CS Clancy Centenary Ride: The rocky road to sleepy Sacramento

Setting off from San Francisco, Clancy rode dirt tracks that made Tunisian highways seem like silk


Carl Stearns Clancy, the first around-the-world biker, whose route we are retracing 100 years on, arrived in San Franciso to find that his Henderson had crossed the Pacific from Tokyo upside down, the Japanese for “this way up” obviously having been lost in translation.

As he was rolling up his sleeves and preparing to laboriously clean the oil off it with kerosene, he heard the sound of another Henderson, and looked up to see a young man called Robert Allen rolling up on his brand new machine.

Bob, as everyone called him, immediately set to helping Clancy with the job, and by the time they’d finished he had agreed to join Clancy in riding across the United States to chart a route for a new northern transcontinental highway.

After two days of hunting around San Francisco in vain for information on the road north, he finally tracked down the secretary of the American Automobile Association, who announced confidently that only 40 of the 900 miles between San Francisco and Portland were poor.

If he’d said only 40 were good, he might have been closer to the truth, muttered Clancy grimly to Allen as they set off for Sacramento on dirt tracks that made the highways of Tunisia seem like ribbons of silk.

At least we arrived at the Virgin Atlantic freight depot in Los Angeles to find the BMWs the right way up in their crates.

Feeling like boys on Christmas morning, we unwrapped them, brought the engines coughing into life and rode north to San Francisco to meet Dr Gregory Frazier, whose book Motorcycle Adventurer, on Clancy’s journey, had been my inspiration for re-creating it. He was now setting off with his friend Richard Livermore to ride around the world a sixth time.

Immaculate Silverwings
We found, parked outside their hotel, two immaculate 30-year-old Honda GL650 Silverwings, and inside were Livermore and a figure I had never seen before but who was all too familiar, with his hair – as black as the bird from which his Crow tribe ancestors took their name – tied in a ponytail.

Down at the docks where, 100 years ago to the day, Clancy had stepped ashore we found several bikers gathered to send us off on the US leg to New York, and an hour later we set off for Sacramento, where Clancy and Allen were so delighted to find a hard driveway encircling the capitol that they rode around it twice, then went around every motorcycle dealer in town trying in vain to interest them in stocking the Friel’s backrests they had fitted before leaving San Francisco.

“ ‘Sacramento always has and always will be dead,’ they’ll tell you in San Francisco, and they sure are right!” fumed Clancy, who at least got some solace when the Harley dealer invited him to a hillclimb challenge on a nearby railway embankment that the Henderson won with ease.

The dirt track that Clancy and Allen had ridden to Sacramento is today a six-lane freeway, but Sacramento was as sleepy as they found it, with the only sign of life a solitary ice-cream salesman and a handful of Sunday strollers.

Dealer closed
Even worse, our plans to challenge the local Harley dealer to a hillclimb were doubly foiled by the fact that he was closed, and those twin spoilsports health and safety had fenced off the railway embankment.

The next morning we were loading up the bikes when Livermore pointed to a rough dirt mound on the edge of the parking lot.

“There you go. There’s the hillclimb you missed,” he said.

Dr G needed no further encouragement, and within seconds he had his Honda firmly stuck halfway up with a wide grin on his face.

Next week: Oregon, and the worst roads of the entire trip

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