This is a motorcycle rally Ride Report. It, and others like it, are tales of endurance and strength. They are tales of hope, and triumph, of despair and disaster. They are about men and women who ride motorcycles a long, long way, and who sometimes pit their riding and planning skills against one another in friendly rivalry. There are few trophies, there is no prize money.
There is simply the bike, the rider, the clock and the open road.
This Diary is my official Ride Report for the Autumn Equinox Rally. It is cross-posted elsewhere to save me the effort of writing it more than once and because my friends here deserve the "first-hand" account for the support they have offered.
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For those with limited attention spans who are unwilling to read a long account, here are the Cliff Notes:
The Rally took place in Oklahoma last weekend.
Like most things in life, however, it is not that simple. Join me below the orange squiggly bit for the tale of the tape.
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All photos are "clickable"
To any Rally there are three distinct phases. Planning the ride, riding the plan and scoring. Over the many rally reports I have read, each of these phases has its own opportunities and pitfalls.
The community of people involved in this sport is tight knit, and most are known to each other either personally, or by name and reputation. They share a common passion, and they can be very passionate about it. This is the world I was taking my first steps into, and it was a daunting prospect.
The entry field starting the rally was small. There were six riders, and one guy was carrying a passenger, his daughter. The six came a long way just to hit the starting line. They came from Florida, Illinois, Washington State, Texas, Georgia and me ... an adopted son of Oklahoma.
These guys did not ride several thousand miles to get here, and then not try hard. They are, in the main, highly experienced Long Distance Rally Riders, and they came to kick butt and take names. They came too for the camaraderie and kinship. As the Irish might say, they came for the craic. As a new kid it was all a bit daunting. The guys, their bikes, their achievements.
They are the stuff of legend and, quite honestly to the untrained eye they are probably a little crazy. I mean, who the heck spends fifteen thousand dollars or so on a gorgeous motorcycle, several thousand more on the equipment just to drive so hard, and so long that it breaks. Or doesn't break if it's a great bike, and you are lucky.
There was Dan. The nicest most pleasant guy you would ever hope to meet. Reserved and friendly are the face of a man with a will of iron. As recently as June 2011 he dragged his beaten and broken BMW through eleven thousand tortuous miles in eleven days, to place eleventh out of seventy six finishers, in the Iron Butt Rally. A remarkable achievement by any measure. Dan is but one, they are all cut from the same cloth.
I was beginning to feel just a little bit overwhelmed by it all, and we hadn't even started.
My one hope was that this Rally was a little different from most rallies of its type. Generally the riders get a list of locations, maybe a minimum mileage they must cover to be a finisher, and they visit as many locations (Bonuses) as they can reach in the time allowed. The rider with the most points at the end is declared the winner.
This simple concept often rewards those prepared to sit on the bike and cover the ground. Experience and efficiency help you do just that. It's a well proven idea. Michael Hickman, the Rally Master had a different concept for this rally. There would be a minimum mileage, and a mileage cap. The winner would be the rider who ran a distance between the limits and gained the most "points per mile". Michael wanted to reward riders for efficiency. He wanted them to put in the hard miles too, but he also wanted people off the bikes and resting. He wanted it all to be easily available, and I use the word "easily", advisedly; and so it was. In the thirty hours allowed there was plenty of time to cover the maximum 1350 miles and take the maximum points for a six hour rest break. The safety record of long distance motorcyclists is very impressive. Michael is a guy determined that people should explore their personal limits while maintaining or improving on this record.
Right from the start of the planning phase it seemed to my untutored eye that a shorter distance was likely to yield more benefits than the long runs. The points structure meant that big points were available for all the "static" items ... meal breaks, rest stops, various compliance items etcetera. The points available for riding were comparatively small, and every mile you rode didn't just compromise the efficiency of the "riding points", it hurt them all.
Using the riding points only, I set about planning a route that maximised efficiency for the riding phase in the knowledge that it would deliver benefits across the whole of the points available. A bonus location only went into my ride if it increased the points per mile. Even easily available bonuses were forsaken if they hurt that efficiency score.
