If you enjoyed the old Top Gear specials pitting cheap vehicles against ambitious road trips, the Reliability Rally is the motorcycle event for you.
Several times each year, riders enter motorcycles purchased for $1,000 or less in two-day challenges spanning hundreds of miles. Additional challenges along the way give opportunities to earn points for things like acceleration, fuel economy, balance skills, and more. Points are deducted for breakdowns. At the end, whoever racks up the most points across a variety of categories wins. (At the time of writing, limited spots are still available for July's Reliability Rally at Deal's Gap, North Carolina. Sign up here.)
Note: The Reliability Rally uses part of its proceeds to support the Neighborhood Resilience Project, a community outreach program in the Rally founders’ hometown of Pittsburgh.
I attended a Reliability Rally in Seneca Rocks, West Virginia last year with a crashed Kawasaki Ninja 500 I bought for $60. The Ninja was an ideal RR entry and completed the event with zero issues, but those old Kawasakis are legendary for their reliability. With my sights set on this year’s rally based at Burr Oak State Park in Ohio, I hoped to find a different motorcycle that would push my limits as a wrench and rider. This time, the bike found me. Common Tread reader J. Leet offered me his 1977 BMW R100/7 for $950… on the condition that I restore the bike to compete in a Reliability Rally. The Beemer had been up to its headlight in water during the Northeast’s heavy flooding last year, so I had plenty of work to do. (Read my story here about fixing the R100.) I purchased the bike in late December, hoping to have it ready to ride by the rally in mid May.
Prelude: December 29, 2021 to May 14, 2022
December 29, 2021, 12:42 p.m.: Finally meet Mr. Leet in person. Also, finally meet R100/7. The motorcycle looks a lot better than it did in pictures. Tough old Beemer runs and rides with a fluid change and battery. Fire it up and ride it onto my trailer. Feels good to finally own an airhead.
December 29, 4:42 p.m.: R100 arrives in Greaser’s No Kill Motorcycle Shelter and receives its initial cleaning. Bike is very complete. Dirt and sediment from flood everywhere. Take photos of bike from every angle for later reference. Check fluid levels and pour in some fresh gas.
December 30, 6:18 p.m.: Notice sloshing sound from fork. Fork gaiters are full of flood water. Drain water. Sloshing resolved.
December 31, 5:23 p.m.: Take R100 for first ride. Wonderful motorcycle is wonderful. Sediment blows out of the exhaust for the first mile or so, then clears up. Return to garage for more work rather than risk a chilly breakdown somewhere. Ring in the new year checking spoke tightness.
January 1, 2022, 2:41 p.m.: Desire to go for second ride. Second ride is not possible because pushing the starter button does nothing. Battery is low but not completely dead. Remove tank and headlight to start checking relays.
January 1, 3:13 p.m.: Find “high water mark” from flood halfway up the headlight. Not great. Replace suspicious headlight relay. Battery voltage seems stable now.
January 3, 9:03 p.m.: Receive key blanks for R100. Cut new spare keys. Always a mistake not to have spare keys. Begin checking all basic maintenance items.
January 29, 10:47 a.m.: Rebuild front brake system with new line, fluid, reservoir, and cable. Braking is better, but still not great. The single disc ATE brakes are the least desirable on most airheads. Whatever. Brakes only slow you down, anyway.
February 26-27: Get distracted by my CB350F restoration. Realize afterwards that I should have been working on the BMW, because the battery is flat again.
March 18, 8:49 p.m.: Discover that BMW starter relay is failing. Also discover that starter motor is failing. Order replacements and box up the old starter to rebuild someday.
March 18, 11:00 p.m.: Take first look at charging system behind front engine cover. Looks like BMW electrics do not like to be underwater. Order complete new charging system after much research. BMW forums full of opinionated folks. Some are engineers. Others wish they were engineers.
April 3, 5:37 p.m.: Cheap inspection camera arrives in my mailbox. Cylinders, pistons, and valves don’t show any major damage, which is nice.
April 23, 12:05 p.m.: Finally get around to a valve clearance check. Right intake rocker bearing came apart and dropped its needles into the valve cover. Order replacement bearings for all rockers so I’ll never see this sight again.
