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Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Beginner’s Tale: Rally!

May 26-27, 2018 marked my first long-distance motorcycle rally.  There are numerous blogs written by and for experienced riders and pillions (passengers), but this one is for the newbies, like me.
For the uninitiated, a motorcycle rally is not a race.  It’s the challenge of solving a puzzle on wheels.  Speed matters, certainly, but planning and execution are at least as crucial.  More on that later.

I’m the pillion.  My rider, Jeff, has a long and successful rally record (two-time IBR finisher), so it seems that this should be pretty easy.  I just have to sit there, right?  Well, yes, but when you’re out for a run with the big dogs, keeping up has its challenges.


I mentioned planning.  This rally, the Mason-Dixie 2020, billed as the premier rally in the Mid-Atlantic (I’m just reporting here, not dissing the others), was based on a theme of creating movies.  As in all rallies, the participants were provided with a list of bonus locations which is intended to be a “menu.” Participants choose the ones they will visit. The bonuses were spread all over the Mid-Atlantic area – NY, NJ, PA, WV, MD, DE, DC, VA, and NC.   Each bonus location has a point value.  In this rally each bonus was also identified as being an element of a movie – such as director (i.e., the statue of Ron Howard in Mt. Airy, NC), an actor or actress, a location, subject, or music.  Various combinations would result in “movies,” and completion of a movie earned the “production company” (each rider or two-up pair) additional points.  A few items, including a bonus paying tribute to a fellow rider buried at Fort Indiantown Gap cemetery, were mandatory, and one “movie” that required riding to a location near Charlotte NC was worth so many points that it was impossible to win or come close without doing it.  So a northern and southern boundary for the route were obvious. Other bonuses were truly discretionary as long as you completed at least one movie.  But collecting a bonus almost always included an expense that would reduce the “budget” that each production company was given to start, and the company was required to stay solvent. Of course, the production company had to be able to ride to each bonus needed for the movie, take a photograph or whatever else was required by the game rules, and complete the route in 32 hours, less a mandatory 3 hour rest period.  Traffic, weather, conflicting events such as DC’s “Rolling Thunder” (an annual motorcycle event to honor veterans and remember the MIAs from Vietnam) – those all had to be factored in by the rider.  Get the “puzzle” part?

The list of bonuses with the associated list of points and expenses was released the Sunday before the event.  Of course, with job and family obligations, plus time spent bantering on the rally’s Facebook page, most people had limited time for route planning.  However, the experienced riders, like Jeff, have accumulated a suite of tools that they are adept at using, including Base Camp to build the route and spread sheets to help optimize the points.  Still, route building is an art, not a science, and none of these tools will fully account for everything.  It’s up to the rider to decide how much margin is needed, to evaluate his or her own skills and preferences, and know when to either scrap a planned route and start over or stop second-guessing the selected route.

The Rally!

We pulled into Martinsburg WV, rally headquarters, on Friday afternoon in plenty of time to check-in and run the odometer check (which did not require pillion-participation).  That evening was a riders’ dinner (which we skipped, eating across the street while Jeff continued fiddling with the route) and a mandatory riders’ meeting.   

I had a restless night in anticipation of my first rally.  Jeff and I had ridden a lot together, including a lot of long days, but I had never yet been on the bike for 29 hours in a 32 hour period.  So I was a bit stressed and anxious.

We were up shortly after 4 a.m. so that Jeff would be in time to “stage” the bike for departure at 4:45 a.m., and we would be able to grab breakfast at 5 a.m. before the 5:15 a.m. mandatory riders’ meeting.  The riders’ meeting was when the rally packs were issued – containing the paper document that tells you exactly what to do at each bonus and the rally flag that will be the proof in each picture that you were there -- and in past years the moment at which the “wild cards” are revealed.  The big surprise this year was no wild cards.  The fun revelation was that the high-value location near Charlotte NC was a wedding!  The requirement was to show up there at 5:30 p.m. sharp for a photo with the bride and groom, Tina and Michael (also members of the LD community).  As Rick Miller, the rally master explained, if you show up at 5:31, just keep on riding – it’s too late!  As we skimmed the rally book, I adopted a trick that Jeff had seen Ande Good use; I photographed each page of the rally book so that I could read it while we were traveling.  As we approached each bonus, I could check on the requirements so that we were better prepared to just hop off the bike and execute rather than search the paper copy. (The rally book must return to the finish line intact.  Thus, trying to read the 25 stapled paper pages while traveling at 70 mph is generally a success-ending move.)

