When Erik Christensen revealed his BMW café racer ‘Catalyst’ project earlier this year on the Northern Café Racers Facebook page, he made many new friends. When he invited a select few to join him on a ride-out, the one problem that could scupper Erik’s dream was the fact his hometown is Palmer, Alaska, which just happens to be the USA’s most north-westerly state…In Alaska, according to Erik, building café racer bikes from aging BMW motorcycles is all about the occasion. It’s a time of fun, family and friends, and the right to drink beer. Averaging one or two bike builds a year and enjoying the process is reason enough for new friends to appear in your workshop or in your email inbox.With his R 90/6 café racer gracing global magazines and websites, Erik started to talk with some interesting enthusiasts. Engagement with people in the motorcycle industry began to grow, like magazine editors, photographers and experts. Although his new ‘friends’ would regularly connect with Erik on the subject of bikes, he knew they couldn’t quite understand what Erik was raving about and working with in the Northern Territories. It appeared to Erik that the ‘Last Frontier’s’ stunning scenery, weather, good roads and opportunity to have fun eluded them.“It seems Alaska is on everybody’s bucket list,” says Erik. He also claims there isn’t any motorcyclist that says ‘nah, I don’t want to go to Alaska’, it’s just that they don’t get the opportunity to go there because juggling the balls of life, like family and work, make it difficult. Other genuine excuses like being too far away and too expensive to do anything about it also crop up. So although people would say ‘yeah, I’ll be up there to see you’ the stars would have to aligned before they came calling.“I’m one of those people who doesn’t take no for an answer,” says Erik “So I thought if I can help chip away some of that stuff that actively stops people coming to visit and tasting what Alaska has to offer then we’d get somewhere.” So Erik started sketching a road trip on paper – if there is one thing motorcyclists can’t turn their nose up at it’s a road trip with a whole bunch of people who share the same joys in life.“I sketched this whole thing out: mileage, gas, refreshment stops and stay over places. To avoid any liability or be responsible for the quality of the experience, it was a simple matter of making out an itinerary and list of phone numbers for anyone to make any necessary arrangements and let me know if they were coming so I could get the right amount of commemorative T-shirts made. The whole plan started kinda grass roots but it worked.”15 people took up the offer of joining Erik’s four-day ride-out – three of them from out of the State. Bill Costello, he of the excellent video ‘a BMW motorcycle story’ (http://youtu.be/NdBptlmu7kA) and fellow BMW café racer builder had become a good friend via email and phone. “He flew his ass across to us,” explains Erik, “but being a city boy he was kind of nervous but he actually turned out to be ok, fantastic really. Will Guyan, editor of On The Level Magazine for BMW riders and fans also signed up, along with Chris Canterbury from Boxer Metal, the California company famed for BMW motorcycle restorations, metal art and sidecars. Erik then invited 10 or 11 local riders he knew that would be fun around an evening’s campfire.A date was set and everybody apart from one gentleman rocked up on a BMW GS. “The event actually turned into a kind of legacy ride,” recounts Erik. “The guys from outta state didn’t have bikes so rented theirs – two new 2014 specification liquid-cooled R 1200 GS and an F 800 GS – from Anchorage, where they flew into. My bike was the oldest; a 1985 Paris-Dakar R 80 G/S Dakar. The rest were a mix of R 100, 1150 and 650 GS machines; everything from the 80s through to the 90s to today’s examples saw a good mix of the best adventure bike series ever made.”Erik’s route started proper with a run across Hatcher Pass, a mountain pass through the Talkeetna Mountains. This area is home to the scenic 272 acre Independence Mine State Historical Park, an abandoned gold mine that still has original 1930s mining company buildings in place. Another treat in store for the riders was a visit to one of the most beautiful and dramatic glaciers – Matanuska Glacier. At 27 miles (43 km) long by 4 miles (6.4 km) wide, it is the biggest glacier in the USA that can be accessed by bikes and cars.Kennecott Mill Town proved to be an eye opener for the travelling group. A former copper mine, it was abandoned with speed in 1938 and features a 14-storey wooden building that happens to be the tallest wooden building in North America. Ordinarily a ride through a tunnel isn’t much reason to take notice of it, except the Whittier Tunnel is the second-longest (13,300 ft/4,100 metres) multi-use tunnel in N. America, managing rail and road traffic as it passes through Maynard Mountain.If all of the above wasn’t enough to open the riders’ eyes to the wonder of Alaska then the evenings’ social aspect of good talk, good music, friendly locals and perfect food and drink surely did. But as Erik Christensen rightly points out, there are also the bikes, and the adventures and stories that come with riding them. As most seasoned travellers will tell you, a lot of stories originate from nowhere… “We all started out ok and then one guy had to return home because his wife needed emergency surgery! Another of the guys found that the extreme conditions wouldn't let him escape a lingering hernia surgery, so he made the first day then had to turn around.”Strange but true, one of the bikes on the ride (an R 1200 GS) also came with a sidecar and the rider’s wife. Chris Canterbury from Boxer Metal builds custom sidecars and borrowed a rig. They were having great fun keeping up with the solo riders until they hit the many old mining roads which are built up on old railroad beds. While Erik and the rest of the solo riders could do 70 mph (113 km/h) – or ‘hauling ass’ as he puts it – Chris would never take a hack that fast. “When we got to the end of one road, we had to walk our bikes across a footbridge to get to a mining lodge. We sat and waited for them, and waited. They eventually turned up after one-and-a-half hours. The tub had nearly ripped itself away from the bike frame because of the bumpy roads.“So there we were, in the middle of nowhere and not knowing anyone or if there was anyone. We had hand tools only. So we started asking around and calling up airline mechanics to ask if they had tools available like a welder or plasma. I mean, we had the talent and the mechanics to do the repair but not the tools. We started door to door calling and came across a guy who’s got this tyre repair-thing and the kit we needed that he runs out of a 25-year-old Mini-van. He didn’t feel comfortable doing the repair so we said ‘hey, no sweat, no problem, we’ll do it’.”“We swept out his garage and started beating on the broken rig when talk led to an amazing coincidence – it turns out one of the guys on the trip used to live next door to the man with the tools around 15 years ago by a lake over 2,000 miles away. How’s that for a random Alaskan connection?” The repair work was a two-man job to fix it. There were 14 or so others standing around, which meant they could drink beer from a keg stashed on the video support vehicle.”The whole riding event was caught on camera and video, and so it will make an excellent short documentary-style film. If it all goes to plan the film will be edited within a few months and will feature everything that goes into ‘making life a ride’. We are talking elements such as adversity and mechanical issues (including the failure of Eric’s R 80 G/S’s starter motor and the subsequent ritual of 60-year-old guys push-starting his bike).For further information on Erik’s ‘Beards & Beemers’ rideout and to see Alaska from an Alaskan motorcyclist’s point of view, please visit the Northern Cafe Racers Facebook page. And if you are now wondering why the ride was named Beards & Beemers, a beard was mandatory to be eligible to participate. Anyone without was subjected to the humiliation of a comedy false beard. Fun and games in Alaska? Yes please.
November 2014 | © BMW Motorrad
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