The picture on the right is a city sign. It is not special, it is pretty much the same as many thousands of similar signs across the country. Tarpley, TX, is just another small community in central Texas. I can state confidently that decent Americans live there. They work, play and live their lives just as you, I and many millions of others do. It is completely unremarkable.
What is special about Tarpley, at least to me, is that I rode my motorcycle two thousand miles last weekend to get that picture.
That is clearly a statement that requires some explanation, at least to those who have not read these Diaries before; so let's jump the orange roadkill and find out more.
To fully understand the magnitude of this event, we need to cover a little history. The "Heart of Texas Rally" is an annual event arranged by Rallymaster James Stovall. In common with others, James puts in hundreds of hours of planning and work so that others may enjoy the hobby of Long Distance Rallying, and all for a very modest fee. I make no apology for extending my gratitude to James and others right up front.
The HOT is a short rally by many standards, it being only twelve hours duration. Nonetheless, if you plan on riding much less than about six hundred miles during that time then you may rest assured that others will finish ahead of you. If one of those guys is Rex LeGalley, and another is Brian Walters, then both will exceed seven hundred miles, and beat you down into Third Place :)
Both those riders are entered in the Iron Butt Rally in July, an eleven day, at least eleven thousand mile event for the winner, so it is reasonable to wonder why they are messing about in a twelve hour rally in April. What I can tell anyone interested is that these shorter events are an absolute godsend for anyone seeking to hone the required skills. On the longer events there is the luxury of time to recover from the odd error. You can, if you choose, relax a little at gas and bonus stops yet still turn in a respectable result. There is no such grace in a twelve hour.
This is an event where your competition is made up of experienced guys, and fiendish girls, who bring their "A" game. There isn't the time to recover a mistake. When half a dozen red traffic lights can mean the difference between a win, and a failure to finish, then honing your gas stops to perfection, and collecting the bonuses accurately but efficiently, is critical. If you arrive at the finish with thirty minutes to spare, then someone will use those minutes collecting points that you missed.
In this event, two of the top three finishers rolled into the rally finish with eight minutes to spare, and Brian arrived only four minutes before he would have been disqualified.
None of this is to the detriment of any of the participants. Everyone busts a gut on an LD Rally. Every competitor rides futher, and harder than most motorcyclists would consider feasible. Any one of them is more than capable of coming in first, indeed some of them have in other events. Luck, a slightly better plan, the weather ... they all influence the outcome and the margins are tight. So when I have some modest success, I share that with everyone who took part because they all made it possible, and next time they will be sharing with me.
The route I planned, and managed to ride, was about six hundred and thirty miles. However, the Heart of Texas has morphed into an iceberg, in that most of it is hidden under water. By the time I arrived home on Sunday my total investment was over five thousand miles. Rex also rode a similar distance and I know others were into the multiple thousands too. James had introduced an additional element called the "Unique" Bonus and the All or Nothing Challenge, both completed several weeks prior to the main event. I rode a total of two thousand miles for the Unique Bonus, and detailed that here. I had to return to complete the All or Nothing, and that racked up another twelve hundred miles or so. Successfully completing those two things gave riders a maximum three hundred points with which to start the rally proper. Several riders completed the maximum, and in a low-scoring rally, those points were needed.
Three days before the rally, James emailed out the rally pack. This detailed all of the rules, the bonuses and included a file allowing rapid import to a computer. The first thing to note is that you are free to start anywhere in the state of Texas, with a computer generated receipt timed no earlier than six am. To be considered a "finisher", you had to be at the rally headquarters not later than six pm. One second after six would be a DNF (Did Not Finish). Rain or shine, fair weather or foul, breakdown, traffic, "dog ate my rally pack" ... none of those excuses are acceptable. Be there by six.
In common, I imagine, with every other entrant, I set about working out where I needed to start that I might maximise the bonus opportunities. There was a "progressive bonus" too, which involved collecting bonuses whose first letters spelled out the phrase "2013 Heart of Texas". What I didn't know until long after I had submitted all my paperwork was that the bonus was worth five hundred points (I got them anyway). You could make some substitutions, and everyone who completed the Unique Bonus challenge already had the "2013". To give you an idea how important these extra bonuses were, the three hundred points I already had, and the five hundred for the progressive bonus nearly equaled the total of all the points I would earn by riding.