Our route, after the 11th hour revisions, took us in a counter clockwise circle through West Virginia where we were to pick up a number of bonuses, then a long haul to Charlotte for the wedding photo plus a stop to buy a cigar that would earn us more dollars for our budget, then a zig-zag route up through Virginia to the DC metro region, which we intended to cover in the early morning before Rolling Thunder events were scheduled to begin, through more of Maryland and Baltimore and then onward to Pennsylvania, picking up bonuses on our way to Fort Indiantown Gap – then back to the barn. Indeed, we pretty much rode the plan, as planned, with the exception of dropping one bonus that was not part of a combo.  (Note that the map also shows our trip from Jeff’s house (S) to the Rally start and finish location (F), which was not part of the rally route.)

We got out of the parking lot quickly.  Rick pointed out the night before that if your route depends on being first out of the lot, there’s a problem with your plan.  Still, a quick departure is a nice psychological boost that sets the pace for the rest of the day.  Whether riding alone or as a two-up, you have to have a routine that makes each stop and departure efficient.  Notwithstanding our quick launch, we were not on the road long before Jim Owen, the only two-time winner of the 11-day Iron Butt Rally (the toughest endurance rally) passed us.  I took a photo, and Jeff acknowledged he was having a familiar rally experience  – behind Jim Owen! Again! In Cumberland, WV, another two-up couple, Erin and Jeff Archambault, overtook us as well.  The three bikes leap-frogged through the line of “Sunday drivers” on the two-lane parkway between Cumberland and our first bonus.  We arrived last, following the other two bikes into our first rally stop of the day, the Field of Dreams. 

As the pillion, I have very few responsibilities except to show up in every picture, with the flag (and assure the top case is stocked with snacks).  The picture typically has to include the bonus, me, and the flag, with the number of the flag visible.  Framing shots can be harder than you expect depending on how close you can get, the sun, wind, etc. Low to the ground bonuses may require some odd contortions to assure the bonus, like a brick in the sidewalk, is readable, the flag is in the picture and there’s enough of the pillion showing. Practice helps.  Jeff and I have been doing “tours” (non-timed bonus hunts) together for over a year, so we have the routine down pretty well.  My biggest responsibility is to keep track of the flag, making sure it’s securely stowed after each bonus.  This sounds ridiculously easy, but surprisingly many riders will forget their flag at a bonus, drop it, etc. (Lost flags generally include some type of penalty, including at minimum that the rider be in the picture too.)  We have a hanger for the flag and can weight the bottom with clips or a ruler, which helps keep it straight, even in the wind.  Also, I now generally have a pretty good idea of where I need to stand to get the composition right.  Still, with the sun directly behind the small sign we needed to photograph at our first bonus, it was a difficult picture to take. 

Erin and Jeff got their photo done first and left, with us and Jim shortly behind.  We all set off in the same direction, all evidently headed for the Nancy Hanks homestead.  However, Jeff and I missed a turn and so by time we arrived, the other two bikes were leaving and that was the last we saw of them until meeting up in North Carolina for the wedding.

Where we parked, there was a large sign that looked kinda, sorta, maybe like the rally book photo of what we were supposed to photograph, but not quite. On the other hand, it was the only thing in sight.  Still, not convinced it was correct, we hiked past the gate and up the hill and eventually found the right marker.  Back on the bike, we headed south.  We learned later that (1) others had been misled by that almost correct sign; and (2) that had we headed east we would have encountered a flooded bridge that would have required backtracking and a loss of time.  Happily, neither of those woes (or cows – more on cows later) befell us.  But, both double-checking and luck can be make-or-break factors in this game and you really need both!

