2013 Iron Butt Rally Bike Preparation

I decided I wanted to ride the 2013 Iron Butt Rally. I had been selected to ride in the past but was unable to do so for a variety of what long distance riders would call excuses. Deciding to ride is kind of like deciding you want to have a root canal without anesthesia. Like so many others I waited to be told and waited to be told and hoped that I’d get in and finally I got a nice notice saying I was an entrant. Send in my application fee and keep my mouth shut out of respect for the other riders who were not selected.

What is this Iron Butt Rally named so strangely to many of my blog readers? It is an 11 day motorcycle ride held every other year that has a rider traveling around eleven-thousand miles in eleven days. Rain, shine, wind or hurricane you ride to different locations and pick up evidence of having visited all of those locations. Did I mention you do this on a motorcycle? For some the idea of driving so far in a car is extreme. Actually with preparation and good planning it is fairly trivial to ride that far in that amount of time. This is about that preparation.

The key for me to the Iron Butt Rally and why it is so much fun is figuring out which bonus locations to go to, how long such adventures will take, and what the most likely path of success is towards the most points. It is more than easy enough to beat yourself to a pulp and not get any points towards finishing status. There is the scoring table adventure where you have to have proof of visiting certain locations. Lots of people have done various Iron Butt Association rides like the Saddlesore 1K, or the Bun Burner Gold 1500. Only a few hundred people in the world have completed the Iron Butt Rally. If you hear somebody say that they did one of those Iron Butt rides and it was no big deal. They’re not talking about the Iron Butt Rally. More people have been in space than have finished the Iron Butt Rally, as the association president and owner Michael Kneebone has said.

One of the key pieces to this adventure is the tool you choose. The base bike will not remain a base bike for very long. In my case the bike is a BMW R1200 GS Adventure. These bikes have been around the world and a few of them have actually made it without a rear end drive failure. One key piece to the strategy of the Iron Butt Rally is you don’t know where you are going and you have no idea the conditions you will find when you get there. The Iron Butt Rally has been completed on a scooter, various cruiser type bikes, a plethora of models of Honda Goldwings, and many Yamaha FJR sport bikes. The rally can’t be that big a deal if a guy completed it on a scooter can it? It’s not about the bike it is about the rider. Except the bike can be a liability or tool for success. Hyped up Lance Armstrong couldn’t win the Tour de’ France on a huffy no matter his elixir of choice. The BMW was my choice.


There were a a few key design goals:

  • The bike must be useable as a rally bike and daily commuter
  • The bike must be able to be parked and not be stripped by thieves
  • The bike must look as stock as possible
  • All systems must be integrated into the bike in such a way as they would not make a mechanics job harder
  • Any system upgraded or replaced must support safe adventure riding

I picked the BMW GS Adventure for the built in fuel supply (nearly 9 gallons) and a rock solid platform to build upon. I have seen a simple tip over at a gas station break a motorcycle so bad that it had to be towed home. I wanted a motorcycle for this trip that would by the nature of design protect itself and me. I am a very risk averse person so I want the bike to protect my body as much as it does itself. I know that some systems and upgrades will detract from the off road capability but the bike will still be better than a Goldwing off road and I have a lot of miles off road with Goldwings to make that assertion. The GS Adventure line of BMW motorcycles in stock configuration meets my objectives quite nicely.  So you buy a motorcycle and the first thing you do is take it apart. That is a the epitome of hope and the best way to get to know a motorcycle.


A view from the rear give some indication of the bikes width (some would say girth). The rear of the bike is covered in retroreflective decals that make it much more visible to a driver following the bike. Instead of just seeing the little tail light they get a wider reflective view of the panniers. I have added a few stickers on the back of the bike that mean various things. There is the first sticker that I put on any vehicle I ride or drive. The Marine Corps seal. If you’ve made it through boot camp you have earned it. There is the ADV sticker as homage to where I got a lot of my ideas for building the bike. There is the Apple logo and one of the few company logo’s on the bike. Some people will immediately think “Apple Fan Boy”, but really it is about my work where I break all that cool Apple stuff people buy. On my BMW K1600GTL I have a Buddha Fish since it’s a serene fat mans motorcycle. The R1200GS Adventure needed something a little more explanatory and ended up with a pirate fish. For the rally I’ll be removing the Iron Butt Association plate backer. The idea is to earn a new one to put on at the finish of the rally.