The result was a route that was the shortest, at 1064 miles. Shorter than the next lowest by a couple of hundred miles. I didn't know that until we finished. Had I known beforehand I would have spent thirty hours thinking that I had missed the bleeding obvious.
The other concern is my motorcycle. It is old, twenty five years old and it's best days are far behind it. What I didn't know then was that it's finest hour was thirty hours in the future.
Four months ago my bike, a 1986 Yamaha Venture Royale, in its day one of the finest touring motorcycles that money could buy, was never going to turn its wheels another mile. I bought a barn find, and built a motorcycle. It's what I love to do. They say it's the rider, not the bike. Well that would likely put me firmly in last place and I owe my bike a massive vote of thanks. I may have kissed it but don't tell anyone.
So the bike was as ready as I could get it. Given the rules it should be more than able to carry me the distance, barring accident or mechanical breakdown. It looks like what it is ... old and shabby, but underneath that battered and cracked plastic is a V4 heart of gold, and a frame that can carry it. We were as ready as we could be.
At the Friday night Rider's Briefing, the Rally Master sprung a surprise. For those unused to these events, the way that riders prove they visited a location is by photographing some object, a building, historical marker, etc, along with their "Rally Flag". These are usually made of cloth with a rider number, and are handed out just prior to the start.
Well it appears that Hickman has his own perverted sense of the ludicrous, and he produced an envelope of yellow balloons printed with the rally logo and name. Each photograph was to include said balloon with the lettering discernible. There were some blank looks around the table. Mike explained that you would receive one free "flag". You could have any number up to ten, but each additional flag was going to cost fifty penalty points. After the start of the rally, no new flags would be issued, and if you ran out then the only way to get a replacement would be to beg, steal or borrow one from a rival .... if you could find one. Did I tell you how big this State is?
I plumped for three balloons for a penalty of 100 points. I think three was a popular number although at the end of the rally I think the only folk to "lose" a flag were me and one other.
This particular piece of "Rally Bastard Humour" didn't work out quite as planned. After the rally it became very clear that the riders, me included, loved them. Everyone had their own solution to the need to "inflate for picture, deflate, store, re-inflate for next picture" problem. I fitted a drinking valve from a water bottle to mine, others simply held them in their hands and lined up the camera, balloon and objective with the other hand. Either way, it was inspired and I rather suspect that if balloons appear again, most will approve. The downside is that I was hoping for a nice Rally Flag as a souvenir from my first Rally .... now I have two balloons ... heh!
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear, with forecast lows in the low fifties, and highs in the mid eighties ... just perfect. At nine o'clock promptly I was waved out first, with Michael performing his very own version of Dale "Warchild" Wilson.
Within thirty seconds I was in trouble. I had carefully put my intended routes into the two GPS units on the bike, and they were telling me to go in different directions. I overruled the one I knew to be wrong, but the other one only wanted me to go sixty feet to the "DINNER" bonus location which also happened to be the START location too. Crap! Apart from any other considerations, like a rally to run, everyone was watching and I was damned well not going to stop and look foolish. So I continued in what I thought was the correct direction while I furiously programmed the first bonus into anything that would take it. I was more than a little gratified to see other riders still behind me; so if I was going in the wrong direction, they were too.
I had a route and at last I was on my way.
The good news was not to last. Halfway down the Muskogee Turnpike, a road I shouldn't have been on because I needed the shortest route not the fastest, my speedometer stopped working. Strike two and I was in trouble. Now I would have to rely upon GPS mileage and I figured there would be a stiff penalty (there wasn't). I lost thirteen miles from my odometer, the GPS corrected the error easily. In most Rallies that "lost" mileage would not have been noticeable in more than one thousand miles. This rally was being scored on efficiency, so I made very sure that the error was not transferred to the scoring table. When I did my planning I decided that the result could easily be down to a tiny fraction of a point per mile. It wasn't, in the end, but that was an unfair advantage that I didn't want.
