Top adventure motorcyclist has circled world 5 times

2007-09-15T23:00:00Z Top adventure motorcyclist has circled world 5 timesED KEMMICK Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
September 15, 2007 11:00 pm  • 

FORT SMITH - The first time Gregory Frazier rode around the world by motorcycle, it took him four years and he wasn't even aware he had done it.

Frazier was motorcycling all over in search of the best touring roads he could find. He made two videos out of those explorations in the late 1980s, one featuring the 10 best roads in America and another of the top 10 roads in the Alps.

In the early '90s, during one of his return trips to the United States, a friend pointed out that Frazier had been completely around the world during his travels, having gone through each of the planet's 24 time zones at least once.

That fired Frazier's ambition, and it was the start of a globe-trotting career that is now unequaled. He is the only person to have ridden solo around the world on a motorcycle four times, and two years ago he went around the world again, this time with a passenger riding behind him.

And for Frazier, adventure touring really has become a career. For 20 years he has been riding and racing motorcycles all over the world, and when he's not riding he's writing books and magazine articles, producing videos, leading paid tours or giving presentations on his travels.

It hasn't made him wealthy - home base is a single-wide trailer in Fort Smith - but it's all Frazier wants to do.

"I have this disease," he said. "It's called wanderlust. I can't remember not having it."

King of the road

Darwin Holmstrom, a senior editor with Motorbooks, a publisher of automotive and motorcycle books, commissioned Frazier to write "Motorcycle Touring: Everything You Need to Know," one of at least 10 books Frazier has written.

"I really didn't think of anybody else," Holmstrom said. "He was my first choice."

Holmstrom said he couldn't release sales figures for the book, published in 2005, but that it is possibly the best-selling motorcycle touring book ever published. Through the many books and videos, Holmstrom added, Frazier has almost single-handedly created the expanding craze for adventure touring and global motorcycling.

"Greg's definitely the guy," he said. "There are a couple of other adventure tourists, but none of them are as active as Greg."

If Frazier, who turned 60 this month, had merely gone around the world by the most direct route, that would be one thing. The shortest route, through the United States, Europe and Russia, involves about 16,000 miles by land. On two of his circumnavigations, Frazier's path traced a huge "W" on the globe, riding up and down the Americas, Europe and Africa to the northernmost and southernmost points on those continents. Along the way he has put more than a million miles on dozens of motorcycles.

Bob Clement, a BMW mechanic whose shop in Roberts, Bob's Motorwerks, is something a legend among BMW motorcycle owners, has known Frazier for years and knows his place in motorcycling lore. He compared him to the first man to sail around the world.

"Lots of people took off and did what Magellan did, but Magellan did it first," he said. "Greg's the man."

A fighting Quaker

Frazier was born in 1947 in Indiana, where his parents - his father was half-Crow and half-Sioux and his mother was white - were attending a Quaker college. Frazier contracted his infatuation for motorcycles in the early 1960s, after his family moved to Billings.

His friend had purchased a 50cc Moped and Frazier wanted one, too. His mother said no, absolutely not, and when he was 15, figuring he needed to get away from things like friends with motorcycles, Frazier's parents sent him off to a Quaker high school in Pennsylvania. It was a mixed success.

"I had to fight my way through Quaker school," Frazier said. "Everyone wanted to take me on. I was the only Indian in the whole school."

At 18, while attending a Quaker college in Philadelphia, Frazier was finally old enough to buy a motorcycle without his mother's permission. His first bike was a Honda 305.

"I rode that thing - I rode it into the ground," he said. "It was just freedom."

In 1970, when he was still in college, he spent a month and a half motorcycling around Europe. It wasn't a major adventure, compared with his later exploits, but it taught him that language was no great barrier and that he could make his way across borders, dealing with visas, paperwork and different currencies.

"After that, the world was mine," he said.

It would still be some years before Frazier surrendered to wanderlust. After earning a master's degree in business administration from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., he worked for about five years as "a consultant, lobbyist and corporate pooch," as he said in an interview with the university's alumni magazine in 2005. But by the mid-1980s, he'd already had enough.

"I dropped all that and just decided to let this disease run its course," he said.

In addition to making videos, he started writing, eventually becoming a regular contributor to most of the major motorcycle touring magazines in the United States, Japan and Germany. In 1994, he wrote his first book on motorcycles.

"The publisher came up with the title and then we had to think of a way to fill 150 pages," he said. The title was "Motorcycle Sex: Or Freud Would Never Understand the Relationship Between Me and My Motorcycle."

