To Slay a Dragon

In a few days time I depart to the US to ride the Dragon. In a previous post I talked about my last trip and had promised some information on what the Tail of the Dragon is, and this is the purpose of this post. If you like your motorcycles but are not American you may know of the US129. If you are American you will almost certainly know of it. Forgive me for what follows is a blatant cut and paste job. I promise that my next post on the subject will be my ride reports.

The Tail of the Dragon

Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap with 318 curves in 11 miles, is America’s number one motorcycle and sports car road.
Designated US 129, the road is bordered by the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cherokee National Forest, with no intersecting roads or driveways to hamper your travel. It is considered “the destination” for thousands of motorcycle and sports car fans throughout the spring, summer, and fall.

The 11-mile stretch of the Dragon in Tennessee is said to have 318 curves. Some of the Dragon’s sharpest curves have names like Copperhead Corner, Hog Pen Bend, Wheelie Hell, Shade Tree Corner, Mud Corner, Sunset Corner, Gravity Cavity, Beginner’s End, and Brake or Bust Bend. The road earned its name from its curves being said to resemble a dragon’s tail. The stretch bears the street name “Tapoco Road” in North Carolina and “Calderwood Highway” in Tennessee and is signed entirely by US 129

The nearby Cherohala Skyway is quickly becoming a destination too, with its remote 60 miles of breathtaking scenic mountain highway.

The Cherohala Skyway (sometimes called the Overhill Skyway) is a 43-mile (69 km) National Scenic Byway and National Forest Scenic Byway that connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina in the southeastern United States. Its name is a portmanteau of Cherokee and Nantahala, the two national forests through which it passes. Along with multiple vistas and overlooks, the skyway provides easy vehicular access to various protected and recreational areas of the Unicoi Mountains, including the Citico Creek Wilderness, the Bald River Gorge Wilderness, and the remote interior of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

The skyway gains over 4,000 feet (1,200 m) in elevation, rising from a low point of just under 900 feet (270 m) at Tellico Plains to a high point of just over 5,400 feet (1,600 m) on the slopes of Haw Knob near the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. The North Carolina half of the skyway terminates near the south shore of Lake Santeetlah.

The area also has other incredible roads like the Moonshiner 28, Devils Triangle, Diamondback 226, Six Gap North Georgia, The Snake and Great Forest Service Dual Sport and Jeep Roads.

 

Fortune favours the brave

Foolishly, I thought our planning would magically weave a path around any incoming weather, and as I prepared to set off from home there was a possibility that would be the case. By the time I was 100 yards up the road it became clear that this was fanciful thinking and I was getting wet. My initial stop for fuel was also going to be an opportunity to get the wet weather gear out of the panniers. I wishfully checked my phone for a text calling off the trip. Nothing.

Meet up

We had arranged to meet at Llangollen in the car park of the Royal International Pavilion. Heavy rain largely dominated the journey  so I tucked in behind the bikes windshield and turned on the heated grips. The rain had subsided by the time I pealed off the motorway near Chester, heading west towards Wales. An initial 7ºC had climbed to an almost balmy 11.5ºC, small margins but it was noticeable. Once at Llangollen we headed for a much needed hot drink. Sitting opposite a card shop drinking our coffee we amused ourselves trying to pronounce the name of the shop, YSIOPFACHGARDIAUWRTHYBONTDROSYRAFONDDYFRDWYYNLLANGOLLEN. We gave up.

A typical Welsh shop

Although we were passing many of our usual locations, today’s main event was Barmouth and I punched the destination into the (now behaving) Navigator V. Ever since I came back from Switzerland I had been trying to fix a problem with the Sat Nav. Even a whisker over a speed limit on any given road would cause it to give an audible warning every 20 seconds. It had been driving me crazy and I couldn’t find a solution. It became a long story but It needn’t have been. I had inadvertently turned on Audible Speed Alerts and having assumed nothing had changed in the settings I didn’t check them. Instead I was Googling and being lead on a merry goose chase about speed camera databases, and picking through the file system while ignoring the solution that was right in front of me.