Protection from tip overs is important. This is a Touratech brake reservoir cage. Many of these items are on the bike in various places. Lots of tip over and inadvertent protection type items help keep the inadvertent problem from becoming a big problem. A simple tip over at a gas station can wreck a ride. I watched a guy who had his sport bike fall over when the kickstand collapsed and the bike fell into a gas station curb. The side case on the bike cracked open and the gooey oozey stuff that makes the bike go zoom went sploosh onto the pavement.  Since I don’t know where I will be going I want to make sure I’m prepared for muddy roads, and dirt tracks. Though I set the bike up specifically with the 2013 Iron Butt Rally in mind this will be my bike for other adventure type rides. I’m thinking an ultimate coast to coast and similar after the Iron Butt Rally. I’ve commuted every day this year to work except for 5 of them. Since I live in a fly-over country midwestern winter weather zone you can do the analysis on what that means. I would say I am not crazy and riding the bike often is better than taking a car ever.


I added a second tip over bar to protect the cylinder heads. The rocker bar on the bottom will keep pavement and most dirt roads from smacking the thing that makes horsepower. Notice the skid plate too. It is a Touratech skid plate and much larger than the stock version.It wraps the headers and goes the full length of the engine. The skid plate has sacrificial rubber crush grommets. There is a skid plate attached to the center stand too. That keeps the center stand from snagging stuff in the road like brush or limbs. Even a normal road bike may pick up debris and the center stand juts down into the way enough that a plate to keep it clear makes sense. I doubt I will be used to crawl over stumps but I most definitely am a belt and suspenders kind of rider.


When riding across the western United States there are places where at night there is no light. There is only the light you bring with you. Riding in those places between places is one of the true joys of motorcycling. I answered the call for light with twin Rigid Industries Dually Spots at 1200 lumens each (20 watts each). Two Rigid Industries Dually D2 driving lights at 2600 lumens each (and 26 watts each). The auxilary lights frame the stock headlights. The stock headlight low beam and high beam produce about 1000 lumens each (at 55 watts). With the two, now replaced, stock auxiliary driving lights that produced around a 1000 lumens each that would be 4K lumens total in stock configuration. For a total expenditure of about 220 watts (55 watts X4) off the bikes electrical system. I have upgraded the stock headlight high and low beam  to 35 watt HID each at around 3200 lumens. I get 2600 x2, 1200 X2  and 3200 x2 for less wattage than stock (162 watts expended on the new system). That is about 14K lumens total light down the road. Why so much light? In the dark, and rain when there is no moon I can create my own little place of sunshine. It also helps for vaporizing vampires.


I don’t speed. I know that sounds silly since I have one of the top of the line radar detectors. So, I will say it slightly differently. I have no intent to speed. Even when paying absolute attention to the speed limit there are times when traffic and a missed speed limit sign put me at risk of inadvertently being above the speed limit. I like to know if I’m currently being consider for the risk of “press hard, three copies” on the side of the road. There are many other reasons to have a radar detector. In several western states the highway crews set up radar beacons that warn you of road construction ahead of you. So, there are a lot of reason to make sure you know what emissions are surrounding you.


There is a lot going on here in this picture of the CB. I’ve added a mc-cruise control, a second switch for the auxiliary lights, and a J&M CB Radio. What yo don’t see here is the added module that integrates my GPS, and cell phone, along with V1 radar detector into the headset of my helmet. The J&M system is limited to allowing full wired functions of the GPS or the iPhone. You can’t do both with their module. The cruise control bracket is the tall version from the OEM. I took that version, flipped it, bent it, and then customized it to work with the TekMount that is holding the J&M system. I’ll have another post showing those photographs in richer detail another time. I had to sacrifice the clutch reservoir cage from Touratech because it was just  a little to much for all of what is going with all the other brackets. The basic take away is all light and communication is controlled from this side of the handlebar. It does not require me taking my hands off the handlebars to talk or turn on the lights. The thumb reach to the spots auxiliary switch is a bit much but less than I have seen on some stock motorcycles.


