Wednesday, August 24, 2016

2016 How The West Was Won - The Combination Conundrum

Why Ride the HW3

This is the story of my ride in the How The West Was Won Rally, Combination Conundrum (aka HW3.) This is the third running of the event by rallymaster Justin Phillipson of Colorado Springs. I hadn’t been able to get away for the prior two, but when he announced this year’s base would be in Grand Junction, I knew I had to make it happen. Grand Junction is a great jumping off point for many scenic roads and locations in the southwest, as well as being close to prime riding in the Rockies.

Riding with Mario

I got in touch with Mario Winkelman and asked if he wanted to team up. Mario and I have roomed and ridden at other events, but we’ve never finished an event together. The other times, something came up that caused one or the other of us to drop out. We had unfinished business. For those of you who don’t know Mario, he’s a fixture in our long distance riding community with his specialized underwear business, LD Comfort. Everyone knows and loves Mario, and everyone who is smart buys his unders. 

The Rally Puzzle

One week before the rally started, Justin emailed the rally information to the riders. It contained electronic lat/lon coordinates for 107 bonus locations. It also contained the rally pack with the details of the game.  We had 32 hours to score as many points as we could, from 6 AM Saturday until 2 PM Sunday.

Choosing a route was not going to be easy. Each of the 107 boni were placed into a category, such as Dams and Reservoirs, Epic Overlooks, Early Americans, etc. There were 14 such categories. Each category was scored separately, where the bonuses you earned in that category would be subtotaled for that category. Here's the bonus map with different symbols for each category.

Then there was a multiplier factor. Earning 2 or 3 bonuses in a category allowed you to double the points for the entire category. In other words, three Dams worth 100 points each would give you a base value of 300, multiplier of 2, total 600. If you earned 4 or more in a category, the multiplier went to 3. So four Dams worth 100 each would give you a base value of 400, multiplier of 3, total points 1200. You can see how it made sense to claim your bonuses in the same categories.

There was a rest bonus that also acted as a multiplier. Without going into all the detail, just know that Mario and I wanted to take a 4-hour rest to maximize the multiplier effect. You could apply the rest multiplier to a single thread.

You could also photograph signs on the highway, and use the letters from those signs to spell the words in “How The West Was Won.” The signs had to be official DOT signs announcing cities, counties, and states. You could use any sign you found as long as it was a DOT sign and had a letter that would help you score the word bonuses. You needed 16 signs to spell all five words. It was worth 3210 points if you got them all.

Sound complicated? It was at first, but after you ran a few sample route scenarios through the scoring, it started to make sense. There were two basic strategies. 1) Earn a lot of categories with at least 4 each, and don’t earn any singles. 2) Earn as many as possible in a single large category, and max it out with a big sleep multiplier, and then do whatever other categories you could fit in.

I should give credit here to Steve Bracken for advice and gentle coaching on routing. I know he was trying to tell me something without telling me something. I sort of got the message, and sort of didn't. 

Route Planning

Mario and I talked about our goals for the rally. He wanted to ride CO-141, a great scenic road that I had raved about online. I wanted to see if we could sneak in a quick visit with my brother-in-law Steve and his wife Christine, who live in the Aspen area. We both wanted to take full advantage of the rest bonus in a motel. We weren’t particularly interested in going to the hot areas in Utah (we had roasted in Moab one time.) Mario didn’t want to ride his huge ST1300 touring bike on dirt roads. Neither of us were interested in busting our asses for a high finish. We just wanted to meet the minimum finishing requirements and have a good time.

The week before the rally, Mario had to coordinate a big technical project with his business that would preclude him from doing much planning. It would be up to me to figure out our route. That was no problem for either of us. I like routing and have the technical skills to play with the computers and GPSes. Mario’s skills are in other areas.

I mocked up a spreadsheet so I could calculate scores of potential routes. I had just been a volunteer scorer at the Butt Lite VIII rally, and they also tracked bonuses according to category. It wasn’t too hard to adapt their spreadsheet to HW3. Thanks, Team Strange!

Then I played with the bonuses in Garmin Basecamp routing software until I found a route that hit our goals and had what I thought was a decent points value. I thought it was better to concentrate on a single thread and earn lots of points on it with the sleep bonus.

Conveniently, there were two bonuses in the Stage Stops and Ghost Towns (SG) thread that were on CO-141 (or very close to it.) Perfect, we’ll go to those two so that we can ride that road.

