This past holiday weekend my friend John and I got together for a ride up to the mountains. We decided to meet up in Charlotte at Cars and Coffee, a monthly gathering of rare and exotic cars and car enthusiasts. I had never been before, so I was curious to ride up there and check it out. Afterwards we planned on heading up to the mountains, so I went ahead and pulled my 1 piece AGVsport Leather Suit out of the gear closet. I may have looked a little goofy walking around this car meet with leathers on, but that’s okay – I wanted the protection for the spirited riding I knew we’d be doing later in the day. Thankfully the weather was very pleasant.
We hung out at Cars and Coffee for about half an hour, saw some nice machinery, but we were ready to hit the road and find some curves. We hit the interstate for a few miles then peeled off and jumped onto some scenic 2 lane country back roads. Before too long we were seeing the blue outlines of the blue ridge mountains off in the distance.
The first real curvy road on this route is quite challenging in several ways. First of all, there a ton of blind corners on it, and several of the corners are decreasing radius – where the corner gets tighter after you are already in it. Even worse, the pavement is quite rough in spots, and there are sections where large amounts of sand, gravel, or dirt have been spread over the road. For these reasons, you really can’t push too hard on this road. I still find it pretty fun, but by the end of it John wanted to pull over and shake it off. All it takes is getting spooked once in a corner – think you are going to run wide – even for a split second, and it can really throw you off your game. While we were stopped we talked about judging corners as you get to them, and what are some good practices.
There’s a lot more to this than you might think – and thinking is at least half the battle when it comes to riding on twisty mountain roads. You see, we all have very similar built in instincts that can completely take over in the moment. If we see something that we perceive as a threat, we naturally don’t want to take our eyes off it. We focus on it to make sure it isn’t going to hurt us as we assess how to deal with the situation. The major problem with this instinct, is as you should all know – you go where you look! So when you stare at the gravel in the road, or the guardrail, you’re going to head right for it. Re-training your brain to not do this can be a challenge, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor.
When I approach a corner, I first set myself up on the appropriate side of my lane – in the outside of the corner. I use whatever is on the side of the road in my peripheral as a gauge for how fast I’m going – forget your speedometer, this is all about feel (and remember, you’re trying to look in the right places). Now here’s where it gets tricky: when the road is open and you can see through the corner, it’s pretty straightforward, but MANY corners up in the mountains are obscured by trees, elevation, or the side of the mountain itself. You have to estimate how tight the corner is, judging by how much of the corner you can actually see. A good rule is: if you can’t see all the way through the corner, slow down a little more than you think you need to for that corner. This speed will be faster for some than others, but really it comes down to being comfortable. The moment you start getting nervous, you’re going to get stiff – and stiff riding is always bad riding (and often, leads to crashing). There’s an old adage in the motorcycle world that is SLOW IN, FAST OUT. This is fantastic advice, as it leaves enough on the table to make adjustments for the unseen or the unknown. If you enter a corner at 10/10th’s and it tightens up on you, or there’s gravel, or a branch in the road, or a car or truck in your lane – then you will more than likely either crash or best case need a new pair of underwear. For the street I try to limit myself to 8/10th’s riding, leave a little in reserve so I can tighten my line or comfortably slow down while staying in my lane if I have to.
Right before I get to the turn, I have evaluated how tight it is, as well as if there’s anything in the road that I need to avoid. This is accomplished by a quick sweep of the road with my eyes. After you enter the corner, you need to look as far through the turn as you possibly can. For most turns, this is the corner exit. If it’s a tight switchback or hairpin, then look as far through it as you can until you see the exit. Maintain this throughout the corner, but be conscious of what is in your peripheral vision. If you see gravel, sand, or some other instruction, DON’T LOOK AT IT. Simply look where you want to go and avoid it.
These techniques have to be practices over and over in order to become second nature. Remember you are going against your natural instinct to look at a threat. Force yourself you look instead at the part of road that you want to take – and STAY LOOSE. Relax – if you ride over a bit of gravel and you are loose on the bars, the bike will wiggle and slide, but you’ll more than likely come out OK (as long as you aren’t pushing to the very edge already). Ride stiff and afraid and you’ll put yourself in the ditch in a hurry.
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