What’s it like to tackle the Three Flags Classic, one of the most unique organized endurance rides in North America? First, allow me to share some numbers with you.

2,175 The number of miles covered on the official route.

4 The maximum number of days allowed to complete the ride.

5,040.6 The total number of miles I rode: to the starting point, over the course of the ride, then back home again.

279 The shortest one-day mileage of my trip. (Leaving work after lunch, Camarillo, California, to Blythe, on the Arizona border)

826 The longest one-day mileage of my trip. (The final day on the ride home, from Castle Dale, Utah, to Sylmar, California…via a lot of curvy roads. In retrospect, not the best decision.)

9 My total number of riding days.

79 The maximum temperature swing I experienced in one day (34 degrees to 113).

221 Riders that registered.

200 Riders that finished the ride.

0 Accidents.

The Three Flags Classic (3FC) is probably the best-known endurance riding event you’ve never heard of. Put on by the Southern California Motorcycling Association, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the 3FC is a test of human and machine, where riders travel through three countries (Mexico, United States, Canada) and more than 2,100 miles in just four days.

The route usually runs from a start point in Mexico to a finish in Canada, but every few years they mix it up and run north to south. This year, the 43rd 3FC, we went from Puerto Peñasco, on the Sea of Cortez, to Calgary, Alberta, at the eastern edge of the Canadian Rockies.

The level of organization is incredible. Clubs from Mexico to Canada, plus local businesses along the way, come together to arrange start and finish hotels, checkpoints and dealership support, and grease the skids as best as possible for border crossings.

Being the lucky girl that I am, I had my pick of motorcycles on which to do this epic ride. I wanted something small enough that I could handle any parking lot or road surface, but with plenty of luggage capacity and elemental protection. Cruise control and heated grips were a must. And I didn’t want a cruiser; I wanted the freedom to lean as far as I wanted on the twisty bits.

My choice? A Yamaha Tracer 900 GT. I requested one with the accessory comfort seat and touring windscreen, but Yamaha went above and beyond by also outfitting it with a rear luggage rack, engine guards, a radiator guard, an extended front fender and a full Yoshimura exhaust system.

I also wanted to upgrade a couple items, namely the tires and brakes. So we spooned on a set of new Dunlop Roadsmart IIIs and some DP Brakes pads.

I was set.

2019 Yamaha Tracer 900 GT
My trusty companion for more than 5,000 miles: a 2019 Yamaha Tracer 900 GT. We forged a bond that shall never be broken.

In the good old days there was a lottery system; the 3FC was so popular that prospective riders had to mail in their check (remember doing that?) and wait, hoping to be randomly chosen as a participant. Times are changing, though, and riding motorcycles – let alone riding them for 12 hours a day, multiple days in a row – isn’t as popular as it once was.

Still, 221 riders registered for the 2018 3FC, most from the U.S. and Canada but also at least four from Mexico. With such a large group you’d be forgiven for imagining a miles-long parade of Gold Wings, but nothing could be further from the truth. The 3FC is an event we did at the same time, but we were all in it for ourselves…if that makes any sense.

We could follow the recommended route…or not. The only rule is that riders must arrive at the designated checkpoints within certain time frames, usually in the afternoon/early evening of each riding day and for a few hours the following morning. Beyond that you’re on your own. What time to leave each day, where/when to stop for the night, where to sleep and where/how often to eat are all on you.

We were given green strips of ribbon to tie to the backs of our motos, marking us as “3 Flaggers.” What ends up happening is you ride past a gas station and look over – green ribbons! Raise your hand in a wave, get a wave and a thumbs up in return…maybe get passed by that same rider an hour later, another wave and a smile inside the helmet. It’s like going on an epic quest, but with the safety net of knowing there are a couple hundred other questers out there too with the same goal, and they all have your back.

Finishing the 3FC was a proud moment for me…I was sore, tired, my ears were burning where my cheap foam earplugs chafed for 12 hours a day, I’d sweated in triple-digit heat and wiped slush from my visor in a surprise snowstorm. I’d done it.

Oh yeah…and then I had to ride home.

Learn more about the 3FC here.

