“Get through the curves so fast? You make it look so easy. I’m scared half to death most of the time.”
“What? No way. But you ride with such confidence…”
Conversations such as the one above happen to me quite often now. The interchanges differ slightly, some are broad and generic, some more specific and focused, and yet others are just to say hello and to tell me that the way I ride is inspiring. I’m not really sure why. I am mostly just flabbergasted, because I don’t consider myself fast, or inspiring, am nowhere as smooth and proficient as I want to be, and I’m definitely a little scared a lot more than I’d like to admit. Heck, I’m still a newbie myself. I’m in my fourth year of riding, with roughly 44,500 miles logged, and have yet a long way to go before I could even consider myself an experienced rider. So why have I become the go-to girl?
Maybe I am asking the wrong question. Maybe it’s not what I do or to what level of proficiency I do it. After all, the degree of a skill is relative to the comparisons made. Maybe it is how I do it.
So how do I do it?
Upon reflection, I find that the answer is of quite a simple nature:
- I refuse to accept “good enough” as a standard and continue to learn and practice those lessons whenever and wherever I can
- I keep reaching outside of my comfort zone little by little, gently pushing my skill envelope and working through my fear(s)
And no matter where I am in my skill progression, or how advanced of a rider I may become, these two concepts hold true. Mastery does not equate perfection. There is always room for improvement and always an opportunity, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem, to learn more. “The day I quit learning is the day that I die.” I don’t know who said it, or where I picked up these words of wisdom, but I wholeheartedly embrace the sentiment. Words to live by, indeed.
It does make a girl feel good (and a little bit proud), even if she feels a tad awkward and shy, when others show their appreciation for the way she rides. Especially when the kudos come from riders whom she considers to be so far above and beyond her own skills, that she is amazed they even gave her the time of day. It keeps her going, it makes her work even harder and cements the refusal to give up and not let temporary setbacks beat her into the trap that is “oh well, good enough.” It really isn’t good enough. “Good enough” is dangerous as it leads to routine and routine eventually results in rashed paint, dinged frames and broken off bits. Or worse.
I’m in the mood for a little story telling rather than my usual not-quite-scientific analytical nerdiness. I’ll be as long-winded as the Dragon is curvy. That’s my specialty, and if you are one of my a regular readers, you’re used to this already. I am an editor’s worst nightmare. Well, I would be, if I had one. I’m gonna be, one day.
Here you go. Sit down, put your feet on the pegs, and hold on tight:
A Tale of the Dragon
A week ago, my husband and I returned from a five-day motorcycle vacation. Two of those days were spent at Deal’s Gap, riding a stretch of US-129 between North Carolina and Tennessee that is known to motorcyclists all over the country as the “Tail of the Dragon”. The road is notorious for its advertised “318 curves in 11 miles” and it is quite the gem from both a biker’s point of view and that of an engineer’s. It has a curve for every taste. Banked or off-camber, blind or the kind you can see all the way around, constant and decreasing radii, compound and multi-apex curves, fast sweepers, esses, elevation changes, dips, cracks, rough and smooth asphalt… you name it, you can find it, in various more or less gratifying combinations. Want to see if your street game is up to snuff, this road is a good place to evaluate. The Dragon comes complete with photographers ready to snap your picture as you negotiate a few choice corners (please smile, wave, and get your lean on to get that knee or floorboard down) and the obligatory contingent of county and state officials with clipboards at the ready and fat ticket pads to grade your excellence in high performance. It even has a Tree of Shame to hang your various broken bike parts on, should you flunk the skills test. Just don’t go there in the middle of the day on the weekends, or you’ll just get stuck in a traffic jam in the middle of seemingly nowhere, and then you will be lucky if you even get to average the speed limit, which is a posted 30 miles per hour.
The sky looked ominous. It desperately wanted to rain, but the weather had held so far and I was determined to get a few good runs in before it let loose, if it was even going to in the first place. If it did rain, so what? In my husband’s words:
“I’m going to do the Dragon. I don’t care if it rains. I don’t care if I’m the only man to ever do it wearing a trash bag, that Dragon is going down!”
