The taste of failure, a hopeless and failed Iron Butt Rally attempt
I was looking for a challenge. Enter the Iron Butt Rally (IBR) riding a sidecar rig; and an old rig to boot. Why not? Ive already done a lot of Long Distance (LD) riding on two wheels. Its been decades since I last owned a sidecar rig, and its time for a new twist to my LD addiction.
I purchased a 1981 Honda GL1100 with an EML sidecar. This is a well set up rig, way more involved than simply bolting a sidecar to a motorcycle. The EML conversion includes heavy duty wheels, car tires, rock solid sidecar mounts to the bike, a leading link front fork with reduced trail for easier steering, upgraded suspension, and the motorcycle has a full frame for the sidecar mounts. The rig is old, but the technology of the motorcycle/sidecar combination is rock solid and proven. It also cost me a lot less than the $25,000 Id have to shell out for a new outfit.
Entering the IBR on a sidecar rig puts me in the hopeless and unique class. This is a group of motorcycle riders who give the rally a unique and interesting flair. This year there were two of us on sidecars, plus a Boss Hoss motorcycle with a Chevy V-8 motor, a 1980s BMW airhead, a 500cc scooter, and probably a few others I missed.
Preparation for the IBR is critical, and I gave it my full attention. I few snags showed up over the year prior to the IBR. For one, when I purchased the rig, the motor had even compression when I checked it with the kill switch and starter, listening for even cranking. Later I checked it with the compression tester to find it was only 80 pounds. I found a low mileage, used motor, and over the winter I installed the motor. At the same time I upgraded the charging system, added the proper lighting, added electric clothing controls, went through the brakes, and did some work on the carburetors. I also adjusted the toe in and outward lean of the rig. Depending on road crown, I had zero to minimal pull on the handlebars when riding at speed.
Three weeks before the start of IBR, I broke a weld on the rear wheel. One of the tubular steel spokes cracked a weld. Bad timing! I did not have a ready resource for a replacement wheel, since this uses specialty wheels built by EML. As a result, I had the wheel welded. Two more times it broke on different spokes, and two more times I had it welded. Each time a weld broke, it caused an air leak in the rim. The rig uses tubeless 15 car tires, so I brought two inner tubes with me, just in case.
IBR check in started in Denver. I rode the rig to Denver, and made it through all the technical inspections and preliminaries with no problems. I did have a concern for my after market exhaust. It is louder than my BMW, but how loud is too much? I passed, at 97 db.
During my ride to Denver, another problem showed up again. At higher altitudes and higher rpms, I was getting missing and high speed fouling of number 4 spark plug. This same miss had shown up in Iowa, at much lower altitude, while riding the Minnesota 1000, a 24 hour Team Strange motorcycle rally similar to the IBR, but much shorter time frame. I had already sealed off some heat sources that pumped hot air past the carburetors. I also did some work on the carburetors. I thought I had the problem solved. Obviously, it was more complicated than what I originally thought.
I got to the Honda dealer in Denver to look at the bike. The mechanic, who had a lot of experience on these old Hondas, thought I had carburetor problems. Not good. Prior to leaving for the rally, I had replaced the four air cut off valve diaphragms, plus the accelerator pump diaphragm. I did not disassemble the carburetors to soak and clean them, a mistake, in hind sight. Im not an expert at carburetors, although I have the mechanical abilities to do the work. That hesitancy kept me from digging deep into the carburetors prior to the IBR. They were working fine, so why mess with them?
My riding buddy, Rich Buber, came to Denver. He came to see the start, and to see me off. He is also working on an IBA certificate; 100,000 documented miles riding a motorcycle, accomplished in one year. He is well in to his project. Rich and I rode a UCC in 2004. We rode together on the Haul Road, 400 miles of gravel each way, from north of Fairbanks to Deadhorse, Alaska. He rides a 1978 Honda GL1000, with over 200,000 miles on it now. He has a good opinion of my GL1100 mule, but his definition of a sidecar is, A device that ruins a perfectly good motorcycle. I forgive him.
