In 2010 I attempted the Minuteman 1000 on a 1968 R69S. It is an endurance challenge to gain membership to the group of riders known as the Iron Butt Association, and the right to put their license plate frame on my bike. Around the 800-mile mark after riding all day, I lost my rear clutch assembly and was forced to stop. A worn hinge pin had worked its way passed the cotter pin and fallen out. Even after returning the next year to complete the ride on a newer GSA, I was still haunted by the DNF (did not finish) on the R69S. I had ridden that bike for over 22 years and I knew it could complete the ride as well as any other newer Beemer. I really wanted to return to finish that ride on a vintage Airhead.
An even better opportunity presented itself to use an even older model when I read the announcement for the Nutmeg 400. I thought it would be a perfect event to try on the 1954 R51/3 I had just put back on the road. It would also, in a way, avenge that DNF, as a ‘50s BMW uses a 1930s era frame and fork—the “plunger” frame.
The Nutmeg 400 is hosted by the Yankee Beemers and the New England London Distance Riders and the sponsor of the event is MAX BMW. It is put together for the riders who are curious about long distance riding, and to participate in an Iron Butt type mini rally where the rider accumulates points on the ride at various stops. The miles ridden, bonus points collected and time ridden are all totaled and calculated (and even demoted) to arrive at a total score. This is to give a taste of what that world is like, and enter it.
In 2008 I acquired a 1954 R51/3 in New Hampshire with a rusty, rusty and even rustier engine. It had sat on a cement-floored garage, where the warm spring air and cold floor would let condensation form in the engine block. After two years of slow engine rebuilding, I put it back together and broke it in last year. Last October I put almost 700 miles on the bike without trouble. The issue I was worried about is how low the bike sits. The seat on the R51/3 sits a good inch lower than a /2 solo seat. I wondered if I could ride 10 hours or more with no wind screen all hunched over and if it would affect my back much.
I arrived on Friday to register and greet other riders. There were hamburgers and hotdogs on hand as well as the largest assembly of new BMWs I’ve seen in a U.S. showroom. The lineup of at least a dozen identical GS bikes was a nice touch of display. Rob Nye, the rally master, had e-mailed the bonus locations to the riders the day before, and I noticed lots of riders still working out routes. The parking lot chatter was: where are you from, where are you going and how are you going to get there? I had spent a few hours studying all the locations based on their distance and their uniqueness. Some of them are quite interesting to arrive at visually, and in cultural knowledge both national and local lore. I knew it would be foolish to attempt to compete against bigger tanks, faster bikes and electronic assistance. I decided to pick a nice scenic route, pick up some bonus points along the way here and there and just finish with a well running engine I had torn apart and reassembled myself. I picked a route that took me from Max BMW in Connecticut to Max BMW in Troy, N.Y., where the riders were expected for lunch.
The ride began at 8 a.m., after a ride card was checked and initialed by an official. It was 38 degrees out, and having no electric clothing capability, I came prepared with Smartwool long underwear and an Arc’teryx liner underneath my BMW jacket. Both kept me from getting too stiff while crossing the Taconic Mountain Range while headed north. In fact, it was so chilly that I changed my route to go faster and eat a few more miles. I headed west on I-84 to the Taconic Parkway for my first bonus stop, a giant artistic fork at a fork in the road. Two riders were already there when I pulled up to get an inscription on the fork. They left and three more arrived! I departed to the Hudson River, where I would cross over to pick up a second bonus in Coxsackie, N.Y., which was only a simple receipt from any business in town. After that I headed up the New York Thruway to Troy, where I had to pick up my third road bonus of the morning, and the most interesting! It was a modern era steel sculpture of Uncle Sam, and I had to record a lengthy quote off the pedestal there in the park, which turned out to be a street corner. After that, it was off to Max, lunch and a 45,000-point bonus lunch stop!