I use the iPod interface from the J&M system to integrate tunes with my iPhone and thus have sound brought in via the wire to my helmet. The iPhone though does have bluetooth and I can use that through my GPS for making and answering phone calls. It may be possible to send the music over bluetooth too, but I haven’t tried it yet. Why make and answer phone calls? The various rides and rallies will sometimes require a rider call into an answering machine and give their locations and where they are going next. I should be able to do that quite easily without even having to stop and hands free (voice activated). The other reason is I am away from my family and I promised my kids that they could follow me on the Internet (via satellite tracking) and could call me anytime that I have cell service. I’m dad on an adventure any way I can share that with my kids is a good thing.

The Garmin GPS I use is the BMW branded Navigator 4.  I bought this GPS for my other bike and it moves between the bikes very easily. At nearly $1000 for GPS, locking mounts, and such I did not want to spend a lot of money on this twice. When I bought this with the BMW 1600GTL which has a built in mount I was originally thinking the GPS would be redundant on the GS. In some ways I am wishing I had just bought the ZUMO 665 for the R12GSA as I would have integrated XM radio. I really like the XM radio for keeping up on the news and live weather reports. On my recent trip to Daytona Florida on my K16GTL I listened live as the new Pope was announced. I am not Catholic but it was kind of neat to be drilling holes in the air in southern Georgia listening to history happen half way around the world.


One of the elements I really like on my BMW K1600GTL is the tire pressure monitoring system. There is a lot of discussion over the utility of these and whether they are worth the hassle. I understand some of the concerns. The criticism follows a thread that they don’t give enough warning for slow leaks, that if you’re not bent over the tire checking it by hand you may miss wear or damage by visual inspection, that a tire pressure monitoring system will do nothing for a sudden blow out, and that the pressure of a moving tire is already suspect. Given all of that I don’t really care. Catastrophic failure is rarely sudden but often undetected evidence points to that as an outcome. There is very little evidence to indicate tire pressure monitoring systems as failure points. They may be inaccurate but they don’t appear to cause accidents (caveat that I’m talking about internal versus external sensors). The point is when I check the tire cold with an air gauge I get one reading. When I have a constant reading I’m able to check it before I start out on every ride and could detect a slow leak over time. I’ve in essence automated a small part of what the MSF would call the T-Clock process. I put the Orange Electronics tire pressure monitoring system in the category of more information is a good thing.


I installed a Touratech dash kit for a variety of reasons. It is two pieces that cover up the area behind the instruments and provide a visor over them. I wanted to cover up some wiring but I also wanted to provide a standard cigarette lighter interface. The BMW power outlet system and a lot of bike companies use a non-standard power plug that is like a small cigarette lighter socket. Unfortunately a lot of accessories like lights won’t fit into those. I also added a 2 outlet adapter for USB that can run an iPhone and iPad simultaneously from the cigarette lighter outlet. I might not use both USB ports but I have the option.  I  definitely will be using the iPhone side of it for my second GPS and tunes.This is not water proof but it is water resistant. The cigarette lighter outlet also runs my miniature air compressor. On the other side of the dash is a standard BMW plug.


This is another bracket that protects and exposed component on the engine and the fuel injection components on the left side. The cylinder head hanging out to the side of the BMW engine is felt to be a liability by many non-BMW riders. The teutonic knuckleheads that designed the bike over the last half century have greatly improved the core strength of the engine cases and cylinder head design. The engine case is basically the frame of the bike. As technology has moved forward more and more external components have been added (fuel injection, emissions, sensors). The result is that if the bike tips over a boot twist or trapped leg can break sensitive components that might end a ride. That cylinder head sticking out in the wind does mean it is cooled better than a standard American v-twin, and more importantly protects the rider.


I’m not sure I”m happy with this design. It works. It seems to have all of the necessary pieces towards keeping the antenna functional. I built it but the support brace is simply not up to the task. I’ll likely rebuild this or add a brace to the back cross brace. The R1200 GS Adventure does not have a lot of locations to put things and keep the off road functionality. I also added a toolbox (discussed elsewhere) and that meant the standard J&M bracket was not useable. The antenna has a slip sleeve that allow it to be laid down when I put the night cover on the bike.


The Wunderliche tool box fits behind the right pannier. It is a waterproof box that remains on the bike even if the pannier is removed. The lockable box does have a few clearance issues if engaged in spirited off road antics. This fits in with the bike looking as stock as possible, it is a secure place to carry the larger tool kit, first aid kit, a tire repair kit (2 types) and a motorcycle specific set of jumper cables. Unfortunately all of that won’t fit at the same time, but I can get quite a bit in it. That means the emergency type devices and things that are critical in a pinch are always on the bike and safe from being stolen. Risk mitigation is being prepared for when things go wrong. I can’t fix everything that goes wrong with the bike but I can bring the tools along to fix most issues.

