Nick Sanders Pan-American Record Ride
Can Nick ride from Prudhoe Bay in Alsaka to Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world) in 22 days?
The journey to the start line had begun. It was nearly 3500 kms from Calgary to the northern tip of Alaska, Prudhoe Bay, time to get any early problems sorted out. Out of the airport I was directed to go south on the Deerfoot trail without being told to look for highway 16 which leads onto highway 1. After 30 kms I pulled off to a gas station, bought a couple of bungy straps to properly fasten my tripod onto my rack and asked the checkout girl for directions.
"Well sire, I surely have no idea," of course I forgot how geographically localised North Americans in the service industry are but was cheerfully passed on to a guy who had a Liverpool accent and he immediately invited me back to his for a cuppa. He was a biker and knew what I was up to. It was raining; there had been storms over where I was going at Lake Louise so when he asked me to stay over with his family it was very welcome. Paul was ex military, a service engineer on Jaguars in Norfolk and RAF Valley in Anglesey.
Next day I was up early, 5am but my body clock made me feel it was nearly midday. This would be the only occasion I would get up so early and feel so bright. I hate early mornings, an unhelpful trait given that it was a pre-requisite for endurance riding. We rode together until Banff and then I was on my own. The weather warmed, it was sunny and the glaciated park between Banff and Jasper was resplendent. Bow Glacier looked extraordinarily crisp in the hot sun and Athabasca Glacier by the Ice Centre brilliantly white. Neither compared with the southern Argentine glacier at the start of Ruta 40. The Perito Moreno Glacier is perhaps the most magnificent in the world, but here the breeze was blowing me along and I began to warm. No problems as yet.
By the Colombia Icefield I had run out of superlatives to describe what I saw as I zoomed by on my R1. Thick slabs of snow lay on top of the front ranges of the Rockies. Comparing it to a topping on a sandwich was the second thought that came into my head; the first was of white marzipan on finely scrumpled layers of cheap chocolate. These sawback mountains towered over lakes reflecting such a mixing of dyes and inks; it was a million conifers in neon green. The colour and the magnificence was on such a level that I was on tiptoes and still couldn’t see the top. The saving grace of such a place is that the large caravans and recreational vehicles, parked up clumsily in every single viewpoint, gave the place some modesty. Us comprehending the enormity of protecting nature at it’s most commanding is like expecting microbes to understand Shakespeare. Although you could go for walks in Tunnel Mountain or hang around Bow Glacier, or instead ride all day trying to overtake long looking rooms on wheels. Most were rented from a company that decorates the rear end with something pretty; an attractive female canoeist wearing a pigtail or photographs of wild flowers. There was another one with a hill and another with a lake and snow capped peaks. Sometimes the pigtails would hypnotize you as a double yellow line forbade you to overtake. After a while the one began to get mixed up with the other because when I did look around I expected to see girls in pigtails. Perhaps if I rode a foot-forward bike a lot slower I too could watch the back of RV’s for longer.
Suddenly, I was in British Columbia thinking where the hell am I now? There was a sense in my head that the journey was beginning to take shape. Get 900 kms done, test drive getting up early. Check my reactions in the field? Am I tired? The wrists, check, neck, back and knees, check, nuts, check because sometimes when I’m pressing hard against the tank squinting through the undergrowth for bears, my nuts begin to ache. Just then, I thought of the self styled explorer Bear Grylls and wanted to ask him a question, ‘what do you think I should do if I drove into a big one?’ Caption competition material. Even the light in this patchy part of BC refused to illuminate the wheat in the way it ought to.
On entering Dawson Creek, there was a new Wal Mart as you dropped into the city limits. The long sweeping main street, lined with hotels on one side and services on the right, was a compact business zone that would take me to Mile Zero of one of the greatest roads in the world, the Alaskan Highway. Up on the top street, past the grain elevator was my mate Charles’ hotel, The Alaskan.
