Scootering the Iron Butt Rally

“Just give the bike a try, it’s a hoot to ride.” That simple statement, said with genuine enthusiasm, enticed me down the path that ended with the purchase of the BMW C 650 GT. I had walked into the dealership that day with no intention of buying a scooter. That was, of course, until I took it out for a test drive, primarily to appease the salesman.

The grins started before I left the parking lot. The bike was easy to handle and felt solid underneath me. It was heavy, but with the weight so low I got the sturdiness I liked with an ease of handling I wasn’t expecting. But would it have enough pep to accelerate quickly? Yes, it did, and without a hint of hesitation. How about tackling turns and twisties? Smooth, powerful and awesome. Storage? There was plenty under the seat with additional space if I added a top box. Mileage? Yup, that looked good too. What was there not to like?

Okay, it was a scooter, and a lot of riders won’t do the ‘wave’ when they realize they’re approaching one because it’s not really a motorcycle. Could I handle the shame? Bravely, boldly, I made the decision I could offset any embarrassment through the sheer fun of riding it. It was fun, and after all, wasn’t that the point of riding?

The modifications started immediately, converting the ‘urban mobility’ vehicle into a long distance machine: a GPS on the handlebars and a top box for lightweight gear. Wiring needed to be installed for my heated clothing using the right dash storage box along with a power cable to recharge my electronics. Searching for a better solution than the BMW bag about which I’d only heard complaints, I discovered I could convert a bicycling handlebar bag into my tunnel ‘tank’ bag. I now had a convenient place to store snacks as well as my phone and spare headset while Rok Straps threaded through existing bolts under the fairing would hold it in place. They would also provide a quick release for hotel stops. The bike was now ready for its inaugural SaddleSore, a route that would take me from where I live in Snoqualmie, Washington to Big Sky, Montana. I’d be detouring south through Boise and Pocatello to get the required 1,000 miles in twenty-four hours I was seeking.

The weather was mild and pleasant as I started, but nearing Boise dark clouds loomed on the horizon. Stopping for a quick lunch break turned out to be fortuitous as the storm cell hit, a marvel of raging wind and torrential downpours when witnessed from inside the safety of the restaurant. Once back on the road the adjustable windscreen proved its worth, lowering it as the warmth of the day returned which allowed for better airflow, and raising it later protected me from an onslaught of flying bugs west of Pocatello. The scooter was handling like a pro; my only complaint was that the seat wasn’t quite right. But seats are an easy fix, and I knew a quick trip to Rich’s Custom Upholstery in Kingston, Washington when I returned home would remedy the problem.

SaddleSore completed, it was time to plan my next steps. Did I want to rally again, or confine my riding to touring? While I loved travelling and sightseeing, I also missed the challenge of figuring out the best route to earn the most points that the scavenger-hunt style rallies demanded. When the email arrived to enter the lottery for the 2015 Iron Butt Rally I had to make a choice. My husband Terry and I had finished it twice, in 2007 and 2009, on one motorcycle. I was now on my own; did I want to enter as a two-bike team? An inner voice shouted ‘YES!’ Wouldn’t it be a kick to ride the eleven-day, eleven thousand-mile competition on the scooter? Besides, I’d be the first person who had ridden as pillion to come back and ride on my own. How could I resist?

Entry submitted we awaited the announcement to see if we had been selected. The arrival of the acceptance letter meant we needed to begin our training in earnest. A month long trip in April 2014, visiting National Parks in twenty of the southern states kicked off our practice regimen. That was followed by a planned six week trip the following July picking up the other twenty eight states, but it was cut short by a month when I was hit from behind in New Jersey and had to ship the bike home. Broken ribs healed, bike repaired, we picked up the training where we’d left off, this time pursuing bonuses in the Big Money Rally, a five-month event starting in January and finishing with a banquet in Reno, Nevada in May.

Piling miles on the scooter brought with it an increase in maintenance. The bike required extensive service every twelve thousand miles: replacing the belt and chain on the automatic transmission, something I hadn’t fully factored in when I purchased it. To feel confident that I’d be free of problems during the Rally I wanted the bike serviced the week before the start. This meant having the work done in Albuquerque, where the Rally would begin in June. The C650 is a relatively rare bike in the US, and finding dealers who had worked on them was a challenge, as was having the necessary parts in stock without serious pre-planning. I’d learned my lesson having to wait for parts to arrive from Germany for the bike’s first 12,000-mile service, and didn’t want to be caught unprepared again. A quick phone call confirmed Sandia BMW had not yet performed the requisite service on one of their scooters. A decision was made: ride to New Mexico six weeks before the start and have the service performed to give them practice, then ride as many miles on the bike as possible. I scheduled with Sandia to have them perform the same work again only five weeks later, a costly choice but one that ensured I’d start the Rally with the scooter in tiptop shape.

Another major challenge I faced was the size of my fuel tank. The scooter holds 4.2 gallons, and while the mileage is good, stopping frequently at gas stations would consume valuable time when efficiency is critical in the Rally. The ride from Northern California to Albuquerque, New Mexico and back confirmed my worst fears: with headwinds, and at freeway speeds, my mileage dropped to barely one hundred twenty miles on a tank. If something didn’t change we’d be spending the entire Rally pumping gas.