Mr. Slow is a self-admitted fair-weather biker, so this was important enough for him to risk getting caught in a rainstorm. It was important enough for me, too; albeit for a completely different set of reasons. His reasons included shutter speed, mine corner speed. I really didn’t see my husband a whole lot after I followed him on his virgin run with the video camera attached to my bike. We never broke the (averaged) speed limit and I was one-handing it most of the trip, waving fanatically at the photographers hoping to get my silly self into hubby’s frame to ruin the shot. Didn’t quite work out as planned. I risked his life for nothing. Bummer.
I almost didn’t go, because the sort of shenanigans that I had in mind were for dry roads and warm tires, but I made myself gear up anyway. I quietly admonished myself that I was supposed to keep it at 60% and keep the racer mentality off the public roads. So far I had done pretty well in that regard. Yes, things got a little spirited on occasion, but I would like to think that I never exceeded 75% of my skill at any given time. Did I not just spend a weekend riding with a friend resetting my brain to “street mode” and adjusting my “Speed Racer” mentality in an effort to ditch the frustration with the limitations of street riding that has plagued me for the better part of the past two years? To recapture the enjoyment of the ride at slower, more sane speeds without letting too much hang out on that slippery slope that is risk acceptance. “No speeding in the straights!” is the toughest rule to adhere to, especially if the road isn’t entirely straight, but sweeps invitingly from side to side.
As it turns out, the road is cold and wet in places, and it seems to be getting worse. I realize that it is starting to rain and that we are catching up with the worst of it. As we continue northward the road gets wetter and there are leaves in a lot of the corners. I slow my already temperate speed even more. I have only one word to describe my feelings about wet leaves in wet corners: treacherous. My tires are sticking and my lines are true. However, this situation makes me feel timid and uncertain. To the close observer, this anxiety makes itself evident in my body position. As the battle between fear and intellect rages in my mind, my sternum becomes rigidly glued to the tank. I have to make a conscious effort to correct this tendency, hang off properly by dropping the upper body into alignment and in doing so also right the bike from its excessive lean. When your chest is stuck to the gas cap, your ass might as well be sitting in the seat, with your knee gripping the tank. You can’t just hang your cheeks out and expect to conserve lean angle by lowering your combined center of gravity. It doesn’t work that way. Either hang off or don’t… that half-assed crap isn’t really doing anything but make you look like an assclown. I’m getting a little flustered with myself, not that I would have to hang off at all. But hanging off is one of those things I still need to practice and perfect for myself, so I always at least go through the motions, even at speeds where it is not needed. At minimum I like to “pop” the inside hip into place and weigh the outside peg. Besides, sitting sedately center, hauling through a curve is much scarier than doing the same while getting low and to the inside of the bike, for the centrifugal forces involved are less apparent. It just feels slower and more manageable. This is also the secret to getting your kicks without having to push the speeds too far into “jail-able offense” territory. And if you also take the “car line” through to avoid flattening out the curve you can get even more thrills for your speeding ticket buck. But that’s an entirely different story altogether.
I’m not liking this kind of riding. This is more like commuting or roadtripping than joy riding. But as the ride continues, my fear is gradually replaced by annoyance. I want to be irresponsible (in a responsible kind of way), but am somewhat inhibited by the probable presence of more cops (one had parked himself in the first longish straight to set the mood) and the less-than-fun traction conditions. But it is good practice. Since I’ve lost my job, I haven’t had much occasion to use my crap weather skills, so this is really a blessing in disguise. With the newfound attitude I begin to settle into a rhythm and am starting to enjoy myself again, even if such joy is served with a dash of apprehension.
We turn around at Tabcat Bridge, at the northern end of the Tail, and make our way the eleven miles back south. It isn’t too long before the skies open up and let us have it in full force. Visibility becomes more and more limited as the rainshower cranks its intensity up to torrential downpour. My visor keeps fogging up and my gloves are getting soaked. Our average speed doesn’t drop all that much and we are still dancing smoothly and effortlessly through the curves. Now this is something I can cope with. The leaves have washed off the road and the asphalt is finally clean. This is the kind of riding I refer to when I say: “Rain is nature’s way of giving us clean roads and 80% traction.” I don’t like “sort of wet”, but “really, really, really wet” I can definitely deal with. The hanging off bit stops as soon as I realize — to my chagrin — that my crotch is absolutely soaked and my feet are sopping wet. I make myself as small as possible, trying to keep the water out. To no avail. I can feel a cool trickle making its way down my spine between my back protector and the moisture-wicking compression shirt. Oh, goodie! We all know where that’s going next: Asscrack Falls. And then I’ll be sitting in it until I stand up. I smirk at the thought. I’m not entirely sure why this is even funny, but I’m getting a kick out of it. Hell, yeah! I made that damn Dragon cry. I suffer another mental burst of girly giggles.
