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Ride of a lifetime: The best til last

Published: Yesterday 12:30

Updated: Yesterday 12:42

I’d been warned that Tasmania wouldn’t be as warm as mainland Australia (the North Island). I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so cold, though. I rolled off the Spirit of Tasmania ferry in Devonport East into a chilly morning.

I'm wearing almost all my layers but it wasn’t enough: I stopped at the first café I saw, grabbed a warming breakfast, then pulled my waterproofs on top of my leather jacket and Draggin Jeans.

So many people had told me that I couldn’t go wrong in Tasmania. I’ve been asking for recommendations for roads to ride all through the trip, but when it came to Tassie I only heard one thing: "any road!"

Exploring the North Coast

Though it’s clear that not every road will be suitable for my Kawasaki Z1000SX, with huge signs by the roadside reminding drivers that the speed limit on gravel roads is 80kph. So, just how much gravel will I have to dodge, to keep my sports tourer on tarmac?

I have only the loosest of plans. Maybe it’s battle fatigue, maybe it’s just the confidence that comes with having spent so long just riding following my nose. Either way, I’m tackling this final leg of my trip with less preparation than for any other stage of the journey. I head east and then loop north. I have four days before my return ferry, so I’ll try to do a quarter of the island per day.

As the day gradually gets hotter, so does the riding. Leaving Highway One on the eastern edge of Launceston, I find myself on increasingly twisty roads. All tarmac. They are utterly deserted – I don’t think I overtake a car all day. I loop up to the Bay of Fires, with miles of spectacular beaches, then cross St Marys Pass and Elephant Pass on the way to my overnight stop in Bicheno.

Riding St Marys Pass

I make an early start next morning, as I’m planning on a bit of touristy sightseeing. I want to get to Port Arthur, the original penal colony. It’s pretty much at the far south-eastern corner of the island and I want to get there with enough time to have a wander around.

This involves riding down the Tasman Peninsula – which blows me away with every turn. The road is a little busier, but the views are just spectacular. Port Arthur doesn’t disappoint, either – though in three hours of exploring I can’t find any references to my ancestors (there’s a couple of horse thieves and a forger on the Aussie side of the family tree).

Visiting Port Arthur

The best bit about having ridden to Port Arthur is that to get anywhere else means retracing my route – through the forest, over Eaglehawk Neck, past Pirates Bay and on for miles of flowing roads to Sorell. I finally encounter traffic on the run into Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, where I spend a fine evening at the Lark Distillery…

Next day, though, I get bitten by the weather. Heading north and inland to ride Grasstree Hill – as recommended by Harley-Davidson rider, Solomon, who I met in the Sorrell McDonald’s. It’s a fantastically twisty road, ideal for a hillclimb… but the first specs of cold rain make the surface slick enough to trip my tiptoe switch. All morning I’m playing waterproofs-off, waterproofs-on… and by lunchtime I give up and leave them on.

The riding is spectacular, though – heading north over rolling hills, beneath the arching canopies of forests, climbing and falling and twisting and turning. The final descent to my overnight stop in Queenstown is outstanding… or would be if icy nails of rain weren’t lashing the road.

A quick photo before the rain settles in

My last day in Tassie dawns black and cold. I set off on what could potentially be the best riding of the trip, carving through the Hellyer Gorge and the thick forest… as the rain thickens to sleet, then slackens to a relentless downpour. There are half-a-dozen other roads I’d like to explore, but in this weather, I just keep my head down. Finally, the rain gives up as I hit the coast at Somerset.

I get to the ferry early, parking beside a trio of other bikes. I’m feeling a bit deflated: really, this is the end of the trip. All that’s left is a long day to return to Sydney, then shipping the bike off. I wish I could have enjoyed Tasmania in warmer, sunnier weather – because even in the wintry cold, it’s one of the very best places I’ve ridden.

A falling BMW F800GS damages the Z1000SX

And it’s here, at the very end of the trip, that disaster strikes. As the wind and rain catches up with me, it hits the BMW F800GS-Adventure parked beside my Kawasaki and throws it off its stand, smashing into my petrol tank. All those miles with no damage, the bike still scrubbing up almost as new… and at the last minute it gets damaged. I could weep.

Next day, I head back to Sydney, dropping the bike off for freight and heading back to the airport. Now I’m back in the UK, in East Anglia, which is about as warm and dry as Tasmania but with busier roads and less dramatic scenery. I think I know where I’d rather be… Maybe it’s time to plan the next big trip.

Simon Weir runs his own motorcycle travel website – click here for information


Ride of a lifetime: On the road again

First published - 11/11/2019

Simon's Kawasaki Z1000SX in the Outback

It’s been a hell of a week. I’ve ridden from the cool green forests of the Yarra range outside Melbourne to the dusty red plains of the Australian interior. From the lush ordered lines of the Barossa Valley vineyards to the spectacular limestone stacks of the southern coast. The landscape and the riding in Australia is constantly varied but consistently good.

Okay, there were some long, straight, dusty, hot, dry roads as I headed north-east from the small town of Yea. I’m glad I’d done my time getting used to this kind of thing in America. My Kawasaki Z1000SX doesn’t have cruise control and if I’d come here straight from Europe, I don’t think I could have resisted speeding… and down here, there’s always a copper when you least expect it and not only are they ridiculously strict on speeding but also the speeding fines are extravagantly high.

Simon at Mad Dog Creek

I got through the week without getting busted, thankfully… but I got a warning flash of lights from a police car heading towards as I went towards Broken Hill. I was dozy in the heat and looked down to see I’d drifted up to 108kph in a 100 limit (yes, about 4mph over the limit). I’m still amazed they didn’t turn around and stop me. That made me stop the ride early in the town of Mildura. Next morning I got an early start, heading further inland – blown away by the Martian strangeness of the increasingly red landscape dotted with tough grey-green trees – before looping down to the Adelaide hills.

Ken Blake Memorial

I was stopping here with my friend Gazza, who promised to show me the best local roads. I’d had plenty of MCN readers get in touch to suggest roads as well (thanks guys – especially Daniel Lee) but I’d never have plotted a route like Gazza did. I was dizzy by lunchtime, as we carved our way back and forth through the hills and into the wine country. This is great riding country – out to Lobethal, Hahndorf and Strathalbyn. Like the quiet, twisty lanes of Herefordshire, but steeper (and sunnier). A brilliant day’s riding – and great to ride with another biker, the first time since riding with my friend Michael in Northern California, more than a month ago.

Simon Weir riding with his mate Gazza

From Adelaide I cut south-east. Initially I was planning to dive back into the centre, but I was still feeling a little rough, struggling with the heat, so ended up taking a more direct route to the coast through Murray Bridge and down the Prince’s Highway. Mostly more long, dull straights… but with a 110kph limit somehow that made riding less boring (and easier to keep legal).

A selfie on the Great Ocean Road

The target here was one of the world’s greatest rides: the Great Ocean Road, Victoria’s B100. It’s only 150 miles long, from Allansford to Torquay, but I’m taking my time to ride it. Partly this is so I can get off the bike and have a wander – there are so many sights to see along the way, as the Southern Ocean carves the limestone cliffs into extravagant shapes. But it’s also so I can have an explore on some of the roads around the Great Ocean Road.

I’ve been here before, 13 years ago, though I was a passenger in my mate Damo’s car back then. I’ve been itching to come back on a bike ever since… and it doesn’t disappoint. From the Bay of Islands to Port Campbell, the ride is quite staccato: short bursts of straight-corners-stop-to-admire-the-view; repeat… But it’s worth it: this is a coastline unlike any other in the world and though, yes, it’s just lumps of rock being lashed with water, there’s something compellingly beautiful about the way the sun glistens on the white-crested waves crashing on the cliffs and sandy beaches.

Simon Weir at Thunder Cave

I break my journey at Port Campbell before moving down to the Loch Ard Gorge and the 12 Apostles. It’s a muggy, slightly overcast day so I leave my jacket and helmet with the bike – something I’d never risk in the UK, but it’s safe down here – while I walk to the various viewpoints. There are plenty of visitors, but that doesn’t detract from the experience: we’re all tourists together, doing the tourist thing.

