Friday, May 28, 2010

What Makes You Take a Chance

There's something about a warm, sunny Southern California afternoon that makes a rider feel a bit more bold, that draws you into a road and makes you want to give it all she's got.

The playground is a strip of asphalt officially known as "Sage Rd" laid down over rolling hillsides just outside the wine country of Temecula. A tight, twisty, two lane road, it carries ranchers, vinters, and motorcycle riders for 15 miles through an area originally traveled by the old Butterfield Stage line.

A long straight-away approaches Sage from the north allowing us to stretch our bodies before settling into our seats and putting these machines to task.

But no sooner than we're loosened up that we spot a slow-moving convoy of cars up ahead lead by a truck and horse-trailer, and they're too far down this straight-away to pass them up before the twisties.

On the other hand, 160 horsepower at your disposal can bail you out just about any time.

The Honda ST1300?

No, the BMW K1300GT.

BMW K1300GT Honda ST1300
A friend of mine was able to convince a dealer to let him take one out for a demo, and was given the green light to take it out all afternoon long, and even let his friends try it out too.

It's good to have friends.

So there I was on this GT slowing down to a horrific 25mph behind a procession of Hyundais, Buicks, and Volvos on what would otherwise be 15 miles of fun riding. The convoy was like a cort├Ęge of heavy hearted mourners falling in line behind a languid procession that looked as if they were filing their way up to Eternal Hills.

Not wanting to conform, I looked for an escape plan. I was able to peek between a couple of a grassy mounds of earth and noticed the opposing lane up ahead was clear for a good portion.

I seized the opportunity by pulling out of the formation, crossing over the double-yellow and putting all 160 ponies to task, passing by one car after another. The horse-trailer was in view and I knew the promised land was up ahead. However, I found myself having to pass while in a right-hand curve. It wasn't a tight curve, but enough of a curve that the cars I was passing had blocked my view of the road ahead. I could no longer tell if there was a car coming at me.

I cranked the GT up as fast as I could while holding steady around this curve, taking a hard lean, and putting faith that there were no cars coming at me. I could hear the tone of its inline-four increasing it's pitch while I kept my eyes planted on the road ahead looking for any sign of on-coming traffic.

Sage Road
But of course, there was no on-coming traffic. I had checked before I made my pass. But yet it still felt precarious passing cars in the middle of a right-hand curve, and it made me want to crank that GT up as hard as the road and my skills would allow.

And I wouldn't do this on my old Electra Glide. That bike took longer to get up to speed, and to round such a curve at this high of a velocity would have meant scraping floorboards, and even putting that bike into a wobble. It's not that it wasn't possible on the Electra Glide, it just required more determination, more skill, and more balls.

The BMW K1300GT offers so much more power and ease of handling, that it makes you feel more confident about doing this in shorter time.

True, it wasn't a smart move to make, considering this wasn't even my bike, but I knew I could do it. I knew had the space and the power. I had faith.

And when I finally reached the promised land I thought "Ok Steve, let's not do that again!"

The years of riding cruisers with their low ground clearance, heavy steering, and poor acceleration kept me honest and humble all that time.

I'm not a more skillful rider because of the Honda ST or the BMW GT, I'm not even more gutsy. But as the horsepower increases, as the handling gets easier, and as the braking gets better, the bike allows us to do things that you wouldn't do on other bikes. But you know you can do it, you've got the machine to do it.

sage road wildflowers
I mean the road just lays down for you like a woman, with all her curves to be enjoyed; all you need to do is just pass these cars and it's all yours.

Yet again, there's something about a sunny warm Southern California day, the bright yellow wildflowers in bloom, some dry clean asphalt, and the promise of some open road, that just makes you wanna take that chance.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Inspiration for a Road

Sometimes you see road like this and wonder if the guy who designed it was a motorcycle rider...

Palomar Mountain Road
South Grade Road (S6), San Diego County, CA

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Legless Motorcycle Rider

There's an old saying...