In Morgantown we were required to get a picture of both of us with a statue of Don Knotts.  Rick cautioned as we were leaving that arms’ length selfies would not do.  We were told to use a selfie stick or a tripod, and if we didn’t have either, to stop and buy one.  Jeff had a selfie stick but left the attachment to press the button at home – an unanticipated hiccup and one we decided to risk rather than remedy with a purchase.  But luck was with us again.  Despite the early morning hour, two young people were taking turns taking each other’s photo with Knotts.  So when we pulled up, I jumped off the bike and offered to take pictures of both of them with the statue, if they’d do the same for us, which they happily did.

Our journey continued,with visits to various bonuses in West Virginia and then down Route 77 to Virginia.  We had ridden that route in early April and had fun chatting about that trip while simultaneously expressing thanks that we were headed south.  The northbound lanes were a parking lot.  We were less enthusiastic when the heavens opened up and gave us a free and very thorough bike wash.  Traffic slowed down and bunched up (but was still moving better than the northbound lanes) so we lost some time.  It was still raining when we got to Mt Airy NC where again we needed a photo of both of us together with a statue of Andy Griffith and Ron Howard (the Sherriff and Opie).  Even if we had a tripod, this was not the weather for fiddling around with that.  As we were arriving, we observed that the rider ahead of us had enticed a tourist who was hovering under the portico of the Mt Airy Playhouse to come out into the rain to take his photo.  Figuring that guy was already “trained,” I begged him to come out again to take ours, which he did. While Jeff was fussing with trying to get the phone screen to work in the rain, I tried to keep our photographer engaged.  Fortunately, he was raptly admiring the bike and asked what kind it was. (BMW GS Adventure).  I learned that although he doesn’t ride a motorcycle, he really likes BMWs and has a BMW car.  Finally, Jeff was ready, we got our shot and left, as two more riders pulled in.

Despite the rain, we got to the Charlotte area in plenty of time.  The sun came out, we picked up our only “revenue bonus” (a cigar) that we hadn’t expected to get until after the wedding (and not being a cigar fan, I shopped until I found one that was about $3, more than the $2 minimum but not the $10 ones that were an easier grab), stopped at a drug store for a bandage to protect a part of Jeff’s leg that was rubbing on his boot, and still arrived 28 minutes early for the wedding bonus. 

There was no way for us to know in advance how many people intended to “attend” the wedding, but the vast majority of the riders did.  We were among the first five to ten bikes to arrive, and there was a constant stream after us, rolling in, politely parking where instructed in an orderly line, perhaps grabbing a bottle of the cold water thoughtfully provided by the bridal couple, Tina and Michael, and donning the purple tiara provided to us for the photo.  At least two of the attendees, obviously tipped off in advance as to what might be occurring at this location, also donned neckties, coordinating with the purple wedding color scheme.  Very nice touch!

Around 5:30 p.m., the newlyweds and the rest of their guests emerged from near the shoreline of the lake and met up with us at the top of the driveway.  A number of the guests-without-helmets took a stroll to admire the bikes while the riders and pillions took their places – with tiara and flags – for a group photo with the bride and groom.  Playing off an inside joke, we all very cheerfully followed the instruction – on the count of three -- to say “cheese dick,” which caused the official wedding photographer to literally double over with laughter. 

Upon dismissal, we all quickly exited.  I don’t know how long it took (since we were out of there as fast as we could get our gear on) but I suspect that within 5 minutes, there was no trace left of the rally riders’ visit except the lingering hum of the last bikes down the road.

