In his memoir, Wind, Sand, and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.” First published in 1939, the book recounts the author’s experiences as a par avion mail courier, centered on his near-fatal plane crash in the Sahara Desert. It’s a book Alex Earle holds dear, drawn as he is to Saint-Exupéry’s writing style and his love of exploring parts unknown. For three years, Earle thumbed his copy’s well-worn pages, searching for inspiration as he built the Ducati Desert Sled-based Alaskan.
“It’s more of a device that gets you into the wilderness and puts you in these hostile environments, but is so perfect in its execution that it disappears as a machine,” Earle says of his bike. “The ergonomics are so perfectly formed for me that it feels like it’s truly an extension of me…tailored to the point where it really does disappear as a machine.”
Earle is a veteran designer in the automotive industry and a part-time professor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. While he enjoys his work, he envies the bold adventurers who see firsthand the remote, uninhabited places to which Earle’s mind often wanders. He grew up outside of Moab, riding his mountain bike through the red dirt of the Mars-like landscape, and was changed by his first trip to Alaska a few years back. “When you’re standing on the pegs, doing 80 mph on the Denali highway, you’re really just out there,” he says. “You’re looking over the handlebars and don’t see anything in the front of you. You feel like a nuclear centaur.”
He returned home, possessed by the idea of building a motorcycle to take back to Alaska. Having experience with air-cooled Ducatis, Earle picked the Desert Sled as a stout, simple-enough foundation. He stripped the Sled down to engine and frame, then hand-shaped the bodywork, seat, and fenders with modeling foam and Bondo. Wanting a “middleweight ADV bike with all the necessities and none of the frills,” Earle shaved every bit of excess material until he found the ideal form.
The 21-inch front wheel is critical to the proportion of the bike. It tells you immediately what it is and what it’s built for.
Outfitting the bike required ingenuity and restraint. Earle had to prepare Alaskan for whatever it might find in those far-out places, but the purity of the bike couldn’t be corrupted by electronic assists and unnecessary niceties. He started by creating a secondary two-gallon fuel tank to support the custom six-gallon main tank; the gravity-feeding secondary is seamlessly molded into Alaskan’s tail section. Earle commissioned a Kevlar skid plate and a carbon-fiber windscreen, then created 3-inch aluminum extenders for the swingarm in order to achieve a 62-inch wheelbase, the same as a BMW F 800 GS or KTM 1090 Adventure. Baja Designs auxiliary LEDs, crash bars, and a heavy-duty luggage system were requisite, as were the larger Excel rims that Earle laced to the stock hubs. He says, “The 21-inch front wheel is critical to the proportion of the bike. It tells you immediately what it is and what it’s built for.” He had the bike painted in bone gray and finished with NASA-inspired graphics.
Praise poured in after Alaskan debuted at the 2018 One Moto Show in Portland, but Earle couldn’t hear it. He worried his beautiful machine wouldn’t perform in the wild. Would the swingarm extenders fail? Would the suspension blow out trying to support the 6-foot, 4-inch Earle and 200 pounds of luggage? Would the larger front wheel smash into the forward-facing cylinder head? He needed to know, so he planned a two-week trip to Alaska to brutalize his creation. “I can unequivocally say that it exceeded my expectations,” Earle says with a sigh of relief. The airbox, tucked high in the frame, stayed dry through deep water crossings, and the skid plate took hits like a punch-drunk boxer. When beads of fuel started sweating through tiny fractures in the main tank, Earle used resin from a surfboard repair kit for a temporary fix.
Alaskan’s nostos went better than Earle ever expected, and now his wandering mind is on flights of fancy to Baja, Morocco, and Iceland. He’ll get there, but not before coming back to real life for a while, designing and teaching and needlessly futzing with the Alaskan to feel closer to his next adventure. In the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “It is in the compelling zest of high adventure and of victory, and in creative action, that man finds his supreme joys.”