Preparing for Polar: one man, his R1 and the North Pole
To motorcycle to the North Pole, battle -40C, snow storms, a cracking ice floor and polar bears – you’ve got to be completely mad, have balls of steel or be Sjaak Lucassen. The Dutchman’s epic polar challenge is nearing, so we catch up with him to find out how he’s getting on…
I’m going to ride a modified Yamaha R1 to the North Pole across the polar ice-cap. It’s been my dream for the last 20 years and I’m finally one-year away from starting Stage One. It hasn’t been easy getting here, it’s taken years of preparation, planning and practice runs, but now I’m almost ready…
The plan is to ride a motorcycle from mainland America to the North Pole without any assistance, apart from a support dog sledge or skidoo carrying fuel. I’m aiming to make the ride in three stages, eventually ending up at the true North Pole, not the magnetic North Pole like they did in Top Gear, but the point on earth that sits at zero degrees, where every direction is South.
The big practice run
Back in 2013, I rode 6,200 miles on a modified 2000 Yamaha R1 from the northernmost point of continental USA to the southernmost. Prudhoe Bay is often mentioned when people discuss riding top to bottom, and while that’s the most northern point by road, it’s not the northernmost point – that’s in Barrow, where there are no roads leading to civilization. That meant I had to ride from Barrow over the frozen Beaufort Sea. To keep it a challenge, I didn’t allow myself to attach any third wheels or skis or accept any physical help from other people.
I’ve completed a lot of winter rides in preparation for the North Pole, but nothing was as important as the Beaufort test. Before then, I thought that I’d take on this practice run, spend another year tweaking and then go for the big one. But, in that frozen wasteland, I realised the bike and my planning had a long way to go and it’s taken six years so far to get this close.
What went wrong
I realised that I needed to build a new bike from scratch. The main problems were tyres, engine cooling, balance and the sledge. So, I got another R1 in 2016 and set to work.
Building new tyres was at the top of my list and proved to be an extremely complex task. It took over a year of research and searching for a tyre that I could use as a donor. After I realised there weren’t any, I decided to just build my own. The tyres on the 2013 ride were too hard, they weren’t flexible and too high. I positioned them high to start with so they could roll over obstacles, but because they were also hard it meant they couldn’t flex and get a decent footprint. They had to go.
Going round in circles
The new tyres had to be far wider, but wide tyres with small diameters don’t exist. So, in the end I decided to design my own and came up with the idea of melding two tyres together to create one large tubeless one. I got in touch with a specialist company who make tyres for Dakar vehicles. And also, another company that make tyres for heavy machinery in Alaska and northern Canada, which is where my donor tyres came from. I pitched my idea and they eventually went for it. It was a long process. I had to build everything so they could vulcanise the rubber.I made moulds, drilled holes in the tyre sidewalls, connected them with metal rings, hardened the rubber at high temperatures, took the metal rings back out and then bolted the holes.
Imagine two tyres bolted and vulcanised together into one tubeless tyre, then over the whole width of that is a new tyre running surface making it one complete tyre. I now have a very soft, very wide tyre with a small diameter. I haven’t ridden with the tyres because the bike isn’t rideable yet, but I believe in them and know it will work.
Keeping it cool
Another problem I had with the bike was cooling the engine. I now have a new radiator with increased cooling capacity. It is completely blocked from the front and side, so no wind can get in. The fan sucks air through the radiator and isn’t a part of wind cooling. Wind came in from the front on the 2013 run and – despite the rad being 70% blocked – the bike still got too cold and when it came in from the side or back, the bike got too hot. Now, when the bike is idling, the fan is strong enough to cool the bike and when it’s in motion it won’t get too cold because it’s blocked up.
The bike will still need to be preheated in the mornings. I’ll carry a little generator to heat the coolant and preheat the carburettors.
One-horse open sleigh
I built my own sledge for the 2013 ride. It was big enough for me to sleep in, but it turned out to be way too heavy. I couldn’t pull it over thick layers of snow on the Polar ice. In the end, I had to hire someone to tow it with a snowmobile. Now, I’m going to buy a very lightweight and smaller sledge and I’ll sleep in a tent. It will still carry all my tools, supplies, food, clothes and sleeping equipment, but it won’t be able to carry all my fuel, so I’ll need someone to accompany me in a support vehicle. But the rules are strict on this one: they’re not allowed to help me, only allowed to carry fuel, take pictures… and maybe shoot polar bears if necessary.
What’s left to prepare
There’s still a lot to get through aside from the bike. There’s the paperwork and permits for actually riding that far north. I need to get a TV Channel and Guinness World Records on board, find a support vehicle and driver, arrange emergency rescue options and I need someone to monitor the weather situation. Plus, for the final section I’ll need to find a dog sled as a motorized vehicle won’t be able to follow me on the snow.
Little cracks, big trouble
I’m not afraid of the cold. People have walked to the north pole in limited gear. I have a generator, a motor, a heat gun, fuel and will always have options to get warm. Honestly, I hope it’s as cold as possible and the temperature stays at -40C! The colder it is, the better chance I have of not falling into any open water or cavities in the ice. That’s the biggest danger I’m facing and I’ll need someone to constantly watch the weather and satellite images all day for movements and shifts in the ground.
The only other obstacle are polar bears. I have options for dealing with them, but nothing is guaranteed.
Santa, here I come!
I’ve been preparing solidly since 2013. Doing everything myself takes a long time, I don’t have a big bag of money and need to rely on people, friends, sponsors and companies to help, so time keeps running away. But now I’m on the home run and am planning to start Stage One in January 2021. The following year I’ll take on Stage Two and the next is the final Stage Three. It’s not possible to do it all in one go as there’s only a short window where it’s cold enough in January, February and March.
People tell me I have to hurry up as the Polar Ice is melting. It is a worry, but if that happens, I’ll make the R1 float. It’s been a life-long dream, I’m so close now, the bike is nearly ready and I’m good to go. No matter what, it’s happening. North Pole here I come!
To the North Pole in three stages
Stage 1: Anchorage, Alaska to Tuktoyaktuk, Canada. 1,100 miles
This road stage will give Sjaak time to get used to the climate and bike and make any modifications.
Stage 2: Tuktoyaktuk to Ward Hunt Island. 1,500 miles
The route depends on the ice conditions as Sjaak will need to avoid pressure ridges, which are piled up ice fragments that can be as high as a house! If there’s no way round, Sjaak will have to tackle them by winching his bike and equipment over. He’ll also need to find a local guide who knows the land, climate and ice for this run.
Stage 3: Ward Hunt Island to North Pole. 500 miles +
Stretches of open water are seriously dangerous and need to be avoided at all costs. Sjaak Lucassen will be riding over polar ice and could easily face huge pressure ridges, which may mean big detours and the 500 miles straight line could change dramatically.
Sjaak’s trip in numbers
- Temperature: -40C
- Rear tyre width: 60cm
- Front tyre width: 30cm
- Regular oil solidifies at: -25C
- Sledge weight: 150kg
- Years of preparation: 13
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