A note here on pillion amenities – or more precisely, lack thereof.  The rider has a dashboard decked out with gadgetry to show the route, the weather and other pertinent data; a hydration system mounted to the bike that he can access when thirsty, a tank bag and other little nooks and crannies for stashing things like sunscreen, chapstick, a granola bar for the road, or anything else he might want en route.  In contrast, the pillion generally has nothing except her pockets.  Not even a cup holder.  (OK, I saw one non-LD rider bike once that did, along with a big cushy seat and foot boards, but turning the bike into a Barcalounger on wheels just seems wrong.  It’s an ADVENTURE bike!)  So, in the year and a half of riding – with someone who stops only for fuel and bathroom breaks – I’ve had to experiment with a variety of ways to assure I have access to anything I might want while we’re rolling, such as access to my phone, heat controller (for the heated gear – not used on this trip), extra battery for when our travel time exceeds the helmet radio’s charge, chapstick, water, etc.  I’ve previously used lanyards to hold the phone and camera (both waterproofed) but on this trip I added a small cross-body water bottle carrier.  I found the cross body strap to be far superior to the lanyards for comfort and for manageability when it rains. With that inspiration, I’m looking forward to the arrival of a new cross-body water bottle carrier with a phone pocket this week, and hoping I can consolidate everything onto one cross-body strap for the future.  I’m sure others have different preferences and solutions.

After leaving the wedding we headed north to Lynchburg and then Charlottesville.  Apparently this sequence made logical sense to others too, because we ran into other riders at each of the next three bonuses, as well as some seriously intoxicated students at the Georgia O’Keefe bonus in Charlottesville (one of whom I had to flag down to keep him from backing into our parked bike).  At the Christian Science Reading Room in Lynchburg, a departing rider helpfully let us know that Rick had already been alerted that the bonus sign was missing, and that inclusion of the street sign and the empty sign post (with me and the rally flag) would suffice for the photo.

We considered whether we should take our rest stop at my house, -- which is less than two miles from the Exorcist Steps, one of our bonuses for the morning, but we weren’t sure about the availability of receipts.  (To verify you took your rest stop, you need to get a dated, time-stamped receipt with the location printed on it at the beginning and end of the period from the same or essentially same place.) So, instead we stayed at a garden style hotel in Virginia that was just off the highway, with an adjacent gas station where we could buy a snack at the start of the rest period and gas at the end, before hitting the road again (with receipts!)  That’s the perfect set-up for maximizing the amount of rest at the rest bonus while minimizing the lost time. Even so, we missed some sleep because the desk clerk was off changing his clothes and what with time to come and go we really only had two hours of sleep.  But unlike the night before, I slept very soundly.  When we departed three hours after our arrival, we saw another rally bike parked under the hotel canopy too. 

We started our DC area sweep in Bethesda, Maryland with Madonna of the Trails and then onward to Silver Spring.  The two riders who were at the Silver Spring stop when we arrived appeared more than relieved when we jumped off the bike and ran for the bonus plaque, which was tucked below-grade on a shadowed wall.  Billy Connacher later remarked that he was ready to give up searching when we showed up.  Fortunately, we had seen the plaque on a geocaching expedition last fall, so our home-town advantage helped. 

Then we continued on to the Exorcist steps.  In retrospect, this would have been an ideal time to have picked up the JWB1 bonus on F Street (assuming we had the budget or foresaw skipping a planned bonus later), since we had to wait for daylight to photograph the steps, but it wasn’t in the planned route so we didn’t think to do that.  Instead we showed up early for the Exorcist steps and – forgetting why we hadn’t planned to arrive so early – nearly left too soon.  But we waited for sunrise and got the shot. 

Our next stop was the Einstein statue on Constitution Ave, directly across from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial – or more importantly, ground zero for Rolling Thunder. Having lived in DC since before the first Rolling Thunder event, I had been all over this issue once I realized we might find ourselves in the midst of it.  Since I work only a few blocks away from the Einstein statue, on the Thursday before, I had walked the area, looking for no parking signs or road closures, secured a copy of the official guide, chatted with park rangers, and checked out the DC traffic alerts.  I was certain that if we were out of there before six a.m. (when reveille was scheduled for Rolling Thunder) we’d be OK. Departing the Exorcist steps for Einstein, the hometown advantage helped us again.  The GPS was directing us to take the Key Bridge across the Potomac and then to cross the Potomac again to get to downtown.  This worried me a bit because it took us closer to areas that might be impacted by the holiday events and further, I was puzzled as to why that would be shorter than taking the Whitehurst Freeway, which I do daily.  Then I realized that the GPS was somewhat pickier than we were about the accessibility of the Whitehurst from the spot where we were located.  In a car, the maneuver we did would have been impossible.  But when I pointed out to Jeff why the GPS and I had different opinions, he was on it, and minutes later we were downtown, via the Whitehurst, got our shot and were headed out of town. 