Crossing the border into Mexico at Lukeville, Arizona.
Crossing the border into Mexico at Lukeville, Arizona. I had to ride 575 miles just to get to the starting point.
Puerto Penasco
Riders gathered at our start hotel, doing last-minute bike prep and downing margaritas. We’d have a short night and an early start, though, so moderation was the name of the game.
3FC start
After an opening ceremony that involved lining up and dropping our poker chips with our rider numbers on them into a box (which told the organizers who actually started), we headed for our bikes. The time: 4:30am. The temperature: 86 degrees and humid.
Why Store
Once across the border into Arizona, the riders spread out as we settled into our personal rhythms. I paused at the Why Not in Why, Arizona, for a brief caffeine infusion and some trail mix.
Indian trading post
Native American-themed gas stations, rest stops, restaurants and tourist traps of all shapes and sizes dot Arizona and New Mexico. I was on the homestretch into Gallup, New Mexico, for the first checkpoint and a stop for the night.
Welcome to Colorful Colorado
Rookie mistake no. 1: assuming the checkpoint city is the best place to stop for the night. Many riders opted to continue to Farmington, putting them ahead of schedule for the long next day across Colorado. I was determined to make good time, however, and I knew these roads well.
Million Dollar Highway
The Million Dollar Highway, a.k.a. U.S. Route 550, has a well-deserved reputation for amazing scenery. Traffic wasn’t bad either, but I was too busy stopping for photos to get up too much speed.
Million Dollar Highway
Given the nature of an endurance riding event (covering miles efficiently), most of the roads on the official route were straight or only mildly curvy, a gentle swaying slow dance with the bike. But the organizers made sure to mix in some fun, and of course we could deviate from the route whenever we wanted…just be sure to get to the checkpoint in time!
Montana
Many of our mountain roads followed curling rivers as they wound through the trees. I was enjoying my choice of motorcycle; the Tracer was proving to be comfortable enough for the long stretches, but it was when the road started twisting that it was in its element. I could easily out-ride the bigger, heavier motos and the Dunlop Roadsmart IIIs stuck like glue, even in the rain.
Montana
Just after sunrise on the last riding day of the 3FC, the sun was turning the tall prairie grass gold while Montana’s Rockies on the horizon were shades of pink and purple. Amber waves of grain and purple mountain’s majesty, indeed.
Beartooth Highway
Endurance riding has plenty of challenges, and not just the usual weather, exhaustion and mechanical issues. We also ran into several areas of road construction in Montana that included miles of dirt and loose gravel. Even the famous Beartooth Highway (shown here) was no escape.
Canadian border
At long last: Canada! Excitement builds as we realize we’re on the homestretch. I’d fallen in behind a small group of friends from Colorado, Wyoming and British Columbia. After we passed through the border, they invited me to join them for the remainder of the ride; Duncan, the rider from British Columbia, wanted to take us on a detour to check out a famous landslide. It turned out to be a fateful decision.
Frank Slide
Our detour took us up the Crowsnest Highway to the Frank Slide. The scope is impossible to convey in this photo; literally an entire section of the mountain came crashing down in 1903, burying a mining town and killing at least 70 people. The boulders are now piled on each side of the highway, covering many acres. We checked it out, snapped photos and turned back to the main route.

At this point we were only a few hours from the finish line in Calgary, the homestretch. When it began to rain, no one thought much of it. But the temperature gauge on my Tracer was dropping at a concerning rate. The rain turned to sleet…35 degrees. We pulled over so Duncan could clear his fogging glasses. Trucks whooshed past, coating us with needle-fine spray, big cold drops of sleet poured from the sky.

As the road curved to the east and started to ascend, I looked up the side of the hill. The grass was white…snow!

Riding in snow is not my idea of a fun time. As I carefully cruised in the left tire track of the car in front of me, all I could think was, “How crappy would it be if I fell down only 50 miles from the finish – after 3 days and 2,100 miles!” I really wanted the finish and the accomplishment that goes with it.

After an eternity, we crested the ridge and descended the other side. The clouds cleared, the temperature went back up and as we pulled into a gas station to regroup we felt like heroes.

3FC finish
Pulling into the finish hotel parking lot, we were greeted by Canadian Gold Wing club members waving us in like the ground crew at an airport.
3FC finish
Tired, sore, hungry, dirty…none of that mattered as my 3FC passport got its final stamp and I was awarded the Finisher’s Buckle.
3FC finishers buckle
I’ll likely never actually wear it, but it’ll take a place of pride on my desk at work.

Riders came from as far away as Virginia and even Hawaii, and five Canadian provinces, to participate in this year’s 3FC. It always takes place over Labor Day weekend, minimizing the required time off work (unless you’re lucky enough to be retired, as many of the participants were).

Sound like something you want to try? Let’s do it! The 2019 3FC is slated for a start in Mexicali and a finish in Kelowna, BC. I’m game if you are….