I’d known him since 1996 when I asked him for sponsored accommodation. Having left Ushuaia 25 days earlier I was four days away from Prudhoe. Way back 15 years ago, on my first ever big bike on my second only motorcycle journey, I had reached Fairbanks in 28 days. It had been raining and I knew I’d not finish. Having fallen off my Daytona and broken my ankle on Day 3, it still hurt, but so disillusioned was I that I hadn’t beaten the then record of three guys in a car, I gave up in disgust. I’d been sleeping under trucks thinking too much sleep would make me soft and still I couldn’t crack it. I knew then I’d have to have another go.
In Tok, it’s 6am and a storm is brewing, I can hear the wind outside, but no rain. A plan is forming now I am getting closer to the start line. Either I ride the 200 miles to Fairbanks then the next day push onto Prudhoe, 512 miles in dirt or ride to Fairbanks and then a further 175 miles to Coldfoot Camp and stay there. It’s academic where but on Friday 20th August I’ll leave Prudhoe with the aim of getting to Salt Lake City 3370 miles in four days. A major service is planned for me at Wrights Motorcycles. Tim is waiting with four mechanics.
The weather has changed. It’s dark and stormy and I have 1000 miles on dirt on an R1. There are animals everywhere, night riding will have to be slow. I am nervous. It’s time to go.The ride to Fairbanks was very cold and wet. 200 miles before breakfast and that was only a hot chocolate in a café in some supermarket. I still felt uncoordinated, not quite myself, besieged if you like by nerves. There was so much at stake.
I am in such a place of privilage, I know this. I intend to make the most of every minute, but that doesn’t take away the grit that irritates the way you want to think. Often, the road takes away thinking. Such is the focus of watching the side allys where cars poke out and the bushes where moose want to rush across your path, the head is empty of distractions, just full of speed calculations of large animals and the co-efficient of a trajectory. Yet nothing, not a bear, no caribou, elk, deer, only squirrels the size of a large hand recklessly flinging themselves across the road.
After buying a fuel container and some straps, an alarm clock and a sleeping bag I left for the Dalton Highway. The route from College Street took me to the lights where I turned left onto the Steese Highway once again. My departure time out of the city was much later than planned and whilst there was plenty of daylight, it soon began to rain. Alaska is a desert and gets only ???? of precipitation a year, but barely a day passes without some falling on Prudhoe Bay. Still the wind was warmer than the morning and my spirits were high. In fact my mindset was determinedly strong. To show weakness now would mean this ride would fail. It could not be allowed not to succeed.
The route undulated, climbing around bends and then sometimes feeling quite sullen on the straights. The bike and I were in some unison and we fitted each others movements well. After so many miles and so many journeys around the world, my body knew it’s way around the tight spaces of this bike well.
Sitting in my hotel room in Prudhoe Bay. It’s 9pm and I will sleep soon. The ride up the Dalton was easy for the most part, hard in small sections. Tarmac alternates with hard packed earth, stamped solid by countless trucks with their heavy loads. Heated and dried and then frozen only to thaw again in the spring. The climate has not been friendly. Low cloud hung lower the further north I rode. The sense of growing isolation was impossible to ignore. For two nights I slept rough, wrapped up in my sleeping bag in some truck stop under a veranda. I am still determined to ride this adventure as I always have, hard and fast. Too many hotels soften the soul; too few miles make me weak.
Going up was hard on the bike and I am a little nervous how it will fare on the way down. Mud spray from the front wheel oven baked on the hot radiator and choked the engine of cool air. At one point I caught the temperature gauge showing 120 so stopped and allowed it to cool down. I found a small airstrip and asked if I could sponge off the mud and that seemed to work. It’s still not right but within acceptable parameters. It is hard up here but I will miss it when I’m gone. Why is it like that?
The tundra is turning red and that is a sign of fall. Summer turns into winter in two or three weeks with little in between. I had thought about risking starting in the south but that would have been a disaster. Fortune favours the brave but catastrophes await the stupid. It is said that everything is chance but with preparation you lesson the risk of the unknown.
