CMG’s founding editor Rob Harris wanted to see how three different types of motorcycle would cope with a extended ride. What better way of doing this, he reasoned, than by grabbing three Suzukis – a 650 V-Strom, SV650 and 650 Burgman – and having a dual-sport, sportbike and maxi-scooter?
The icing on the cake came with Peter Hoogeveen’s Blackfly Rally, which for the first time was offering a 12 hour “lite” version on the roads of northern Ontario in early August.
It was the final running of the Blackfly. We don’t think it was Editor ‘Arris and Larry Tate, riding with their friend Scott Smith and photographer Richard Seck, who contributed to its demise, but we’re not sure… – Ed.
Words: Rob Harris and Larry Tate. Photography: Richard Seck
Editor ‘Arris takes up the story:
“You know what would be very CMG?” Mr. Seck semi-asked, semi-stated. “That we go for those extra bonus points on the hobby-horse”.
I looked at him with my severest expression of contempt and annoyance. It was already 7:20 pm and we were gassing up somewhere in Sudbury after a long 10 hours and 20 minutes on some so-so northern Ontario roads.
We were also trying to get back to North Bay within the allotted 12 hours of the Blackfly Rally, under whose rules we would lose an inordinate number of points for every minute past 9 p.m. that we checked back in.
“But if we did go for that bonus, we’re almost bound to lose,” I snapped back.
Although we were all tired, to me it was obvious. We reckoned that we were a good 60-to-80 minutes from North Bay (a straight line due east), and we needed to be back by 9 p.m., a mere 100 minutes from now. Doable, but already a tad tight.
The bonus in question would add about another 80 km to our home-stretch and then there’s also the time taken to stop and take the required photographic proof.
Maybe, just maybe, at a good rate of knots and with no traffic, we could do it. But this is CMG. That never happens. We’d be so late, we’d risk losing so many points that we’d end up going into the negative – how sad would that be?
Then it hit me.
Holy shit – it was genius, we couldn’t lose! In all likelihood it would be a disaster and what was turning out to be a well-managed, smooth running day would all go to crap. Trouble is, a well-managed, smooth running day wasn’t anything to write about. There simply wasn’t any drama. Hey, on the off-chance that we did actually make it – even better. A battle against the odds, but with a win-win outcome. Now dat’s genius.
As these mental wheels turned, my scowl relaxed and a big grin broke across my face.
“Mr. Seck, you’re brilliant. Let’s go”.
And Larry Tate takes over the narrative:
Having done the 24-hour Blackfly Rally back in 2000 on a BMW F650GS, I wasn’t overly keen to repeat the experience. In fact, I’d never been so exhausted in all my life, and finishing 28th out of 33 entries was one of the hardest results I’d ever earned.
However, Editor ‘Arris had come up with the idea to test a gaggle of Suzuki 650s, using the Blackfly as an interesting backdrop, and asked me along on my Bandit to direct their personal traffic, as it were.
Thankfully, this year, organizer Peter Hoogeveen (a perennial top runner in the far tougher Iron Butt Rally) had added a 12-hour “Lite” version of his increasingly infamous 24-hour event for those who wanted to sample endurance riding without committing to a full 24-hour marathon. Or, more importantly for us, for those who want to test some Suzukis without enduring the pain of 24 hours in the saddle.
Still, we were on the bikes from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., although my exactly 886 km of leading a V-Strom 650, SV650, and Burgman 650 around Northern Ontario was a mere dawdle in comparison to the brutal 24-hour return run to Chibougamou in Northern Quebec that most of the other entrants undertook.
At the end of it all, my Bandit and I ended up both second and fourth; but more on that later.
Back to ‘Arris:
Our riding companions (Larry and Scott) were being sensible and not about to blow a day’s work on a whim of madness. So it was agreed that shortly out of Sudbury we would peel off and head due south as fast as the road would allow.
Before long we were scooting down Highway 69 on the V-Strom and SV650, heading toward some playground in some town to take some pictures of me on some hobby-horse … perfect.
The early evening traffic was thankfully light, and the road wide, voluptuous and …. fast. However, with the words of the rally organizers echoing in my head – THIS IS NOT A RACE! – we erred our speed on the side of respectability. Kind of.
And lucky for us, as within minutes, the police appeared in the form of an unmarked cruiser at the side of the road, back-window lights illuminating the ground around it in a blood-red splatter. A pickup truck sat mortally injured on the dirt-shoulder in front of it, the driver locked in his seat with a deathly forward gaze, his finances and licence points draining away around him.
Whew! The beast was feeding and as a result we were safe for the time being. But with every opening of the throttle I was reminded that, although trying to do this detour in the time we had left would more than likely ruin our rally chances, after a day of careful planning and controlled sensibilities, it was also the exhilaration that we both needed.
In no time we found ourselves in the town of Alban, our speed down to a walking pace as we scanned left and right in search of the local playground where our bounty of bonus points awaited. And there it was, just to our right at the end of a scattering of buildings along Highway 64 – a playground teaming with kids.
Back to Larry:
Both 12- and 24-hour events start in North Bay, and while an endurance rally isn’t a race (as the organizers loudly insist) you won’t do well if you obey the speed limits religiously.