I arrived at the time restricted location first, and I couldn't find the Marker I was supposed to photograph with alongside my cleverly adapted balloon .... It was all just freakin' peachy! Forty minutes into the thirty hours and I could see "Did Not Finish" staring at me with a malevolent gaze. Steve you were stupid to think you could do this, and home, and coffee is thirty minutes north of here.
Dan arrived, he found the Marker, I got my picture, sent a fifty point value text message, and headed south.
My next target was at the wrong end of the Talimena Scenic Highway, and it is not called that because it is a fast, straight road. It was a barely doable two and one half hour drive, and it had a narrow window of availability. I was going to have to get a sprint on, and I would need gas before I got there because after Talimena, gas is in short supply until the very limit of my range. I wasn't risking that!
About halfway into that section I settled down. The sun was shining, the bike running well. I had fixed my speedometer issue at the first stop, it was the cable coming loose, and I was enjoying the ride. Talimena is not the best choice when you are pressed for time, but oh it was so beautiful. The fall colours are appearing and the scenery was just stunning. This part of my ride, and much of what was still in front of me would turn out to be unexpectedly glorious. When I finally am gone I just know that one of the things I'll miss the most is the chance to experience such beauty. Some natural and some influenced by generations of men, working and shaping the land.
I made the Smithville Historic Marker just five minutes into the thirty minute window. A quick stop for a photograph, another text to the Rally Master for more points, and I was on my way North.
Michael had divided the State into quadrants and successive bonii could not be claimed from the same area. So I had to get to the best option north of I40. For me that was the Creek Nation Council House in Okmulgee, and it was quite some distance away. I was there by three pm via McAlester. Annoying, as McAlester was my fourth bonus location so I would need to backtrack the fifty miles after Okmulgee to collect that one, before heading back to the Start location for a high point DINNER bonus.
While in McAlester I "lost" my first flag. I had to photograph the Mine Rescue Safety Building. The wind took my balloon as I was lining up the shot and while I almost caught it twice, it exploded on contact at the third attempt. This was not good.
The window for DINNER was two hours wide, and I originally planned to hit the middle of it. I managed just that, arriving at 6.10pm where I was met by my wife, Jodie, for a thirty minute compulsory stop. Michael caters very well, let it be said.
The bad news was that I was the last to arrive. All the others had pretty much been there, waiting for the window to open at five pm, and they were gone by five thirty. Now, instead of a relaxing thirty minutes with my wife and my new friends, I was agonising over what they all knew that I didn't. I planned the route carefully. Talimena was a risk, but I thought it a risk worth taking. Everyone needed the DINNER bonus because the points demanded it. I just couldn't find a more efficient route between the start and DINNER that didn't include the ride south. I get the reluctance. Talimena is glorious if you have all Sunday afternoon and can cruise it at thirty miles an hour. If you are "on the clock" and are trying to hit it at sixty, then it's fast, furious and demands total attention .... but the points, the points!
By now I wasn't in the best frame of mind. I dawdled over dinner and seriously considered going home. Jodie was right there with me and I didn't want to leave her for the night riding ahead. I left at 7 pm and headed West into the night. I understand more clearly now how you have to detach yourself from your loved ones when you have your 'game head" on. The pull is frighteningly strong.
It was dark before I cleared Tulsa, but still warm and I was heading for Guthrie, about one hundred miles west. There is a US Government Land Office, and my balloon and camera had a date with it. The GPS took me off I44 onto US 33, this being the shortest route. I knew immediately that it was a mistake. The lights are pretty good on the Yamaha, the HID helps, but when the deceptively soothing English voice whispered in my ear "Drive seventy three miles on US 33", I knew I should turn around. That is a long way on a road that demands attention. The Interstate is a few more miles but thirty minutes faster, and you can see more easily. I stayed on 33.