There was another SG bonus in the town of Marble, relatively close to Steve and Christine. That opened the possibility for a visit with them. This would also put us on McClure Pass, which is another of my favorite Colorado roads. It’s looking good!

Then we would try to fit in as many other bonuses in the SG thread as we could, as long as the total route was no more than about 1300 miles. There were quite a few SGs in Wyoming, so it looked like we were heading to Wyoming. Once we had a basic route shape, we would add in any other bonuses that were near our route, no matter what thread they are in. And we would fill in with the 16 letters word bonuses. Should be enough points to finish.

Getting There and Registering

The Thursday before the rally I rode to Auburn, CA and met up with Dave Biasotti, Andy Mackey, and Erik Lipps. We all live roughly in the same area and had decided to ride together to Grand Junction. The four of us rode to Fernley, NV, where we rendezvoused with Mike Brooke, who lives in northern California and was also passing through Fernley. So we had a fivesome across the Nevada and Utah desert. We arrived at Rally HQ at around midnight.  A few rally folks were hanging out in the parking lot drinking beer, whom we gladly joined. A great end to a long day.

Friday was an off day. All we had was to register for the rally. Here's a picture of us at the registration table.

Photo: Tyler Risk

I had a few mechanical chores also. A low speed parking lot spill last night had broken my clutch lever, and I wanted to find a new one in town. Also I had decided at the very last minute to install a spare GPS, and I needed to find some trailer wiring parts at an auto parts store. 

As I was out in the parking lot getting ready to go run my errands, I saw Wendy Crockett working on her bike. She had much bigger problems, troubleshooting a charging system problem on her FJR. I mentioned the clutch lever and she said she happened to have a spare. She quickly dug it out, and I was able to make it work with a few modifications. All I had to do was remove my clutch starter actuation switch (the bike won’t start unless the clutch is pulled in.) I pulled off the switch, taped the two wires together, and installed her Yamaha lever on my Suzuki. Easy peasy!! I think I’ll keep it when I get home, and not even reinstall the clutch switch and an OEM lever. Now I have a permanent reminder of Wendy’s awesomeness. And a bit of FJR on my V-Strom.

A small group of us rode together to a copy shop and had some miniature rally placards made. Then we rode to the AutoZone and everyone got their little parts they needed. Lastly we went to the Sprouts for some last minute tank bag snacks. Back at the hotel Mario and I fiddled with our bikes, and soon all was ready for the big ride. 

At 6 PM we had the official riders meeting and then dinner. There wasn’t much new information at the riders meeting, because Justin didn’t announce any last minute routing wrinkles. We were free to have a good night’s sleep, and be ready at our bikes at 5:40 the next morning.

Riding the Rally – Leg 1

With 50 or so bikes lined up and ready to start, it was quite a sight. The flag dropped and we were released into the street one by one. Mario and I joined the group heading east on I-70 and getting off a few exits later. Our group headed for US-50 eastbound, and then shortly Mario and I turned south on CO-141. This was our must-ride road. We immediately passed another rally rider on the side of the road, consulting his paperwork. A bit too soon to be questioning yourself, I thought.

This is one of my favorite roads in Colorado, as it’s mostly gentle sweeping curves that can be taken at speed, and it’s very lightly traveled. Also it goes through a gorgeous red rock canyon, as you’ll see from the photos. We had the road to ourselves and we took advantage of it. After about an hour since leaving the hotel, we came to our first stop, the town sign for Gateway. This was one of our word bonuses. The morning sun was reaching the area, making the rocks glow.

While we were taking the pic at Gateway, that other rider caught up to us and stopped briefly to verify that we didn’t need any help. We didn’t, and he rode on. We followed shortly after, and rode a section of road that butts up against the cliffs. This is really gorgeous when the sun is right.

The next stop was a bonus on the edge of the canyon. Here my boot slipped on loose gravel and my bike took a nap. Mario came over and helped me raise it back up. We took our photos and moved on. First points in the bag!

From there we took a short out-and-back to Bedrock, CO. The road was straight and fast and we made quick work of it.

Then we followed the roads to Ridgway on CO-550 and our first gas stop. Along the way we stopped numerous times for word bonus photos. I had scouted all these little town signs in advance. I had placed all the word bonus stops in the early section, so that if any of them didn’t work out we had room to substitute with whatever we could find later down the road. It turned out that we did need to substitute a few, but we ended up getting them all before the sun went down on Saturday.

