Backmarker: Misadventure Riding

May 3, 2012
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

Mike  in flat cap   Tank  in ball cap   and Chris Hoge  with the crew who built the sidecar. Javier  at far right  owned the shop. No ones ever seen a sidecar in the Andes. It attracted so much attention that Chris felt like the Pope in his Popemobile as peasants stopped what they were doing  gawked  then smiled and waved.
Mike (in flat cap), ‘Tank’ (in ball cap), and Chris Hoge, with the crew who built the sidecar. Javier, at far right, owned the shop. No one’s ever seen a sidecar in the Andes. It attracted so much attention that Chris felt like the Pope in his Popemobile as peasants stopped what they were doing, gawked, then smiled and waved.

One of the relatively bright spots in the motorcycle business these days is the ‘adventure bike’ category. There’s nothing like a BMW R1200GS or Ducati Multistrada laden with Touratech hard cases, to make a statement. Usually, the statement is, “I’m only going to Starbucks today, but tomorrow if I feel like it, I’ll quit my job and ride to base camp on Aconcagua.”

Of course, the problem with quitting your job and riding away on a $25,000 motorcycle is, it’s hard to make those monthly payments if you’re unemployed.

That’s not a problem my friend Mike Fairman of Knoxville, Tennessee typically faces. Mike was one of the founders of the now-(in)famous ‘555’ rides between Knoxville and Portland, Oregon. The 5-5-5 principle is, you buy a pre-’75 bike of less than 500cc displacement for less than $500, and then ride it the 2500 miles between the two cities. It’s not a race; the group travels at the pace of slowest/most crap bike.

Payments? We don’t make no stinkin’ payments!

About a year and half ago, Mike mentioned that he and a pal, Jason ‘Tank’ Tankersley, were in the process of resurrecting a pair of ‘70s-vintage Honda trail bikes. Their idea was that they’d avoid the winter in Knoxville by riding to… Bolivia.

Mike’s bike for the trip was an XL350 basket case that he got for free. He knew that the stock motor’s weak point was the way the steel cam, spinning in its aluminum journals, eventually wore out the head, so he milled out the head to allow the cam to spin on needle bearings. The only other mods they performed were the addition of welded-on luggage racks. They packed up extra pistons, spare cables, and points, and headed south.

In the first email I got from them, Mike and Tank made light of the drug cartel that controlled the Mexican province they were camped in. I guess the downside of being adventure riders on a pair trailbikes older than you are, is that if you get into trouble, they make crap getaway vehicles (if they’ll run at all.) But the upside is that even desperate third-world bandits can’t be bothered stealing them. And ironically there’s a certain safety factor conferred when even mezcal-fueled right-wing death squads or the sort of narcos who accumulate 45-gallon drums full of severed heads look at you and think, “Those gringos are loco.”

They were only shaken down for bribes once. Mike told me that cops or Federales of some kind took their passports, and basically insisted on a bribe to hand them over on the other side of some flyblown town. The way they were traveling, the bribe – as small as it was – represented a non-trivial expense, But, it was the principle of the thing as much as the money that still bothers him. After that, he told me, they responded to all requests for bribes the same way, by just sitting there and out-waiting whatever crooked official wanted his mordida.

Overloaded  Not much. As you can see  the trio was not popular at all and made a very bad impression on the locals.
Overloaded? Not much. As you can see, the trio was not popular at all and made a very bad impression on the locals.

It helped, too, that they stopped for six weeks of immersive Spanish language school in Guatemala. A working knowledge of Spanish helped them to communicate with locals (way) off the beaten paths where tourists are a familiar sight and English is spoken or at least broken.

Mike describes this style of travel as, ‘breaking down to smell the roses.’

“We never picked a destination for any day’s travel. Our ‘there’ was always where one of the bikes broke down,” Mike told me. “There was no sense in getting mad or pissed at each other, because we knew we’d started out on bikes that weren’t really even ready for a ride across town.”