May 1, 9:21 p.m.: Finish rocker bearing replacement and valve adjustment. Beemer doesn’t make quite as much clatter anymore.
May 2-6: Additional test riding. Bike feels better than ever. Finally get front brake working correctly. Turns out the ATE single disc is perfectly usable once adjusted correctly. As the Magic 8 Ball says, “Outlook good.”
May 7, 6:15 p.m.: Trailering R100 to Burr Oak is almost 1,000 miles round trip. Real nice guy named Lemmy comes by to help me weld in some trailer reinforcements. Rain starts. Welding in the rain is fun.
May 7, 11:14 p.m.: Still making final adjustments to BMW. Decide to change fork oil. No oil in fork, just water. Fork feels much better now.
May 11, 5:45 p.m.: Have 228 miles on R100 since purchase. Good enough. Pack every relevant tool and part I can find into Jeep. Load R100 onto reinforced trailer. Rally time.
May 12, 5:18 p.m.: Arrive at friends’ house in Marietta, Pennsylvania as I make my way west. Devour tacos at nearby restaurant. Decide to roll BMW off the trailer and go for a ride with friends. Take a scenic loop around the Susquehanna. See marks on phone pole from river floods over the years. They remind me of my BMW. Stay the night in Marietta.
May 13, 9:05 a.m.: Load up trailer, back on the move. Drive west for a long while.
May 13, 3:16: At gas stop, calculate that my old Wrangler managed 15.5 mpg towing a motorcycle on a trailer at 65-70 mph all day. Jeep has always been strangely good that way. Must be the five-speed.
May 13, 5:10 p.m.: Spot KLR for sale on the side of the road. I think I'm close.
May 13, 5:58 p.m.: Arrive at Reliability Rally base camp in Burr Oak. Much larger event than the West Virginia event I attended last year. Grab a bunk in my cabin and roll the BMW into a lineup of all kinds of motorcycles. Some are amazingly good. Some are concerningly bad.
May 13, 6:03: “Hey, Greaser's here!” I have found my people. They hand me a beer and some wings. I am happy.
May 13, 7:35 p.m.: Local wheelie dude comes to see what we're up to. Has a mullet and no shirt. Wheelies ain't bad but his CRF seems to have trouble starting. Mullet wheelie dude gets bike going again, but if he hadn't, this is probably the best place in Ohio to break down. Centuries of motorcycle wrenching experience present, and everyone's tow vehicles are like mobile repair shops full of tools.
May 13 7:57 p.m.: Lots of RR attendees work at Honda's Automotive R&D Center. Learn Japanese word, shouganai — it is what it is. Seems applicable to RR.
May 13, 8:30 p.m.: A KZ400 LTD (“Livin’ the dream!”) is struggling to start. Seems… bad. Owner gets it going. Obviously not possible for a bike to run on less than one cylinder, but that’s how this one sounds. Riders with pod filters pray we don’t see rain. Another rider with sketchy electrics prays with them.
May 13, 11:43 p.m.: Time to sleep. Tomorrow will be a big day. R100 still relatively unproven but running well enough. Sleep soundly because shouganai.
Rally day one: May 14
May 14, 7:01 a.m.: Somebody starts a motorcycle. Wake up blips! More bikes start up now that someone has broken the ice, just like every dirt event I’ve ever attended.
May 14, 7:45 a.m.: Drink coffee. Pack rain gear under BMW seat. Wish my other bikes had enough room for rain gear and a giant tool kit.
May 14, 8:15 a.m.: Riders' meeting. Placed in group with leader on a Suzuki SV650. Other bikes in group include a customized Honda CB900, a Yamaha V-Star 250, a first-gen Kawasaki Versys 650, and a Suzuki V-Strom 650.
May 14, 8:48 a.m.: Kickstands up at 9 a.m. Final inspection of the R100 reveals the driveshaft oil is leaking from the oil fill plug. Thought I had vanquished that leak before the trip, but Marietta ride must have opened it back up again. Fill hole threads were already stripped when I got the bike, so I can’t just tighten it. And I can’t leave it, or the oil will drip onto my rear tire. Think, Greaser, think.
May 14, 8:51 a.m.: With a name like Greaser, gotta travel with my tin of pomade. Apply pomade to driveshaft oil fill plug. Leak stops. Also, smells nice. Will fix this when I get home.
