In the Heart of Texas they gather. Motorcyclists from all over the country congregate to embark upon a twelve hour scavenger hunt ending in Brady. The pace is more "Fast and Furious" than "Slow Boat to China", aided not a little by the seventy miles per hour speed limits on the Texas cart tracks. It is an unrelenting twelve hours with no room for error. If you make a mistake in your planning, or execution, you will be beaten by those who don't. In longer rallies there is time to, well, rally; but not in the Heart of Texas.
This year, James Stovall (Rally Master) added a twist. For extra points, and just for the bragging rights, he set up an additional "Unique" bonus. You could earn Certificates from Leather through Diamond Level, by riding from 500 miles, to 1500 miles one way and in twenty four hours or less, to the bonus location. Once there you had to photograph the bonus and mail or text that picture to James within thirty minutes. An end receipt could follow later.
This challenge, and one additional six hour task, had to be completed no later than about ten days before the rally proper, and within about twelve hours of each other. I'll say right here that I didn't take the second part of the challenge for reasons that will become clear. The Title is a hint!
Within the Long Distance riding community there are varying levels of achievement. While simply taking part is reward in itself, we are human, and competition is never far below the surface. Indeed, that competitive edge drives the community to greater challenges, in the spirit of scientists and explorers, sportsmen and athletes the world over. Without the competition it is merely a pastime.
I have been wanting to complete a Bun Burner Gold ride for quite some time. This is 1500 miles in less than 24 hours, a ride I attempted last year and failed. James, it seemed, just handed me a perfect opportunity to combine the two. For sometime I had been planning my second attempt, and the location of this Unique Bonus lay only ninety miles from my originally planned route, with a few minor adjustments.
The route would take me from close to home in Northeast Oklahoma, to Flagstaff, AZ and back to the finish in Friona, TX:
There had been a further complication. When I received the email from James containing the Unique Bonus, all it comprised was a photograph of a signpost. That was it. No text, no location details, no handy .gpx file, just a picture. Thank you James. Did I ever mention that Texas is by far the largest State in the Lower 48? That it is seven hundred miles wide and four hundred miles deep? I have no idea just how many road signs there are in Texas, but I'm guessing that if I had a dollar for each one I could probably fund a decent Presidential Campaign, even in the expensive media markets.
Fortunately I am a man and a geek, and I have teh Google, and Google Earth, and Streetview. It took me ten minutes to locate the road, and a further fifteen to drive along it with Streetview to find the sign. Had I started at the correct end of the road, I would have found it immediately. Gotta love technology. So, Placemark converted to Waypoint, and I had a location I could work with. I did miss one glaringly obvious clue. The forty mph speed limit should have told me to start looking at the populated end of that road!
All that was left to do now was to pick a start time. I could comply with James' requirements easily enough, but I also had to document the ride to satisfy the Iron Butt Association, and those demands are more strict. I needed two start location witnesses, and two at the finish. Planning to finish at around midnight had the disadvantage of finding and photographing the bonus in the dark, but gave me the most flexibility overall. Finding witnesses in a small Texas town at that hour could be tricky, as could getting an accurately time-stamped receipt. In the end I was lucky.
In each of these motorcycling tales from the crypt I try to introduce an aspect to the riding that either surprised me, or that I learned something from. There are only so many ways to describe twenty hours of Interstate and six gas stations. As pictures are worth a thousand words, here I am at the final gas stop, about to embark upon the last 91 miles of the ride with three hours in hand:
In the previous twenty one hours I had simply sat on the bike and twisted the throttle. I left home at around half past midnight, rode through the dark until well across the Texas Panhandle where the growing daylight did, I hope, signify a rise in temperature. I had planned this carefully, and part of that planning involved some detailed weather reports for points all along the route. The weatherdudes had promised me a low of 45F anytime on the trip, with highs around 80F during the afternoon of the ride.
Well they lied ... again. Just like two years ago when I rode a SaddleSore 1000 on a similar route. They lied to the point of 32F which is way too cold for a guy with no heated vest. The IBA license plate backers proclaim "The Worlds Toughest Riders". Well sod that! I am a lily-livered pansy-ass whose only salvation on this trip was good heated handlebar grips. I just knew they had lied to me when I felt it getting cold. What I didn't know is that it wouldn't actually warm up again until almost lunchtime, and my tooth was hurting. A Bun Burner Gold is an easy ride, said no one, ever!
I would never, ever be so crass as to describe the SaddleSore 1000 as an easy ride. It is the entry level ride into the IBA, and it is beyond the scope of more than a handful of the millions of motorcyclists out there, either because they couldn't do it, or wouldn't want to. Several rallies have seen me go about 1000 miles or more on the first day, while bonus hunting. They are tough days because you don't get to pick your locations, and you have a great deal more to think about. Fifteen hundred miles in a day elevates the activity to another level. On this ride I went through the 1000 mile mark in about fourteen hours. If one thousand was my ambition I would have had ten hours to rest. On this one I had ten hours to complete another five hundred miles. It is, as they say, a whole new ball-game.
What I learned from my last attempt was that you just cannot stop. Period. If you get behind the clock in the early stages, you will not make that time up later, because later it gets harder. The toughest miles are the last hundred, or fifty, or the last mile. Also, my route actually had me riding an extra fifty miles, and it is all time on the clock.
So much time alone. In our modern world, where a wonderful wife and many, many children make alone time a rare commodity, I find myself out there with the tarmac under the wheels and the desert as my destination. I have miles to cover. They are the same number of miles whether I go North, South, East or West. They are the same miles when I see a sign saying "Albuquerque 360", and I know that city isn't even close to where I am going, to turn around and come back. But it messes with your head because it sounds like a long way. I never think of the totality of a journey. I navigate rallies bonus to bonus, breaking down the day into bite-sized chunks, all the time knowing that if I later add up those chunks I will have done the miles too.
