Friday, July 19, 2013

Rally Riding Lessons Learned, it's all about the minutes, man. Part 1

Part 1

If you are reading this, I assume you are interested in Rally Riding, or are an active participant in said events.  For those that fit into neither category, a little background:

So who do you think you are?

Some personal background on me, I started riding these rallies in June of 2012.  I have had some success and some failures, with my fair share of each, and each earned by yours truly.  I am far from an expert, having not yet done any multiday rallies, and being new to the sport (pastime, adventure, stupid way to waste a day, whatever).  I am the Rally Master (he who puts together a rally), for the Team Lyle Garden State Rally.

What is a Rally?

Many people think of a Rally as a gathering where like minded riders get together at a location, lie about their lives, riding and bikes, drink and eat, then leave after the weekend to talk crap about the people they were at the Rally with.  These are NOT those types of rallies, except for the crap talking.

Motorcycle Rally Riding events are scavenger hunts, on motorcycles.  There are mini rallies, usually 8-10 hours long, covering 300-500 miles, single day rallies, somewhere between 24 and 36 hours, covering upwards of 1000-1700 miles, and multi day rallies, ranging from 2 or 3 days up to the big daddy of them all, the Iron Butt, which is 11 days and 10,000 - 15,000 miles of riding.

Many, if not most, are photograph based, and others are information based.  In a photo based rally, you will be given some sort of identifier, usually a towel with the rally Name and Logo and your rider number.  The identifier usually has to be in all photographs in these types of rallies.

In an information based rally, you will have to gather information from a location.  You might be directed to a location and asked to write down the year a road was named from an Historical Road Marker, for instance.

In either type of rally, you will be given bonus location, or bonii, since Bonus and Octopus are in the same phylum.  In some rallies, the bonii will be given days before, some rallies will give you the bonii an hour before.  Some will be given to you in various electronic formats, easily or not so easily imported into a GPS, and some will be given in paper form.  It is really up to the Rally Master (Mistress), affectionately referred to as "Rally Bastards", named so for their penchant for being evil.

Each bonus location will be given a point value.  There will be many more bonus locations than can be visited in the time allotted for the rally.  The challenge is to figure out which locations you can ride to, gaining maximum points, and getting back to the rally end point before the end of the rally to win.  There is no standard for points, some rallies a bonus location might be worth 1-3 points, and in some rallies, points can range from 2,500 - 50,000 per bonus, although it really is irrelevant.

Many times, there will be Wild Card bonii.  These are usually an item to purchase and bring back to Rally HQ, or a set of bonii, that if gotten in a certain order will result in extra points, or something silly like eating at a Taco Bell.  It is really up the the Rally Bastard's imagination.

Getting Ready

There are two key parts to rallies.  One is reading comprehension.  Rally books will have a set of instructions for each bonus.  In the Nutmeg 400, for instance, one of the bonus locations was a statue of Molly Pitcher in VT, on the Molly Pitcher Highway.  On that statue, there is a plaque.  The Rally master wanted to know "What date was Route 9 officially named the Molly Pitcher Highway?"  On that plaque, there were 3 dates.  Molly Pitcher helped fight in 1777.  The road was established in 1937.  It was officially named the Molly Pitcher Highway in 1967.  So the right answer is 1967.  NOT 1777, 1937 and certainly not 1767, which is what I wrote down. 

The second key part to a rally is good documentation.  This includes your photographs.  In almost all cases, every bonus, gas fill up, hotel stay, purchase, etc, must be documented.  Bonus locations normally require the date and time, your odometer reading, plus the answer or photograph, or both.  Gas receipts must include all of the above, plus have the City, State, Date and Time, on the receipt.  Even a tiny mess up can result in lots of lost points and a tumble in your standings.

There are three distinct portions of any rally ride.
  1. The plan.  This is where you develop your route and design your ride.  This is also where you lie to yourself about your abilities and the likelihood of traffic or construction being on your route.  
  2. The ride.  This is where you actually do the ride.  You will also discover your lies to yourself, and this is normally where the Rally Gods come in and poop on your plans.  This poop can be a small baby sized poo of "I gotta put a quart of oil in my bike" to a mammoth, elephantine sized poo of "after I fixed the flat, the cops arrested me for peeing in public.  How else was I gonna put the fire out?"
  3. The Scoring Table.  I affectionately refer to this as my nemesis.  I have had some good success.  I have yet to have a sitting at the scoring table that went perfectly, which is what you need to happen to win or do well.  This is where every T must be dotted and I must be crossed.  Your paperwork needs to be flawless and all notes, answers, receipts, pictures, etc are put to the test.  More rallies have been lost at the scoring table than in any other phase of rallying.
As someone once said of golf "it is a good walk, spoiled", I say this of Rally Riding, "it is a good ride, rushed".

