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This is the translation of an article published in the N°49 of Road Trip Magazine (French Magazine)
The first time I heard about Sjaak was in 2003 in Mali. A Frenchman who met me on the track told me that a guy had crossed Africa a few months earlier on a Yamaha R1. I had just started a tour of Africa myself and the first few weeks had been extremely difficult. I admit I just didn’t believe it. Crossing Africa on an R1? What a joke! It’s just impossible!
Then, the same story was told to me again in Cameroon, Gabon and Congo. As the miles traveled within this fantastic continent, the man with the R1 gradually became a real myth. Kind of like the Loch Ness monster or the abominable snowman. Everyone seemed to have heard about it without ever having seen it with their own eyes. When I finally crossed paths with a mechanic in South Africa who certified that he had helped me with the famous bike, I finally believed in the incredible. He existed! He existed!
When I returned in 2004, I undertook some research on the net. At the time, social networks were only in their infancy, but I managed to find his trace. Yes, this time no more doubt: there really was! The man with the R1, was Dutch and was called Sjaak Lucassen. And not only had he actually crossed Africa by the west coast, the most difficult, but he had also undertaken a round-the-world trip that had been going on since March 2001. I then followed his journey, which ended in 2006, after 5 years of travel. Later, we became “friends” on facebook but without really knowing each other.
But only the mountains never meet and when a few days ago I find out that he is going to pass through Cappadocia where I am, I decide to wait for him. I’m finally going to see the man with the R1 and his bike with my own eyes!
We spend our first evening in a bar in Göreme. He is accompanied by Nathalie, also in R1. After a few beers, I ask them: why travel in R1? Why brave the sand and mud tracks on this bike made for circuit and speed? The answer comes in a huge burst of laughter: “to keep in shape”, and as proof both of them put their legs over their heads. No doubt, they are flexible. I spend the next two days listening to him talk to me about his adventures.
As a teenager, Sjaak spends his time riding motorcycle cross country on the property of his parents, farmers. But already, he is dreaming of Australian wide open spaces. He passed his driving test at the age of 25 and discovered a passion for circuit bikes. His first bike is therefore a brand new Honda Fireblade and it is quite naturally with this one that he made his first trip to Australia in November 1993. Why Fireblade? Because you have to go with the bike you love,” he says. It was during this trip that he first tested the capabilities of an off-road racing motorcycle. The experience is not as difficult as he imagined. Yet at that time, he knew nothing about the subtleties of sand driving and did not even know that it was appropriate to deflate the tires. In fact, what impressed him the most in this first attempt was the taste of the concentrated syrup he had to drink instead of the bottle of fruit juice he thought he had bought. He returned to Europe in March 1993 after travelling 38,000 km on the Australian continent. This first adventure led him to discover his third passion: travel. The road is an addiction and after having sold all his possessions, he left for a second trip in May 1995 with a list of countries to discover well defined and chosen each time for a very specific reason: Russia, because it is the hereditary enemy, Australia again to see friends, New Zealand for its wild nature and because it is on the other side of the world, Japan for its culture, Israel to see the reality of everyday life in this country, Bangladesh and Indonesia that he had already visited but in a backpack and finally Egypt for its archaeological sites. After two and a half years, he met a fellow countryman who was going down the east coast of Africa. He decided to join him and continued the journey to South Africa.
Short of money, he returned in 1998 after 150,000 km. He only wants to go back. But for that to happen, he must become more professional in order to find a way to live from his travels. He started writing articles in magazines and started looking for sponsors. He knocked on Honda’s door, but the brand imposed so many constraints on him that he gave up. Sjaak is above all a free man who refuses compromise. Never mind, he tries the R1 that just came out and immediately falls in love with this bike. His next bike will be an R1, that’s decided. He makes an appointment with the brand representatives and in less than an hour of discussion, he manages to convince them to give him one. He baptizes her Florentina, because he loves flowers. Moreover, on the road he presents himself under the nickname of “Flores”. He adapted aluminum trunks of his design similar to those he had already made on the Fireblade, but with his first experience, gave them a slight forward inclination to bring the center of gravity back towards the middle of the bike. Flores and Florentina left Holland in March 2001, but it was in France in Paris that he symbolically marked the beginning of this new adventure by taking a picture of himself in front of the Arc de Triomphe. Five years later, he took a second picture in the same place to record his return.
The beginning of his journey brought him to Africa. In Dakhla, while waiting for a convoy to reach Mauritania, a Frenchman strongly advises him to turn back: crossing the Sahara on such a motorcycle is just impossible. For Sjaak, this warning sounds a bit like a challenge: his R1 will cross the Sahara, would he have it towed by a camel! And in fact, he succeeded in this crossing without too many problems. Once its tires have deflated to 0.6 bar, Florentina even proves surprisingly manoeuvrable, even in the middle of the dunes. The real difficulty comes a few months later in Congo. It takes him nearly 3 months to get through what he calls a “paradise in hell”. In total, the crossing of Africa took him 16 months.
Then, it is South America, his favorite continent, because of the large wild spaces that do not leave him insensitive he who loves nature above all. Perhaps also because he meets love there in the form of a pretty Venezuelan girl, Sonia, a pretty Latino girl with a devastating smile. He remained with her for 3 months and saved her in extremis from an attempted rape during an armed attack. This remains the most traumatic experience of his travels.
From there, it reached North America and then Asia. Sonia joins him in China and travels with him for a while, perched on the top of his aluminum trunk.
The trip ended in August 2006, when Florentina clocked up 250,000 km.
Since his return in 2006, Sjaak has had a new dream: to be the first man to travel to the North Pole by motorcycle. To this end, he has already made three trips, again in a Yamaha R1, which have allowed him to test the equipment and better understand the difficulties of such a feat: the first to the North Cape in February 2008, the second to Alaska from January to March 2009 and the third, over the Arctic Circle, from February to April 2013, for which he designed a survival capsule that he drags with the bike and in which he can sleep and eat. Since then, he has been working on the design of a motorcycle specifically for this polar expedition: the aRtic1, made from a Yamaha R1 base again. Because it’s this bike he loves and not another.
In the end, who is Sjaak? Is he a man in search of exploits and records? A man in search of the extreme as the title of his website might suggest? I don’t think so. More like a passionate person driven by an insatiable curiosity. An optimist who thinks that the best can come from the worst. A man who likes to take up his own challenges, not for others but for himself. A man with a big heart too, able to turn around to save a turtle crossing a road as I saw him do a few hours before our roads split. A man who decided to live his life on two wheels, without compromise or compromise. To date, Florentina has 345,000 km and he still travels with it. Yamaha offered to buy it from him. He refused.
Before we left, he signed his book for me. “It may take time, but if you stay on the road long enough, you will eventually find what you are looking for. He’s right, the myth has become a reality. I finally met the man at the R1.