Opinion: Sore in the saddle

The weather’s been bizarre this year and it’s got me to thinking about bizarre things that have happened to me on motorcycles. I’ve already told the story of the strange coincidences that happened on a long ride home from California, and of course, the headless motorcyclist and the infamous Kawasaki Ninja press launch. But for a ride itself, my 1,000-in-1 escapade from 16 years ago surely takes the prize.

The premise was simple: earn a Saddlesore certificate from the Iron Butt Association by riding a motorcycle for 1,000 miles inside 24 hours. I’d long been intrigued by the Iron Butt itself, which sends riders off on a treasure hunt of sorts for a minimum of 11,000 miles in 11 days; it usually reaches all four corners of the U.S. and into Canada, and sometimes Alaska too. It runs in the summer of every odd-numbered year and attracts a varied cast of characters, all with stories to tell of long hours in the saddle.

One of the founders of the Iron Butt was Chicago lawyer Mike Kneebone, and back in 2002, I contacted Mike to ask to meet him on his home turf. To do it properly, I’d take the long route, riding 1,000 miles (or 1,600 km) to get to him, leaving Niagara Falls at 6 pm, heading down toward St. Louis, then turning north to clock in right on the mileage at Chicago 24 hours later.

I invited two friends to join this venture: Dave O’Halloran and Tim Finlan, both experienced riders. And I arranged for three press fleet bikes for us: a Triumph Trophy, a BMW K1200 RS, and a Yamaha FJR1300.  Yamaha was a little uncertain about lending us the FJR because it was the first year for the model, it was the only one in the country, and I’d be the first to ride it. But they lent it to me anyway. Ha!

A true attempt at a “Saddlesore” 1,000-in-1 must be properly documented to make sure there’s proof of actually covering the distance, with a time-stamped receipt at the start and finish, and gas station receipts along the way. To cover our (hopefully iron) butts, the three of us rode to Lewiston, New York, just north of Niagara Falls, and brought along famed long-distance rider Thane Silliker and friend Neil Dolson to sign off on our odometer readings at the start. Thane had ridden a couple of Iron Butts for himself and even crossed Canada from Halifax to Vancouver in a documented 52 hours, averaging around 130 km/h on his Honda ST1100 and never pausing to pee – he’d relieve himself along the way through a hose attached to his tackle that drained down by his boot. None of us wanted to ride behind him. Little wonder he was known as “inThane Thilliker”…

Thane Silliker and Neil Dolson sign off on the bikes’ odometer readings in Lewiston, NY. Neil is watching to see if there’s a small puddle beside Thane’s boot.

Anyway, with the time-consuming border crossing behind us and a decent dinner inside us, we filled up with U.S. gas, waved goodbye to Thane and Neil and set off into the setting sun. It was the May 24 weekend, and the summer temperatures literally dropped by 20 degrees C on the day we departed. They wouldn’t rise again until Tuesday.

The planned route was roughly Niagara to Cleveland, to Columbus, to Indianapolis, then almost to St. Louis and up to Chicago. We quickly decided our favourite bikes: I liked the FJR because it was the only one in the country, and for its electric windshield, while Dave liked the BMW because it was solid, smooth, and planted on the road. Tim liked whatever he could get. His own motorcycle was a BMW GS1100, so he settled in behind the vast (and flexible) fairing of the Triumph and followed the leader.

We made it to Cleveland before we had to stop and let Dave warm up his feet. It truly was cold – right around freezing – and although we all had electric vests, we had to wear them directly against our skin to maximum their warmth. Which wasn’t much. And when Dave had to warm up his feet, he had to do it right now! Not at the nice warm truck stop five minutes up the road, where we also stopped.

Told you it was cold. The Trophy did not have a heated seat. If it did, we would have fought to ride it.

I led the way, and I did the mental calculations for time. Theoretically, 1,600 km can be easily covered in 16 hours on the interstate, leaving eight hours for meals and gas and rest, but it doesn’t work that way on a bike, and especially not when the temperature is so cold. We pressed on through the night, stopping frequently and frozenly, mostly for Dave’s feet, and were relieved when the sun finally rose somewhere in Indiana. All the warming breaks were taking their toll on time, but we were still okay when we turned north near St. Louis, scheduled to arrive in Chicago by 6 PM. Just.

Dave fiddles with the Beemer’s footpeg – again.

But this is where the ride turned bizarre. There was no GPS back in 2002, remember, and I was doing all the calculations for distance based on written estimates of mileage between towns. We had our odometers (in kilometres) for a double check as we progressed, but somewhere along the way I realized we would come up a little short. Nor could we just ride past the Chicago meeting point and back because the congested city traffic would slow us too much. So, pressed for time as we were, we took a scenic detour through the cornfields to add distance. Dave’s feet could catch frostbite for all I cared – we wanted that certificate!

Mike Kneebone, in Chicago, authenticates that our odometers showed 1,610 km from Thane’s reading.

Now, with my head swirling with miles and kilometres and hours and minutes and cold, entering Chicago, we were right on time to arrive 15 minutes early – until I realized that 1,000 miles is not 1,600 kilometres, but actually 1,610 km, and we’d be eight km short. So we had to ride around in traffic after all until our odometers clicked over the needed distance. We reached Mike Kneebone at the meeting point with moments to spare.

“Well done!” he said. “That’s quite an achievement. Gee – you guys look cold…”

We headed home the next day, making a late start and taking our time. Tim dropped the FJR in a parking lot in Michigan and broke its clutch lever, which didn’t make us popular with Yamaha; Dave figured out how to adjust the BMW’s footpegs, fell in love with it and bought a new one for himself that he still owns. And me? I have the Saddlesore certificate somewhere, and the Iron Butt keychain somewhere, and the licence plate bracket that’s supposed to only be on the bike that covered the distance. Screw that. I’ve since ridden my Harley for a thousand miles in a day and didn’t even notice until the trip was over.

That’s the best sort of journey, after all. Ride for yourself, stop when you want to and make the most of every moment. And if your feet get cold, warm them up.

Mike, Mark, Tim and Dave, finally in Chicago after taking the long way round. And yes, we’re delirious.

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