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ADV NewsCarl Stearns Clancy: The First To Go Round The World On A Motorcycle

Carl Stearns Clancy: The First To Go Round The World On A Motorcycle

A trailblazing journey 110 years ago that still inspires today.

Published on 07.14.2022

What’s your idea of adventure? Heading out on a trip without a plan? A challenging BDR? Riding in a foreign country? Whatever it is, it won’t best Carl Clancy’s appetite for adventure when he set sail from New York City in October of 1912 on a quest to become the first person to circumnavigate the globe on a motorcycle. 

That might not seem like such an astonishing ambition today, but remember, even in the U.S. at that time, through routes didn’t exist. Instead there was mostly a mishmash of dirt roads and trails meant for local carriage travel. Reliable maps stringing roads together to support long- distance travel were a thing of the future. Now imagine trying to navigate your way through an even wilder Africa or South Asia without even a shared language. On your own, riding an unproven bike built in 1912. 

At the time, Bicycle World and Motorcycle Review described Clancy’s undertaking as “the longest, most difficult and most perilous motorcycle journey ever attempted.” Yet somehow, ten months and 18,000 miles later, he roared back into New York City a hero. 


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His bike was the first model from Henderson Motorcycle, a 965cc, 4-cylinder beast, the largest and fastest motorcycle of its time. How fast? Well, with one gear and only seven ponies, it must have taken favorable conditions to reach its max of 60 mph. More typically, the bike’s cruising speed was 40 mph, plenty of go when you’re traveling bumpy and rutted dirt roads with zero suspension and only a rear drum brake. 

The long (65 inches!), low-slung Henderson Four held 2 gallons of petrol in its cylindrical tank, providing roughly 100 miles of range. Crazy for us to hear today, it also demanded a quart of fresh oil every 175 miles. The Detroit-built Henderson’s 309-pound weight might be the only thing it had over modern touring bikes.

Carl Stearns Clancy first person to ride around the world on a motorcycle
Clancy’s motorcycle had one gear, and seven horsepower. Even so, it was the largest and fastest motorcycle of its time. Photo: Motorcycle Arts Foundation

The inspiration for a RTW ride had come to Clancy, a creative type who tired quickly of conventional office work, after reading about the journeys of previous pioneers who’d set out to circle the globe on bicycles. Of course, in those days, bicycles might have been easier, being light and relying only on leg power, instead of the ocean of motor oil and gasoline that would need to be sent ahead of Clancy to remote regions in North Africa and South Asia.

Most of us would agree that motorcycle adventures are best shared, and Carl did leave the U.S. on a ship bound for Ireland with a buddy, Walter Storey, who had bought his own Henderson Four, a bike that sold for $325 in 1912, which converts to a little over $10,000 in today’s money. 

The trouble was, Storey hadn’t bothered to learn how to ride the thing, and almost immediately after the pair disembarked the ship he got into a tangle with a double decker tram. Literally on the very first day the team was down for the count, with one bike sent for repairs and poor Storey left to temporarily ride on Clancy’s bike’s passenger seat —- which rather comically was positioned ahead of the rider and between the pullback tiller handlebars. 

It must have been a sight, those two grown men in three-piece tweed suits and flat caps bouncing along on one bike, which was further ladened by their combined 75 pounds of gear, which included a typewriter, film and movie cameras, and a “silk balloon tent.” 

Once the bike was repaired the duo traveled through Ireland, then on to Scotland and England and Europe, taking an impromptu two month break in Paris, where, according the Irish Times, they “enjoyed the delights of Paris,” indulging in everything from museums to the original, then highly risqué Moulin Rouge. 

Carl Stearns Clancy first person to ride around the world on a motorcycle
Clancy’s Henderson Four stuck in mud while traversing Idaho. Photo: courtesy of Liam O’Connor & the Clancy Family Collection via Rider Magazine

For Storey the RTW quest ended in Paris, where he stayed on to enjoy what Carl described in from-the-road posting telegraphed to sponsor, Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review, as “the vigorous, throbbing life of Paris and its citizens.” And so, Clancy was left to ride off toward Spain by his lonesome. 

It’s hard to conceive what it must have felt like for Carl as he chugged away from the whatever meager conveniences and comforts Europe’s civilized areas offered overlanders back in 1913. I mean, maps? Some only showed dots for towns and cities with no roads drawn to connect them. “One must die sometime,” he wrote about thinking he was a goner while riding after dark in Spain, “and to die with one’s boots on is very noble.”

Even today, on modern motorcycles and with the ever-present, invisible safety net of technology, a RTW ride sounds like a wild and potentially dangerous quest, right? Imagine what it would have been like riding across Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt over a hundred years ago. “To contemplate it was the act of a madman: to complete it the act of a hero,” wrote Geoff Hill, who retraced that first-ever RTW motorcycle ride in 2013 and penned the book In Clancy’s Boots.

There were definitely frightening moments for Clancy, including the time “six Arabs on ponies suddenly appeared and gave chase, firing their rifles.” Clancy was able to outrun the probable bandits and hide in the mountains until the danger passed. 

His favorite country to ride through was Japan, calling it “the most fascinating country in which to motorcycle. Everything is so different, so beautiful, so peculiar in its charms.” The most concentrated danger he faced was traveling through present day Sri Lanka where he had several close calls due to dangerous encounters with water buffalo and leopards on the jungle passes, while jackals would prowl around his tent at night. 

Where are the very worst roads Clancy encountered in his 18,000 -mile journey? Oregon. That’s right. Not the rugged coastline of North Africa nor the muddy jungle paths of South Asia, but crossing the Cascades west of Portland. In San Francisco he’d been joined by another friend, Robert Allen who was riding a 1913 Henderson, and evidently, there were days when the two barely covered 20 miles for all the rocks and mud. 

Clancy roared back into New York City in August 1913, making history as the first person to successfully circumnavigate the globe on a motorcycle. One of his most profound takeaways and something every motorcycle traveler can relate to? That by no other means could he have “obtained such broad insight” into countries and cultures through which he traveled. 

Tens of thousands of riders have followed Clancy’s lead to ride around the world, but few have braved it on a bike as difficult to ride (or keep oiled) as the Henderson Four. Motorcycle Classics has a great article about the rare bike on its website that includes an interview with an owner of one of what’s likely the last six examples in the world. Just reading how tricky it is to ride will make you want to give your modern motorcycle a pat of appreciation. 

We found another great read, this one with a more detailed account of Clancy’s adventure, in Rider Magazine. And if you’re up for another story time that helps us remember how lucky we are to live in the time of modern bikes and roads, read about the Van Buren sisters, who made history with their 5,500-mile transcontinental ride all the way back in 1916. 

Author: Jamie Elvidge

Jamie has been a motorcycle journalist for more than 30 years, testing the entire range of bikes for the major print magazines and specializing in adventure-travel related stories. To date she’s written and supplied photography for articles describing what it’s like to ride in all 50 states and 43 foreign countries, receiving two Lowell Thomas Society of American Travel Writer’s Awards along the way. Her most-challenging adventure yet has been riding in the 2018 GS Trophy in Mongolia as Team AusAmerica’s embedded journalist.

Author: Jamie Elvidge
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