Coffee with a world traveler

I got a call from an industry friend about a lady from New Zealand who was riding across America. “Get this,” he told me, “she’s a retiree, late 60s, touring alone on a hopped-up Yamaha V-Max. She’s been in Florida riding that state across the winter, before she continues her tour in the spring. Fascinating lady!” I lamented, “Dang, that would have been one heck of an interview.” My friend replied, “I think she’s still in the Atlanta area, somewhere over on the east side, in Lawrenceville.” I jumped out of my chair, exclaiming, “That’s practically next door to me! Give me her contact info!” Terry obliged, and after making contact, Helen and I decided to meet for coffee the next morning.

Helen is a tough, crusty old Kiwi, hardened by miles and years, but with an infectious smile and warm personality. Over coffee and hot chocolate, we discussed her adventures. And what adventures she’s had.

A cup of coffee with one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.

“I first rode through Europe and England a few years back,” Helen told me. “I rode all the way to Asia, from Poland to Portugal, the whole continent. I think I did about 36,000 miles before shipping my bike to L.A.” Inquiring about her European travels, Helen recounted how she shipped her V-Max from New Zealand to Heathrow Airport in London, rode the beautiful British Isles before crossing the Channel, then set out across Europe, visiting V-Max rallies and riding the most stunning sights, cities and scenery the continent has to offer- the Swiss Alps, Germany, Scandinavia, Vienna, Venice, the Balkans, into the Iberian Peninsula through Spain to Portugal, to name a few.

Helen and the Beast- a 2009 highly modified Yamaha V-Max. Her touring weapon of choice.

I asked Helen how long she’s been riding motorcycles, and she reflected, “Got my first bike in 1973, a Yamaha XS650, then followed that with a couple of ’74 650s. I bought a Midnight Special 850, then I was first in New Zealand to own the XS1100 1.1. I stopped riding for 20 years, raised a daughter, became a solo parent, then started riding again in 2007, with an XJR1300 before my V-Max. Always Yamahas.”

She’s been a few places, no doubt.

Helen also used to breed and train German Shepherds on a 10-acre kennel she built years ago on New Zealand’s North Island. “I’ve loved German Shepherds since I was 16. I’ve trained security and police dogs across the country, and still have seven of them myself.” She’s also unique in that she was the first woman in New Zealand to earn a karate black belt, and among the first women with a motorcycle license.

Some shots from Helen’s Euro travels. Photos by Helen Upson.

Helen’s weapon of choice is the legendary Yamaha V-Max, but not just any factory Max. Hers has a modded, blueprinted engine that puts down 215 BHP to the rear wheel, as opposed to the stock 175 horses factory. That’s no small jump. Helen’s was purchased sight-unseen in Wellington, NZ, #114 for the 2009 model year, and modified inside and out. It’s a real moto-monster, and Helen handles it like she was born to ride it. Maybe she was.

Riding America. Photo by Helen Upson.

Back in New Zealand, Helen has operated a motorcyclist hotel and pub called “The Black Dog”, hosting riders from across the island nation and around the globe. Helen has also ridden almost “Pole to Pole”, from the northernmost point of Norway in the Arctic Circle (North Cape) to the southernmost point of New Zealand, below Invercargill. And here she was, touring America, and chatting with me before setting out to continue her journey across the States. An amazing human being.

*Post script: We were shocked and saddened to learn of Helen’s sudden passing back in her native New Zealand. Our heartfelt condolences to her family and friends.



Cycle World Athens


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