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Common Tread

Would you ride the Iron Butt Rally on a Sportster?

Nov 10, 2016

Would you Iron Butt a Sporty?

I mean, would you enter the Iron Butt Rally, an 11-day, 11,000-mile scavenger hunt by motorcycle, on a Harley-Davidson Sportster? Before you answer, would you do it on a Sportster that already had more than 150,000 miles on the original engine?

Despite the fact that the modern 1200 cc Sporty is far from a small bike and is still capable of a decent quarter-mile time (in the 12-second range), many Harley faithful put it down as not a "real" Harley.

Chris Comly on his Sportster
Chris Comly sets out on the hardest ride of his life, the 2015 Iron Butt Rally. Iron Butt Association photo.

Chris Comly, a quiet, unassuming man who started his riding career in 1994 at the age of 30, might be on a one-man quest to change that perception. But it didn’t really begin until about 2007, or a year after he bought his beloved Harley XL1200R Roadster. Shortly after falling for the Sporty vibe, Chris discovered a passion for long-distance endurance riding.

By 2010, he’d discovered Iron Butt Association (IBA) events and rode his first SaddleSore 1000 (an IBA-certified ride of 1,000 miles or more in less than 24 hours). And by 2012 he’d found the thrills of rallying when he discovered the Void Rally (a scavenger hunt via motorcycle that would really whet his appetite to tackle the big prize, the Iron Butt Rally).

“I became aware of them [rallies] after seeing a few advertised in the IBA Magazine and on their ride calendar,” Chris said. “I was curious enough to sign up for the Void Rally in 2012. Once I completed that rally, I knew I was hooked!”

Now if you’re not familiar with the IBA or rallying, the IBA is a whole group of certifiable nuts (I say that with a certain amount of respect and awe) whose idea of a good time is to do something most of us can’t or won’t. I mean many of us might think about trying a single SaddleSore 1000, but few of us would ever dream of tackling most of the IBA rides and rallies that Chris has, like a 100CCC (coast-to-coast-to-coast in 100 hours or less) or the granddaddy of them all, the invitation-only Iron Butt Rally.

Yup, that’s a Sportster with 200,000 miles that he plans to run in the 2017 Iron Butt Rally. Photo by Chris Comly.
Most competitors in the big rallies will run some form of comfortable, smooth and powerful sport-touring or luxury-touring motorcycle, like a Yamaha FJR1300, Honda Gold Wing or BMW R 1200 RT. I should mention, though, that Chris is hardly the only one to swim upstream in terms of bike choice, and many entries on less than optimal motorcycles are found in what the IBR lovingly calls the “Hopeless Class.”

“To put this in perspective, in the 2015 IBR there was also a Ninja 250, a BMW C650GT scooter, and a 1995 BMW R100,” Chris noted. Nor was he the first to tackle the IBR on a Sportster. In the 2007 IBR, Brett Donahue surprised a lot of people by finishing third on a well equipped Sporty.

Why Iron Butt a Sporty?

Devil's Tower
A quick stop at Devil’s Tower. Photo by Chris Comly.
When I asked Chris why he chose to enter the 2015 on his 2006 Sportster, he simply said, “It’s my bike.”

It is literally the bike he happened to have when he got interested in this sort of thing. He also has a 1996 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Special.

“After riding my Softail in a 31-hour rally several years ago, I literally felt beaten up after riding for 18 hours straight, including several hours on twisty roads in the mountains of Kentucky,” Chris said. “I have never felt that way after doing similar rides on my Sportster. From that point on, I appreciated the lighter weight and maneuverability of my Sportster.” 

At 3 a.m. in some lonely gravel field in WhoKnowsWheresville after 18 hours of riding, it’s easier to deal with the size and weight of a Sportster. He also pointed out that he knows there’s always a dealer nearby if he ever needs a part in a pinch. As a matter of fact, he was 1,500 miles away from the start of the 2015 Iron Butt Rally (just the night before registration) when he crashed. He was glad he could fix the bike on the fly, though it didn’t help him prepare for the rally. While other riders were resting before the start, he was feverishly turning wrenches.

electronics on the IB Sportster
Electronically equipped for the long haul. Photo by Kevin Maher.

Prepping for an Iron Butt ride

I asked Chris what the average rider needs to know to participate in these types of long-distance rides and rallies.

“This is not something that you simply wake up and decide you want to try,” he explained. “It takes years to get to the point where you can participate in the Iron Butt Rally. Think of the IBR as being a marathon. One must train first by starting off with shorter runs and building stamina. With a motorcycle, not only do you need to condition yourself, but you also need to get your bike set up and remove all sources of discomfort. That irritating twinge between your shoulder blades after a 200-mile ride could be unbearable by 600 and incapacitating by 700.”

Mustang seat
Chris thinks this seat and backrest might be his most important accessory. Photo by Kevin Maher.

Chris fitted his Sportster with a Mustang touring seat with a backrest and a windshield. He upgraded the charging system so he can run his full array of electronics and heated gear, as well as a combination of LED headlights and driving lights that can turn a pitch-black highway into daylight for half a mile. He also upgraded the suspension front and rear, though examination shows nothing fancier than a set of take-off shocks from a Harley touring bike (and he tells me he installed better fork springs).

auxiliary lighting
If the LED headlight wasn’t bright enough, those driving lights can literally make night feel like day. Photo by Kevin Maher.

Like just about all IBR competitors, he uses an auxiliary fuel tank. His holds five gallons and sits between his backrest and tour pack. That allows him to ride through most of the night without stopping (especially if all the gas stations are closed).

auxiliary fuel tank
If you want to be competitive in the Iron Butt Rally, you can't underestimate the usefulness of this auxiliary fuel tank. Photo by Kevin Maher.

Still — and this is coming from another guy who tours on a Sportster — I just don’t know how he does it, even if I can kinda get why. He may have finished in 62nd place in the 2015 IBR, but he was the only rider on a Sportster. I get the impression that the real reason he does this on a Sporty is because he can.

“I was called a f***ing idiot for riding my Sportster in the 2015 IBR,” Chris recalls. “From this particular person, this was actually a compliment.”

Chris didn’t want to identify the individual, but let’s just say it was another fish swimming upstream who’d completed the IBR on an even less likely bike.

So we’ll see what happens in the next IBR in 2017, especially since he now has more than 200,000 miles on that bike. I, for one, will be rooting for him. Who is with me?