So I studied and I planned, a part of rallying that I enjoy; then I planned and I studied and concluded that to maximise the time available I needed to start in South Padre Island, TX. SPI is the furthest I can go from my house, and still be in Texas ... go figure! So that was how I would be spending my Friday, riding southwest from my home in north east Oklahoma, and stopping when I got my wheels wet. A distance of about eight hundred and thirty miles. Brian had offered a sofa for the night in Houston, so I knew he was starting in Texas City ... a decent option but I couldn't get a route to work from that location without riding more miles than I was comfortable with on my old bike. Brian pulled it off and rode brilliantly into second place.
Generally when out and "off the clock", I like to potter along. That tendency meant I arrived in SPI later than I wanted to, and upping my speed modestly would have seen me there two hours earlier. I won't make that mistake again. I checked into the Iron Butt Motel having scoped out the receipt situation (they were all at least a few minutes slow, which is bad), and settled down for four hours sleep at the Stripes gas station two blocks from the first bonus (pictured above).
When I dragged my bike around to the front around six am, there was Rex LeGalley ready to depart. Like a creature in the night he slunk into my existence, then slunk out again. I would next see Rex less than half a mile from the finish, and we rode in together. This was good news. Honestly, I expected to see half the field at this start location, it is where the points were, but it was just me and Rex, and that was a good sign.
The ride up towards Corpus Christi was stuffed full of high-point bonuses. First up was the City Hall fountain in Edinburg, then the "Falfurrias Butter" sign. The roads were good, the bike running well and my only concern was that I was very slow getting away at the start. First the issue with the receipts, then the simple fact that I rather stupidly lost my way on the two block drive to the first bonus. So it was six seventeen when I headed off the island, and I was kicking myself. This is a twelve hour rally, and you don't have time for amateur errors like that. It was compounded in Orange Grove when I had to try three gas pumps, then a different gas station to get the required receipt. Orange Grove was my substitute for the letter "O", and it was my only substitution. When I planned this ride I quite deliberately proposed a very manageable route of six hundred and eight miles.
Â I had options that I could take if I hit certain time checks. One of them was the "Oatmeal" bonus, but this was at the limit of my plan and so I used Orange Grove as a banker. Twenty minutes for a stop that should have taken five was not part of the plan and now I had dropped a full half hour. Immediately prior to that was the small matter of the "Alice" bonus. An easy grab of an Historical Marker right in front of a Pizza Hut. I was hungry and would have preferred a nice thin-crust, but I doubt James would have accepted that substitute.
Next up were the two "T"s of Tilden and Tarpley. Tarpley was my main time-check. If I was in Tarpley before twelve I could go for Oatmeal, drop Rio Frio and get Rochelle at the end for my "R". Later than twelve but before one pm and I go for Rio Frio, drop Oatmeal, don't need Rochelle but it's there if I have time. In the end I remembered that I didn't really need Oatmeal because I was allowed the substitute, and only my inner neatness wanted no subs. The other thing was that the Rio Frio option actually gained more points, so neatness be damned. I was at the Tarpley city sign at twelve thirty, and it was go for Rio Frio. I was adjusting the full route on my second GPS as I went, and this was giving me a constant estimate of my time at the finish line as I worked through the options. Everything was looking good for an arrival in Brady at around five forty-five. Perfect. It is worth bearing in mind that these numbers are estimates, and you also have to allow for the time you will be stopped along the way, but I was good to head into the mountains for a seventy five point bonus.
There generally comes a time in every rally when you begin to wonder if you have bitten off rather more than you, or you motorcycle, can chew. In this rally it was the drive to and from Rio Frio. All I needed was a photograph of a tree, and getting it was tough. The roads in that area would be great at thirty miles per hour on a scenic cruise; that would be an afternoon well spent. On the clock, and trying to hit them at sixty mph, on a twenty seven year old, eight hundred pound motorcycle, Â proved to be interesting. In parts the DOT had removed the road surface. There were two, three mile stretches of gravel marked out with bollards. I pressed on remembering the seven miles of gravel roads on a previous rally. On that day I was negotiating my lumbering supertanker right on the edge of its ability to remain upright, when Brian Walters hurtled past like I was a one hundred twenty pound weakling on the beach, and he just kicked sand in my face. I was on my own today, and we made it through but it was slow.
I long ago learned that if you do not occasionally feel like this on a rally, then you are probably not trying hard enough. This is meant to be difficult if you have any pretensions towards being competitive. It's perfectly possible, and desirable to some, to simply enjoy the event for its own sake. I am not built that way. I want to compete. More than that, I want my fellow riders to know that if they finish ahead of me I paid them the compliment of trying my hardest. That their win is genuine because on the day I tried, and they did better. It also means that I know exactly what it took to win, so if and when I offer my hand in congratulations, then you earned it, and it's a genuine expression of complete respect.
