An Interview with a Motorcyclist

MMM corners Jac Kelvie

by Molly Gilbert

I first met Jac Kelvie the way many of us did, at the old Bob’s Java Hut in the mid-1990’s, or at a First Thursday (once the Norton Owner’s Club monthly meeting) at Dulano’s Pizzeria in South Minneapolis. A friendly, bright eyed, bushy-tailed guy, whom one would be hard-pressed to come up with his actual age; everyone seemed to know Jac. He would pull up on one rat bike or another, usually packed with luggage of a sort, just off the road from either a MN 1,000 , a local endurance rally, or an own personal best just accomplished, always with a story.   He is the one guy who would dumbfound you with his latest adventure, usually peppered with one “lady friend” side story or another. They always involved sleeping under or on top of a picnic bench, in a doorway, or simply under his motorcycle cover next to his bike. All this done, not for the love of a woman, but for the love of riding. One hardly has time to share their own stories, as you are so bombarded by the sheer audacity of Jac’s continued adventures. Your story simply pales in comparison. Jac is so full of a love of life and riding, that one story just seems to meld into another, eventually just becoming one big gobbelty-gook of an adventure, so that by the time he is finished, you don’t care what the original questions was, as it’s just so fun listening to where he’s been, and why.

I first heard of Jac’s latest adventure through another motor biking pal, who sent me an e-mail regarding Jac trying to get to Churchill, Manitoba, on a 150cc motorbike. This, following his infamous trip via moped from Minneapolis to Sturgis, South Dakota. Yes, on a moped. His top speed was 26 mph. He rode the shoulder the entire way. But I digress…

We at MMM® decided it is about time we put one of Jac’s stories in print for all to enjoy, so I arranged to meet him at a pal’s backyard firepit on a beautiful autumn evening. Amidst kids, dogs, and the rambunctious drinking habits of others, Jac and I sat down to try to share some coherent stories of his latest adventure.   First, I was surprised at how focused and succinct Jac can be. He is a 76-year old guy with a memory twice as sharp as someone half his age, who managed through all the chaos at the party to keep us on track. But, try as we might to stick to just the Churchill Adventure, we continually veered off, back to the Sturgis Story.

feature117bI distinctly remember one of these events where Jac ended up at a checkpoint in Gillam, Manitoba, a place that Jac says, “You just can’t go any further from.” In fact, he was told in Thompson, the last town prior to Gillam, that if you make it there to stay the night, “you get a girl with the room.” Of course, as a woman I did a double-take on this claim, wondering if maybe you’d get a “boy” if you were of a straight, female persuasion. But again, I digress. In any case, Jac got the room in Thompson (no girl came with it) and was heading out to Churchill on this infamous road that consisted of dirt, rock and other unfriendly materials for motorbikes. Every two minutes he said he found himself riding on a different surface. Only the shoulder appeared to be ridable, and even that was filled with ruts. He was riding a Honda Goldwing on that particular trip, but crashed on the side of the road on his way to Churchill, so never made it.

I remember this happening, as was entered in the smae event that Jac was, and was concerned, as it looked like he wasn’t going to be getting out of the Canadian hospital any time soon. As it turns out, this is one of the driving reasons behind Jac’s decision to return to Canada: during his hospital stay, he developed a “lady friend” who was a nurse, and (as he says) “everyone falls in love with their nurse,” so he apparently had fond enough memories of her that he wanted a return visit. This time, however, under healthier circumstances, one would hope.

True to Jac’s spirit, when he finally got there on the return trip, he was running a bit behind schedule and had only enough time to pull into the driveway of the hospital, before realizing he would miss his coveted train to Churchill – the only way to get there – if he stopped to visit. So, after three days of riding to visit his nurse, he turned around and opted for the train station instead. Hey, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do! Jac was determined to (finally) make it to Churchill, one way or another.

Jac arrives at the train heading to Churchill; disappointed to learn what was once a train willing to take on motorbikes was no longer. So, he was forced to leave his two-wheeled friend behind and board the train solo. He says he may as well have ridden his bike alongside the train, for he would have gotten there faster. This train was so slow (“How slow was it?” you say) – it was so slow; that it’s average speed was only 20.5 mph with a top speed of only 45 miles per hour. He believes this was mostly due to the unstable terrain the tracks are laid upon. The rail bed is gravel on peat moss and sinks down into the ground with every train’s passing. The good news is that this particular ride used to be a 30-hour one, and it is now only an 18-hour ride.

Once in Churchill, he had 12 hours before the train would take him back to Thompson. When I asked him what he did for 12 hours in Churchill, Jac said he “flirted with the girls in the coffee shop,” then had breakfast while listening to all the stories coming from the many moose and elk hunting parties that depart Churchill. Then he wandered over to the Eskimo Museum in town (which he highly recommends if you are ever in the area). He then took a few pictures at Hudson Bay, then pretty much “just hung about in gift stores” waiting for the train. He said this is a major tourist destination three times per year. When A) the polar bears depart the mainland for the ice; B) The Inuit used to have a huge tradition of whale riding when they came into the Bay, and C) Aurora Borealis is a major attraction there. When he said major tourist attraction, I had to clarify: for Canadians, right? No. Jac ran into Germans, Australians as well as some people from Spain that took a private plane in. It’s a ghost town when these events aren’t taking place, though.   When I asked him what the big goal was in getting to Churchill, he said it was to have a cup of coffee. Jac does this often – traveling somewhere for something as significant as a cup of coffee. Tell this to a typical long distance rider and they will know exactly what you’re talking about. In fact, Jac told me about the time last year when he decided to ride from Minnesota to New Orleans to meet someone for a cup of coffee. He did it over a three-day weekend, on the road, riding for most of it. I questioned, “Jac, don’t you ever just get tired of riding, or bored?” He looked at me as if I was an alien. He truly had no idea where such a question might have come from. “No Molly,” he said, “I just really love to ride.”