GS Tool Box

Tying the electronics together in an easy to manage way was important. A significant number of riders will install a fuse block but that means having to carry fuses. The GS Adventure has a couple of fuses but the majority of the bike is something called CANBUS. The bikes electronics protect it from overages or shorts. I wanted to integrate something into the CANBUS with the smallest number of connections to the battery. This particular solution from Rowe Electronics in Iowa is called the PDM60. It provides six solid state controlled circuits that can be customized for up to 60 amps of service but variable across the circuits. I segmented the circuits up based on the expected power utilization and location of the circuit on the bike. As an example the GPS is by itself, but all of the dash electronics are on one circuit. I wired the harness that way and wrapped the entire new harness to protect against chaffing and shorts.

Once again the entire project was done so that everything that was added would disappear. A large number of people would have put the PDM 60 in the tool tray. I hid it in the area underneath so that the stock tool roll and documents could be where they normally are kept.


So, I’m going to ride a bike in all kinds of weather and on all kinds of terrain. I used to carry a thick piece of plastic that I could put under the side stand to keep it from sinking into hot asphalt. Touratech and other companies created a foot that attaches to the bottom of the side stand and makes the surface area significantly larger. When stopping in rock or sand there is much less chance of the bike tipping over as the side stand disappears. I once put my Goldwing on the center stand and when I came back both tires were on the ground as the center stand had sank into the summer heated asphalt. The bike was still standing, but since it was now night the asphalt had cooled. Getting the bike out of that predicament was a comedy routine. My so called friends were more than happy to make unhelpful suggestions and laugh as I broke the pavement to get the bike out.


Storage on the BMW R1200GS/Adventure is not spectacular. As I mentioned earlier I have a tool box that I added. I also have these crash bar bags that are perfect for putting soft and non crushable items into So, things like my first aid kit and jumper cables fit no problem. Since they are exposed to the avarice of the public I won’t put anything critical in them. Since they are exposed to the ignorance of my capabilities I won’t put anything in them that will be destroyed should the motorcycle decide to take a nap.


A few years back I looked in my rear view mirror and thought I saw a UFO approaching quickly from the rear. The light stack on the bike was fairly significant and the bike was miles behind me. I was in the middle of Nevada where roads are lonely and long. I was riding another bike at the time and I was admiring the scenery and ignoring my speedometer after having been warned by the highway patrol to not poke along the road like some ignorant fool. When the following bike got to within a mile of me suddenly all the lights went out. Actually the rider merely went to low beam, but the difference in what I was seeing in FRONT of me was significant. That is a lot of light. A few minutes later the rider only traveling a few miles an hour faster went past me and when he just got past me he lit up the night. Turned the night into day. I think he likely had 8 lights on the front of his bike. For all my bluster I’m still not carrying that much light. Just enough for my purposes.


That’s how I prepared the 2008 BMW R1200GS Adventure to ride this summer around the country. I have tuned myself up quite a bit too. The bike is a tool and a system that I can modify and change merely with my knowledge and skills. Changing myself and preparing myself mentally is another complete challenge. Every rider engaging in the adventure of long distance motorcycling has to wonder will they finish? Will they start? There is something to be said to reflecting on the priorities of life. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I may not succeed. I fully understand that the bike could fail, I could fail, and bad things happen to good people. Then again. I could succeed. My one and only concern is that my riding partner and wife will not be on this adventure with me. That truly makes me sad. I’ve been talking about doing this since 1988. It is about time I actually toed the starting line.


1 comment for “2013 Iron Butt Rally Bike Preparation

  1. joelharding1234
    May 21, 2013 at 5:56 am

    Excellent post, Sam! You inspired me to sign up for a BMW R1200 GS Adventure test ride. My Goldwing is nice but I find the restrictions significant enough to consider an upgrade to a more versatile bike, like yours. I already have one long scratch on a saddlebag from an offroad trip, it’s expensive as heck to fix, yet another reason to look at a BMW for my adventure riding. I’ll keep the Goldwing for rides with my wife and, if she’ll let me play, I’ll pop on the BMW. Thanks for this post!

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