The CMG chat: Wolfe Bonham and the Iron Butt

The 2019 edition of one of the world’s most challenging motorcycle competitions opens today.  The Iron Butt Rally is the biggest scavenger hunt in the world of motorcycling. Successful contestants will cover at least 9,000 miles (appoximately 14,500 km) but probably more than 11,000 miles (18,000 km) in 11 days, trying to earn the highest score to win the trophy and bragging rights.

The Iron Butt Rally runs mostly in the US, although it often takes side trips into Canada and many Canadians have participated over the years. This year, Wolfe Bonham – the same guy who organizes the Lobo Loco Rallies in Ontario – is back at the Butt, and we talked to him about his past experiences, and plans for this year’s event.


This 1974 Suzuki GT750 has a huge additional fuel cell, and an FLIR night vision camera system.

A few more quick details on the Iron Butt Rally. It’s run every two years and managed by the Iron Butt Association, a worldwide organization of more than 50,000 motorcyclists interested in long-distance travel. Although the IBA organizes many events and solo rides, the Rally is kind of what it’s known for.

This year, the Rally starts and ends in Greenville, South Carolina, heading to the Pacific Northwest. There’s no set-in-stone must-ride route, but participants must hit pre-set checkpoints, which they receive shortly before the rally starts. As long as they hit those waypoints, the route they take between them is optional. Along with the mandatory waypoints, there are also optional side trips to be taken for extra points. There are mandatory checkpoints on Day 4 and Day 8 just outside of Tacoma, Washington.

Some of this years contestants, lined up awaiting tech inspection. These machines have thousands of hard miles ahead of them.

CMG: How are you going to get to the start line this year, and where is it?

Wolfe: The start line is in Greenville, South Carolina, and I’m riding down. There’s a bit of a belief in the long-distance community that bad things happen if you trailer your bike to the start of the Iron Butt Rally. Either en route or in the rally, it’s kind of a jinx.

What bike are you taking this year?

I’ve got an ’03 BMW R1150 GS Adventure.

Why did you select that particular bike?

That’s been my go-to daily rider, adventure bike, round-the-world bike from the beginning. It’s getting a little long in the tooth, I’m getting a little concerned if it’s going to make the Iron Butt Rally this year,  but I know it inside out. It’s got over 350,000 km right now.

What modifications have you made to it, to make the ride easier?

There’s an auxiliary fuel cell, that gives me an extra three and a half gallons. I’ve got a Bill Mayers Saddles custom seat on it, that’s really key.

That auxiliary fuel tank greatly increases this BMWs range.

What riding gear do you use?

I’m sort of unofficially sponsored by Klim. I’ve got the Carlsbad (riding suit). I’ve got Sidi Adventure Gore-Tex (boots). I generally don’t ride with gloves. Part of it, we’re not really supposed to do this stuff, but it’s so you can manipulate all your touch screens. Some guys will wear gloves and just cut the fingertips out of them. I have gloves with me, I’ve typically got Held-brand gloves.

What tools do you bring?

I’m not really a mechanic, but I have everything for doing tire changing and most minor repairs with me. Baling wire, JB Weld, all that sort of stuff, lots of zip ties. I can do some roadside repairs, but I’m certainly not a mechanic by any stretch.

Chris Comley’s Harley Sportster will probably need some TLC along the way.

So if you run into trouble, you may end up having to get help on the road?

It depends what it is. On Butt Lite (a shorter version of the IBR) three years ago, I had a fuel line let go. I had to do a roadside repair on that, I was able to handle that. On the Day 8 checkpoint, I will have to change a rear tire, because I won’t get enough mileage out of my tires.

So you aren’t running a car tire in the back this year?

I had planned to, but I didn’t get a chance to do any experiments with it, so I’m running Heidenau K60 Scouts.

Word on the street is that this year, the Iron Butt will visit Mount Evans, just west of Denver, the highest paved road in North America. See the GPS reading Mark took on his visit there? Looks like a twisty ride in, too.

Don’t you know an 11,000-mile rally is the perfect time to experiment? You’ve got all day to think about it.

Absolutely! But I am experimenting with a new hydration system. Camelbaks are too heavy on the shoulders for 11 days, so I have something called Bottleworx. They make a great product, they’re Canadian. Their big growler bottle sits inside a Husky tool pouch that you get at Home Depot, so that gives me a way to attach the bottle to my bike, and I came up with a custom tubing system up to a bite valve that’s spring loaded. I can have a drink, let go of it, and it retracts.

Dylan Spinks’ Honda 650 Silverwing is a lot older than it looks, but don’t rule it out.

Do you have the route ahead of time, or do they give you the route for your GPS when you show up at the start line?

There is no official route. It’s up to each rider to come up with their own route plan, based on the puzzle they provide us with. We get the puzzle, typically, at 9 pm the night before the rally starts. The rally this year starts at 10 am.

