Extreme sport and adventure motorcycling

Marathons, Iron Mans, and now Extreme-Adventure travel. It’s all getting just a little ridiculous.

I’ve found myself in more than one conversation this week with people that, having completed in these sorts of things (e.g. Coast to Coast, half Iron Man) have now decided to move on. They are still challenging themselves, but will ride around Taupo on their own or in a small group, will hike in obscure places rather than nail a Coast to Coast, and will support friends rather than become Iron Men. 

It’s the same with motorcycling travel. It’s the difference between ticking boxes – e.g. to go “round the world” to do “North and South America” and just travelling around. 

This means they some motorcyclist must go up the haul road in Alaska, touch the western most point in Ireland, follow strict agendas and all sorts of other ridiculous things.

While a goal is motivational and makes for a good story, they are at the risk of losing sight of why you are on the motorcycle in the first place – to travel and to have fun. 

A set route that focuses on goals means that you’ll probably miss the best stuff. That Alaskan haul road is not nearly as nice as the Canadian equivalent that doesn’t quite make it to the Arctic Ocean. The PanAmerican highway – that runs through much of North and South America – is boring and often dangerously packed full of traffic. It’s like visiting New Zealand and staying on State Highway one – you can do it, but why? Why ride around Lake Taupo again, for that matter, when the ride from X to Y is just as long and you have not been there yet?

A rigid agenda can place you in serious trouble on a motorcycle trip. You scurry to keep up with it, and once you fall behind you are at risk of hurting yourself as you try to regain the pace. It means faster speeds on the road to make daily deadlines, and stress when breakdowns and other events occur. It means you can’t take a longer break if you feel ill, and that you really feel the power of bureaucracies when you get delayed.

Having no agenda means that these frustrations disappear. You can ease back and calmly read a book for 2 days if you are delayed at a border or have to wait for a new battery to be sent up from Lima to Arica- a process that it seems can take days. It means that if you find a nice town, like Arica, that you can chose to stay there for a bit. It means that if you met someone friendly, then you can stop or travel with them as well.

More importantly it means that you can make up the trip as you go – escaping the madding crowds to ride down obscure roads where people look at you like you are a space alien. It’s not hard, even these days in most non Western countries you can randomly turn right off the main road, then right onto a smaller road, and right again onto an even smaller one and proceed to be a lost space alien.

Running the Coast to Coast takes the competitors through some stunning scenery – but they cannot stop to take it in. Why not abandon the competitive spirit and grab a backpack and a few days and go tramping in the bush instead? You’ll see a heck of a lot more and there’ll be far less other people around to block the view. Meanwhile pushing yourself to the limit to reach a personal best is motivational, but perhaps your body would be better off a little bit back from the limit, which may save recovery time and increase your enjoyment.

Travelling in groups can mean that the trip becomes about the group, rather than about the locals. Watch or read the Long Way series – and see how much of the trip is about the interaction between the protagonists rather than meeting the locals and getting immersed in the culture.

It’s also more dangerous on the road, and the larger the group the worse it is.  There are three impacts. First – it is more dangerous as you tend to follow the person in front rather than make your own decisions about speed, positioning and what’s coming up. Secondly you stop less often, as you are reluctant to pause for trivial things when the whole group has to pause as well. Thirdly it creates stress when you are not sure where the main road is. In a large group his “misplacement” turns into being lost, and although you may be individually comfortable with being in the middle of nowhere, the group members each feel like they are letting down the rest. On your own you are never lost. Seriously – I’ve been in the middle of dense fog on a dirt track with wild horses looming though the mist and a border somewhere ahead or behind, but I did not consider myself lost. All you care about in those circumstances are that you have enough petrol, a reliable bike and enough food. Each of these things are also avaialble from locals, to one extent or the other.

On your own you do things like whizz up a promising looking forest track, zipping  down farm lanes that don’t quite go in the right direction and idling around intriguing neighbourhoods.

