Monday 17 July 2023

Guest Post: Wolfe and the IBR Parts 1-3

 The Iron Butt Rally is long distance motorcycling's most challenging endurance event. It runs once every two years in the continental US and Lobo Loco Rally Master, Wolfe Bonham, is a veteran of the event. Wolfe ran the 2023 IBR and has been sharing his ride on Facebook, but he said he's OK with guest posting on TMD, so here is parts 1-3! Eleven thousand miles in eleven days? Getting ready for this, let alone doing it, is an epic undertaking... enjoy!

Parts 1-3: Lead Up, Launch Pad & Take Off

words by Wolfe Bonham

Part One
Lead up, and Premonitions of Doom

The Iron Butt Rally is the Superbowl of long distance motorcycle endurance competitions.   In the 11 days of the event riders will cover anything from 9000 to as much as 14000 miles (14-22,500kms!), depending on their routing.  It is a delicate balance of miles vs. rest.  Get it right and you could find glory.  Get it wrong and you could find a hospital bed, or worse.

As entrants into the Iron Butt Rally we know more than a year in advance that we've been accepted into the challenge.   

Most riders begin preparations at least 6 months in advance making sure their motorcycle is up to the task, entering other smaller competitions to practice routing skills, and doing a bunch of progressively longer certification rides to get your body used to what you're about to put it through.

In my case I had been so caught up in new home renovations and building a massive workshop that I wasn't able to do any of this.  In fact, in all of 2022 I didn't do a single long distance certification ride.  And, due to border closures, it had been more than 3 years since I had entered a scavenger hunt style rally.

With a mere 2 weeks before the IBR, I put the final touches on my shop, pulled my motorcycles out of storage, and began the process of building a Rally Bike.

I had three 2003 BMW R1150GS parts bikes, one of which had low kilometers, but clutch issues.  That was to be my competition bike. 

I spent the next 2 weeks twisting wrenches 18+ hours a day, scrambling to get parts ordered and delivered on such short notice.

I ran into clearance issues with my auxiliary fuel tap into my main tank which had me scratching my head for 4 hours.  Turns out my other tank, being plastic, was able to flex just enough to clear the frame.  Filing down the brass fitting as much as I dared got me closer but I still needed about 1/16".  Desperate at 2am, out comes the big sledge hammer.  I'm sure that a 16th of an inch bend in the motorcycle's frame won't matter!

Two days before I need to leave for the start line in Pittsburgh I get my first test ride on the bike.  I get home after 30 minutes with a long list of things that need to still change or be fixed.

Some parts are not available in time or can't be shipped to Canada before I leave so I opt to have them shipped to the hotel in Pittsburgh.  I can do a few last minute installs in the parking lot.  These will include my hydration system and some needed wiring for my heated gear.

I'm packing the bike honestly worried I've bitten off more than I can chew.

The bike is untested.  Other than little 250cc bikes on the teaching lot, I haven't ridden any big bikes AT ALL this year, and hardly any kilometers last year.  Oh, and I'm 20 lbs heavier than I've ever done an IBR in my life, and I'm still recovering from a bad cold/cough with a ton of meds on the bike hoping it all clears up before the start....

Part Two - IBR 2023

Sitting on the Launch Pad

The ride to Pittsburgh was really my first ride of any distance this year.  As I settled into the
saddle I began to assess potential long term issues.  Relearning how to relax my shoulders, relax my grip,  sit more upright, etc.  Proper body position would become the key to enduring 20+ hours per day on the bike for 11 days in a row.

Arriving at the hotel parking lot in Pittsburgh was a very emotional experience for me.  Most of my life has been lived as a nomad, and as a result my base of friends is spread around the globe.  With all the CoVid lockdowns of the past year not only did that mean I couldn't compete in the 2021 IBR, but it also meant that I had been cut off from so many of my friends.  Seeing them all after so long meant tons of hugs and a few tears.

But I still had work to do on the bike, and the next morning would be the whirlwind of tech inspections and registrations.  I went to the lobby to retrieve 2 important packages that were shipped there in advance... and they were nowhere to be found!

The lobby staff said to check back in the morning.   This was unacceptable to me.  I had tracking numbers that showed both packages had arrived.  The morning wasn't going to make them suddenly appear!

After getting more and more insistent, and involving no less than 5 hotel staff, the packages were finally found.

I proceeded to get my hydration system installed, confirmed the new wiring functioned correctly with my heated gear, and made a few more ergonomic adjustments to the bike that had popped up on the ride down.

After some drinks and an excellent Reuben Sandwich with long missed friends it was time to sleep before the chaos of tech day.

The next morning found all the competitors proceeding through a series of lines and inspections; a mini-rally in and of itself.  The lead up to the start of the competition is 2-3 days and includes things like a 30 mile ride to calibrate everyone's odometers against each others, safety and capacity inspection for the plethora of different auxiliary fuel cell set ups, confirmation of our satellite GPS tracking systems, insurance, medical evacuation confirmations, and the sobering video deposition of death, where we acknowledge the risks of this competition and wave all liabilities to the organization. 