So that all out there, here is the main point of this blog.  Rallying, while it may cover hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of miles, and 8hours to 11 days, is a game of minutes.  For the people who do well and win, minutes matter.  From here on out, I will refer to those people as "we", since I count myself in that group, with all humbleness and modesty.

Theoretical Rally

I am going to use a fictitious example of a rally, for demonstration purposes.  Our theoretical rally will be a 24 hour affair, photo based, with a mandatory 2 hour rest period.


When we plan our routes, we spend hours or days working on the perfect route.  The one that gathers the most points, allows us the least time off the bike, and will result in a chance of winning.  For a typical rally, I will spend 50-150% of the allotted riding time on my route planning.  So for our 24 hour rally, I will route plan for 12-36 hours, maybe more.

I use Streets and Trips for my rally planning.  Many riders use other tools, but I will concentrate this writing on S&T.  In streets and trips you can play with average speed, automatic rest times (I use this to schedule fuel stops), traffic allowances, etc.  You can also play with start and end times, must arrive or depart times for each location, etc.  I normally plan very aggressively.  For a rally, I normally plan a route that should NOT be doable.  It will either be too many miles, or take too long to be attainable.  In this case, I will plan for 24.5 hours of rally time.

This puts me in rally mode.  I have now invested time and effort into just getting ready for the ride.

I will then spend a few hours getting my equipment ready.  Updating firmware and maps on my 3 GPS, phone, tablet, netbook and MiFi.  Put new batteries in everything that uses them, have at least one spare set of each type.  Set camera to acceptable format size.  Put in new memory card.  I will also go over the bike and remove anything not needed for the rally.  Add all the ancillary items, pens, pencils, markers, tape, clips, plastic bags, highlighters, multiple copies of rally book in multiple locations, load the roadbook, test all equations and math to make sure everything matches up and load the routes onto the GPS devices.

Now I have another 2-5 hours into the rally, total tally, 14-41 hours so far.

Rallies can either start and end at the same location, or may start from one location and end at another.  Either way, most times, you will be at the start location the night before, and spend time in a hotel room.  That time will NOT be fun.  If you have spoken with other riders and have talked about your plans, you will immediately start second guessing yourself.  You will revisit your plans and double check your success.  For the really over the top Type A riders, you will start trying to guess your competition's plans and seeing if their routes add up to yours.

Throw another 4-6 hours on your prep time.  Total tally, 18-47 hours.  And you haven't ridden mile 1 in the rally yet.  You may have ridden several hundred miles to get to rally start, however.

Rally Start

This is where the rubber meets the road.  All your planning HAS to be complete at this time.  If you plan on winning, or placing towards the top, you should be making NO DECISIONS once your rally starts.  By that, I mean you do not have time to think out there.  All your thinking should have been done beforehand.  I always know my exact arrival times and departure times for every bonus point, to the minute.  I also know which bonus location I can drop off my route, and when, to make up x number of minutes.

One truth to all successful rallying is this:  Plan your ride and Ride your plan.  If you deviate from that, you are toast, at least from a winning point of view.  I speak from experience.  I have won by riding my plan, and lost by not.

Many newer rally riders, myself included, think you can make up time by speeding and going "really fast".  There is nothing that could be further from the truth.  Not only is it unsafe, but it is a recipe for meeting a LEO and getting delayed with a warning, ticket, or jail.  Going fast is not an option.  In a 1,000 mile day, doing 10 over the limit or 20 over the limit does not gain you much.

Going SLOW, QUICKLY, is one of the keys to winning a rally, and I will say one of the most important keys.  By this, I am speaking of reducing your stop times to absolute minimums.  Stopping includes fuel, bonus gathering, bio breaks, food, drink and a rest period (hotel or the Iron Butt Hotel, if applicable).  If you can mange these stops and get them down to the bare minimum, you can be successful in a rally.

