Have Sidecar, Will Ride

The bi-annual Iron Butt Rally is a motorcyclist's dream and nightmare rolled into one. It is a grueling excursion across the United States. Over the course of 11 days, through a variety of weather and road conditions, these riders push their bodies and their bikes to the limit as they try to cross at least 1000 miles of the country a day.

According to Iron Butt Association President, Michael Kneebone, the first rally, in 1984, was an experiment. “We wanted to see if this could be done.” Back then motorcycle technology was very different than it is today. No one was sure the bikes could cover the mileage. The riders were different too. The first IBR’s ten riders weren’t concerned about strategy. Their goal was to simply cover the miles from one corner of the nation to another. Since then the rally has become much more complex because both the bikes and the riders have become better. No longer can the riders be satisfied with finishing, they also have to worry about collecting bonus points by riding to locations off the beaten track. “The goal of the rally is to finish,” says Kneebone. “The goal of the bonuses is to force the riders to rest and think about what they are doing.”

This year's field of 97 riders began their trek in Ojai, California, mounted on everything from glorified lawn mowers to the latest in motorcycle technology. Among the riders was Bob Mutchler, a 52-year-old piano tuner from Sacramento, California. Mounted on a BMW R1100RT, Bob was the only rider whose bike was equipped with a sidecar. He was also the only rider with a physical disability. Bob has polio. Diagnosed at just nine months old, he spent the next three years of his life in an iron lung. Look at him and talk to him, though, and within seconds you see him as he sees himself, an average guy who loves to ride. However, in point of fact, he is far above-average. A seasoned marathoner, he is, as Kneebone describes him, an animal. Far from letting polio stop him, he takes on challenges others shy away from.

“To me the Iron Butt represented my Mt. Everest. It was a test of whether I could endure the pain and fatigue I always feel for a period of 11 days. For me to compete in the Iron Butt Rally, against the top motorcycle marathoners in the world, meant that I was able to do something that required 5 times as much effort on my part as it did for any of the other riders.”

Mutchler does a great deal of writing and public speaking. His personal goal has always been to raise awareness for immunization programs. What gives him the venue to do this is his motorcycle riding. He feels that without his bike he is just another guy with a message. And, he is very good with his bike. Last year he established a world record in driving his motorcycle to the 48 state capitals. And, a week before the Iron Butt, he rode his bike from one tip of Canada to the other.

A guy with polio has to do a lot of things differently than the average person would. He has to prepare not only his equipment but also his mind and body in different ways than an able-bodied person would. Mutchler doesn’t like to take a lot of extra equipment along on his rides, even though he recognizes some extras would make life easier. “We need to make our lives better not easier.”

But, there are some accommodations that Mutchler has had to acquiesce to. “My left leg is useless. I wear prosthetics on both legs and I use crutches to walk.” Because of the inability to use his left leg on the motorcycle’s shifter he uses hand controls (his own design). He also has serious scoliosis and post polio syndrome and can’t support a motorcycle on his own. In order for him to be able to ride a motorcycle he has to use a sidecar for balance. But using a sidecar presents its own challenges. With a sidecar you burn up tires quickly due to the extra side weight. It drags the rear tire. A sidecar also limits a rider’s ability to take in the sites.

“I have to be aware all the time of things like wind and cross wind. With the sidecar I have to consciously lead the bike. Most motorcyclists have the ability to look up now and then to see where they are and where they are going and see what’s around them. I can never take my attention away from the actual riding of the motorcycle.”

Despite having to take special care with his side car Mutchler didn’t miss all the sites. There was one that was very special to him, one that he dared not miss. “For me, seeing the sunrise every day from a different state, a different vantage point, was an incredible thing. Every morning I would pull over and watch that.”

Mutchler completed the 1999 Iron Butt Rally racking up over 10,000 miles and more than 24,000 points. By simply participating he changed the Iron Butt Rally forever and opened another door for people with disabilities. By finishing he did something that many others fail to do. In the 2001 IBR he vows to do better. This time he merely meant to participate. Next time he means to be a force to be reckoned with.

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