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It's Nelly's World

This Is the Iron Butt Rally

alec vanderboom


In 2009, some thousand riders vied for a hundred spots, which were determined by lottery, and also by fiat of the emperor, who can make as many exceptions as he likes. This is to ensure “color,” in the tint of bikes like the two vintage RE5 rotary engine Suzukis from the seventies that were considered Hopeless Class entrants. They were also ones, a quarter of a century later, that gave a reverent nod to rally history. That is because George Egloff was mounted on an RE5 when he rode to one of the first place finishes in the original “Ironbutt” in ’84. Their inclusion was the equivalent of placing a george washington slept here plaque on some old stone house; historical markers signify less the commemoration of a place than the legitimation of an institution. The Iron Butt Rally was now officially a Big Event, wrapped in a corporate identity replete with sharp-minded legal counsel, an international following, two solid pages on trademarks and the association that go out to each person who becomes a member, and the voluminous storytelling—from multipart ride reports posted on blogs and forums to the official word of the organization in its daily reports during the rally and the articles in its new glossy magazine for “premier” members—that form Old and New testaments of long-distance riding’s Bible.



Besides, the underdog is an irresistible category in American self-conception. Motorcyclists may be disproportionately drawn to expressing humor of a dark sort; they are certainly fond of testing themselves, as witness the entire long-distance enterprise, and so they are driven again and again to prove that Hopeless is sometimes not so hopeless after all, provided the rider on the underpowered machine has the guts to make up for the lack of displacement. The two smallest bikes ever to survive the crucifixion that is the rally are 125s, Suzuki and Cagiva. The 2001 Hopeless Class was especially lively, with Paul Pelland finishing on a 2001 Russian-made Ural (which might as well have been a 1944 Ural) and, more heroically, a 1946 Indian Chief piloted by Leonard Aron making it all the way to the final checkpoint. In 2003, Leon Begeman came in twelfth on an EX250 Ninja that was actually the resurrected ghost of seven previously expired Ninjas. If kites were allowed in the Iron Butt Rally, someone would find a way to fireproof lightweight nylon and fit a four-valve engine to a balsa-wood frame. Then fly seven feet above the ground for eleven days, finally to crack jokes at the finishers banquet while being good-naturedly jeered for stealing a top-ten place from someone who really deserved it.