I pulled in about 11:30 a.m. and one or two early arrivals were already there. The official check-in did not begin until 12, so I wandered around the dealership and greeted the folks there, as I had bought my GSA from this dealership back in July of 2010. I took the time to fill out my log. I learned from motorcycle author Melissa Pierson that you can save time if you just number your receipts and write the mileage down; that way you can take the valuable time to ride instead of stationary writing. I then went out to check the engine oil level on the R51/3 for unwanted consumption. I checked everything, including a once over for any loose fasteners, and was very happy to not find anything wrong. During the ride up the engine was nice and strong and pulled well uphill, like an old VW Beetle! I was also not feeling bad physically, as this bike sits even lower in saddle height than a /2! I was crouched over this small bike like Ichabod Crane, looking like I was about to kiss my kneecaps. I was surprised how good I felt after riding from Brookfield to Troy.
I felt ready for the return ride to Connecticut. I essentially took the fast route up using the parkway and thruway. The return leg would take me over part of the Mohawk Trail and then down Route 7 through the Berkshire Mountains and the Hoosick River in Connecticut. Along the way I would collect two more bonus stops, one a glove/ball/bat sculpture and the other an old lumber train from the 19th century. I had to discover the composition of the sculptures (hedge glove, stone baseball) and the name and number of the train steam engine. I left MAX’s and headed over the mountain pass to Williamstown, Mass., where I would pick up Route 7. Once you get beyond Pittsfield, the ride on Route 7 is fantastic. I especially enjoyed the ride along the Hoosick River. The R51/3 engine purred at 55 mph, and the low center of gravity carried me through the corners like it was natural. There was no traffic on the road that afternoon so I had it mostly to myself. After I found the train in Kent, Conn., I headed back to the Connecticut dealership, which was only 20 minutes away.
The trip had gone so well and I was so close to home that I did not expect to encounter anything radical around the next corner, but I did. I came onto a line of stopped traffic that disappeared around the distant corner. I came to a halt and shut the engine off. An annoying, inexplicable flow of fairly constant traffic was moving down the opposite lane, which looked like it would never halt for the line I was in. I then noticed a lone motorcyclist up the road a bit, so I started the engine and inched on the right up to the rider. He had been there over an hour and heard there was an awful car accident up ahead about a half mile. I was about seven miles from the finish and this was really frustrating, but I’m sure on the real Iron Butt Rally this is not unheard of!
Just then I noticed a big silver land-yacht of a Triumph motorcycle coming down the opposite lane, and a bit too fast, I thought. As he passed I heard a screech of tires and turned in time to see a rear view mirror shoot straight up in the air and the silver flash of a bike flipping. I looked at the rider I was with, turned my bike around and went toward the rear. I found the rider on his back conscious and groaning a bit. I told him not to move and asked him to wiggle his fingers and move his foot, which he could. I told him an ambulance was being called and asked some guy to switch off the bike’s ignition.
Making sure an ambulance had been called, I left my name and info and then left to attempt an on-time return. I felt weird leaving, but there were other concerned folks there and I was not going to let this incident DNF me. I slowly made my way down the right turn and came to an intersection (Route 39), which took me over a mountain and down to I-84 where I got on at Danbury and headed back to Brookfield.
I rolled into Max BMW at 5:22 p.m. with eight minutes to spare for the early finish bonus! I got off the bike and was very happy the bike and I had finished without incident. I ate some great food provided by Max and then settled down to fill out the scoring sheet. I had to record the stops, time, mileage and any answers or receipts required to earn the bonus points. This also included all gas receipts. All these items had to be in order, so I numbered the gas receipts as I collected them, and I also recorded the mileage at each gas stop on the back. The bonus stops were recorded in the rally book provided.
I sat down and received a score of 59,000 some points. It placed me around 50th out of 100 riders who started. I was very happy with just finishing and the new confidence in the 59-year-old BMW I had just ridden. I encourage any rider who wants to have a fun day, meet great people, participate in a first rate dealer-sponsored event and watch a bunch of fanatics run a endurance rally, to come participate in the Nutmeg 400 or the Minuteman 1000 for an experience you will not regret.