Geoff Hill Adventures In Clancy’s Boots
I stood in front of the 1912 Henderson in the National Motorcycle Museum of America, my arms full of boots and my mind full of wonder.
For this was the only surviving example of the type of machine on which a man called Carl Stearns Clancy became the first to ride around the world 100 years ago.
If you’ve never heard of him, you are not alone: I hadn’t until three years ago, when a Dublin biker called Feargal O’Neill told me that Clancy had set off from there on his epic ride.
And the boots I was holding were the ones he had worn, which former TT racer Gary Walker and I had just carried around the world a second time in a recreation of that incredible journey.
When Clancy died in Virginia in 1971, his housekeeper had given them to Liam O’Connor, the 16-year-old son of neighbours.
With the help of Dr Gregory Frazier, the American author who’d turned Clancy’s original magazine articles and photos into the 2010 book Motorcycle Adventurer, I’d tracked Liam down to the university in Western Australia where he was now a professor.
He didn’t need to be asked twice to donate the boots for another global adventure, and they were tucked securely into a pannier when Gary and I set off from Ireland in March this year in the worst snow in living memory.
Clancy had picked Dublin as his departure point to honour his Irish parents, and as we followed his journey down through England, the blizzards were so bad that at times we could hardly see our front wheels.
In Holland, it was the coldest March in 1922, torrential rain followed us all the way down through France, and the day we crossed the border into Spain was the first time we saw the sun since starting.
Still, at least our BMW R1200GS Adventures had heated grips which Clancy would have given both arms for. As it were.
They could hardly have been more different than Clancy’s 1912 Henderson – a 934cc seven horsepower inline four with one gear and no front brake which was advertised at the time as the fastest motorcycle in the world.
That alone made Hendersons the bike of choice for many US police forces until the factory closed in 1931 at the start of the Depression.
Clancy would, I suspect, have been pretty amazed not only at gizmos such as an electronic suspension system you could toggle on the move between Normal, Comfort and Sport, and within those modes set it for every riding load from Victoria Beckham on Diet to Two Fat Ladies with Kitchen Sink, but at the fact that his Henderson averaged 60mpg, yet the Beemers, with 110bhp and a top speed approaching 130mph, reached 55.4mpg at a trip average of 51mph, giving me a range of almost 400 miles to a tank.
And even more amazed by the fact that filling the tank of his Henderson at the start of the trip in Dublin cost him about 5p, compared to 46 quid for the GS.
Since the Henderson regularly broke down as a result of the punishing roads, Clancy would also have had his mind slightly boggled that the only maintenance we had to do apart from a service was to top up the oil and the air in the tyres.
In Algeria, the roads were so good that he took it up to its top speed of 65mph, until his eyes watered so much that he decided speed wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and returned to a gentlemanly pace more suited to his riding gear: a three-piece suit with shirt and tie, topped by a flat cap which in the Far East was replaced by a pith helmet he bought in Port Said.
In Sri Lanka, we could have done with one as we were soaked daily by monsoon rain, and after we had made our way from Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai to Nagasaki, we followed the route that Clancy had taken as he rode north to Tokyo.
Back then, he met no motorbikes and only a single car in his time there. It is, of course, much the same today.
In San Francisco, we met up with Dr Frazier and a bunch of Clancy fans, and rode north then west with them through country where Clancy struggled and swore at roads which were little more than mule trails.
Today, they could not have been better, as under blue skies, we rode with kindred spirits across a country made for road trips, glorying in the unfettered freedom that only motorcycles can offer.
It reminded me, yet again, of why I go on these epic bike adventures, such as from Delhi back to the UK on a Royal Enfield, Route 66 on a Harley Road King, and Chile to Alaska then around Australia on Triumph Tigers.
You see, when I was a boy, every morning was an adventure and a new beginning, but when we grow older, a little of us dies every night: killed by what ifs and if onlys, by mortgages and bills, dry rot and rising damp. And buried under the weight of all the possessions we gather around us, thinking that they define what we are.
When we travel, though, we are children again. And when we travel by motorcycle, we have nothing to think of when we wake but throwing a few belongings into our panniers and riding off down the road, unencumbered by regrets and concerns.
On a motorcycle, every day is still an adventure and a new beginning.
On a motorcycle, I am still a boy on a bike.
And as I rode across the USA with the boots of Carl Stearns Clancy in my panniers, a boy who was a little proud that he had thought how wonderful it would be to recreate Clancy’s journey on its centenary.
Our destination was New York, but not before we had visited the National Motorcycle Museum in Iowa, where Clancy’s boots rest today along with his dairies, photos and pith helmet, beside the only original 1912 Henderson left in the world.
As I stood there looking at it, much as I had marvelled at Clancy’s courage in making the journey we had followed, I now marvelled even more to see what he had done it on.
To contemplate it was the act of a madman, and to complete it the act of a hero.
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