Lets use a fuel stop as an example.  In a 24 hour rally, I may ride somewhere around 1400 miles.  On my bike, that is 7 tanks of fuel.  Not counting the first tank, nor running out the last tank, that is 6 fill ups.  My bike has a 210 mile range.  Getting fuel every 200 miles requires that I stretch each and every tank to the limit.  I need to KNOW that I can get fuel at the 200 mile mark, or I am in trouble.  Many people are not willing to make that commitment and will fuel up at 175 miles or so.  That results in 7 or 8 fill ups.

My fuel stop system has my total stop time down to under 2 minutes.  That is total time from entering the gas station to leaving the gas station with a full tank of gas.  I allow a little slack in there when planning, and would allot 15 minutes for my 1400 mile ride.  Even if the hypothetical person above had the same speed, they would have to allot nearly 20 minutes for fuel stops, putting them 5 minutes behind.  Most people, however, take closer to 5 minutes for a fuel stop.  They stretch their legs, have one key, keep the credit card in their pocket, etc.  So lets allow 5 minutes for a regular stop, and the 175 range for fill ups.  That person is going to be 35 minutes fueling, where I will be at 12-15 minutes.  That is a 20 minute difference.  That is another bonus location, or a few more miles of riding, or more time to make sure I finish on time and don't DNF (Did Not Finish) by getting time barred (exceeding maximum time limit for rally)

So you can see by having a super efficient fuel stop procedure, I can easily pick up 20 minutes during a one day rally.

Now we move on to bonus gathering.  This is another area where minutes are won or lost.  I will be using a typical photo bonus as the example here.  This is a hypothetical bonus.  The bonus is to ride to mile marker 12.5 on route 999.  There you will find a set of statues.  Take a photo of the middle statue.

Now, as well know, you must include your mileage and the time in the rally book.  The photo also must have your rally flag, as well as the object, in the picture.

A new rally rider's stop would probably go like this:  They have their GPS set to mile 12.5 on route 999 and arrive.  Put the kickstand down, and get the rally book out from their tail-pack, tank bag or backpack.  Read the bonus and make sure they understand it.  They then fish out their camera and rally flag.  Walk over to the middle statue, figure out a way to drape the towel on the statue so it will stay in place, then take the photo.  They then gather the flag, go back to their bike, write down their mileage and the time, put rally flag, rally book and camera back into the proper storage locations.  They get on the bike, turn the key, start the bike and are off on their merry way.

Most people would be happy to pull that off in about 5 minutes.  Many will take up to 10.

Using this hypothetical situation, I would be happy with 30 seconds and expect to be gone in less than 60 seconds.  (No, not the crappy movie).  If capturing this bonus, and gathering all the info, took me more than 1 minute I would be very disappointed in myself.  If this bonus took 5 minutes, it would be a disaster (in rally terms).

I can do this stop in less than 1 minute because I have a system.  I know what I am going to do well before I arrive.  All my equipment is at hand and readily retrieved and stored.  I gather all my information electronically and will write in the rally book later in the day.  Every successful rally rider has their own system, and all rely on the repeatability of that system.

So now we have established that an experienced rally rider with a system can gather a photo bonus in one minute and a new rider, or one without an efficient system, will take a minimum of 5 minutes.  That is 4 minutes difference per bonus.  In a 24 hour rally, you might visit 20 bonii, or MORE.  Multiply that by 4 minutes and you will see that not having an efficient system can cost you 80+ minutes.

Add the inefficient fuel stops to that total and you are at 100 minutes of time.  That is an hour and 40 minutes to those of you who are math challenged.  Even if two people have the exact same abilities, equipment, plan and training, if you give one an extra 100 minutes to perform the same task, he will finish before the other.  In the case of rallying, the person with a solid plan and system will have an extra 100 minutes to go and gather more bonii and will outscore you.

Now add in Food, Water and Bio breaks.  Each of these takes time, but it depends on how much time.  In our 24 hour rally, I will have all my food on the bike.  That food will consist of energy bars of some sort.  That's it.  All eating is done between bonii while riding.  There is no stopping for food.

Water.  Again, all my water is on my bike.  I wear a Camel Pack, and many riders have water systems mounted to the bike.  All drinking happens on the bike.  I drink only water on rides.  I also drink on a regular basis, even if not thirsty.  Everyone is different.  I get by on about a cup an hour.

