Monday, 4 January 2016
OddBike USA Tour 2015: Part VI - Awe
Matt proves to be an engaging host, an experienced racer filled with good stories, interesting contacts and a wealth of knowledge. I'd talked to him online briefly before but hadn't realized how passionate and knowledgeable he truly was, making my stop in Calistoga after a far-too-long ride all the more worthwhile. He is kind enough to prepare a late night meal for me after my day's adventure, a much welcomed gesture given my unfortunate habit of "forgetting" to stop for a meal due to my excitement and determination to complete the journey.
I have a tendency to zone into a task so completely that I neglect to even feed myself, pushing my basic needs aside in favour of seeing myself through to the end. It's a trait I share with my father, who is known for spending long days in the garage without taking a break. I know this practice well, zoning myself out for long hours as I tinker with my machines or work on my hobbies. I usually don't stop until I encounter a roadblock that stymies me, which generally results in something getting broken in a rare fit of blind rage. I am not known for having a temper, usually being quite calm in demeanour, but when something frustrates me beyond the limits of my patience I have a tendency to snap in spectacular fashion. Demons run when good men go to war, or when the quiet man strips a bolt at the wrong moment.
I sleep soundly and wake early, refreshed and ready for another long day. I was supposed to meet with some OddBike fans at Stinson Beach for coffee before riding into San Francisco for lunch, but the folks who were supposed to join me dropped off one by one in the days prior to the meet and it appeared that I'd be going solo. The perils of organizing a meetup on a weekday. I wasn't too bothered, and looked forward to a little detour along the coast. I'll use any excuse for a decent ride, and I'm keen to get back onto the twisties of Route 1 again.
But first, I need to run the gauntlet of early morning traffic entering the Bay Area.
I can now benefit from being able to split lanes, this being California and all. I have some trepidation. Lanesplitting is a mythical privilege that is quite foreign to riders outside of Cali, a degree of freedom that we simply aren't accustomed to. I picture myself skimming off mirrors and scraping paint before someone cuts in front of me and puts a quick end to my trip. I recall the hectic, take-no-prisoners riding I had to learn in Montreal, the same offensive-defensive driving that every Quebec rider needs to adapt to lest they end up a statistic being scraped off the road by unsympathetic officers of the SQ. I shudder at the thought of cutting between cars in that environment. In that town, doing something that bold would have gotten you killed real quick, either by driver error or retaliation from the irate motorists you try to pass - assuming the police hadn't suspended your license the first time you tried it.
Matt gives me some advice on how to proceed before I go, and I set out into the maw. I have to brave the Interstate for a few miles to make it to the exit for Stinson Beach. Pretty soon I'm stuck in the morass of rush hour traffic, crawling along with my usual resignation to my fate in such scenarios.
I slowly venture between the lanes as traffic comes to a stop. I'm stunned when the cars ahead of me begin to move out of my way, parting the space to allow me to pass safely.
That would not happen anywhere else. I'm surprised anyone is even paying attention to their mirrors.
My confidence grows and I begin to pick my way through the lanes, gradually increasing my speed. It's still not enough to keep up with the veteran riders who are filtering through and passing me with ease, and I move out of their way in deference to their skill. I'm suddenly aware of a degree of freedom I've never experienced on a bike before. I don't have to be stuck in traffic, and I can use the bike's size and manoeuvrability to my advantage rather than pretending I'm piloting a really small car.
I stick to cutting through stopped traffic, not yet ready to carve through moving lanes. But I've already been liberated. The nerve-wracking effort is giving way to a clear-minded focus as I spot gaps to exploit while anticipating the movement of the vehicles around me.
It's a revelation. I can't believe how easy and natural this feels and wonder why no one outside of California has allowed this practice. Not only that, but I'm in shock as drivers are cooperating and respecting my space. For the most part, anyway. There are the occasional dickheads who crowd you in and refuse to move out of your way, but you can take solace in the fact that once you get past them you'll leave their sorry asses miles behind you.
Then I whack a mirror with my handguard, the dull plastic thwock bringing me back to the reality of weaving between multi-ton machines piloted by sleepy commuters. Better take it easy. Don't get cocky, kid.
The road north to Stinson Beach is another revelation, a freshly-paved piece of twisty perfection snaking into a picture-perfect seaside town. It proves to be a superb way to start the morning, slicing through a series of tight corners before stopping at a lovely café for a coffee and snack while the locals go about their morning routine. It occurs to me that for some lucky folks this road and this route is part of their normal commute. Do they know how lucky they are? Do they appreciate the beauty of the locale and how spectacular the road home is? Never mind the weather, which is absolutely perfect for riding.
The flaw with this fantasy becomes clear when I try to leave Stinson and head back towards San Fran, and the tight road becomes choked with traffic. Ambling commercial vehicles crawl around the sharp turns, holding up a row of nimbler machines behind them. Nothing can be too perfect, I suppose.
It's funny how the problems with any seemingly amazing setting, in my mind, are the people who populate it. I'll chalk that one up to my introverted tendencies.
I cross the Golden Gate Bridge (remembering not to split lanes here on Matt's advice, given the strong cross winds messing up everyone's aim) and stop in San Francisco for lunch at the Hong Kong Lounge, a popular dim sum spot recommended to me by a local. Once again there was supposed to be an OddBike meetup here, but like Stinson all the guests dropped off one by one and I'm forced to eat my delicious, delicious meal alone. Oh well. It gives me time to think and scribble out some notes while I people watch.