Only one of their bikes had an odometer, and it broke after they’d recorded about 15,000 miles on a journey that took them from one fly-speck garage to the next motorcycle graveyard to (at least 25!) roadside welding shops. In total, they were gone for 10 months, although Mike flew back in the middle of that period to work and save a bit more money. Tank, in the spirit of improvisation, got a job as a wrangler on an Ecuadorean horse ranch.

“Wow,” I asked Mike, “is he that good on horseback?”

“He is now,” Mike told me. “He’d never ridden up until then.”

The highest-anxiety moment in the trip was probably when presented Colombian authorities with travel documents that they’d forged a few days earlier in Photoshop. Luckily, they were waved on, and not immediately thrown in some Colombian prison.

They broke down way up in the Andes, in tiny hamlets with no provision of any kind for overnight visitors. Then, a door opened and they were ushered in to a hut where a native put down a llama skin, give them alpaca blankets for warmth, and shared a meal, even if it was sheep intestines.

The high point for jerry rigging came in Huaraz, Peru, where Mike and Tank were joined by their friend Chris Hoge, who planned to travel with them to Cusco, via the famed Macchu Picchu ruins. The catch was that Chris had no idea how to ride a motorcycle and 15,000 foot Andean passes were no place to test out his ‘L’ plate.

Undaunted, the lads found a motorcycle shop whose proprietor led them across town to a dark lockup where he’d cached a few old bikes. “There was some cool stuff in there,” Mike recalled, “including a WR250 Husky, and a ‘50s-era Vespa.” They bought the swingarm, shocks, and rear wheel off an old Honda, with the idea that they’d find another local metalshop and build a sidecar for Chris.

Improvising new teeth on the 250s output shaft. Not the first time the lads had to channel MacGyver.
Improvising new teeth on the 250’s output shaft. Not the first time the lads had to channel MacGyver.

Several Peruvian welders took one look at their hand-drawn plan and shook their heads, but eventually the trio found a shop willing to take on the assignment. “There are very technical details to take into account when building a sidecar, like the forward positioning and angle of the third wheel and the tilt of the bike,” Mike notes, adding “these things were applied with as much skill as an outdoor back alley welding shop with a sloping dirt floor could afford us.”

By the time they left Huaraz, they were so friendly with the locals that their departure had to be preceded by a night of drinking that left them all closely observing the way, in the southern hemisphere, a toilet full of vomit swirls in the other direction.

There’s a smooth coastal highway from Huaraz to Cusco, but that would be too easy. Instead, the trio chose a winding back route full of steep, winding twin-track that was incredibly hard on the 350 side-hack, which spent long periods with the throttle wide open in first gear.

Surprisingly, it was the 250 that next spat the dummy. Deep in the mountains, it lost drive. The gear on the end of the output shaft had – not unlike the local peasants – lost a bunch of teeth. With no chance of locating a replacement part they, again, found a local welder who welded blobs onto the gear, which they then hand-filed to mate with the gear that drove the countershaft.

Mike and Tank on the Uyuni Salt Flat  in southwestern Bolivia. If the bikes werent about to die before being soaked in brine  they were done in afterward.
Mike and Tank on the Uyuni Salt Flat, in southwestern Bolivia. If the bikes weren’t about to die before being soaked in brine, they were done in afterward.

Amazingly, that repair lasted long enough to get them to Cusco – just in time for Chris to catch his flight home. A trip that, according to Mapquest, should have taken 17 hours along the paved coastal road took Chris’ entire 20-day holiday.

They hacked off the sidecar and left it abandoned in the ditch, and got a little further, to the Salar de Uyuni salt flat in southwestern Bolivia, before finally acknowledging that, both mechanically and financially, they were broke. The countershaft sprockets on the battered Hondas had gone way past being hooked; they were starting to round off. And the bikes were getting harder and harder to start; they were addicted to ether. Mike and Tank parked them in a ditch with a cardboard Se Vende sign, and got $200 for them in a few hours.

“I walked into my old job at the Cycle Stop, in Knoxville,” Mike told me. “They said, ‘Hey, we’re glad you’re back. Somebody just brought in an old Honda that won’t run.’ So I just picked up my tools and went right back to work.”

A shop with electric lights, and a level floor. Replacement parts. Luxury.