Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Chris' Post: The Pillion Point of View

The idea of riding two up in the Iron Butt Rally, was born out of a combination of a dark winter night, browsing the IBA web pages and a little alcohol lubrication. Scanning through the IBR historical records, it appeared there had never been a female rider with a male pillion passenger. An idea began to form in my head. By the end of another can of Guinness, I had made my mind up.  I needed a woman, and I needed one fast!

But  who? I couldn’t just place a post online in the IBA forum or Facebook page saying “Woman wanted for IBR!" No. It had to be someone, preferably with previous IBR experience, who I knew reasonably well. I thought of qualifying people I knew well enough to float the idea to. One name immediately rose to the top of the list – Kirsten Talken-Spaulding. Multiple IBR finisher, has participated in one of my previous mad ideas, and likes Guinness. Message sent.

Kirsten gave me the “I’ll think about it” standard response. In my experience, this means "NO." After a couple of weeks the "I’ll think about it" had turned to “lets talk about it.” We had several conversations and, to cut a long story short, Kirsten decided to take a chance with this crazy plan. What could go wrong!

IBR preparation for us consisted of a couple of video chats, about a dozen emails, and making a list of things that would have to wait until I arrived in the States. 

The Irishman arrives at Washington Dulles.

Fast forward to June 13th 2023 and I touch down in Washington Dulles with Kirsten there to collect me at the luggage carousel. We had two days to finish prepping the bike and do a shake- down ride. By the time we rode up to Pittsburgh on the 16th, we had a grand total of approximately 500 miles experience of riding together.  Throughout the planning stage, we had consistently said that our main goal was to finish, we would not be taking any “Iron butt motels,” and we would keep the total distance to around 10,000 miles.  Who were we kidding!  As soon as we got stuck into the Leg 1 bonus book, we went all competitive. We bounced around several routing options for Leg 1 before jointly deciding on heading south towards Florida and then to New Orleans before going north to Tulsa. Boom – 3,000 miles and no stopping on Tuesday night!

The first leg was really a case of us learning to ride together two-up in rally mode. The first couple of stops were not as slick as they should have been. We were still learning how the two-up routine should work. It didn’t help that I was carrying a painful rib injury which became very uncomfortable after the 1st day and required collecting some Ibuprofen at a gas stop.  We also learnt that, because of my height and the bike's screen, I was subjected to a lot of buffeting from the wind blast. This meant that if we were not conversing on the intercom, we had to disconnect as Kirsten could hear the wind noise from my microphone. It also meant my head was being buffeted constantly above 70 mph. I had to suck it up and adapt. So I did. At sustained highway speeds, I kept my head lowered and placed my visor close against the back of Kirsten's helmet. It wasn’t great for the view but it worked.  I would just need to maintain this posture for another 10 days! 

Two-up Team Talken McGaffin, enroute.

At the end of Leg 1, we were 19th having pushed hard. I was very pleased. Even before the end of Leg 1, we had already resolved to “take it easy” on Leg 2. We were very aware of the possibility of burning ourselves out. Taking it easy meant getting a hotel each night and knocking around 500 miles off our Leg 1 routing distance. Riding two-up had different challenges to overcome compared to riding solo. Our revised IBR target was now to try to finish higher than the other two-up riders.

Leg 2 was planned together until we had a route we were happy to commit to. It wouldn’t be to later in the rally that I learned that Kirsten was pretty much just going with whatever route I was happy with and, had she been riding alone, she would have done it differently. It did make me feel that I was holding her back somewhat but two-up definitely isn’t the same as riding solo.

So how did I fill my time on the back of the bike? Many people are under the illusion that the pillion rider just sits there and enjoys the ride. In the IBR, sitting there and doing nothing is not an option if you want to do well. I had my “thigh pad” – a plastic mount that secured to my thigh which held my phone (running the Tom Tom Go Navigation app) and a Garmin XT unit. I filled an enormous amount of time by taking on tasks that, although Kirsten could do herself, meant that she could leave it to me and just concentrate on the road.  Planning gas stops, looking for restaurants on our route that qualified for another “Bingo” bonus stop, researching and booking motels (when we HAD the luxury of a motel) that had gas stations nearby for sleep bonus receipts and also running alternative route scenarios on the XT when we were considering dropping, adding or changing the order of bonus stops. 

