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2003 Iron Butt Rally

by Bob Higdon

August 9, 2003

Missoula, Montana: Day -2


Yesterday afternoon, as the temperature began inching up to 175 degrees, I was standing in a gas station in Salmon, Idaho, sweating like a sinner and trying to remember my name. A guy behind me, noting the 85 pounds of Aerostich Darien clothes that hung on me like divers' weights, guessed by the pain in my face that I was a motorcyclist. He asked if I were heading to Sturgis. He referred, of course, to the ritual gathering of the Harley cult in South Dakota. "No," I sighed. "I'm going to an event that is in many ways even more strange. I'm heading to Missoula and the Iron Butt Rally."

One-hundred-and-nineteen riders from 30 continents and four planets have begun gathering in the Holiday Inn parking lot in this western Montana city to begin what will be one of the epic adventures of their lives: surviving the registration process for the 2003 Iron Butt Rally. On Monday morning the actual ride begins, but that is too far into the future right now for anyone to contemplate.

The process is admittedly arduous, worthy of the attention of a time-and-motion expert. Stand in one line to have pre-registration forms verified. Next, prove that your insurance, registration, and driver's license aren't forged. Accompany a tech inspector while he reviews the condition of your bike, with particular emphasis on the fuel system and muffler. In mid-morning Quek Cheng Chye learned that his Two Brothers exhaust had tripped Tom Austin's decibel meter at 107, two notches over the limit. The IBR is sensitive to the motorcycle noise issue. Loud pipes in this event don't save lives; they get you ejected and shunned.

Even Chye, a rookie, knew better than to argue with Austin, the IBR's chief technical advisor, and his nasty meter. Tom has rallymaster Lisa Landry's imprimatur of Total Authority, so argument is not only pointless but holds numerous downside risks. Someone quickly came up with the name of a muffler packer out toward Lincoln (where Ted Kaczynski used to live) and Chye noisily headed off for repairs. The consensus is that a successful result under time pressure will augur a productive rally for the novice; failure, however, will augur something less happy.

If the bike passes tech, the rider is sent out on a 33-mile odometer check. Return and sit down in front of a video camera to swear that the eight releases you've signed represent your holy will and that the word "sue" will never escape your lips, unless she is a wife or blood relative. There are then more lines for more paperwork. Say "cheese" for the mug shot. Go to Chris Cimino's seminar on how to handle the press. This is not an insignificant problem for the organizers of long-distance events in a litigious society.

The press seminar was created by Iron Butt Association president Michael Kneebone in 2001 when he grew weary of riders succumbing to the tricks of reporters and boasting about exploits that would be turned into blood-chilling quotes in the next day's paper. "An iron-butted motorcyclist claims that blasting through 34 states in 71 hours on no sleep is easy as long as the hallucinations aren't too severe."

Most of the veterans now understand how the game is played. When Cimino in this year's seminar asked Peter Hoogeveen how fast his FJR1300 would go, Peter replied without a blink, "The speed limit." See? Now that's an experienced Iron Butt rider. Cimino's follow up question might have been, "Could it ever travel faster than that?," to which Peter would naturally have replied, "How would I know?"

After Cimino's talk the riders finish up insurance business with Ed Otto and receive a final blessing from Kneebone. With the formalities completed, the riders are now free to consider the errors of their ways. That will take the rest of today, most of tomorrow, and, for an unfortunate few, the next couple of weeks.

By 3:00 p.m. all but eight riders had checked in. That left more than five score of hyperkinetic overachievers bouncing around the hotel looking for trouble. The worst of the crew --- Paul Pelland, Todd Witte, and Eddie James --- are a trifecta of pure mischief from the worst kindergarten class you could ever imagine. Nothing grows where they have walked; no soul has hope that they have touched.

Two years ago, when Warren Harhay was reporting on the rally, he vowed to mention every rider's name at least once. I promise nothing of the sort. I intend to mention only those who have been involved in the most spectacular and the most stupid things that erupt in the next couple of weeks. There will be moments of great glory, terrible sadness, and incredible irony. There always are. That's the nature of this awesome event. And somehow Pelland, Witte, and James will find their way into the middle of it.

August 10, 2003

Missoula, Montana: Day -1

Who's Who

The final rider count is 117 bikes. One team is two-up. A breakdown and a family emergency today will keep John Ferber and Gary Johnson, both Iron Butt veterans, out of this year's running. They aren't the only experienced hotshoes missing from the 2003 lineup. Gary Eagan, the winner in 1995, is at home. The 1997 champion, Rick Morrison, after having set almost every motorcycle endurance record imaginable, claims to be in retirement. George Barnes is out this year. He won in 1999, setting an IBR record of about two billion miles in the process. Only Bob Hall, the top dog two years ago, is here, trying for a second IBR crown. The bookmakers in Las Vegas are not looking kindly upon his chances. Since Mike Kneebone raised the Iron Butt Rally from the ashes in 1991, no rider has ever won twice. Shane Smith, with three top-10 finishes in three tries (including a second overall in 2001), couldn't make the start, nor could the profoundly cherubic Morris Kreumcke. Other perennial stalwarts absent this year are Chuck Pickett, Asa Hutchinson, Bill Kramer, Bob Ray, and Germany's Martin Hildebrandt. These are all colorful people; their absence makes the rally seem just a little paler this year.

The veterans who have showed up are tanned, rested, and ready to roll. They are a Who's Who of the long-distance motorcycle world with hundreds of huge rides in their collective wake: five-time finisher Harold Brooks; Joe Mandeville, a member of the exclusive 100,000-mile-year club; Paul Taylor; Eric Jewell; Eddie James; Tom Loegering; prosecutor Manny Sameiro; ISDE qualifier Dick Fish; Rallye Tunisia finisher Steve Eversfield (via Great Britain); Dennis Kesseler; and Tom Loftus. You'll probably be seeing their names toward the top of the rankings for the remainder of the rally.

And then there's Peter Hoogeveen, who has more podium finishes on this event than anyone else. What he lacks is a win. His string of second-place finishes in rallies all over North America is the stuff of legend. Still, no one in his right mind would bet against this tireless Canadian.

There are 67 rookies in the pack. Most of them have no chance for distinction. But some will do amazingly well and cause no trouble. Other riders won't do well at all but will cause metric tons of trouble. Take, for example, Leonard Aron, an attorney who looks as if he might have been a defendant in the Chicago Seven trial. He isn't a rookie, but he often acts like one. He introduced himself to one of the check-in workers yesterday with this: "I'm Leonard. It isn't easy being Leonard. But I make it look easy because I'm so good at it." His singular claim to IBR fame was that in 2001, after a bunch of miserable DNFs, he shoved a '46 Indian completely around the country. It was the oldest bike ever to complete the IBR. After that, Leonard has nothing to prove in endurance riding forever.

At the drivers' meeting in the afternoon, rules and procedures were reviewed a final time. For example, it is critical that you must call the rallymaster if you are going to be more than two hours late to a checkpoint. A hand was raised: Suppose I am allowed only one phone call? You get the idea.

Mark Kiecker, who came in 10th two years ago, wondered whether he would be considered a finisher if his bike broke down in Texas and he trailered it to the next checkpoint. Kiecker is known to the IBR administration as a relentless provocateur, a younger, slimmer version of Eddie James. Mike Kneebone's usually calm demeanor went stratospheric in a matter of milliseconds. He threatened to have the next person who asked such a question doused with acid and set afire. The meeting moved along more briskly after that.

At the opening banquet, Lisa Landry, a finisher on the 2001 IBR and this year's rallymaster, took over the meeting to pass out name tags and rally identification towels to the riders. Bob Hall received towel No. 1 in recognition of his status as defending champion. In 2001 when I was the holder of towel No. 1, they told me the number represented my percentage chance of reaching the first checkpoint in something other than an ambulance. I thought it represented the rider's anticipated finishing position. When Hoogeveen was handed towel No. 116, he sighed, "Of course. Second to last. I can't even be last."

The riders and guests then filed out into the Holiday Inn's lobby atrium. A moment later Michael Kneebone appeared on a second-floor balcony decked out in a white robe and mitre, looking every bit the twin of Pope Silver Wing the First. He gave a brief blessing to his children, wished them a safe journey, and commanded them not to speed in school zones. The audience over, the crowd disappeared --- some to plot routes to the first checkpoint, some to hoist a glass in the bar, and some to scribble furiously by candlelight in a cold, dark garret.

When I mentioned some of those missing in action above, I neglected two because their stories are significantly different. One, Dan Lowery, isn't here tonight because he is on his way back to Cody, Wyoming, to pick up his bike. It is recuperating from a blown whozit or a fractured whatzit. We never use the word "race" in endurance rally circles, but at this moment Lowery is in a legitimate race to retrieve his bike, chase back up here to Missoula, obtain a timed receipt, and then head off to the first checkpoint in Nevada. He will be hours behind the field; he will have no chance to win the rally; he probably won't get a single bonus on the first leg; but he will be on the road and running. That's all that matters to him. Any one of these 117 riders can appreciate that.

Another MIA is Airyn Darling. She has never run an Iron Butt, but she has worked on the last couple as a volunteer. Missoula isn't far from her home in Seattle, and she had confidently expected to be here. Unfortunately, conflicts with her work schedule at a wolf shelter kept her from being here. She sent a despondent e-mail to me a few weeks ago.

I tried to console her. "You have to choose between the animals that you can help and the animals that no one can help." Tonight the animals that no one can help are but one restless night's sleep away from the ride of their lives.

And with that I blow out my candle.

August 11, 2003

Missoula, Montana: Day 0

Bill Shaw's Surprise

Rallmaster Lisa Landry was wearing the same ominous shroud worn by the evil Lord Kneebone at the start of the last IBR when she appeared in the parking lot at 9:40 this morning. Eager motorcyclists immediately clotted around her like white blood cells attacking an infection. They had been told at the riders' meeting the day before that they would be exiting through the south end of the lot. The rallymaster slowly lifted her nose skyward, took in the scent of smoke from forest fires to the west of the city, and concluded upon further reflection that it would be better for riders to use the north exit.

I glanced at rookie Bill Shaw. He has been writing a series of articles for Motorcycle Consumer News about preparing both a motorcycle and one's soul for the IBR. A look of uncomprehending pain was creasing his face. His bike was positioned six inches from the sawhorse at the south entrance. One minute earlier he would have been the first bike out of the lot; now the entire field would be lined up ahead of him. I smiled cruelly and thought, "Welcome to the Butt, Bill. Let the mind games begin."

