It all started while we were waiting for a break in the weather at a demo event. A few of my fellow Harley Owners Group members and I started talking about rides we wanted to take. I don’t recall who mentioned the Iron Butt first, but it turned out we all had that on our list of riding goals.
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“Well, why not next month?” said our club president. “We can do it during our mileage challenge with the other nearby clubs.”
A plan was born. Our ride leader plotted out the route – a long looping course that
would take us west through South Dakota and Wyoming on Interstate 90, north to Billings, Montana, then east on I-94 through North Dakota until hitting I-29 and heading for home.
The route took advantage of the high average speed limits and limited traffic along those interstates, and enabled us to reach both the Saddlesore (1,000 miles in under 24 hours) and Bun Burner (1,500 miles in under 36 hours) ride targets.
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Roughly a month after the initial plan was formed, three of us met at our starting gas station at the painfully early time of 4 am. There were originally supposed to be six of us, but it appears half the folks slept through their alarms. At roughly 4:30 am, the three of us topped up our gas tanks, picked up our timestamped receipts, and fired up our various Harleys. Our leader and route planner set the pace on his blue, shark-nosed Road Glide. Mid-pack, our chapter leader held position on her Softail Slim. My Sportster brought up the rear.
June weather in the Midwest can be wildly unpredictable. We started our ride off fairly cold, with a hard crosswind blowing out of the north. Crossing over the Missouri river into western South Dakota, though, the wind suddenly shifted to become a headwind. This was not especially helpful. Prior to the ride, one of my concerns had been the range of my Sportster. In general, I get around 40-45mpg on the highway, which, with a 4.5-gallon tank, is plenty of range. But trying to maintain the 80mph speed limit on I-90 while a 20mph headwind slammed into my barn-door windscreen caused my fuel efficiency to plummet.
(Interesting cultural aside: Americans refer to those large cruiser windscreens as “barn doors,” whereas Brits tend to call them “riot shields.” –CC)
At our first fuel stop I was running on fumes, putting 4.1 gallons into the tank. I started to wonder if I’d end up regretting the decision not to carry an extra gas can with me. Fortunately for all of us, the wind calmed down as we climbed through the South Dakota Badlands and made our way into Wyoming. One of the images burned into my memory is that of coming around a big, sweeping right-hand curve and suddenly seeing the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains in the distance. Our leader had his bike locked into cruise control and was able to take a few pictures; I may have developed a bit of tour-bike envy over that.
We were stopping every 100 miles or so (give or take 20 or 30) for fuel. Not the optimal
strategy for accomplishing an Iron Butt ride, but the high speed limits made it work. Plus it gave us time to regularly stretch our legs and grab a snack or water break. Following a bit of advice I’d read on the Iron Butt Association website, I was wearing a hydration vest so that I could drink while riding. But food was a different matter.
During one of the Wyoming stops, I forgot to close and latch my left saddlebag after pulling out an energy bar. Having the bag’s flap suddenly blow open once we got back on the highway was a surprise I could have lived without. Fortunately, it was the left bag and I was able to hold the throttle and lean back far enough to get the bag closed without having to slow down.
Over confidence almost got us in Montana. A Harley’s natural habitat is at a Harley dealer, right? We made a stop in Billings and spent too much time at Beartooth Harley-Davidson before turning east. Thankfully, Interstate 94 doesn’t see a lot of traffic – especially on a Saturday evening.
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North Dakota’s Badlands are haunting at sunset. The sky painted the rocks in pastel hues, begging us to stop at a scenic outlook and take pictures. We couldn’t oblige. Too much time in Montana had put a dent in our schedule, and a storm front ahead of us didn’t seem to be in any hurry to move along.
Then the first deer jumped across the road.
At the tail of our trio, I never saw it, just the brake lights coming on ahead of me. That was enough to rattle all of us a bit though, and we ended our first night in Dickinson, North Dakota. We’d covered 1,000 miles – enough for the Saddlesore – in approximately
eighteen hours, even with all our stops.
After the most satisfying Applebees meal I’ve ever had, the three of us bunked down for the night at a local hotel to rest before completing the last 500 miles for the Bun Burner. It hurt a little bit to swing a leg over and get back into the saddle the next morning, but one way or another we had to get home.
Sunday became more of a blur as we raced against the clock. More gas stops. A very quick picture stop at the Fargo Harley-Davidson store where none of us even got off our bikes.
Crossing back into the Central time zone cost us another hour. We punched in our final
fuel stop with just 30 minutes to spare on the thirty-six hour countdown. There
was a quiet bit of celebration, a few photos, then we mounted up and headed to our respective homes. Some of us still had to work on Monday.
I’d wanted to do a Saddlesore for years, and I think doing my first one with a group was definitely the right call. I might have made it a little more difficult for myself by doing it on a relatively short-legged Sportster, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Apparently, neither would my riding partners, one of whom led a new group on the same ride again this year. I skipped that one, but I hope to log at least one In-State Iron Butt certification (and collect the associated pin) before the end of this riding season.
The biggest lesson I learned was that an Iron Butt isn’t something to attempt if you aren’t comfortable in your own head for a long period of time. I sang, I prayed (especially when the low fuel light was on and our next stop was still alarmingly far away), and plotted novels. Limited traffic, good preparation, fortunate weather, and wide open American freeways also helped make my first experience a good one.