“After 87 days on the road, two weeks since I’d slept indoors, in the middle of the seemingly endless plains of Eastern Kazakhstan, I watched in horror as the oil drained out of the bottom of my motorcycle’s shock absorber. This was not good. I was still over a month away from my destination in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I knew from having spent a year living in Bolivia and traveling across South America by motorcycle that the shock failure presented a real challenge. Alone, and without replacement parts, there was little I could do in that moment but reflect on how this situation could have been avoided. How could I have seen this coming? Everything I had read and researched about that shock design and the materials used in it indicated that the shock could survive even the most unforgiving roads and tracks that I would face in Central Asia.
Eventually I made it to a small city in Siberia where I found a mechanic with the necessary tools needed to disassemble the shock. Once apart, I could see the wear that had accumulated to the small internal rubber O-ring that initiated the failure of the entire device. Without a source of the specialized spare parts needed to properly repair the shock, the Russian mechanic and I had to rebuild the entire device using only scrap parts lying around his shop. I had always been interested in exotic and specialty materials, but it was the arduous experience of having that shock absorber break in Kazakhstan, and of seeing the damage done internally to the shock absorber, that solidified my desire to apply high performance materials for demanding applications for a living, and explore better ways of designing those parts to last under severe operating conditions.”
One year earlier I had begun planning the four month-long expedition that would take me from Germany across the Alps, through the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia to Mongolia – on a second-hand Kawasaki. In order to endure the severe operating environments I anticipated encountering, the used motorcycle I was going to send to Germany needed to be rebuilt from the ground up to perform reliably under expedition conditions for extended periods of time.
The parts on the motorcycle would have to withstand incredibly harsh operating conditions: the strains on the engine of operating at altitudes approaching 16,000 feet above sea level, temperatures that ranged from well below freezing in Tajikistan to over 130F in Kurdish Iraq, sudden immersion in ice water, very poor quality fuel and a constantly abrasive environment. There would be nowhere to purchase spare parts – or even tires that fit – if anything failed.
I had spent a lot of time evaluating every aspect of the bike from performance and safety perspectives, querying others who had made similar treks and speaking with enduro parts manufacturers. Ultimately, I decided to rebuild the suspension, reconfigure the cooling system and carburetor and rewire the entire bike. Certain engine components would have to be replaced if it were to survive the strenuous trip. Many of the parts that I needed, ranging from an attachment system for the panniers to replacement parts for inside the engine I would make myself. Every morning at 5:30am I would go to the school’s machine shop. There I’d work on the parts I had designed, machining and testing prototypes, wrapping up the morning’s work before physics class started.”