Bio breaks.  This is way too personal, but lets just say there are no scheduled bio breaks for me.  I fit them in elsewhere.  But there is no lost time, let's leave it at that.

Those are my food, water and bio times.  I lose zero time to all three functions.  Unless you are willing to do these things, you will lose even more minutes.  How many in our 24 hour rally?  30 minutes, is my guess.  Maybe even an hour, but lets be optimistic and say 30 minutes.

So an efficient, hardcore Type A rally rider has a 130 minute advantage on the new or ill prepared rally rider.  Taking riding and routing ability out of it, we are over a 2 hour advantage.  That is unfair.

To put it into even more perspective, in a 24 hour rally there are 1440 minutes.  If an inefficient system costs you 130 minutes, you only get 1310 minutes.  That is 91% of the time allowed.  So an efficient rally rider will use all 24 hours and you have 21 hours and 50 minutes.  Doesn't seem fair, does it? 

So as you can see, minutes matter.  Each minute you can shave off of a fuel stop, will give you that minute to get to another bonus.  For each minute you can shave off a bonus stop, you get another minute to go for another bonus.

With most competitive rally riders, the plan will be to arrive at rally HQ with less than 5 minutes to spare.  Any more than that, and you most likely could have grabbed another, or different bonus.  In some rallies, the end of the rally begins a penalty phase.  i.e. you will lose x points for each minute past 24 hours, with a limit of 30 minutes, at which point in time you will be time barred and marked DNF.  For the competitive guys, we take that 30 minutes, and the associated penalty, into account when route planning.

In our hypothetical rally, lets say that you lose 100 points for each minute over the time limit, with a DNF at 30 minutes.  I would look at my route and see if there is a bonus worth more than 3000 points, that could be picked up in less than 30 minutes.  If the answer is yes, even if the bonus is 3100 points, and I could lose 3000, I would build that into my plan, because the net return would be a positive 100 points, and that could be the difference in winning or losing.  This is real stuff.  I came in second in a rally by less than 100 out of 45,000 points.  So yeah, it matters.

But let's take that out of the equation for now.  Let's assume we have designed a route that gets us to the Rally HQ with 5 minutes to spare.  Let's also assume we plan on 2 minutes per stop, instead of 1.  Lets further assume, we plan on 5 minutes per gas stop instead of 2.  Again, using Streets and Trips, I can do all that.

So I have a route with 20 bonii locations, and 6 fuel stops.  I should pick up 20 minutes if I can grab each bonus in 1 minute.  I should also pick up 12-18 minutes at the fuel stops.  That is 30-40 minutes of extra time I should get.  That should be PLENTY, or, rather, not.

What you have to allow, and is almost impossible to plan, for is traffic, light signals, slow drivers and other situations beyond your control that will eat at your time.  Ever sit at a traffic light and wonder why it is taking so long?  Try doing that, when you have a rally plan that is 24 hours long and has 5 minutes of slack time in it.  The light that takes 2 minutes, rather than 1 minute, just ate up 20% of your slack time and you will be at a lot more than 4 more lights in the next 24 hours.

How about when you are on a country road, posted at 55 MPH and the line of cars in front of you thinks it is parade time and are traveling along at 45?  You can't pass them all.  You have to sit there and follow the parade.  You are losing approximately 1 minute every 6 you are riding at that point.  You only had 5 to begin with, well 4 after that traffic light.

Part 2

Monday, July 15, 2013

July 8-9 Max BMW Offroad Class

See how nice and shiny he is?

I purchased a 1200 GS, Captain USA, at the end of 2012.  I had seen "Long Way Around" and "Long Way Down" and had visions of riding the world in my head.  What better way to spend a year or so, but to hop on a bike and go adventure?

Only a few things stood in my way:

  • I am broke.  Can't afford to take off a year
  • I have responsibilities I can not put on hold
  • I have ZERO off road riding experience
The first two are easily overcome.  I have a plan to handle those two.  Can you say POWERBALL?  I know, I know, I am a genius.

The third item requires actual work on my part.  UGH.

My friend Bruce pointed out that I was the only person in the world who owned a GS in case I ran into dust on a paved road somewhere.

So where to learn how to ride off road?  Why, Max BMW, of course!  Best. Dealer. Ever.

Bill Conger was the instructor and he was excellent!