Shaw's loss was Paul and Voni Glaves' gain. In a motorcycle popularity contest these two would receive about 112 percent of the vote. Voni won a BMW Motorcycle Owners of America club mileage contest a few years ago with 73,000 miles in six months. Paul is a former president of the same club. Their bikes were parked at the north end of the lot. As a reward for their quiet willingness to be last out of the gate, they became the first. Rick Rohlf's BMW was third in line. Five minutes before the 10:00 a.m. start, I walked over to him. "You know what they do with jets that stall on the carrier's flight deck?" I asked.

"They throw them over the side," he answered correctly.

As the Glaves began to roll toward the exit moments later, Rohlf punched his starter button. Nothing happened. We threw him over the side. Twenty minutes later all but one of the machines had disappeared into the hazy smoke that still swirled through the city.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The plan in 1997 was for Mike Kneebone and me to rent a Lincoln and follow the rally around the country, checkpoint to checkpoint, from Chicago back to Chicago. We weren't out of the city limits on the first leg of the event before we realized we had made a monumental mistake. A big road trip on a bike is an adventure; a big road trip in a car is idiocy. I vowed never to be associated with such foolishness again.

It is 3:55 p.m. MDT as I type these words. Somewhere in northeastern Idaho I sit in a van, a Pontiac Montana --- the Spanish word for "moron" --- that sways rhythmically from side to side. In another 304,000 oscillations I will be green enough to hang my head out the window and leave lunch on the highway that winds through this beautiful landscape. But there are no windows where I sit in the back of Moron. That means we will have to stop. No one wants that. Bringing this unwieldy pig to a halt and discharging its passengers could take up to a week.

Why a van? That's what I wonder. Sure, we have doubled the space of the old Lincoln, but we have also doubled the crew: Lisa (rallymaster) and Warren Harhay (rally cinematographer) are now with Mike and me. We have doubled the bladders that need draining, tripled the luggage, and quadrupled the angst. I was told a few days ago that a pool was taking bets on when my fellow travelers would either throw me out of the Moron or strap me onto the luggage rack on its roof.

I don't want to think about that. Instead I try to remember who these horsemen were. Death, disease, famine, and Oprah? I can't do it. Whoever they were, we have channeled them in a Pontiac Moron. I'm seeing shades of green. Just 22,000 more oscillations and . . . well, I don't want to think about that either.

Casualty Report

Two of the five bikes in the Hopeless Class --- motorcycles challenged by age, power, ugly paint, or a combination of the above --- have chalk outlines around them tonight.

At 2:55 this afternoon we received a call that Ken Morton's '82 Honda Silver Wing was having electrical problems north of Idaho Falls. Exactly 90 minutes later we passed him. The roadside temperature was over 100 degrees. We would have stopped but we didn't want to let the cold air out of the Moron. Besides, the tow truck was there.

At 4:39 we learned that Jim Winterer's '81 Yamaha 500cc single, a bike that completed the last IBR, had rolled to a stop at a farm access road near Riggins, Idaho. Diagnosis: Transmission failure. Prognosis: Toe tag. The owner of the property is a BMW MOA member. He knows MOA board member and Iron Butt vet Karol Patzer. Winterer knows Karol, and tonight he has a place to sleep.

Within seven hours of the start two bikes bit the dust. Two hundred fifty-seven hours remain.

August 12, 2003

Primm, Nevada: Day 1

Ernie Pyle And Me

Someone, maybe von Clausewitz, called it the fog of war. Information comes in. It sounds good, but it turns out to be bad. You think it's true, but it's crap. Yesterday morning smoke from fires in the mountains west of the city wafted through downtown Missoula. It looked like Los Angeles during the riots. A woman walked by me in the parking lot. "Lolo Pass is closed," she said. "I just heard it on the radio."

There are really only two main ways through the Bitterroot Mountains. One is via I-90, which once was a U.S. highway and before that a state highway and before that a wagon trail and before that a trapper's route and before that an Indian path and before that a deer track. In that sense, I suppose, it's fair to say that I-90 was originally mapped out by a jack rabbit.

The other route is by way of U.S. 12. It runs west over Lolo Pass toward Lowell, Idaho. On the Montana side is Lolo Hot Springs where in the movie A River Runs Through It Norman MacLean's brother was beaten to death in a bar. The real Paul MacLean was actually murdered in Chicago. The fog of poetic license.

The Montana-Idaho border lies at the top of the pass. To the west one of the world's great motorcycle roads begins, a section of uninterrupted curves for 77 continuous miles. At least some of the riders would have taken that road to reach bonuses in central Washington. If Lolo were really closed, they might not have gotten through. At that point, I thought, they might have backtracked to run south on U.S. 93, a highway that has been closed off and on because of fires during much of the past several weeks.

I went inside to the hotel receptionist. She had just been on the telephone with fire and highway officials in Montana and Idaho. Lolo was open. Really? Really. But was it really? Is a radio faster or more accurate than a telephone? Fog, fog.

Sometimes I tell people that I know what Ernie Pyle's life was like. He was a war correspondent in the Pacific during World War II. It is a tough, scary job. Accurate information is rare. Fog is everywhere. People really are out to get you. Ernie was killed by machine gun fire near Okinawa. A nation mourned. Some motorcyclist, angry that I have commented unfavorably on his riding style, will one day rearrange the back of my skull with a brick. The last thing I will see is fog.

How To Get From Montana To Nevada

The first thing a rider must decide when the list of bonus locations is dispensed at the beginning of a leg is the route to be taken to the next checkpoint. Some factors to be considered are the length of the proposed ride, the value of the bonuses, and the kinds of conditions --- principally roads and weather --- likely to be encountered. Additionally, experienced riders know that as the rally progresses, the bonuses invariably increase in value. The vagaries of human emotion also must be recognized and controlled. Conservative riding will trump greed every time.

In the first leg of the 2003 Iron Butt, there were three basic rides that looked appealing: 1) Ride west to Washington, south to the Nevada desert to reel in some easy bonus points, pass up the hard ones (like the Bristlecone Pine Forest and the charcoal kilns in Death Valley), and then to the checkpoint; 2) Ride south to the Nevada desert, pick up all the difficult bonuses there, and head to the checkpoint; 3) Ride south to the Nevada desert, skip the difficult desert bonuses, and grab the bonuses in downtown Las Vegas and Boulder City. Stay out of the desert as much as possible, especially in the afternoon. Conserve your strength. It only gets harder.

Before this first leg began, the administrators felt that route No. 1 was a poor choice because it was much too long for this early in the rally. Route No. 2 fared little better because some of the desert bonuses would be challenging for even highly-skilled motorcyclists. That left route No. 3.

Did the length of the Montana-Washington-Nevada route deter any hotshoes? Not a chance; seven of the top 10 riders listed below went that way. Was the weather much of a factor? Bob Ryan and Bob Cox started this morning with the temperature seven degrees above freezing. In the late afternoon they were riding in heat of 114 degrees. Did road conditions affect the ride? The Jungo Road in northern Nevada, as usual, took no prisoners, and the normally hard-pan, dry lake bed of the Black Rock Desert at Gerlach was wet enough in places this morning to trap more than a few bikes. Fortunately, volunteers were able to yank them out. Mark Kiecker, trying desperately to escape the mire, burned the clutch out in his Honda VFR800. He used a piece of a Folger's coffee can to repair the damage and made it to the finish.

When the dust had settled at the scoring table, the guys below were setting the pace. T:

1. Eric Jewell BMW 3,690

2. John O'Keefe BMW 3,506

3. Jeff Earls BMW 3,506

4. Jim Owen BMW 3,461

5. Todd Witte Yamaha 3,483

6. Tom Loftus Honda 3,434

7. Manny Sameiro Honda 3,431

8. Paul Pelland BMW 3,385

9. Jeff Powell BMW 3,282

10. Leonard Roy Honda 3,282

The Casualties Continue

There are five cell phones, six laptop computers, and two satellite radios in Moron, the van from Hell. Warren Harhay says that the contents are worth more than the vehicle that's carrying them. Cell phones are the worst annoyance; the closer we are to a checkpoint, the more frequently they ring. Sometimes two go off at once. I shudder when even one lights up. No one ever calls with good news.

Yesterday we reported that Ken Morton's beater had crumped due to electrical issues north of Idaho Falls. He revised his diagnosis to blame carburetor gunk. If he's right, we'll move him from the category of In The Toilet to In the Bathroom. It's not anywhere close to On The Podium, of course, and it may not sound like much of an improvement to you, but Morton will take it.

Homer Krout called late yesterday afternoon. His Harley had overheated in a 25-mile traffic jam north of Ogden, Utah. He was unable to restart it. Fearing a burned out something or other, he was towed into town. The mechanics found nothing fried. Krout is back in the hunt.

Speaking of fire, Dennis ("Sparky") Kesseler saw enough of it this morning to last him a lifetime. He and Paul Taylor had just bagged the large bonus in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, the home of some of the oldest living things on Earth. Kesseler suddenly noticed that both he and his Aprilia Caponord were on fire. He jumped away from the flaming machine and rolled in the dirt to extinguish himself. The bike's tank then exploded. A moment later his four-gallon fuel cell also erupted. A ball of blistering, stinking, black smoke shot high into the air. Could Kesseler's day possibly get any worse?

Yes. Before he could regain his footing, flames from the bike started a brush fire. Think of it: For 4,500 years those aged trees have withstood everything the planet could throw at them --- rain, hail, lightning, snow, and sandstorms. Then an Iron Butt rider shows up on his blazing steed. The horror, the horror.

Fortunately for everyone, the fires were quickly controlled. Dennis headed for Los Angeles in a rental car to borrow a bike and rejoin the rally. He was time-barred at the checkpoint tonight, lost all the points he had accumulated during the first leg (including the points in the bristlecone forest), and will be barred from chasing any bonus points on the next leg. Then it gets worse: Changing machines in mid-rally invokes a 10,000-point penalty. When Dennis arrives at the second checkpoint in Florida in a few days, his total score will be -10,000. It is the rare and nightmarish triple crown of Iron Butt disasters. And it's no wonder those old trees have lived so long; they always get the last laugh.

Other stories from the day weren't nearly so humorous. Dan Lowery, who had retreated to Wyoming before the rally started to pick up a repaired bike, managed to return to Missoula, hours behind the other riders, only to develop an intractable clutch problem. That was the stake through his BMW's heart. A forest rat --- you may know these vile animals as "deer" --- jumped in front of Russell Stephan near the Oregon-Nevada border early this morning. The front end of the Honda was demolished; Russell, shaken, didn't have a scratch. Finally, Patrick Jacobson's Harley sidecar rig was another to be hammered by the Black Rock Desert. His suspension system may have suffered damage that cannot easily be repaired in time for him to continue.

