Adventure and travel writing

The Launch of an Epic Bike Trip, by Steve Van Bakel


Dreams of cross-country motorcycle trips started shortly after I got my first 50cc Honda Trail Bike at the age of twelve.  My cousin and I talked for hours about how as soon as we turn sixteen we were going to pack up those little dirt bikes and head west.  At twelve we still had the ability to dream big and we never once doubted it was possible to travel across this great country at a top speed of 50 km/h.  It wasn’t until the movie Dumb and Dumber came out and we saw Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels attempt a cross-country trip on a mini bike that we realized just how silly we would have looked trying to do the same thing.

It was another twelve years before I got my first street bike and rekindled the dream of cross-country trips.  Within a month of getting my license and a street worthy bike, I was packed up and heading from Toronto and across the country to dip my front wheel into the Pacific ocean off Tofino on Vancouver Island.  That trip cemented the lifelong passion of seeing as much of the countryside as possible, one open road at a time.

The following years I did trips from Toronto to Halifax, Toronto to Key West, Calgary to L.A. and Vegas, and Calgary to Alaska and down the Inside Passage.  Each trip was a soul-searching journey pushing the limits of two-wheel therapy and the limits of both the bike and my physical stamina.  Fifteen-hundred kilometres was my longest day but that was far from my hardest days on a bike.  Wind, rain, hail, snow and temperatures so cold that they tried to freeze me from the inside out, all made for harder days on the roads.  But no matter how cold or miserable I was at the time, I always looked forward to throwing a leg over the bike the very next day. 

When the Big Five-0 Birthday came zooming up out of the blue, I knew that I had to do something to celebrate reaching that milestone in life.  Life had thrown me many challenges that I always seem to get through, and turning fifty was going to be the next challenge.  I certainly wasn’t where I thought I would be at fifty and I figured I needed some time to think through where the next fifty years was going to take me.  After all, my grandfather lived to be 102 and healthy right up until the end so I figured I wasn’t even half way through life yet.

The only thing I could come up with that could truly define this year above all others was to take the longest cross-country bike trip yet.  Of course, a trip like this could not be done on my old Road King so it was time to jump off the dream wagon and actually by the nice new 2016 Street Glide I’d been dreaming about for years.  Happy birthday to me! 

On February 13th, the truck and trailer showed up outside my door to drop off the new bike.  Though there was little snow or ice on the roads, an ice damn had built up at the end of my driveway and it took four hours of hard labour the day before to carve out a path for the new bike to get up the driveway.  The gate had barely closed on the trailer before I was on the bike turning it over and introducing the neighbours to the newest addition to the family. With such a mild winter that brought very little snow, the roads were in good shape and the sun was making the four degrees feel just a little bit warmer. To be honest, I never truly believed I was just going to just rolI the new bike into the garage without at least a little test ride. Just around the crescent I told myself, then into the garage for a warm day to ride. But who was I kidding, that wasn't nearly enough to satisfy the curiosity of having the keys to a brand new bike in my hands.  After a quick run around the crescent, I stopped back at the house to layer on some warm clothes and headed out to clock my first two-hundred kilometres.  Sticking to the back roads to avoid my nice new paint from coming into contact with flying gravel.

That was the earliest start to a riding season I've ever had.  When I bought the bike I feared that I wouldn't have time to clock my first 1600 kms and get my first tune-up in before leaving for my big trip in mid May.  As it turned out I had the bike back into the shop for it’s first tune-up and a little customization with new handlebars and a stage one exhaust before the end of the first week in March. Thanks to the amazing Spring I was able to avoid snow days and packed on a whopping 6664 km before I was ready to leave on May 12. 

I was never a fan of celebrating my birthdays so I strategically planned to leave the day of my birthday and return thirty days later thus avoiding the whole birthday thing. Thanks to some great friends from the HOG group, I couldn’t avoid the little party they threw for me and a whole lot of Jack Fire Shooters. But after that, the only thing I wanted to see on my birthday was the blacktop being eaten up by my front tire as I headed out on another motorcycle adventure.

I’ve always been a big planner for holidays and life but since life hadn’t worked out the way I planned, I figured it was time to attack from a different angle and try something totally foreign to me. One month on the road with absolutely no plan other than focusing on living in the moment. When people kept asking about my route, I finally broke down and told them that the only thing I knew for sure was that I was going to turn left when I got to the end of my driveway. 

From February 13 to May 11 we had an amazing spring with lots of riding and no snow to dampen my riding excitement.  Of course that changed the night of May 11, the day before I was scheduled to leave. I woke on May 12 anxious to hit the road and put Calgary in my rearview mirror, only to find the grass and road covered with a light covering of snow. When I stepped out on the porch, I was greeted with an instant minus four-degree chill and freezing rain blowing in my face. I’m sure my neighbours heard as my heart hit the porch and was instantly frozen and covered in snow.

I raced to the computer to check the weather forecast. Not just one weather site, but every weather site I could find to see if anyone was predicting weather I could ride in. No such luck! I figured the day would warm up and I would be able to hit the road by early afternoon. No such luck! The day wore on and the weather refused to budge even a little. I spent that first day of my much-anticipated trip lying on the couch watching Wild Hogs and other biker movies; envious of those that were riding in the movies. I also spent the day trying to convince myself that this was a sign that I needed to slow down, live in the moment, and deal with whatever life threw at me on this trip. 

In the end, that first day was the hardest I have ever encountered on a bike trip and I hope to never have to do that again. Provided the roads are safe so that I can make it home to ride again, I would take even a hard day of riding in poor weather over sitting at home dreaming about it.