Riding a Supersport Around the World
April 15, 2004
Filed under Uncategorized
Editor’s note: English is Sjaak’s second language after Dutch. In editing his story, I tried to maintain his “colorful” personality without sacrificing clarity.
“Why the heck an R1?! You do know you’re crazy?!” This is the reaction I get from people when they get their voice back, after losing it staring at the mean supersports machine I’ve made into a tourer. I myself prefer to put it in the category, “Different to others,” because to me riding a Yamaha YZF-R1 around the globe doesn’t feel that strange. I’m addicted to travel, totally in love with the sound of an in-line four and have a little devil in me who wakes up every time my eyes spot a nice corner. Mix these three items together and, bang, this bike is the result. For me it is not valid that, “She is not suitable for the job,” quoting the so-called experts. It does not matter that it lacks comfort, has little ground clearance, and doesn’t like rocky or washboard roads. Because, damn, she corners (even with all the gear!) and kicks forward when I touch the throttle, and I think she’s beautiful!
If two people fall in love they don’t care if their partner is good at cooking, does the dishes or puts the garbage out on a cold winter night. No, it’s the heart that decides, and my heart is with this travel companion. That is why she is the right choice in my eyes.
My long motorcycle travels started when my country, the Netherlands, felt too crowded and the holidays became too short. I shipped my bike, at that stage a Honda CBR900RR Fireblade, to relaxed and easy-going Australia, where I rode some 24,000 miles in a little over four months. After putting her on a boat home, I went solo to Indonesia. The country I loved but backpacking I hated. I missed the wheels that make one independent even more than the riding itself. But at that stage I was bitten by the travel bug, so to satisfy my addiction I started planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Not an “around the world journey” just to get myself in the record books. I wanted to explore the parts of the Earth we (my bike and I) would be riding through, therefore I would need lots of time. To get it I had to give up all the securities of settled people.
In May 1995, after two years of preparation, I took off on the same Honda, with a list of favorite countries and a line drawn connecting them. I rode from Europe across Russia toward Vladivostok, then went by ship to Japan, followed by discovering other parts of Asia. After hopping across seven Indonesian islands we flew from Timor to the outback of Australia. New Zealand was next in the 100,000-mile odyssey, then Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Iran.
After some of the Mediterranean countries the list ended with Egypt, though I didn’t feel like going home yet. I still didn’t know what to do when I met a rider on his way to South Africa and thought, “That would be nice,” so I pointed the wheels in that direction. After three years the “to-the-other-end-of-the-world-and-back-trip” on the Honda did end. Not wanting to fall into a 9-5 life again, I started writing down my story for another bike magazine, gave lots of slide shows and found sponsors to enable me to set off in March 2001 for this adventure on the Yamaha R1. Here is a tiny, tiny bit of it.
After riding down through cold Europe and crossing the Strait of Gibraltar into Morocco, I wanted to launch an attempt to cross the huge desert from annexed Western Sahara. Admitting that I had big doubts about it, I considered buying a camel, renting a chauffeur and having us towed through. But I really wanted to do it under my own power. Without knowing what the future would bring, I arrived in Dakhla, from where I had to travel in a night convoy—not being allowed to view the so-called military secrets—toward the border of Mauritania. Pulling up at the meeting point I saw many car pushers who wanted to sell their (often stolen) vehicles on the other side of the big sandpit. “What are you doing here?” one of them asked condescendingly. “I want to go across!” “But you can’t, there’s no road.” “You and all the others do it.” “Yes, but not with that bike. Not with those tires. That’s impossible,” he reacted, laughing and looking around for support. “How can you tell?” I asked. “Everybody knows that, you have no chance, don’t even try it.” Now even more determined, I start the challenge, ending up reaching speeds of over 100 mph in the soft sand, leaving everybody biting my dust.