12 Apostles

But now I need to get back on the bike, and do the bike thing. And from the 12 Apostles, the riding goes up a gear. The road moves inland slightly, tracking the coast but without the sea views. Then I head away from the Great Ocean road on a loop up through the Otway Range – 75 miles of twisty, occasionally narrow and demanding, fun all the way to Colac and back. I pick up the B100 again for a few miles before turning south through the forests to the Cape Otway lighthouse, looking down over the Southern Ocean: great place and good roads.

Cape Otway lighthouse

The riding just gets better after I drop down to Apollo Bay. This is very much like another of the great roads I’ve ridden on this trip: California’s Pacific Coast Highway, when heading south from Monterey through Big Sur. One the inland side, steep hills or cliffs; on the the other, crashing surf; in between, a ribbon of tarmac twisting tightly round creeks, rising and falling like the sea itself. There’s mile after mile of this with very little traffic (but a few patches of roadworks). Absolutely brilliant riding, all the way to Lorne, where I stop for the night.

And that’s where, sadly, things take a turn for the damp… I wake next morning to a torrential downpour so delay setting off in the hope that it’ll slacken, but it doesn’t. I scrap my plans for inland exploring and just carry on along the Great Ocean Road to Newquay – more amazing riding, but I’m tentative in the wet. I stop at the surf mecca of Bells Beach, but it’s so wet there’s no more than a dozen hardy souls out there.

Great Ocean Road sign

I head on towards Melbourne, joining the motorway that’s so slick and wet that the Kawasaki traction control kicks in – in a straight line, at just 100kph – to stop the back wheel spinning up. The persistent rain and spray is awful. Time to head somewhere else. Good job there’s a ferry waiting for me in Melbourne to take me to Tasmania…

Simon Weir runs his own motorcycle travel website – click here for information


Ride of a lifetime: g’day… after good day after good day

First published 28/10/19


Sunday. Race day at Phillip Island and I’m dragging myself slowly downstairs. It was a late finish after the post-race party on Saturday night. No, not at MotoGP but on the other side of Melbourne, where the Australian SXS championship was wrapped up. My old mucker Damo is involved with this thrilling, crazy ATV racing and I can’t imagine a more Australian form of motorsport.

I’m here in the town of Yea after a fantastic week of riding - one that vindicated my decision to wait for my Kawasaki Z1000SX before getting properly stuck into the business of exploring Australia. Getting back in the saddle (well, on the Airhawk) after riding hire bikes felt like settling into my favourite armchair after sitting in other people’s houses.

I loaded up and set off from Sydney, heading down the coast. Crossing the city was a pain – there was a whiff of wow-factor to riding across the iconic Harbour Bridge in the sunshine, but after that it was just plugging my way through the traffic to the eastern suburbs and the motorway.

Mount Hotham

Thank goodness you can filter in Australia… I tried to get off the motorway as soon as I could, heading down through the Royal National Park and the coast. After the concrete and glass of the city, followed by the brick and ironwork of the suburbs, the cool green of the forest and then the sudden vivid blue of the ocean were as invigorating as jumping into a cool pool of seawater.

I stumbled into Wollongong (which produced world champions Wayne Gardner and Troy Corser), escaping over the superb Macquarie Pass. A bit of motorway got me to Gouldburn and then I headed cross country to pick up the fabulous B52 – one of several great recommendations I’d been sent by MCN readers. I rejoined the coastal A1 at Batemans Bay… but this was not a dull commuter route like the A1 I used to slog up and down to Peterborough every day: this was a fabulous, twisty ride that deposited me neatly at my overnight stop in Narooma.

Next day the A1 and the B72 delivered a cracking ride to Cooma… but it was just the warm-up. I headed past the ski resort of Jindabyne and into the Kosciuszko National Park (named for Australia’s tongue-twisting highest mountain) to ride a road I’d picked off a map: the Alpine Way to Khancoban. I loved it: narrow, twisty, atmospheric and very quiet… I couldn’t believe nobody had recommended it to me.

Alpine Way onboard

Mind you, the following day was all about the road I’d had the greatest number of people tell me to ride: the Omeo Highway. It might have taken as much as three miles to understand why so many MCN readers recommended it… It’s simply fabulous: 100 miles with everything you could want, from flowing, scenic sections to challenging torrents of turns that reminded me of the Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina. Of course, that’s only 11 miles long… The Omeo Highway’s a whole half day of grin-til-your-cheeks-ache fun.

I hadn’t intended to ride the full length of the road, but enjoyed it so much I carried on past the turning for the Bogong High Plains Road, going the final 20 miles into Omeo for lunch and fuel. Back-tracking, I spotted signs saying "road cloased for hazardous weather conditions". I looked around: clear blue skies… surely some mistake? I rode eight miles into the hill to find… no mistake: a big metal barrier across the road.

Oh well – have to ride the Omeo Highway again (shame) and then hit another of the highly recommended roads: the B500 Great Alpine Road over Mount Hotham.  Now this genuinely was motorcycle heaven for someone like me who loves mountain roads. After a gentle climb to the ski village at the summit, a tarmac rollercoaster fires you through the peaks, twisting, turning, rising and falling until hitting the final steep descent – known as "The Meg".

Road Closed sign

The best part was… this was my route out next morning. I’ve rarely enjoyed riding the same road twice so much. Which was good, as the stretch of the A1 I joined from Bairnsdale was much more like the UK’s A1: straight, busy, boring… But it got me towards Melbourne, ready for more recommended roads.

Sadly, next day the weather took against me. Black clouds and a relentless drab drizzle soaked the Yarra Range, making the forests of towering pale gums and uncanny tree ferns look positively Jurassic. They also made the Reefton Spur, Black Spur and other roads I’d come to ride edge-of-the-seat slippery. I overnighted in Marysville, praying for a dry Saturday… and it was dry, as I headed into Melbourne to get fresh tyres thrown on at Raceway Motorcycles. But as I returned to the hills, the rain returned. Watching the SXS racing, we had hail, sunshine, drizzle, sunshine… Melbourne weather, apparently.

And now it’s Sunday. MotoGP day… but I’m not joining the throngs heading to Phillip Island. I’m heading inland, in search of a taste of the outback before looping round to Adelaide and the Great Ocean Road. And the best bit is that I get to ride them all on my bike…

Simon Weir is the author of Bikers’ Britain (newly updated second edition out now) and runs his own motorcycle travel website: click here for info


On the road again

First published - 21/10/2019

It’s here. After all the delays, I was starting to wonder if I’d ever get my Kawasaki Z1000SX back. First I couldn’t afford the air-freight from Los Angeles so had to accept the delay involved in the sea freight. Then the container didn’t fit on the scheduled ship, so set off a week later.

That meant it wouldn’t arrive in time for me to use it when my girlfriend flew out to meet me… So she and I had to do our trip together in a hire car. But that should have meant it had plenty of time to clear customs. Nope: I got back to Sydney to pick it up on Tuesday but it wasn’t actually ready until Thursday…

Simon Weir collecting his Kawasaki Z1000SX from the docks

But the important thing is: it’s here. First thing was a quick shake-down run. First to Bondi Beach – not far from the freight depot in Botany Bay. Then up the coast to Palm Beach, where Home & Away is filmed (I didn’t see anyone famous. Or from the cast). Riding it felt good – natural, relaxed, at ease. Like slipping on my favourite pair of gloves.

It has to be said, though, that this has all been pretty much urban riding. I think the highest speed limit I saw was 80kph. But then, most of Australia has very low speed limits (100kph… 110kph if you’re very lucky). And they like to enforce the limits. Bringing the 143bhp Kawasaki to these roads is very much like bringing an AK-47 to a pillow fight. I doubt very much that I’ll get into sixth gear – fifth might be too much most of the time… I know I’m going to wish the bike had cruise control, even more than I did in the US.

