see being used are Honda’s ST1100, Goldwings and just about any BMW RT or LT model from the 90’s. These machines provide the proper ergonomics that allow the body to be in a perpendicular riding position, arms at or close to a 15degree bend in the elbow, and knees at or near a 90 degree bend – the ultimate all day riding position that puts the least amount of fatigue on the human body.

Of coarse there have been some interesting bikes competing in the Iron Butt Rally over the years. Bikes like Russian Urals, a 1946 Indian Chief and even a Suzuki GN125P have all had a place in Iron Butt history. Or how about the guy in 1997 who competed on a Honda Helix, a 248cc scooter? No sign of him on the log of finishers.

Physical well-being is also important. LD riders are just like other people. They may have a deficiency or two and work around it. Some are diabetic, others have rare disorders like Puget Sound rider Rachel Dwyer who suffers from two disorders – one that causes her body temperature to chill down sooner than normal, and another that affects her body clock - causing her senses to go into sleep mode by 10 pm every single day. "I know what my limits are" says Bill McAvan, an LD rider who lives near Turner Corner, just north of Woodinville. "I know when to ride and when to stop."

What is it that makes riders want to get in the saddle for endless hours at a time? Some people like to climb mountains, some like to swim a channel – and then those really crazy LD riders.  Karen Bolin puts it this way - "Long haulers are unique in the MC world. They tend to ride alone, and have a bond that knows no boundaries. They are linked at the soul. And they really don't give a damn what brand of bike someone rides."

It’s not a money thing. As an example, riders of the Iron Butt pay $1,000 just to apply to ride. At the end they get a certificate – no grand prize of large sums of cash, no two weeks on the Riviera, no new car – just a certificate and your name listed on the list of finishers. If you’re not already a member of the Iron Butt Association, you are when you finish, and it’s the only way to become a member.

Routes for these long distance runs are typically not disclosed until just before the beginning of the event. Because of this, riders can’t predict too far in advance where they’ll be by days end. One image on the web shows a rider napping on a picnic table with a caption underneath that simply says "Iron Butt Motel."

A wild twist came in 2001 in Alabama where riders had assembled for the start of the Iron Butt Rally. IBA President, Mike Kneebone, laid out the route for the trek around the US and then threw in the monkey wrench, "or you can leave from here and drive to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and back in the same amount of time." Some did, most didn’t.

You’d have to wonder though, is this about speed? Are there motorcyclists moving at 100 mph around the US during this competition? Do the math. A typical Iron Butt Rally is 11,000 miles in 11 days. That’s 1,000 miles per day. If a rider moves at an average speed of 62.5 miles per hour they can ride 16 hours and sleep 8 which puts average speed in the realm of the legal speed limit. Even a Bun Burner Gold, at 1,500 miles in 24 hours equates to 62.5 miles an hour without sleeping the whole time.

The danger lies more in how long you are on the bike, than how fast you ride it. Ever ridden for say - 12 hours in a day? Unless you’ve worked up to long hours in the saddle you’ll find it very fatiguing on the mind. Your senses begin to decline the more you ride and your ability to make swift decisions and jar your motor skills over many hours can indeed put you in danger. But, so can mountain climbing, running a marathon or driving a car from Seattle to San Francisco without a break.

Such is the risk that LD riders take, but there are many tricks and routines they go through to keep them keen for longer hours. Eating the right foods, drinking the right amount of fluids and finding ways to stay alert are critical to extending saddle time. "I use the CB radio to keep from getting bored" says McAvan. Others, like Dwyer, have devised exercise routines to do while moving.

Think LD riding might be for you? Locally there are a few events each year that incorporate Iron Butt Rally rules and certification into them.

The Cascade Classic incorporates three routes, so, a rider can choose from a Half-Fast 500, Saddle Sore 1,000, or a BunBurner 1,500. The event typically is held in August and starts and ends in Everett. The Half-Fast 500 is a route that’s good for interested riders to try if they think they’ve got Iron Butt ability in their blood. 15 hours is allocated for completion of the 500 mile route.

Another favorite is the Lawman 1000 held on the fourth weekend in June. It’s a fundraiser and typically incorporates routing through Washington, Oregon and sometimes Canada. Starting points vary by the year. SR!

TM/Summer 03

For more information visit these websites:


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