Trucks batter past, the surface changes from dry to wet, from paved to soft soil. One minute the air is warm and dry the next stinging cold rain lashes down. I am tired and tomorrow the journey starts for the south.
I slept for three hours last night, pulled out my bag and laid out in the back of someone’s pickup on the outskirts of Fairbanks. I need to stay hard yet pace myself. I have been stupid. On previous record rides I run until I’m trashed and hang in until the end. Not efficient. A battery that’s abused never really recovers. Now I’m pacing myself. 48 hours on the road and then into a hotel, even for 5 hours. Have to get the downloads done. Have to communicate. Last night I was restless in the car but slept. In the morning I set off and felt strong. Strange how good I feel. Before the start I was so nervous, afraid I might not have it in me anymore to suffer enough to succeed. Listen, if it were that easy I wouldn’t be alone out here. There are others but they are slower. 22 days, that’s my target, 19 if I didn’t have to film. The fire is beginning to stir in my belly, my loins. It has been a while since I needed like this. I need this one; I have to have this journey as I see it in my head. Finished with the Dalton Highway, with the pipeline, with Deadhorse, the grime and the oil, the big trucks and the shitty roads. Already passed over the Brookes Range with the magnificent Atigan Pass, over 70 degrees latitude, well on the way to the Arctic Ocean. In a different world and it changes daily. I cross into Canada from Alaska, to Beaver Creek (pop 60). I want a fridge magnet, but no one has one, not even at Buckshot Bettys, so I ride on…
The vision is coming into focus. I rode hard all day from Fairbanks, the top of the Alaskan Highway to where I am now, the Yukon River 150 miles west of Watson Lake. Loads to do before Salt Lake; Calgary late tonight if I’m lucky. Take this evening. I had only 250 miles more to do and the sun was going down in Whitehorse. The animals come out at night; bears, moose, caribou. There are buffalo on the side of the road at Watson Lake. I rode fast, really fast, swept around the corners on a surface sports bike riders would want to steady themselves with their feet. There is gravel and small round stones and mud and dust that clogs up the radiator. I’m running hot all the time. The bike and me. The focus is intense, scanning each bush on both sides of the highway. I try to make where I need to be before it gets dark but it’s not to be. Two long days and a morning will get me to Salt Lake. I can ride the bike very hard knowing it will be serviced within an inch of it’s life; four mechanics at Wrights, in two hours, and then ride late until the Mexican border. I’m not crossing there at night. There is a plan.
Stone hit my left hand wing mirror and completely sheared it off along with a section of the cross member attached to the headstock. Not a journey threatening issue but inconvenient. Stone the size of a fist missed my head but came from the wheels of a truck I was overtaking last night. Just missed my hand, so was lucky. Finished download the film clips and blogs at 1.30am, up at 5.45am and am leaving having sent these pictures to Tim at Wrights Motorcycles in Salt Lake City. I have 3470 kms to ride in 54 hours to get there by noon Wednesday, 3 hour service and bike management, blog, short sleep, and then some of the 800 miles to the Mexican border via Tucson.
Its 2.45pm local time at Muncho Park Lake. The starter button packed up in the middle of nowhere on the Alaskan Highway and I thought for a few moments that this was the end of the trip. Something as simple as a 10 cent spring can kill something like this. I’m a poor mechanic and that is bad but hey, what can I say? Anyway a couple of people stopped, one guy was a bike mechanic and we push started it and that is how I will have to ride to Salt Lake – not a problem.
I have 18 hours to Calgary so should get there maybe around 5am where my mate Paul is waiting to help me, after a quick 1 hour rest I’ll continue the 1300 kms to Salt Lake. I need to be there no sooner than noon on Wednesday. After a 3 hour service at Wrights, Tim the chief mechanic will send me on my way and I will do a final 400 miles towards Tucson. I will bed down for the night in a motel for 6 hours and do my blogs and film downloads and then enter Mexico mid morning and try to reach the south of Mexico City by nightfall.