Passing the city and continuing south along the 1 reveals a series of dense urban areas and not much in the way of scenery, despite being within spitting distance of the seaside. As the road winds inland away from the ocean the temperature skyrockets and I'm soon cooking inside my touring gear, vainly opening vents and unzipping every port to try and get some relief. It feels like someone turned on a giant blow dryer. Traffic is heavy as I pass through Santa Cruz, but I'm never bored picking my way through the lines of cars. Splitting lanes keeps you on your toes and forces you to maintain focus, and is entertaining in its own way. Not as much fun as strafing a deserted twisty road, but fun nonetheless.
After some slow progress through the populated areas, I start to pass through iconic locales. Half Moon Bay, Monterey, Carmel. I stop near Davenport to rest and take a walk across the pristine sandy beach that borders the road. For a few minutes I'm alone, taking the opportunity to walk out to the water's edge to dip my hand in the Pacific and complete my little ritual.
I grew up on beaches like this one. It has been far too long since I've felt warm, shifting sand beneath my feet and breathed cool, briny sea spray. Standing here scanning the horizon and watching the waves roll and crest, listening to the sound of surf lapping the shoreline, I'm at peace.
The anxieties that accompanied me on my departure have completely melted away and I'm totally relaxed. More importantly, I'm happy for the first time in a long while. My stresses seem insignificant in this moment, my demons far away from this beautiful place.
I continue on my way. I enter Big Sur, and after stopping to pay 5.00$ a gallon for fuel, the road suddenly becomes spectacular. The route offers amazing vistas across the ocean dotted with multi-million dollar properties and resort towns. Public beaches and pristine parks dot the route as the road winds along cliff faces and across gullies, all above the glistening waters of the Pacific. The descending sun casts a fiery glow across the scene. The colours are piercingly vibrant and the air is warm. I've ridden into paradise.
I fall into the rhythm of the road, my sense sharp and my hands steady as I attack. Down two gears, hyperdrive engaged, slingshotting past rubbernecking tourists at warp speed, chasing down the more spirited drivers as the going gets twisty. I'm in my element, overcome by the thrill of the road and the act of hunting down drivers who think they can outrun a demented Canadian aboard a vicious Italian sportster.
I'm in awe once again, riding through a postcard scene that is instantly familiar. Most of the brochure shots you've seen in the auto and moto media are photographed here, along these flowing ribbons of asphalt perched high above rugged bays beaten by an endless torrent of white surf. I encounter a camouflaged test vehicle, a two-door sports car which looks vaguely like a Jaguar, accompanied by a group of competitor's coupes. I can't think of a better place to test the fair-weather capabilities of a vehicle. Here is the mythical land where a convertible makes sense, where you can enjoy the flawless weather and stunning vistas with the top down. Anywhere else a drop top is a compromise, a good car made worse in favour of posing value that can only be exploited on select days in select venues. But here, along the Pacific Coast, I can't think of a better way to travel.
But you and I know better than that. The best way is, of course, by motorcycle.
I clear a line of rubbernecking tourists driving ten under the limit and for several miles I'm alone, thundering through bends as the sun descends over the water. The road isn't as technical as the tight stuff along the Mendocino coast, but the staggering natural beauty makes up for it. The intake bellows beneath me as I scythe through the sweeping curves, powering out of the apexes at full throttle, the steering going light and my arms stretching taut as the engine hits the thick part of the meaty midrange thrust. I'm close to tears, scarcely able to comprehend what I'm experiencing. The beauty of the surroundings mixed with the adrenaline of carving this road is overwhelming, an intoxicating mix that is the very essence of the reason I ride. This is one of those perfect moments that won't be equalled for a long damned time. I'm so enthralled I don't even pause to take photos. I'm too preoccupied with riding to stop as I arc from one beautiful corner to the next.
I never ride without my iPod, no matter how short the journey. I find that music can elevate my senses and add an extra element to the experience, giving those moments of beauty you find in everyday life a cinematic quality. The music playing now punctuates the scene, the shuffled songs falling upon just the right soundtrack to accompany the visuals. It is the final element that pushes this experience from amazing to epic, my mind and my body united.
Melodramatic? Sure, but I'm nothing if not passionate. And this was, without exaggeration, one of the best rides of my life.
The road begins to straighten and I slow my pace, mindful of the law enforcement that might be lurking along the gentler sections. I stop at San Simeon, close to the site of Hearst Castle, and watch the sun set over the ocean as a full moon hangs overhead.
I still can't believe I'm here. The moment is bittersweet because I know I can't equal this experience anywhere close to home. Every ride after this one will feel hollow, until I can find another locale and another road that can surpass this. I want to savour this, to never let my memory fade.
I struggle to find the words to express the heady mix of emotions I experience in this moment, to share the overwhelming beauty of the world I'm seeing here and now. There is something within me that stops me. I cannot elaborate any more without descending into derivative, repetitive hyperbole that might sound cool in my head as I relive the ride in my mind's eye, but will fail to do justice to the experience for the reader. You simply have to ride that road yourself to know.
Darkness falls and I continue until I reach San Luis Obispo, grabbing a cheap motel room for the night before I stop at the local hot dog stand for a greasy, artery murdering meal. I'm going to need a good night's rest after today's awesome ride. Tomorrow I head for Los Angeles.