However you do get bored of talking to yourself, so that means that you have to reach out to the locals – learning their language and so forth. I’ve found that  knowing a few words in the local language can break the ice sufficiently for sign language and smatterings to take over. {We developed Lingopal with that in mind. Lingopal is now live in 43 languages – try m.lingopal.com on your mobile phone or web browser.} 

Recording the Results

A large number of long distance motorcyclists record things as they go, blogging, writing books and supporting an increasing array of charities. This can actually help the riders to push their personal envelopes as they have to have a decent story/photo to show the world each few days. It’s a double edged sword. It can also mean that it’s harder to abandon the agenda and to hang out with some cool people you’ve met along the way. I tend to chose a middle road – taking and posting pictures mainly, and writing the occasional missive to an email list in the early days. (There was an entertaining  one I wrote after having too many beers with a victorious Australian cricket team at the Australian embassy in Pakistan. I must track that down one day.) 

With extreme events it can get to be all about the race time, the personal best, beating others and giving support for charities. These are really motivational, helping athletes push their  personal boundaries. However the risk is the same, which is that the event becomes about the time and the charity rather than about the enjoyment and the physicality.

I’ve fallen into all of these traps over the years, to one extent or the other, and will probably keep doing so. There are plenty of other traps as well – overpacking is the most common. You learn and move on.   

So have Gareth and Jo Morgan. I briefly ran in to Gareth and Jo Morgan in Cusco a few years back – I was riding around solo, and they were on their last externally organised motorcycle tour. It was carnage. The group had left a trail of broken dogs, smashed up riders in hospitals and plenty of near misses. The group seemed far too large, the agenda way too tight and the pace on the road was vicious. 

So they took things into their own hands, and started organising their own rides. While they do have agendas, they are smart about leaving enough gap days and keeping the distances realistic. They create interesting routes and craft stories around them. The recent “Northern Lights” trip went nowhere in particular, but served up an excellent range of adventures.

One thing I like is that they take advantage of the logistical and post-ride beer benefits of group riding, but also split up into smaller or solo groups during the days to gain the benefits of individual touring. It would have been really nicewhen I had say, a flat tire, to know that someone in the group is a genuine motorcycle mechanic that can fix that tire in minutes compared to my hours. 

They also write about and video their travel – but they do it at the time, and they do it without adding to the group. The group members vary, which keeps things interesting, and the excellent logistics means that the trips fit inside some pretty busy group member schedules. Overall an impressive outfit.  

The Long Way Down guys are also impressive, and on a tough agenda. Their adventures are supported by a third rider and a couple of backup vehicles. It’s a pretty full on way to do the experience, but they have to keep the focus on making professional quality TV programs.  In the first movie/book Long Way Round they made a number of rookie mistakes – not the least overpacking their bikes and vehicles to a fairly impressive extent. (I’ve seen worse – actually I’ve even seen a bicyclist who was carrying more – including three tents.)

But they are also working things through, and the logistics for the second trip reflected that.

In parting – the best adventures, and the best stories, are invariably from when things go wrong. It’s the path back from that adversity that is the part that stretches you, makes you reach out to locals and really grok the understanding that humans everywhere are pretty remarkable.

It’s the same with the extreme sporting events – it’s what happens at the point when your body is saying enough and your mind overrides and you move it. It’s the remarkable feeling you get when you achieve something that was once a dream.

So I hear. I must do an Iron Man one day.

Published by Lance Wiggs


One reply on “Extreme sport and adventure motorcycling”

  1. Well said! And thanks for helping me focus more on the ride than the miles on a map.

    My husband and I eschew large riding groups and “tours”, but we are definitely drawn to those “trophy” rides where we make a bigger deal out of how far we went rather than what we saw along the way.

    It’s getting easier to stop and smell the roses, but so darned hard to not make adventures epic by picking that spot on a map and saying “we’ll get here come hell or high water”.

    I’m showing your post to the hubby tonight. We’re planning a South America ride in 2011 – right now we’re saying it’s to the tip of the continent. I’m thinking, maybe just going and seeing where the road takes us will give us more real adventure and joy in the long run.


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