I am now in Grande Prarie. Code 12 has been thrown up on my display indicating a crank positioning sensor malfunction. I have been talking to Tim at Wrights in Salt Lake and he has been getting advice from his people. They say it could be dirt and that the sensor shouldn’t deteriorate which conflicts with Alf England’s mechanics who say the performance of the bike will get worse. This holds with the top end vibration I’m now getting which at 8000 revs would make the bike unrideable. Something is wrong. Normally none of this is an issue but out here it is. Apart from finding people who want to help there is the problem of sourcing parts should they be needed and that is a minimum two or three day delay. We could phone ahead to Salt Lake or even San Antonio.
Think about it – 4 times round the world on the toughest routes that exist and never a single problem ever. So the law of averages comes round. You cant win all the time. The Dalton Highway is no worse than the Didi Gagulu Desert in Northern Kenya, or the Nubia itself. I feel nervous. I had implicit belief in my being able to crack this route – my second attempt – but thoughts in my head this morning were bleak.
I am in Redline Yamaha, Canada’s largest dealership working exclusively with Yamaha. Geoff the Service Manager is in the back trying to isolate the problem. The project could be called off. A three day delay would not be acceptable by my standards. This is a record breaking ride of the Americas and I don’t want to pussy around with a time that could easily be beaten. I welcome the challenge but not with such a delay, especially as I am flying. Never felt faster and smoother and my skill set since 1996 is not comparable. It would be a catastrophe to stop now.
Just arrived on the outskirts of Tucson. Ridden 820 miles in 14 hours, mostly on interstate 15 and 17 down to Phoenix. It is warm and riding conditions are near perfect. I am seeing very little, just a combination of scorched desert scrubland and the topography of the canyon lands – Bryce and the Grand Canyon were nearby. Normally I would go to visit but this is not that type of journey. It is a strange journey. For example, when I do stop it is to talk to people in the service industry. When I was sending an email from a McDonalds this morning I wanted to know which town I was near and when I asked a server, he said quizzically, “sir, you are in a McDonalds, and if there is anything else I can help you with, please don’t hesitate to ask”.
I left Tim’s house in a southern suburb of Salt Lake City at 7am. It was late but I didn’t get to bed until after 1am. The bike service took Tim’s four mechanics and helpers a full three hours to complete. In my sleep I was dreaming deeply and so far from being awake that when I did open my eyes, my body shook, so severe was the dislocation. That’s ok because the ability to shift between different types of reality is my job. 10 days ago I was with my family at home in Wales, wondering whether to have honey or brown sugar on my porridge. Now I am in a hotel room much like any of the thousands that look quite the same. I am in anywhere land with only the hum of the fridge to keep me company.
I filmed myself in the room after which I washed some clothes and then had a bath and shave. It is important to feel each day is a fresh start. As Tim’s father said to him and also mine to me; you get up in the morning, you put your breeches on and you go to work. Tomorrow I go to Mexico. I have recent reports about the violence there and the comments about roadblocks make for disturbing reading. For a few moments, alone in my room, I admit to feeling scared. In all the years of travelling across countries in both remote landscapes and busy cities I have never once been afraid. I am now.
I rode 900 miles to Calgary and 780 miles to Salt Lake City to get to Wrights. By easing the key out of the tank cap and leaving it open I managed to fill up at gas stations without having to switch off the engine. There were times on the flat near Edmonton at night when it would have been impossible to push start and no one would have stopped to help – but that didn’t happen!
I always get my bikes checked at Wrights, they are the friendliest and among the most enthusiastic bikers I know. I asked Tim, my friend and the boss to explain exactly what they did to keep this journey going. I had suggested that if we couldn’t rectify the problem I would cancel the project, but they fixed it and I haven’t!
“Initially Nicks visit was planned to be a minor stop involving routine maintenance; tires, chain, oil, etc. However, by the time Nick arrived some several hours late, we required some extra repairs. A stone had broken the fairing stay breaking off the left mirror. In Alaska the starter on the R1 failed and Nick had been bump starting the motorcycle for over a day. We were able to overnight a new fairing stay from a local dealer but a new starter could not be delivered on such short notice. A few hours before Nicks arrival a starter was contributed from Steadmans Recreation Inc.located in Tooele, Utah by cannibalizing a new 2009 R1!