Moving on

On the topic of satellite navigation, we encountered another of those little misadventures you get when you refuse to use a good old map. Having set Barmouth as the destination I was advised that there would be a toll, and I accepted the warning without taking up the offer of an alternative route.

The toll in question turned out to be Penmaenpool toll bridge. It is a Grade II listed wooden toll bridge built in 1879 to replace the then ferry crossing across the estuary of the River Mawddach. The earlier rain showers had left the wooden surface a little slippy but we crossed without incident for the princely sum of 50p each. If we had not turned off the road to cross the bridge then we wouldn’t have encountered traffic that we have earlier passed. They were not following the same navigation goals as we where and were on a more direct but slightly longer route. But hey, that’s the adventure right?

Penmaenpool toll bridge

Barmouth

We crawled into Barmouth through narrow streets behind your typical caravan and motorhome selection of day trippers. Barmouth was built up from the ship building industry but is now a seaside resort. We found a nice spot to park up on the promenade. The tropical trees lining the promenade looked out of place despite it warming up a little. However, not to that extent. We found a cafe. I had a full English, my riding companion had a stack of American pancakes and syrup. We were living the Welsh dream.

Tropical Barmouth

We left Barmouth and followed the coast road towards Harlech. We turned inland and shot over the excellent A470 from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Betws-Y-Coed with its long sweeping bends. At ‘Betsy’ we pulled into the recently resurfaced car park and slotted into the newly painted motorcycle bays. Betws-Y-Coed is a regular stop and a hub of many routes in Snowdonia. Its not uncommon for us to fuel up both bike and belly. Having just fuelled the bike, and with bacon, sausage, black pudding, egg, mushroom, beans, tomato and toast still working its way down my innards from the cafe in Barmouth, it was a quick cup of tea before heading for home.

There were a few light showers but nothing to have me reach for the now stowed wet weather gear. Fortune had favoured the brave. Faced with the possibility of a soaking we’d gambled and had a great ride out. Chalk up another 250 miles.

Check out the route on Garmin Adventures

The Dragon, the beach and the hot tub. Adventures on the US129 and beyond.

In a previous post I mentioned that back in 2015 I visited some of my friends in the US. Flying into Atlanta we rented a Camaro and did a four state round trip taking in The Dragon aka Deals Gap, Knoxville, and finally, Hilton Head Island for a bit of beach relaxation.

It was on this trip that I first experienced the R1200GS through a rental and had a blast riding the US129 ‘dragon’ during the day and drinking beer sat in hot tubs in the evenings. This year I plan to return in July and at this stage have barely given it a thought although I will be just doing the week in the cabin at the base of the Cherohala Skyway. What I do know is that a very generous friend is allowing me to use one of his bikes during the trip. Its a lifesaver as I had entertained the notion of renting a GS from Eagle Rider in Atlanta but the cost for the duration was over $2000 in comparison to $600 for a Mustang/Camaro from Atlanta airport to get me over to the dragon for the same rental duration.

Hopefully between now and the trip I will share with you some more information on the dragon and the surrounding area. In the meantime I hope you enjoy my video of 318 curves in 11 miles from my last trip.

R1200GS on the dragon
Riding the Dragon

The sports bike years – part 2

Much as I love the Kawasaki and being back on two wheels in general there was that box that remained unticked. The Superbike. When once asked did I really need all the performance that one would deliver my answer was “No, but what’s that got to do with it”. I’d considered all the 1000cc options including the obvious choice having aligned my preferences with Kawasaki however I wasn’t expecting things to happen the way they did.

My regular rides out to Wales and the BMW owning riders I rode out with meant that visiting Motorrad in Chester was a regular occurrence. It was on one such visit that out of the blue I got presented with the opportunity to but an ex-demo S1000RR with all the extras on it and 1000 miles on the clock. In a whirlwind of activity one minute I was an owner of a supersport bike and the next I was the owner of one of the most desirable super bikes on the market.

