When I first heard about an under-the-radar bunch of road riders who rode 1000 miles in 24 hours or less just to earn membership in something called the Iron Butt Association, I thought, A thousand miles? In one day? That’s what airplanes are for. What’s wrong with these guys? So I decided to find out.
This was in July 2000, and by then I’d been riding motorcycles for 32 years, some of which were spent road racing at the club and pro level. In the late 1980s I was on staff at three motorcycle magazines, where the garage full of test bikes was referred to as “the candy store,” and on any given day I could ride a cruiser, a tourer, a sportbike, or a dual-sport. Motorcycles were both my profession and my preferred method of travel, and I fancied myself a tough, experienced rider.
But even to me, what the Iron Butt Association was doing seemed a bit extreme. The group says they’re “dedicated to safe, long-distance motorcycle riding,” an endeavor some see as the most boring way possible to turn gasoline into smog and others see as recklessly irresponsible.
After all, what’s “safe” about running flat out for 1,000 miles on public roads, endangering buses full of nuns, and startling soccer moms texting their friends about little Chad Jr.’s game-winning goal?
The first thing I learned is you don’t need to run flat out, nor do you really want to. Riding fast means higher gas consumption and more gas stops; more frequent stops to rest; and the increased likelihood of roadside conversations with local law-enforcement personnel. The clock is ticking the whole time.
Then I did the math. A thousand miles in 24 hours is a 42 mph average. Not even my mom would call that a reckless pace, and she hated motorcycles, referring to them until her dying day as “those things.” Even with stops for gas, food, and calls of nature, I figured could leave early, spend the entire ride on the Interstate, and be back home in time to catch Letterman.
OK, but what about the bike? You need a big touring rig, right, or a fast sportbike? Negatory, good buddy. Any two-wheeled conveyance that’s comfortable, has decent range, and is capable of keeping up with freeway traffic will do the job. Riders have done their Saddlesore 1000, a.k.a. SS1K, on scooters, fer cryin’ out loud. Your Bonneville or SV650 will be fine.
At the time I decided to see what this craziness was all about, I was a contributing editor to a Harley magazine (remember magazines?) called American Rider, which has long since succumbed to the fate that all print magazines seem destined for. There was a dark green Heritage Softail in my garage, on loan from the press pool at H-D’s fleet center.
Like that, but with a slightly different seat and saddlebags. You get the idea.
With floorboards, a custom seat, and a rider backrest, it was like sitting in fast, loud dentist’s chair. It had a barn-door windscreen and a pair of fringed, faux-leather saddlebags that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a cow pony. I put maps, some tools, a heated vest, some granola bars, and a few bottles of water in them, and with a planned departure of 4 a.m., hit the sack.
When I rolled into the Chevron station the next morning to fill the tank, neither I nor the pump jockey seemed as awake as we’d have liked. I asked him to witness the mileage on the odometer, and confirm my starting time. Using witness forms at the start and end of the ride, and the time-stamped and dated gas receipts I got along the way, the IBA could confirm I’d actually done the ride––you can’t just say, “Yeah, I rode 1000 miles in 24 hours, now gimme my membership card.” (There aren’t membership cards anyway; you get a certificate and a license-plate backer.) With the starting documentation and the first gas receipt in the saddlebag I hit the road.
I started in Coos Bay, Oregon, where I lived at the time. From there I’d ride east on Highway 42 to I-5, north to Portland, around Portland on I-205, to I-84 to La Grande, Oregon––a little over 500 miles––then turn around and come home the same way. Boring? Maybe. Efficient? Absolutely.
Like a lot of riders whose posts I’d read on Internet forums, I was pretty wound up for the first hundred miles or so, giddy from the scope of what I was attempting––A thousand miles! In one day!––but the ride quickly resolved itself into… just another ride.
I hit some rain around dawn, and again a few hours later. My Aerostich Darien jacket and pants shed water like a Cordura-nylon duck’s ass so I didn’t have to stop to put on raingear. The sun came out and I took off my heated vest at a gas station. I’d read about how much time some riders wasted at gas stops and had practiced getting mine under three minutes from engine off to engine on, a challenge in no-self-serve Oregon.
The Heritage gobbled the miles, the Twin Cam B engine churning out torque like water pouring from a bucket. Cruising at 70 was effortless, and by the time I looped around Portland and headed east along the Columbia River I was having such a good time that if I’d had to stop and turn around right then I’d have counted it a damn fine day of riding.
I stopped for a short rest in The Dalles, napping leaned up against a low wall beside a gas station, known in the long-distance riding community as “checking in to the Iron Butt Motel.” A couple of granola bars on waking, and a bottle of water, and it was on to La Grande, Oregon, the town I’d picked as my turnaround point because it was 500 miles––plus a few for insurance––from my point of departure.
I got another gas receipt, turned the Heritage around, and headed for the barn. Some people I’d talked to said they couldn’t see the point of riding through all that pretty country without stopping to see any of it. But I saw more in a day than most riders see in a week. The broad Columbia, rolling through the withered brown hills around Boardman. Windsurfers near The Dalles, jumping frothy waves the stiff wind kicked up on the river. Controlled field fires spewing world-swallowing clouds of smoke. Multnomah Falls, gushing from a cleft in the green cliffs. I didn’t stop for any of them, but I’ll never forget them.
South of Portland, with the sun going down, I started to feel pressured to speed it up. I needn’t have. Traffic bowled along at 75, and I exited I-5 late that night with less than 100 miles to go and more than four hours to do it. Not wanting to be the guy who crashes on the last lap while comfortably in the lead, I stopped for coffee twice, and backed off my pace through prime deer country.
It was dark when I pulled into the Coos Bay Chevron station to get my finishing receipt and ask the same pump jockey to certify my ending mileage and sign the witness form. I’d covered 1,073 miles in a little under 22 hours, and I hadn’t died, not even once.
So, what did I get out of spending almost an entire day droning along on the Interstate, other than a certificate, a license-plate backer that proclaimed I was one of the “World’s Toughest Riders!” (a blatant falsehood in my case), a saddlebag full of memories that will still be with me when I’m too old to swing a leg over a bike, and a genuine respect and admiration for the Heritage Softail?
In that short ride I learned skills that I still use today. I don’t speed––much––and I still get where I’m going on time. If I need to, I can cover a lot of ground on a bike at a good clip without getting tired. Riding a Saddlesore taught me how to focus on the long haul, and that staying in the saddle at a consistent pace beats the hell out of going flat out until I drop or get stopped. And maybe best of all, it boosted my self-confidence and broadened my horizons to include a world of motorcycling I never knew existed.
Also, now I know what’s wrong with these guys: They let me into their club. (I should have warned them…) At least I’m not alone. Today there are over 60,000 IBA members, and every one of them rode at least a Saddlesore to get in––there are many other certificate rides, some a little harder than the SS1K, and a few that seem like the invention of a sadist.
I made a lot of very good friends through the IBA, and though some of them are genuinely crazy, it’s a really good kind of crazy.
It’ll take you just 24 hours or less to add your own kind of crazy to the mix.
Jerry Smith has been a full-time motojournalist for more than 30 years. You’d think by now he would have found a real job.