2013 Iron Butt Rally: Leg 2 Pittsburgh to Rancho Cordova

Mike Kneebone once told me that his idea of setting up a rally was to look at where he wanted riders to go and setting the bonus points accordingly. On the morning of July 5th we got a bonus packet that said go to Pike Peak. It was nearly on the direct route and it was worth a bazillion points. It would be classic Kneebone as Pikes Peak is a long time to get to the summit and a long time to get back down. The variability of driving times puts paid to many plans. There was another way. A chain of of 35 bonuses found in 34 bonus locations. The final bonus being a combo bonus. Screw it up and the combo bonus is gone. What route would be competitive and make up for my 91st place finish. This would not be the place to get crazy, but it would be the place to make up lost ground towards finisher status. So I started to plan.

I set about analyzing the route and it was pretty simple. Head west. I used to live in Colorado Springs and actually scouted the Pikes Peak bonus for a previous Iron Butt Rally. I visualized the route and determined that Pikes Peak was pulling the skew heavily. What wasn’t visible was the additive bonus for the Pony Express route. Looking at the visualization a chain across the country was pretty obvious. Two ways  to play this were follow the pony express bonus point chain, but pick up other locations to pad the score, or head straight to Pikes Peak and pick up some other largish bonuses and simply make up lost ground.


I evaluated the bins of points and saw once again that there were a lot of zero entries. That was pulling a heavy skew in the visualization component. I spend a lot of time analyzing the routes and then sometimes just toss out the entire logical path of most efficient or highest scoring for something I think might be more fun. That leaves me having a rally that is substantially more “fun” instead of “competitive” as an experience. That isn’t to say “competitive” isn’t fun or can’t be fun. For lots of people it is big rock in the pile of fun.


I removed the Pikes Peak bonus and several other locations jumped out as possible large rally bonuses I should consider. The key on attaining them would be time and efficiency of the ride. Hiding in Colorado Springs was a second largish bonus. There was the Black Rock Desert sitting out there ready to be gobbled up. The problem was the time and distance equation. Being late at the checkpoint simply wasn’t an option and the rest stop bonus was enough points per hour to mean not giving up any of that time. Basically if you’re at the point where the points per hour on the rest stop are less than the points per hour you are picking up the rest bonus is a tax on your total points. That has to be a calculation over the entire rally not just a segment, but if you are in the elite category that may be a possibility. I happen to need my beauty sleep and routing for rest is a big deal for me.


This provides a much better picture of other bonus locations besides Pikes Peak. It should be noted that the first, second, and fourth single bonus point buckets just about make the same points available for Pikes Peak. In this particular rally Pikes Peak is a must do rally bonus location. The key for a winning strategy would be to add the other three and a significant number of the second to last tier as possible. Almost all of the Pony Express bonus points are in the last tier, but when you distribute the combo bonus over them they rise to the second to last tier. That would be a volume strategy and especially high risk in my opinion. Is it the route for a first time Iron Butt Rally rider?

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I wanted to attack this smartly so I considered a few options. First up with a seriously fun and high quality ride option was the Pony Express Route. It would have me on secondary roads, and some wonderful country. The troublesome part is the daylight only bonuses. Even picking up three hours along the route towards daylight would not solve all the problems. Being fast at rest stops and moving all the time would be required. There were several other bonuses that become more than possible. The issue with the Pony Express Route is that as the number of bonus locations increases the likely failure for any one bonus location increases too. A failure on this route would be devastation at the scoring table.


Each bonus location in a combo bonus is a chance to watch a lot of points after a lot of effort sail away. When my ship comes in I don’t want to be at the airport so I looked long and hard at this route. I had to balance the secondary roads fun factor (and slower transit time) with the overall goal of points and finishing status. With a run to the Black Rock Desert or to Colorado Springs it would be a likely rally winning ride. I could not make those two bonuses work for my level of effort and my capacity to ride.The combo portion of the bonus was the same points as the Pikes Peak bonus. A man has to know his limitations and mine said this route was possible but it meant a long list of bonuses and a lot of chance to screw up.


For a lot less effort I could crawl out of my first leg hole and make fewer stops along the way. I would have less chance to screw up at the bonus table but it was in no way a winning rally solution. I passed by several smaller bonuses after gobbling up the AMA and headed west as fast as I could pedal. That was the strategy I set out to try.


You can see that I got 6 hours of sleep the first night near Colorado Springs (actually in Hays, NB). The near in Iron Butt Rally terms is quite subjective. The route planned also had me not grabbing the fairly easy bonuses in Denver. I skipped them for a ride through the mountains of Colorado taking the “short cut” through Breckinridge, CO. A rest along the route just south of Salt Lake City was planned. There was a bonus I could have gobbled up in Salt Lake City, but I hadn’t planned on it as I wanted to leave Black Rock as a possibility.