Idaho
My return ride home was just as scenic as the 3FC itself. I wanted to discover new roads and revisit old favorites in Utah, so first I headed down into far western Montana and into Idaho.
motorcycle camping
BLM campgrounds abound along U.S. 93 between Salmon and Challis, Idaho. I picked one and settled in for the evening.
Sawtooth Mountains
The next morning was chilly, but the roads and views along ID 75 in the Sawtooth Mountains were worth it.
craters of the moon
I stopped briefly at Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, but time was short so I vowed to return someday for a closer look.
Fish Lake Utah
After another night in Castle Dale, Utah, I set out early to ride some old favorites, including this loop around Fish Lake.
hells backbone
When in southern Utah, Highway 12 is a must-do…so I did. This brief but exciting section dances along the ridge top before plunging into a red rock canyon. There are no guard rails and the drop is long and steep, so keep your eyes where you want to go (i.e. the road, not the beautiful but deadly scenery to each side).
Escalante overlook
At the Escalante overlook on Highway 12, I met a nice foursome of German tourists on rented EagleRider Harley-Davidsons. One of them was kind enough to snap a picture of my sunburned and road-grimed face.
Cedar Breaks
As I cruised down UT 14 out of Cedar Breaks National Monument, I reflected on what an amazing experience and opportunity this was. Those who have never ventured outside their county, state or region on a motorcycle are missing out on the best of life: the living.

23 COMMENTS

  1. I.Am.Envious. In a good way! Sounds like an absolutely marvelous adventure, and I’m going to check it out! It doesn’t get much better than this!

  2. I rode the 2000 3 Flags Classic, and still have wonderful memories of it! That was my first ride to the western USA, from my home in GA, and was just shy of 10,000 miles round trip for me. We left from Tijuana, and finished up in Edmondton, Alberta that year. I’m still hoping/planning to do another one! Can’t believe it’s been 18 years. I’m still riding my sweet Honda VFR750 that served me so well on that adventure too.

  3. I’m glad that you enjoyed it but racing the clock is not for me. For me rides, like life, are about the journey. I want to enjoy the scenery and meet the people. Stop and see things. “Stop and smell the roses” as the old saying goes. Think “Then Came Bronson”, for those of us old enough to remember that show, which was my inspiration for wanting a motorcycle in the first place. Being “on the clock” is too much like being at work. I would have rolled in dead last, about two or three weeks after I started. But I would have been just as elated as whoever came in first.

    Always love your writing, Jenny. And yes, I am a man.

    • I hear you! This finished in my hometown this time and I know people who did it. But as much as it sounded like a great adventure, I’m another one who likes to take my time out on the road. There’s nothing worse than blowing past somewhere awesome, or rushing a visit, because you have a deadline to meet.

      I’m glad you didn’t get snowed on too badly coming into Calgary, Jenny. Winter has decided to arrive early this year, boo.

      • I resolved the issue of missing something many years ago. First concern is the Ride, the roads in which I am riding. 2. is the scenery. 3. is the unexpected, short cut, weather detour, etc. that makes the ride special. 3. is the people, towns and places I stay. 4. is sharing the experience. I approach all rides as though I am scouting out the area I’m riding in, so if I miss anything along the way, I expect to be there again. I look at it this way: If I saw everything the first time, I may not want to go there again. If I miss some things, the next trip will be different, as will the third and fourth.

    • I’m not normally an endurance rider either, much preferring to stray down interesting-looking roads and generally enjoy the ride. But this was a unique event and I’m glad I did it, just for the accomplishment factor. Plus it made for a good story. 😀

      Thanks for the kind words also. And I don’t mind that you’re a man, half the people I know are men! (I crack myself up…)

    • I want to make an informative comment. This ride is considered a long distance ride, not an endurance ride. You do get to smell the roses and on back roads to boot. All 2100 miles are pre-ridden to ensure they are safe and passable. I know, because I co-chaired TFC 39 and chaired TFC 40 from San Diego to Victoria Island.
      Give it a try and you won’t regret it. I’ve done the last 7 and some riders have done 40!
      Jenny, great article and photos. Hope to see you next year,
      Steven Shulman

  4. Jenny So nice to meet you on this years 3 Flags. Life is Beautiful behind Bars. Riding a Motorcycle the Day is never long enough. Cheers and Best to you . Great Write up on the Classic.

  5. So nice to meet you on this years Ride. Completed # 6 and wanting to do it again. Life is Beautiful chasing the Horizon and meeting fellow Riders. Get up Get out and Get Riding !

