Wrong Way Down: 1000 Miles in 24 hours (Part 1: WTF is an Iron Butt Challenge?)

Can’t afford a bone-fide round-the-world motorcycling adventure? Time for a challenge on the cheap instead…

No matter how much I’d love to don the Kevlar spacesuit of adventure motorcycling hubris and wheelspin £15,000 of KTM through the Third World’s unsuspecting poultry community with a GoPro stuck to my head, harsh financial reality has decided that for now at least, that particular daydream just ‘ain’t gonna happen.

I know, I know. Not being able to go off for months on an extended motorcycle holiday. Bit of a first world problem I’ve got there, right? But if you’ve ever been infected with the adventure travel bug, you’ll know how the unfulfilled fantasy of motorcycle-based chicken worrying still counts as a life-stalling bummer. Once the travel scabies gets you, it’s a hard one to medicate.

But I’m here to tell you skinflints that there’s a solution at hand. Despite that overdraft hanging over you there is a way to get some adventurous biking kicks for little more than petrol money. So the next time the travel itch cries out to be scratched, all you pound shop Ewan McGregors look no further – it’s time to sign yourselves up for an Iron Butt Challenge.

Now with over 60,000 members worldwide, the Iron Butt Association is dedicated to the promotion and certification of something they term endurance riding. If you’ve never heard of it, I now offer you the simple explanation that endurance riding is basically ‘riding which you must endure’. And now you know what I’m talking about, we can begin…

The IBA’s challenges range from riding 1000 miles (known as the Saddle Sore) or 1500 (the Bun Burner Gold) inside one twenty-four hour time period, though your buns may also be burnt golden over several consecutive days should you be unwise enough to wish for more. And no, in case you’re wondering. I did not just make these names up (though clearly someone is responsible).

Admittedly in terms of Where’s-My-Book-Deal adventuring, endurance riding doesn’t exactly conjure images of sand dunes at dawn. You will not wear a shemagh meaningfully. You will not navigate solely by the stars. And you will not have tea needlessly poured from a great height by a nomad with mysteriously sparkly eyes into a pointlessly small cup. Dial down those expectations from sand dunes at dawn to a Little Chef at lunchtime and you won’t be far out.

But don’t let a presumed lack of authentic experiences put you off. You’ll have loads! You want tea? Have some authentically poured from the correct height by a dead-eyed young woman into a sensibly sized café mug. You want pub bragging rights? An Iron Butt grants you these too. It’s a properly involving motorcycle challenge which you’ll enjoy fondly in retrospect as you relate your own personal Seven Pillars of Wisdom to admiring onlookers like some kind of modern day TE Lawrence. As a bonus, if you’re lazy enough in the planning and preparation you’ll also have plenty of problems to make the journey really interesting too. That’s what they say right – ‘the problems are the journey?’ An excellent mantra to prep by.

I first got involved in the idea as I browsed the web for something entirely non butt-related (but thanks for asking) and quickly realised that as I already divide my time for family and work reasons between Sicily and the UK, turning an otherwise pleasant road trip into a pointlessly stressful challenge that I might well fail could be just the thing for me.

OK, I might not ‘find myself’ (© everyone under 30 who’s been on holiday for longer than three consecutive weeks) and that other classic of ‘raising awareness’ for something was also completely out (unless it was raising awareness of my own ego) but at the very least I reasoned endurance riding would give me a slightly more acceptable motivation to give to passers-by than having to admit to being asleep on a motorway picnic table “because I’m cheap”.

Yes, give the status of an officially recognised activity to even the stupidest of pastimes and it becomes acceptable enough to sate most people’s curiosity and allow it to proceed unhindered. How else do you explain golf?

Reading a few online Iron Butt reports to get an idea of what was involved was a bit of an eye-opener. My first surprise was the role bureaucracy would play in proving my mileage. The absolutely last thing I ride a motorcycle for is to actually increase the burden of pointless paper collecting I voluntarily subject myself to, but there it was. Perhaps I’m being picky.

Bureaucracy – unavoidable

The more I read, the more it was clear that keeping hold of bits of precious evidential paper like a stationery-obsessed Gollum was going to be a big part of an Iron Butt –  as was the obligation to interact with real humans. Now one of the key reasons I enjoy biking is the total lack of this. And yet, one’s physical presence during the trip must be verified. Human interaction. Ugh. It was a huge compromise of my biking principles. But just this once, I figured. Just this once.

My second surprise was that despite the evident meaninglessness of the challenge (you just can’t pretend to be in search of great cultural exchange when all you can actually achieve is muffled shouting at people in bus stops), all participants took it extremely seriously.