But at least he didn't burn down anything.

August 13, 2003

Albuquerque, New Mexico: Day 2

Go West, Young Man, Or Maybe East

The first leg of the 2003 edition of the Iron Butt Rally followed a typical format with its route instructions. Thirty-three bonus listings spread over nine pages invited the riders to figure out the most efficient and effective way to pile up points between Missoula, Montana, and Primm, Nevada.

You might think that there is a fairly good correlation between efficient riding and a high finishing position. There isn't. More than any other factor, a winning ride almost invariably correlates with total miles ridden. There's no getting around it: Efficiency looks great, but sloppy most often takes home the bacon. Never forget, however, that fatigue can easily give it all back. The dynamics are complex.

After the first leg the points-per-mile efficiency of Eric Jewell and Bob Cox was almost the same (2.12 vs. 2.11), but Jewell stood in first place while Cox was 60th. The difference was that Cox had ridden a very short, controlled route while Jewell was all over the map, racking up 621 more miles than Cox. A rider with excellent efficiency is smart; a rider with big points is an animal; a rider with both is the guy to beat in the Iron Butt.

But the bonus instructions are not always so straightforward. In 1993 Mike Kneebone handed out not one but two sets of instructions for a single leg. He called it "Pick Your Poison." Both sets of route instructions went from Point A to Point B, but one set was dramatically more difficult than the other. You didn't have to decide which route to follow, but if you began picking up bonuses from Poisoned Route No. 1, you couldn't grab any from the other route.

It sounds somewhat worse than it was. The tough route was clearly for those who had aspirations of winning the event; the simpler set of instructions was for everybody else. Most entrants realize that they have no realistic chance to win this rally. Being selected in the drawing for a starting number was more luck than they ever should have had. They had jumped to the head of a line of more than 2,100 hopefuls. For almost everyone the mere fact of being able to participate in such an amazing circus is sufficient. There are rides with some friends in the country; there are cross-country rides that can last weeks; you may take rides to foreign lands. And then there is the Iron Butt, the big one. Winning it, except for a couple of dozen heavies with the thousand-yard stares, isn't why they're there. Finishing it is.

For the second leg on this year's IBR from Nevada to Florida, Kneebone turned up the heat to a degree that was clearly uncomfortable for more than a few of the riders. Instead of having the opportunity to check out bonuses in a single set of route instructions or having the chance to compare two sets of route instructions and decide which might be more suitable, at 11:00 p.m. PDT last night the evil Lord Kneebone forced the lambs to select one of two possible routes out of Nevada without first being able to look at either of them.

It was a variant on a theme from the original Matrix film. The rider would pick a colored pill, red or blue, and once having done so, his future would be fixed for the next several days. The riders had been gathered together in a huge showroom. Kneebone walked up to the stage. They stared at him uneasily.

"In that movie," he began, "the blue pill made your life fairly easy and safe, but it wasn't reality. If you needed reality, with all its sordid, downside risks, you'd take the red pill. Your life would immediately become hard, dirty, tiring, nasty, brutish, and short. But it was in the tradition of True Iron Butt. And it will be the route that the winner of this rally will take. Any questions?"

A hand was raised. "Is there any way the blue pill route can win?"

"Yes," Mike said. "If every single rider on the red pill route crashes, breaks down, goes home, is time-barred at the next checkpoint, develops tertiary syphilis, or is abducted by aliens, it is theoretically possible that a rider on the blue pill route could win. Still, I view it as unlikely."

There it was. You want to win? Pick that red pill. You say you don't have a clue where it could take you? Well, Kneebone spent the next 20 minutes trying to assure the quaking riders that most of the rumors they'd heard during the months leading up to the event were baseless. Yeah, one option was the road to Goose Bay, Labrador, but it wasn't worth taking. No, the winning route wouldn't require slogging through 15,000 miles of corrugated dirt roads. Yes, rallymaster Lisa Landry had gone to every major bonus aboard her massive Gold Wing, and if she can do it, stop telling me that you can't.

The long and short of it was that taking the blue pill would guarantee a nice, easy ride from Las Vegas to Florida via the top of Mt. Evans in Colorado (the highest paved road in the U.S.) or via the bowels of Carlsbad Caverns. The average motorcyclist would view either of such trips as the mother of all rides; for the Butt entrant, it was not much better than an also-ran. Me? I'd have kicked my own mother down the stairs for one of those blue pills. Let's be realistic, OK?

Lisa and Mike arranged to have the riders approach the stage single-file, declare their preference of pill color, and accept one. Having done so, they were directed to return to the chairs in the audience. The chairs to the left of the stage were for red pill holders; those to the right for blue. I later asked Mike how he and Lisa had arrived at this structured kind of dance.

"People are constantly telling me that they're ready to go to Prudhoe Bay or Cabo San Lucas or the Isles Beneath the Wind. Talk is cheap. Half the people who declared they were going to Alaska in 2001 never went near the place. I thought it was time for them to decide in advance whether they were big dogs or not. The red pill will win. I told them that. The blue one won't. You want that red sucker, not knowing where it will take you? Here it is, Jack, and good luck."

All in all, they had about two hours to consider the odds. Then they were lined up and fed up to the stage one by one where Lisa waited with the two bowls of pills.

"Red or blue?" she asked repeatedly.

Kneebone dotes on this sort of drama. It's the most obvious kind of cheap, staged effect, from the Greeks to Jolson. I tell him that these poor bastards are tired, frazzled, and crazier than rats in a coffee can. They don't need to stand in a line like this, I plead. They need to be lying down in a manger somewhere, loaded up with 200 mg of Ambien and Prozac, dreaming of bunnies hopping through a green meadow. You're prolonging their nightmares, I say. Have you no sense of shame, sir? He chuckles sadistically.

When the ceremonies were concluded, just 33 of the still-standing 110 riders held red pills in their sweaty fists. Thirty-four had initially picked red, but Rob Nye, a BMW MOA club director, chugged back to the stage just before bonus packages were handed out and begged for the chance to exchange his red pill for something milder. Landry granted his wish.

Today 77 riders are on their way to Florida, while 33 of their friends have gone in the opposite direction to the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. There they will receive further instructions. Pain is on the horizon, I fear. Stay tuned.

August 14, 2003

Day 3: In a Van Named "Moron" in a Louisiana Swamp in the Middle of the Night

The Spider's Web

As noted yesterday, the 110 riders who survived the desert's oppressive heat to arrive at the first checkpoint in southern Nevada had a serious choice to make for the following leg: If they wanted to win this rally, they would take the red route package. If they wanted simply to finish with a gold, silver, or bronze medal, they would take the blue route. There was one other problem: They weren't permitted to see either package of bonuses before making a choice. Mike Kneebone took questions, but it all came down to asking yourself whether you wanted to win or not. When the dark muttering subsided, 30 percent of the field was seeing red and the rest were turning blue.

With a pack now divided, most of the blues headed to Mt. Evans (west of Denver, Colorado), the highest paved road in North America, and then would complete a downward arc to the southeast and the checkpoint in Lake City, Florida. A few of the blues, mostly those in the Hopeless Class of underpowered bike or rider, would aim straight for the East Coast, where a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico is wobbling around, not sure where to strike next.

For the red group, life was about to become more intricate still. Between 6:00 and 9:00 this morning all but a few of the 33 reds met legendary motorcyclist Dave Barr at a Korean War memorial northeast of Bakersfield, California. Years ago Barr lost both legs to an Angolan land mine. That slowed down, but hardly stopped, his big rides. First he rode his Harley around the world, then he crossed the width of Europe and Russia with a sidecar in the middle of winter. Meeting someone like Barr would be worth it for even negative bonus points.

From there the group headed for the leg's largest bonus, "Kiecker's Nightmare," a serpentine, bumpy road that crawls up into the Sierras and dead ends at Mono Hot Springs. The final 13 miles are single lane with rumors of guard rails. Don't miss a corner or you and the bike will reach terminal velocity long before you impale yourselves on the rocks below. On the 2001 IBR, after reaching the Springs, Mark Kiecker called the rallymaster's cell phone and left this impression of the trip: "Kneebone, you suck."

The last worthwhile bonus of the day required showing up at Pat Widder's vacation house in Lake Isabella between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. Having worn out their spirits in the Sierras and their tires in the scorching heat of the San Joaquin valley, all 33 members of the red brigade found themselves at day's end not eight miles from where they had met Dave Barr that morning. This perfectly illustrates the Iron Butt water torture: Wander around for the entire day only to realize as the sun goes down that you have not advanced so much as one inch toward your goal in Florida.

But was the goal still Florida? At Widder's house the reds were handed another set of route instructions. The choices in that package --- pick just one --- were:

1) Aim due east for the Florida checkpoint and congratulate yourself for a good day's work. You'll be ahead of all the blue riders, but this route will not win the rally.

2) Show up at Ira Agins' house in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on the evening of Thursday, August 14, and receive still another set of route instructions. Those will tell you to: a) continue on to Florida as if nothing had happened, in which case you'll still be ahead of the blues but will have no chance to win the rally; or b) point your motorcycle north for a couple of bonuses near Anchorage, Alaska, and then, skipping the checkpoints in Florida and Maine, return directly to the finish in Missoula. This route is geared for those who hate the traffic, politics, and power outages of the East Coast. Successfully completing this ride will beat the blue guys but it won't win the rally. Still, if I were an entrant this year, I might take this route just to minimize the chances of running into Hillary Clinton.

3) Visit Goose Bay, Labrador. The ride to there from Pat Widder's front door is just over 4,000 miles, the last 550 of which run over bad dirt. Did I mention that Goose Bay is also at the end of a dead-end road? Add another 550 miles of ugly dirt for your retreat. In heavy rain, and there's always heavy rain at the latitude of Hudson Bay, the road can be impassable. This route isn't worth quite as much as option No. 4, but it's about 300 miles shorter. Take this ride and two things will happen: First, you can legitimately skip showing up at the Florida checkpoint; and second, you will be behind any of the riders who have succeeded in completing the fourth, and mercifully last, route.

4) Take a ride to Bella Coola, British Columbia. "Bella Coola" is an Eskimo phrase meaning "Please stop beating me with that caribou horn." If you are a crow in Vancouver, Bella Coola is just 266 flight miles to the northwest. The distance by road exceeds 600 miles. Because of road construction near the destination, there may be delays of up to four hours. As with option No. 3, if you take this route, you are permitted to skip the Florida checkpoint. But, and that's a big "but," if you survive the trip, avoid the caribou horns, and make it to Maine on time, you'll be leading the 2003 Iron Butt Rally with just one leg remaining.

Fun, huh? At Primm the field was divided into potential winners and everyone else. At Widder's the winners were further divided further still. Tonight the Butts are crawling around a dozen routes like spiders in a web. The strands cover the four corners of North America, but eventually they will all lead back to the center of the web, Missoula, where the two biggest spiders of all --- Landry and Kneebone --- await.

The Falling, the Fallen, and the Revived

Alan LeDuc and Jack Tollett, enormously popular riders from Indiana and Texas, experienced rally-ending accidents during the first leg. Alan encountered an especially bad section of the notorious Jungo Road in Nevada and went down. Jack is believed to have been the victim of a catastrophic rear-tire failure. Both were banged up and lost some cosmetic points for their experiences but are expected to make quick recoveries.

A truck blew a tire in front of Bill Shaw, causing a three-vehicle crash in Phoenix, Arizona. In a couple of seconds his gorgeous BMW K1200LT rearranged itself into the world's largest paperweight. Unable to find a replacement ride, he has been forced to withdraw.

BMW's relentless drive to shut down dealerships in North America in the face of a free fall in sales came home to roost with Jeff Powell when the charging system in his R1100RT blew up in Needles, California. Before the shop in Las Vegas was shut down, that would have been the closest dealer, a 114-mile haul. Now he faced a tow of twice that distance either to Pomona, California, or to Phoenix. Cost: a mere $700, plus whatever it takes to fix the machine.

A trail of dripping oil from a truck brought down Rob Nye, the Yankee Beemers' favorite son, in Moab, Utah. A truck's oil filter apparently had not been tightened properly by a mechanic during an oil change. Nye got a lift to a welder who repaired the shaved-down valve cover. In his last report, Nye said that he was up and over Mt. Evans and heading for Florida.

August 15, 2003

Lake City, Florida: Day 4

Road Trip

I think this is true: On Thursday morning at 8:00 a.m. we were eastbound from Albuquerque, New Mexico, in Moron, the van from Hell. That was the day I thought I'd left my cell phone in the motel room, but it turned out instead to be buried under 40 miles of wires and connectors, 12-volt inverters, a surge protector or two, liters of Diet Cokes and bottled water, clothes that haven't been washed since the Crimean War, and a few pounds of pistachio nuts.

Twenty-seven hours after leaving Albuquerque we rolled into the Holiday Inn in this hot, incredibly humid town in north-central Florida, after a certified cross-country all-nighter accomplished by four people who are clearly old enough to know better.

As I said, I'm hazy about those details, but this I know for certain: I am beginning to remember how miserably tired I was during the 2001 Iron Butt Rally, a sort of fatigue that leaves scars on the soul. Still, Moron beats any motorcycle ever made on a day when the heat is setting the highway afire.

I don't know how they do it, these crazy riders. I really don't.

The Red Guys

Thirty-three had chosen the red route package out of Las Vegas, had all completed a tough ride into the western Sierras, had all showed up for the last bonus at Pat Widder's house, and were now deciding whether to ride to Canada or back to Florida. If they went north, they could skip the checkpoint in Florida and rejoin the rally in Maine. If successful, they would be at the head of the pack with only the final leg back to Montana remaining. If they opted for Florida, they'd at least be ahead of the blue route riders and more rested than their friends on the red route.

Leonard Roy was the first to call late Wednesday night. "The rules require that I notify you if I will miss a checkpoint," Leonard told rallymaster Lisa Landry. "I hereby announce my intention to miss Florida. I will bring you a post card from Bella Coola when I see you in Maine." Alan Barbic and Dick Fish called a short time later to advise that they too were skipping Florida. They didn't say where they were headed, Bella Coola or Goose Bay, but for Fish it can't be anywhere but up. For losing his rider's card during the first leg, he sacrificed all the bonus points he'd earned during that section. His score in Primm stood at 0. That put him about 3,500 behind the leaders but 10,000 points ahead of Sparky Kesseler.

Other riders bound for Canada began calling in: Will Outlaw, Peter Hoogeveen, Paul Taylor, Mike Hutsal, Lee Myrah, Mark Kiecker, and Marty Leir. Landry received a garbled message that we think might have been from Bob Hall, the 2001 IBR winner. If others intend to skip Lake City, we haven't heard from them yet. At least three riders we had thought would be northbound --- Eric Jewell (the first-round leader), Eddie James, and Tom Loftus --- decided instead to point their bikes to Florida.

The Attrition Continues

On Thursday morning Kyle Crippen's rear tire went to heaven. He was trying to find a tow. He may not make the Florida checkpoint. In such a case the rider, unless he wants to give up completely, must ride to the checkpoint city, obtain a receipt that proves he was there, and arrive at the following checkpoint on time. If he makes it, he still loses all bonus points on both legs and receives no points for making the first checkpoint. For scoring purposes, the only thing worse --- aside from a DNF --- is switching bikes.

The bike-swap penalty is informally known as "pulling a Manny," after Manny Sameiro, who wrecked his Gold Wing on the first leg of the 1997 rally and finished on a Honda 500cc Magna. For those of you not familiar with these machines, it's comparable to moving from a Ferrari to a Dodge Neon. Sure, they're both cars in a metaphysical sense, but those good-looking dates you used to have don't seem to be returning your calls now that the Neon's in your garage.

Sameiro's was an heroic ride. It took him the remainder of the rally, but he eventually crawled up into positive numbers. Two years later, riding with Harold Brooks, he tied for third overall.

He'll be close to the bottom of the standings this year, unfortunately. His Wing apparently washed out in gravel in a corner on the way to the Primm checkpoint. The abrasions on his right forearm were bad enough for the New Jersey prosecutor to call it a day. At least he'll be symmetrical now; six years ago it was the left arm that took the hit.

A couple of days ago the plastic radiator in Dave Tyler's BMW K1100LT started to melt in the desert. He made it to a big bonus in Leadville, Colorado, at which point the radiator began leaking. Tyler nursed the machine south to Tucumcari, New Mexico, looking for replacement parts all the way but finding nothing. This morning, he was forced into retirement.

John Bolin, whose wife Karen is the president of the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, left Salt Lake City at 5:00 p.m. yesterday after having made frantic repairs to his bike. As he hurried toward Florida, he was called back to San Francisco today because of a family emergency. Our sympathies go out to John for a courageous ride under such daunting conditions.

This afternoon a 16-year-old driver turned in front of Rody Martin's '87 Yamaha Venture, a bike formerly owned by Michael Kneebone. The accident happened just 12 miles north of Mamou, Louisiana, a large bonus that was available to riders on both red and blue routes. Rody had an improbable rescue by the Wild Pelican Iron Butt Club, whose membership includes only riders who have completed an IBA-certified ride. They had been manning the Mamou bonus location. So well known is the club that word of mouth about Martin's wreck reached the Pelicans before even a telephone call could. Fortunately, Rody didn't break anything but was admitted to a local hospital for overnight observation.

When we last saw Russell Stephan, he had finished off both a deer and the front end of his motorcycle in about three-fifths of a second on U.S. 395 in Oregon. If that weren't enough, I negligently referred to him as "Stephan Russell" in that day's report, which is the sort of thing that must happen fairly often to people with two first names. With his rally in the tank, Russell bought a $2,000 truck to transport his mangled machine, drove to Las Vegas and dropped the bike off for repairs, sold the truck, bought a better one, and is now sightseeing somewhere in the West, waiting for the rally to return to him. He paid a lot of money for that final banquet ticket; he might as well stick around to use it.

August 16, 2003

Day 5: Washington, D.C.

The Florida Checkpoint

On the day after Paul Pelland learned that he had won a protracted, bitter, legal battle, he found himself in first place at the Lake City, Florida, checkpoint of the Iron Butt Rally. Two years ago he dragged a Ural motorcycle in the Hopeless Class around the country, surviving disasters by brute force on an almost daily basis. He finished so low in the standings that it took miners to find him. This year he's on a BMW R1100RT and has better than a 2,100-point lead over Eric Jewell and Rick Sauter. Still, the scoreboard isn't quite as simple as it looks.

The 110 riders who left the first checkpoint in Nevada split into two groups: 77 headed for Florida and 33 aimed for Southern California. The latter group split again with 22 riders going to Florida and 11 chugging toward Canada. The pack of 22 now occupies 20 of the first 21 positions in the standings. Todd Witte, at 20th place and the highest ranked of the blue-pill brigade, is 120 points ahead of Homer Krout, the lowest ranked of the red pills. This was almost exactly the scoring breakdown that Mike Kneebone and rallymaster Lisa Landry had predicted in Nevada.

All this ignores, however, the 11 riders who departed Southern California for the Great White North. We are fairly certain that they have all reached Bella Coola, British Columbia, or Goose Bay, Labrador. If they arrive at the Maine checkpoint on time, they will immediately take over the top positions, irrespective of what any of the riders in Florida may accomplish on their next leg. At that point only the final run back to Missoula will remain.

Virginia's Leon Begeman, 24th overall, apparently is insulted that his 250cc Kawasaki Ninja, the smallest machine in the rally, is assigned to the Hopeless Class. As usual, he is running like a man possessed. Tonight he stands 42 places ahead of Paul Meredith's 750cc Suzuki water buffalo. Sure, Meredith's two-stroke bike is ancient and struggles to get even 20 mpg, so maybe that's not a fair fight. But Begeman takes on motors with five times his displacement --- BMW K1200LTs and 1,800cc Gold Wings --- and chews them to pieces as well. If you put him on an armadillo, he might lose a few places, but he'd still be scratching his way down the road.

Sparky Kesseler, the terror of the Bristlecone Pine Forest, parked his replacement bike at the checkpoint, was awarded 2,000 points for making it to Florida without incinerating anything along the way, and remains firmly in control of 117th (and last) place with a total score of -8,000 points. This afternoon, however, he picked up some competition. Bob Wooldrige's '64 BMW R69S, having had alternator-replacement surgery two nights ago at Craig Vechorik's vintage BMW factory in Sturgis, Mississippi, has eaten a valve. Wooldrige grabbed a newer BMW, will take a 10,000-point hit in Maine, and soon should challenge Sparky to see who can crawl out of the negative number territory first. My bet is on Sparky; he'll torch Wooldrige's bike the first chance he gets.

The ride west to Lake City was not completely uneventful. John Langan hit a deer but was able to continue. Jerry Harris, coming down from the top of Mt. Evans in Colorado, was smacked by a mud slide. For a moment he thought he would skip through. He didn't. The right side of his BMW K1100LT looks as if it was scraped by a train, but it's still running somehow.