Simon's Kawasaki Z1000SX at Bondi Beach

Back to my brother’s garage, I’ve given it a light service (adjust chain, check pressures, cables, fluid levels – all good). The Michelin Road 5 tyres have lasted amazingly well – they should just about get round the rest of Austalia before needing to be changed. In a minute I’ll start packing for an early start in the morning. I’ve had some great tips from MCN readers and I’ll fit as many into the route as I can. Next week’s update will be longer, as I’ll have been places, ridden roads, hopefully met some of you… So watch this space as the trip of a lifetime finally kicks off down under.

Simon's Kawasaki Z1000SX in Palm Beach

Simon Weir is the author of Bikers’ Britain (newly updated second edition out now) and runs his own motorcycle travel website: click here for info


Ride of a lifetime: shipping snags and a Suzuki... Swift?!

First published 11/10/19

B500

What a road. Sweeping, climbing, tight turns opening into short straights beside long drops down to the valley below. It could be the best biking road I’ve found so far in Australia. Except I’m in a Suzuki Swift… not my Kawasaki Z1000SX.

A little over four weeks ago, I dropped my bike off in Los Angeles to be shipped by sea to Australia. At that point, I began scheming: I had an arrival date, so planned for my girlfriend Ali to fly out to Sydney. I’d collect the bike from quarantine, put her on the bike and we’d ride to Adelaide to see her friends Glenn and Amanda, then she’d fly home from there and I’d continue my ride around Australia.

Icy sign

But unbeknownst to me, the shipping container with my bike inside didn’t fit on the boat I thought it was booked on. So it set off a week late… which meant it would never clear customs and quarantine in time for me to get Ali to Adelaide. Brief panic: resolved by hiring a Suzuki Swift… which cost as much for the whole trip as hiring a BMW R1250GS for two days.

So I’ve had a road trip in Australia with Ali – but more in the style of Thelma and Louise (ahem… in a Suzuki Swift rather than a convertible muscle car). We’ve cut through the Blue Mountains, the Snowy Mountains, a stretch of the Great Alpine Road – including the fabulous climb up Mount Buffalo, which really made me miss my SX. I’ve chosen to see it as a scouting run for the real trip, which will begin when I pick up the Kawasaki on Tuesday next week.

But Australia’s such a huge country, I need to know where else is good. Recommendations from Australian readers would be hugely welcome.

Simon Weir is the author of Bikers’ Britain (newly updated second edition out now) and runs his own motorcycle travel website: click here for info

Feeding a wallaby


Ride of a lifetime: A brush with the bush

First published 11/10/19

It’s cool in the shade of the trees. I pull off the amazingly twisty road and park the hired Honda VFR800, remove my crash helmet and take my ear plugs out. All around me, out of sight, birds are… singing. Well, clanging like tiny silver bells.

It’s utterly bizarre – though now I can hear clearly, it’s reassuring that it’s not something wrong with the bike. I take a second to take it all in: I’m a rainforest, on a mountain, having ridden up a fantastic road, surrounded by nature’s most unusual, beautiful soundtrack. Australia, I conclude, is amazing.

I left Sydney two days ago. With my Kawasaki Z1000SX still bobbing its way across the Pacific, I had to hire a bike. Watching the budget but wanting a decent sports tourer led me this 2007 Honda VFR800 VTEC. I couldn’t tell you how many miles I’ve done on these over the years and they’ve all been good. My initial inspection revealed plenty of signs of wear and tear, the first few miles confirmed that it ran well and delivered that essential VFR experience.

The Honda VFR800 VTEC Simon has hired in Australia

I set off initially over one of New South Wales’s more well-known biking routes, the Putty Road. It was a nice warm-up: twisty, scenic and inviting… but I was sticking rigidly to the 100kph limit. People had warned me about speeding fines, so I was taking no risks. But I got chatting with a Ducati rider at the garage and he suggested there might be a bit of leeway ('But stick to the 80s and 90s') so when I got going again, I relaxed and focused more on my apexes and less on my speed.

That was when I really began to enjoy the ride. I didn’t go mental and I kept a sharp eye out for policemen, but letting the VFR spend more time running on four valves brought the road to life: not nice but outstanding, with plenty of challenging corners, one or two longer straights and plenty of elevation changes.

Plenty of dead wildlife too, serving as a reminder not to get too carried away. I’d always assumed wombats were cat-sized creatures, but seeing a couple of corpses I realised they’re somewhere between the size of a badger and a small bear. I wouldn’t want one of those pulling out in front of me…

The further north I got, the flatter and dryer the land became. The trees that had shaded the Putty Road thinned out or vanished as the road ran between broad brown fields and thin stands of grey-barked gum trees. As I headed towards Tamworth (Australia’s country-music capital, apparently) there was more and more roadkill beside the road: kangaroos now. In places, there’d be a corpse every 100m or so in varying stages of decomposition. The big ones were huge… bigger than a well-fed Labrador. Having hit a deer in Colorado, no way would I want to tangle with one of these.

Simon's hired Honda at Bingara

My second day on the road was largely about breakfast – not that it was wildly special, but I had it in the café of the wonderful Art-Deco cinema in Bingara. Never heard of it? I’m not surprised, as it’s tiny – but it’s where my family comes from, so I stopped for a mooch about. The museum was shut, but the pub was open and that was good enough for me… for a second cup of coffee, of course!

But from Bingara to Brisbane was still a long ride. In many ways, a lot like the riding in the US: long straights and gentle curves for the most part, cutting through vast expanses of farmland. This could be rich land, but not in the grip of the drought: fields were dry and dusty; the few sheep and cattle I passed looked thin and tired. At one point, I thought I must be nearing the coast as it looked like was about to ride into a cloud of mist… but it turned out to be smoke, filling the low valley ahead of me as a bushfire burned somewhere out of sight.

I had a great evening in Brisbane, catching up with an old colleague who recommended some roads. I was meant to be heading down the Gold Coast to Sydney… but who can resist a tip about a brilliant biking road? Well, I can’t anyway.

Simon's hired Honda outside Mount Glorious Cafe

And that’s how I ended up here, on Mount Glorious, listening to the bell-mynahs clanging in the forest. I remount and take the road down to Lake Wivenhoe, then turn around and ride back up into the mountains again. It’s a fantastic ride: great surface, some seriously tight bends so the 100kph limit actually feels about right, and next to no traffic apart from a few other bikes, everyone stopping for a coffee at the Mount Glorious Café. I carry on over Mount Nebo (even better surface, even tighter bends, but a bit more traffic) and then head to the coast.

The Honda VFR800 VTEC at South West Rocks

Unfortunately, all the playing on mountain roads has eaten up too much time… and I have an overnight stop booked in South West Rocks (that’s a town – not a boast by a Cornishman). That means I sack the idea of going out to the Gold Coast and just sit on the motorway – which at least has a 110kph speed limit. Though I find myself pushing my luck, going a bit quicker as the daylight fades. Stupidly, I’ve left my clear visor in Sydney – I haven’t use it at all on the trip so far, but now I have to flip my black visor up and spend an hour collecting a faceful of moths and bugs before I reach my hotel.

Next morning I have a wander around the town: it’s lovely, like a seaside resort in Devon or Cornwall, right down to the bumpy and patched minor roads, but with more exotic birds and trees. I set off to get the bike back to Sydney for 3pm. Along the way I stop at the National Motorcycle Museum of Australia in Nabiac. It’s a huge collection – packed in tight to a building layed out like a capital E.

One of the bikes at the National Motorcycle Museum

There are lots of British bikes, as you might expect from a Commonwealth country. Plenty of Japanese machines (though not so many Kawasakis) plus a good smattering of European bikes – mostly Italian. As I found in the Barber Motorsport Museum, it’s fun to explore and find the strange bikes (rotary-engined Suzuki RE5, beside an XN85 Turbo) but really it’d be so much more fun exploring with a few mates than wandering around on my own.

There were some beautiful bikes at the motorcycle museum Simon found in Australia

I head back to Sydney to return the Honda and get some bad news: my Kawasaki’s sailing was delayed and will be landing a week late. With the time it has to spend in quarantine and going through customs, I probably won’t be able to get on it for another fortnight. That’s a problem as I can’t keep hiring bikes (which, anyway, defeats the point of shipping my bike here). But hey, no big trip can go smoothly and I’ve already changed the initial plan so much, I’ll just have to roll with this particular punch – and put more effort into planning the final Australian leg of the ride of a lifetime.


