Inspiration: Big Trip

Tiger riding at the end of the earth

Conquering the fear: Spain to the North Pole

When friends warned Carlos Llabrés “it’s impossible, you’re crazy… it can’t be done” little did they realise it was just the motivation he would need to achieve the ultimate polar goal.

He knew the dream would depend on planning, luck, determination and good weather to prevent it sliding off track, but those friendly warnings kept echoing around his head over 30 gruelling yet magical days that stretched the team’s physical and psychological strengths to their limits.

Sergio and I make eye contact in the morning. Without speaking we understand what each other was thinking. Now it begins.

Carlos Llabrés (Coco)

Nothing but ice

Four shared goals would be the fuel for bike mechanic and tour leader Carlos, doctor Sergio Morchon and support driver Pablo Colmenarejo…

  1. Seeing the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, the spectacular celestial light show created when electrons collide with air particles along the earth’s magnetic field.
  2. Reaching the North Pole latitude line
  3. Riding to Nordkapp on a Tiger 800XC and Explorer 1200 with a Jeep for back-up.
  4. Achieve the first three and get back to the Spanish capital of Madrid safely and still friends!

Carlos said: “Many thought we were crazy or that it was impossible. We thought it was a very delicate but doable project, and one thing we were certain of was that we’d try.”

The Trip:, Madrid to Nordkapp

Stage 1

Madrid to Berlin

Carlos: Months of planning and we’re a perfect team. I look after the bikes and Sergio will look after me because I suffer from angina. Strong side winds for 400km from Madrid to Girona until we stopped in Mulhouse, France. Stop-start today, which I don’t like. Still, better than being locked up in an office for 10 hours. Monotonous day with some brilliant moments, like when we sang Nino Bravo’s Free through intercoms.

Stage 2

Berlin to Tallinn, Estonia - via Vilnius, Lithuania and Riga, Latvia

Carlos: After reaching Vilnius, Sergio and I make eye contact in the morning. Without speaking we understand what each other was thinking. Now it begins.

Sergio: A light layer of snow covered the bikes first thing. It’s the first time, and there will be many more. But the first is always special. Soon after leaving Vilnius, the roads improve. Asphalt is dry, and the sun appears, following us from Spain. We reach the snow-covered Hill of Crosses in Siauliai, a magical place where from time immemorial Lithuanians have planted crosses for each loved one deported to Siberia and disappeared.

Lorry and bikes on ice road
The smallest slip could spell disaster

Carlos: As we approach from the highway we see a forest of millions of crosses, each one representing a desire, an act of faith. It’s deeply moving.

Sergio: Near Riga in Latvia and the stress of driving on snowy roads starts. Sliding a little more than water, less than ice and only stable thanks to the traction control of the Explorer.

Stage 3

Tallinn to Helsinki, Finland

Bike tyre screws
Nails are the guys’ new best friends

Since Riga we have spent two days two bike lengths apart from each other and the Jeep. Snow and ice means trying to get out of that footprint to change lanes brings an indescribable adrenalin rush as your tyres enter the unknown.

Two spans for three hours at average speeds of between 30 and 60km/h meant I dreamed that lane. It captures all your attention and you forget where you are going. In Helsinki we head for the Triumph dealer. The new wheels are no problem, but the nails we need to add are!

We leave the bikes at the splendidly appointed showroom and take the wheels with us, but the electric screwdriver to screw in the nails is not powerful enough. We have no choice but to tighten them by hand, one by one­ – a total of 360 nails – but we’re told it’s not enough. We add more, say goodbye to the Triumph guys and are on our way.

Stage 4

Helsinki to Äkäslompolo via Oulu and Rovaniemi

Carlos: We’ve crossed the Polar Circle to reach Äkäslompolo, 960km from Helsinki and have earned a rest day after 11 days, each one harder than the previous with wind chill of -65 degrees for eight hours a day. I have taken to riding with the feet out of the stirrups to rest my legs and boost circulation, but also to lower my centre of gravity and make the reactions of the bike softer and slower… important on ice.

The bright northern lights
The bright northern lights

Sergio: Everything hurts. I hope it’s only accumulated fatigue and being out of my comfort zone. The beauty of the landscape is monotonous. The main scenery now is the increasingly narrowing lane marking my route on the asphalt. It is our umbilical… veering off it could be disastrous. Fear is the overwheming emotion. Our heated suits and nails are essential. The sun is going down and then suddenly signs announce the Arctic Circle! We just got to the area of perpetual day and night, The Magic Circle! N66 º 33′ 45”. A land of hopes and dreams. We pass it, unaware we have just entered the anteroom of hell ice.

It’s almost dark, the light creates eerie shadows among the firs. The sky falls on our heads and covers us like a leaden dome. The light beam of the bikes barely shows us that almost non-existent dry channel.

At 35 miles from the hotel we leave the main road. We are on lined ice, nothing more. Only the tiny nails are holding us to it. Tension is high. We arrive at the hotel. Some bystanders applaud us. I’m exhausted. Everything hurts. We hug.

Stage 5

Äkäslompolo to Alta

Northern Lights
Our trusty Triumphs reach the Aurora Borealis

Sergio: Starting to get the hang of riding on ice. You learn to differentiate dry asphalt, ice cream, shaved ice or snow. Each has its own characteristics requiring care, but the main problem is mental. If you fear slipping, you’ll advance no more than 20km/h. After a hot chocolate and doughnut, Norway looms as the wind sends snow dancing in mesmerising, bright white swirls across the road. Just 30 miles to Alta and in the darkness of the night, I pick out the 8% gradient with curves. Despite the danger I admire the beautiful gorges, towering walls of rock and ice. The moon is hidden – we are at the mercy of the great lights of the Triumph.

Bad winds are forecast so we sit tight. Safety comes first. Nordkapp can wait.

Stage 6

Alta to Nordkapp

Carlos: This morning things did not look good. It had snowed all night. Spirits are low and we have 30km to go. Halfway is a barrier where we join a daily convoy with a snowplough. The wheel studs on both bikes are badly worn, forcing us to unscrew each nail for grip. We explain the reason for our trip to the head of the convoy who tells us we follow at our own risk. There is much to lose.

I’m nervous. The barrier opens and we have to keep with the convoy. Adrenalin courses as we keep up. I begin to glimpse our destination a couple of miles off. Soon all our dreams have become real. Target reached, the emotion warms me and a tear falls. Tears, hugs, dreams fulfilled. Today was a special day. It will be for many years.

We conquered the fear.

bigtrip-northern-montage

Now I know nothing is impossible. You can go where you want and when you want on a bike.

Carlos, back in Madrid