It’s been said that traveling though magnificent country at the wheel of an automobile is akin to making love while wearing a condom. I guess it’s clear where the motorcycle fits into this simile.
It would perhaps be more politically correct to point out that a person driving a car is separated and insulated from the world outside – by windshield, windows, air conditioner, radio – and thus merely observes his or her surroundings; while the motorcyclist engages and participates with the environment at a much more intimate level.
This loss of immediacy might be a worthwhile sacrifice if you’re travelling through parts of the American Midwest where the scenery can consist of little more than cornfields for hour after hour, but when it’s Alaska that’s rolling under your wheels, well, it’s at least worth giving the matter some thought.
Fact is, even among permanent residents Alaska has a surprisingly strong and thriving motorcycle culture – especially given the brevity of our summers and the paucity of our roads. To make up for the former, many Anchorage bikers hit the pavement while side streets and even the edges of the main drags are still treacherous with ice and everything wears a skittery coating of winter’s leftover pea gravel. There are even a few intrepid riders who claim their places on Alaska streets year-round, on custom three-wheelers or sidecar rigs – and under a whole lot of clothing.
As a recreational Alaska cyclist, it is to be hoped that you’ll never have to face the conditions that these folks endure, but there are certainly lessons you can learn from them. Consider, for example, that Anchorage had fresh snow coating the pavement well into May of 2013, and be aware that any roads you ride in Alaska at any time are likely to be treacherous with grit in spots, if indeed they’re paved at all.
It would be difficult to generalize about what sort of bike might be appropriate for your Alaska adventure, since that will depend on a great number of variables, the least of which involve your own experience and exactly where (and when) you plan to ride. However, although there are local riders who pilot everything from full-on choppers to hyperactive street racers under conditions that would make most off-road endurance riders nervous, a little common sense can go a long way. Given the fact that many of our roads are not paved and likely to be booby-trapped with sand, mud and worse, a lot of people favor larger-bore dual-purpose rides, which tend to be the bikes of choice of local rental outfits.
And, again with those less-than-perfect roads in mind, a windshield will be welcomed.
The ideal Alaska adventure bike should be relatively light and maneuverable (after all, in early summer dodging moose is a common participant sport). It should be equipped to go for reasonable distances between fill-ups, especially if you plan to venture onto the ragged fringes of the road system where service stations are rarer than stop signs (peanut tanks, though they might look stylish, are a no-no). Tire type is another critical factor that will again be driven by experience and objectives, though if you’re hoping to tackle some of the dirt tracks that we fancifully call roads in parts of the state a dual-purpose or “enduro” tread would be a good choice; and many who’ve opted for knobbies haven’t regretted that decision.
More important than tread design is puncture resistance. It can be a long push to anywhere, even when you’re within sight of the lights of Anchorage. Consider using “Slime” or some other recognized puncture prevention system, and throw a can of “instant spare tire” in your bag as well.
While packing, be aware that Alaska weather is fickle and prone to going from blistering summer heat to cold and fog and rain in a heartbeat. Be prepared for such meteorological whimsies by packing the appropriate clothing somewhere that is easy to get at without unpacking everything you own. If you’re sporting saddlebags, keep items that you’ll likely need in a hurry on top or in their own container. A tank-top bag dedicated to these sudden essentials can be a blessing.
If you’re new to Alaska, the question of wildlife, and protection against it, might occupy your mind. Should you plan to camp, a can of bear spray can be a comfort. Any recommendations about personal firearms would be far beyond the scope of this article, other than to point out that, as with bear spray, if you can’t get to it quickly, you might as well be carrying a toaster.
The greatest danger from our local critters is likely to be that sudden encounter that takes place when you turn a corner at speed with your eyes full of scenery and your mind full of song lyrics; only to find a representative of the Alaska wilderness community staring at you from the road ahead with a bewildered expression on its furry face. In situations like that, all you can hope for is good reflexes and effective brakes. It’s best to remember that, just because you’re out of the habitat of clueless human pedestrians, you should never really let your armor down.
Camping or riding, your most serious problem with our big, wild life is apt to be with the little guys. Be sure to carry bug dope for camp (products containing DEET are recommended), and something to clean your glasses, goggles, or helmet shield with should you ride through a kamikaze cloud of mosquitoes or no-see-ums.
Most important, don’t let worries about bugs, bears or weather hold you back. Alaska is a biker’s dream destination, featuring mile after mile of vistas that would each merit a scenic turnoff anywhere else. Use a little common sense, sure, but get out there and tackle the roads of the Great Land on two wheels, and put the adventure back into your riding.
Whatever your interest in cycling in Alaska, there are resources online that will help you stay on track. Here are a few to get you started.
Alaska Motorcycle Riders (great clearinghouse for information on rides, rentals and more): http://www.meetup.com/Alaska-
Motoquest (including information on the annual June 500-plus mile Dust to Dawson Ride): http://www.motoquest.com/guided-
Denali Highway (everything you need to know about Alaska’s most coveted ride): http://www.blm.gov/ak/st/en/prog/recreation/denali_highway.html
Bruce Woods is a longtime Alaskan and former editor of Dirt Bike, Big Bike and Choppers, among many other national magazines.