Ride of a lifetime: South by South East

First published 23/09/19

Simon Weir riding

The sun was shining brightly as I rolled down the steep ramp of the ferry into Picton. I’ve been hearing about how great the riding in the South Island of New Zealand is for years… now I’d finally get to experience it for myself, with the Honda Crossrunner rented from New Zealand Motorcycle Rentals & Tours.

I’d had a lot of suggestions for good roads to ride from MCN reader Geoff Davis, but with rain forecast for later in the day I ended up just taking the A1 south along the east coast. This is not like taking the A1 from London up the Eastern side of England… A lovely, flowing road hugging the shore with spectacular views.

All that stopped it being as satisfying a ride as California’s Pacific Coast Highway was the regular roadworks. Well, that and the fuel anxiety… as I coasted into the petrol station in Kaikoura on fumes after an nervous final few miles.

Cardrona

The rain caught me shortly after that, getting heavier the closer I got to my overnight stop in Christchurch. It was even heavier the next morning as I headed inland, cursing my luck.

It had been sunny spring when I set off from Sydney but this was definitely wintery. Thankfully the rain stopped as I climbed into Otago on Highway 79 and Highway 8, but it didn’t get any warmer.

That was a real shame, as the riding and scenery were getting better with every mile. I was constantly reminded of Scotland – especially the North Coast 500. Only the scale of New Zealand is even larger, swooping past Lake Tekapo and over Lindis Pass. I stopped for coffee in Wanaka and, when I came out of the café, the sun had finally come out.

From Wanaka I headed inland on a road recommended by my friend and former colleague from the BiKE days, Ben Wilkins. From historic Cardrona, the Crown Ranges Road scurried along a steep, narrow valley, criss-crossing the river as it climbed.

Reaching the summit, a huge vista spread out before me, with the road dropping steeply down towards a distant lake in a series of inviting corners.

Crown Ranges Road

My overnight stop was on the shores of that lake, in Queenstown. Next morning, I headed south to the foot of the lake, even though I knew I’d be turning around when I got there. I wanted to experience the entire ride from Kingston to Glenorchy, from one end of Lake Wakatipu – because it’s rumoured to be one of the greatest rides in the world.

Well, I have to say: it didn’t disappoint. Again, it reminded me a lot of Scotland – of the best bits of my favourite road, the A87 from Invergarry to Skye. The initial stretch from Kingston to Queenstown, past the Devil’s Staircase, was open and fast-flowing… In the UK, it would be a very rapid road, but I’m still too wary about the speed-conscious Kiwi cops to thrash the Crossrunner along here.

There’s a little bit of traffic in the town centre when I get back to Queenstown, but most of it melts away, leaving me with a more-or-less empty road - and what a road it is - rising and falling beside the shores of the lake, with spectacular views.

The sky is blue as the early morning cloud burns off – it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever ridden and it’s a fabulous ride.

Devils Staircase

I stop for a coffee and homemade brownie at the Glenorchy before pressing on – because this isn’t quite the end of the road. From this tiny village, my next destination is… Paradise.

The only problem, when I get there, is that the road is gravel and – after hospitalising myself, crashing on a gravel road in South Africa back in March – I’d promised my girlfriend that I wouldn’t do any gravel roads on this trip. I might be going to hell for breaking that promise, but it’s the only way to get to Paradise.

Besides, it’s only 6km and it’s pretty easy. I take it ultra-steady – not only because I’m facing my dirt-road demons but also because I’m riding a rental bike that’s not meant to go on unpaved roads, is on road tyres and has a hefty deposit if I do sling it away…

And while I do get overtaken by a Toyota Hiace (the shame!) I get to Paradise without any issues. What’s it like? It’s pretty enough, but there’s not really much there. I turn around and retrace my steps to the tarmac, stopping by the lake at Glenorchy. It really is heavenly there – and as close to Paradise as anyone really needs to go.

The best thing about the road to Glenorchy, of course, is that it is a dead end. That means I have to ride it again to get back to Queenstown. My initial plan had been to head to Dunedin on the coast, looping back to Christchurch from there.

But I know that’s largely flat riding (good for getting back to Christchurch quickly next morning) and I’m enjoying the way the flexible little Honda carves through the twisty roads too much for that. I turn back onto the Crown Ranges Road, devouring the climb to Cardrona and on to Wanaka again.

Glenorchy

I stop there to reassess the plan, walking down to the lake to take a picture of the famous tree. Do I have time to head out to over the Haast Pass, to stop overnight on the West Coast and return to Christchurch over Arthur’s Pass? Two sat nav aps and Google Maps tell me it’s stupid to even try it.

I’m at the point of going for it anyway when a local chap strikes up conversation: where am I headed next? He sucks his teeth when I tell him. "Arthur can a bit dodgy at this time of year," he tells me (in my head, I see George Cole in Minder).

But I take his point. I pick a less ambitious overnight stop and, next day, get back to Christchurch to drop the bike off with plenty of time before my flight.

Now I’m back in Sydney… but not for long. My Kawasaki Z1000SX isn’t due to dock for another week or so, but I’m going to pick up another rental bike and head off to rural New South Wales, to visit the town my family comes from, then carry on north to Queensland.


Coming to the lands down under

North Coast

With my Kawasaki Z1000SX in the hands of the shipping agents, ready to bob its way across the Pacific from Los Angeles to Sydney, I headed to the airport. Next stop: Australia. This was always the goal of the trip – I just hadn’t expected to arrive quite so quickly. I’d also expected to arrive more or less at the same time as the bike... not a month before it.

I arrived in drizzly rain and took a choppy ferry ride from Circular Quay to Manly. "It’s still winter here, remember," my brother told me when he picked me up. Hmmm. Two days later, though, was the first day of spring and – right on queue – the sun came out, so I went to the beach. Lovely. A few days later, I went back into Sydney for some proper tourist sightseeing. Also lovely. But frankly not very much in the way of motorcycles. That had to change.

So I boarded another plane – this time for New Zealand. I arrived in drizzly rain. Not again, I thought… I was met at the airport by my friend and old colleague from RiDE, Eve. She fed me beer and curry and, next morning, dropped me off at New Zealand Motorcycle Rentals & Tours. Because I’d been a bit last minute about the planning, I hadn’t actually booked a bike… but even though it was out of season and the fleet was largely mothballed, the guys prepped a machine, fitted new tyres and got me going in double-quick time.

Gentle Annie

I’ve always wanted to visit New Zealand, mostly because I’ve heard the riding is amazing. Though initially, getting clear of Auckland on Highway 1, it’s just damp and a bit busy. I make my way cross-country to Rotorua. First impressions? Frankly, it’s a bit like Wales: green rolling hills, lots of livestock (more cattle than sheep) and quite a lot of rain. "It’s still winter here, remember," says my friend Ben, when I get to his house. I’ve heard this before: in two days, the sun will be out… right?

In fact, it comes out next day, as I head north – past the steaming, sulphurous clouds from Rotorua’s hot springs. It’s not much warmer but it is dry. I ride up to the north coast on quiet, twisty roads. It’s still pretty cold, but at least it’s dry and it looks amazing: empty white-sand beaches and white-foamed waves glinting in the sunlight.

I’m being careful with my speed, because everyone tells me that (a) there are cops waiting everywhere (b) they’re ultra-strict on speeding and (c) the fines are eyewatering. That means my rented Honda Crossrunner is purring along – either at low-revs in top or at 6000rpm, just below the VTEC point, in fourth gear.

North Island Sunshine

When Highway 2 swings inland from Opotiki, this doesn’t matter. Bends come closer together as the road cuts first through a gorge and then over tall hills. It’s involving riding and suits the bike. Hitting the coast at Gisborne, the road has picked up a familiar moniker: the Pacific Coast Highway.

I’ve just ridden one of those in California… But this New Zealand version is much wilder and quieter, running beside black-sand beaches pounded by huge white waves.

I break the journey in Napier – a town that was flattened by an earthquake in 1931, then rebuilt in the style of the day… and preserved. It’s fabulous, an Art Deco time capsule with some sly modern touches like street art in the alleyways and free wi-fi in the town centre.