In fact once I got fully inside the loop, I realised Iron Butting was just like all those other niche interest groups filled with fevered hobbyists: brass rubbers, inland waterways users, followers of cheese rolling, The Liberal Democrats: they really do believe in what they’re doing despite being looked down on fondly by society as the slightly unhinged and helpless. The worrying thing was that I was about to knowingly join in.

In terms of organisation, the challenge itself seemed simple. Each competing rider decides on then self-certifies their route by collecting witness details and timed purchase receipts as they go. The idea is that the evidence you collect might reasonably convince a third party that you’re not trying to game the system. If you’re self-employed like me and do your own tax returns, you’ll already know exactly what I mean.

No one actually follows you on your trip, but once you’ve sent your chits in, adjudicators do carefully check everything from the feasibility of the route against the claimed mileage, the veracity of any timed location receipts you included or the correctness of any geographical bonus challenges you may have stupidly undertaken and, like I said, even the details of actual human witnesses who you accosted with your not very credible ‘signing here will help prove I exist’ type story during your journey.

Now, let’s say you’ve finished your trip and your evidence passes muster. What next? You pay the organisation a small gratuity and they’ll send you a certificate for your living room wall which says you’re officially one of the “World’s Toughest Riders”. And really, if that doesn’t impress your grandkids I don’t know what will.

In case you remain unconvinced that any of this can be taken as a proper adventure and seems more like an elaborate hoax designed to tease extreme cases of OCD into the open before forced intervention takes place, how about this for awe inspiring rider dedication to change your mind:

Every two years the US Iron Butt Rally is held in which some riders tot up – wait for it – more than 1000 miles a day for up to eleven days straight. Yes, you did hear that right. To put 11,000 miles in perspective, that’s higher than the mileometer on a Ducati Panigale will actually read and is about the distance the average PCP finance package mileage-limited, joy-sapped British motorcyclist might hope to achieve over four long years.

Even if you’re only slightly impressed, I know some of the more hard to convince among you might also be thinking “OK, well sold but I bet you need a new GS thingy with aluminium-effect panniers and LED spotlights to do it all on instead of my Honda Spacy.” But here you’d be wrong too, you cold hearted cynics.

See what’s really great about the endurance-riding thing is you don’t need a specially modified bike. If you can block out all the sorrowful wailing coming from Touratech’s offices and focus down on what you’re actually signing up to do – that is, something potentially incredibly tedious rather than equipment heavy – you soon learn that for endurance riding any bike that works properly will do (or mostly properly, even old Ducatis are in) provided it can achieve an average of at least 41.6 mph over 24 hours.

And the icing on the excuse cake? You don’t need any time off work to do it all in. Your boss will love you, especially if you choose to regale your work colleagues with your achievement just the one time before never mentioning it to them again and then getting on with your job.

Of course as in all areas of motorcycling some people are wont to take things to extremes and spend serious money on bike modifications. Rather than go into this here I simply invite you to take an afternoon and several Prozac while you peruse Google Images to gaze in glassy-eyed wonder at bikes fitted with aircraft grade supplementary fuel tanks and enough power in cockpit electronic navigational equipment to run Jean-Claude Juncker’s mini bar for a week.

But with the spendthrift chromasome lodged deep in my own DNA, a cheap-ass trip it had to be. My 21 year old £1000 R1100RT pretty much suggested itself, though as it was the only bike in my ropey fleet that was working I had little choice. Not owning a sat nav meant adding an old AA road map of Europe into the mix and my Google Images research inspired me to bring two 5 litre plastic lawnmower fuel cans which fitted rather nicely into a borrowed sports bag which I canoe-strapped to the pillion seat.

10 litres of extra convenience in a sports bag. I would later come to regret placing my waterproofs in here too.

Straps, map and petrol: it was really about all the prep I signed up for.

Oh yeah – the route! Almost forgot. I’d go from Bristol, hop the channel then head directly south to Padova in Italy a hair over 1000 miles away where the minimum of a horizontal bed, a wet shower and some beer served from a genuine glass bottle awaited me at my brother’s flat.

It was time. The bike was loaded and minimally checked for mechanical one-ness and sandwiches made. Aware I had not entered into the spirit of pedantic planning I began to feel the cold hand of fate on my shoulder. But now it was too late. I thumbed the old RT into life and began to roll…


Read Part 2 By Clicking Here

1 Comment

  1. If you look at the C90Club.co.uk website, you will see that someone managed it on a C90, with only minor modifications. Respect indeed.

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