Most of my Rallies, well all of them so far, have been ridden on my 1986 Yamaha Venture Royale.
What I haven't shared so far is simply the fact that this bike has no business competing at that level. The playing field is horribly slanted as my trusty steed really is "hopeless" when put against an array of modern BMW, Honda and Yamaha motorcycles. Now I had an event to enter that would suit us down to the ground.
Rally Master, Michael Hickman, decided to reinstate the "Hopeless Rally". Entry was limited to those motorcycles that would, under any other circumstances, be considered hopeless in the regular events.
My original intention was to run the Rally on my 1977 Yamaha XS750. I spent some time prepping the bike for the ride, but ran into a late problem that I hadn't the time to resolve. Many things can be overcome, but this was an issue with the headlight and given the night riding necessary, made the bike a non-starter.
So right at the last minute I had to quickly get the Venture ready to go, and even that involved modifications that broke the cardinal rule of "not modifying anything within a week of a Rally".
For the uninitiated, these events simply comprise of all arriving at a start line then setting off to gather as many bonus points as possible before arriving back before the set finish time. It's a great big Scavenger Hunt, and America is the playground.
This Rally had a thirty hour limit and was to be judged on a points per mile basis ... an efficiency rally. That has some implications for which bonuses are worth getting. In order that it possible to work out the numbers there was a minimum mileage of one thousand miles, and a maximum of fourteen hundred. Outwith those limits you are a non-finisher.
The route I planned took in about thirty bonus locations, and was one thousand and twenty two miles long. During the next thirty hours, given fair sailing, we would ride in five States (Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma). I should manage four hours sleep, need three gas stops and ought to be able to gain a good points haul with several points multipliers built into the plan.
I would be visiting sixteen Water Towers, a couple of Dams, a mountain top .... Bill Clinton's Birthplace and a non-existent "Ben Franklin" Store. Some Centennial Clocks and at least one Tri-State Marker were on the agenda.
Accompanying me on this epic voyage would be Betty. For those in the know, Betty was Michael's version of the "MERA Rock". She was presented to me at the start as my passenger and she may be seen on the top photo. I'm still not sure why I was awarded "Betty". Michael blathered something about asking too many questions, and everyone else grinned from ear to ear. I could care less but was pleased that Betty and I may be able to have a little "Photo Fun" along the way. Meanwhile, under the watchful gaze of the assembled Riders, Betty was firmly strapped to the back of the bike, next to Maddie. Maddie is the little grey elephant that my daughter likes me to carry.
I want to mention safety. The Long Distance Motorcycle Community has an exemplary safety record, and folk in the Organisations concerned work very hard to keep it that way. Occasionally there are incidents, yet given the miles ridden those incidents are rare, and vastly lower than the usual motorcycle statistics.
All The Gear, All The Time is the watch word, as is knowing the limits of both you and your machine, and sticking to them. Good decision-making is key, and that is a learned skill.
To that end I was wearing a full motorcycle riding suit, a crash helmet, motorcycle boots and glove .... all the time. With temperatures forecast to hit around 105F this was going to be warm, and I was carrying a one gallon cooler of iced water with a drinking tube that I can use while moving. In the top case was emergency water. There is nothing unusual about this. LD Riders make these preparations as a matter of routine. Betty wasn't quite so well equipped and, given her ultimate fate I fear for her.
Ten am saw us all ready to go. A couple of Ninja 250s, a Honda 750, a Kawasaki Vulcan 500 and me. It was already warm and I was keen to head out. I needed to make the Blakely Mountain Dam, AR, by nine pm to make my route work, and that was not going to be easy.
We left Michael's neighborhood together and I had my first surprise when the other four turned left, and Betty and I went right. Well now ... I refused to worry about it. Let them worry! We were headed for the Coweta Water Towers, then south to Texas.
Right from the start of the planning phase it was quite clear that the winner would be a rider who had gained the triple-points bonus for recording fifteen of the eighteen Water Towers available. In the end I made a mess of the second day of the Rally, and failed to get the fifteen required. Close, as they say, but not close enough. Meanwhile, all that was on my mind was getting to Blakely before it was too dark to photograph the Dam.
Third Bonus of the Day was the old Mine Rescue Safety Building in McAlester, OK.
It was there I decided to get Betty in the shot, as she had been remarkably quiet during the journey, a refreshing change to my kids when in the car and I figured she could use a break.
Go to get her and she is gone! Chewed through the leather straps and made a bid for freedom. Taken it upon herself to cut her journey short. I was crestfallen. Michael sicked me with "Houdini Doll" ...
There would be showdown at the finish! My main concern was that I might just have lost one of his daughter's favourite dolls ... and they are more scary than Michael!
This Martin 404 simply sits in a field right at the side of the road. There is a handy turn-in onto hard earth and grass, and while I have no idea why it is there, there it is. Of all the bonus locations I have been sent to over the last year or so, this is one I really enjoyed. No real reason, it's just so unexpected. It might be something to do with the "faded glory" aspect. Sometimes I look at my bike and feel something similar. Then I get aboard and run the next five hundred miles!
The plane has seen better days, but that picture is now the Desktop background on my laptop.
The next few hours were spent collecting Water Towers and other bonuses. They included the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Texas, and the Federal Courthouse in Texarkana. That is a neat place with the State Line running right through a special sign at the front of the building. The bonuses came thick and fast which means on and off the bike at regular intervals. There isn't time to get stiff, or achy, and there is always the one eye you have on the clock.
It can be tricky to get some of these shots, especially when the requirements demand that the wording on the tower is visible and readable. I couldn't get a distance view of the Prescott Old Water Tower, so here I am right next to it. I am in someone's front yard, lying in a three foot ditch to photograph the Tower and make sure that my Rally Flag is in the shot. You can view all the water towers, and other photographs by clicking any of the pictures. That will take you directly to the album.
The final bonus before the Dam was to be the Arkadelphia Water Tower. I knew that there was about thirty two miles between the two locations. Arriving at Arkadelphia with about seventy five minutes to spare was a sign of a day well done. I was horribly shocked when the GPS estimated a one hour journey between the two places. It was cloudy, and there were signs of rain. If that wasn't bad enough it also meant that it would get dark earlier than the time I had planned for. So, a one hour sprint, on narrow, twisty roads through the gathering gloom and showers. What fun!
I made it, just. I was there at eight forty five and took the picture on the left. It was pretty dark by then but that didn't matter. I was fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, the day had passed completely without incident and so far I had ridden my plan to the letter.
It's always a good feeling when that happens.
In any Rally like this there is usually time to rest. In the thirty hour events the rests can be around four to six hours. Four hours is fine, six is wise if the points available are high enough. The problem is that there are about nine hours of darkness and whichever way you cut it there is a substantial amount of night riding to do. In my case it was about four hours or so.
Motorcycle manufacturers are not brilliant at designing and implementing lighting, but LD Riders are. We need to be, our lives depend on it. From tight bends in pitch blackness, to various wildlife that will jump out in front of you, you need to be able to see it all. On my bike I have converted the puny 60W headlight to an HID Projector. One of my last minute additions was a bracket for the HID "Eurobeam" Dirving Light I bought, and the bracket has room for a "Spotbeam" sister in future. That would give me the equivalent of around six decent car headlights all for a modest electrical consumption.
My night hours on this Rally were all between the Blakely Mountain Dam and Fort Smith, AR, via Signal Hill, Mount Magazine, AR, the highest point in Arkansas. It was all mountain riding and I was going to need those lights.
I have ridden the Talemina Scenic Byway as a liesure ride, it's fun. I have also ridden the same route while "on the clock", in a Rally. It is fast and furious yet has an appeal. Now I have completed a very similar ride both "on the clock" and "in the dark".
It was fabulous!
With HID power lighting up the road, and the sides of the road, the riding was exhilarating. Switchbacks, climbs and descents all with the brightly lit cliffs and trees whipping by was something everyone should get to do, if only the once.
The bike is a big old bus, ill-suited, actually, to any form of spirited riding. Yet the powerful V4 motor just gives and gives. It has a whine that is a sound of delight, rather than any form of complaint. Betty should have stayed aboard, she had no idea of what she would be missing.
I didn't collect the Signal Hill bonus. Going for it was a gamble because it's not easily accessible in the dark. In the end, discretion won and although I was right there, I turned around and headed out.
One bonus later, the Cobb Pharmacy in Ola, AR, and I rolled into Fort Smith, and a welcome bed at the Motel 6, at one am.
That was only thirty minutes later than my earliest estimate while planning the route.
"OhmiDog ... Air-Conditioning".