Round and round he goes

After discovering that he had accidentally circumnavigated the world, Frazier set his sights on a more methodical repeat. He talked to a German travel writer and people at Guinness World Records and was advised to file a formal "flight plan" to document and validate his journey. But Frazier, ever the lone wolf, didn't like the idea of living by anybody else's rules.

As for Guinness, he said, "They're in the business of selling books. They'll put you in their book for shoving nails up your nose."

For his second trip, begun in 1997, Frazier decided to trace that giant "W" on the globe, going to the ends of the road on four continents. Those outposts have suitably exotic names: Deadhorse, Alaska; Ushuaia, Argentina; North Cape, Norway; and Cape Agulhaus, South Africa.

It took him two years to complete that circumnavigation, including the six months he spent back in the states after running out of money in Africa and flying home to earn enough to complete the trip. He did the whole trek on a 1981 800cc BMW. Although Frazier is a certified BMW mechanic and used to race BMWs, he calls himself a "motorcycle agnostic."

In one of his books, "Riding the World," he said that when people ask him to name the best bike for circling the globe, "My answer is always the same, 'Whichever bike suits you.' "

That willingness to ride almost anything became the basis for his third big trip, begun in 2001. His goal was to ride around the world on motorcycles made on each continent. He soon learned that no bikes were manufactured in Australia, Antarctica or Africa, but he still climbed aboard lots of different machines.

Those included a Harley-Davidson and an Indian in the United States, a BMW in Europe and an Enfield, SYN, Hartford and Honda in Asia. In South America, he rode an Amazonas, the only motorcycle ever manufactured there. At the time it was built, the Amazonas was the biggest bike in the world - basically a Volkswagen engine crammed onto an Indian frame.

After Frazier completed his third global ride, his editors at Motorcycle Consumer News asked him to write a series of articles on preparing an unfamiliar motorcycle for a trip around the world. He spent the next six months, with lots of help from friends, customizing a Kawasaki KLR 650cc bike with $3,000 worth of improvements, including a steel skid plate, disc brakes, special foot pegs, heavy-duty shocks, stainless-steel replacements for every nut, bolt and screw, and a much larger, more comfortable seat.

A sliver of doubt

Then came a challenge from a friend. The motorcycle might look primed for a trip around the world, he told Frazier, but how would he know all the modifications were up to the task unless he put the bike to the test? That sliver of doubt, once planted, wouldn't give Frazier any peace, and in 2002 he set off again.

This time he followed a fairly direct route - though with detours to Cuba and the Sahara Desert - spending five months motoring through Europe, across all eight of Russia's time zones and then the United States. Frazier wasn't sure if anyone else had soloed around the world three times by motorcycle, but he knew four times was a singular achievement.

"I was done," he said. "I'd done everything I could think of. I was retired."

Or so he thought. Then Donna-Rae Polk asked him to take her around the world. This was in 2004, a couple of years after Frazier had met Polk in Denver. She was 61 and had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. She wanted to go on a dream trip, to see the world before it was too late.

"I said, 'No, honey, I'm done,' " Frazier recalled, but Polk was persistent.

He did finally agree to take her, though she was going to have to pay for the trip, and they jointly decided to do another ends-of-the-earth voyage, going as far north and south as they could on four continents.

Frazier still wasn't sure he wanted to do it, but he figured he would wear her out on the first leg, from Mexico to the top of Alaska. They took the Kawasaki, camping out on the side of the road, and they bounced and slid over mud and gravel on the final 250 miles. On the way home, still hoping to dampen her enthusiasm, he drove from Seattle to Fort Smith in one day, then to Denver the next day.

The day after arriving in Denver, as Frazier tells it, "She said, 'When do we leave for South America?' "

He knew he was whipped, and off they went, completing their circumnavigation in late January 2006. It wasn't easy sharing one motorcycle for 25,000 miles. After they reached the bottom of Africa, Polk flew back to Colorado for a month and Frazier rendezvoused with some motorcycling friends in Germany. He also flew to Lake George, N.Y., to give his hour-long adventure presentation at a tour bike rally, something that had become a steady part-time job.

When the trip was over, though, Frazier figured it was worth it.

"I needed some good karma," he said. "I think I got enough karma on that trip to balance the scale."

Frazier figures he has another 10 good years left on a motorcycle. He has no plans for further circumnavigations, instead focusing on going back to his favorite places, or seeing new ones.

He left Saturday on the first leg of a trip that will take him to the Japanese island of Hokkaido. He will be the "personality" on a two-week motorcycle tour sponsored by Aerostich Motorcycle Tours. After that, he'll be traveling on his own in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Other trips are planned well into the future.

"If I was born 125 years ago," he said, "I think I'd be riding a horse around North America."

Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.com or 657-1293.

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