Nick arrived just after dark at 9:30pm to an empty parking lot, to closed, dimly lit shops, only a sole garage door open with an anxious and eager crew to welcome him. It was good to see Nick. The look on his face was that of exhaustion, but when he spoke to us we knew he was doing great. Nine people began feverishly working on the R1. The routine stuff went quick, followed by the fairing stay and the starter motor. In swapping the starter motor we discovered a problem with the starter relay. Our theory, the bad motor burnt out the relay.
It was 11:30pm now with no chance of finding a factory replacement relay until well into the following morning. By chance we had a basic grounded body relay on the self we thought could work. Without a wiring diagram we were concerned that we could potentially cause more problems by splicing into the wiring harness. Also, we wanted whatever we did to be easy to undo should Nick acquire a new factory R1 relay.
Eventually we found a way to bypass all the other electrical components other then the starter. We ran an additional cable from the hot side of the factory R1 starter relay to the hot side of the bypass relay. Disconnected the wire connecting the starter motor to the factory relay and reconnected this wire to the bypass relay. To operate the bypass relay we installed a normally open button on the handle bars. We grounded the body of the relay with a wire to the battery, weatherproofed everything the best we could, and Nick was back in business.” Tim
Today left Mexico and entered Guatemala. As I got deeper into the country the traffic soon increased dramatically and my progress slowed. Given the multitude of tasks other than simply riding, it was not clear in my head how I was going to ride so far so quickly. In fact my strategy, if I had one, changed all the time. Forgetting to bring any maps did not help and I was reduced to routing myself from the vague cartographical detail offered by my memory as well as tourist brochures. As I continued to ride a chap in a car drove along side me and started taking photographs. I ignored him for a while then realised he could be my film crew so stopped to speak to him. He told me he had an R6 and was passionate about his biking. It was still raining, something similar to the dying scene in the film Blade Runner.
"The rivers are in flood and we are rebuilding the roads,” he said, “in the north where you are going, the border to Honduras was closed this weekend, a bridge went down ". He said this inpassing but it changed the way I would transit across Central America. Instead of driving across Honduras, a country with a reputation forbeing dangerous should you drive there at night, I might now have to cross ElSalvador instead. The choice was more riding against more paperwork and inthe past I have weighed up the two options and have been undecided about whichwas the easiest way. On balance, the El Salvador option gave me anopportunity to film a little; more time to continue to dress my stage. So Isaid goodbye to Dave and rode from Esqiuntl to the border post exitingGuatemala, 70 kms away.
It was true, the rivers were full and the potholes were largeenough for you to take a bath, but inbetween the rough bits, there weretyre widths of stunningly perfect surface.
Just got to the Costa Rica border by minutes after a hellish ride across Nicaragua in teeming rain with lots of traffic and having cross the capital, Managua. Had I missed this crossing because it closes at 10pm, I would have missed my Thursday flight and ultimately it would have meant riding 6700 miles in 6 days to get the record – hard in the Andes. Now I only have about 900 miles a day to do and with a couple of long ones in the Atacama I know I can crack it with a very good time. Not there yet and I know Colombia and Ecuador will be twisty and rainy but Peru south will be a home run for me as it’s an area I know well. The Atacama is dry and animal free. Anyway am riding thru the night in Costa Rica to get to the Panama border for 6am to then ride another 400 miles before noon to load the bike on the next flight to Bogota.