David and I are the fastest crew to come down the mountain that morning. The Pirelli Angel ST tires are again proving their crap weather worthiness. I don’t trust them quite yet on their sides, because they have massive grooves for water evacuation running almost all the way to their outer edges. That’s just too much air and not enough rubber in the chicken strip regions for my comfort level. When it was dry I wished I had a stickier, softer tire; but now I am definitely glad I’m rolling these sport-touring hoops. My confidence in the tires is evident in our pace. I have no problem keeping up with David who is leading the return trip.
We’re safely passing several vehicles and catch up with some sportbike riders who do not seem to appreciate getting caught in this shit storm at all. One is making a concentrated effort not to lean around a corner; and another is hugging the center lines, crossing over repeatedly, almost as if he was using them as a visual guide to help him stay on the road. We pass him in a hurry, before he could make it to the next curve. It appears that David and I had the same idea, neither one of us wanting to see “what happens next”. [Both of these guys made it back down the mountain alright.]
Several riders gave up and parked it at a pull-off. The Harley boys just kept on cruising, a little slower than usual, but those dudes don’t wimp out for some rain. Especially if there isn’t an overpass to park under for miles and they’re already wet. The cigarette smoking while riding, however, has ceased, for obvious reasons.
We finally make it to the chain-link fence that marks the southern side “Beginner’s End” at the North-Carolina/Tennessee state line. Almost there. Almost. As we round the right-hander a flash of hi-viz yellow catches my attention. I smile as I realize it’s Mr. Slow creeping down the mountain on his Samsonite Missile. He also has no real pressing urge to lean. That’s my man! I smile again, since I’m happy to have caught up with him; because I assure you, I would have freaked out approximately 22 minutes after not seeing his Connie parked in front of our room.
This is a good time to have lunch at the Dragon’s Den Grill and the place is packed as people settle in to wait out the storm. The satellite TV has quit, we have no cell reception, and it’s anybody’s guess as to how long this’ll go on. A typical spring afternoon shower? Couldn’t be more than an hour or two.
As soon as the rain subsides, I’m geared back up and on my way to my bike to head out. Everybody else also wants to go, but they want to wait about 20 minutes for the road (and their gear) to start drying out. With my renewed confidence I’m not even interested in wet roads or wet gear. I sit down on the bench in front of our room and impatiently wait on time to tick off the minutes as I watch the steam as it rises from the pavement; the road slowly begins to dry.
My overly inflated ego is promptly corrected not too far into the next run. Let some of that air out, hot stuff, shall we? Traction feels iffy and after sliding around in two consecutive turns, I am absolutely crestfallen. WTF?!? My riding again becomes timid as my anxiety level rises. I hate sliding the rear wheel. I dislike it on the track, but I’ve learned to cope with it there; however, I still don’t like it when it happens and I find myself avoiding to ride that close to the edge of my traction limit. When it happens on the street my anxiety is multiplied. I already hate the outside edge of the pavement and sliding around like I am isn’t helping that situation any. This is the reason I have a tendency to take the “race line” through a corner, hugging the center-line at the apex with my body hanging all over into the oncoming lane. Never mind that my tires are still in the correct lane space. On the track this tendency is displayed in a distinct cutting of corners to the apex. It’s almost a little like dog-legging it, rather than a more gradual approach. It’s point-and-shoot from entry to apex, but on exit it is a gradual drifting out to the outside edge, as it should be when accelerating out of a turn. This is also why I prefer right-hand turns on the street, even though it would make sense to be more fearful in a right-hander. After all, if the rear breaks loose, I would be sliding into oncoming traffic rather than off the road. All these worries and various discomforts come flooding into my conscious thoughts. Slap! Take you down a notch, missy. A pass and review of your more annoying (and tenacious) riding flaws. Arrrrrrgh!