May 14, 9:00 a.m.: Nearly 40 riders depart base camp. Not all of the bikes will return in running order…
May 14, 9:11 a.m.: Every helmet in RR group turns to look at the KLR for sale. We can’t help ourselves.
May 14, 9:27 a.m.: Short ride to Glouster to get gas. While riding through town, see Chris S.’s Honda VF500F dumping fluids. Billowing clouds pour from lower fairing. He decides to pull over and have a look. I assume he’s out already.
May 14, 9:30-10:30 a.m.: Ride Route 78 northeast to visit the Big Muskie bucket, which was the business end of the world’s largest earth-moving machine. The bucket alone weighs 230 tons. The Big Muskie bucket now sits in a hilltop park overlooking the landscape it once dug for coal.
May 14, 11:15 a.m. - 12:47 p.m.: Follow 78 to 147 at East Union, then stop for gas in Barnesville. The BMW is humming along, although I do not fully trust it quite yet. 147 is very freshly paved. Something about the smell of fresh blacktop… Chase SV650 and CB900 through corner after corner. Road surface is nicer than any track I’ve ever ridden. Lou and Colin must have paid someone off to get that road ready for us.
May 14, 12:50 p.m.: Stop for gas in Barnesville. Roland’s Honda Super Hawk, dubbed the Subpar Hawk, overheating and routinely overflowing from the coolant reservoir. Roland makes a second overflow reservoir out of a Gold Peak iced tea bottle, and pours all his overflow back into the radiator at gas stops. Might not be pretty, but it works.
May 14, 12:52 p.m.: Spot Chris S. and his VFR fueling up. Can’t believe he made it. The fluid pouring from his bike in Glouster was coolant, and the clouds were steam. VFR seems OK now? Jon’s KZ400 LTD is very broken. KZ gets loaded onto trailer, Jon now rides Scooter of Shame. CJ’s Ninja 500 burned up a regulator/rectifier and is also on the trailer. Buell guy knows my BMW has a big tool kit and visits me every time we stop for gas. BMW is his new best friend.
May 14, 12:50 p.m. - 2:17 p.m.: Riding State Route 26 south towards Rinard Covered Bridge. Editor Lance assured me that the rally’s route covered the best roads in southeastern Ohio. Editor Lance knows what he’s talking about.
May 14, 2:18 p.m.: Stop for eighth-mile acceleration test. R100 runs a 9.3. Not interested in pushing my old bike much harder than that. Can always pick up points somewhere else. Other riders do not share this approach, beat the tar out of their bikes. Buell 1125 sounds like it’s about to eject something. Can hear starter clutch rattling from eighth mile away. Chris D’s KZ550 LTD alternates between spitting flames and bogging out. KZ tries so many passes that it runs out of gas. Steve outfitted his KZ650 with a gas can carrier and saves Chris D.
May 14, 2:46 p.m.: Colin’s Honda Sabre is the clear winner. Old V4 sounds like God ripping a phone book. Subpar Hawk also sounds great. Roland drains the secondary overflow again. He disturbingly calls this activity “milking the Hawk.” Thanks, I hate it.
May 14, 3:02 p.m.: Andrew's CL175 battery dead, gets a jump to keep going. CL carburetor also leaking after eighth-mile run. Carb gasket will not stay put while reassembling. Andrew uses ChapStick borrowed from Tina to secure the gasket in place. Leak is solved.
May 14, 2:18 p.m.-3:50 p.m.: Ride State Routes 26 and 7 southwest. BMW is miraculously trouble-free. Thought I would be taking it easy through the day and babying the bike just to keep it alive. Wrong. Beemer wants to get the most out of these roads. Amazed at how well something this old handles.
May 14, 3:51 p.m. - 4:02 p.m.: Stop for gas near Little Hocking. Sabre fuel pump quit. Colin removes the pump entirely and converts his Sabre to “gravity feed”. Sabre isn’t thrilled, still runs because Honda. Mike’s Honda VFR700R is struggling. About to ride State Route 555, the famed Triple Nickel. Storm is coming. Attempt to outrun storm and get to camp. Roland drains Hawk coolant.