Great Britain's Steve Eversfield ran into a nightmare while attempting to pick up a valuable bonus in Silverton, Colorado. He was on U.S. 550, The Million Dollar Highway, one of the most picturesque roads in the West. Southbound from Ouray it rises straight up and over a couple of 10,000-foot passes. On a clear day you can almost see Argentina.

Eversfield, however, wasn't having a clear day; he was having a black, fearsome night. He was reminded of the terrifying Bald Mountain scenes from Fantasia, a movie that has sent two generations of children from playgrounds to psychiatrists. Lightning smashed into the hills all around his elevation, raising the hairs on the back of his neck. Unable to see through his rain-swept visor, he raised it. That was worse. In the Rocky Mountains that awful night he was practically the tallest thing around. He was also on top of a 700-pound block of metal.

A mud slide had wrecked Jerry Harris' day; a mud slide now saved Steve Eversfield's night. As he rounded a corner, he saw that the highway ahead had been completed washed away. He was the first vehicle southbound to encounter it. Disappointed was he? Not a bit of it, mate. He jumped off the bike, draped his identification towel on the rocks that covered the road, and snapped a photo. Because of an act of vengeful Nature, Eversfield would be able to claim the Silverton bonus without actually having to go there. Better still, he could turn around, get off that hateful mountain, and look for a quiet place to dry out and stop shaking.

All's well that ends well, right? Sometimes, but not for Eversfield. His Silverton bonus was disallowed by the scorers when he arrived in Florida.

"Excuse me?" he said in his best British accent, the kind of sound you hear just before a Limey begins beating your head in with a spanner and tyre iron. "The road was completely blocked. Other motorcyclists have verified it. I followed the rules exactly."

"Sorry," the scorer said. "There was an alternative route to Silverton."

"That 'alternative route' was a 300-mile loop around half the state of Colorado," Eversfield protested.

"True," the scorer replied, "but it was available."

In the old TV series set in New York, The Naked City, the closing voice-over intoned darkly each week, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them."

And there are eight million stories in the Iron Butt Rally. Some of them are sad.

August 17, 2003

Portland, Maine: Day 6

Reports from the Frozen North

Trying to retrieve accurate information from the 11 red-pill riders who left for Canada during the second leg of the rally last Wednesday has been harder than going 10 rounds against a kangaroo. But we do hear rumors and naturally have no hesitancy about repeating them. One of the best ones starts with the night that Paul Taylor was almost shot while trying to knock down the door of a house in British Columbia.

It was a dark and stormy night --- well, dark at least --- and Taylor was hustling toward the bonus in Bella Coola, British Columbia. Two riders passed him. That was irritating, for Paul is one of those rare riders who has not only finished the IBR in the top 10 (twice) but lived through Greg Frazier's vicious, invitation-only Big Dog Rally in the Rockies. He doesn't enjoy being overtaken by anyone.

As he began preparing for a counterattack, the alternator light on his BMW's R1150GS started glowing. He continued to ride, draining the battery and looking for help. He noticed a bed-and-breakfast and turned down the driveway. It was 2:00 a.m. He banged on the door. Nothing. More banging. More nothing.

Now if your alternator is dying, you might try changing the belt, right? And you always carry a spare belt with you, huh? Of course you do. So does Paul. So he started taking his bike apart to dig out the alternator only to discover that a socket he needed to handle the job was at home in Virginia.

Back to the front door he goes for more banging. After a while, he notices that a woman is aiming a rifle at him from a basement window. She has evidently called a neighbor to protect her from this deranged motorcyclist, because Paul sees the headlights of a pickup truck coming down the driveway. With the way his night has been going, the driver will probably be carrying a 50 mm cannon and a few grenades. Before war can break out, Paul manages to relate his story of woe. And while not everyone runs around at night with a 27 mm socket, the neighbor has one in the truck and lends it to Paul. The belt is replaced and everyone lives happily ever after.

Fast forward to later that morning. Peter Hoogeveen is staring at a "Road Closed" sign. It is barring his way to the Bella Coola bonus, just 30 miles away. A construction crew is preparing to do some blasting and the road will be nailed shut for about four hours. This is not good news for Peter. He begins to reason with the flagger. You have to know here that Peter's endurance riding exploits over the years have made him something of a hero in Canada. Magically he is slipped past the barricade.

What was good news for Hoogeveen was even better news for Will Outlaw who, at the moment Peter was being waved through, sat on the opposite end of the construction zone, unable to get out of Bella Coola. Apparently Peter's flagger radioed Outlaw's flagger and the gate suddenly opened for Outlaw too. When Paul Taylor, later held up for hours on the far side of the barrier, found out what Hoogeveen had done, his eyes rolled up in his head. And while gates do occasionally open for a favorite Canadian son, they rarely do so for a Yankee who is known in British Columbia mostly for terrorizing little old ladies on dark, stormy nights.

As we suspected, Alan Barbic and Dick Fish took off from California for Goose Bay, Labrador. The town lies at the end of hundreds of miles of rugged, often impassable dirt. Because Barbic was faster on pavement and Fish faster on dirt, they decided to split up in Nevada, figuring that their paths would cross later. They didn't. Barbic apparently bailed out at some point and headed for the Maine checkpoint. He'll be credited with the few bonuses he grabbed during the second leg, but without the 2,000-point Florida checkpoint bonus, his 11th place standing in Nevada will drop to perhaps 80th place in Maine. In Alan's case, the red pill turned out to be poison.

Fish's pill was poison squared. He aimed for Goose Bay, made it, and then lost his alternator on the road out. It was a shorter route than the run to Bella Coola, but it was harder on the bike and worth fewer points. It doesn't matter now; Goose Bay cooked the Fish's goose. Lee Myrah suffered minor injuries when his bike was blown into a ditch near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in the late afternoon yesterday. His rally is over. Mike Hutsal, who was riding with Myrah at the time, made sure his partner was all right, then continued east.

Bob Hall, with Bella Coola behind him, was feeling great yesterday until his engine began sputtering near Livingston, Montana. He subsequently called to say that all was mysteriously well again. Leonard Roy hasn't been heard from in days, but he never has problems anyway. All he ever does is finish quietly and well. Mark Kiecker pulled away from Marty Leir in Chicago and caught up with Will Outlaw this afternoon in Erie, Pennsylvania. Kiecker laughed that they were so far ahead of schedule that they might take in a Red Sox game tonight in Boston. It thus appears that of the original Canadian 11, only Myrah and Fish won't make Maine tomorrow. The nine who do will be leading the rally. And the one of them who is the most well rested will be the favorite as the long, last leg back to Missoula begins.

Reports from the Sweltering South

Key West, the southernmost point in the continental U.S., has been a bonus stop on 238 of the last 11 Iron Butt Rallies. It is never, ever worth going to, mainly because first you have to ride more than 380 miles from north Florida to Miami, then survive another 160 miles from there to Key West. The last 105 miles are two lanes wide. It's so hot and humid that you pray for rain to come along and wash your sins away. There are cops, deer, and blue-haired matrons to enforce snail-like speed limits. On Saturday night the drunks come out to play. And no matter how well you felt before you headed south, when you emerge from the Keys in a day or so, you'll be tired, boiled meat, utterly unfit for human companionship. So when rallymaster Lisa Landry suggested that the boys and girls run down to Key West from the Lake City checkpoint instead of conserving what is left of their energy for the final run to Missoula, at least a couple of dozen of them said, "Let's do it!" Those were the last words that Gary Gilmore said some years back, just before a Utah state prison execution squad put six bullets through his heart.

Thirty-seven riders who were thinking a little more clearly left Lake City and took the saner route up to Iron Butt veteran Eric Faires' house near Knoxville, Tennessee, for a bonus that paid the rider to sleep for a while. On the way north they will be picking up bonuses that are worth more than what they lost by skipping Key West.

In tonight's down-and-out report, Bob Lyskowski was involved in a multi-vehicle wreck yesterday near Gainesville, Florida, on his way to Key West. He sustained what are believed to be minor injuries. Although his bike may be rideable, Bob has decided to withdraw. Don Speck's Harley was totaled when, on his way back from Key West, a van in front of him suddenly slammed on its brakes on a bridge near St. Augustine. Speck's rear end slid out with predictable results. He is unhurt but has retired from the rally.

Finally, in a bulletin from the Hopeless Class, we can confirm that Mike Grosche, whose '80 Suzuki GS750 has suffered fuel-starvation problems from the start as well as two flat tires, not only missed the Florida checkpoint but blew out a head gasket along the way. He is somehow up and running again. If he doesn't make the checkpoint in Maine tomorrow afternoon, he's out of the rally. We can only hope that he doesn't decide to go to Key West first.

August 18, 2003

Hartford, Connecticut: Day 7

M*A*S*H, Iron Butt Style

After a telephone call from Peter Icaza last night, I decided to administer mental status tests to some of the suspect riders. Icaza was reporting that he would miss the Maine checkpoint by several hours. It turned out that he was fewer than 200 miles from his goal and had almost 24 hours to get there. He's not the first rider to be off target by a day.

So now I look at them carefully when they check in. If they crawl up to the table on all fours, I ask them what day of the week it is and the name of the vice-president of Botswana. If they fall asleep before answering, we drag them off into a corner and hit them with the fire hose. If they get cute with me, I threaten to disqualify them. Naturally, I have no power to do that, but they don't know it.

If I did encounter a truly questionable case, I would refer the matter to my medical officer, Don Arthur, a two-star admiral and the commandant of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He worked the intake scoring table today and on Saturday night he put up most of Moron's crew for the night at his home in suburban Washington, D.C. We like to have multi-talented individuals volunteering to help this rolling circus. Arthur, who racked up more than 100,000 miles last year on a BMW K1200LT and won both endurance rallies he entered, certainly fits that bill.

On the days when I don't think I'm Ernie Pyle, I like to think I'm a doctor, like Dr. Seuss. I sure hope no one decides to start testing me. They might find the cat in my hat.

Canterbury Tales

By early afternoon the riders began filtering into the Reynolds Motorsports dealership in Buxton, Maine, a checkpoint on every Iron Butt Rally since the first one in 1984. With them, strange and twisted stories from their travels arrived too. It was sort of a Canterbury Tales as told not by Chaucer but by Vlad the Impaler.

Example: Stephan Bolduc, Quebec's Iron Butt entrant, is more comfortable speaking French than English. When he was checking in with Mike Kneebone, the first step in the scoring process, I asked him diplomatically in my best French how he was doing. "Ca va bien?"

"Non," he said. "I try to sleep in zee park, but zee bear he will not let me."

"The bear? You mean the police?"