The Miss Piggy brick was another challenge.  From street view, we had a sense that the bonus location was in a park about halfway up a path.  Rick had mentioned that it was near the big marker for Jim Henson.  That was little help.  It took us longer than it should have to read every brick paver around the Jim Henson marker until Jeff finally found it in a section of brick that was separated a bit. 

We were able to roll through Baltimore and pick up three bonus there with nothing more exceptional than an amusing chat with a local who staggered up to me with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other near the Frank Zappa statue. (This was shortly after 7 a.m.) Jeff wears ear plugs on the road and I don’t, so he generally leaves conversations with others to me, since he can’t hear anyone.  Thus, he was a bit puzzled when I reported that the guy just wanted to know if I “had a light?”  “Dude,” Jeff observed, “your cigarette is already lit.  And you can light the next one off of that one.”  Unfortunately, our friend missed this bit of wisdom as he had already shuffled out of ear shot.  

The remainder of the morning’s bonuses were uneventful.  So uneventful that my biggest challenge was staying awake, a problem that often plagues me on slab (that is, highways).  There just isn’t enough to do in the pillion seat!  As odd as this may seem to someone who has never ridden pillion, dozing back there is pretty easy.  Sandwiched between the top case and Jeff, I can’t fall off and the helmet keeps my head from rolling from side to side (although I sometimes nod forward and bump Jeff’s helmet, which is how he knows I’m dozing).  I still try not to do it, since it’s not ideal to be half-awake if he has to stop suddenly.  But with little sleep and nothing of great interest, I did get a few cap naps that morning.

From shortly after the time we left Einstein, we hadn’t seen any more bikes; we did our next series of bonuses solo.  It wasn’t until we were approaching the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum that we saw more riders.  The Cover trio was already departing.  

Throughout the morning Jeff had been watching the time and we had lost some of our margin.  If we did the rest of the route as planned, we’d still make it with over an hour to spare, but only if there were no delays.  Rather than risk a DNF ("did not finish"), we decided to ditch our last director bonus (one of the two churches in Sacramento PA), since we didn’t need it for a movie.  In retrospect, that bonus, or the JWB1 that we hadn’t even considered, would have gotten us a third-place spot and we had the budget to do both.  Woulda, coulda, shoulda – but it was too late!

We had smooth sailing into Fort Indiantown Gap, did our bonuses and rolled in to the finish with plenty of margin.  While thirty-eight other production companies also made it back on time, we learned later that at least three riders had to drop out due to problems encountered on the road (but with no injuries to humans, fortunately). The story that will live on in infamy for this rally will be Dave Arkle’s spectacular non-finish.  He reported that as he was heading down a dark road he noticed a cow in the on-coming lane.  Understandably, he was momentarily distracted by that cow, which is why he didn’t see the OTHER cow, until it was too late.  Unlike the bike and the cow, Dave survived unscathed, for which everyone was thankful.  At the Finisher’s Banquet, when production companies were awarded prizes for innovative movie titles, he won the Space Cowboy award in absentia since he turned in the only REAL cow-(meets)-boy production.

The top finishers were James Alton, Jim Abbot, and Steven Griffith.  Others were awarded various honors including the coveted (sort of) cheese dick award and -- new this year -- awards for their movie titles. Awards list.  

As noted earlier, had we made only one more bonus, we could have been in third place.  But when they announced the scores at the Finishers’ Banquet, and we got fourth place, I was over the moon.  While fourth is not a podium spot, this rookie was so happy to have survived and enjoyed her first rally, it was every bit as good as a win for me.  What a great ride! 

Donna M. Attanasio
May 2018