However, it’s not just speed and distance, either, as there’s a scavenger hunt aspect to any endurance rally. You have a few required checkpoints or stops, and a myriad of bonus optional stops offered that will boost your score and are graded for value according to difficulty.
The bonus may simply be more distance, but it could also be driving over a very bad road, or to a place that’s hard to find or is only open at certain times.
Lots of bonuses = better chance at a win, but if you’re late checking back in, you lose huge points for every minute late, so the exercise of constantly computing speed and distance – what bonuses can you make without ruining your overall time? – is really the high point of such a run. At least, that’s what works for me.
The serious guys have auxiliary fuel tanks, GPS units, high-powered night lights and more – it’s remarkable how some of the machines are set up. The bikes are all inspected beforehand and medical kits and flat-tire repair kits are mandatory. And they’re not 20-something stunt riders either, as the average age is a lot closer to 60 than 20!
Back at Alban’s playground, there was actually a line-up of kids waiting to have a go on our hobby-horse. With all that we had at stake, it was without hesitation that I ran to the front and hastily explained to the once-happy kid that I needed that ride and I needed it now.
I guess 6′ 4” of panting biker is a daunting image to a 7-year-old, judging by the speed with which he dismounted and ran away. By the time I was scrunched up on my new ride, rocking wildly back and forth with helmet waving wildly in hand, the line-up and most of the rest of the playground’s inhabitants had likewise disappeared.
Mr. Seck pulled out the Polaroid, took two quick snaps and as quickly as we had invaded the playground, we were gone. Sorry about that, kids of Alban, I hope the counseling works for you. Really.
For now, the task ahead was to get back to North Bay as close to 9 p.m. as we could within safety and liability limits. The V-Strom was gobbling up the irregularities of the side roads with ease as we zigzagged our way east.
As we approached North Bay the local traffic started to build again, giving us no option but to grind along at its pace, as the minutes ticked painfully by. But luck was with us and we were still in with a chance as we hit the city limits with 10 minutes to spare. Holy shit, I think we might just make it.
You’d think that North Bay, being relatively small and all, would be a no-brainer when it came to finding a motorcycle shop, but as we entered town, I realized that I didn’t actually know where in this town to find the Blackfly HQ.
A quick stop at a Tim Horton’s and a “North Bay Cycle! Where is North Bay Cycle?” resulted in a “Oh, is that the motorcycle shop?” reply and was instantly followed up with a “Yes, yes, yes”.
“Go out of here and take a right, then a left and it’s down the road on the right”.
Go, go, go!
In our case, the base route was pretty simple. From North Bay, we had to have timed gas receipts from both Timmins and Sudbury, and the one from Timmins had to be first on the clock. That pretty much meant north to Timmins, then south and west to Sudbury, then back to North Bay.
Bonuses included sites as far away as Cochrane and south of Lake Nipissing towards Huntsville, so after marking all the bonuses on our maps, it was pretty easy to knock off the impossible ones, tick the easy ones, and keep busy all day calculating the “maybes” we could reasonably attempt to add to our score.
Two of the early bonuses were do-able, but I knew them from my experience doing the rally in 2000 and didn’t think the Burgman would have much fun in the rough gravel getting to at least one, so we scrapped those and headed north. Our bonus stops included a couple of provincial parks, a town square, an abandoned mine, a town dump, and an endless series of Tim Hortons.
“Three Tim Bits, please, and a separate receipt for each, if you please?” The cashiers were all amused and accommodating, except one lady in Timmins who tried to give us the Tim Bits, refused to take any money for them, and finally wrote a note explaining why we wouldn’t have a cash receipt from her store. Just more weirdness for the day …
By the way, I used to think Kingston was the Timmy’s capital of the world, but Timmins is in another league. Unbelievable. You can walk across the entire town from one outlet to the next with barely time to finish your coffee between each.
With directions firmly planted in my fuzzy head we sped out of the Timmies parking lot and took a right, a left, and there it was – lights blaring and parking lot half-filled with motorcycles. We rolled into the parking lot, killed the motors and ran inside.
Bang on 9 pm! Exactly 12 hours with nothing to spare.
Whooh. What a fookin’ rush.
What was proving to be a relatively non-eventful tour of northern Ontario had taken an exhilarating turn for the better and ended in a Hollywood-style ending. What a day it had been.
Good idea Mr. Seck.
P.S. Although you’d think that a rally like this is all about going as fast as you possibly can, the real trick is time management and good planning. It’s easy to go for a bonus that turns out to be too far for the points awarded, or go mad at the beginning and simply run out of steam half-way through.
Rally organizer Peter Hoogeveen did his utmost to stress the endurance side of the Blackfly and the need to not speed. And in our defence, after a day of controlled and law-abiding riding, we only opened her up by one or two km/h over the posted limit where the road allowed anyway.
Oh, as to my second and fourth-place finishes … I finished fourth in my accumulated points, while Rob got second, thanks to that last-minute mad dash to a playground hobby-horse for a final big bonus.
But since I’d basically tour-guided them all day and encouraged the big bonus as a doubtful possibility, he insisted it was all due to me and gave me his second-place trophy. Not quite the same as doing it yourself, but cool nevertheless.
Nice trophy, too.