At the Nicaragua frontier the truck drivers recommended I stay at the border, shelter until the winds abated. They said it was going to be a bad one and that the rain would be heavy. I dearly wished to climb into a sleeping bag in a tent and feel such impact as I slept, cosy and safe. They said I should not go, that the drivers become stupid when the weather changes, that they wish me no harm but accidents can happen. I nod no. It is my destiny to pull on my breeches each morning and set off to work. It was still dry so with unabated optimism that it would not change, I set off. Such is the force multiplier of optimism that it sets you off on journeys where you shouldn’t really go. Where for some, what passes for optimism can only be considered the effect of an intellectual error. With the engine sounding so sweet and the build of the bike still muscular and taut, I began to ride hard across Nicaragua. Within a mile the rain started to fall, slowly, hesitantly at first, big globs of water. Travellers are fantasists and seers, merchants of make-believe and what they want to hear. They see in a round object not a stone but a crystal ball and for them the tea leaves at the bottom of their cup foretells the future. I had been wearing a pair of jeans so stopped beside the road, devoid of traffic, and completely striped off. The fall of the rain was accelerating and I am naked by my bike. I pull on my Held undersuit and then my leathers and the oversuit and finally my boots. Gathering speed at an exponential rate the rain is beginning to soak and this is just the start. There is a theory that operates on such a situation, and it says that optimism must bear the cost of a deliberate distortion of that present reality and yes, I had got myself re-dressed just in time.
I rode into a bucket of water. The rain bounced back off the road higher than a standing man and so hard did it hit my helmet it completely drowned out the sound of the bike. Skittling along it was imperative the Road Attacks coped with the dispersal of water. There were no cars or trucks just me and donkeys I passed standing still, afeared to move. I had the road to myself and reasoned that the sooner this ride came through to the other side of the storm, the sooner I could start to reclaim some of the lost schedule. I rode so hard, putting the bike precisely where I wanted it to be. It squeezed through spaces few vehicles dare go and accelerated out the other side. Hard rain turned to spray and the day turned to night and still I was on the road to Managua. This is the capital city of a country where everything goes in a long line of traffic, pushing, shoving ready to kill to get one car place in front. I had to ride 1250 miles in 36 hours and cross five countries to get to the plane in time.
I was on to a 20 day ride until the Peruvian / Chilean border at Tacna, about two thirds down and feeling good, but because it closes on the Peruvian side at 11pm and I got there at 2am, it meant I could not ride through the night, so losing me 6 hours. The very next section of the ride was on the extremely safe Atacama route where there are few vehicles and no animals. It’s a hard irony that after all the tougher areas I’d squeezed myself through day and night, the easiest bit would be my downfall.
I stopped the adventure at Antofagasta four days before the end for several reasons. There was no way I could catch up with the 350 miles I was now behind. Throughout the expedition my schedule slowly slipped only to be brought sharply back into focus with a huge overnight effort. With four days remaining I could no longer rely on that tried and trusted technique. The blogs also caused me difficulties, but what can I do. The present record holder is a well respected and highly capable privateer. Probably self funded he has no commercial interests to satisfy so at days end he can sleep and then ride. My blogging and filming take 3 hours each day, cutting my sleep schedule down to 2 hours, something I’ve relied on whenever I record break. Nevertheless the sponsors expect and deserve to benefit from the ‘live’ nature of on the road messaging and that is, after all, what I’m paid to do. What this does illustrate is how tight some records are becoming and it gives you an idea of the intense competition involved.
Overall the project’s two greatest difficulties revolve around my wrong choice of equipment and unpreparedness overall. I was fit and my riding was incredibly safe, fast and astonishingly accurate. The machine was superb throughout but the starter motor cost me 8 hours. The clothing choice was entirely mine – leathers over textiles? Super safe and a feeling of protection over versility and warmth? I should have had heating clothing, as it is winter here in the south. My lack of knowledge about border crossings was key to the success of this journey.
If this was the end of the story it would be sad indeed and only I would have let a lot of people down (my job is not to come second)…but the concept continues. A negative will be turned into a positive and my team and I are developing an idea as I write; an idea so beautiful it is to me what the perfect wave is to the surfer.
I leave you with a few photos and will re-start my blogging in a few days as the book is being written and the film is being edited. Journeys like these are soul food and an integral antithesis to all the things you are sold but don’t want – my stories are for you to sit back and enjoy. As an audience you have been very supportive, thank you from the bottom of my heart.