Having twice ridden around the world on superbikes, Dutchman Sjaak Lucassen’s latest adventure was to ride across the Polar Ice on an R1. We catch up with him in Holland to see how he got on…
How did it all start?
I always wanted to see Australia and in 1992 I also heard about the Fireblade. I bought one without even seeing it. When I got the bike I also took with me the crate from the bike shop. At the end of 1992, I shipped the Fireblade to Australia and rode around for 38,000 kilometres, for four and a half months, and shipped it back to the Netherlands, then went with a backpack to Indonesia. Indonesia I liked, back-packing I did not. I missed my wheels. At that moment I started planning a world trip. And in 1995, on the same Fireblade – with 80,000 kilometres on the clock – I left.
I covered 165,000 kilometres in three years. After two and a half years I had gone to every country I wanted to do. I was ready to go home. But then I was in Egypt and I met someone who was going to do Africa and I thought that would be nice too. So I took the trip to South Africa. I flew from South Africa to Italy and rode back. The bike’s now got 292,000 kilometres on it. After the trip I kept using it because I had no other bike. Then in 2001, I took the Yamaha R1 around the world. I always wanted to go to the North Pole and I thought to get enough money to go to the North Pole I must do another trip, to get better known, because after the first trip I started to write for a magazine. I also made a documentary about it (Sjaak the World).
How did this trip to the polar ice come about?
After my second trip around the world, I started doing my winter rides. I met a guy called Marcus Kingma who asked me if I was interested in celebrating New Year’s Day on the Northcape. And that’s where it began. He had a Yamaha and I had the R1, but because the tyres were not prepared well enough we had to cancel that attempt. But the next winter we tried again and made it. The problem for me was that while we were riding over snow and ice it just wasn’t cold enough. That’s when I thought about Alaska.
What attracts you to the cold?
The attraction isn’t the cold. The attraction is the North Pole; the cold is a positive by-product of the North Pole. Unless it’s cold you can’t go there unless you swim. It’s just there and I accept it and have to find a way of riding on it. In 2009 I did a ride from Key West in Florida to Deadhorse Alaska. This is when I saw the polar ice for the first time. At that point, we weren’t allowed to go on our own, only with a special vehicle. And the snow was quite compact. And I thought that with big wheels this must be rideable.
So what was the plan?
The plan was to take a plane with the bike and the sledge to Point Barrow, the most northerly point in the USA. There is a town just below there called Barrow. I flew in to there with the bike and with the sledge. The plan was to pull the sledge up to Point Barrow. From there I wanted to start pulling east towards Inuvik, about 1,400 kilometres away across the ice. From Inuvik I would then ride down through America to Key West in Florida, making it a journey from the very top of the USA to the bottom.
Tell us about the sledge?
The sledge is self-carrying. If I take the wheels off it becomes a sledge. The rear axle is from a cart, and it also has a brake on it. The bike has a separate brake lever, next to the main one, that operates the brake on the sledge. I actually stop the bike by pulling the brake on the trailer, not the other way around. That was the best way to do it. The reason I put a nice number plate and lights on the trailers is that when the police see that everything is neat and tidy, they don’t pull me over. And I didn’t get pulled over, all the way from Alaska to Key West. The only time I talked to the police was when I broke down and they came to me, and they bought a DVD.
Why the R1?
The last big world trip I did was with the 2001 model R1. This bike brought me through the toughest terrain and withstood the most extreme endurance. This brought me an enormous trust in the bike, so there was not even the slightest consideration or doubt about what to take this time. The reason that I took a 2000 model – which is virtually the same as a 2001 – is because I know this bike through and through. This is very important if you have to work on the bike. And that I had to work on it in the extreme cold was obvious for me. Yes, it is true that an R1 does not suit the terrain, but no other existing bike on the market does either! Even an off-road bike would have to be adapted to the (partially soft) snow dunes. And say honestly, doesn’t she look great with her big wheels?
Tell us what you did to the bike?
The brake rotor was from a Verago. The calliper sits normally in a bracket, with a new bracket having to be made to make sure the calliper sat on the right spot. There was a lot of work done on the swingarm. I didn’t widen the swingarm, I just lengthened it, I was limited by the alignment of the chain. The tyres came from vintage cars. Tyres from vintage cars are good because back then they had poor or no suspension. That’s why the sidewalls are so high, and because they are so narrow they are ideal for me. It took me a long time to ﬁnd something that would ﬁt and work well in the snow. The front tyre is a 17-inch, which means that it ﬁts on a standard R1 rim. The only thing I had to change, except for the front legs – which were extended – was to remove the front mudguard. I also had longer brake lines on the front and used a 16-inch rim from a Yamaha FJ on the rear.
I had the sprocket made by Motorketting NL. On the rear, I have an 80, and on the front, I have 14. The bike normally runs a 16 by 43 as standard. I drilled and screwed the tyre to the rim to keep it from slipping. My rear tyre, unsurprisingly, started to wear on the Dalton Highway (it was an ice tyre being ridden on tarmac) and was worn out by the time I made it to Fairbanks. I found a new one at the wreckers and put studs in – the road was still icy – and used this tyre all the way down to Key West. I’m probably the only person to ride an R1 across America with studs in! When people saw them they said it’s probably not allowed, I said, ‘I don’t know, it probably isn’t allowed!’ The police can’t see when you ride. Who would expect to have a studded tyre in Florida!
Was it noisy?