May 14, 4:03 p.m.: R100 takes on the Triple Nickel. No longer taking it easy on old motorcycle. Beemer is an absolute joy through twisting roads. Easy to reach the bike’s limits, and endless fun to hang out at those limits without passing them.
May 14, 4:35 p.m.: A few drops start to fall. No big deal. (This begins the traditional “riding through a rainstorm” experience.)
May 14, 4:37 p.m.: More drops. It’ll stop soon, right?
May 14, 4:40 p.m.: It is raining. Need to find a place to pull over to put on rain gear. The pod filter guys must be suffering.
May 14, 4;41 p.m.: It is hailing. Still nowhere to pull over.
May 14, 4:45 p.m.: Pull over and pull on rain gear, trapping water inside. Perfect!
May 14, 4:50 p.m.: Emerge from other side of storm cloud. Remove rain gear.
May 14, 6:20 p.m.: Arrive in camp. Damage assessment begins. Colin attempts to repair fuel pump. Valiant effort does not work. Co-founder Lou watches Colin with amusement because Lou’s Ninja 300 runs perfectly. Some riders, including Roland, ditch fairings to help keep temps down. Roland drains Hawk coolant. Inspection camera reveals giant hole in KZ400 piston. Jordan is sidelining his Buell 1125 to avoid serious engine damage. Apply more pomade to my leaking oil fill plug.
May 14: 7:00 p.m.-???: Reliable Riders eat lots of food, drink many drinks from many coolers, and work by light from headlamps and campfires to repair/bolster cheap vehicles.
May 15, rally day two
May 15, 7:01 a.m.: Reliable Riders must be awake, because I hear engines running. Time for coffee and after checks of my bike’s vitals. No holding back today!
May 15, 8:15 a.m.: The R100’s engine oil is a little low. I brought extra oil with me, but I didn’t bring the skinny funnel I use to access the oil fill hole. I finish my coffee, fold the paper cup’s lip into a spout, and now I have perfect container for pouring oil. "Poor boys have poor ways," says Jim.
May 15, 8:37 a.m.: Colin needs brake fluid for his Sabre’s hydraulic clutch, which has been acting up. I have some stashed in the Jeep. A RAM mount phone holder fits a brake fluid bottle perfectly.
May 15, 8:45 a.m.: Another rider’s meeting. Lots of bikes broke down on day one, but some Reliable Riders are smart enough to bring loaner bikes. Between the Scooter of Shame, Jon’s Suzuki Burgman, and Charles’ brand new Honda CB500X, not everyone had to miss the day’s roads. (DNF riders can continue on other bikes for fun, but they are disqualified from the competition.) Day one only had one challenge, so more competition today.
May 15, 9:02 a.m.: We’re off, traveling northwest on 78. We turn east onto 60 near McConnelsville, stopping in Beverly for coffee and the slow race.
May 15, 9:45 a.m.-10:52 a.m.: Determined to do well in slow race after coming up short last year. Square off against Yone and the R850R. It’s BMW versus BMW. Post a respectable score, then watch other riders try to stay upright for as long as possible between the cones. Andrew makes it look easy on his CL175, schools us all. Lou and Colin have a fierce balance battle at the end. Roland drains Hawk coolant.
May 15, 10:53 a.m.-11:33 a.m.: Follow State Route 60 west to 530, 165, and 260. I didn’t know roads like this could be found in Ohio. Determined not to let that SV650 out of my sight, and I know Justin is having fun seeing what kind of pace the old airhead can keep.
May 15, 11:34 a.m.-12:06 p.m.: State Route 260 leads to a short and spirited ride on State Route 7. Got the R100 pretty well figured out by now. Better gear changes than yesterday, better braking technique, pushing the tires harder, revving that funky boxer out… I couldn’t be happier with this bike. Happy also that it hasn’t given me a single issue yet. Could back off a bit to ensure the engine’s survival, but roads are too good.
May 15, 12:12 p.m.: Stop for gas at Becky’s Fly Spot. Feels like I have gone back in time by at least 40 years. Sip Gatorade, eat energy bars, and listen to Brendan drive ahead with his S2000 to get set up for photos. Pretty great day so far. Roland drains Hawk coolant.