I found myself behind a Suburban that I wanted to pass but it seemed not to want me to so I settled in behind it. I stayed there for the next forty five miles. Eventually it pulled off into a gas station, either because it needed gas or because the occupants were completely freaked out by the motorcycle that had followed them for the last forty five miles. Either way, I continued on and arrived in Guthrie in good time.
The US Government Land Office isn't there. The building that is there is a Post Office. It's a very nice Post Office that would undoubtedly bring rave reviews in any photography contest involving Post Offices, but I needed the Land Office. Then I spotted the sign ... The Historic Marker that denotes the fact that the Land Office used to be there, and I took the picture. A quick call to the Rally Master confirmed that the photo was good. I was on a roll.
A short hop back East of I35 brought me to the POPS Soda Ranch. The requirement was a picture of the illuminated sixty six foot tall soda bottle. It's a really neat bonus location which can be seen as you approach from some distance. Done. By now it was ten pm and I needed to stop, by one am at the latest, to be able to qualify for the full sleep bonus plus the morning food bonus.
I plonked the next location into the GPS, asked it for the shortest route and continued west. It was maybe thirty five miles. It took me two hours and I didn't find the bonus.
After riding west on some fairly narrow roads I hit a problem. The front end of the bike began to vibrate badly. I wasn't driving fast, maybe forty or so, but it felt like the front wheel was broken, or suddenly became square, or something equally bad. I carefully slowed to a stop and took a good long look at the road ahead. It was straight, a decent width, and completely lacking any kind of surface. I was on an unmade road and was indeed getting red dirt on my tires.
The road surface was ridged, corrugated almost, and it was shaking the bike to bits. I tried to turn around but when my feet went down my boots couldn't get any purchase. The surface was loose and crumbly, gravel and sand and ridged. I was really quite scared at that moment. The dark closes in. Any attempts to turn the bike were destined to end in disaster. There was only forward, so forward I went. Slowly, carefully my feet extended like mini outriggers hoping against hope that the gravel would turn into tarmac. It was a difficult time. Probably the low point of the entire rally and I gave up any hope of respectability and was left with only the determination to finish.
At ten or fifteen miles an hour, with no idea how far I needed to go, that two miles were some of the toughest I have ridden. It wasn't so much the surface, although that was bad, it was the anxiety about what might happen if I got it wrong. You may have seen the Pope kiss the tarmac when he lands in a new country. That is what I felt like doing when I finally came to an intersection that joined a real road. Go left or right ... who cares. I went right and shortly came to a major highway. Go left or right? Who cares. I went left. The GPS, and it's ohsofuckingsoothing voice kept trying to make me go back into the badlands, but I wasn't playing that game any more. If I hear it say "recalculating" one more time there is a Garmin Nuvi that will end up in a thousand pieces in my frustration. Eventually I tried one of its helpful suggestions to turn south again. It conned me ... again! One hundred yards and I hit dirt. I was wise to the capricious behaviour by now and pulled up short. I turned and continued the way I had been going. Five minutes later I hit the correct road south and the bonus location was suddenly right there, at the side of the highway.
It was another marker, except this time it wasn't there. It was midnight now and I was tired. I was right there on the GPS coordinates and I have a great flashlight. I hunted and couldn't find it. I needed to move. I was tired, fed up and worst of all was that just a couple of hours earlier I had my second wind and was feeling great. The highs and lows can come thick and fast. I later learn that there is something freaky about this marker. It is there, it is on the other side of the highway. If you approach it from the south you go right to it. If you approach it from the North it says it is on the right, but it isn't, it's on the left across four lanes. It's very odd and I haven't worked out why it should be so. No complaints though, stuff happens.
Thirty minutes later I was holed up in the Motel 6 in El Reno, OK and it was time to take stock. I couldn't move for the next four hours, six if I wanted maximum points. I wanted all the points. I grabbed a candy bar and a pint of milk, called my wife and was asleep within about thirty minutes, the alarm set for an ungodly five-thirty am on a Sunday morning. Six thirty saw me gassing up the bike and grabbing the necessary receipt. A quick breakfast at McDonalds across the street and another receipt. More points, and more to the point my first cup of coffee in twenty four hours. Bliss!