It’s also where I pick up a road recommended by Ben – and as a former road-tester on Bike, RiDE and Performance Bikes before emigrating, he knows a thing or two about riding. So even though the road is called the Gentle Annie, I’m looking forward to it.

Oh. My. God.

When I turn onto the Napier-Taihape road, there’s a pickup in front of me. After about a mile, it turns off. And in the next insanely twisty 148km I overtake a tractor. That’s it.

Okay, at one point I have to carefully ride through a small herd of cattle being urged down the road by a farmer, and I catch a second tractor at the junction where I turn left into Taihape.

But that’s it: an utterly brilliant, contorted trail of tarmac rising and falling through spectacular scenery… all to myself. I enjoy it so much I even forget about the threat of lurking policemen (though I can’t help thinking that if I had an Aprilia Tuono V4 on this road, every ticket-happy cop for 100 miles would explode…). I’d thought yesterday’s riding was good, but this is off the charts!

But from Taihape I’m back on busy Highway 1 so I keep very precisely to the speed limit. I turn off through the town of Palmerston North, rejoining Highway 2 and heading south. There’s a superb climb up and over the hills to the town of Upper Hutt, but from there it’s busy roads into Wellington. I’ve booked a slightly more expensive hotel than I usually would, to make sure I have secure parking in the big city.

Khao's bike

So this morning, first thing, I headed to the port. There are only two other bikes waiting for the first crossing of the day: an Aprilia Shiver and a much-stickered, painted-on Honda stepthrough, ridden by my new hero. Khao has been on the road for two years and three months, so far.

Since leaving home in Vietnam he’s gone through India, the Stans and Europe, shipping the bike from Germany to Chile and riding to Alaska. The best place he visited? South America, he says… and my heart sinks, as I skipped that. Great off-roading and he was only robbed twice (once at gun point) he adds – and suddenly I’m not so sorry I missed it.

The Cook Straits ferry is different to every other one I’ve ever been on, and the only tie-down points are at the front and back. No single-ratchet-strap over the saddle, the way it’s done on the ferry to Santander. Still, the bike seems solid enough… and when I disembark, I’ll have the whole of the South Island to explore. I can’t wait.

To rent a bike in New Zealand, from either Auckland or Christchurch, see New Zealand Motorcycle Rentals & Tours.


The six best things about touring in America

America has been simply awesome. I’d known it would be good, but touring the country on my Kawasaki Z1000SX turned out to be far better than I could ever have hoped. Having ridden before in California and Florida, I arrived thinking I knew more or less what to expect – and I was completely wrong. From the people and the places to the roads, the experience of riding in the USA exceeded my expectations almost every day.

Now I’m moving on and I have a few days off the bike, it’s the perfect time to look back at my 51 days in the US. In that time I covered more than 12,000 miles and crossed 25 states, taking in both the highest paved road in America and the lowest point on the continent. So here’s my round up of the best and the worst bits.

1. National Parks

Without doubt the best $80 of the entire trip was spent on the annual pass for the National Parks. This gives access to 60 National Parks and 78 National Monuments managed by the National Park Service, all across America. The admission fee for a bike at most of them is $30, so you save money after visiting three. I visited 21...

Yoesemite Tunnel view

Which was my favourite? The Grand Canyon was simply mind-blowing; it’s big enough to have two National Parks and, having visited one, I had to visit the other. I think I just about prefer the North Rim to the South Rim. Yosemite in California might be the most beautiful place on earth – though Yellowstone might have something to say about that, backing its claim up with the bizarre hot springs and geysers.

Selfie at Canyonlands

Death Valley was every bit as hot as I expected but I hadn’t anticipated just how beautiful (in a strange and arid way) the scenery would be, making it one of the real highlights of the trip – despite being the lowest point of the journey, at 282ft below sea level. But more than any other, the National Park I really wished I’d taken more time to explore was one I’d never heard of before arriving at Moab in Utah: Canyonlands.

- Traffic in National Parks

The National Parks generally have reduced speed limits – 35 or even 25mph in some of them. Which would be just about fine, if the rest of the traffic maintained that speed… but often the cars just about get to within one or two mph of the limits of the straights, before creeping round corners or up hills at a walking pace. That knocks a lot of the joy out of riding through some parks – Pikes Peak particularly felt like a great road smothered by a 15mph traffic jam.

2. Wildlife

On this trip I saw all manner of strange creatures – prairie dogs, buffalo, condor, bighorn sheep, a million squirrel-like animals, racoons and even, fleetingly, a bear in the woods of Carolina.

Bear in the woods

I’m not David Attenborough, but there’s something quietly wonderful about seeing these beasts in their own environment.

- Also wildlife

Deer have an unpleasant habit of jumping out at heart-stopping intervals, especially in wooded areas. I saw a good dozen beside the road or crossing just ahead of me and in Colorado I actually hit one. A mule deer decided to leap out of the roadside brush directly in front of me: I swerved, it jumped, the bike shuddered with the impact and I thought I was going down… but I was lucky and momentum kept the bike upright, though I had a monster bruise on my arm for a week after.

3. Food and drink

You can eat like a king in the USA. Indeed, you can eat like The King, if you like, with quality burgers and fried-chicken restaurants everywhere. I particularly loved the fact that there’s a great Mexican restaurant in every town.

Simon's a big fan of Mexican food

Portion sizes aren’t always massive (though they seemed to get bigger the further west I went). You can eat well for not too much money, especially in independent roadside diners.

- Motel and diner coffee

I admit it: I’m a coffee snob. And I really struggled in most of America, as I found the standard filter coffee thin and tasteless. Who cares that you get endless top-ups when it’s just hot brown water? Thankfully I did find the occasional place doing good-quality espresso (the best being 8575 Perfetto Caffé in California’s Grover Beach).

4. The great roads

There’s no doubt that when the roads in America are good, they’re unbelievably good: well-surfaced, twisty and set in the most spectacular scenery. Pick of the bunch, for me, was the Beartooth Pass in Montana (leading to Yellowstone - below).

Beartooth pass

But there’s so much great riding – roads like the Angeles Crest Highway in California, Iron Mountain Road in South Dakota, the Cherohala Skyway in Tennessee, the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive that run down the spine of the Appalachians from Virginia to North Carolina, SR12 in Utah, the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado, Highway 89A in Arizona… The list could go on and on. There’s no end to the brilliant riding in America.

- The straight roads

Long straight roads

Okay, there are also lots of long, dull, straight roads. Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas… I didn’t exactly find many corners to write home about (if you know where the great roads are in these states, please tell me for my next trip!).

5. Sunshine

Bikes and great weather go together like ice-cream and caramel sauce… and riding across America in summertime means plenty of long days in perfect riding conditions.

Mount Evans summit

Though it can still get cold at the tops of the mountains and at 14,130ft (4307m) Mount Evans – the highest paved road in America – was a challengingly chilly ride in a mesh jacket. A stark contrast to the 48°C I rode through in Death Valley.

- Rain

When it wants to rain, though… boy can it rain. At one point in Florida (the sunshine state) I found myself riding along at about 25mph, following the rear lights of a pick-up truck. I couldn’t see the cab… that’s how heavy the rain was. In Mississippi, the heavens opened one mile from my motel… and it took two days for my Draggin’ Jeans to dry out.

Tail of the Dragon, image by Killboy

And the wind, especially howling across the wide-open spaces of the Nebraska and Oklahoma (and the top of the Hoover Dam) genuinely made me worry that I’d be blown off the road.

6. The people

Perhaps what I liked most about touring the States was the people. Yes, I stopped off to see a few friends, but everyone I met along the way was very friendly. Not a day went by without another biker having a chat at a petrol station or diner and I got some great tips for where to go and what to see.

Great people in America

I suspect that without these random acts of friendliness, riding on my own for so long might easily have become quite lonely. Thanks to my fellow bikers, it wasn’t at all.

So what’s next?