May 15, 12:32 p.m.-1:35 p.m.: Ride north along State Route 800, then cutting southeast on SR78 and SR536 before turning north again on SR7. If you live anywhere within a day’s travel of Burr Oak, you owe it to yourself to ride here.
May 15, 1:46 p.m.: Stop for gas in Clarington. Fill up all the way for fuel economy test. Mathematically I can’t win, so not very concerned about fuel economy. Already know that BMW gets upper 30s ridden hard, or mid 40s with gentle throttle.
May 15, 2:06 p.m.-2:45 p.m.: Ride SR556 and 145 west towards Lewisville. Beemer is still performing flawlessly. Decide it’s time to start swapping bikes soon. Hope to trade with Colin to try the Sabre, but his clutch is getting worse and worse.
May 15, 2:45 p.m.: Arrive at park where Reliable Riders take a break. Colin comes rolling in on Scooter of Shame. Mighty Sabre has finally fallen. Feel kinda bad because I told Colin he should sell his perfectly good Magna to buy the questionable Sabre. Stand by my decision that Sabres are cooler than Magnas. Decide to trade for Gary’s CB900 Custom.
Engine feels like an electric motor compared to the shaking Beemer. Nice aftermarket exhaust doesn’t sound like an electric motor, though. Admire superb fueling and total attention to detail. Shame Honda never made a bike like this from the factory on the 900 platform.
May 15, 3:19 p.m.-4:20 p.m.: Ride the Garymobile west on state routes 145, 724, 260, and 78. A sign along one of the highways reads: “Try goat meat!” Rural Ohio can be a beautiful place. It can also be a little different.
May 15, 4:21 p.m.-4:44 p.m.: Stop for gas once more in McConnelsville. Get BMW back from Gary, then trade to Colin so I can ride the Scooter of Shame back to camp. Feel bad about his Sabre. Feel good about riding the Scooter of Shame.
May 15, 5:20 p.m.: Arrive in camp. Get BMW back from Colin, then trade it with anyone who will swap with me. Ride Ian’s Shadow 600 chopper, Harry’s FZ700, and Irv’s VF750F. Go for a quick drive in Brendan’s S2000. Pretty great day all around.
May 15, 7:09 p.m.: Award ceremony. Jim Gannon wins with his “FreeBR” and absolutely deserves it. Don't need an award to know that the R100/7 was a truly great motorcycle for the entire trip. Never let me down, never complained, and it even kept other riders on the road with its massive tool kit. Paul D. offers a beer. "No thanks, I'm already working on an Old German." Realize I'm always working on an old German these days. Load up R100/7 for long drive home.
May 15, 11:29 p.m.: Burr Oak, Ohio is far from any light pollution. Appreciate this as Reliable Riders have perfectly clear night for total lunar eclipse. Lots of people can see this eclipse. But only people with crummy motorcycles get this exact view.
Meet some Reliable Riders
Charles Overbey, 1992 Honda XR600R Supermoto
Rally prep? It was all in boxes! The whole bike was all there, just needed to be assembled and made to run.
How much fun was it? Almost too much fun on one downhill left turn!
Steve McDaniel, 1982 Kawasaki KZ650
Rally prep? I rebuilt the charging system and carbs, serviced the valves, took care of the tires and bearings, and took care of all the maintenance essentials I wouldn't ride a bike without doing. And I added the gas can, of course.
How much fun was it? It was a shit ton of fun! I think I need different gearing on the bike. I went with stock, but I need a little more oomph for the hills. The bike did everything I needed it to do. Yesterday, after the eighth-mile tests, [Chris D.'s] bike ran out of gas, and he was stuck 10 miles from a gas station. I was able to give him some gas to get him back on the road!
Jim Gannon, Honda "FreeBR"600F3
Rally prep? The guy who had this bike bought a new BMW in 2014, so he just parked the CBR in his backyard. He offered the bike to a friend if he'd do something with it... so his friend gave it to me. Once I'm done with the rally, I'm giving it to my son. That's three free! I haven't washed it or changed the oil. I just got it rolling. Used fluids only. It was about half full of rusty water when I got it. I put some turn signals on it from my junk drawer with some nice hose clamps. The only money I spent on it was a battery, one spark plug, and tire valves. Oh, and I had to lube up the air horn to get it working.