In Ridgeway we checked the schedule and we were ahead, which was great. Onward northbound toward Montrose and Delta, and two related bonuses in the Early Americans thread. This was a road I’d traveled with Sally and Claire in the car in 2010, so was happy to recognize the place we had eaten lunch in Montrose. As we headed west toward Hotchkiss I recognized the landscape from our car trip, and even remembered the music we had been playing in that place six years ago. It’s funny what your brain remembers.

Hotchkiss is at the bottom of McClure Pass, another of my favorite Colorado roads. So far I was having a great time just enjoying the ride. Colorado sure does have some beautiful country. Up and over the pass we went, looking for and not finding a city sign in Paonia, bagging a bonus at Paonia Reservoir, going through the mining operations with their giant conveyor belts that cross the road overhead, enjoying the view and the curves at the top, and then heading down the other side into the Roaring Fork valley.

We stopped for a bonus in Marble. This is a six mile detour off the main road, with the small town located at the end of a narrow paved road. The pavement may stop in Marble, but that’s also where the gravel roads begin, and the town was packed with dirt bikers. We took a longer break here, and took each other’s photos for the bonus.

Returning to the main road, we continued down the eastern side of McClure Pass and into Carbondale. We stopped at the city limit sign to take the photo and also call Christine to see if she was available. She owns an antique store called Gold Diggers in El Jebel, which is about 10 minutes south on CO-82, toward Aspen and not on our route. But we were willing to take the time to run down and see her. Steve had a busy Saturday with band gigs and he wasn’t sure how our schedules would line up, so we’d planned to at least see Christine. Unfortunately for us, the shop had a rush of customers right then, so she wasn’t free for a visit. She did call Steve, and he called me right back. Turned out he was actually at home for about 15 more minutes. If we had left Carbondale and headed to the house, we would have gotten there right when he had to leave. So we decided to bail on the hugs and handshakes. But it was fun being in shouting distance.

Instead of seeing the family, we continued north on 82 into Glenwood Springs. I took a photo of the motel the family always uses when we visit.

We got on I-70 westbound for a few short miles into the town of Rifle, where we had a bonus at Shooters Grill. This place is known for waitresses who wear pistols on their hips, open carry style, just like the old west. The guns are modern and I’m sure they work.

Continuing our theme of flower sniffing, we actually took a lunch break there. This is totally unheard of in a rally – a sit-down meal in a restaurant. Normally rally riders will stop at a fast food joint, if they stop at all for food. Many carry their own snacks in the tankbag, and will forgo a normal meal for a rally of this length. But Mario hadn’t planned any tankbag food, and he couldn’t eat the bread on a Subway sandwich. We needed a salad, and we needed it now! (It was 2PM.) So we sat and ordered and ate our salads. During the break we reviewed our progress on the word bonuses, and made notes of the ones we still needed.

It was then that Mario said he wasn’t feeling so great and wasn’t sure how much further he would go. This was disappointing news for me, since I really did want to run the whole thing with him. I encouraged him to carry on, and he said he’d ride some more and see how it went. So we got back on the bikes and headed northward toward the towns of Meeker and Craig, and the Wyoming border.

Leg 2

Along the way we continued to collect our town and county signs. North of Craig we got caught in a construction delay. As we sat there waiting our turn to go, an obvious Iron Butt bike came the other way, with a rider and passenger. They gave us a smart salute and kept going. Mario said he thought it looked like Stephen and Tamara Vouk, who weren’t in the rally but are well known in our little group. Turns out he was right, later he listened to his voice mail and had a message there from Stephen, who had recognized Mario from his riding suit. Small world!!

Here is a pic of me passing a tanker, and some town signs we took.

We got a bonus at Fortification Rocks, a rock formation right on the highway. Easy pickin’s.

We crossed the state line and bagged the city sign for Baggs, WY, and kept heading north. 

Then we spotted a county sign that had a letter we needed, so we turned around to photograph it. Turns out the county sign facing the other direction also had a letter we needed. So we got a twofer there, and we had all our letters. 3210 points in the bag! Time to celebrate with a roadside pee and a smoke. This place was literally in the middle of nowhere, just nothing to see for miles in all directions.

We checked in on energy levels. Both of us felt great. Those salads had been just the thing. There were no bailouts, we were committed to finishing this thing together. Awesome!!

After a few more miles we intersected I-80 and got on the interstate headed east. There was a bonus not far away in Rawlins. We found the bonus just at sunset, which Mario pointed out was gorgeous. I got a pretty nice shot. Later we heard from Wendy Crockett that she had seen Mario in Rawlins, but not me. And I don’t remember seeing her either, but we were all there at the same time. Weird.