  6. Nice write-up. Enjoyed your descriptive ride. I have done 23 Three Flags but did not do this year. Had a small stroke(I am 79) and family convinced me not to go, although I do still ride with my doctors approval. This is a ride, but the camaraderie over the years becomes more important. There are several who have completed many of these rides and it becomes like a family reunion with people coming from all over the country, Canada, Mexico and Countries off-shore. That is what I missed, seeing the people I have ridden with over the years. But, there is the other side of the story, that a lot of people I have ridden with have passed away or no longer ride.
    Yes, they used to have a drawing to pick who would be lucky enough to go. Years back we did not meet at a start hotel, but in a large paved lot. Things have changed for the better.

  7. Thanks for the nice article. S
    After riding 2018 3FC (my second after 2017) I’ll be going back to Salt River Bridge in NM, and also spend some time in Silverton and Ouray, CO as well as some of the area further north. We got to Calgary on Sunday so on Monday were headed to Banff NP but it was pretty socked in (no snow, just rain and hail) so we spent the night in Coeur d’Alene and headed home from there. GREAT RIDE!! Thanks for the memories (even if it has only been a couple of weeks).

  8. Hi JENNY,
    It was nice meeting you on 3 Flags and I hope to see you again next year. And yes mother nature can and will throw just about anything and everything at you on 3 Flags. But that is what makes it so much fun. The challanges and overcoming them and earning that coveted buckle.
    Dannie Fox (40 times 3 Flags Finisher)

  9. I’ve been considering the 3FC for a couple years. You’re writeup has definately convinced me to do this ride next year. Thanks for the adventure story. Hope to see you out there.
    Linda

  10. Jenny that was a great description of the ride on this years 3 Flags, my 4th. I enjoy each one and can’t wait for the next. For those who think you are just blowing past places well you are but you are experiencing them non the less and you may have never gone that way otherwise. The good thing is you can return to the ones you’d like to spend more time at and you can do it on your return ride home most of the time. One of the best parts of the ride is meeting the other riders along the way in the restaurants, gas stations, or hotels each stop. This year I was in a rush to get back to work and I left Hamilton Montana 7:30 Wednesday morning and got off my seat at 11:00 p.m. that evening in my drive, Murrieta CA 1199 miles 1 day. Didn’t plan on going all the way but it felt good.
    Hope you ride it again, I plan on it.

  11. Nice write up Jenny, you covered all aspects of the classic. It was a pleasure meeting you at the start as well as at the finished. Btw a few of us had a little more riding to do to get to the start and at present still working my way back to Texas 😁 sometimes the road goes on forever and the party never ends!

  12. Jenny, what a great write up!! I enjoyed riding along and passing you on few occasions, and yes every time I did that, it put a smile inside my helmet followed up with a wave as I passed by you. I am that brilliant blue BMW RTW cruiser that you know of! It was indeed lot of fun, especially that twisty road. It was a challenge to see how good you were, and suddenly I saw myself getting outside my ride with a fellow rider, crossing the yellow dotted passing lane to catch up with you. You were amazing on that twisty road. I am looking forward to next year. Now I can say that in total of my riding, I’ve been rained on, sleet thrown at me, snowed, and made it through hail and thunderstorms. What else is left? Anything?

    See you next year, hot pink girl!

  13. Great report Jenny!
    My first 3 Flags and wont be my last, was last year 2017 Abbotsford to Puerto Penasco. It was a terrific ride!
    Your words made it feel “real” again. Thank you !
    Glad you and your Bike made the trip and no interruptions in forward progress, LOL ( no breakdowns or accidents)

    Ride safe! Ride often!

  14. I rode this years 3 Flag Classic. This was my 4th 3 flags. 1985, 2005, 2015, 2018. In 2005 there were aprox 500 riders, so I was told. The finish was also in Calgary. I was # 2 at the last check point. How disappointing. I was on a mission, to be first, even though, it is NOT a race. This year, I was on a Mission Again !!!! First day after leaving Mexico I rode to Montrose Colorado, 828 miles { 1332 kms } 2nd day from Montose, to Great Falls Montana, 942 miles { 1516 kms }. Arrived in Great Falls,
    at 1 am. FROZEN { 30 F }. Left Great Falls at 7am, I was the first rider at this check point. One more check point to go.
    Finsh Line 12.02 PM. Mission Accomplished. “1st”. Maybe the next time ,I will slow down and smell the roses. { or not }
    Great ride. Bike worked awesome{ 2013 HD Ultra }. Total miles down and back 4072 miles, 6553 klms. Temperature ranged from 112 F to 30 degrees F. Hats off to the S.C.M.A. Awesome job, again!!!!

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