"Non, non," he said, waving his arms. "Zee bear!"

I can't remember the French word for "bear," but I could understand Stephan perfectly.

Example: Voni Glaves, who has undoubtedly logged more motorcycle miles than any woman in recorded history, pointed at her BMW's odometer with disgust. "It stopped working," she said. I looked at the traitorous instrument. It was just 4,900 miles short of 300,000. Voni has never learned to frown, but she wasn't quite smiling either.

Example: Jim Frens' wallet flew out of his tank bag on the New Jersey Turnpike. Bad luck. He yanked his bike over to the breakdown lane, stopped, jumped off the bike, and began running back down the highway. The odds of finding the wallet, given that 20,000 cars and trucks per second were flying up that highway, are too small to be measured. Yet Frens did find the wallet and its cash (good), but the credit cards were long gone (bad). At the checkpoint he told his Canterbury Tale and one of the volunteer scorers, Howard Chain, lent Jim a credit card to finish the rally (good). But this is the Iron Butt Rally, where no good deed goes unpunished. My guess is that the first time Frens tries to use Chain's card, he'll be arrested for theft, fraud, and forgery (bad).

But there is the rare Canterbury Tale where good triumphs over evil. It happened today to Joe DeRyke. He came into Reynolds' parking lot with one thread of his BMW R1100RT's twisted steel throttle cable still intact. The first time DeRyke applied the slightest pressure to the throttle, the final strand would snap faster than a heart string. The closest BMW dealer didn't have the cable in stock, but a shop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 60 miles south, did.

Joe Mandeville, DeRyke's riding partner, asked me if the rules would permit him to ride down to Portsmouth and buy the cable. No problem, I said. Mandeville, a judge in Los Angeles, suited up and was ready to leave when David Smith, a lawyer from Chicago, said that he was carrying an extra throttle cable on his R1150RT. Would it fit DeRyke's bike? Well, we'll ask Bob Wooldridge, who owns a BMW shop. He says it's no problem. But does anyone really know how to do the replacement? Ah, there's Paul Glaves, the tech guru of the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America, already on his knees at the side of DeRyke's bike. He has the machine in pieces in the parking lot, with the help of Chris Ratay, who with his wife Erin has spent the last four years riding around the world on their BMWs. They showed up just to be part of the crowd and now Chris had grease up to his elbows, busily repairing the bike of a guy he had known for all of four minutes.

An hour later DeRyke was headed for the open road. He saw me. "You can't write about this," he said. "My wife would kill me if she thought there was anything wrong with the bike."

"Your secret's safe with me, Joe," I said.

Sure it is, like I'm going to sit on this story, the quintessential example of True Iron Butt. We tell them over and over: If you're not sleeping, riding, eating, filling the tank, or sitting on the pot, you're wasting time. Yet here were a dozen contestants helping a rival for no other reason than he needed help. They might be in his shoes one day. I shook my head and smiled. How were we ever so fortunate as to meet such people as these?

Wine for My Men; We Ride at Dawn

Eleven riders had gone to Canada. One had crashed, one had blown up, one had pulled up short with no bonuses, and one, 2001 IBR winner Bob Hall, called from his home in Ohio this morning to announce his retirement because of a failing motorcycle. The curse of the Iron Butt had struck again. No one has ever won two Iron Butt Rallies outright. They keep trying. The curse keeps cursing.

The Canadian 11 were now The Canadian 7. All made it to Maine, though Mike Hutsal was more than one hour late. His penalty was voided because he had spent time helping his downed partner, Lee Myrah, a few days earlier. Of these seven only Hutsal wasn't completely rested. Paul Taylor was. "The Robo is ready to rumble," he said, referring to his license plate, "RoboBike."

Eric Jewell, in eighth place and more than 14,000 points behind the seventh-place rider, had been one of the original 33 red-pill riders, but had opted not to go to Canada. He hoped that he would be able to score enough in the Florida and Maine legs to come close to those who had gone north. That didn't happen. He hoped that they would come in bushed while he was fresh. Fresh he was, but so were they. He is a great endurance rider, but he had given away too much. You can't give even an inch to the seven men who lead the IBR tonight. They won't give it back.

At 6:00 p.m. EDT tonight the run back to Missoula began. It is a difficult ride that will require planning, precision, and luck. Only seven men have a realistic chance to win. Ninety hours remain.

August 18, 2003

Chicago, Illinois: Day 8

The Riders' Meeting

Ninety-nine riders stood in the Reynolds Motorsports parking lot in Buxton, Maine, at 6:00 p.m. yesterday, awaiting the distribution of bonus packets. After a week of separation, the red- and blue-pill entrants had rejoined for the run back to Missoula. Lisa Landry called for quiet.

"On this final leg," she began, "you may be visiting some airline disaster sites that will demand your respectful attention. Families of passengers lost on these downed flights visit the memorials to this good day. You will do nothing to disturb their thoughts. Nothing. Is that understood?"

Ninety-nine heads nodded.

"Those of you who went to the bonus in Palouse Falls, Washington, on the first leg may have seen a bird watcher near the falls," Lisa continued. "You may also have noticed that he trained his binoculars more often on your license plates than he did on the fang-beaked mud warbler."

"It was pretty obvious," Paul Pelland said.

"It was meant to be," Landry replied. "We wanted you to believe us when we tell you now that we have volunteers stationed at every one of these tragic sites. They may identify themselves to you. They may not. You will be watched, that I promise. And if our observers report to us that your behavior has brought the slightest discredit to yourself or to this rally, rest assured that at that moment your participation in this event has just been terminated. Are we clear on that as well?"

Ninety-nine heads nodded.

"Good," she said. "Now in the battle for dead-last-but-still-running, Sparky Kesseler, with -1,946 points, has overtaken Bob Wooldrige, with -2,101." A huge cheer went up for the arsonist, particularly from Sparky's wife and daughter. Elizabeth had shown up earlier in the day wearing a fireman's turnout coat and a red plastic helmet that read "Ride 'Em, Sparky." There's nothing like support from the home front to keep your overall score closing in on zero.

Memorial Stones

The sites that Landry mentioned hold terrible memories. They are five of the worst airline disasters in recent memory: the SAS crash near Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia; the downed TWA flight in Long Island Sound; the Twin Towers memorial in lower Manhattan; the west wall of the Pentagon where the hijacked plane struck on September 11, 2001; and the field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the last plane came down on that awful day.

These locations are clearly not typical IBR nonsense stops like touring the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices or paying a call on Clay Henry, the beer-swilling goat. They are serious, somber places, difficult to get to and more difficult yet to absorb once there. Riders may one day forget taking a photo of the world's largest ball of twine, but they're not likely to forget visits to places that have scorched the pages of American history.

Jack Savage, a senior editor at Whitehorse Press, came into the SAS memorial park this morning and met John McKibbin, our observer. Jack thanked him for providing such spectacular weather. John replied that they have about 10 days like that on the south coast of Nova Scotia every year. When Savage left the park, he called Mike Kneebone.

"Thank you for sending me here," Jack said. "It's a beautiful park and a beautiful day. If I don't finish the rally after this, it'll be OK."

McKibbin reported that while he was there (from 5:45 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. ADT) the following riders showed up: Jim Frens, Eric Jewell, Leon Begeman, John O'Keefe, Jeff Earls, Brent Ames, Todd Witte, Sean Gallagher, Will Outlaw, Marty Leir, and Mark Kiecker.

"You've got some big bikes there," John told Mike, "but what really impressed me was that fellow on the 250cc Ninja."

"Leon Begeman. We call him 'The Animal.'"

"I'll say," John said. "Do you know that he's about to complete 10 straight 1,000-mile days?"

We do. In fact, while at first blush it looks as if Leon lost two places (from 24th to 26th) in the leg from Florida to Maine, when you factor in those riders from Canada who reappeared in the standings and took over the top seven positions, The Animal actually gained five spots on his competition.

Hopeless Class indeed.

The Gladiator

John Hart, one of the original 33 red-pill riders, had gone to California, declined to join the 11 pills heading for Canada, and showed up at Ira Agins' house in Santa Fe on the way to Florida. There Hart was offered an additional bonus: Go to Andy Goldfine's Very Boring Rally in Duluth. There he should track down the person who had won the �I'm Wearing the Ugliest Aerostich Suit on Earth� contest and take a photo of the winner. If successful, he could bypass the Florida checkpoint.

The problem was that no one had a clue when the contest would be over. Hart might be sitting around, bored to tears at the Very Boring Rally, for longer than riders would ever have had to wait for a barricaded road to open in Bella Coola. No one in his right mind would accept a challenge with so many uncontrolled variables.

Why not, thought John. He set his GPS coordinates for Minnesota, called to say he was skipping the Florida checkpoint, and disappeared from the Iron Butt radar for the next four days.

Hart could hardly have expected what would follow when he arrived in Duluth. Andy Goldfine, Aerostich's founder, hauled Hart onto the stage and introduced him as an Iron Butt rider who was then and there bravely fighting his way through snow, rain, heat, and gloom of night toward the swift completion of his appointed bonuses. The crowd applauded happily.

"It was unbelievable," Hart said. "They treated me like a gladiator." He was surrounded and assaulted with questions about his heroic deeds. The 2005 IBR unwittingly may have recruited 15 new riders that evening. Hart got his photo, climbed onto his chariot, and charged out into the gloom of night, feeling possibly just a little like Spartacus.

The Moving Finger, Having Writ, Moves On

On Sunday morning Marc Lewis was forced to withdraw because of family problems. He had been running 31st at the Florida checkpoint.

In Maine yesterday Mike Grosche's endless struggles with his Hopeless Class Suzuki GS750 came to an end. In Missoula he began re-routing the fuel-cell hose minutes before the start of the rally. He was the last rider out of the Holiday Inn's parking lot. Two flat tires slowed his ride east, but a blown head gasket was worse, causing him to miss the Florida checkpoint altogether and dropping him down to 108th place. The gasket was fixed, but as he plodded north to Maine, his clutch headed south to Hell. He came into the Reynolds' parking lot 45 minutes too late. With a second missed checkpoint, his rally is history.

August 20, 2003

Gillette, Wyoming: Day 9

Moron Sails West

I know a lot of motorcyclists who can't abide the Midwest. I love it. The Great Plains is an inland sea with waves of corn and grain elevators for navigation buoys. Interstate 80 is one of the principal shipping lanes. This is the very heart and soul of America; everything else just hangs on to it for one reason or another.

We have been on The Eighty since New York, for two days, for forever. It isn't my kind of road with its sameness, its remorseless stamp of federal approval, its turbulence, and its incessant noise. Give me anything that parallels it, even a goat track. But Moron doesn't care. It plows on.