The first leg of the adventure, Jac stayed in Bacchus, Minnesota with his old friend, Tom. Jac and Tom started riding in the early 1950s; both on 125cc motorbikes. After that, Jac says he graduated to a 1941 45 cu in Harley-Davidson (with a reverse gear!). After catching up on old times that evening, Jac got a good night’s sleep, and by 10am he left for Canada. He had a 2-hour delay at the border due to a particularly nasty customs official. Frankly, Jac said, “the guy was being an asshole.” He kept looking for “guns, cigarettes or alcohol.” Jac says he must have asked him 15 times in different ways, in different confinement areas, whether he had any of the above on him. He seriously had no idea when he was going to be let go, so finally lay on a bench and fell asleep while waiting for this power tripper to return and ask him the same questions all over again.

Jac has a history with customs and police-types. He’s not sure why, but he was sure to let this guy know that this would be his last trip to Canada.

When picking his ride, he said he had a 100cc that “was just too tempermental” so he selected his 185cc Twin Star Honda. Jac packs extremely light and his preferred gear was a windbreaker over a sweatshirt and tee shirt. He said he brought three tee shirts, a couple sweatshirts and the windbreaker. He also had his notorious hot water bottle with him.

When I was prepping for a trip out West with my boyfriend earlier this summer, Jac loaned me what appeared to be a plastic whiskey flask that he instructed we were to fill with hot water. You were to then drop it down the front of your riding vest. The magic flask doubled as a great foot warmer for your sleeping bag on a cold camping night. He swears by this. He brought this trick with him as this particular bike has only a 6-volt system and he was unable to use his equally famous Widder heated vest.

On his return trip, he was pulled over by the police who said they’d had reports that he was weaving in and out of the white lines. I had to stop him here and ask what in the heck he was thinking – marveling at the fact that this 70-something year old guy felt that it was safe to ride at night, when this 40-something woman feels just riding at night is dangerous in comparison to my 20s or 30s. No, Jac insisted, it was due only to the rain and the fact that he was tired. Riding in the dark is not an issue for him. *Sigh!*   He left on Labor Day weekend – was gone eight days. Says it took him three days to get to Thompson; over 1,000 miles.

Trial to Sturgis on a Moped

This adventure was important, as it has made him the first and only member of “The 500 Club.” See, this all started back when he and two of his pals were sitting at a local coffee shop reminiscing about “back in the day,” when no one had over a 500cc bike, and no one spent more than $500 on it. He says they used to save every penny so they could save up their $500 to go to Sturgis. He said they all challenged each other to see if they could do it again.

They talked about it for a few years until one day they were having coffee when someone approached the table “who rarely had anything positive to say.” This person said that these three guys would never do it – convinced they would simply continue to talk about it, and this spurred Jac on to actually do it. He went to his garage and decided to take his 1979 Motobecane moped.

feature117aBut he soon discovered that “nothing French runs good.” As he prepared for this trip, he did some basic maintenance on it – changed the oil, checked the tires, then hit the road. His trial run was going from Minneapolis to Duluth, leaving at 5:45 am, returning at 11:45 pm. He stopped for coffee and a 45-minute conversation, but otherwise all that time was on the road, with a top speed of 33 mph. The bike broke down three times on this trial run, but Jac realized that he could hack the slower miles. This day was 350 miles round trip, so he now knew he could easily take 300 miles a day. See, he was leaning towards the French-made moped due to the higher speed capability. But when he compared the three breakdowns to that of his trusty Honda 50 – which, although it only got 23 mph, he’d never so much as had to take a screwdriver to it, it made the ultimate decision easier.

When he finally departed for Sturgis, he left Minneapolis at 8pm and got to Montevideo by midnight. He averaged 10mph. He rode Highway 7 – on the shoulder – the entire time. He said he kept it “wide open” the entire way utilizing a “Throttle Rocker, a hair binder and a rear view mirror combination.” At Montevideo, Jac picked up US- 212 and rode the shoulder the entire way until 50 miles from Sturgis. His 536-mile trip to Sturgis took 47 hours with two 6-hour sleep breaks.

Jac said he really didn’t have much of a problem with the 100-degree temps, as he wore long underwear that he would soak with water using a soda bottle with a nail hole punched in the cap. He said everyone he talked to was complaining about the heat, while he claims he literally had no idea what they were talking about with his “air-conditioned” long underwear. He also said he drank lots of Gatorade.

This wasn’t his first trip to Sturgis. Each time he’s gone he’s intentionally ridden a different bike: a 1400cc Intruder, a 700 Shadow, a 500cc, a CX650 and the moped. Each ride he said, NO TRAILER. His first time was in 1984. He says he’s been about ten times since.

Would anyone like to join Jac in the 500 Club? Remember: you’d need to spend less that $500 on the entire trip there and back, riding a bike worth less than $500 with less than 500cc. Yeah. I challenge those chrome toilet riding – oh, excuse me: truck riding, chrome toilet hauling buffoons to make that happen. Cripes – half y’all spend that much on beer runs!


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