Planter's peanuts on the BeadRider after snacking underway.

Just before the end of Leg 2, we had the first real test of the strength of our team. I had found three restaurant locations in Denver for us to visit before going to the Checkpoint Hotel. Unfortunately, when relaying the address details to Kirsten, I didn’t realise that there were two addresses the same, one in downtown Denver and one in a suburb. We ended up going towards the wrong one and getting into heavy downtown traffic. It was my fault, but not a complaint from Kirsten – she must have been lip biting very hard. We  stopped and quickly rerouted the correct destination and the order we needed to collect the remaining locations before heading to the hotel. It was around this time we gave a lot of discussion about whether our rear tire would last the distance. We were still confident we could do the rally with a single rear and getting one in Denver was now not an option anyway. That confidence would soon change.

We expected to slip in Leg 2 rankings and we had. We were now 28th. During Leg 2, I had said to Kirsten that, if the North West had reasonable points, I would like to go there in Leg 3.  This was based purely on the fact that I tend to struggle in the very high temperatures that were being experienced in the south west. If we HAD to go there, we would. But, given a reasonable points haul being possible elsewhere we would go for that. With Leg 3 locations up on the laptop, we immediately looked straight at a route that would take us North West – Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and then run east across country and then up into Ontario, south through Detroit and then a final possible stop at a bonus location driving PAST the finish hotel.

Leg 2 checkpoint.

Riding this route we had NO idea whether this was a good route choice or not. We didn’t give a huge amount of time to looking at other options. We discussed this several times on the road, and resolved that we had made our choice and would ride the route, get every point possible and not lose any points.

Legs 1 and 2 had gone extremely smoothly with no problem. Our Leg 3 would prove to be the toughest of any IBR I have experienced. The first test was to be our decision to go to Yellow Pine, Idaho – in the middle of the night. We had NOT read the bonus description until we arrived at the previous stop. It was at that point we discovered Yellow Pine required a 50 mile round trip on gravel.  A quick discussion and we were determined to give it a go. Kirsten had a few doubts perhaps but I deployed my standard "How hard can it be, it will be grand, don’t worry” response.  Having two people on board might make the riding trickier, but picking a bike up is easier with two!

Pillion power nap after Yellow Pine
Yellow Pine proved to be a big test of our team. It would be fair to say that Kirsten is not confident in gravel and two-up would make things worse.  I was acting as “spotter”, “assistant rider” and “Kirsten confidence coach." I would scan the track ahead, suggest whether to “keep left” or keep right,” “give it more gas,” “Rock!” or “ you got this, keep going.” We were soon stopped in our tracks by a fallen tree. This was where having a large pillion passenger paid off. I was able to drag the tree enough to make room for the bike!  When we eventually got out of Yellow Pine and back to civilisation, it was around 4 in the morning. We could now only take a 20 min power nap – Kirsten had great difficulty waking me despite tapping my feet and visor as I lay on the ground.

During the remainder of Leg 3, we had multiple issues to deal with.  Although we avoided the south west heat, we now had cool temperatures at night.  Even I was forced into donning the heated jacket. Earlier in the rally, Kirsten would have her heated jack on, only to look in the rear mirrors to see I was sitting there with all my jacket vents wide open – one of the benefits of riding in Ireland is high tolerance of and being comfortable in low temperatures! Two heads proved to be a real asset in this leg. We discussed the rear tire wear and came to a joint decision that it “might” make the finish but there was a considerable risk it would not. We needed a tire – cue internet and phone calls. We did get our tire after an ordeal of 3 hours, only to get a puncture later. But we dealt with it. 

The entire duration of Leg 3 we were trying to build a cushion of time for the finish to enable us to comfortably ride past the finish hotel to a large bonus further south of Pittsburgh. Every time Kirsten would manage to get us some time back, we would lose it because of something out of our control – the tire delay, the puncture, missing the ferry to Mackinac Island by 1 minute as someone was at the ticket desk in front of us, missing a ferry off the island because it LEFT early.... we were definitely having a serious run of bad luck.