And that was with a nearly standard 2001 Yamaha YZF-R1. I left the clip-ons, suspension and tires (except for a harder Metzeler compound) original, because I didn’t want to lose any more racing ability than necessary. For the same reason I cut the seat in half, which enabled me to bring the homemade aluminum side panniers and top box farther forward, putting most of the weight in front of the rear axle, so it only feels like carrying a passenger. By mounting a Laser exhaust I saved some pounds and could enjoy the symphony of the in-line four. A Hyperpro steering damper, K&N air filter as well as a strengthened seat subframe and fairing mounts made the R1 Camel Trophy version complete.
Following Africa’s west coast, traveling every now and then to an inland country, I worked my way down the continent. The people are mostly friendly, roads at least exist and the bike performed well. Enjoying the trip through this culture with its fair share of funny experiences, not knowing when the next one will come, one day I arrived under a burning sun in a nameless town. The advertisement on the wall of a tiny store says COCA COLA. Soaking wet with sweat I stop and ask with a dry throat if the man who is sitting on a bench in the shade sells the brownish soda. After his “yes” I park the bike, peel the gloves from my sticky fingers, take the helmet off, and park myself next to him with a deep breath while zipping the suit open. “Do you have a real cold one for me,” I asked, desperate for the refreshment.
“Sorry mister. Drinks are finished,” he answered without any expression on his face. Damn—I only asked if he sells it, not if he had it in stock.
I carry luggage, far more than he had stuff in his whole shop. The reason I have so much is because I want to be totally self-sufficient. I don’t like, for example, to be at the whim of a money-smelling hotel owner, one reason for carrying camping equipment. And if I camp out, I must be able to cook food. If the bike breaks down I must find a way to repair it, therefore I have tools and a big selection of parts (which you can read in detail on the English version of my Web site www.sjaaklucassen.nl). To purchase all these items is not as simple as you might think. Every single one is well thought over. A shampoo bottle, for example, has to compress as it empties. It must have a top that won’t vibrate or crack open, but can still be refilled with the small bottles collected from hotels. For a washcloth, a dirty sock on each hand fills the same purpose and is instantly washed. But you’re probably not that keen on this kind of info, so let’s talk some more about my travels.
The clear way down south stopped in Central Africa. Most “overlanders” don’t even bother to go this far, and ship or fly their vehicles out from Ghana, or a country close by. I felt like it would be cheating to do that, so I carried on through Nigeria toward Cameroon, where I found the real dead end in terms of safety and actual roads. Not wanting to give up I thought about trying to pass via civil war-torn Angola, but a voice inside told me not to. Then I heard about the possibility of going through the two Congos. Although the threat was officially not any less, it felt good so I went for it.
In return for my good feeling I was arrested and pinned down for a week, had some serious mechanical breakdowns, faced child soldiers, broke the big toe on my right foot and badly twisted my ankle, with no hospital anywhere nearby. I got mired in muck, fell off countless times and had to look down the barrel of a gun with my hands up while the brave sunglassed soldier cocked it. I built “roads” and crossed rivers in canoes. These were some of my experiences for the next three months and 1,800 miles. Then, finally, after having gained some 20 pounds of pure muscle, I come out of that hell, and it was a hell.
Back in what passes for African civilization, I toured the whole south and shipped my R1 from Durban in South Africa to Buenos Aires, Argentina. On this new continent I’m zigzagging until I’ve finished every country. At the time this is being written I am in Peru, heading for Colombia, where drug-money-financed guerrillas make the countryside unsafe with kidnappings and murders. So if you never hear from me again, then you can guess where it went wrong. If I make it, I intend to continue through Central America, followed by Mexico, the States and Canada. From there I’ll ride into China and via Asia toward the Middle East, where there are still some countries that I haven’t visited yet. Last will be North Africa, before heading home. But where is home? For these next two years, it’s the road. After that, who knows?
(This article Not 9-5: This mildly mad Dutchman is riding a supersport around the world was published in the April 2004 issue of Rider magazine.)