From there we continued north to a couple of popular bonuses, Jeffrey City and the Oregon Trail Parting Of The Ways. There would be a lot of riders up here, I suspected. We hadn’t seen very many rally riders on our flower-sniffing route earlier, but now we were in main route territory. Sure enough, Robert Reil and Marlisa Williams blew past, right on schedule. Wendy must have been just ahead. It was dusk, the road was crowded with trucks, and we were just taking our time.

At full dark we turned left onto WY-287 and the traffic melted away. The road was very well marked and much quieter than earlier, which was to our liking. Mario had some headlight issues so he was staying fairly close behind me. For my part I did not want to speed very much in the dark where there might be animals in the road. We putted along close to the speed limit until we found the Jeffrey City bonus. Guess who were there finishing up – Robert and Marlisa! Great to see them and actually have a word. They were doing well, and Robert had his game face on.

While we were doing our thing, Robert left and Dale Bundy pulled up on his green GL1500. It was HW3 rush hour in Jeffrey City. We left and headed toward the next bonus. It was getting colder and we were glad we’d put on our electrics at the last gas stop. The roads continued to be well-marked and easy to ride, and we didn’t see anything bigger than a rabbit. Good deal.

By the time we arrived at Oregon Trail Parting Of The Ways (just a highway pullout and a historic marker), I was feeling pretty tired. Mario could see it in my riding, with unsteady speeds and lane position oddness. Plus, I was freezing cold. I was wearing my electrics but hadn’t plugged them in. That was dumb. Being off the bike for a few minutes helped with the fatigue, and I plugged everything in and cranked it up to high.

We pushed on to Rock Springs, WY, which is on the interstate and would have motels. Our northern loop was done and we’d done what we had planned. There was one more bonus we were supposed to get before finding a motel, but if we started our rest break earlier than scheduled, we could get that bonus in the morning. So we did that. 4 hours at the Econolodge, add extra time for a plodding desk clerk, and we were off again the next morning. There was another rally bike in the parking lot, gray FJR with California plates and a car tire. Who was that?

Leg 3

Sunday morning, we headed east on I-80 a few miles to the Point Of Rocks bonus. It was still dark but the sun would be up soon. Sure enough, more riders were there. This was a pretty popular bonus – on the interstate and in the valuable SG thread.

Our plan called for us to head west on 80 again, this time for quite a few miles. On the way, there was an easy bonus in Green River (one that our whole family had visited on that 2010 road trip.)

While we made the walk from the parking lot to the monument that we had to photograph, we discussed the situation. We already had enough points to finish, and Mario wanted to get back early instead of riding with our hair on fire and getting back just in the nick of time. I had been thinking about this, and realized we could buy ourselves a lot of time by skipping two of our main SG bonuses in the west. These were called Piedmont Kilns and Lonetree. We would give up a lot of points due to the multiplier effect, but we didn’t care so much about points. The decision was made to cut those two and head straight to Flaming Gorge.

With that much spare time in the bag, we had a McDonald’s breakfast in Green River. I rather enjoyed this pace, and having someone to make decisions with. Two heads are better than one (except when they aren’t, see below.)

After breakfast we went straight from Green River to Flaming Gorge. The sun was up by now, and the roads were still empty. This turned out to be my favorite 71 miles of the rally. The weather was gorgeous, sunny and not freezing cold. The scenery was beautiful, this far away from being breathtaking. The road was fast and fun. We had improvised on the original plan, and it was a smart move. I was with my buddy, who had almost quit but had powered through, and we were going to finish together. All together it was a high point of the rally for me.

At the bonus stop (the visitor center on top of the dam) we took some time to tighten up my mirror, which had probably been knocked loose when I dumped it in the hotel parking lot on Thursday night. It was warming up, so we went back to summer riding gear. We decided to cut a bonus that we didn’t need and would cost us a bunch of time, and head straight to Dinosaur National Park.

While we were at Dinosaur, Andy Mackey pulled up. He looked pretty good, maybe a little tired but doing well. We told him where the bonus was (not where we were parked.) He took off ahead of us. Andy ended up finishing in 5th place, though from his easygoing manner when we saw him, we had no idea he was pulling off such a great ride.

Now all we had left was to ride back to Rally HQ in Grand Junction. There was a bonus right on the road called Kokopelli Petroglyphs, so we stopped there along with a bunch of other riders. Here's the bonus picture, and below it a photo of the actual petroglyph. It's Kokopelli!