I don’t know, my hearing is not so good.
Did it all go to plan?
No not really. When I landed the wind started blowing, I had problems with the ice, and then the ice wasn’t rideable any more. In a strong wind, the snow can become very soft, and it needs a few days to settle again, and harden. Soft snow is terrible, especially if the tyres aren’t wide enough. They just drop into it. Luckily, I had good studs and knobbly tyres. I’d have to let the tyres dig through the snow until they hit the ice, then with the studs, they’d get grip. Later on, it turned out that after 60 kilometres I wouldn’t have been able to pull the sledge anyway, because there was such a different terrain. I would never have got through there on my own. In the end, I had to hire a guy with a snowmobile to pull the sledge across the ice and head for the nearest point to get back off the ice and on to the road. Even the guy pulling the sledge with the snowmobile had difficulty getting enough traction.
What about the bike, how did that cope?
The bike itself wasn’t too bad. There were a few things. The big wheels, the studs, that all worked. The problem was the tyres were so hard from the cold they wouldn’t get much grip. The other problem I had were the front shocks. I had stiffer springs and had them modiﬁed to make them longer, but they asked me at the shop (Hyperprop, who also make shocks for the GS), ‘should we make the movement of the leg longer,’ and I said, ‘no, no need to’. Actually, it was bottoming out all the time, but I had to have the front forks stiff to prevent the front tyre from hitting the radiator.
Another problem was fuel. When I wasn’t pulling the sledge my bike was very economical. But the guy with the snowmobile was pulling through so much fuel. I had 300 litres of fuel with me in the sledge. I knew there were places – little villages – where I could go ashore and buy extra fuel but it would never have lasted all the way to Inuvik.
How fast could you travel?
I was riding everything between walking distance and a few times around forty kilometres an hour.
Where did you sleep?
The guy with the snowmobile had his own tent, and his tent had heating because they don’t sleep outside without it. I slept in the sledge without heating. It was pretty cold. So I ended up sleeping in the tent as well. He had a stove to cook food and to keep it warm. I knew the guy who came with me was terriﬁed of sleeping on the ice, in case it cracked. Closer to the shore the ice is frozen through to the ground. We were three nights on the ice.
How far did you hope to ride on ice?
The total distance was to be around 1,100 to 1,400 kilometres. I hoped I could do 100 kilometres a day. I ended up riding around 200 miles on the ice.
How did you feel when things didn’t go to plan?
I wasn’t disappointed. There was joy and there was the opposite. The moment you’re on the ice you’re so busy getting through the job you don’t actually know what you have achieved. I only experienced what I achieved when I got off the ice. ‘Shit, I did it. Wow, I did it.’ At that moment it didn’t matter that everything hadn’t gone according to plan. But later on, when I was riding down through the States I couldn’t really enjoy it. I had in my mind that on this trip, if it had gone right, with a few adjustments, I could go to the North Pole. But being realistic, this way I could never go to the North Pole. I can’t pull the sledge, so I cannot pull fuel etc.
I had too many problems to ride, and to ﬁnd a nice gap of four days good weather is hard because if you have no sun you have white-out.
There were many things that made me think it wasn’t possible. I couldn’t see the solution. That was at that moment bigger than the joy that had gone. It took months after I got back to get over it, and thought that I must give up on taking an R1 to the North Pole. But I can still build a motorcycle based on the R1. So I still think it’s possible. I need to speak to people who have more experience going to the North Pole. My original plan was to ride up and down, but now, I will accept I just need to get there, and maybe fly back rather than ride back as I originally planned to do. And I can’t go alone. I can’t pull a sledge. And I need the sledge to survive.
What’s the plan next time?
To make it work next time I will have to make more modiﬁcations. The only way to make it work is to make a complete bike, so rather than a standard R1 modiﬁed for the ice, I will make a vehicle for the ice based on an R1. So what I’m going to do is start with the engine, the frame and the swingarm, and take the front legs off. The way I could do it is to take a big tyre on the back, new triple clamps, everything, and ﬁnd out a way of electronically or hydraulically powering the back wheel. Because of the chain, I was limited by the width of the back wheel, and that’s why I used back tyres from the old-timer cars.
How far is it up to the North Pole?
The distance up to the North Pole is only about 2,000 kilometres.
Do you think you’re crazy?
The locals up there meet many people who are a bit nuts. But I’m not crazy. I’m not normal. But I’m not crazy. I know what I do, and I’m quite well planned with this. I’m not going in there not knowing anything about the situation, as that would kill me, for sure. It’s not a death wish.
Why do you do it?
Because it’s the North Pole. Why do people climb Everest? And yes, automatically the challenge has to get bigger, it gets bigger and bigger, and more and more extreme. I don’t know where it will stop. Probably my body will refuse to do any of this beyond a certain age.
And after the North Pole?
The South Pole, naturally, which is probably easier. You don’t have to rush there. I believe that everything is possible, as long as you work for it. A hundred years ago nobody thought people would fly to the moon. If you have enough money you could take a bike to the moon. I could live with it if I don’t achieve it, but I will deﬁnitely work towards it.
Do you ever want a normal lifestyle?
It is normal.
The Trip Around the World
Sjaak’s currently translating the book about his R1 trip around the world from Dutch into English. Part One of Three is already up on Kindle and is a brilliant read, almost unbelievable where the R1 took him. Part Two will be along shortly. Money raised will go towards translating the rest and turning it into a paperback.