When I set out to ride to Australia, I had a loose plan: ship the bike to Canada, cross the United States and get to Mexico, then ride down through Latin America – all the way to Chile, then freight from Santiago to Sydney. If there was time and money, I’d stop at New Zealand along the way. As the aim has always been to get the ride done within three months, that meant spending a third of my time and half of my budget in the US…

Mount Evans on board

Well, that hasn’t worked out. I’ve spent half the time and two-thirds of the money in America. While I don’t regret a second of it, that’s left me with a stark choice: either sit on the main Pan American Highway for another 8000 miles, all the way south, without the spare time or cash to get off the beaten track to explore; or pull the pin on the idea of riding through Central and South America.

And that’s what I’ve decided to do. The bike is now on a nicely cost-effective ship from LA to Sydney. While it catches up, I’ll use the time and money I’ve saved to go to New Zealand. I’ll have to hire a bike, but at least I’ll still get to explore what’s said to be perhaps the best country for motorcycle touring in the entire world. So the trip of a lifetime has changed – but it might have changed for the better. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a plane to catch…


Ride of a lifetime: The final straight

First published 02/09/19

Simon Weir - the final straight

I suspect there’s no better place on the planet for riding a motorcycle than California (apart from its irritating petrol pumps). From the desert, I ride over a mountain, pass through lush orange groves and a giant forest, on my way to a coastline of sandy beaches and sunshine. Every kind of riding you could want is there – and it’s legal to filter through the LA traffic, too…

China Lake, Ridgecrest

After my trip through Death Valley, I stayed in the town of Ridgecrest, then swung north on the 395 – one of California’s great riding roads, though this was a straight and rather dull stretch. I wasn’t on it for long, though… peeling off into Nine Mile Canyon Road, which climbed steeply into the Sierra Nevada, leading to Sherman Pass. At 9200ft (2804m) it’s the highest paved pass in Southern California and the only way over the mountains for miles around. It was a brilliant but sometimes challenging ride – fantastic corners and truly majestic views, but a changeable and often iffy surface, with a lot of bumps, "tar snake" repairs and the occasional slick of gravel.

Simon's Kawasaki Z1000SX at Sherman Pass

It dropped me down to the central valley and I swung north again, the long straights of Highway 65 rushing through the well-watered lushness of the citrus groves and grapevines, until I picked up the twistier 198 through Lemon Grove and into Sequoia National Park. This is huge, especially when taken with the Kings Canyon National Park it blends into in the north. No way would I have time to really do justice to it – but I’d enjoy as much as I could.

On board Simon's Kawasaki Z1000SX

It is a very enjoyable ride: as the 198 (now called the Generals Highway) twists into the park, it seems to offer every kind of corner, usually shaded by the trees. When they part, the views back down the valley are majestic… but the further you go, the closer the trees press in and the taller they become.

Soon I’m riding among the huge sequoia trees, like the columns of a natural cathedral. I park the bike and walk down to see the star attraction, the General Sherman Tree – which is the largest tree in the world.

Simon at Santa Monica

I can’t spend too much time, here, though… I have to get to the coast. I stay overnight in nearby Lindsay and next morning hurry past Bakersfield to pick up the brilliant Maricopa Highway, which leads me back to the coast. Seeing signs for Highway One again – the Pacific Coast Highway – feels almost like catching sight of an old friend on the other side of the bar.

Simon and his Kawasaki Z1000SX at Mugu Point, Highway One

It’s busier here, mind. It’s a Saturday and Los Angeles is at play. I lose count of the number of bikes that pass as I’m parked up at Point Mugu to get a picture with the brilliant blue ocean in the background. The parking outside Neptune’s Net is rammed with bikes – many on the run between this Malibu hangout and the Rock Store, high in the hills on Mulholland Drive. I’d be doing it myself if I had more time… But as it is, I’m heading south on Highway One, stopping to try to get a picture at Santa Monica pier (chaotic parking) before heading down to Long Beach.

Simon's Kawasaki is clean and ready to ship... but where to?

Next morning is all about admin: visit the customs office to get a form stamped; get the bike cleaned and detailed; confirm a few last-minute details. Next day, at lunchtime, I drop the bike off with the shipping agent who’ll crate it and load it onto a boat for me. Then I head to the airport, the American leg of the journey complete.

Simon Weir runs his own motorcycle travel website – click here for information.


Ride of a lifetime: Into the furnace

First published August 28, 2019

Ride of a lifetime: Into the furnace

I’d expected the heat. The dryness. The harsh, flat light. I wasn’t ready for the dust. It blew across the road, leaving a fine film on every surface of the bike, my clothes, my visor, getting in through the vents and filling my nose and mouth. Coughing didn’t seem to help. I had to lean forward and wipe the clocks to see how many miles I’d done. Not many. Still, I needed to stop. My leg was aching and I desperately needed a drink, to get the dust from my throat.

I’d made an early start from Palm Desert (the more-honestly named neighbour of Palm Springs) to try to beat the heat. It hadn’t worked. The dash on the Kawasaki Z1000SX said it was 26°C as I filled up, just after 8am.

When I turned off the interstate 40 minutes later, it was over 30°C. I was relieved when I saw the welcome centre for the National Park, giving me the excuse of stopping to go in and flash my annual pass (if I didn’t have that, I’d have to pay the $30 admission fee). I stretched my legs, drank some water from my Chilly’s bottle, still icy cold… and fought the urge to gulp it down. I suddenly understood how precious water can be in the desert. This bottle had to last.

Joshua Tree onboard

I was heading into the Joshua Tree National Park (insert your own U2-based joke here). The road – Cottonwood Spings Road is its name – cut between low banks of scrub, tough sagebrush and rabbitbrush somehow growing in the grey sandy soil.

I’d expected a straight-ish road but in fact it began twisting and turning, climbing very gently, then dropping down to run through the Pinto Basin in a series of short straights linked by 60-degree kinks. On either side, a sea of cacti. This desert is strangely full of life… or full of strange life, perhaps.

Leaving the Cholla Cactus Garden, the road climbed up, passing through large rocks and now I began to see the Joshua trees – surreal, spiky plants, very much like oversized cacti. Suddenly the land around the road was thick with them – the most bizzare forest you’ll ever see, with the stunted angular trees giving an impression of green fertility at odds with the dusty soil and relentless parching heat. I love it – discovering things like this. It’s what touring on a bike is all about.

Cholla cactus

When I get to the town of Joshua Tree, I start to pile on the miles. I find myself on long, straight roads – sometimes with sand spilling onto the carriageway from the verges. It’s all heat and dust. I head south along Highway 95 beside the Colorado River – a broad, low valley filled with scrub. Nothing like the epic landscape of the Grand Canyon created by this river, further upstream. I stop overnight in Quartzsite, hiding in the air-conditioned cool of the motel.

Next morning I swing north-east, heading to outflank the Colorado River. From the town of Congress I pick up Highway 89 with the best stretch of dual carriageway in human history: two lanes of perfect looping, twisting tarmac scaling a red-rock escarpment, away from the dust of the desert – though the heat doesn’t seem to slacken that much when I get to the top. I’m looking forward to this road, which looks twisty as you like… but roadworks have closed it.

"Could be some time," one of the road workers tells me when I’m stopped. "But you could go back a mile, take a right… I ride that road all the time." It’s a fantastic tip: another crazy, serpentine road through the excellently named Skull Valley.

The detour gets me to Prescott, where I pick up Highway 89A to Jerome: a section recommended to me when I was at Navajo Bridge. It’s a truly fabulous road – like the Ronda road (the N397) in Spain that’s used for so many bike launches, but dialled up to 11. And Jerome itself turns out to be a great old mining town, well-preserved and peddling ghost tours to tourists.

Onboard Death Valley Badwater Basin

I stop overnight in the small city of Flagstaff. The old-town section hits just the right balance between preserved-character and touting-it-to-tourists to avoid being cheesy – it’s great. Next day, I head out to return to the Colorado River and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Having already visited the North Rim, I thought I’d be a bit nonchalant about it… but no, it’s still breath-taking, it’s still almost impossible to comprehend the scale of it.

There are bits of the South Rim National Park that are only accessible by bus, so I park the bike and go for a ride. The regular shuttles stop at several points, so I decide to walk between two of them (Mojave Point and The Abyss). Naturally, I’ve learnt nothing about water in the desert, so set off without my Chilly’s bottle (or suntan lotion, or a hat). It’s well worth it… but I get back on the bus at the next stop and stay on it.