On the return trip I can barely keep up with the guys, my group or otherwise. Correction: I can’t keep up with the guys. They only reason I keep catching them is that they get held up by other motorists. I feel tired and unfocused. I’ve let myself down. I am really disappointed. I know I can do better, so what is this? It’s almost schizophrenic. I feel slightly nauseated as I fight my way through every curve.
By the time I’m back down at the Gap, I’ve worked myself up into a real pisser of a self-deprecating attitude. I park the bike, and start stripping off my gear. I’m not going back up! This shit sucks, I’m really not in the mood anymore. Apparently, you can’t teach some old dogs anything… I notice none of my friends’ bikes are there. Not even Mr. Slow’s is anywhere to be found. Oh, hell with this! I’m going back up and I am showing this damned Dragon who’s wearing the bitchin’ pants in this freaking crowd. The guys pull in as I am adjusting my tire pressures. Great, those jokers stopped off somewhere and here I was trying to catch up. But the decision has been made. I’m getting back on this damned motorcycle and I am going to own what should have already been mine. I’m letting two more pounds of air out of both tires. I will find me some traction (or loss thereof) and collect my confidence while I’m at it. I am a girl on a mission. A girl who is intent on making the DTC work it for her. The guys also decide they didn’t have enough yet, swap bikes between themselves, and we head back out. This time I end up in the middle.
I spend the next 11 miles trying to push the front, slide the rear, or make either the RaceABS or DTC intervene; whichever one of those three comes first. I don’t care. I find I’m a little angry. I work my way into racing up to a corner, slamming on the brakes, throwing the bike in, and grabbing a judicious twist of throttle on the way out. Rinse, repeat. Nothing. The tires hold solid. The subtle pulsing of the ABS system or the faint “clicking” of the traction control both remain elusive. Maybe the shit doesn’t work anymore, after all? Well, I do know the RaceABS is in working order. I have finally mustered up the courage to put that one to the test by a few hamfisted, idiotic grabs of the front brake. There was never any doubt that the rear brake was working, that thing goes live when I’m just thinking about maybe using it. A little excessive for my taste, but whatever.
I wave the thought of maybe not having a functional traction control system to save my bacon aside and am wondering if Rick, who is behind me on David’s Ducati, is bothered by me riding like a jackass. He seems to cope fine with my change of riding strategy, but I make a mental note to ask him, and apologize if necessary, at the turn-around spot. I am not worried about hurting David’s feelings, who is undoubtedly playing around with the ZX10R’s ABS/DTC systems as well. He’s a racer and we’ve been doing “skill runs” pretty much all weekend. I’m sure he doesn’t mind my nose up his tail and in his business every corner we come to.
We actually looked quite well together, the three of us. Later inspection of over 200 uploaded low-res digital proofs by the various Dragon photographers confirms my suspicion. Mr. Slow also hands in photographic evidence. I hope I meet these guys again. It was a blast riding with them. And next time Rick better bring his wife, who didn’t want to go until he had “checked it out”. I told him to tell her I am mad at her for not showing up.
As I was gradually working my way up to braking later and harder, and accelerating sooner and more aggressively, I felt something I haven’t experienced in a long time. A glimmer of my former bravado and aggressiveness. That something in my personality that I thought had finally been tamed. The little streak of crazy is alive and well and its clawing its way back to the surface. I do believe that to be a good thing. And I have the Dragon to thank for it. Why? Because it rained a little bit.
I had lost a lot of my spunk after crashing last year by tucking the front end into Turn One at Barber Motorsports Park at 120+ mph. A crash that prematurely ended the 2011 racing season for me, because I got to spend my money on fixing my bike rather than actually racing it. A crash that also trashed my confidence without me even realizing the significance of its impact until months later, when I finally got to do another track day and realized I was slower, less confident and more nervous. It took me another few months to pinpoint all the kinks that had developed in my riding as a result. And it was extremely hard to admit that to myself. I blamed it on not getting enough seat time. Yeah, that’s part of it, but that hadn’t slowed me down significantly before I had lost my balls in the kitty litter.
And that is how I do it. This is how I roll.
Check out some of the photos Mr. Slow took. He’s stashed them at FramedByJoe.com (link opens in new window).
I submit to you our first round of Monday morning dragon slaying. There wasn’t much slaying going on quite yet, since the Dragon himself was still pre-coffee and in no mood.