How much fun was it? It was good, the bike was good. I don't ride sport bikes like this and never have. Put more miles on this over the weekend than anything close to it. It ran reasonably well, and it wasn't too hard on my skinny butt. I always have a blast with these guys.
Jim Fulcher, 1994 Suzuki GS500
Rally prep? I ran this bike last year, but when I first got it, I had to take the bike half apart to fit it in the truck. It just needed a carb rebuild and a spark plug replacement to get running. I also added new tires, new brake pads, and petal rotors. The front brake caliper used to stick, but at Deal's Gap last year, Charles Poirer took advantage of the cover of night to disassemble the caliper and grease the slide pins.
How much fun was it? Well, it does everything we wanted to do, but none of it particularly well. The bike didn't have any problems at all… other than a lack of power. It's really missing torque.
Ian Salvador, 2007 VLX600 Shadow
Rally prep? This was actually Colin's old Reliability Rally bike. I chopped it all up for its first rally with me. The CB500 cafe I planned on bringing wasn't ready, so I switched to my CB750 but the carbs were messed up. Then I moved to my Buell Blast, except the electrics started acting up right before the Reliability Rally. That put me back to the Shadow, except the tank was leaking like crazy and the mount had cracked off. I was welding on this bike the night before I got here. I did set a fireball off when I was trying to fix it!
How much fun was it? I always love riding this bike. It gets around a lot better than you'd think. I've taken it to the Tail of the Dragon and other RR events, so I know it can do it. Yeah, I was hoping to bring one of my other projects, but I still had so much fun here. I can't wait for the next one.
Chris Salvador, 1986 VF500 Interceptor
Rally prep? The engine was good... and that was it. This is one running bike made from parts bikes. I had to replace the carbs and water lines. Also, the brake calipers were all seized, with both masters gummed and gooey. I rebuilt the slave cylinder, checked over the water pump, and adjusted the valves. I had gaskets leaking like a sieve, so I used Hondabond to seal them up. The tank was rotted out so I pulled one from a parts bike. None of the blinkers worked, it needed a new chain, I cleaned and powdercoated the wheels… [laughs] I think that's it?
How much fun was it? You know, the first day you're always worried. The bike overheated right out of the gate, and then the fuel stopped flowing… It was a little sketchy. But today, I was open throttle all day. The best part was riding in at the end of the day with Mike on his 750 Interceptor. We broke away from the group and just ripped through the hills. This is what makes you come back. This makes all the work worth it.
Chuck Boyer, 2005
Suzuki V Strom 650 Moto Guzzuki V-Stromboli
Rally prep? New fuel pump and filter, two front turn signals, and a lot of "icing on the cake." I was trying to camouflage my Suzuki in an attempt to earn the Euro manufacturer bonus. I don't think it worked, but I got third place!
How much fun was it? It was a lot of fun. This is my second bike ever. I got into riding last May. Then I saw the Reliability Rally article on Common Tread, and I thought, that's the motorbiking event I want to be in! The events sold out quickly, but it all came together. I was talking with a friend who owned this V Strom, and he said he'd sell me the V Strom so that I could participate. The best part about it is that my friend has seen me on the bike since I rebuilt it… and I think he wants it back!
Chris Sukel, 1985 Honda Nighthawk S
Price? $20 (because I didn't have a $10 bill on me)
Rally prep? The Nighthawk needed an ignition switch, tires, and a battery. I never even touched the carbs! You can see how filthy it all is. This is exactly as it came out of the shed.
How much fun was it? It was a blast. I normally ride by myself, so riding with other people who are more experienced helped me to learn and push my limits. I rode like my ass was on fire today!
The 2022 Burr Oak rally was the largest Reliability Rally ever, with 41 riders signed up plus all the RR support staff. The three pillars of Reliability Rally events are competition, camaraderie, and misery, all three of which were present during our time in Ohio. "You don't necessarily need a Multistrada or a Street Glide to have a good time," said Lou as he delivered the weekend's awards. Cheap thrills are still out there. Find an old junker, get it running, and see how far it takes you.
Colin, Lou, and the rest of the RR crew put on a phenomenal weekend with outstanding roads and plenty of good-natured competition. If you know one end of a wrench from the other and you'd like to try it for yourself, head over to the Reliability Rally web site to learn more.