Go West, young man! So I did. It was getting light and I was headed due west for much of the morning. The next five hours were about to prove some of the very best that motorcycling has ever offered me.
It began on I40. The air was crisp, cool and dry. The bike loved the dense air and it was singing. It was a bit noisy when I arrived at the Motel. There is something loose and rattling in the exhaust and it sounds like a bag of wrenches. But out here on the highway it's a different matter. It smooth, quiet and fast. The Yamaha wants to go quicker. We are cruising. It wants to run at eighty five miles an hour. It feels and sounds so damned joyous, who am I to say no?
The sun is coming up and casting a deep red glow over the fields either side. They are Oklahoma's red dirt. It glows now. The summer harvest is in the barn and the land prepared for winter crops. Everything is still and quiet. I catch the sight of the sun coming up in my mirrors, and see the red earth turned almost fluorescent in front of me. Artists cannot capture this, musicians struggle to write about it. I, myself, am groping for the words. You just had to be there. I was there and I felt privileged. Riding fast and free, gorgeous scenery and Dire Straits and Coldplay in my crash helmet. It doesn't get much better than that. Thank you Michael Hickman, I owe you one.
I left the Interstate to go south and west to the next location. Rural roads for maybe twenty miles. More perfect vistas, more pleasure heaped upon fun. I didn't realise that I hadn't seen another moving vehicle for what seemed like hours, until I saw one and it came as a surprise. You can make good time on these roads. There is no speed limit posted and so I assumed it was fifty five. There is no one there either, so who cares what speed you travel at? I mean .... you suddenly come across three houses, a feed merchant and a church. That's a town and they post forty five. Then you are through and gone, and it's back up to whatever the bike feels happy with. It's freedom, it's just fun.
Then I am in Corn, Ok. Get the photo, send the text, sidestand up and it's off further west to the Sayre Motel where I have to get a picture of the Motel Sign. When I get there it isn't called the Sayre Motel at all, it's the Western Motel and it really does have a great sign. Hickman we will speak about these misleading descriptions later.
While I am sorting out the paperwork Phil O'Conner rolls up on his BMW. It doesn't look much like the shiny motorcycle I had so admired yesterday. Phil has been down. Caught out by a mud hole on one of our infamous roads. His was an adventure I don't want. His bike is a bit bent and very muddy. Phil is a little despondent and we visit for a few minutes. He does what he needs to do and rolls away. I am just about to leave when Kurt Dix arrives. What the hell is going on here? Yesterday I can't even find these guys at dinner yet this morning we are falling over ourselves nearly two hundred and thirty miles from the Barn. I am pretty happy to see them, truth be known. I have spent most of this rally worried about my odometer issue, and thinking I have missed something that they all saw. Here and now we are in the same place at the same time, so maybe, just maybe, my day two is going decently well.
For the first time I start to feel like I am rallying. Thanks guys, just for picking that moment to hit the Sayre (Western) Motel. I have read many ride reports and time after time riders will meet at bonus locations. So far in this rally I had run on my own. Jodie was home watching the Public Spot page, but I hadn't asked her where anyone else was, and she hadn't told me. In the end it really doesn't matter. You ride your plan and if someone else has a better plan, and they ride it, then they will win. But that sunrise ... that is mine, whatever the outcome, and I'm happy with that.
One more stop about forty miles further west, then I'm spending the rest of the day running east and heading eventually for home. The Sandhills Curiosity Shop is almost at the Texas panhandle, but it's a high point bonus and there was little reason to come this far west and miss it. It is in Erick, OK for anyone wanting to look it up. When I get there it is, predictably, not marked "Sandhills" anywhere, and it's closed. No matter, the location is unmistakeable and I do the necessary.