The heat is searing, but Moron doesn't care about that either. The oil light may have come on for a while this morning; we'll check it if we ever stop, unless we forget. Moron keeps rolling, uncaring. Now and then the whine of the tires on the concrete and the buzz of the wind are interrupted by the sound of Mike ripping another magazine in half. He can't put it down or away or aside. When he finishes one, he has to rip it across, creating top and bottom half magazines. We had about 35 magazines a week ago; now we have 70, and they're harder to read.

I take his atavistic response to finishing a magazine as an angry sign, usually manifesting itself on the ninth day of the event, that there is no way on Earth there will ever be another Iron Butt Rally. That feeling will continue to grow until next June when he will run across a plaster cast of the world's largest wart at the Museum of Disgusting Things somewhere in North Dakota. "If I were doing that stupid rally again, this would have been a good bonus," he'll think. A week later he'll forget the fingerprints that the 2003 IBR left on his soul. Two weeks after that he'll be sending out the preliminary invitations and mapping the base route.

Until then, the blistering heat pops corn on the stalk in the fields along I-80, another magazine is ripped in half, and Moron rolls up and down the gentle hills of western Iowa.

And the Beaten Go On

Paul Meredith's hopeless, triple-cylinder, two-stroke Suzuki, a motor that creates its own smog system as it limps down the highway and struggles to achieve a worthless 20 mpg, yesterday finally dropped off the Environmental Protection Agency's hit list when a broken piston skirt drove a dagger through the machine's oil-fouled heart. Its days of contemptuous sin are finished.

Paul's are not. A friend posted news of the breakdown on the K1200LT owner's list. Thirty minutes later a Samaritan responded, brought his own bike on a trailer, rolled it off and turned it over to Meredith, and hauled the dead Suzuki off to the nearest toxic waste dump.

This illustrates what I think is the major difference between all previous Iron Butt rallies and this one. It isn't advanced GPS receivers or sophisticated mapping programs or other high-zoot gizmos. It's the availability of internet e-mail lists, brand specific or otherwise, that can produce salvation literally at a moment's notice. I have lost count of how many riders have been rescued by them so far.

There are reports that Marsha Hall's BMW R1100 alternator belt went to alternator-belt heaven this afternoon, where it will join Paul Taylor's, Dick Fish's, and many, many more. It is not for nothing that BMW calls its machines "The Legendary Motorcycles of Germany." Marsha was looking for a tow; BMW was looking for an engineer who knew something about alternator belts.

In a mechanical failure this afternoon that is as scary as it gets, Rick Sauter broke a chain on his Suzuki V-Strom and cracked open the crankcase, not his leg. He was 11th overall in Maine. We put out an emergency bulletin on the moto lists but have heard nothing further.

Eric Jewell, who may be in the midst of a monster final leg, had the rug temporarily pulled out from him near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Today's quiz: Eric's BMW R1100RT quit running because: a) it was tired; b) Eric has already won enough rallies; or c) an alternator belt failed. Marty Leir, having heard stories of belt failures for the past week, had the presence of mind to buy a few spares on the way from Bella Coola. As prescient fate would have it, he gave one to Eric at the Maine checkpoint.

The Leaders Head into the Home Stretch

If you were in the top seven positions in Maine, took a rest bonus today, and picked up the bonuses in Nova Scotia, Long Island, Manhattan, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, you have gained the combination bonus and will have a chance to win the rally. If you didn't do that, you won't win. Your finishing position also depends on what those other six guys are doing.

At 7:20 CDT this morning, Marty Leir, Will Outlaw, and Mark Kiecker --- the second, third, and fourth overall riders in Maine --- called from New York. They had picked up the largest bonuses from Maine to Manhattan and wanted Lisa Landry to tell them if they were ahead or behind.

"Yes," she said and hung up.

We call them "The Boys." They're young, smart, and incredibly tough. They're from Minnesota and are affiliated with Team Strange, which means that, especially in Kiecker's case, they have utterly no respect for authority. In most cases numbers on the identification towels were assigned randomly, but Lisa saved the highest numbers for those who had given her endless trouble in the months leading up to the rally's start. Of the 117 towels issued, Kiecker's is No. 115.

They've been joined at the hips for days. At some point they will have to break apart from each other or they'll end up in Missoula as they were in Maine, with Leir 35 points ahead of Outlaw and 314 points in front of Kiecker. Maybe they've agreed to that finishing order, but we don't think so. We know that they did the combination bonus, so the bar has been set.

Leonard Roy, who led Leir by 51 points when the final leg began, has as usual disappeared into deep space. He never calls; he never writes. We don't have a clue what he's done since yesterday and we miss him. Still, we think he'll show up in Missoula. He'd better. My bike is locked in his trailer.

We can give a time allowance to Mike Hutsal for his help to Lee Myrah but we can't give back his lost energy. He earned some tough bonuses in the last 24 hours but he didn't take down the combination. It looks as if his long effort will fall short.

Peter Hoogeveen, along with The Boys, checked in this morning for a bonus at a Harley dealer that is on a direct line from lower Manhattan to Shanksville. It's reasonable to believe that Peter has nailed down the combination bonus, but we don't know.

Paul Taylor also showed up at the Harley bonus. More ominously for his competition, he was also able to secure the Pentagon bonus, one of the largest on the leg. There he ran into Todd Witte and Brent Ames. If other riders have made it to Washington, we aren't aware of it.

As you can tell, we are wandering in the dark here, but we do know this: just 34 hours are left.

August 21, 2003

Missoula, Montana: Day 10


More than one hundred miles east of Missoula the cars coming at you have turned on their headlights. It's the middle of the afternoon. The visibility is under one-half mile, and the tops of some of the mountains that line both sides of I-90 have disappeared in dense smoke. On the worst day it ever had, Los Angeles could never have looked like this.

Forest fires have ringed Missoula to the extent that parts of the town have been evacuated. When we left here a week ago Monday, smoke was drifting through the motel's parking lot. It's much worse now. You never know from hour to hour what highways will be open. So widespread are the fires and so resistant to eradication are they that they may not be fully extinguished until the snows fall next month.

A lot of motorcyclists are riding through the night toward this city. If they're not in by 8:00 a.m., the penalty clock starts running at 10 points per minute. At 10:00 a.m., they're time-barred. Every second is counting now. The last thing you want to see on a motorcycle at night is the glow of a fire and a wall of smoke. God only knows what could be hiding behind it.

We Know What We're Doing, More or Less

A question was raised on the Long Distance Riders list about the 10,000-point penalties assessed against Sparky Kesseler and Bob Wooldridge for changing bikes in mid-rally. The rule states that the rider's final score shall be reduced by one-half. Which is correct?

The fixed penalty worked well until the point inflation that appeared in the 2001 IBR. Bob Hall picked up 1,000,000 points for making the Prudhoe Bay bonus on the final leg. Had his bike fallen apart on the way to the finish, he could have changed machines 42 times and still have won the rally.

Last year we amended the rule to eliminate that absurdity, but the scoring program was not similarly revised. We think the 10,000-point spanking roughly approximates in a rider's running score what his final total will look like, but we don't really know and we don't really care. It'll get taken care of in the end, anyone who swaps isn't competitive anyway, and we think it's lots of fun to watch guys scrambling randomly around, trying to pull their scores up to nothing.

Will the Last BMW Running Please Turn out the Lights?

BMW motorcycles constituted about 50 percent of the starting field. Tonight they constitute more than 90 percent of the mechanical breakdowns. Jeff Earls' K1200LT ground to a halt late today in Dickenson, North Dakota, with a rear wheel-bearing failure. Earls, riding the entire distance with John O'Keefe, was having a magnificent ride, grabbing every bonus that meant anything on the final leg. With any luck he and O'Keefe would have been close to a top-10 finish. Now he's just another DNF.

Had enough of BMW rear-end collapses, have you? Not quite. Don't forget to count the rear end of Jim and Donna Phillips' K1200LT. It dropped dead earlier today as they were going up Pikes Peak in Colorado, the largest individual bonus on the entire leg. Had they made it to the top, they would have guaranteed themselves a top-20 finish. Instead they nursed the bike back down the mountain, caught a ride into Colorado Springs, and bought an 1,800cc Gold Wing.

It gets even uglier. Yesterday Jim Owen, who stood eighth in Maine, took a photograph of Eric Jewell and Brent Ames in the process of replacing the alternator belt on Eric's BMW R1150RT at the Shanksville, Pennsylvania, bonus stop. A few hours later the belt on Owen's R1150RT failed. He had no replacement, couldn't find one, and will be lucky at this point to finish the rally at all.

Mike Kneebone and I sat in the hotel room tonight and reflected on the string of BMWs that have bitten the dust in the last 10 days. We shook our heads. Between us we have around 800,000 miles on these bikes.

"If you're looking for something to write about in an epilog," he said, "this is it."

He's right. BMWs could easily finish 1-2-3 in this rally, a tribute that will be due far more to the talented singers than to the ugly song. In the 2003 IBR BMW's song has been the shriek of alternator belts coming apart and the wail of rear ends seizing. Don't play it again, Sam.

And Then There Were Five

Seven riders in Maine had a chance to win. Leonard Roy was first. He says that this will be his last Iron Butt, and he wanted to go out with a finish he could be proud of. He has done that in his customary quiet, outstanding fashion. He knew that he hadn't gotten enough rest at the start of the run back to Missoula, so he picked bonuses that should guarantee him the highest finish he has ever had. Tonight he is safely in Missoula, catching up on a week's worth of lost sleep.

Mike Hutsal was roughly in the same boat. He arrived at the Maine checkpoint after it closed, but was granted a time delay allowance for having stopped to help his partner after an accident. The revised checkpoint score put Mike in fourth place. That was as high as he would fly. Without rest, the last leg was impossible. He will finish, but he will take a heavy hit in the standings.

That left The Boys --- Marty Leir, Will Outlaw, and Mark Kiecker --- who stood second, third, and fifth in Maine. We're confident that they managed to earn the large combination bonus and pick up other big points in Chicago and Sauk Center, Minnesota, before pointing to the finish. It might be enough to take home all the marbles.

Paul Taylor was sixth in Maine. We are under the impression that he has picked up the same bonuses that The Boys did. But Taylor also dropped south to pull in the Pentagon bonus. It's worth 2,359 points. If The Boys didn't do that, Paul could vault ahead of them. We don't know. Taylor was in western North Dakota tonight, aiming for the barn door and hoping his alternator belt would last a few more hours.