"I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet".

riding a motorcycle without legs
I've met many motorcycle riders in my time, some just don't like to ride twisties, and others are just afraid of them. And then you have this guy.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Following the Painted Lines

double yellow painted line highwayHighway 38 twists for 18 miles up the San Bernardino Mountain Range on its way to Big Bear Lake. Turns to the right and turns to the left go on and on past pine trees and patches of snow still waiting to melt under the mid-Spring sun.

It's been a long cold winter that kept me off of Big Bear, and all I could remember about the 38 is all the fun I had riding it in the previous summer. Otherwise, I couldn't recall each specific curve, so it was like riding a new road again.

A long straight away up from Mentone and then a hard left switchback at Forest Falls sets the mood. I roll on the throttle and kick the ST back up to 5th and get into a zone.

The line bends to the right and I bend with it, and then it bends to the left and I bend with it again, almost like an ore cart rockin' and rolling' out of a silver mine.

honda st1300 highway 38
These days I've done a lot better to keep my head and eyes turned towards the road ahead, instead of keeping them fixed at the road in front of me. That's probably helped me more than anything in mastering the curves.

I would become so concerned about what's lying down at the road in front that I didn't pay attention to following the road up ahead. A fallen rock, a dead bunny, a patch of sand, a pot hole, anything would concern me. And since I didn't know what the road looked like up ahead, I naturally slowed down.

And now I don't even focus on any specific part of the road, per se. I turn my head towards the road up ahead and keep my eyes wide open and look at the entire periphery, from the guard rail to the left, to the guard rail to the right, not really focusing on anything in between. It's almost like staring blankly up ahead, and just following the painted lines.

riding a motorcycle fast through a curve
The painted lines, they stream by like a spool of thread on a supercharged sewing machine. Like watching a giant US flag slowly curling to the left and to the right in the breeze. It was like when I was a kid I would look out the back window of our van and stare at the rain grooves on the freeway. It's almost mesmerizing, but there's something automatic about that yellow line in that you can just follow it like railroad tracks and know that it's always going to point the way.

And then a dark splotch shows up on my radar and my eyes shift to see what it is. It's just a patch of new asphalt that CalTrans laid recently. Suddenly my concentration drops out of the zone, and I'm forced to slow down and reestablish my bearings again.

The trees, boulders and mountains all seem to be patches of color rushing past my peripheral vision, and in a way I'm not really absorbing the world through my eyes anymore. Instead, I hear the engine changing it's pitch, I feel the wind on my body, the scent of pine trees in the air, and the pavement's contour sending its footprint up through the suspension.

big splatter on windshield
Yet I'm still able to flush out the past week's rat race from my mind and reduce things down to just my senses.

That kind of simplicity becomes a welcome contrast to the clusterfucked layers of detail that get laid on top of each other and then interwoven to the point where they can't be undone but only walked away from and put on hiatus until we return again.

Sometimes I need to just follow lines laid down by someone else. There's a lot less responsibility and judgement that way. It's easier to follow something you can count on and know that it's going to keep you on the straight and narrow.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

What Lies Beyond the Curve

Perhaps no other form of life on this planet but human beings make a habit of preparing for something unforseen.

We shoulder a heavy load just in this endeavor alone: A GPS in case we get lost, a patch kit in case we get a flat, a heavy jacket in case it gets cold, a top-off in case there's no gas station, a knife in case we're attacked.

Maintaining a margin of surety against the unknown seems so human nature.

twisty mountain road
The road snakes its way through the canyon and you can never see down the highway for very far. Each twist and turn is a mystery. Will there be sand? A decreasing radius? An idiot crossing over the double yellow? Even if I've ridden this road so many times, there's still a chance that there's something beyond the curve I'm not prepared to deal with.

But each time I come into the same curve, I wonder if I can just go a little bit faster. 15mph above the number posted on the warning sign used to be my standard, but now even that seems not enough. I need to keep my brain calculating.

I come up to a 30mph switchback and drop it down into 4th, the engine roars and winds down, slowing me down a little. I look up ahead and take in the periphery and watch the painted lines stream by. The exit point comes into view, I bring on the throttle as I make my cut to the inside, and rocket out.

I look down at my speedometer to see the results.