So you’ve got 13 hours to chart your course?

Thirteen hours to chart your course, and get enough sleep to be ready for the 11 days.

This map gives you an idea of the scale of the rally. To the east, on the left of the map, there is a pin for the start/finish line in Greenville, South Carolina. Then there is a pin to the west/right, showing the Day 4 and Day 8 checkpoint in Tacoma, Washington. Where does the rally visit between Day 4 and Day 8? There’s a good chance the riders will be heading further northwest to Alaska. Or maybe south, to San Diego or even Key West? Wherever it is, it’ll be a long, tough slog.

What’s an average day in the saddle like?

In 2017, the two longest stretches I did, I did a 33-hour stretch and a 27-hour stretch where you’re essentially just stopping for fuel.  And you’re stopping to take photos of the locations you’re searching for. I would say the average day is 18-20 hours in the saddle.

Another homebrew bike mod: a DIY hydration system that allows for fewer stops.

When you stop to sleep, will it be any time of the day, or will be at night, when it’s dark?

If I feel like I need a nap, I pull off and have one — usually just a 20 or 30-minute nap, and that could be anytime, anywhere along the way. One of the really good ones is to find a cemetery, they’re usually pretty quiet. If it’s sunny out, find a tree to crawl underneath and find 20 minutes of sleep. We haven’t seen the rule requirements this year, but in 2017, the rule was every three days, we had to have a minimum six-hour break off the bike. Other than that, the sleeping or resting was at our own discretion.

What happens when you get a day, or days, of torrential rain?

That definitely happens, and yeah, we ride through it. I run weather satellite tracking on my bike, so I can kind of have a look at what’s happening. In 2017, on the middle three-day leg, it became apparent that the high-point route was going to be to go down to Key West, but I also looked at the weather and there were heavy thunderstorms through Louisiana; I made the decision not to go through the high-point run, and head up to Oklahoma instead, and stay out of the rain.

This is your second Iron Butt Rally. Are you going to play it safe, or push hard this year?

This year, I definitely want to push a little harder than I did last time. In 2017, I finished 11th overall out of 107 riders, and that was playing it conservative. So now I’m looking at it and saying okay, if we were to push it a little harder and plan routes that were a little tighter on timing, maybe we could get a little higher in the scoring.

What was your favourite moment in your last Iron Butt rally?

I would say coming into the finish. There are hundreds of people when you come into the parking lot at the finish, all cheering for the riders, and I hadn’t expected that kind of reception.

Wolfe winds down the 2017 rally, all smiles. Photo: Robyn Pitts/Facebook

What about this year? What are you looking forward to most this year?

I think a lot of it now is that my nerves have settled, I know what to expect, so I expect now I can enjoy the moment a little more than I did in 2017. In 2017, it was a lot of work, and it’s not like it’s going to be easy this time. I know what to expect, I know what my body’s going to do, I know what Day 9 feels like, so now I can kind of sit back and enjoy some of the stuff.

I do a lot of other rallies that are shorter in length, and on those, it’s really tight time management. The Iron Butt Rally is a little bit more loose, because everybody’s going to have a bad day somewhere in the 11 days, and you’ve got the other days to make up for it. Knowing that now takes some of the pressure off.

9 thoughts on “The CMG chat: Wolfe Bonham and the Iron Butt”

  1. Riding the Iron Butt on a Honda Silverwing? That’s pretty awesome. Hopefully it’s “just enough motorcycle” to do the job and the rider succeeds.

    1. Thing is, if you’ve got the stamina to stay in the saddle all day, you don’t really have to go that fast. The Silverwing will easily cruise all day at highway speeds. Wouldn’t be my choice, but shaft drive and a valve train that pretty much never goes out of spec would make it not a bad bike, as long as your camchain tensioner didn’t act up and your charging system didn’t self-destruct.

      1. I always thought that valvetrain was weird: A cam chain AND pushrods??? I wonder if it will handle crosswinds well enough. Anyway, unless someone beats them on a scooter it will be serious bragging rights to say “I finished the Iron Butt Rally on a Silverwing”.

        In 1981 I did Kenora to Carleton Place in 24 hours on a ’78 GS750, and then I slept for about 2 days. I can’t imagine doing that for 11 days straight.

        1. The pushrods were necessary because of the twisted cylinders, which were necessary because if not twisted, the intake wouldn’t work correctly (rider’s knees would get stuck in the way, and I suspect it complicated the plumbing).

  2. Funny this article, I just completed a BBG1500 (Bun Burner Gold) Saturday. One was really hard. I can’t imagine stringing together a half dozen or more in a ten day span.

    Ever since I read John Burns’ article in CW about competing in the IBR in ‘91 or ‘92, I’ve been fascinated by long distance riding. Only in the past couple of years have the elements been in place (financial, time) for me to dip my toes in. It’s addictive…

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