Archives: From the Woods to the World

Larry Lawrence | November 8, 2017
Piet Boonstra
Piet Boonstra with a cache of his enduro trophies.

Imagine some million-and-a-quarter miles by motorcycle! If you want to know what it’s like talk to Piet Boonstra, a former Enduro racing champion turned long-distance adventure tourer. Piet (a Friesland spelling pronounced Pete) spent a lifetime riding and seems to have enjoyed just about every minute of it, save for the ride in 2013 where some jerk intentionally cut him off causing the 87-year-old rider to crash and end up in the hospital in a coma. Piet came out of it and lived to tell the tale, but his riding days were over. Fortunately, he’d ridden the equivalent of at least 10 lifetimes aboard a motorcycle and took the time to document it by book and website.

Piet’s efforts resulted in him earning winning numerous off-road races and the New England Enduro Grand Championship in 1966. Later in life he won the AMA’s Joe Christian Award for “outstanding freelance writing” after his story, entitled, “Passage to Labrador” appeared in the AMA’s magazine in 1997. Later he was named the AMA’s Outstanding Road Rider in 2002.

Piet Boonstra was born in 1925 in Buchanan, New York, in the same house where he lives today. He and his wife Lillian eloped on a motorcycle in 1948, and they enjoyed motorcycling together for better than five decades, until Lillian passed away in 1999.

Piet Boonstra 3
Boonstra in action.

While in college at the Detroit Institute of Technology a friend who had a 1946 Harley asked Piet if he’d like to try it.

“We went to a little park up in Dearborn,” Piet remembers. “and I took a ride up one way, got turned around and came back the other way. It was less than a month later I quit school went back home to New York and bought a Harley.”

Little did he know at the time, but that first ride in Dearborn logged the first of over a million miles of riding for Piet.

For the first few years Piet was riding strictly on the road, but then he thought he’d try to run an enduro. Riding a big street going Harley in the woods seems crazy today, but big Harley and Indian V-Twins were the main machinery used in the early era of off-road competition.

For as much success as Piet would have in enduros, his first attempt didn’t go that well. “I ended up in the Yorktown swamp,” he laughs. “That was only 30 miles out from the start and my race ended right there because it took four guys to drag that big 74 overhead out.”

But Piet persisted and came back the next year and had a much better run, finishing 15th out of 80 or so riders in his class. “Then I was hooked,” Piet said.

Piet then bought a Harley-Davidson Hummer. It must have been a sight to see the six-foot, five-inch Piet riding the diminutive little 125cc Harley two-stroke through the woods. He said the Hummer offered one distinct advantage, he could actually pick the bike up, a big plus in off-road racing. It was a turning point for Piet. In one of his first enduros on the Hummer he finished second overall to local champ Don Pink. “He was the best rider in this area at the time,” Piet says of Pink. “He came in with a (score of) 902 and I came in with a 907.”

For a time Piet raced a Harley Model 165 tuned by none other than Dick O’Brien, who would go on to become the head of racing for Harley-Davidson. “That was one helluva a motorcycle,” Piet remembers. “I could do 70 miles per hour on gravel roads with the thing.”

On the O’Brien-tuned 165 in 1959, Piet was able to win his first district enduro championship. Shortly after that win Piet, now on a 250cc Villiers-powered DMW, won the Lightweight Class at the 150-mile National Championship Enduro in Cayuta, NY, followed the very next month by winning the Expert Lightweight Class at the Covered Wagon 200-mile National Championship in the Berkshires. Piet was suddenly one of the leading enduro riders the Northeast.

Piet really came into his own when he stepped up to racing a Triumph T100C, a motorcycle that better fit his tall stature. On the Triumph he went on to dominate the New England enduro heavyweight class throughout most of the 1960s. As a result, Piet was awarded the annual New England Heavyweight Enduro Championship in 1965, 1967, 1968 and 1969. In 1966, he was awarded the overall New England Enduro Grand Championship over a huge field of expert riders with much lighter-weight motorcycles that were generally considered to have an advantage in the New England terrain.

Piet said the camaraderie of enduro racing was a great joy to him throughout his career, making him almost reluctant to talk about one of his only disappointments and that was missing out on riding the first ISDT held in the USA, in the Berkshires in 1973. He was 48 at the time, but still the top Triumph enduro rider in the East.

Triumph’s U.S. squad was headed up by a west coast representative and he called to talk to Piet about the possibility of being on the team.

“We talked for a while and then he asked me how old I was,” Piet recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh crap, this is what he wanted to know all along!’ I told him how old I was and he asked me if I could still ride for six days and I told him I could. I told him I worked for IBM and he asked if I could get off work to ride all the qualifiers. I told him I would have to ask my employer first. He said we’d talk in two days.

“He called back and said he was sorry, but they’d picked their team, so I didn’t get in.”

Possibly hurt by Triumph’s rejection, Piet decided to not enter the ISDT even as a private rider. “I just figured if I couldn’t ride for Triumph I didn’t want to ride.”

It wasn’t until he was in his 50s that Piet finally backed off his competition schedule and began to compete primarily for fun. About that time, he began turning his attention to long-distance adventure touring. He also joined and later became president of the Crotona Motorcycle Club of White Plains, NY, one of the oldest AMA-chartered clubs in the country.

Boonstra - Copper Canyon
Mexico’s rugged Copper Canyon by Gold Wing? Not a problem for adventure tourer supreme Piet Boonstra.

In 1977, he became the first motorcyclist to travel Canada’s then 480-mile Cassiar Highway from Kitwanga Junction, BC, through what is often called “bigfoot country,” to its connection with the Alaska Highway near Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory. He accomplished this during his first long solo dual-sport ride to Alaska and back, which was a 13,000-mile adventurous odyssey from his home in New York. And what machine did Piet use on this long-distance adventure tour? A Suzuki GS750! Not your typical adventure-touring rig.

Piet would go on to do many record-setting adventure tours, including in 1989 being the first motorcyclist to ride a Honda Gold Wing to the foot of Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains of western Mexico. Piet also became a touring writer and magazine stories of his adventures were extremely popular with readers.

He continued adventure touring well into his 80s and won accolades for his writings until his fateful crash when he was 87.

On his 2013 accident Piet thinks he might have recovered enough to ride again, but “My family held their breaths whenever I talked about riding again, so I quit ‘while I was ahead.’ I rode for 67 years.”

Few riders can boast about the kind of adventures Piet experience by motorcycle and fortunately for us, he documented many of those adventures by book and via his excellent Piet Boonstra blog subtitled, “You may doubt his sanity, but never his resolve.” 

You can find the blog at http://pietboonstra.blogspot.com/

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Larry Lawrence | Archives Editor In addition to writing our Archives section on a weekly basis, Lawrence is another who is capable of covering any event we throw his way.

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