I didn’t plan on the Black Rock bonus location because I wanted to make sure I was on time to the check point. So once again I ran two options and let them click down. As I passed the exit to head towards the Black Rock Desert it showed I would be two minutes late for the check point (penalty points not time barred). That would have been almost worth it. The issue was if I had any other time losses along the route it might climb rapidly.

At the AMA museum the bike we were supposed to take a picture of wasn’t on display anymore. So, I grabbed a receipt for the tour (I actually walked around and looked at the displays). I wasn’t moving as fast as I thought I should so I headed out. It was raining pretty heavily at times and even my rain gloves were starting to get dampish. As I headed through Indianapolis I looked longingly north towards home. I was only an hour away from home, a hot meal, a shower, my wife and kids. So I kept going. Faster.


One of the issues I had along the rally was the dreaded “No receipt” at gas pumps. Even though I was using spot to track my ride and wasn’t required to keep a fuel log I did so anyways. What if my SPOT tracking failed? I didn’t enter all the fuel data I just kept receipts. One of the things that you have in the West is unattended gas pumps after hours. So, when the pump says “get receipt inside” you are looking at a locked, closed, and empty store.


In a couple of cases it said it printed the receipt but never produced it. The answer in the Iron Butt Rally when you don’t get a receipt is to take a picture of the pump and your rally flag. Not an easy trick taking a picture when it is blowing 40 plus miles per hour. Don’t mind that number of gallons either. The bike only holds 9.7 gallons. This kind of gas stop planning would haunt me later.


After getting fuel I rode towards a hotel and some rest. I had the ride into Colorado Spring to be ready for the next day. I had spent quite a bit of time making distance so that I could have the longest rest possible. Since I lived in Colorado Springs for several years I knew my way around pretty good. The Airplane Restaurant bonus was a location I took my wife to for dinner one night. The ambience was excellent and kind of fun. It did not make up for the standard hotel dinner. I headed down the backside of Colorado Springs so I could get over to US24 to Pikes Peak easiest. I skipped going past where my old house was located as it was in the burn zone of a recent fire. I didn’t need the heart break of seeing the place where my family lived now up in smoke. Though I understand that the house survived everything around it supposedly burned up including a big chunk of the Flying W ranch.


A couple of people were following my Spot track and noticed I missed the turn off to Pikes Peak. My GPS was stating go one way, and I in my infinite wisdom did not make the turn where I knew it was supposed to be. I went ahead and followed the GPS. In my mind I had two thoughts and perhaps I needed a nap or a swift punch. One thought was maybe the road changed due to the fires, the other was perhaps they had opened the road to the visitor center. As you approach the reservoir visitor center there is a road on the right that goes down the backside of Pikes Peak. It is dirt, and not for the faint of heart. I finally just turned around and headed back to the main entrance. It had been upgraded since my last visit.

I followed three guys on bikes. The ranger at the gate said four bikes is $10 each instead of the normal $12 so three guys and I got a break on admission. I got the receipt. Getting up the road to the peak is something I’ve done a dozen or so times. The bonus was to grab a picture of the COG train at the top and I did that no issues. I go there as it was arriving. People were looking at the “Firefighter” taking pictures and riding the motorcycle. Walking around at 14K feet is not easy. Especially when you’ve been living at relative sea level for a decade. Numb lips, blue finger nail beds, and swarming spots. Not a good combination.


They guys I followed up the mountain had an area set aside for parking motorcycles. I asked and got permission to park with them. When they figured out what I was doing they wanted to chat and one of their group chased them away. He said get my butt down the mountain and ride. Obviously he had some experience with the rally riding scene. I grabbed the second required bonus on the top of the peak and headed down the hill.



On the way down Pikes Peak I got caught in a hail storm. The Aerostich Darien I wear is armored but 38 caliber hail stones hit hard. I got my buns down the mountain and out the gate quick. I wasn’t feeling to good after the ride down the Peak and never being one to use common sense and challenge adversity I stopped and got some food. The line out of The North Pole had emptied on the secondary roads so I stopped at a small diner. I had a leisurely lunch, got my breathing under control, rested up a good bit and saw that the line was backed up to the Pikes Peak entrance.

Another rider (not a rally entrant) was attempting to split between parked outbound and incoming traffic, but I headed out a second exit and instead of waiting thirty minutes was on Highway 24 in a few minutes. I had thought about heading up to Denver to bag the bonuses there, but my rally plan said head out through the backside of the Front Range. That was my reward if I followed my rally plan for finishing status.



I followed my plan and as I was heading towards Utah I was rewarded with a spectacular sun set. The miles melted away and the personal chastisement of not riding hard enough, the inner competitive spirit I had been sitting on, and the demons of my own mortality quieted. This is why I ride motorcycles. When it rains I get wet. When it is mind searing hot I sweat. When the sun sets on a great day riding I get to love life a little bit more. The road is a metaphor for the process of life in so many books. It is just a road. The ride is the process.