With the issues and expertise at hand, Rich and I decided to pull the carburetor bank from my bike, and take a look at the jets in #4 carburetor. I had an extra jet and gasket kit with me. This was definitely a gutsy move, because any unforeseen snag or broken part, and I was out of luck. We did the work in the parking ramp adjacent to the motel. By evening, the carburetors were back on the bike, and it was running fine. I also purchased some fuel additive. However, I assumed most of my problems were in the small air passages in the carburetor, and no fuel or additive will be running through them. Ill have to drive the rig, being sensitive to its needs and limitations.
The rally packets were passed out the night prior to the start. I went up to my room and planned routes. Lots of bonus stops in the northwest, Pacific coast, and the southwest coast. I spend two hours with routes in that region. Many bonuses had time limits on them, making for a very technical route with little time for errors.
I eventually eyed some high point eastern bonuses, including Key West, Florida. That was my route; ride to Key West for 14,001 points, take my sleep bonus, and ride back. This was a very do-able route, and a safe bet for me. The route is at lower elevation, where my motor will run better. I wasnt trying to win IBR. I was set to go.
Next morning I was off and on the road. Rich advised me to be sensitive to the bike and its soul, and to stroke it gently now and then under the valve cover. I saluted Mike Kneebone (aka Ask Lisa) as I pulled out of my parking slot. He returned the gesture. IBR was started. I almost missed my exit to I-70 East, but at the last minute, I made a fast slow down and headed in the right direction. The bike was running fine, although the engine miss was there. I kept my speed around 65 mph, to keep the miss from fouling the plug. Prior to the start, I had purchased a bunch of extra spark plugs, plus a butane torch to clean the plugs. At my first and second gas stop, I changed out the #4 spark plug. By the time I made it to western Kansas, I had dropped in altitude and the bike was running fine.
Top end on this rig is around 75 mph. Because of the smaller diameter car tires, the engine runs at higher rpms. My arbitrary limit for engine speed I set at 6000 rpms, which is 75 mph, right at the speed limit on most interstate highways. I wouldnt be doing any speeding during IBR, but thats not necessary in a rally like this. Efficient gas stops, good routing, maximum saddle time, adequately timed rest; these are the important components of a successful ride.
This rig handles great for long distance riding. It is a little more fatiguing than my BMW two wheeler, but not very significant. The rig doesnt have any pull when accelerating or stopping, and the only pull that appears comes because of varying degrees of road crown. Even with road crown pull, the leading link front fork keeps the pressure light on the handlebars, compared to a stock motorcycle front fork on a sidecar rig. I had no soreness in my shoulders or arms during IBR. It handles the prairie winds quite well too. The only issue I came across was in construction zones. In some construction, my lane was routed such that the large expansion joints between the concrete roadway and the blacktop shoulder were in my left tire track. Having flat car tires, and only one steer axle, these expansion joints would sometimes catch the front steer tire. Id be violently jerked to one side or the other as the steer tire was pulled through the expansion joint. I know drivers behind me were startled, because I saw folks give me distance after these incidents. The behavior was controllable and predictable, but it sure shifted the rig around quickly and violently. It did create some apprehension on my part, and kept me alert throughout construction zones.
I made it to Key West around noon on the second day and carefully documented my stop, with the proper photo and information. I also attached a Key West cash register receipt to my documents, after stopping for some sport drinks and snacks. I headed back north to the mainland. I had already slept in a motel along the way, but as I headed north, I was getting sleepy. I stopped for a 15 minute afternoon snooze, not an unusual thing for me, even during my regular life. As I pulled in to a picnic area along the Atlantic Ocean, I hit a pot hole. I pulled out my sleeping pad, and just as I was lying down, Bob Mutcher stopped. He is the other sidecar rider in IBR. Bob also suffers from the aftermath of polio and uses crutches to walk around, which is the reason he rides a rig. Bob also has way more miles behind him on his rig, compared to me. Hes a great and a very experienced long distance sidecar rider. Bob had a problem however. He had to replace a broken shock absorber bolt on his sidecar. He had the bolt, but not the proper tools. I had the tools and a jack. I explained my situation to him, namely I wanted to sleep for 15 minutes or so. He went to work on his rig, using my tools. I woke up again, about when he was done, and we both packed up and took off. He led the way.
About 15 minutes down the road, I started experiencing a maybe Im getting a flat tire feeling. I stopped and checked the tire. Sure enough, the rear tire was low. That pot hole must have done some damage. Bob did not see me stop. I pumped up the tire and continued to Florida City where there was a good air source. Sure enough, there was a leak in the weld between the tubular spoke and rim of the rear wheel. Its time to put a tube in. Unfortunately, after pumping up the replacement tube, prior to installation, I recognized the tube I had along appeared small for the tire. The tube was for a 15 wheel, but a smaller profile tire, resulting in what likely will be some excessive stretching of the rubber when inflated. I didnt have any other options, since it was evening and bike shops were closed. Two hours later, I was up and running again. At the start of this repair, I had picked up a receipt at the gas station, to start my rest bonus. I found a near by motel, and slept off the remaining 4 hours of my 6 hour rest bonus. Eleven oclock that evening, and I was back on the road, headed for the Florida Turnpike.
Riding at speed on the Florida Turnpike, the wee hours of the night, and I start to feel the possibility of a flat again. Immediately it is definitely a flat, and now Im out of air on the rear tire and riding full speed on the rim. I need to get the speed down, keep control of the rig, get to a stop, not shred the rear tire, and get off the road; all of that right now. That accomplished, I inspect the rear tire. Its definitely flat, but thankfully its not shredded. I do have one more tube. I have a spare tire along, hidden in the sidecar, where it stayed. Im also on the Florida Turnpike. Its the middle of the night.
I decide my best bet is to install one of my spare valve stems, leave the tube in the tire, inflate the wheel despite the slow rim leak, and limp off the freeway. Changing out the tube is a 90 minute project, and the side of the Turnpike is not the place to do it.
The spare valve stems I have with me are standard sized stems, used on most motorcycle and car rims. Unfortunately, at this very moment on the side of the road, I discovered EML uses a valve stem with a larger diameter hole in the rim. In addition, when I removed the original valve stem in Florida City, in order to install the tube, I cut it out. The old stem was totally useless. I was definitely getting a lot of bad cards dealt to me.
There were a lot of rain showers in the area, and lightning. I made a few calls, but no tow service is available for an hour or more.
I got on the phone again to try and locate a valve stem. I located a near by truck stop on my GPS and called them, but they did not have a stem. They referred me to a mobile tire repair service. I got them on the phone, at oclock thirty. I was willing to pay his $125 charge, if he had a valve stem - or two. Unfortunately, he did not.
I was getting no where, and spending a lot of time doing it.
In the end, I removed the rear wheel, replaced the tube, and put it back together on the side of the road in the early hours of the morning. I endured two rain showers during the 3 hours I was on the side of the road. During that time, one IBR rider stopped and asked me if I was fine. I was, and I sent him on. At the very end, a truck driver stopped, and soon after a State Patrol car. By then, all I had left to do was put the left saddle bag back on, and I was off and rolling again. Im sure glad the State Patrol took his time to find me, because otherwise I would have been unable to do a complete tire removal and tube replacement on the side of the road. Boy, do I hate tubes, kind of.
At the next gas stop, I patch the original tube. The hole is on the tread side of the tube. There must have been a pebble in the tire, or I ran over something, or maybe I pinched it when I was prying the tire back on. I have a spare tube again.
Interesting to me, despite all these snags and mishaps, (broken weld, multiple flats, carburetor issues, limits on my top end speed) I was in very good spirits. I took each problem as it was presented to me, not getting mad or in a bad mood about it. I was also able to get two nights of adequate rest. Each mechanical issue was like a bump in the road, or maybe more like an unforeseen detour or construction zone. No huge deal, just fix the problem and get rolling again. I was on a mission to ride and finish IBR. My timing put me in Denver four hours prior to the opening of the checkpoint. I would have time for four or five hours of sleep. I was rolling and on a decent schedule.
Next day during a gas stop, I noticed that a bolt on the bracket connecting the upper, rear strut of the sidecar to the motorcycle frame is loose. The bolt has extracted itself a bit. The second bolt is broken from long before, and because of that, the bracket is already welded to the frame. Unfortunately, because of the loose bolt, the weld has been flexing for as long as this bolt has been loose. I carefully inspect the weld, and it looks cracked. Id better get it welded before I get to Denver. Its day time now, and these kind of problems usually come to haunt me in a big way once the sun goes down. At the gas stop, I ask and locate a good welder. Two hours later, and Im back on the road. Unfortunately, this is cutting in to my sleep time in Denver.
I make it back to Denver with no more incidents, other than being violently thrown around by expansion joints in construction zones. The miss in #4 cylinder started appearing as I got around 4800 feet elevation. It is showing up at a higher elevation this time. I can tell the engine is in need of more air at this elevation. Thank goodness leg 2 heads toward Maine and lower elevations. Except for the miss, the engine seems to be running better then at the start of this leg.
In Denver I make it through the leg 1 points tally with no deductions. Thank you, Eddie James and the heartless Team Strange judges. Team Strange judges take great pleasure in denying bonuses during the tally at the end of a Team Strange rally. I have learned how to pay attention to the small details, to insure I get all my bonus points.
One interesting fact was documented for me during leg 1. I stopped for a routine gas stop, knowing that soon Id be turning over 100,000 miles on the odometer. Randomly, I filled up at 99,999 miles. What a coincidence, and fun to record that mileage on the fuel log.
Soon I received the bonus list for leg 2. Rich is at the motel, and I came up with a strategy for my trip to Maine. St. Louis has a day light bonus that I need to make. It is going to be a tough run to Maine, with not much extra time available. I take only two hours sleep at the motel, and Im off. My first 5 hours of riding will be at 65 mph, until I get to lower altitude in Kansas. My plan is to make St. Louis the following evening during day light, with a few naps along the way. Ill get a good rest after bagging the St. Louis bonus. Unfortunately, that was not to be.
West of Kansas City, I got another flat. Fortunately, it came slowly, and in addition, I was able to pull over at a freeway rest area. It was a hot afternoon, but I found a shady spot and went to work again. I also called some help numbers, provided to IBR riders. Once I removed the wheel and tire, I saw I had a broken weld that was fairly long. The weld had pinched the tube. With the wheel and tire removed, I needed to get the wheel to a shop to weld it, or else I had to put it back together and ride to a shop, and remove it once more to get it welded. I talked to some maintenance fellows at the rest area, who said there is a Harley dealer just one mile down the road. I called; yes, they will come and get me and my wheel and will take care of me right away. Phone calls started coming in from the IBR help folks. I was getting results, and getting back on the road. The Harley dealer welded the wheel and put in the right sized tube. I also purchased an extra tube. About 4 hours later, I had the wheel back on the bike, and I was on the road.
Unfortunately, with all the welding from the last four repairs, the wheel was no longer round. The mechanic had me look at it when the wheel was being spin balanced. There has always been a thumping, especially strong in the 70 to 75 mph area. Now I know the source of the thumping, and I soon discovered it was stronger after this repair, despite being balanced. Ill have to keep my speed down a little, so I dont crack the rim again before I make it to Maine. Making it to St. Louis during daylight hours is now out.
I ride on, running around 65 mph to keep the thumping down. After resetting my GPS when I left the Harley dealer, my overall average speed is not good. Its below 60 mph, including the time utilized for gas stops. As I continue through Kansas City, and eventually to St. Louis, I mentally recheck my math many times. Distance to Buxton, ME divided by overall average speed. Subtract this from the time I have available until the checkpoint opens or closes, and I have only 4 or 5 hours of sleep time available to me. I have two nights to ride through. This is not going to work for me. I need a few more hours of sleep time available to me, in order to safely make this leg. Im also riding on a wheel that is fatigued, and has multiple welds on it. While I was at the Harley dealer, I talked to Rich on the phone, and he expressed great concern for the safety and integrity of the wheel, and concern about a catastrophic failure of the wheel.
If I was in fact able to make it to Maine with about 5 hours of sleep, I would need to take a long rest at the start of leg 3. I would also be way behind in points, since my options to get to Maine before the check point closed left little to no extra time for bonus hunting. Leg 3 would require an extraordinary effort, with limitations created by a big need for sleep, plus an ailing motorcycle. To be a finisher, I had to earn a minimum number of bonus points, plus make all the check points on time. I would be behind on bonus points from Leg 2, and would have to make up those points during Leg 3. My goose was cooked. Ive never DNFs a LD motorcycle event before, and DNFing during IBR is unthinkable. However, here it was, right in front of me. I pushed off the decision for as long as I could, and continued riding, until the obvious was obvious. By the time evening came, I called Lisa and told her I was not able to make the Maine checkpoint in time. With the condition of my motorcycle wheel, my overall average speed, and the sleep I needed along the way, I was out of the rally.
Lisa talked to me for at least 15 minutes. I was surprised, since my old sidecar rig is definitely a hopeless class relic. Amazingly, at the time I called Lisa, and for much of the next day riding home, I was not disappointed with my failure. I knew I was out of options. However, next day, as I slowly rode home, I kept asking myself, What if I had done&&?
After more time thinking about my aborted ride, I believe the only thing I could have changed was preparation. I was dealt some bad cards; fate and the Furies were against me. I could not have anticipated the failure of the rear wheel, with the knowledge I had at the time. Since IBR, Ive learned the spoke style EML wheel that I have is prone to failure. I did not know that fact prior to IBR. I did have to weld my rear wheel prior to IBR. As a result, the only bad decision that was fatal was to not at least find an old GL1100 motorcycle wheel, and bring that along. Obviously, not completely overhauling the carburetors was a bad decision, but that did not haunt me too much.
Im probably the only one entered in the rally who thought I had a good chance of finishing. I lost at least 8 hours of time dealing with flats, time otherwise spent sleeping or riding. Deciding to stop to weld the sidecar strut bracket, which was a good decision, did cost me sleep time in Denver. It was not a timely occurrence. I planned a 4 to 5 hour sleep in Denver prior to the check point opening. As it was, I only got a short nap prior to getting my leg 2 bonus list, and then only two hours of solid sleep afterwards, prior to departure. The St. Louis daylight bonus created a timing issue, limiting my sleep time. I also traveled through the higher altitude of Colorado and part of Kansas three times, at less than optimum speed.
I still know I can ride IBR on the same rig, and finish. I already have a new rear wheel, plus Ill make a few other changes to optimize my future long distance riding on the rig. Ill need to do some long, multi-day IBA rides on the rig, to further shake down the rig and me. Hopefully Im given another opportunity to run IBR on a sidecar rig. In the mean time, those longer, multi-day IBA rides need to be run on a sidecar rig. Im game to do them.
Will I try IBR again, with the GL1100-EML rig? Probably, if given the opportunity. I do admit that I look at the newer rigs, newer bikes with EZS, Sidebike, or Armec sidecar conversions; high performance set ups with center hub steering and torsion bar between the motorcycle drive axle and the sidecar axle. Maybe the right buy will come along, and Ill have the funds available. I do know a fellow with an EML on a newer ST1100, an EML Tourist T model, like my sidecar. The combination is a good rig for me, if he decides to sell it.
The fact about failure is that success becomes much sweeter. Im eager to taste it.