I spend all day at the South Rim and start to think I’ve got a handle on the scale of the Grand Canyon. But no – I still have more flabbers left to gast. Leaving the park on Highway 64, the canyon is there, just to the left, for mile after mile after mile. Surrounded by… well, pretty much nothing. And that’s what really blows my mind: I’d almost got a handle on the sheer size of the Grand Canyon, but now I can see it’s set in a landscape that’s simply incomprehensibly vast.

Route 66 Seligman

Next day I leave Flagstaff on the most famous road in America: Route 66. Of course, much of it has now been overlayed by interstate, but just after the town of Ash Fork I dive off onto one of the original stretches. It’s mostly long, long straights, but I enjoy the town of Seligman, which is almost like a Route 66 theme park.

The stretch of the road I’m really looking forward to is the twisty section up into the hills around the old mining town of Oatman… but when I get there, it’s comprehensively shut for road works. The detour takes me right round the other side of the mountains – so I carry on, leaving Route 66 with no kicks given.

I have time for one more stop, back on the Colorado River: the Hoover Dam. It’s fabulous – great approach road, stupendous engineering, great tour… though the gusts of wind when riding across the top of the dam are even more violent than the worst wind I faced in Kansas and Oklahoma (you know, where they make tornados). I leave and take the scenic route around Lake Mead to get to Las Vegas.

Hoover Dam approach road

Now, I was a bit sceptical about Vegas. Surely it’ll be cheesy and tacky and not quite up my street? Not a bit of it: I love it, a bit to my surprise. I get to my motel just as Elvis emerges from the wedding chapel next door to wave off a happy couple. He’s a busy lad – I see him at two other chapels… I start with a trip to Fremont Street – old Vegas, apparently (though without the mafia shooting me and burying me in the desert). I spend an hour there, which feels like I’m sprinting through it, before heading to the Strip.

Downtown Vegas is a riot of people, sounds and colours. There are pyrotechnics, neon signs, street performers, show girls, fountains and noise. My eyes are practically rolling in my head with sensory overload by the time I stop to grab some food. I venture into several of the casinos but I don’t have a flutter – the slots don’t appeal and I’m too tight to play the big-boy games.

I feel like a proper hick, wandering round with my jaw bouncing off my knees half the time. I realise that one night in Vegas is nowhere near enough time to even scratch the surface of what it has to offer. Even if you don’t want to gamble, there’s so much to see and do here.

Selfie with Vegas sign

Unfortunately, I didn’t plan for more than one night in Las Vegas. Next morning, I head off in search of aliens. The temperature climbs steadily as I head to Area 51. The Alien Centre (a gas station selling alien-themed T-shirts) is pretty much all I can see. Everything else is… desert. So I top up my water bottle and head deeper in it.

Death Valley in the middle of the day is an uncompromising place. The heat is relentless, the light is bright and the riding… is surprisingly excellent. Rather than taking Highway 190 straight through, I head a bit further south to cross Jubliee Pass and approach Badwater Basin – the lowest point in North America – from the south.

I’d expected more dead-straight roads, and there are some, but for the most part it’s a brilliant, twisty ride. Albeit a stiflingly hot one. I detour to the Artist’s Palette – an area of crazy-coloured rocks – and Zabriskie Point, where the Joshua Tree album cover was photographed, stomping around in the heat. It’s a simply amazing landscape.

I stop for a snack in Stovepipe Wells, where the general store sells t-shirts boasting that Death Valley’s the hottest place on Earth. When I move the bike from one side of the car park to the other, the dash tells me it’s 48°C and the levers are so hot, they burn my hands. It’s enough to convince me it’s time to move on – time to go back to the coast.


Ride of a lifetime: California dreaming

I hurried across northern Nevada. Miles of straight, dusty road, crackling in the heat. Relentless. But at the end of the road – like the carrot at the end of the stick – was the destination that has always drawn people west: California.

I met my friend Michael just outside Reno, so he could show me the local roads. Over the Mount Rose Highway to Lake Tahoe, then north to pick up Highway 49. This is a true Californian road, named after the 49ers who came here before me for the gold rush and linking the old mining towns together.

The riding is simply spectacular, a torrent of perfectly surfaced bends climbing and falling through the woods. We work our way down to Michael’s home town of Folsom on some of the finest riding of the trip.

Simon Weir riding in California

Next day we head out, with Michael’s friends Bobby and Akime, on their favourite local roads (imagine the Tail of the Dragon stretched over a one-in-four incline) before heading south on another stretch of the 49 to pick up the spectacular Sonora Pass.

It’s great not to be riding on my own, for a change. There’s a different dynamic to riding in a group – or even just with one other bike – especially if the other rider is fast, smooth, safe. It’s a real change of pace for the trip.

While Bobby and Akime head home, Michael and I carry on to Mammoth Lakes, then next morning cross the Tioga Pass into Yosemite. Like all the famous national parks, it’s fairly busy, so I’ve learnt to be patient. The roads are great, but they’re not really for hooning around – just for moving you between gorgeous locations. And the Yosemite valley might be the most gorgeous corner of the planet I’ve ever seen with its meadows set in woodland ringed with towering cliffs.

Yosemite is where Michael and I part, as he heads north to Folsom and I head west towards San Fransisco and the coast. He has to get back to work, while I have to get further from it. The next morning is hot from the word go and I’m practically melting as I head round San Jose (crazy drivers) and out into the woods above Saratoga on the immaculate Highway 9 – the most perfect road surface of the trip so far.

I’m here for two things - a side trip to Alice’s Restaurant on Skyline Boulevard; and to visit the redwood groves in Big Basin – before heading south to Monterey, where I have a (ahem, overdue) service booked for the bike. On the way into town I stop at Seaside Beach; behind the bike, on the other side of the expanse of golden sand, is the Pacific Ocean. That’s it: I’ve gone coast-to-coast; just four weeks ago I was getting a similar picture of the SX on Jacksonville Beach in Florida, with the Atlantic behind it.

Redwood groves

Bike serviced, I’m heading south on Highway One – the Pacific Coast Highway. This is one of California’s most iconic roads, sweeping through Big Sur, hugging cliffs with spectacular views. And it’s busy today: it’s Monterey Car Week and spectators are waiting to watch a parade of expensive cars… I hurry along to avoid getting caught up in it.

This is where the weather bites me: it’s a gloriously hot day… but as I head south, a thick, chill mist rises from the sea and envelops me. Visibility drops – in places as low as 100m – and I’m shivering inside my lightweight mesh jacket. I stop at San Simeon, taking the bus ride up the hill, back into the sunshine, to admire Hearst Castle – the sprawling estate built by newspaper magnate William Randolf Hearst.

I break the journey down the coast at San Luis Obispo, with the most memorable Mexican meal of the trip: a dish called “the beached whale”… that’s what I resemble after eating it. Next morning I carry on down the coast, meeting reader Rick Janes at 8575 Perfetto Caffe for the best espresso in America. Rick’s given me loads of tips that have helped shape the trip – and the next one is a cracker, guiding me away from the cold, mist-locked coast to the warmer roads inland.

I rejoin the coast at Santa Barbara and the sun’s out, so I grab an ice cream on the pier then carry on. My overnight stop is on the fringes of Los Angeles and next day I set out to ride what several people have told me is the finest road in California: the Angels Crest Highway.

The Pacific Ocean

Well, I would, if it was open. It’s a promising start – great lazy curves climbing up between rocky walls, though the surface could be smoother. I take the side road to the top of Mount Wilson, but the main Angels Crest is shut for a stretch at the bottom of the mountain. This turns out to be no bad thing, as the detour on the Angeles Forest Highway is absolutely stunning – wide, smooth, fast… just brilliant.

When I rejoin Angels Crest, I stop at Newcomb’s Ranch – a biker hangout that’s kind of like Squires, only with sunshine and an amazing mountain road attached. I have a good chat with some of the locals (including Trevor, from Worcester…) before moving on. For a popular road, I can’t believe how quiet it is: I more or less have the road to myself as it climbs and drops for mile after spectacular mile. Is it the best road in California? Hmmmm… some of those roads in the Sierra north of Folsom might argue with it, but it’s certainly the best road I’ve ridden today.

