Routine city riding is not the recommended training regimen for motorcyclists planning to take on the Great White North in the Alcan 5000.
Huddled with fellow rally participants in the doorway of the "World Famous" Rancheria rest stop somewhere along the Alaska Highway, we sip from our Camelbaks, stare into the night, and wonder how much longer it is to Whitehorse. Our bikes wait outside, like pack dogs itching to press on, and we hardly notice the scruffy pooch sniffing our gear - until he lifts a leg above one our helmets.
Welcome to the Alcan 5000
Previously open only to cars, this endurance rally taunts any dual-sport rider crazy enough to log nine straight 500+-mile days on some of the most unpredictable roads in North America while keeping an eye trained on a stopwatch.
And as the seconds wind down to my starting time from the hotel parking lot in Seattle, Washington, I'm thinking I must be crazy enough because I have no idea what I'm getting into. No idea that my bike will fail me in a few hours, no idea what it means to be "Hyderized," no idea I'll be standing, dog-tired, for most of my meals, and no clue how the unspoiled North Country can really put the zap on your head.
Looking back, I know this: I'm about to have the adventure of a lifetime.
The 2002 summer event is a tidy, nine-day, 4,250-mile, precision-timed road trip from Seattle to Canada's Northwest Territories and back. I'd never been to Canada, but the Alcan organizers have been at it since 1984, tearing across Alaska and Canada summer and winter alike - always varying the route. This is rallying as grand tour - on regular roads, with long transit sections punctuated by shorter time-speed-distance (TSD) stages where points are awarded for arriving at checkpoints on time - and points are subtracted for being too early or too late. Not a race exactly, but then again, if you want dinner each night...
Suddenly, I'm off, pouring on the gas to impress the onlookers with the bratty din from my new Remus exhaust and speeding into the first turn. Damn it, the stoplight is red.
Thirty seconds later I'm headed for points unknown with only the rally route book and my GPS to guide me.
The bike feels nimble against the tide of Seattle's rush hour traffic. Heads turn as numbered vehicles whiz by drowsy commuters lurching toward jobs we're lucky enough to escape for the next 10 days.
I'm riding my BMW F650 GS, loaded with modifications found while scouring the Internet between writing ads at my desk job in San Francisco. I've added Continental TKC-80 tires, an Ohlins rear shock, and Race Tech cartridge emulators to the front forks. I've lowered the foot pegs, raised the handlebars, and engaged a guy named Mr. Ed to custom upholster the seat. I've added Touratech dual headlights, a taller windscreen, heated grips and hand protectors. For navigation, I mounted a Garmin GPS176 to the handlebars and a map holder to the tankbag for the rally route book. Most importantly, I've plastered the bike with manufacturer's stickers to complement the big rally number on the windscreen.
We leave civilization behind with our first TSD. Again, the idea is to be in the right place at the right time at the right speed. Challenging enough for a car with the driver watching the road and the navigator calling out turns, times, and required speed. But we riders were about to learn how hard it is to watch the route book, the timer, the speedometer, and the road at the same time.
Challenging indeed. And judging from the views, scenery would be an ongoing distraction.
Murphy's Law applies soon after I cross into British Columbia. (Soon, I'm discovering, is around 200 miles.) When I'm roaring through sweeping turns as Highway 97 cuts high into the Rockies, the angry red of my temperature light screams for attention. Pulling over, I find an overheating engine, a blown fuse, a taxed cooling fan, and a growing pool of coolant under my bike. What the hell? The bike was given a clean bill of health last week!