Next on the list is the post office in the small community of Hunt. It's another slow road and I am beginning to feel the heat of the day. By the time I arrive at the location I need a short break. Ten minutes will do, and for the first time since six am I remove my crash helmet ... Ahhhh! That's nice.
I have plenty of iced water on the bike, and this is a good time to drink a fair bit of it. I'm not feeling at all dehydrated, nonetheless, feeling refreshed is good too. On with the lid and next I have a date with an "Enchanted Rock". It's Saturday and the tourists have crawled out from behind their winter woodstoves. They do not realise that I need to be in front of them riding the speed limit, rather than behind them sniffing the flowers. I need to make a sign: "Excuse me, be good chap and get out of the damned way!"
The clock is ticking and I don't have much time to collect the final two bonuses, three if I go for the "Stripes 2013" too but that one is worth only ten points and can be sacrificed. The GPS has been estimating my arrival time as five forty pm for quite a while, but the GPS doesn't know that I still have to stop twice to take photographs. Right about this point, the unit I am using to actually navigate insists that I take a left turn. I approach the road very slowly and it looks horrible. Rock strewn, little better than a quarry but that is the way it wants me to go. There is a family car emerging as I slow down and indicate a left turn. I can see the driver looking at me incredulously. Surely, he must be thinking, that motorcycles is not going up there! Surely not .... YES HE IS!
It's about half a mile and when I hit tarmac the arrival time jumps forward nearly fifteen minutes ... Hah!, little beastie ... you didn't know about that shortcut!
I grab this picture, good for a letter "A" and some points and there is only the old post office at Hext to go. Then I make a tragic mistake. I took a wrong turn. The GPS didn't help much as even though it must have known I was an idiot, it simply told me to drive seven miles on the road I was on. After about five of those miles I realised it was taking me to the nearest point it had decided that I could turn around and go all the way back.
I do not have time for this. That is ten miles of useless riding, and nearly ten minutes wasted. I now have an arrival estimate of five fifty-five and I still need one more stop. Time to get a bit of a sprint on.
So up over the moors we go. A brief halt for a final photograph and it's on to Brady. I rode these roads last year and they are made for fast, exciting travel. There is no one up here and the speed limit is seventy miles an hour. About that ... If a man expresses his true opinions while alone in a forest, is he still wrong?
The last time the local Sheriff came up here it was to do the ton in his restored Corvette. So I am feeling free and happy. The end is near, the GPS is telling me nice things about my arrival time, and the bike is given permission to get me there as quickly as it likes. I need to tell you something about eighties motorcycles. Those steel tube frames are not as stiff as modern aluminum twin-spars that use the engine as a stressed member. Those frames are stiff, and my spindly tubes trying to contain one hundred horsepower and eight hundred pounds, are not.
These roads are single lane each way with lines down the middle. Those lines always cause a minor bump when you cross them on two wheels. At seventy that bump is a distinct wobble, disconcerting but manageable. Any faster than seventy and the jello-like frame makes it's presence felt. The motorcycle rears a little, and twists in the middle! This is fairly predictable, but the involuntary spasm in your butt can put creases in the seat that the manufacturer never intended.
Then suddenly we arrive in Brady. Up to the traffic light where I turn right for the half mile to the hotel finish line. Rex is waiting at the light and we roll in together eight minutes before six pm.
Walters is not here yet. Bloody drama queen. I swear he hides around the corner to make a grand entrance four minutes before a Did Not Finish. He soon arrives, and let the tales, exaggerations and downright lies begin. These few hours are precious. We all know each other through online posts, email lists, etc; but there is rarely the chance to get together so much is made of the opportunities that do occur.
The final standings (I'll stop at me):
1. Rex LeGalley
2. Brian Walters
3. Steve Bracken
Let me take this opportunity to wish Brian, Rex and all the other competitors the very best of good fortune in the 2013 Iron Butt Rally.
Between leaving home Friday morning I covered 830 miles to SPI, 630 miles on the rally and 480 miles home.
Prior to that I had ridden 2005 miles for the Unique bonus and 1250 miles for the All or Nothing challenge.
Tally is 5105 miles
Oh, the new seat? Best thing I can say about that is that I quite forgot it was there :)
This next picture shows time, distance, speeds and elevation over the duration of the rally. It's pretty easy to see where the mountain roads were compromising the overall progress, and the altitude changes as I rode from sea level in South Padre Island, to Brady in central Texas:
Finally, the Certificate I was awarded for riding 1500 miles in less than twenty four hours, for the "Unique" bonus: