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What it's Like to Crash a Motorcycle

“Damn it. John Burns thinks I’m a dick.”
That was one of the predominant thoughts going through my head as I slid down a Florida highway at 60 mph back in March.
It’s weird how the mind works. Time slows in a crash. Every tiny image burns into memory, so your brain can replay it over and over and over at night for the next who knows how many weeks.
In the moments before I crashed, I was riding the Harley-Davidson Street Rod along County Road 34 in central Florida. I’m not sure which county. The accident report simply records it as “County Code 61,” but the internet can’t agree on which county that is. Maybe I was in Indian River County; maybe I was in Suwannee County; maybe I was in Flagler County; I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter; I was somewhere. The road passing through that somewhere was long and straight – not the sort of place where one usually crashes – and the weather was perfect.

“My God, I am so happy,” I was thinking. “I am so incredibly lucky to be here – to live t…

An Iron Butt a day: Meet world traveller Urs ‘Grizzly’ Pedraita


On a tram in Zürich – en route to see native son Urs “Grizzly” Pedraita unveil the modified Victory Cross Country Tour he will use to try to break the world record for traveling around the world – I spot a newspaper on the seat next to mine. I don’t speak German but flip through it and find a story about the Swiss-Moto show, where Grizzly will be greeting the public before heading to Daytona to begin his record attempt.

In the half-page story, I manage to pick out only two names: Grizzly, and burlesque sensation Zoe Scarlett. It’s at this moment I realize Grizzly’s kind of a big deal.

“Normally, I’m that guy who likes to sit at a restaurant and just observe. I prefer being alone,” Grizzly tells me later. “But I don’t mind the attention. I’m going to be spending 100 days alone, so it’s good to meet the public and express my appreciation to sponsors.”

Admittedly, we are on Grizzly’s home turf. Switzerland is a tiny country – you can ride from one end to the other between meals – so, it makes the most of its heroes. If you haven’t heard of Grizzly, he’s planning to ride around the world, hitting every continent on its longest axis, in less than 100 days.

That’s different from simply circumnavigating the globe (which Grizzly has also done – in 16 days) and involves more than 60,000 miles of riding. The current world record holder for this sort of route is British adventurer Nick Sanders, who managed the journey in 120 days and 2 hours.

“I’m aiming for 99 days, 23 hours and 59 seconds,” Grizzly jokes. “But if I do it in 119, I’ll still have the record.”


The Swiss, as you would expect from a country famous for watches, possess a surreal punctuality. If a Swiss says he will meet you at 3 o’clock, he’ll be tapping his watch at 3:01. So, I don’t doubt Grizzly will accomplish his stated goal of 100 days. If that is, indeed, his goal.

In Zürich there is a rumor that Grizzly’s team has codenamed this effort “the Jules Verne project,” and he is, in fact, hoping to do it in 80 days. Feel free to guess how I would manage to pick up that rumor amid a throng of German speakers.

Regardless of whether he makes it around the world in 80 or 100 days, though, his record (assuming he sets it) will be hard to beat.

“How many miles a day do you think you’ll be travelling?” I ask.

“It depends on terrain, but 800 to 2,000,” he says.

“You mean kilometers?” I ask. “800 to 2,000 kilometers?”

“No. Miles.”

“Yikes! That’s, like, an Iron Butt ride every day.”

“Ha. Maybe they will give me a badge.”


Grizzly will leave during Daytona Bike Week. By the time those who bid him farewell are waking up to hangovers the next morning he’ll likely be in Mexico. Then it’s through Central America and all the way down South America. A boat to Antarctica to frighten a few penguins then back the way he came to Santiago, Chile.

A flight to Sydney, Australia, and a circuitous route to Perth before catching another flight to Cape Town, South Africa. Up through the African continent, passing through a number of countries with ongoing armed conflicts or that have been the target of attacks, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and Libya.

A ferry from Tunisia will get him to Italy before doubling back to Southern Spain. In Europe he’ll swing as far west as Ireland, then push north and east through Scandinavia and thereafter across the vast expanse of Russia.

He’ll skirt China before making it to Singapore and a flight to Anchorage for his final stretch. Running diagonally across Canada to get to Toronto and then, if there’s time, spanning the United States via Route 66 before hustling once again to Daytona.

“The magic word is constance,” he explains. “I will be making use of cruise control, trying to keep as much constance as possible. No, consistency is the word I mean.”

Both words work in my opinion. He will need to be consistently constant, constantly consistent.


“At the start there will be a learning process,” Grizzly says. “Training my body to do this every day, to overcome the physical pain that comes with tiredness. I have to go through a sort of ‘sleepy portal’ and it’s hard. That’s what concerns me most.”

“Not warlords or terrorists?” I ask. “Because, that’s what would concern me most.”

“I’m in denial,” he smiles. “But I will have some help. I’ll always be in contact with people who can let me know what’s up ahead. Members of the French Foreign Legion will be giving me advice in North Africa. I can always change route; I’ll trust my gut. If anything happens, though, I’ll run. I’m not going to pick a fight, but I’m not going to surrender. The bike is faster than anything they’ll have and there are a few extra things on it to help me escape.”

One of these things is a canister full of tire-piercing road tacks, which can be seen by the bike’s left exhaust. I press for details on any other tricks Grizzly may have up his sleeve, but he prefers to keep to them to himself. I don’t imagine there’s anything too exotic, though, because Grizzly will be passing through a lot of countries. And border officials, regardless of nationality, are a famously unforgiving bunch.

Grizzly’s riding career started on a moped at the age of 14. When he was 22, he bought a brand new Yamaha FJ1200 and set out to see the world. He eventually wandered to southeast Asia, where he spent a number of years bouncing between Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

“That’s where I really learned to ride,” he explains. “I would deliver medical supplies and the like to faraway villages, and often the roads were terrible. If there were any roads. Thailand has hundreds of islands and some have no roads at all.”


Now 52, he’s making a name for himself as a long-distance traveller, uniquely choosing to do so not on a BMW R1200GS or some other bells-and-whistles adventure bike, but the Victory Cross Country platform.

“That chassis just makes sense,” Grizzly explained. “The first time I rode the bike everything felt right.”

Grizzly’s first Cross Country, which he used to circumnavigate the globe in 2014 was pretty much stock. But the Cross Country Tour he is using for this attempt has been heavily modified. Dubbed Daytona1, the only aspects of the bike that have not been changed, according to Grizzly, are the frame and engine.

“I’ve increased the amount of air that gets to the engine,” he says. “But nothing else.”

Elsewhere, however, the list of changes runs long. Some of the ones that stand out are:
  • Increased ground clearance
  • Upward-angled exhaust (which sounds amazing)
  • Larger fuel tank
  • Custom seat
  • Passenger accommodation and luggage removed (which Grizzly says has reduced weight by 110 lbs.)
  • LED fog lights
  • A cockpit littered with GPS, tablet and phone units
  • Multiple cameras 

His personal preparation is a little less complicated: physical exercise, eating right. Grizzly drinks coffee as we speak but says he will cut it out of his diet in the week or so before he sets out.

“I don’t smoke,” Grizzly says. “And when I’m not on a race like this I only have coffee once in awhile. On the bike, the effect of that sort of thing – the up and down of your mood – messes with your mind over long distance. Energy drinks, too. Plus, they can be bad for your body. It’s better to just stop and have a power nap.

“In those final two or three days, when I know I’m so close to the end, and the psychological weight of this thing – two years of planning – is the heaviest, I might have a cup of coffee. We’ll see.”

Grizzly got his nickname in part because his real name, Urs, means “bear,” and grizzlies are apparently some of the more reclusive in the bear world. But he’s not as gruff as the name suggests. Although Grizzly claims to prefer his own company, he possesses an easy, welcoming nature. When people stop to say hello, he offers a two-handed handshake. He laughs easily, with the full of himself, and when he tells a joke he slaps me on the knee. He is instantly likeable.

As we speak, a translator sits with us. This despite the fact Grizzly’s English is strong enough that we are able to communicate directly – strong enough, in fact, that he playfully makes fun of the translator when she incorrectly translates the concept of torque as “high power” – but when I ask about the challenge of staying focused on such a long ride, he drops into his mother tongue.

On this subject he speaks passionately. I can tell that he’s speaking eloquently. I’m enraptured, despite the fact I can only pick out a few words. His translator is also clearly captivated and allows Grizzly to say far more than any translator would ever remember.


“He, uh, he connects with the universe,” she says, offering more a summary than direct translation. “All the animals, the birds, flora and fauna – he connects with everything. He’s there completely in that moment, aware of everything around him but not needing to think about it.”

Grizzly tells a story of riding in Siberia, on a tediously straight road where he has seen no one for hours. Far ahead of him, he spots a Eurasian eagle-owl gliding just a few feet above the ground. An enormous animal with a wingspan of more than 6 feet, it is flying directly at him. Grizzly doesn’t steer away, doesn’t duck. Somehow he is connected with the eagle-owl, knows the creature sees him and will move when it feels inclined to do so. And, at the very last moment, the bird angles up and soars over Grizzly’s head.

I get it. Probably every motorcyclist does. For him, motorcycling is a means of connection. While others find their place through mindfulness courses or Buddhist chanting, Grizzly finds it amid the drone of a 1731cc V-Twin. After all, a motorcycle, despite its mechanical parts, is the most human of things.

And yet, on this trip there will be more than just connection with the universe. He will, of course, be connected to his team – a close-knit crew that behaves like family – who will be helping him keep on top of things like weather and road conditions. But also, thanks to the bike’s extensive satellite and mobile communications gear, he is hoping to stay in touch with, well, everybody.

During the course of our conversation, Grizzly mentions several times the fact that people can track his progress via his website, www.grizzlyraceteam.ch (Incidentally, if you’re like me and are confused as to why the Swiss domain extension is CH rather than, say, SWZ, it’s because the country tends to refer to itself by its latin name “Confoederatio Helvetica”). He encourages me to download a mobile-friendly version of the site, called GrizzlyTracker, that functions as a sort of app, allowing you to see his most recent location, as well as send messages of encouragement.


You can connect, also, via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And once the trip gets under way, there will be daily uploads of video taken from the four cameras mounted to the Daytona1 bike. All that sounds a bit cheesy and over the top when I write it. But when Grizzly tells me about it, I get the real sense of a person who wants to be able to take everyone on the journey with him. He wants every person he meets to be able to hop on the back of the bike with him and experience the same feelings of connection and clarity that he has when riding.

His enthusiasm is infectious. At the end of our conversation I tell him I’m half-inclined to just hop on my bike and join him on his trip.

“Sure,” he laughs. “But you’ll have to keep up.”

(Originally published on Motorcycle.com)

Comments

  1. Bold talk for a man carrying a liter of water on the bike... I wish him luck, but he will learn a great deal about what is possible and not possible on this journey. I say this being an experience long distance rider in the US with some travel to other continents. Very few places in the world will support a 2k day, and then there is recovery time from that much riding in a 24 hour period that defeats the effort when riding day after day after day.

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