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Southern Loop: Eldorado by Eldorado

One of the most memorable roads on the trip was this one from Uyuni in Bolivia, heading westward through the mountains into Chile.

One of the most memorable roads on the trip was this one from Uyuni in Bolivia, heading westward through the mountains into Chile.

Photo Credit: Andy Saunders

Andy Saunders
June 4, 2013
Filed under Features, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel

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Would you set out for South America on a bike you bought last week, from someone in another country? We’re pretty sure what the answer to that one would be…for most people. Bruce Baillie isn’t most people. Bruce has covered much of the globe in his freewheeling blue-collar career, and has taken many motorcycle rides around Asia, but a few videos on the Internet sent him in yet another direction. Southbound. On an old “loopframe” Guzzi Eldorado.

On the way to Rio, Bruce would be knocked off his bike by a flock of vultures, knocked off his feet by disgusting intestinal ailments, run off the road by trucks and buses, forced to wrestle the unwieldy Guzzi through foot-deep sand, and fix breakdowns with bungee cords, chains and old car parts. Sound like fun? Bruce thinks so!

Paul van Hooff, a Dutch motojournalist who sold everything, bought an old Guzzi V7, shipped it to Alaska and spent three years riding down to Tierra del Fuego, inspired the adventure. Bruce says, “I saw his videos on YouTube, and thought it looked like fun.”

The Death Road in Bolivia.

The Death Road in Bolivia.

First, he had to find the right bike. He turned up a 1970 BMW R50/5 with low miles. Perfect. Then an old Moto Guzzi like van Hoof’s popped up, so he thought “I’ll just call this guy… just to see what it’s like….”

The bike was shipped from a Florida citrus grove to Port Angeles, the farthest corner of the contiguous U.S., and Bruce nipped over on a ferry to bring it back to Canada. Born in Texas, Bruce moved north with his family at age two and is a Canadian citizen. He’s spent his life in coveralls, working in the logging industry, commercial fishing, construction, landscaping, demolition and boatbuilding, so he has enough mechanical experience to be unfazed by unknown roads on an antique motorcycle.

Bruce and the Guzzi in the Hotel Español in Lima, Peru.

Bruce and the Guzzi in the Hotel Español in Lima, Peru.

He’s taken four trips through India on Royal Enfield singles, with qualities similar to the Guzzi—good handling, plenty of torque and simple drum brakes. In the U.S., the 850cc Moto Guzzi tourer of the early ’70s was called the Eldorado—referring to the pot of gold that importer Premier Motor Corporation hoped it would earn by selling thousands of police bikes to Americans. The bike’s story was told by Clement Salvadori in Retrospective in the October 2012 issue of Rider. The history of Bruce’s bike is murkier: registered as a 1970 model (which would make it a 750 Ambassador), it has a later 850cc Eldorado engine coupled to a 4-speed transmission, a combination the parts books don’t recognize, as Bruce would discover in Ecuador at great cost.

Before the trip started, Bruce rebuilt the carburetors, mounted new tires, put on a new starter motor and Canadian-made aluminum Dirtbaggs, then rode it around for a week without any problems. “I figured that was about enough, so I left for Mexico.” On the way, the bike earned the nickname, “Old Clunky,” thanks to many false neutrals, a tendency for one cylinder to cut out in moist, foggy weather, and frequent overheating if forced to idle through clogged traffic. Plus, it had the ability to draw a crowd of interested onlookers from the most deserted scenery.

Colombians buy gas in Venezuela where it’s a penny a liter, smuggle it back across the border and sell it on the side of the road.

Colombians buy gas in Venezuela where it’s a penny a liter, smuggle it back across the border and sell it on the side of the road.

After Mexico came Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, then a boat to Colombia. Bruce replaced the transmission in southern Ecuador, and survived the theft of his passport and the bike’s paperwork in Peru. He ran into Paul van Hooff in Bolivia, where the rolling stone has settled to raise a family. Bruce went south as far as Buenos Aires, which he reached at the end of February 2013, after more than a year on the road. Unlike van Hooff, Bruce decided to head back home, and set off for Brazil and points north.

Further adventures included travelers’ tummy, an encounter with a Brazilian biker gang that left his saddlebags plastered with stickers in Portugese, and numerous expensive border crossings. The latter culminated in a bureaucratic nightmare in Costa Rica, where he spent weeks finagling the paperwork that would legally admit his bike into the country before spending a small fortune to fly it out again, to Miami and the land of pancake breakfasts.

Watch out for Brazilian biker gangs. They’ll cover your motorcycle with stickers faster than a school of piranhas can strip a carcass.

Watch out for Brazilian biker gangs. They’ll cover your motorcycle with stickers faster than a school of piranhas can strip a carcass.

When I met Bruce in San Francisco on his way back to British Columbia, the bike had a nautical air, with a chain running half the length of the bike to keep the left exhaust pipe in the head, and a turnbuckle persuading the coffee can-sized Marelli generator back onto its wobbly mount. Bruce was just a few weeks from home and going back to work to top up the bank account. What’s next? “I’m thinking of doing London to Tokyo, through Asia, Kazakhstan and whatnot. There’s just something about that part of Asia—I’ve never been there, although I’ve been everywhere else: Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, but never up into Siberia. Will I take this bike? Well, the centerstand needs to be changed a bit; maybe I’ll fit electronic ignition, maybe not. And a better compound for the front brake shoes, that’s about it. Whatever happens, I just love this bike so much I’ve got to keep it!”

(This article Southern Loop: Eldorado by Eldorado was published in the June 2013 issue of Rider magazine.)

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