The whole process takes several hours to complete, and my only hurdle was that "Warchild" didn't like the way my fuel cell was vented.  An easy, but necessary fix, as you never want to be on the bad side of Dale Wilson.

The rally poster was put on display beginning the speculation by all the riders as to what the overall theme would be.  There was a prominent chicken in the poster, and I was convinced the final leg "hero run" would be from Denver to Chicken, Alaska, before returning to Pittsburgh.  Running the math it was 6600 miles... just barely doable in the 5.5 days of the final leg if you managed back to back 1200 mile days.

Greg Camp surprised me showing up with Bam Baker, so we all went on an ice cream run after clearing inspection.  We were now off the clock until Sunday's rider meetings.
However, on the ride to the ice cream shop I couldn't help but notice the ever present smell of burning clutch from my bike.  The clutch didn't appear to be slipping at all, but something definitely wasn't right inside.  Would it hold up for 11 days?  Would I have to baby yet another bike to an IBR finish, or would it leave me stranded in some place like Chicken, Alaska?!

Part Three - IBR 2023

Cleared for Launch

Sunday afternoon has our standard rider's meeting, following the rookie rider's meeting.  After that we just have to anxiously await the dinner banquet where we're finally given the Rally Book that will dictate our fates for the next 11 days.

And before you know it we're all opening our Rally Packs, which seem oddly thin.

The theme this year is food, and while there are not a lot of locations to choose from in the first 2.5 day leg, we are all given identical Bingo cards with 25 restaurant chains on them.  To claim each we'll need a photo of our motorcycle with our Rally Flag in front of the restaurant along with a receipt for a purchase inside.  This will prove to be quite a time suck.  A normal photo stop can be done by an experienced rally rider in under 2 minutes, including photo and paperwork... but going inside for a receipt could take 5-10 minutes each.  They aren't worth a lot of points, but if you start to score Bingo rows or columns the points start to add up quickly.  Blacking out the entire card is worth an additional 2000 points.  I think I'll go for it.

Back in my hotel room by 7pm I start the planning process for my route.  We are now on the clock and decisions about time spent planning/routing vs sleeping the night before begin to set in.

The Rally Book is scanned into a .pdf that I can search through while riding.  The points, time limitations, and notes are added to the location codes so that I don't have to look that up later... it all comes up on my Garmins.  Weather is checked and locations are grouped by point values.  It becomes obvious there are 3 distinct routes:  Maine, Florida, and Denver.   Given our required 2nd checkpoint in Denver I discount that one almost immediately.  Maine looks more promising than Florida, but includes several locations in downtown NYC, which always makes me nervous not being from that area.

I opt for the Florida route, with the goal of getting to the daytime only high point Cedar Key location right at sunrise.  That will mean skipping a few lower point locations on the way south, and only getting 1-2 nap on the first night.  But, doing so opens up some options on the 2nd day to scoop up everything along the Gulf Coast and end up with some restaurants in Houston before pulling the first leg mandatory rest on night 2.  Fingers crossed that sets me up to get to the big points group photo just north of the Leg 1 Checkpoint in Tulsa.
I'm happy with my plan, and in bed by 11pm.

The morning comes sooner than expected after a restless night of barely sleeping, laying in bed playing the "what if" game in my head.

Breakfast is shared with fellow riders, some not saying much about where they are headed, and others sharing ideas and concerns. 

Bikes are loaded and we are required to be standing with our bikes from 8am until our final
odometer readings are taken. 

Cory Ure, parked beside me, is nowhere to be seen as rally volunteers are coming down our line.  I look everywhere for him, but it's too late.  They bypass his bike, and now he'll be held from leaving until all other bikes have left.

Following a brief last minute rider's meeting we all mount our bikes and nervously await the start.  Next to me is Lisa Cover Rufo and her daughter Molly, who is calmly sipping on an iced latte!  The luxury of being pillion!

Before we know it we're off!  This is my 3rd IBR, and it still brings me to tears every time I start.  It is such an honour and privilege to be amongst this elite group of riders.

Pulling onto the highway we all start to spread out on our own individual plans and routes.
Who will have the best plan? Who will find glory? Who will struggle just to make the finish, and who won't get back?  Will everyone be safe, or will tragedy strike?

I take the ramp to I-79S on a beautiful sunny morning.  My die is cast.  Little do I know the next 2 days will be some of the toughest, most dangerous riding of my life.

Here's a link to a video of the start.  This is not my video, but enjoy.

That's the end of Parts 1-3. Check out Parts 4-6 so to see how Wolfe gets along on the road! And if you want to find the original story itself, you can find Wolfe on Facebook here.

If you want a taste of long distance riding to get started, Wolfe runs Lobo Loco Rallies, some of which you can run from anywhere in the world (the local ones are based in Ontario, Canada). Check it out here: