Birds of a Feather

by bj max

Leaning against a lamppost in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn in Madison, Alabama I watch from a distance as a rider explains to a small circle of onlookers just why he has every last speck of paint on his motorcycle taped over with black electricians tape. His BMW and the Triumph Tiger parked beside it have “Team Strange” emblazoned across the saddlebags. Team strange indeed. Both bikes sport Minnesota plates and I wonder what, if any, connection exists between the North Star state and the electrical tape market. Hmmm. I learn later that the rider is none other than Minnesota’s own, Eddie James, two-time veteran of the Iron Butt Rally.

Me and a coupla’ my buddies, Catfish Floyd and Standup Stan, are here in Madison for the 2001 Iron Butt Rally kickoff. For those of you not familiar with the Iron Butt, it is a grueling eleven day circumnavigation of the United States that pits competitors against the clock and the elements and tests their ability to think under pressure, pushing them to the very limits of physical and mental endurance. This is the big one good people, the mother of all rallies and as you will see, its not for the meek and timid.

We arrived in Madison and the Ramada Inn around two in the afternoon, checked in, then made our way to the back of the motel where all the rally entrants were parked. And it was a veritable feast for the moto-head’s eye. There were over a hundred bikes on hand specifically set up for long distance competition. There were Honda’s, BMW’s, Indians, Harley’s, Triumph’s, Ducati’s, a Cagiva and even a Russian Ural. And not a stock bike to be found. They were outfitted with auxiliary fuel cell’s, Global Positioning Systems, hydration systems and enough clocks, switches and buttons to drive an aerospace engineer mad. One particular GL1800 was equipped with a relief tube. Don’t know what a relief tube is? I’ll give you a hint. The owner, it is said, once rode twelve hundred miles without putting his feet on the ground. Wouldn’t want to be following that guy at the two hundred-mile marker.

There are one hundred and twelve hardy souls entered in this year’s Iron Butt. Their destination, Madison, Alabama. But theirs is a round about route and over the next eleven days they will have ridden from hell to Texas and back and most of them will have done it twice. From Madison to Pomona, California, Pomona to Sunnyside, Washington. From Sunnyside to Gorham, Maine and from Gorham back to Madison. There’s some hard riding ahead just to make the checkpoints but a checkpoint to checkpoint ride won’t win this rally. To win you need bonus points and bonus points mean even harder riding. Some of the bonus locations are easy pickings, some are nearly impossible and a few are nothing more than dirty low down tricks concocted solely for the amusement of the higher up Iron Butt muckety mucks.

Speaking of higher up muckety mucks, while at the kickoff I was privileged to meet Mike Kneebone, president of the Iron Butt Association and Ron Ayers, endurance rider and author of the book Against the Wind, an account of the 1995 Iron Butt Rally. Ron has a new book out, “Against the Clock” and it describes his record setting 7/49 run (forty-nine states in seven days). I bought this latest work of Ron’s and he was nice enough to sign it for me as well as pose for a couple of pictures. Both Ron and Mike were nice guys and I would have like to have talked with them longer but they were pretty busy so I left ’em alone.

After a good nights sleep my friends and I had breakfast across the street at the Cracker Barrel where we met Marsha, a svelte female Iron Butt competitor who looked like she should be teaching school instead of competing in one of the most grueling contests ever contrived by man. She sat quietly eating her breakfast and seemed to be lost in thought until we interrupted with a salvo of moronic questions. But even in the face of the impromptu interview she maintained her composure and answered them all no matter how idiotic they became. This was our second rider contact. Someone else to root for. Like NASCAR racing, the Iron Butt Rally is more interesting if you know the drivers. After wishing Marsha good fortune we left her in peace and beat it back to the motel.

The bikes were now being lined up two by two in readiness for the start and a rider we had met the day before, Chuck Pickett, was quietly sitting in line awaiting the green flag. We were pulling for Chuck for several reasons but mainly because he actually spoke to us. Chuck was riding his 342,000 mile Gold Wing. No, that’s not a typo. His ’90 model Wing had 342,000 miles on the clock and he was cheerily preparing to put another ten grand on the old bird. Chuck has decided to shoot for the Prudhoe Bay bonus listing. Prudhoe Bay? I get out my Rand-McNally. Hmm. Prudhoe Bay? There it is. Good Grief! That’s way up there above the Arctic Circle. On the Arctic Ocean. That’s nuts. He’ll never make it. (At this writing Chuck and nine other riders had arrived in Deadhorse on Prudhoe Bay.) Another machine that grabbed our attention was a 2000 model ST1100 that had already logged 90,000 miles. This is gettin’ downright ridiculous, ain’t it? Well, they don’t call ’em Iron Butter’s for nothing. And they are all better men than I and that includes all eleven of the ladies riding in the event.

At precisely 10:00 AM the first two bikes roared into the street and then in rapid succession, two by two, they bolted from the parking lot like startled thoroughbreds. Forty five minutes later, I stood there alone, staring west and breathing in the last wisps of carbon monoxide left by the departing bikes. I envy those guys. I really do and I wish I was out there with them but I’m not fooling myself. I’m not tough enough to compete with these guys. Oh, I did a Saddlesore 1000 in ’98. (1000 miles within a 24-hour window) That’s how I gained membership into this august organization. But doing a Saddlesore is one thing, pulling off eleven one thousand-mile days in a row is another ball game. Even a checkpoint to checkpoint ride has to be exhausting. Out of the one hundred and twelve riders entered in this years Iron Butt, some of them won’t finish. Some will have mechanical problems, accidents will take their toll and a few will come to their senses and simply pick up their marbles and up go home. Madness, that’s what it is. Madness. But there’s a little madness in all of us and I want to have a go at the Iron Butt so bad I can taste it. If I ever manage to accumulate the time, money and courage simultaneously I might throw my name in the hat. But until that day comes I’ll just have to be content on the sidelines. But one of these days…

On the way home the rains came forcing us to suit up somewhere around the Alabama line. From there it was one rainstorm after another. Usually an irritation for me, but this time I didn’t mind. I thought about the Iron Butt riders and the perils they would face over the next two weeks and a little rain suddenly seemed like such a small thing. Yes, one of these days… Roll on Iron Butters.


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