The road treated me well today, each corner unfolding knowingly into the next. There were some amazingly clean stretches of familiar asphalt that begged for just another few feet before brakes, a half-second sooner on the throttle. I rediscovered that perfect, mid-corner spot for my head a few times, just above the handgrip on either side of the tank — the place where I could best hear the mechanical symphony of valvetrain, intake whine, and exhaust pulses resonating upon cracking the throttle open at the apex, rushing to a crescendo cut only by the next upshift.
It will soon be riding season, but it had been an honest three months since I’d been out on the bike for more than an hour. Today, the asphalt beckoned. Early spring days warm enough for a comfortable motorcycle ride are scarce in the Western North Carolina mountains, so I quickly geared up. My Yamaha XSR900 came off the battery tender and out of the garage to warm up as I dressed. It’s nearly an automatic process at this point in my life — textile riding pants over jeans, slide on my boots, back protector over a thermal shirt keeps my core warm. Next the lined textile jacket zipped to the pants, earplugs, helmet, gloves. Slip my wallet and phone in the saddlebag, and I’m off in less than 10 minutes.
The bike sounded good after a long cold winter; not the first time it’s been out of the garage this spring, but the first time it’s been out for a ride. She suits me perfectly, the big 849cc triple pumping out impressive torque from low in the revs, the crossplane engine bouncing staccato exhaust pulses off the roadside banks. I sometimes think I could ride her blindfolded if somebody could whisper brake markers in my ear. The fuel light comes on immediately, demanding a fresh tank of 93-octane to begin the riding season.
Bright sun is warming the landscape nicely as I head east out of the gas station. After a short straight section, the road begins to snake its way up and over Hickory Nut Gap southeast of Asheville. Here, the Blue Ridge Mountains drop sharply toward the piedmont. Known as the Blue Ridge Escarpment, this wall of mountains runs from Georgia to Virginia, offering riders multiple twisty routes up its flanks.
As I climb N.C. 80, I notice leftover sand and a layer of dried brine, making for the early season “death cookies,” as a good friend calls them. The roads will be a crapshoot this early in the season, and I was solo today.
All my riding buddies had prior engagements or “honey-do” lists to manage. I had been hoping for some company, but at least I won’t be waiting for folks or constantly monitoring my mirrors. My approach will be to brake early, to apply throttle smoothly, and to commit to corners only once I can see all the way through. I don’t really mind the challenging conditions — it’s all part of the game.
Motorcycling, to me, is a solo sport. Once the helmet goes on, there’s no conversation, no voice to listen to but my own or the occasional music in my earbuds. Some of my most memorable rides have come exploring the coves and ridges of southern Appalachia all by myself. Riding solo is a chess match of restraint. I have full confidence in my own ability to ride this bike to 90% of its potential. I try not to do this on public roads, because the road changes daily. A rainstorm might wash silt across a corner, or truck traffic may pull some gravel into the lane.
Alternatively, the state may come in and lay down some fresh, smooth black asphalt on some random piece of road in the middle of nowhere, creating a six-mile playground that didn’t exist last week. I might time it perfectly, hitting my favorite stretch of curves in long evening sunbeams while seemingly every soul on the planet has gone inside for an hour. The reason riding remains so appealing to me is that it’s never the same ride twice.
When riding solo, I have better focus. I’m not worrying about the rest of the riders in a group, whether they be ahead or behind. I’m only concerned with my own pace, line, body position. I work out the kinks — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — out here doing my own thing on my own bike. Finding myself in tune with my machine and my environment. This is the inexplicable bit — that connection with everything, all in the simple repetitive actions it takes to manipulate a motorcycle through the corners. Inertia works on my body. Newton’s universal laws of physics give me the sensation of speed. From the sights and sounds, force of wind on my leathers, friction of brake pads on metal rotors, of rubber tires on asphalt, I feel my own being-ness, my ability to unconsciously perform all the broad and minute motions of eyes, body, fingers, feet.
Sometimes a corner exit nailed just right leads to just a bit more speed into the next corner, then the rush of lean angle and traction and gravitational forces, contributing to another poetic apex and acceleration, and it just builds until I’m moving way too fast. I must balance the relentless forward urge with enough discretion to build a cushion, especially when I’m out here by myself. I’ve got to make it home because tomorrow’s another day. Should the unthinkable happen, nobody would know until far too late that I’m not where I’m supposed to be.
The roads get progressively better as the day passes, each section a little cleaner than the last, unbelievably. It’s so early in the season, and so early on this Saturday morning, that there was almost no other traffic. I was stunned to make the entire run up N.C. 80 from Marion — known as the Devil’s Whip — to the crest of the Blue Ridge Escarpment without having to pass a single car. That has never happened. Even near the top, over 4,000 feet up, the sand is swept clean from the lane. For a few more moments, restraint took a minor holiday while the corners rushed at me one after another.
At the top, I paused for a few minutes to look south at the valley below. The trees are still bare, but this fact colors the distant mountainside with that particular shade of purple that hints of buds, spring and warmth.
I’m in love with this moment. Bittersweetly, there is not a soul to share it with. I enjoy riding solo. The only problem is that there’s rarely someone to share these epic moments of grace and beauty with, and they’re so difficult to explain or recreate. This day brought a few of those moments.