Rear tire change...hours of frustration.

Then a puncture in the front tire.

Re-filling the front tire with head completely wrapped to combat mosquitos!

We made the final bonus we had been aiming for, only to be caught up behind a major wreck only 30 mins from the finish. As we sat on the Interstate, we watched the expected time of arrival tick towards the 8am penalty points zone. We were starting to discuss the possibility of being a DNF at this final stage. Then the road opened. We were determined not to make ANY error in navigation to the hotel. We had the finish location directions showing on FOUR devices. We checked and repeated the upcoming lane choices and the exit numbers. We counted down the distance to each turn. We were determined to rule out any possibility of missing a turn and chewing up more time. As we rolled into the parking lot, Kirsten got a hug  from her pillion and a slap on the helmet. Made it. Job done.

IBR 2023 Finish!  Pittsburgh, PA

The icing on the cake of this adventure was the total surprise at leap frogging James and Bobbie Jackson who had been ahead of us in points since Leg 1. When their names were read out in 20th place, Kirsten and I instantly turned and hugged each other even before our own names were called out in 19th place.  

We discovered a lot on this rally. It was a STEEP learning curve, but eventually, I think we had got ourselves into a comfortable, efficient routine. Packing the bike, unpacking the bike, getting gas, food, getting on and off. Two-up did have  advantages at times – like being able to get business receipts or stand in a queue while Kirsten completed paperwork, or talk through solutions to problems. Eating on the move was easier  - a hand would appear beside Kirsten's visor offering peanuts, chewing gum or M&Ms, but stops were definitely slower with two people  - although our bladders seemed to be in perfect synchronisation during the 11 days! We discovered more about each other, our strengths and weaknesses. Our likes and dislikes. We chatted, but were happy to sit in silence for hours as well. We discussed politics, school days, family, favourite films, favourite kids telly from  yester-year. Literally anything.  

A proper breakfast after the combine simulator.

The Mackinaw Island ferry.

We had impromptu fun in the curves where Kirsten had to ride per my instructions – gas, gas, brake, stay wide, stay wide, gas – pretty sure that doesn’t count as the passenger operating the motorcycle!  Listening to and acting out Queens Bohemian Rhapsody at 70 mph arms waving, heads banging....... We had fun. We had three person phone calls on the intercom!

The moment I was caught not concentrating on the job in hand:  Kirsten–  "What is that I am listening to on the intercom? Wait a minute, are you watching YouTube back there!!!"  

We had an experience, and we had that experience together. It would have been a totally different experience had we competed solo.  We didn’t have a single angry word between us during the entire event.  Would I do an IBR again two-up? No. Would Kirsten do it again. I would guess not. It was a definite handicap for her having me (or anyone else) on board. But I sure am glad we've done it and glad Kirsten took on the challenge. It was a huge risk that thankfully paid off.

Position 19, Gold Finisher status, first female rider with male passenger AND top two-up team. Magic memories in the bag. What a result. What a team! Been there, done that. Move on. 

I know I just stated that doing an IBR two-up again is now off the table, but apparently there has never been a two-up female couple in the IBR.

I’m sure 2 years is more than enough for Chris to complete a transformation and become “Christine.” 

I just need a female rider who will say "I’ll think about it”.........

Chris McGaffin 


Job Done.  Dulles airport after the grand adventure of IBR 2023.


  1. Just an outstanding recap. Y'all are both wired for what it takes to do this! Strength (inner and outer), perseverance, and the ability to stay positive and keep frustration away. I don't how she does it, but Kirsten (Ranger Kiddo) is always so positive and kind. It sounds like youas well! well!

  2. Really nice write up, Chris! I enjoyed reading from your perspective. You're not just any pillion, don't ever think that. You'd be an amazing pillion for anyone. And no, I am not thinking about it.

  3. When I first learned of this ride, I thought to myself, self, what is he thinking? Appears they knew exactly what they both were doing. Congratulations again and thanks for the write up Chris. Now let’s hear from the other half. 🏍️😉

  4. I enjoyed following along during the rally and enjoyed this write up as well. Well done on a great finish