Rested and refreshed, breakfast at McDonalds next door and I was out of there by 6.06 am heading for two bonuses in Fort Smith. The second was the Van Buren Mystery Grave. Cemetery Bonuses can be a pain in the ass. Some cemeteries are massive, and some Rally Masters give few hints as to the exact location of the target. In this case Michael had told us nothing. Google is, however, a tittle-tattle and I knew exactly where I was going. I got the picture quickly and easily.
The second day of this Rally was going to be pretty much a rinse and repeat of the first.
More clocks, water towers, another Dam and cemetery. All of this and get back to the finish by four pm. Penalty points will accrue until four fifteen, and Did Not Finish (DNF) after that. It was a tight window but I was decently confident that after a great first day, I could do it.
Then the heavens opened. I swear that the weather does this deliberately. One thunderstorm within a thousand miles, and I was directly under it. I was on a major highway when the rain started. I pulled over, covered everything not waterproof with Baggies that are, and carried on.
It just became worse. When the cloud to ground lightning was crashing down all around me, and the rain coming down like stair-rods, I was genuinely scared for a while. I desperately scanned the road for any shelter. A bridge or overpass ... useless in tornado weather, but useful in an electrical storm. Nothing. There was nothing to do but continue, with everything crossed. It lasted about forty five minutes and slowed me considerably.
The other thing that slowed me considerably was failing to find one of the water towers. I mean, how hard can it be? It's not like they are discrete! There was a house built where the GPS said that a road should be. What I should have done is pulled out the laptop and routed around, but I didn't. I chose to ride on because I had a banker so I could drop one. I didn't know then that I was going to drop the banker too.
This Tri-State marker is one of the bonuses I did successfully collect on day two. In truth, I collected nearly all of my planned bonuses, but the ones I missed were the ones that did the damage to my eventual score. Many thousands of points disappeared simply due to only getting credit for thirteen Water Towers. The other minor misses simply compounded the hurt.
After spending a few hours tootling around the Tri-State area collecting bonuses and enjoying the ride, I headed south for the Pensacola Dam and a few bonuses before the finish.
I had been keeping an eye on the GPS Unit that was telling me that I had still time to spare and was not hurrying. Having ridden around nine hundred miles by now I was ready to simply ride for home, and use all the time available to be safe and sure.
I took a thirty minute break at a large gas station. It was here I made the mistake that cost me dearly. Basically, my brain faded out and I, for some completely inexplicable reason, thought that I had an hour longer than I really had.
These are the kind of errors that cost you dearly in a Rally. In my case it cost me a fight for a win. Yet even though this happened, I learned how to not let it happen again. There will be other Rallies, other rides and anyone expecting Steve to misread the clock in future will be sadly disappointed.
When I arrived at Pensacola Dam, a bonus carrying few points but acting as a doubler for the other Dam that was a big point bonus, I realised my error. In between this location and the finish I needed to grab two very easy Water Towers. They were on the direct route. I was sat thinking that I had about ninety minutes to do all this, and that was a very easy schedule.
I couldn't understand why the clock on the bike was saying "2.50 pm". It just shouldn't have been.
In a panic I punched the location of the last water tower (about a mile or so from the finish), and it told me that the ETA was 4.08 pm. Bugger, this was a DNF in prospect and I didn't even have time to figure out how that had happened.
We were just about to find out how good the Venture was. As I tried my best to avoid Highway Patrol Officers with radar, yet ride as fast as I could while remaining safe, I headed for home.
Across the lake, down to I 44 and thirty two miles of fast Interstate. Very fast Interstate as it turned out but at least the speed limit down that stretch is a decently generous 75mph.
As I rode I watched the ETA change. Minute by minute it fell until I arrived at the last bonus location (having had to drop another tower), at 3.58pm. I needed the picture, and I got it.
At least I didn't have Betty's big butt on the back, slowing me down :)
I rolled in to the finish at 4.03pm, for 400 penalty points and I still had one more bonus to grab, if only I could wrangle the Rally Master's gorgeous kids:
Well another one is now in the Archive.
Another terrific ride, great company, good food and new friends. I have made some adjustments to the seating arrangements, and this was the first LD Ride where I suffered zero butt pain. Thanks AirHawk, and thanks Sheepskin.
In the end the riding is the point. Riding against like-minded fellow competitors in friendly rivalry. Riding into Second Place is a bonus that I am very happy with.
All the "might-have-beens" and "if onlys" are just that ... dreams, but they serve to inform my rides in future. Rides I am already looking forward to.