The bike was like night and day compared to the previous machine. It had enough power to pull your arms out at the sockets but it was also very agile and an absolute precision tool. I spent two great years with it and spent as much time looking at it as I did riding it.

The highlights of my time with it had to be a day with the Californian Superbike School at Silverstone on an extremely we day and a tour of Scotland. The latter was the beginning of the end for the super bike as it turned out, and sports bikes in general. As I began to cover longer distances it became clear that I would have to get something that was less harsh on the joints.

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S1000RR

Martin-(8) copy

photo

Silverstone wet

The sports bike years – part 1

Its funny looking back now but back in 2013 I had never rode anything on the road over 125cc and it had been over 20 years since I had been on a bike. In my teens I had looked longingly at RD350LCs, GPZ900Rs, Suzuki Katanas (strangely) and had a soft spot for the GPZ600. But at that moment of picking up the Kawasaki ZX-636 I was greener behind the ears than the bikes paint job. Regardless of the fact that I had been driving on the road for years and the current car was a 3.2 V6 Audi, in my mind it was the day after selling the MBX and it felt like I was that teenager again.

Those first days were a little strange. I’m not sure if it was being on a physically larger bike or that after so long I was just rusty but I remember being very stiff on the bike. Not physically, that would come later and we’ll get to that. I hadn’t appreciated that the bike needed a bit more input from me to wrestle it around. I was giving it more respect than it deserved. A few more miles under the belt sorted me out. I spent the first few weeks pottering around home just enjoying riding the bike, cleaning the bike, looking at the bike and cleaning it again just in case it had got dirty while I was looking at it. It wasn’t long before I had a local group of mates with bikes and we were taking regular longer rides around the Northwest and Wales.

Got a motorcycle, box ticked. Rode the motorcycle, box ticked. The next box that needed ticking was on the track.

With its origins as a race circuit starting in the 1950s my first recollection was going there in the late 70’s with my dad to watch the super bikes and eat beef sandwiches. Apart from the racing I remember the sandwiches had excessive amounts of butter and salt. Nice. I’m lucky that not only is it on my doorstep but, in my opinion, it is one of the best circuits in the world. In its 2.8 miles It has wonderful sweeping curves, changing gradients, and technical bits that are a joy when you nail them just right.

The bike was ready for it. I’d replaced the stock exhaust with a shorter carbon fibre PipeWerx exhaust and with its baffle out I was amazed to get it through its noise test. The mirrors were off and the headlights were taped up. Unfortunately it was a bit damp. Not so much that it would spoil the day but enough that you knew you couldn’t fully commit to the bends. Not that I’m shy of a bit of rain. As a choice we don’t ride in crap weather but thats a choice made of keeping the bikes at a showroom standard rather than any inability to ride in any condition on my part, as I’ll show later on in this tale.

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Returning to old ways. Catch up post 1

Most people reading this will know my story. Its not a story that is particularly impressive or inspirational, in fact its none of those things. However it is my story and the facts cannot be changed, they can only be embellished.

I’ve always been around bikes. Before I was a twinkle in the eye my dad rode Heinkel scooters between Rotherham and Manchester. Manchester was where he settled and were I was born. As a child I remember various bikes that I know know to be a Honda Superdream and an BMW R80RT before he got a BMW R100RT, the bike I spent many hours on the back of. There was one other bike and for the purpose of this story I’m going to call it a Honda. What I do remember was that it was a 175cc trail bike and when sitting on it my feet didn’t reach the floor so I’d hop from foot to foot. It was this bike that gave me my first experience of riding solo on the fields at the back of where we lived in Sale. I was probably 9 years old at the time.