Hubbell Trading Post in Arizona

Terry rode a BMW R 1200 GS Adventure, with its much larger fuel tank, but that wasn’t going to help me. I had previously considered adding an auxiliary fuel cell to the scooter but the only logical place to mount one was on the pillion seat, thus eliminating almost all my available storage. But after the wake-up call of the New Mexico ride, we had to address my very real problem.

“What if we stow your extra clothes in my side case?” Terry suggested. “We can rearrange things so we only carry serious emergency gear under your seat, thus making it unnecessary for most of the trip.” A test ride later, we knew I could get by on the bare essentials for the Rally using the space on his bike. Now to solve the aux tank problem: where to find one and how to mount it?

Our final training before heading to Albuquerque and the IBR was the Cal24, a rally covering much of Northern California and great practice for us riding as a team while on the clock. Prior to the Cal, three riders had offered the use of their tanks. Evaluating the pros and cons of each, we settled on the one that already came with a platform, making it easier to mount quickly without a lot of custom fabrication since time was now running short. With the help of a creative friend we fashioned a simple means of attaching it to the bike. Rerouting the venting line for use as a gravity fed system, the added fuel capacity was greatly appreciated. The Cal24 proved Terry and I could not only work well together, but that almost doubling my mileage made a marked difference in our efficiency.

New seat, aux tank added, service completed, I now felt Rally ready. A few moments of last minute panic as the scooter began overheating subsided when I discovered the culprit: completely clogged filters on the CVT transmission. Once replaced the bike again worked like a charm.

The 2015 Iron Butt Rally, essentially a giant scavenger hunt across North America, chose as its theme a National Parks Tour, an Iron Butt Association certified ride that is usually completed over the course of twelve months. For this event, to be a considered a finisher, participants had to ride to a minimum of fifty National Parks, Monuments or specified Historic Sites in at least twenty-five states during the eleven-day window of the competition. When the format of this Rally was announced a murmur of excitement buzzed through the eighty-seven riders who would take off the next morning. Unlike previous IBRs, there were no minimum points needed to be a finisher, the points would only be used to determine final rider standings. That removed a lot of pressure for many of the novice rallyists whose only goal was to return safely to Albuquerque. If they were successful, they’d earn their three-digit membership number in the Iron Butt Association, the only prize besides bragging rights, for completing the grueling event. For me, it was both a relief and a challenge; I am competitive, and while having no pretense of a high finish, I wanted to ride what was for me a solid route and end up with a decent placement in the standings. I also wanted to figure out a way to come in ahead of Terry even though we were required, as a team, to ride to all the same bonuses.

I’d completed the IBR before, and I anticipated a tough ride, pounding out miles with the added stress of meeting checkpoint deadlines. While I was confident the scooter and I were more than capable of finishing I had yet to ride a multi-day event solo. Would I tire or somehow become overwhelmed, or would something unexpected happen to the bike? I soon learned I had no reason to fear: the scooter performed flawlessly, and the riding was far more fun than I had imagined. Gorgeous roads, beautiful scenery, excellent companionship, and route planning that avoided the severe rainstorms encountered by other riders equaled an incredible ride. Coming into the finish my first congratulatory hug was from Voni Glaves, BMW Ambassador extraordinaire, million-mile rider and Iron Butt veteran. I was now, in addition to already having earned my three digit number in 2007, a member of two new niche groups: women who have completed the IBR solo, a relatively small group; and an even more miniscule group: a rider of any gender who had done so on a scooter. To top it off, I accomplished my personal goal: beating Terry by sixteen points due to a rest bonus calculation. A four-minute difference in the timing of receipts equaled me placing forty-second to his forty-third, a status about which he will be forever teased.

Scoring a bonus during the 2015 Iron Butt Rally. The sign promised the Rio Grande was out there somewhere.

I love my scooter, and I’m ready to move on. As a long distance bike it is both a great ride and a poor choice. Giving up space for the fuel cell and the cost of maintenance are the minuses. For those of us riding upwards of eight hundred to a thousand miles in a day having to pay for replacing the belt and chain every twelve thousand miles is expensive and time consuming. Availability of parts and service shops familiar with the scooter’s high mileage maintenance needs is a concern when routinely trekking cross-country.

Comfort, balance, ease of handling, and overall mileage are the plusses. I’ve ridden the scooter in high winds and torrential rains where the weight of the bike has been an asset, holding me solidly on the road. I’ve been in extreme heat where the ability to control the windscreen has been a delight, and even survived riding over thirty miles at night in a blinding snowstorm, a much preferred alternative to pulling off on the side of the road and freezing. The C650 GT has been a steady and reliable machine: responsive, comfortable and an absolute blast to ride. If I needed a commuter bike for longer distances, freeways, and carrying gear, this one would be at the top of my list. But as I look forward to new adventures, it’s with a measure of poignancy that I will say goodbye. We’ve shared some incredible moments together, but it’s now the right time for the scooter to find its next home.

Lynda Lahman writes a regular column for WomenADRider magazine and has published five books, including “The Women’s Guide to Motorcycling.”