I went to the Provo Utah area and grabbed a hotel room. Some scheduled rest and a shower made me feel a little more human. The next day I headed out toward the Bonneville Salt Flats. A lot of recent rain meant the marker itself was surrounded by water. The area though is so beautiful. I grabbed some moving pictures to try and get a sense of the vast and utter desolation that seems to emanate from this consequently pristine environment. The totality of the area has drawn motor sports junkies for decades.



I finally started seeing other riders along the route. On Pikes Peak I had seen a few Iron Butt Rally riders heading up as I was heading down, but I had not since the Oil Well bonus on leg 1 or the AMA museum and Airplane Restaurant seen any other riders. At the Bonneville Salt Flats bonus I saw Shane and Annette Cudlin on a Yamaha XTZ1200. There was a couple from Europe looking at the Salt Flats which made three different continents represented.  I represented the indigenous savage North American.


I grabbed my photograph and logged my information. I was amazed at the amount of water. I’d never been to the desert and seen that much water and having passed by this same area on previous rallies it was always flat, hot, and white. I don’t figure the water was very deep, but it was kind of a treat. Perhaps it is always like this most of the time at the marker?


One thing I do is keep all of my rally receipts in order, coded with the bonus code, and in the same place through the entirety of the rally. I have a book that looks like a Moleskin with a file folder inside of it. Bonus receipts go in one folder, gas receipts go in another folder, and hotel receipts go in another folder. It has a small tablet of paper for writing notes and I can record “bad gas stops” to point scorers toward photographic evidence if needed. I ran the SPOT tracking tools through Spotwalla so I didn’t have to worry about that. Unless the tracking failed.

Heading out of the Bonneville Salt Flats I had already decided the Black Rock Desert Bonus was not for me. There were a couple more that I could grab with one being the Donner Pass Bonus. I saw Rob Nye at the gas station looking for a lost gas cap. I promised him I would look when I headed out of the bonus. When I got back to the turn around I passed the normal on ramp and did a quick u-turn past the gas station. Knowing he had lost a twist on gas cap I watched carefully for the first two or three exits but not seeing anything close I motored on. He had already left the area so i couldn’t have returned it anyways. A few other riders showed up at the bonus as I was snapping my picture.



I had not scheduled the Chinese Rail Road Memorial in my original plan. I had it noted after I finished my route that I needed to do it. I reminded myself a half a dozen times that I should do it. It was worth a lot of points for nearly zero effort so it made absolute sense to do it. I wasn’t tired, or having time issues. There was no reason to not do it. I simply forgot. As I arrived at A&S BMW to grab my picture of the store and my bike I felt stupid. I had just passed by 351 easy points and there was no excuse.



Since I’ve bought things from A&S in the past I felt pretty good about the bonus and the associate commercial that grabbing the bonus meant. A fellow was sitting in his truck looking at me as if I had horns. I’m not sure if he was a spectator, security guard, or employee. A couple other riders arrived and got their bonus pictures too. I noticed that I was not the slowest at the bonus stop but I was definitely not the fastest. I left before others who were there first, and left after others who followed me. I headed down the road to the hotel nearby.

When you arrive at an Iron Butt Rally check in you are greeted by a mob of cheering spectators. I’m a nobody from nowhere Indiana working for a university in fly over country. Heck my schools football team doesn’t get the kind of cheering I got arriving at the checkpoint in Rancho Cordova. A quick check in, a few directions, offers from MANY people for help, and I grabbed a parking place. Since I arrive ready to score I checked in and grabbed a bite to eat. On my way out of scoring I saw fire trucks. Much has been said about the fire trucks, and the inherent discussion of risks of riding.



I would say most people have over blown the entire situation. People were concerned, people took action, and the experts said there was no reason for concern. In other words people in the Iron Butt Rally take risks seriously. Considering the squiddly rider I passed in Saint Louis cutting lanes and doing wheelies, the guy on Pikes Peak with two inches of steel showing on his rear tire, or four wheel drive truck driver crossing three lanes without a head check talking on his cell phone and lighting a cigarillo. All the bad stuff I see on the road and I get a completely different lesson from seeing experts tend to a rider.

I finished the route with lots of time to spare. I picked up 16K points and moved up the standing by 12 places. The field had decreased from 96 riders to 90 riders which meant though I was far from the front of the pack I was moving up the standings. From 91st to 79th was pretty good. If I had picked up the Chinese Rail Road bonus, grabbed Salt Lake City and the bonuses north of Denver I’d have only moved out about five places in the standings. I would have missed out on a glorious ride. I think the route was a fair trade off. I had fun, I rode safe, and I finished the leg with no major issues.



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