Though it happened many years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. A cloudy autumn evening, comfortable from the Indian-summer temperatures we had been enjoying, but tinged with that knowing-it-will-all-be-over-soon feeling. There was that sense that the season's riding days-the good ones, at least-were numbered. I had toasted a set of tires the previous week in a trip down into the Smokies with some buddies and had since replaced them with a fresh set. I was enjoying that wow-the-handling-is-so-much-better feeling that fresh rubber imparts and was trying to squeeze in every last mile of good riding I could while the nice weather lasted. Leaving a couple hours early on this Friday afternoon seemed like exactly the right thing to do.
Weekday rides are always cool because most of the good roads-those most likely to attract attention over a weekend-are usually devoid of traffic. And so it was for me this day; I had the road virtually to myself.
Spooling up the engine at the bottom of the mountain, it didn't take more than a couple of corners to get synched, to find that rhythm. Then, snick, it was done. After that, it was just riding, effortless, flowing through the corners without really thinking about it. The bike and I were wired. In the zone. Other than the engine, the sound of which seemed to be coming from somewhere deep inside me, the rhythmic scurring of footpegs on asphalt was the only thing to be faintly heard.
Halfway up, the tortured coils of tarmac perceptively tightened. No matter. I was in that rare place where anything seemed possible, where every nuance of the road and all the complexities of the moment were distilled into a singular clarity. I maintained the same road speed, simply carrying a bit more corner speed through the turns.
Ahead, a blind right-hander. Even though I couldn't see it, I knew what it presented: a conventional sweeper going in, then tightening ever so slightly as it ran toward the apex-a bit of subtlety all but lost at less serious speeds. I knew the pavement was good. There was a single ever-so-rough patch of asphalt, but it was a good foot to the left of one's normal line. The only complication was a faintly visible 6-inch-wide diesel smear that some vehicle had laid down in the lane heading up the mountain several weeks prior. Time and weather were slowly scrubbing that nuisance away. But I had modified my line a few inches to the left to avoid it ever since it had appeared and was still playing to that caution.
It was at the moment of tightening, while dialing in a little more lean angle, when the rear end broke. It wasn't that flexing sort of shimmy we've all felt, when the tire breaks traction a little, the back end suddenly loose. It broke hard, like the sear of a rifle, with an abject this-is-no-drill certainty.
I should have been scared. Any rider who has ridden for more than a few months has experienced those chilling moments of surprise when, for a few puckering microseconds, our reality has become both tenuous and palpable. Those gotcha moments when we get that adrenaline dump and that explosive spike in our heart rate and that howl of disbelief in our heads. I've certainly had my share.
It was almost like I was a disinterested observer, casually watching the show. With the rear end stepped out, something approaching a foot, I knew I was in danger of high-siding. But I also knew-with a dead certainty that even today I have a hard time describing-that the tire would hook back up in a controllable way. I knew, as much as anything I've ever known, that this was all going to be OK. So I just stayed on the throttle and kept on riding.
A dozen years later, at Virginia International Raceway, I'd be confronted with almost the exact same scenario-a badly loose rear end and a spun-up tire. There was no quiet certitude that day, and I ended up getting pitched on my ear. But back home on that mountain, I found something wonderful.
We've all got one, our own little racer road. It's probably the best motorcycle road within a reasonable distance of wherever it is that we live. And for most of us, being "best" is defined by having a bunch of quality curves-the number of those and their temperament dependent upon the local topography. If you're fortunate enough to live in an area rich with good roads, you may end up factoring in other things when selecting your marquee route: traffic density, scenery, along-the-route complications like houses or driveways, how well known the road is to other riders or how the road can be connected to other good roads to make a longer riding loop. For you riders who aren't so fortunate as to live in an area of grand broken geology, your favorite road may be as obvious as taking a map, scribing a hundred-mile-radius circle around your house, and pointing to the one good road within that space.
However we arrive at it, that favorite road of ours is unique. Regardless of whatever other characteristics it might hold, there is one thing that makes it immeasurably different from all the other roads that we ride-our intimacy with it. That changes everything.
Riding a motorcycle at speed is an enormously complex activity, one that floods a rider with a multitude of sensory inputs and requires a constant stream of split-second decisions. It's a pursuit that insists upon near perfection in execution and rewards mistakes with an immediate and undue harshness. It's probably no surprise that only a small percentage of the population is drawn to it.
For those of us who are, the rewards of mastering that complexity are immense. There's something sublime about doing it well-riding at speed along a good road. And at its zenith are those rare moments, every now and again, when we somehow manage it all perfectly across a span of miles and are rewarded with that state of grace that no amount of money can buy.
Riding well can happen anywhere. There's no reason you can't climb on your bike, ride across six states, and end up on a strange road that you immediately make a connection with. It happens. But it's undeniable that most of us will ride better on roads with which we have some familiarity. And that's why that old favorite road of ours is so special. Having ridden it countless times, we end up with a nuanced understanding of its qualities. Not just the obvious things like the best line with which to connect its corners or how much traction, in general, that the pavement affords but also much more subtle things. Things like knowing where the camber rises or falls, for instance, or those places where the pavement has some irregularity or other; understanding those places where our suspension comes in or goes out, or recognizing those points where you transition from throttle to brake and vice versa. And because it's in the mastering of those inflection points, those points of change, that we raise our riding to a new level, and that favorite road of ours holds a unique promise.
For years, that road of mine across that mountain was my home away from home. It was where I went for fun, whenever I just wanted some quality miles. It was where I went for solace, whenever other things in my life seemed crappy and I needed a lift. And it was where I went for education, whenever there was a new riding technique I wanted to try. On more than one long, tortured day at work, I'd find my mind creeping back to the shadowed hollows of that mountain; a momentary reprieve.
The downside of any racer road, of course, is the racer part. A lot of guys never learn the difference between riding a road well at speed-and simply riding fast. They end up crashing, of course, and if your particular racer road happens to be popular enough with such riders, it'll draw the inevitable attention of local law enforcement. And when that happens, you're done. It's been a long time since I last rode that old mountain road of mine, the one I so loved for all those years, at speed.
So when you do find that special road, the one that you find yourself returning to again and again, don't tell anyone save for your closest riding buddies. Like so many other things in life, the best racer roads are the secret ones.