The sign ahead says dangerous curve, but the message seems redundant since the road has been one bend after the other. But that's what makes riding in the Smokies world-class. The Great Smoky Mountains are a rider's haven, a crossword puzzle of winding, twisting roads, incredible views, and few other distractions. Infamous roads such as the "The Tail of the Dragon," Highway 28 south from Fontana, and the Blue Ridge Parkway, just to name a few, often test riders' skills far past what they had expected.
Riding on flat, straight roads is poor preparation for what the mountains have in store. For many, just driving the speed limit on some of these asphalt roller coasters may be too much to handle. In addition, the particular style of bike you choose to ride determines much of what you can expect.
For the novice observer, there are two distinct styles of motorcycles. The "cruisers" are aptly named. Designed for relaxed, long stretches of highway, these low-slung, chrome-plated machines are not well suited to the fast cornering typical of mountain rides. Don't get me wrong, my wife and I ride cruisers, but we take the scenic roads very casually. We stop often to enjoy the views, never pushing to see what the bike can do.
On the other side of the motorcycle spectrum is the race-born machine. These bikes are designed for winding turns at good speeds. Nimble and quick, they can accelerate quickly and break just as fast. However, this is where you can get into trouble if you are not used to the mountains. When turns come a couple hundred yards apart and limited vision is par for the course, riders unfamiliar with the road ahead can find themselves overextended in a heartbeat. Here are a few simple rules:
First: never leave the asphalt. Whatever it takes, stay on the road. Hitting the shoulder at any speed, whether it is grass, sand, or dirt, will make the bike almost impossible to control.
Second: Stay in your lane. It's tempting to cut some turns tight by edging into the oncoming lane, but since it's impossible to see around most curves in the mountains, you could meet an oncoming car with little warning.
Third: Know your machine's limits. Grinding your footrests around a turn may be foreign to a lot of riders, but in the mountains, it's commonplace. Forcing your bike to turn more sharply than just leaning will accomplish this. These kinds of techniques are not found in the motorcycle drivers' manuals and are not needed for casual, everyday riding. However, mountain roads require a few innovations. For example, putting pressure on the handlebars in the opposite direction of your turn will cause the bike to turn harder. It doesn't make much sense, but at speeds over 30 mph, this technique can be very effective in tight turns.
Fourth: Know your limits. Trying to keep up with a better, more experienced rider can get you into trouble fast. Stay in your comfort zone, and, with experience, you will become better, too. If you are riding with more people, stop every few miles and let everyone catch up.
Fifth: Know the conditions. Mountains road are often sanded and graveled in winter, making spring riding more dangerous. Spring rains will wash away this debris and leave the roads much cleaner. Rockslides are also common on the parkway in the spring, when the thawing of ice loosens rocks, which then land on the road. Although some of these rocks can be the size of cars, most slides are cleared quickly and cause only the temporary closing of roads. Summer thunderstorms can also sneak up over the mountains quickly. Be prepared for some wet-weather riding since shelter can be few and far between.
There are no professionals when it comes to riding in the Smokies, only seasoned veterans and those who sell motorcycles for a living and listen to all the stories.
Brian Lenor, sales manager for MR Motorcycles in Asheville, N.C., offered a few points to consider for new riders to the area. "A lot of riders come to the area as groups," he said. "The riding levels can vary greatly in a group, with the better riders leading the way. Less experienced riders should not try and keep the pace, but ride at their own skill level."
Brian was also quick to point out the importance of keeping your machine in top condition if you plan on riding hard. "Balding tires, worn-out breaks, [and] oil leaks seem to be at the heart of a lot of problems," he said. "Folks don't seem to understand how fast performance tires can wear out when driven on winding roads. Inspect your bike before you take off." Brian also explained how the shadows from overhanging trees, tunnels, and varying slopes can make perception a problem for riders. He suggested wearing a clear visor, to avoid perception problems. "People travel thousands of miles to experience these fantastic rides," he said, "but take your time and stop to enjoy the views, [and] concentrate on the road when you're riding."
Chris Gibson from Waynesville Motorcycles is a seasoned area rider and cautions "Taking your eyes off the road for one second can be one second too long. The roads around here are not very forgiving. Pay attention, enjoy the ride and stop often to enjoy the views. Ride at your own pace and don't ride to the point that you are tired. Don't push yourself past the point of being safe."
Jeff Bradley of Black River Motosports in Maggie Valley stresses caution. "Don't try to make a bike thats not designed for hard cornering, do things it was not intended for. Also proper attire is a must, gloves, boots, kevlar® or leather jackets are a start."
The main point of caution is to realize that the mistakes you make riding mountain roads can be very costly, and you are not often given a second chance. Ride smart. Pay attention to the road. And don't forget to stop once in a while to enjoy the views that brought you here in the first place.
To Read More:
There are several publications and websites that can help planning a mountain ride in western North Carolina.
For the latest riding conditions:
Motorcycle Adventures in the Southern Appalachians by Hawk Hagebak from Milestone Press. www.milestonepress.com