Now is the time to mention CO-139 between Rangely and Loma. Nobody ever talks about this road, but it’s a gem of a road. It goes through gorgeous Douglas Pass. The scenery on both sides is pure Colorado Rocky Mountain High. I’m putting it on my list of favorite roads in the USA.

One last thing. We were short on mileage. The required minimum was 1200. If we went straight to the finish we’d be short. So we got on the interstate in Loma and headed east toward Grand Junction. But we skipped the hotel exit and continued east past the Book Cliffs, past Palisade, and up the canyon. I’d calculated we had to get off any exit number higher than 150. But there was Exit 149 and I said, screw it, let’s turn around here. It’ll be good enough. We turned around, went back to Grand Junction, and checked in. Our rally was over.


Photo: Tyler Risk

We had a two-hour limit between checking in with the parking lot staff and being scored. This time would be used to get our paperwork together. We found a table, broke out our cameras and laptop, and proceeded to fill in our log sheets. You’re supposed to fill in your log sheet as you ride, at every bonus making note of time and odometer. But that takes way too much time, so we just photographed our GPS that had time and odometer readings at every bonus stop, and we kept riding. Now it was time to transcribe all those photos onto the paper logs. It took a bit of time, and Mario had to shoo away some friends who wanted to chat. But we got ‘er done and got scored. We both earned 11,599.8 points. No points were left on the table, meaning neither of us had made any mistakes, and we felt great about that.

When the final standings were read, we should have tied for 32nd. Out of 44 finishers, not bad at all! But I had ridden one fewer mile (my 1204 vs. his 1205) so I took 32nd and he took 33rd. We thought we’d been lucky getting off at Exit 49, since we were barely over 1200 miles. But then at the finishers banquet Justin was reading mileage totals lower than 1200. Turns out we were wrong, and the required minimum mileage was 1150! Duh. Somehow we had both made the same mistake. Oh well, we got a little scenic detour of I-70.

About the routing theory: I’d been wrong about how to earn a high-points route. I’d thought the way to go was to max out a big thread, and then kick it up with the rest multiplier. In reality the winning strategy was to get at least 4 of as many threads as you could, and just put the rest multiplier on whichever was the biggest. You wouldn’t get as many net points from resting, but you would more than make up for that with 3x multipliers on a bunch of threads. I was kicking myself for not seeing it, until I realized, who really cares. I don’t always have to be a genius. Mr. Ego can handle a beat-down.

The Ride Home

Dave and them were leaving at 8 AM on Monday. I wanted to leave earlier, so I could get home in time to see the family before they went to bed. I packed my bike and went to bed. Woke up early and ended up getting on the interstate at 7:30 AM. Those guys would probably catch me because I rode more slowly across Nevada.

The ride home was great and I took a bunch of photos. I’ve crossed this desert many times, and I still like it there.

Outside of Ely, NV, I ran into a construction delay and pulled up to the front of the line. There was Andy Mackey. He’d left earlier also. We rode together to Ely, then had lunch together. Andy split off there because he was taking a different route home. I was alone again, but not for long. Here's Andy waiting for the pilot car.

After Austin, NV, I ran into another delay. This was even more frustrating than the usual construction delay. It was a convoy of oversized construction equipment heading the same direction as I was. There was absolutely no way to pass this convoy because it filled the entire roadway in both directions. Plus, there were NHP cops helping clear the road. So I settled in at 40mph for what seemed like forever. At one point I was just tired and fed up, so I got off the road at a highway pullout for 10 minutes. (It turned out to be a Pony Express historic marker. Probably was a bonus in the 2013 IBR.) Then I got back on the road, and within a short time I caught up with the convoy again. Ugh, how long is this going to last?

But then what do you know, here come three motorcycles riding up to the front. It’s none other than Dave, Erik, and Mike. Hey guys, fancy meeting you here! We rode together all the way to Fallon, where the convoy finally pulled off the road. We all stopped at Fox Peak for gas, and made arrangements for the last legs of our trips. Erik and I rode together over Donner Pass until he took his exit in Roseville.

Erik Lipps 
Dave Biasotti

Mike Brooke

I got home at 9:30 PM, meaning it took 15 hours to ride the 975 miles from Grand Junction, including burgers with Andy and crawling behind construction equipment with the other guys. Sally and Claire and Lucy were still awake, and I was greeted enthusiastically by all.

The End.