And then there is Peter Hoogeveen, who has more second-place finishes in rallies than most riders have rallies. He stood seventh in Maine, 50 points behind Taylor. We know little about Peter's route in the final leg. He was seen at the TWA crash site on Long Island early Wednesday morning. He signed in at a bonus in eastern Pennsylvania later that morning. Since then he has disappeared. Is it reasonable to assume that he did the combination bonus? Clearly. But he didn't show up at the large Minnesota bonus, unlike The Boys and Paul Taylor. So where has he been for the last 36 hours?

Scenario No. 1: He broke down. If so, why haven't we heard? Scenario No. 2: He couldn't go any farther. That doesn't sound like Peter Hoogeveen. Scenario No. 3: He saw where the other riders would naturally head --- Pennsylvania, Chicago, and Minnesota --- and realized he had to do something dramatic to beat them. Did he then run south from Pennsylvania to the Pentagon and turn due west for Pikes Peak? Depending upon how many other smaller bonuses he and the others either earned or skipped, such a run could be the winner.

It's almost 1:00 a.m. in Missoula. In 10 hours we can stop guessing.

August 22, 2003

Missoula, Montana: Day 11

The Interstate at 3:30 in the Morning

The 2003 Iron Butt Rally is officially in the bag. Although it was the shortest base route in the event's history, it began picking people off on day No.1 and didn't stop until about 3:30 this morning when Eddie James smashed into a deer on I-90 near Billings. He is hospitalized with some broken ribs, a fractured clavicle, and other injuries. Riders were on the scene within minutes and have stayed with him ever since. He'll be OK. He asked the admitting doctor if he were a real physician or just played one on TV. Does that sound like he's in trouble?

If he hadn't whacked the deer, Eddie might have encountered 30 hay bales on the highway. Tom Loftus rode into them just after a truck driver lost control of his rig, swerved into a ditch, and threw the bales all over the highway. I can't repeat Loftus' description of how he got through that lethal mess because my hands shake too much just thinking about it.

Tom might not have been able to see the bales in time because of the smoke all over western Montana. It has turned from simple gray clouds into gray clouds that drop ash and other particulate matter over everything. If this keeps up much longer, the second largest city in this state is going to start looking like the countryside around Mount St. Helens two days after it blew its top.

Still, smacking into the bales would have been better than smacking into the crane that sat on the interstate, trying to lift the truck that dropped the bales on the highway out of the ditch that the truck eventually wound up in, possibly because the driver couldn't see through the smoke.

Dropping Like Flies in a DDT Factory

A few days ago I began losing track of the people who were going home prematurely. The IBR is usually a war of attrition, but this was worse than the norm. Twenty per cent of the starting field didn't finish. Nine per cent had seen medics. Roughly 100 percent of me was jumping 94 percent out of my skin every time a cell phone rang. But the only goal that really matters was achieved: Every rider who started the rally is breathing tonight. They may not be here in Missoula, but they're somewhere and, except for Eddie, they're vertical. That's all I care about.

Here's another 100 percent statistic, a much happier one: All the women who started the rally finished. You go, girls.

Checking In

Tom Austin, chief technical advisor of the IBR, rode his bike from here to Nevada to Florida to Maine to here. He left each checkpoint two hours after the last rider departed, arrived at the following checkpoint at least four hours before the riders were due, ran the scoring assembly line at each checkpoint, and persistently looked in better shape than anyone else involved in the process. He didn't get a finisher's certificate, but he deserved one.

We began checking off the riders who were in, on the way, or missing. It's that last class that is worrisome. No news on this rally is bad news. Three of the missing were Paul Taylor, Leon (The Animal) Begeman, and Peter Hoogeveen.

At 7:53 a.m., seven minutes before penalties would accrue at 10 points per minute, Taylor sauntered in, produced his rider's ID tag to stop the ticking clock, and said, "I didn't want to peak too soon." The Boys --- Leir, Outlaw, and Kiecker --- were the clubhouse leaders in the scoring computer, but they hadn't gone to the Pentagon. Taylor had. It might be decisive, depending on what Hoogeveen had done on the last leg.

That assumed Peter would show up at all. At 8:26 he ran into the scoring room, 26 minutes late. His 260-point penalty was subsequently reduced to 110 because he had stopped to assist Eddie James. I asked if he'd gone to the Pentagon. He shook his head.

The last rider to show up before 10:00 a.m. was Begeman. He was a mere 16 minutes from being time-barred, and for his lateness took a penalty of 1,040 points. Had he had a breakdown, an accident, or a time delay to help someone else? Nah. "I thought the penalties started at 10:00," he said. Sometimes I wonder how these guys can even get out of bed in the morning, and The Animal may be the smartest one in the rally. If he can't read, what hope is there for the others? I sighed, not for the first time.

Eventually, we had accounted for everyone. We went into the restaurant for a late breakfast. The waitress, Amber, seated us.

"Are you with Harold and Rick?" she asked. You don't hear this question every day.

"You know Brooks and Williams by their first names?" I said, trying not to laugh.

"Oh, sure," Amber nodded. "They're real nice."

Harold has a Virginia accent that even Mississippians can't decipher. He can turn a word like "four" into "fo" and make seven syllables out of it. I later congratulated him on his having finished six Iron Butts. "Is there a seventh in your future?" I wondered.

"No," wife Jean said without a moment's hesitation.

And the Winner Is . . .

This was it. People ride for days from everywhere to be part of the Iron Butt final banquet. It's a big deal. Michael Kneebone took the microphone, told a few lies about our ride around the country in Moron, and turned the ceremonies over to Lisa Landry, the rallymaster. She received a standing ovation, the first of three on the night.

The first award was presented to Quek Cheng Chye in memory of Fran Crane. It's an award for perseverance. Chye's ride was the stuff of Old Testament pain and suffering. It began with his rider identification number: 58. In Chinese culture the number 50 stands for luck; the number 8 stands for bad. Chye was screwed before he even showed up in Missoula.

He failed the muffler sound test during tech inspection, which caused him eventually to have to buy a new BMW muffler system for close to $900. At the first checkpoint in Primm he overslept, missed the rider's meeting, and had to call Mike at 4:00 a.m. to receive his route instructions for the second leg. At a rest stop in Florida someone stole a saddlebag off his bike. Fortunately, not everything he valued in life was in that bag, just most of it. In deranged frustration, he lashed out a kick at a cruel and vengeful world, missed the world, hit his remaining saddlebag instead, and destroyed it on the spot. He lost his wallet and then was time-barred in Maine, sinking deeper into the swamp. He finished 92nd overall, beating just two riders. Someone mockingly asked what he was going to carry the plaque home in. Poor Chye tried to smile.

This is the kind of story that could bring tears to the eyes of Cinderella's stepmother. And it would have had much of that effect on the banquet crowd as well, except that by this time the entire room was doubled over in rib-cracking laughter. Pity on your fellow human? A grain of empathy? Oh, please. We're motorcyclists.

When Chye modestly accepted the award, you could hear the cheering in Idaho.

Jim Hickerson was called up to receive his trophy for a 54th-place finish on his Buell. A heckler in the crowd made rude remarks to the effect that the machine should have been placed in the Hopeless Class. Hickerson didn't blink. "How many BMWs failed and how many Buells failed?" he asked rhetorically.

Most riders, realizing that they have no hope of a top-10 finish, will content themselves to strive for a gold, silver, or bronze medal. I, for example, was awarded the bronze for my masterful ride in 2001, a tour in which I finished something like 65th, rode fewer miles than almost everyone else, and expended so much energy in the process that I came under the care of a psychiatrist for the eight months following the rally's conclusion. Silver medals are harder to get, and don't even think about the gold things.

Now consider Sparky Kesseler's final leg. He burned up the highways from Maine to Montana, raking in an astonishing 58,826 points, a score that was enough to take home a gold medal on that leg alone. I can't even imagine such fiery determination. He finished 49th, with half of his points taken away because of the bike swap. In my opinion, that ride deserves something in addition to a gob of metal. Sparky deserves to have his name back: I salute you, Dennis. I knew you were good; I didn't know you were that good.

When Lisa called out the name of the 12th-place rider, the whole room stood for the second time. The plaque went to Leon Begeman on the 250cc Ninja, who rode 11,186 miles in 11 days. It is the kind of effort that will live in the annals of endurance riding forever. I have rarely seen anything to compare to it. Confident to the end, Leon told me, "Now that I've seen what kind of rally Kneebone puts on, I can build a bike to beat it." I've known The Animal for more than 10 years and I've learned this: Don't bet him anything you can't afford to lose.

Just two riders from the blue-pill route, who shouldn't have been anywhere near the top 10, were Brent Ames (10th) and Todd Witte (eighth). Paul Pelland had started a red-pill route but in California reconsidered and took off for Florida. He finished ninth. John O'Keefe and Eric Jewell had done the same thing as Pelland but had stronger finishes (sixth and seventh).

That left five, and in the end, it came down to the Pentagon bonus. Paul Taylor drove the punishing miles south to Washington to earn it. His competitors didn't. That was it. Peter Hoogeveen finished fifth, his fourth top-10 finish. No one in Iron Butt records has more podium finishes or a higher finishing average than does he. He'll be back.

The Boys stuck together almost until the end. Will Outlaw took fourth, Marty Leir was third, and the youngest rider in the field, 26-year-old Mark Kiecker, was second. The entire State of Minnesota must be standing on its head tonight. For once even Eddie James wasn't talking about himself. These were his guys, and a prouder father he could not have been. You'll be seeing their names in the game of long-distance motorcycling for the next 20 years.

But the Commonwealth of Virginia must be the proudest of all for its favorite son, the unstoppable Paul Taylor. When his name was called last, the crowd rose for the third time. I've watched him from his first rallies, back-to-back wins in the Capitol 1000. In 1999 he was called up to the Big Leagues for the Iron Butt. He was a rookie, made some incredibly bad route choices, and still finished eighth. In 2001 he ran a much better route but finished fourth behind Bob Hall, Shane Smith, and Peter Hoogeveen. That, by the way, isn't bad company with which to be associated.

This year Paul's route planning was perfect. He needed one big bonus to pull himself away from the pack. The Pentagon was it. The difference between his winning score and that of Mark Kiecker was the 2,359 points at the Pentagon plus 272 miscellaneous points.

On day No. 2, I wrote: "A rider with an excellent efficiency is smart; a rider with big points is an animal; a rider with both is the guy to beat in the Iron Butt." Among the top five riders, Taylor rode the fewest miles. He knew how to take down the big points. He can ride through anything. And ultimately he was the guy to beat in the Iron Butt Rally.

"The Robo is ready to rumble," he had said in Maine.

Was it ever.


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