Now I have some decisions to make. The next bonus is small points and tricky. I need to be at my final bonus location in north Tulsa by two pm. It's high points and only thirty miles from the finish. Before I get to the finish I need to buy a cold six pack in Broken Arrow between two and three pm. If I am in Tulsa by two I will be set to arrive at the finish maybe ten or fifteen minutes before the penalty window opens. It is two hundred and twenty two miles to the north Tulsa bonus. The fastest way is also the shortest way and the GPS estimate has me there at 2.05pm. The GPS is playing nicely now. The stern talking to I gave it last night seems to have been effective. Almost perfect, but I can't risk a detour because that increases the chances of not finishing, or throwing away hard earned points in penalties for late arrival .... and the extra miles would hurt even more.
I skip the Jesse Chisholm bonus, climb aboard and settle in for the three hour ride towards the finish and home.
The ride was completely unremarkable. I40 and I44 almost all the way, with one gas stop. I'll skip over the pain too, because pain is boring and you can, I find, ride through it if you really, really want to. My butt was fine, but the confined position while needing to be active was wearing a bit thin. I needed off the bike just for ten minutes. That's all it takes. Ten minutes, a brisk walk up and down and I can do the next one hundred miles. But I didn't have ten minutes. I figured I would be able to do that at the final bonus, so I stayed on the bike and cracked the throttle to get me there as fast as the Oklahoma Highway Patrol was likely to allow.
It hurt, I made it and it doesn't hurt now, so all is good.
Photo and text done all I need to do is ride to Broken Arrow, buy the six pack and get to the finish. I have an hour to do that and I did it in fifty minutes, an easy fifty minutes there were going to be no "performance awards" from State Troopers in this last small hop.
I arrived back at two fifty pm. Last one in as usual, I think.
Scoring was straightforward. Prior to sitting down to score I had sat with Kurt Dix to organise my paperwork. I had done the miles and was tired. It would be silly to miss out on valuable points by either not claiming them, or failing to have my ducks in a row. When I opened the case I was using I was astonished to find that there was nothing to do. Everything was there, neat and organised. All the receipts had a number, all had mileage and they were in order. The fuel/bonus log was complete and needed no additions.
Who is this guy, Steve Bracken? I can tell you that he is not neat, not tidy and not organised. Some of what I have gleaned in the last year seems to have rubbed off. It was a pleasing moment. Michael scored me. I had no penalties other than the extra balloons, and I think I claimed everything that I could have. I saw the only guy scored before me leave nine hundred points on the table, and I felt for him. One bit of confusion, one other simple mistake and poof, they were gone. It happens I know. It will happen to me one day and I will not be pleased.
Anyway, I ended up with 1065 miles ridden for 5627 points and a 5.29 points per mile rating. It was higher than the first person scored. I took only the amount of satisfaction from that that was needed to be pleased that at least I wasn't last. I could have easily borne to be last. At the start, a good finish was my hope. Hope evaporates on unmade washboard roads, in the dark and a long way from home. Hope will kill you if you let it take too firm a hold, but modest hope, not wanting to be last ... I can live with that as an ambition. Even in this company one can hope.
When the scoring was done and the steaks eaten, and tall tales of daring deeds regaled to each other, Michael read the results.
He read them in reverse order, and he read out my name last!
I am not the first guy, and I won't be the last who carries a license plate backer declaring "The World's Toughest Riders", to have a tear in his eye at that moment. I was floored, completely, a mixture of pride and embarrassment to tell the truth. I suspected that I may have placed well, but not this, never this.
On reflection there were a number of factors that all came together to work for me, and against others. The format was a great leveler. It threw most of the others and I understand that. They won't let that happen again. I came into this eyes wide open, but with no previous experience there was lots to learn, and nothing to unlearn.
I rode my plan and I planned efficiently. That was it. I got lucky and I won't ever be quite so lucky again. Next time I will have to plan better and ride better. It's all good.
This is a long report so if you made it this far then thank you for your forbearance. It was my first rally and, as they say of many things, you never forget your first. I want to remember it, so I wrote it down.
I also want to thank everyone involved. There is not a rider or organiser that I didn't learn something from, and I owe you all a beer or several.
Here's to the next one!