Friday, October 22, 2010

Ride Smart To Ride Far: Secrets Of Long-Distance Riders

By any reasonable standards of behavior, Iron Butt riders are nuts. Anyone who is driven—there's no other word to describe it—to ride in the legendary event, in which the top riders will cover more than 11,000 miles in 11 days, is more than likely a few foot-pounds shy of fully torqued.

And yet there is method to the madness of Iron Butt competitors, as well as the legions of LD (long-distance) riders who think little of clocking 500, 800, even 1,000 miles in a single day. They all know something—many things, really—that most riders don't know, things that can make your next tour safer, easier, and more enjoyable whether your idea of a good day's ride is a thousand miles or just a couple of hundred.

Don't Speed

The only place going real fast has anything to do with going real far is on a race track. On the street, excessive speed is dangerous and stupid, it'll tire you out faster than riding at a slower pace, and you'll have to stop more often for gas.

Savvy LD riders ride with, or slightly faster than, the flow of traffic. Play Ricky Racer and you'll not only incur the wrath of other motorists, you'll attract the attention of the law. Standing by the side of the road while a patrol officer gives you The Lecture is no way to cover a lot of ground—or hang onto your license.

Know Your Limits

If the farthest you've ever ridden in a day is 300 miles, don't plan a trip that requires you to clock 500 miles a day for several days in a row. On multi-day trips the distance you can comfortably cover will decrease as the days go by. Plan for this so you don't find yourself facing the longest, hardest day in the saddle on the last day of a week-long ride.

Be flexible with regard to your daily mileage, and allow for conditions you didn’t anticipate. Do your usual 300 miles, and if you feel like you still have some more miles in you, go for it, but take it in small chunks, and always leave yourself an out—don't start off across the Mojave at the end of the day, with nowhere to stop and rest for the next 200 miles. Give yourself permission to call it a day, or to turn back early if you're not feeling up to it.

Stay Hydrated

You'd be surprised how much water your body gives off in the form of perspiration from your skin and water vapor from your breath. Dehydration causes fatigue even when the weather isn't blisteringly hot, and extreme dehydration can cause even worse problems.

Carry water even on short trips, and remember to drink before you're thirsty, because thirst means your body is already low on water. Your body can't retain water without salt, so eat something salty, like salted peanuts or beef jerky, to keep the water in your body where it does you the most good.

Experienced long-distance riders carry two sources of water, one that's easily accessible, and one that's packed away where it's inconvenient to reach. The first is for whenever you're thirsty, and the second is for emergencies. Making the emergency water hard to get at makes it less tempting to drink unless you really need it.

Take A Break

When you're tired, stop and rest. That seems obvious, but many riders who try to press on through "the nods" pay a high price. To LD riders, there is no—repeat, no—substitute for sleep, not even caffeine. The rule of thumb is if you think you need caffeine, what you really need is sleep.

If you're not ready to stop for the day, take a nap on a picnic table at a rest stop—called "checking into the Iron Butt Motel"—or sit back against a wall at a gas station and snooze for a while. Even a short nap can leave you feeling refreshed and ready for more saddle time.

Know When To Stop

Fatigue is dangerous, and sneaky. The more tired you get, the less able you are to tell how much it affects your riding.

If you're tempted to close your eyes for even a second, or you're unable to maintain a steady speed or remember to turn off your high beams for oncoming traffic, or if you can't seem to decide what turn to take next or whether to stop for gas, you're already too tired to go on. Experienced long-distance riders know these symptoms, and will pull off the road and rest at the first sign of any of them.

No Caffeine

Avoid coffee, tea, and sodas that contain caffeine. Caffeine gives you a temporary energy boost, then lets you down fast—when it wears off you'll often feel more tired than you felt before you drank it. Caffeine is a diuretic, too, which means more rest-room stops.

The general rule is that if you need caffeine to stay alert, what you really need is rest. Get off the bike and take a short break, or check into the Iron Butt Motel—it's always open, and there's always a vacancy—or get a real motel room and get some serious sleep.

Get A Tire Repair Kit

Get a tire repair kit and practice using it on an old tire, or on one of your bike's tires right before you have it replaced, so you won't be learning the process at night by the side of the road.

Fixing a flat on a tubeless tire is easy. On a tube-type tire, it's more work, especially with a big, heavy bike without a centerstand. Make sure you can do the job yourself, with just the tools you carry on the bike, before you leave on a trip. If your kit uses glue, check it now and then to make sure it hasn't dried up or leaked out of the tube.

Pack enough CO2 cartridges to fully inflate either tire, because not being able to inflate a tire enough to ride on it isn't much better than not being able to fix it at all. Even better, consider carrying a foot-operated pump, or a 12-volt electric pump that runs off your bike's battery. A pump takes up only a little more room than the required number of CO2 cartridges, and it'll never run out of air, whereas when you're out of CO2, you're out of luck.

Tool Kit

Go through your tool kit, toss out all those cheap wrenches and screwdrivers, and replace them with quality tools. Make sure you have enough tools to do everything you might need to do on the road, including removing either wheel in case of a flat, adjusting the chain, and removing accessories that block access to other parts of the bike.

Carry spare fuses and bulbs, and know where the fuse box is and how to get at it. If you have room, take along a shop manual. If you don't have room, read the manual at home until you're sure you can carry out common emergency tasks.

Get Wired

The benefits of wearing an electric vest in cold weather are obvious. But after a long, hot day in the saddle, evening temperatures in the mid-70s can give you a chill. A heated vest, gloves, and grips let you ride more safely and comfortably through cold, wet weather that leaves other riders shivering and miserable.

Carry A Cell Phone

Cell phones don't work everywhere, but they work in enough places that carrying one can mean the difference between calling for help on the spot and walking or hitching to the nearest pay phone. If one of your riding buddies goes down hard and needs immediate medical attention, it can mean the difference between life and death. And don't forget to bring the charger along.

Join A Towing Service

Not every roadside emergency is fixable. When the worst happens, a towing service can save the day, and maybe the entire trip. Towing plans are available from HOG, the AMA, various owners groups, and companies like Motorcycle Towing Services (MTS).

Last-Minute Changes

 Right before you leave on a long ride is no time to install a new windscreen, or get a new helmet, or buy a new rainsuit that you haven't had a chance to try out. If that new windscreen generates a roar like a hurricane, or that new helmet creates an intolerable pressure point right behind your left ear, or that new rainsuit funnels water down the back of your neck, the time to discover it is long before you hit the road for a week and can't turn back.

Try all new accessories on shorter rides first to make sure they'll work on longer ones. The same goes for other modifications like shocks, tires, and engine maintenance. Even good mechanics make mistakes now and then. It's better to discover the problem and have it corrected before you have to deal with it on the road.

These are some of the tips and techniques that Iron Butt and long-distance riders know and swear by. More can be found on the Iron Butt Association's website in the Archive of Wisdom. Even if you don't have any immediate plans to ride coast-to-coast in a weekend, what you can learn from the experience of those who have done it can make you a better, safer rider, and help you have more fun, no matter how far you want to ride. —Jerry Smith


  1. Great stuff here! I've found that on trips longer than a few weeks your "comfortable riding distance" will begin increasing again. For me anyway, there seems to be a two-week wall, and once I'm over that I'm as comfortable on the saddle as anywhere.

  2. Take age into account also. I rode from MI to AZ several times when i was younger, dont think you can just hop on and do it again without some prep time and without some bodily fatigue.