Hubert Kriegel and his sidecar are inseparable – evidenced by the way he fixes his glance on you with his light eyes, through his landmark red spectacles, you just know that he has a story to tell…
Imagine ridding yourself of all your worldly possessions and just travelling around the world. We all say that we would love to do so, but how many of us actually have the courage to really take the plunge. Well, one in a million! Or perhaps even one in a billion. Well, Hubert Kriegel is one such unique specimen. In 2005, on a cold morning in mid February, aged 57, wearing his trademark post-box red specs, Hubert closed the door of his New York apartment and never looked back.
At an age when most are considering retirement plans, Hubert Kriegel set out to ride his Ural sidecar motorcycle around the world. Until that day, Hubert had led a pretty ‘normal’ life. This French-American national worked the daily grind all his life and raised a family. He has three daughters, and is still married.
But one evening in Manhattan, while having dinner with a close friend, Jean Louis, all of that changed. They were mulling over the perennial problem of never having enough money in a big city like New York – a “money-chewing” machine that always left you in the red!
This was also the time when Hubert’s youngest daughter, Jessica, was in her final year of college and Hubert had just paid his final college bill. At this point, Jean Louis asked Hubert about his plans for life? With no definitive plan, both friends started talking about their passion for motorcycles, riding and travelling. Then they considered how much it would cost to travel the world on a motorcycle. Jean Louis asked Hubert about how much money he would have if he sold everything he owned – at which point Hubert estimated that he would be able to ride around the world for ten years if he sold everything but the shirt off his back.
By the time dessert arrived at their table that evening, Hubert was at a crossroads. He could either continue living his current life and plan to retire after another ten years of work, or he could sell everything he owned and do what he loves – travel. Well, for ten years at least!
Three months later, Hubert hit the road for the adventure of a lifetime.
Now in the 11th year of this adventure, we talk to Hubert Kriegel about his experiences, adventures, and life as he knows it:
When and how did you decide to start travelling the world and riding sidecars?
I started riding sidecars in 1971, when my brother, a friend, and myself decided to go to Saudi Arabia from Paris where I lived. We went around the Red Sea, from France to Italy, then Yugoslavia, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, and then across all of Saudi Arabia – past the desert to Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. It took us four months. We were young men, and it was a fantastic adventure. We rode a V700 Guzzi with a sidecar, and a 450cc mono Ducati Scrambler.
How different is it to ride a motorcycle with a sidecar?
Totally different! When you ride a motorcycle all day long, you’re tense. You need to keep your balance, and keep an eye on the conditions to see if they get slippery. When you’re riding with a sidecar, the more slippery it gets, the more fun it is. You’re less tense, as the balance is better. You still have to lean into a turn, but you need to shift the weight of the sidecar while cornering and drift it rather than turning the front wheel of the motorcycle. To me, riding a sidecar is like dancing.
What kind of reaction do you and your machine get in India?
It’s amazing. People always stop and stare when you’re parked. After a while, they ask me my name, to which I reply, ‘Dharmendra!’ I’ve written my name on the front mudguard of the motorcycle – it helps me connect instantly with people.
How many kilometres have you covered in a sidecar and motorcycle?
I don’t know exactly, but definitely over a million kilometres.
Now that it’s been over 10 years since you began your travels, how do you fund travelling around the world?
I now receive a pension, which meets my budget for travelling. When I reached the age of 62, I began getting my pension from America and from France. As it happens, my pension is exactly what I’m currently spending every month. So now I’m on the road for good.
How did you feel when you first set out on your travels?
I felt very happy right from the first day. I had no commitment to anybody. I don’t owe anything to anyone. I live my life on a day-to-day basis. I have no calendar to live by. Of course, I go back to visit my family during Christmas and the holiday season.
What’s the most beautiful place you’ve ever been to?
One of the most striking places I’ve been to is Lake Baikal in Siberia. It’s the second biggest lake in the world. It’s frozen during the winters, so I went in winter to ride across it. The ice, which is over 1 metre thick, was at a temperature of minus-40 degree Celsius. I spent a week there, living on the lake.
You’re obviously quite comfortable in very cold places. In most parts of India, on the other hand, it gets very hot. Has that ben an issue for you?
Yes, I’m better at managing the cold than managing heat. During June in India I used to start my ride at 5am and stop by mid-day, as it gets too hot to be on the road. I also avoid wearing cotton here, as it absorbs perspiration and retains it.
What’s it like travelling around India?
It’s very easy because India is so friendly. You have a sense of security here that is absolutely unusual.
What’s your most memorable story of India?
I went to Goa, and loved it. I was staying in people’s houses. The hospitality and kindness of the country as a whole is wonderful.
What kind of preparation do you make before travelling to a new place?
I read a travel guide, like a Lonely Planet, and study the history of a country. This gives you an idea of where the country is coming from, its origin and evolution. I also try and get a handle on the language of the place. Normally, I prepare a booklet to introduce myself in the local language in order to break the ice. Don’t be mistaken though – in most cases I understand nothing about the responses that I get from people in return.
What do you keep on you – what are the essentials that you travel with?
You need a good toolbox. I have a tent and sleeping bag to stop and stay wherever I want. It may be because I like the place, or because I’ve had a breakdown. I always carry 10-litres of water, dried fruit, and cans of sardines. I always have a week of survival food with me.
Do you worry about anything at all on your travels?
What if I’m sick, what if I meet with an accident? What If I get mugged? There are a lot of risks on a day-to-day basis. But taking these risks is also rewarding. I prefer it to lying on a couch and drinking beer. So my motto is – don’t forget to take a risk every day!
In keeping with this theme, what’s the most forbidding place you’ve ever been to?
Africa! In Africa, people are very nice. But I’m talking about North-West Africa here. When you stop at a village, ask for directions, they welcome you to sit down with them – and then very quickly they ask you for some money. As an opposite of India, you see misery in Africa. It’s a different situation there. There is no free hospitality there.
Who are the most interesting people you’ve come across around the world?
I can give you so many examples. I’ve met so many people in villages, mountains, and deserts. When you meet someone in a remote corner, they become your friends instantly. In the desert, when you see the silhouette for a person you form a connection in an instant. The more crowded the environment becomes, the more shoulder pushing there is.
Any advice you have to for us everyday folk who are part of the daily grind?
For those lying on their couch, you could start with the sitting position and move. And when you start travelling, don’t prepare yourself too much. As you start out on the road, you keep preparing yourself as you go.
And, again, always remember – don’t forget to take a risk everyday!