So I ride gas stop to gas stop. Each around two hundred and fifty miles. I never have to think more than two hundred and fifty miles ahead, and that distance is easy, I have done that before. Seeing "Albuquerque 360" messes with that metric. It preys on your mind when the miles are the miles, and the distance to Albuquerque is completely irrelevant.
When riding like this there are only two numbers I care about. The moving average speed and the overall average speed. Both are displayed on the GPS at all times. In advance I worked out what I needed for this trip, and wrote them down in big numbers on a card fixed to my tankbag. To complete the trip of one thousand five hundred and fifty miles, with a thirty minute safety margin, I needed an overall average speed of sixty six miles per hour, and a moving average (provided I stuck to my layover estimates) of seventy miles an hour even. I knew that if I did that, then I win, the numbers, unlike the weathermen, do not lie. Wherever I am on this journey, if that overall average is above sixty six miles per hour, then I am good to go, and I will get there.
When I arrived in Friona, TX, here is the GPS display. The overall average had been running 70 mph for most of the trip. It dropped because I slowed, and took a longer break in Tucumcari knowing I had so much time in hand:
Please ignore the Max Speed displayed. A quick squirt of gas to pass a couple of heavy trucks will do that. The point here is that the speed doesn't matter, and riding too fast causes more gas stops, making the riding inefficient
While we are on the subject of speed, I would like to take a moment to catch people up. On these rides, speed is not your friend. The conventional wisdom may seem to suggest that the faster you go, the quicker you will get someplace. In theory this is logical but in practise it is simply the product of incorrect thinking. While it is true that a certain average speed is necessary to cover the miles, anything over that average is wasteful. The faster you ride, the more gas stops you need and they suck time from your schedule like you wouldn't believe. The second issue is that excessive speed will attract entirely the wrong kind of attention. While you may be able to afford the cost of your "Performance Awards" from local and State law enforcement, what you cannot afford is the fifteen minutes sat at the roadside while he writes the ticket. Neither will a trip to jail help you reach your destination in good time. Equally important is that riding at a much higher speed than the prevailing traffic flow is stressful. On a long ride you have enough to cope with, and reducing the stress to a minimum gets you there safely, and as quickly as you need to. So there is a right speed, and that speed is usually very close to what the law and the conditions allows.
Something happens on these long rides, and it's something that I have not heard talked about much within the community. That may mean that I am a freak, and it only happens to me, but I rather suspect that the heads of everyone involved in endurance activities, of any kind, goes to places they don't much want to discuss.
You sit there, twisting the throttle or letting the cruise control take care of that while you use your energies to pilot the bike and pay attention to what is going on around you. You do it for many hours, in all weather and in the dark. In those long stretches of night riding the world is a very small place. There is you, your motorcycle and a ribbon of road lit variously well depending on your lighting. Mine is decent. You can let your mind wander a bit, it has nothing else to do. Sometimes a kind of tunnel vision sets in, and you see things, things that make no sense in daylight or when you are refreshed.
Not exactly hearing voices, that would be a little worrisome, more a feeling that you are communicating somehow .... with a loved one, a group of friends, an amorphous presence. This is not some come to Jesus moment. I am a practical, grounded, liberal atheist; none of this is new to those who know me. Yet somehow, in those periods and the dark watches of the night, I am not alone and I have no rational explanation.
On this ride I made it back to Tucumcari, NM to get my final gas before the last ninety miles to the finish. I relaxed at this point as I still had three hours and even the Texas back roads don't slow you down much. They might be cart tracks, and narrow, but they have a seventy miles per hour speed limit, no traffic and they are straight. Easy-peasey with good lights.
So I took a break, called Jodie and took the picture above. As I got off the phone I felt wide awake and refreshed. I looked back at the bike some thirty yards away and suddenly realised that I had to do this on my own. What is that all about? I had been doing it on my own for twenty one hours already. Maybe it's the friends and associates you know are watching your progress on a tracking page. Maybe you are never alone while you have people who love you. I have no conclusions, only thoughts and the odd realisation that fourteen hundred and sixty miles into a trip I only then realised that I had to ride the last ninety miles alone.
Rolling into a Conoco gas station at 11.18 pm, I had made it in a few minutes under twenty three hours. At the adjacent pump was a Texas State Trooper filling his patrol car. We chatted for a few minutes, he signed my witness form and I got the required receipt a few minutes later.
The officer was fascinated by the whole adventure and we spent a few minutes visiting.
He asked me the fateful question, the one full of traps and not likely to win us many friends. He asked "Don't you get tired?" This is a hard question because the truth is that of course I get tired. Everyone gets tired, at all sorts of inconvenient moments for a bunch of unrelated reasons. Denying that you ever get tired is like trying to persuade someone that the Earth is flat.
The answer I gave him was simply that I wished that every road user was as experienced, well prepared and attentive as the Long Distance Motorcyclists. If that were the case, and the only problem was the occasional tiredness, then the roads would be a much safer place for us all. I hope that was an answer that the community accepts as a decent response.
With the receipt taken care of I went the one hundred yards back to the signpost that was my reason for being here. Struggled to take a decent shot, but eventually managed to text one to James, and my day was done.
My tooth was giving me conniptions which I took care of with as many ibuprofen as good sense would allow, and fell into bed.
All that was left was sleep, and a four hundred and fifty mile ride home tomorrow.
When I arrived home the GPS was showing 2005 miles traveled in a total of around forty two hours.