Yet I'm not doing this to tempt fate. I'm doing this to ride. Not just sitting on a motorcycle that happens to be moving, but getting into the zone and making it move.

ortega highway curves
They say that motorcycle riding is really all about the curves. If we never had to steer, anyone could ride a motorcycle and no one would have any fun.

And it's always the curves that sorts out the riders. Some fear them, others crave them. But even among those that crave them, there's still trepidation. I can always ease my mind by riding more slowly, effectively buying insurance for whatever the curve might bring me. But slow down too much and I'm no longer having fun.

At such a level of safety, my brain stops calculating, my mind is no longer in a zone, and I just get bored. A harder twist of the throttle, a greater angle of lean, a more graceful line through the curve, is what keeps me focused on a challenge. But will that speed someday become boring as well?

ortega highway motorcycle
The fact is that I've ridden these roads so many times, and yet I still feel a sense of insufficiency. That I still have a fear of what might lie beyond the curve, and still don't possess enough skill to deal with whatever might be there in short enough time.

And for that reason I find myself slowing down, only to come out realizing that I didn't have to.

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Of Motorcycles and Lazy Afternoons

Summer is not even here, yet it looks like it's around the corner. Bright blue, cloudless skies and temperatures in the upper 70s make Southern California the place to be right now if you're a motorcycle rider.

The sunshine peeks into my home office and taps me on the shoulder. I focus on my work and try to shut it out of my conscience. The sounds of birds chirping, a distant dog barking, but no screaming kids outside. It's a Thursday afternoon.

I grab my netbook, lace up my boots, and open up the garage door.

And there it sits, my ride.

The irony is that I've spent all this time positioning myself for this, where I could jump on my bike, pack my laptop, and ride my bike someplace with a Wi-Fi connection, and do all my work there. But it seems that hiding in a home office is what I do.

I twist the key, start the ignition, and 1,261cc's of V4 engineering find life.

motorcycle in a field of grass
Heading down the road, there's always something about a weekday afternoon that makes one twist the throttle a little less aggressively, particularly if you're not already knee-deep in the work-day grind. It's no wonder why the term "playing hooky" is often depicted with scenes of guys of holding fishing rods, and ladies getting pedicures.

Life just seems to run slower.

The road often traveled seems surreal.

What I had ridden on a hundred times before somehow seems like a new road. That switchback that I used to feel uncomfortable with now seems so graceful. I hadn't noticed that pond before. And there's no traffic anywhere.

tight twisty motorcycle road
My sense seems heightened, I smell the air and notice it changing to something else every 100 feet. Orange blossoms at one point, hay fields the next, shady oak groves after that.

A herd of cattle captures my attention. Little else seems so lazy and pastoral. Happy cows make the best cheese I've heard said. But what cow dies of old age? Even those that give milk are some day destined for the butcher. Even breeding bulls, once they become too old to stand themselves up on their hind legs, will become Ken-L-Ration someday. So it's only fitting they share such a lazy, idyllic afternoon with me.

And Spring is made for motorcycle riding. Fields of green, skies of blue, and temperatures perfect for t-shirts. Who doesn't feel like taking a day off from work?

motorcycle and herd of cattle
I find time to work on my cornering skills, starting on the outside of the lane, cutting to the inside, and back again. I tuck my feet up against my bike, lean forward a bit, and lean it over hard. I can feel a tiny little rock in the road transfer it's impression up through the rear tire, through the suspension, through my seat, and into my body.

I pass by a sign that says "Curves Next 5 Miles", and think "Cool!". But alas! A school bus hogging up the lane.

Slowly, the road winds its way into civilization. That feeling of reality sets in, knowing that eventually the day has to end. The landscape switches from wilderness and chaos, to that of symmetry, order, and comformity.

But within that lacework of avenues and boulevards I seek out a familiar oasis where I can still forget and perpetuate the laziness.

motorcycle and beer

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About Steve

San Diego, CA-based motorcycle rider who likes long road trips, old rustic bars, craft beer, and tough women. Can often be found where there's free Wi-Fi, writing about the mysteries of life. (Read more...)