Kate, on Herbert,
and I got into the class.  We needed to get knobbies? knobblies? off road tires.   Both our bikes were about due for a 6K service, so we headed up to Max's in CT on Saturday.  Had our services and tires done and Kate had an upper crashbar added to Herbert.

Notice how Herbert looks like a proper adventure bike now?

We had decided to go right up to Hunter Mountain from CT instead of riding home to NJ only to ride up to Hunter the next day.  The plan was just to sit and relax on Sunday in prep for two hard days of class.  Sunday morning came, and that plan lasted 15 minutes.

So we are on the bikes, headed out looking for adventure.  NY shares something in common with NJ.  Overzealous tree huggers and "Keep Out" signs.  We went to breakfast and I jumped off at every dirt road, only to be met with "No, you can't ride down here and have fun" signs.  Ah well.

We did, however have a nice little ride around the area.

We rode a dirt(y) road and found some fun stuff.  At the end of this road was an entrance to an old Jeep trail.  Which, of course, was closed to motorcycles because people want to hike.  So we stopped and I took a few cool pics of Herbert.

I thought the two bikes looked cool together on this road, and Kate looked particularly hot in her gear with her adventure bike, so more photography commenced.

All this photography was wearing me out (how DID Ansel Adams do it?), so we went into the woods and had hot sweaty monkey love.....I mean we hung out by a stream and cooled off.

Somewhere along the road was this cool flower bed, flowing out of the back of a dump truck.  I thought it was neat, so I took a few pics.

Later we came upon a home made memorial to 9-11.  Very simple, but tasteful and touching to find in the hinterlands of NY.


But enough of this artsy farsty, mushy, lovey dovey crap, on to the class!

Bright and early Monday AM a group of intrepid riders gathers for what will be a day of abuse, I mean learning.

There were two other women riders besides Kate and one other 1200 GS besides Captain USA.  The balance of the bikes in the class were F650s, F700s and F800s with a KTM and a 450X for good measure.

The class was taught by Bill Conger, an accomplished rider and instructor.  Here is is demonstrating how to do a fist pump at the disco, while Ben Stratton shows the proper technique for standing against the wall and observing in said disco.  (insert base line here. unta unta unta unta)

We eagerly lined up and learned a bunch of skills. We went through slow riding, Trials stops, slow turns, fast turns and emergency braking.

It was a hot one and everyone was enjoying themselves.

Kate was having a good time.  Any time you get hands on the hips, it is a good time.
Ben played the part of "Water Boy" while riding, um, female dog behind Max.

Here we have Kate doing her cone weave.  Notice how much prettier she is than I.

 And here I am. tadaaaaaaa.

We then went for a short ride up and down the mountain.  Nothing crazy, but a good exercise of the skills we had picked up so far.  This culminated with our arrival at a large grass field where we proceeded to run around a course laid out by our instructor.  Part of this course was a muddy area, about 20-30 feet long.  You had the option of crossing over it, or riding through it.  This was an offroad class, so I tried to run through it.

I was never successful in riding through without having to touch down, but I did manage to get through 4 or 5 times.  Captain USA was now properly christened as a GS.

 Now here is an important tidbit about that mud.
 You see, it wasn't all mud.
 Uphill from the mud area was a stream.
 And uphill of that stream was a barn
 And in that barn there reside horses.
 And as you know, horse poop and pee.

And water transports said poop and pee to the lowest lying area.
And here I stand, smiling, my bike and I covered top to bottom in mud.  and poop.  and pee.


A bunch of us got together at the hotel pool, then had dinner and drinks.  A very eclectic group of people, and great company.  By the end of dinner, my energy reserves were tapped and I just passed out, once we were back in the room

The following day we worked on some more advanced skills, recovering from a stall on a hill, turning your bike around on a hill, picking your bike up on a hill, high speed turns, slalom and so much more.

We then rode to the top of Hunter Mountain and rode some single track stuff that was very intimidating.  Due to this excellent nature of this class, I was able to handle the single track stuff, which was pretty tricky, without any major issues.  I would NEVER have even thought about trying these trails before the class.

My skills increased more than I can count and my confidence level sky rocketed.  I was willing to ride a dirt road before the class, but would not have been happy.  After the class, I am willing to go anywhere the bike is capable of being ridden.  I am no expert by any stretch, but I now am confident I can make an effort at most anything.

Thanks to Dawn for most of these pics.