A MOTORCYCLE RIDE THROUGH THE SAHARA
Be careful what you read. Craig Exley wasn't. He picked up an article by the doyen of desert travel Chris Scott, and it set in motion an episode of his motorcycling life – to ride the Sahara - that became an obsession, and induced a rift in his family relationship.
'Desert Travels' is the seminal work among many travel books Chris Scott has authored and contributed to. Craig absorbed this and any other books he could get hold of on desert travel. The die was cast, his wife was 'horrified'. With a job, mortgage, and kids; taking off to the Sahara on a solo motorcycle journey was not part of the contract. How to explain or justify an obsession such as this...you cannot.
This particular two wheel desire didn't spring from nowhere. As a kid Craig spent summer holidays on his uncle's farm at Annan in Scotland. Uncle was Roy Black, Scottish Scrambles champion on a 'works' Bultaco supported by the dealers J D Morton. Craig learned his riding skills early on a Triumph Trials Cub and a Honda fifty on the farm tracks.
Then as a teenager he straddled a six speed Fantic moped, and rode with mates at a disused airfield in Surrey; until the cops came along. The bike was always breaking, and by keeping this machine 'on the road' he derived his future mechanical and technical skill from these early experiences.
Fixing and fettling
This fixing and fettling served him well in the eighties when he and his brother fetched up in London working as couriers. He rode and learned all about the foibles of the 'unfashionable' Kawasaki Z250, buying a succession of bikes to cannibalise parts. This was a wild and occasionally lucrative time to be involved in the courier/messenger game. But in between dodging the traffic and staying alive he found time to pilot this little bike around Europe...eight countries in two weeks.
The courier work presented a career opportunity as they say. One of the companies he delivered regularly to, a new and developing IT business, took him on as their own courier, but then a chance became available to learn and work in this area, and Craig's aptitude for things technical came to the fore – he has since helped Chris Scott with sections of his book(s) involving IT.
A succession of bikes came and went as they do: Ducati Strada 850, Bonneville, Suzuki GSXR 750, then a couple of seasons racing, sharing a Yamaha TZ250 racer with his brother, where Craig was the main 'spanner man'. Then towards the end of the nineties came the desert obsession and travel books, the plans to go to the Sahara with mates, hatched over pints numerous, but never materialising, meant he would go it alone.
You will have spotted them at some time across your biking years. The striking Yamaha Tenere models in blue; Faraway Blue. The bike he had decided to use for his journey to Morocco and the desert. Despite the potential family turmoil he bought a 600cc Tenere and spent about a year re-building it for his purposes, including an engine overhaul by Stan Stephens with the bore taken out to 620cc and fitted with Wiseco pistons.
Riding solo across the vastness of desert pistes and dunes is a life shaping experience. It can mess with your mind as the potential dangers are always invading your thought patterns: will my fuel hold out, and how much is the engine really consuming? What if I'm lost, can I reach the next water supply? Is that a different sound from the engine internals? What happens if I crash and I'm injured, or the bike is beyond repair?
Navigating across a terrain where landmarks are deceptively similar was aided by Craig's experience as a microlight pilot. Where instead of relying solely on a map you have to relate what you are seeing on the ground to what is indicated on a map. The latter question was answered by Chris Scott. You set light to your tyres, and hope one of the groups of nomads spots the black smoke, as this is the universal desert distress signal.
The expedition was everything Craig expected it to be in terms of riding desert trails on the Tenere and the austere beauty of the landscape, and he's still married.
He loves the 620 and will never part with it. But some long road rides to the NW200 races in Ireland caused 'white finger' damage to his right hand due to vibration. He resolved to acquire and build another Tenere more suited to road use. He targetted an 850cc, quite rare, and he would build it as a Stephane Peterhansel replica - the French rider who has won numerous Dakar rallies riding Yamaha, and on four wheels too – in Faraway Blue of course.
A wreck of an 850 Tenere was sourced in London, and Craig set about transforming it into a road bike that was a bit special. A rebuilt 850 TRX engine in a French frame, new brakes, new suspension, modified carburation. It now produces 100bhp: 'Quite an exciting bike' as Craig puts it, and a much smother ride to the 2014 NW200 ensued.
Not content with two blues, he has recently added a TDR250 two stroke in original condition to his collection. The bike had been garaged for a while but the seller let him test ride it, whereupon he covered the land in blue smoke. After minmal attention the bike runs great, and Craig's favourite pastime seems to be jousting with other bikes and faster cars through the streets of London when he has to travel there for work.
The best part of this story is that I've been invited to gaze upon and then take to the road on the bikes when the winter road salt has been washed away and the temperature climbs. Thanks Craig, it's a definite date.
John Newman for Wemoto News
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