At the age of 16 I left school and started an electrical apprenticeship. It was 1984. Like most parents I’m sure that my dad didn’t really want me on a motorcycle on the road but having got my final written warning from work for turning up late I needed to get off public transport. I was working all over Manchester an often needed to catch three buses. A motorcycle would give me the independence I needed. We bought a Honda MT-50. It was a fine bike for a 16 year old and since some previous owner had tinkered with the exhaust baffles I could get the best part of 40mph out of it. After some time it started to become unreliable in the rain due to an electrical fault. It was time to move on and I had my eye on a flash new Honda MBX125F, more refined and less common than the Yamaha RD125LC of the day. As often happens I was cleaning the MT-50 ready to sell it and I found the electrical fault. A corroded going from the alternator that would short out whenever it rained which was all the time in Manchester.

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I got the MBX on my 17th birthday. It was a beautifully sunny day at the end of March and it was delivered to me on the back of the dealers van. The 125cc liquid cooled, 2 stroke sports bike was a different world to the 50cc ‘moped’ I’d just sold. I was still serving my apprenticeship and while many of my peers had taken their driving test and were in cars I was happy with my two wheels. The 17 year old me was also happy to get wet. He didn’t care if it was raining. He didn’t care that the water soaked through his jeans. He was going to look good on the bike. Back in the day no-one else cared anyway. It was never the weather that got the better of me. It was the girls. They wanted boys that had a car. That and the fact that if I didn’t pass my bike test I lost my licence. You could only ride up to 125cc on a provisional licence and you only had two years to get the test done else you were on a year ban. You could however pass your car test and have an unlimited provisional entitlement. I passed my car test and bought the car but in doing so the bike was gone.

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This is where we fast forward for the first time to 1991. I’d found myself out of work with spare time on my hands. My brother-in-law decided he wanted to get a motorcycle and needed to pass his test. I had always regretted not taking my test and still had dreams of riding those bikes of whose posters adorned my bedroom walls as a teenager notably the ‘dogs’ at the time, the Kawasaki GPZ900R (red, of course). I agreed to do the training with him and we took our test. I past first time with ease, I had been riding on the road for years and had many miles in my tank, it was a formality. He failed and had to retake his test. Despite passing my test and having the ability to buy any bike without limit to engine size or power (seriously, there were no restrictions back then!), I had no job with a young family and no means to buy a bike. My brother-in-law however free from family and financial constraints went out and bought a Suzuki GSXR750. It wasn’t long before he lost it up the notorious Cat and Fiddle and went under a car. He survived after a period in intensive care. Chances of me getting a motorcycle after that? Bugger all!

This is where we fast forward again. Thoughts of having a bike were a distant dream and long forgotten. We are now in 2013 and it has been 22 years since I rode a motorcycle, and that was during the bike test. It was a late night in January and we were watching TV. More specifically we were watching Top Gun. Tom was riding his Kawasaki down the runway waving at the F-14 Tomcats. We all know that he was strapped to a trailer but that’s his story, this is mine. My thoughts went back to that poster I has so many years ago. The fastest road bike of its time and the first stock road bike to exceed 150mph, the GPZ900R. The first Kawasaki Ninja. I turned to Jayne and said “that’s the bike I always wanted and never had”. I expected nothing more than a dismissive scowl of disapproval. The reply changed everything. They talk about pivotal points in your life, your wedding, the birth of your child, Manchester United winning the treble but this was truly a life changer. “Why don’t you go and buy one then”. I remember it taking a moment or so for it to sink in such was the magnitude of what was now possible. It wasn’t long before I was trawling eBay.

It didn’t take too long for me to find that things had moved on from the 80s. There were a whole new breed of bikes available and regardless of the GPZ being the catalyst I wasn’t really into buying a classic bike. After a bit of research it seemed that the bike for me was another Ninja, the ZX6R-636 and there was one for sale in a dealer near me (green, of course). I drove over to the dealer to see it. It was in pristine condition and despite being a 10 year old bike it could have been brand new. I drove home the owner of a Kawasaki ZX6R-636 A1P. I was the owner of a supersport bike. I was a motorcycle rider again.

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