Well, until I’m approaching my overnight stop. The heat is relentless as I approach Ramona, not helped when I’m stuck in a queue for roadworks outside of town. But then Highway 74 gets going, getting better and better and better… until it climaxes in a final cascade of corners down that’s every bit as great as the best mountain roads in Spain. It’s so good I ride it twice – the first time on the trip I’ve been inspired to do that by any road – before carrying on into the sweltering heat of Palm Desert. And tomorrow, I’ll be leaving California, the hot way…

California desert


Ride of a lifetime: The Big Guns

I was a bit nervous, getting off the bike. One Kawasaki in a sea of Harley-Davidsons. Was it attracting odd looks? Maybe. Were they hostile? No – everyone in Sturgis is really friendly. If you’re on a bike, you’re one of the gang. Though it looks like everyone apart from me is on a Harley…

I’ve put a small detour into my ride to California. That’s "small" in the American sense: 400-odd miles north from Denver to the Black Hills of Dakota, to visit the biggest motorcycle rally in the world. Around half-a-million people come to the week-long Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and I couldn’t resist joining them, to see what all the fuss is about.

Sturgis Main Street is full of motorbikes for the annual Motorcycle Rally

I’ve done most of the big European biking events – including the huge HD festival at St Tropez in the South of France. I’ve never seen anything like this. The sheer volume of motorcycles on the roads is staggering. It really does look as if there are more bikes than cars.

Sturgis Main Street was packed fully of Harleys

This isn’t just in Sturgis: bikers have taken over the surrounding towns of Deadwood, Hill City, Spearfish, Keystone… The Black Hills are swarming with motorcycles. They’re everywhere you look: in petrol stations, parked on streets and riding on the through the beautiful wooded countryside. And they’re almost all Harleys.

Okay, I do spot a handful of Ducatis and Triumphs, a few BMW K1600GTs and two GSs (when did you last see just two GSs at any bike event?) plus plenty of GoldWings, Indian and Victory cruisers. And more trikes than I ever imagined existed in the world. But apart from the American-made Wings, I doubt I see a dozen Japanese bikes among the thousands here. I don’t see another Kawasaki. I feel like a unicorn…

The bikes on Sturgis Main Street were almost all American and almost all Harleys

Still, everyone’s friendly when I park on the Main Street, Sturgis – which is absolutely rammed with bikes but well-organised and calm. As I’m standing beside my Z1000SX a couple of people ask about it, more intrigued by the UK plate than the fact that it’s a Japanese bike.

The Sturgis Rally itself feels quite different to a European bike event. It’s much less corporate and much more like a spontaneous party – though as this is the 79th event, I daresay a lot of careful planning goes into making it feel so natural. The centre of things is Main Street, where people come to see and be seen, parking their bikes and then walking along past the tattoo parlours, food stalls, biker-gear shops and, of course, the bars. But as busy as it seems during the day, the real action happens in the evening – when there are fewer bikes and many, many more beers…

Simon felt like a unicorn on his Kawasaki Z1000SX

Not that I over-indulge, obviously. I’m here for the riding – and the Black Hills around Sturgis have some truly astonishing roads. The Needles Highway, the Iron Mountain Road (for my money, a better ride than the Tail of the Dragon) and many, many more. My favourite is the one I take when I leave: Spearfish Canyon… not because I’m leaving, but because I make an early enough start to have the road to myself, twisting and turning beside the river at the bottom of the canyon for 20 gloriously uninterrupted miles.

Simon's Kawasaki Z1000SX at Devil's Tower

It’s time for me to head west. But first another detour, to the Devil’s Tower. It’s visible from miles away: a surreal grey butte towering over the gently rolling green hills. Judging by the number of bikes there, it’s a popular post-Sturgis stop for lots of people.

From there I head solidly westward, for another 400-odd miles (with an overnight stop in the tiny town of Greybull) and into Montana. From Red Lodge I turn south, picking up the Beartooth Pass. It is, quite simply, the best road I’ve ridden in America so far. It’s helped by having a sensible speed limit: my sat nav says it’s 65mph all the way over; though I spot some 50mph signs in places. It’s a proper mountain pass with epic corners, plenty of hairpins, one or two huge drops and a million-dollar view whichever way you look. Better still, it’s not too busy and has a brilliant surface.

The view from Beartooth Pass is unmissable

I could have spent all day riding up and down Beartooth Pass… but it leads to somewhere I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time: Yellowstone. This is a huge national park – covering the best part of 3500 square miles. That’s the size of Kent, Sussex and Surrey combined. Despite the size of the South East of England, the park has a population of less than 400 – but it does see more than four million visitors a year.

Simon in front of Old Faithful

That means it is busy – the roads are congested, there are often queues and there are always lots of other people at the main attractions, from Old Faithful to the other geysers, the hot springs and waterfalls. It doesn’t matter: it’s a magical, fascinating place unlike anywhere else on Earth. It’s chock full of wildlife too – thought buffalo roaming across the roads does tend to cause traffic jams. I don’t see any bears, though…

I saw this sign, but no sign of bears

I have two days in Yellowstone and love it – and the Grand Teton National Park to the south, around Jackson Hole. But after all these detours, it’s time for me to pick up the pace. I need to get to California. It’s time to go west…

MCN contributor Simon Weir is the author of the Bikers’ Britain books and now runs his own motorcycle-travel website

Simon at Mount Rushmoor


Ride of a lifetime: More than just deserts

I was standing on the top of the rocky outcrop, trying to nonchalantly take a selfie in front of a yawning drop that could have been almost a mile deep – if I bounced off the right rocks and didn’t stop in a bloody puddle halfway down, that is. That’s when my knees went a bit funny. I probably shouldn’t have been thinking about what might happen if I fell into the Grand Canyon… It made standing on the top of the rocks at Bright Angel Point, with the wind pushing gently against me, almost impossible.

A selfie at the Grand Canyon

The trouble is, when you’re here it seems necessary to go to dramatic lengths as any conventional picture just can’t capture the sheer scale of the American West. Everything is bigger out here. Even the massive Dodge pick-up trucks look small in this landscape…

After a week in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, I headed south-west to the point where the state neatly meets three of its neighbours: Four Corners. I wasn’t crossing the kind of landscape I’d come to expect from Colorado – pine trees, grassy meadows, constant hills and twisty roads. I was on arrow-straight tarmac across Ute territory: dry, dusty land cracked with arroyos and studded with tall, strange rock formations, the horizon ringed with distant cliffs. I got a tickly sense of déjà vu: I’d never been here before, but I’d seen so many Westerns I felt as though I half-recognised it.

Simon Weir at Four Corners

Crossing into the Navajo Nation, the thin grass seemed to get thinner and the land harder and drier, the heat more intense. I wondered how anyone could survive out here. Well, these days… by selling stuff to tourists, obviously. The Four Corners Monument, where Arizona, New Mexico and Utah butt up against Colorado is ringed with craft stalls selling traditional Navajo jewellery, dreamcatchers and so on. Sorry – no space on the bike! I got my photo standing on the monument plaque, then moved on.

The Kawasaki Z1000SX at Four Corners

I admit that, as a rule, I’m not much of a fan of straight roads but the insanity of the geology surrounding these ones makes them well worth riding. The landscape is insane, imposing, incredible… The undemanding roads mean I have time to look about – at the 100ft high wall of red rock that look like squeezed-and-set toothpaste, at the cliffs that look like a frozen wave, at the bizarre spires and towers of rock that erupt from the plains, at the higgledy-piggledy mazes of gullies that fracture the land beside the road.

The Kawasaki Z1000SX at Monument Valley

From Four Corners I head to a genuinely larger-than-life landscape: Monument Valley. The colossal buttes are visible from miles away, dominating the horizon. I’ve been warned that the road into the heart of the valley is gravel (my nemesis) so I stick to Highway 160 to get pics from the outside, before moving on to my overnight stop in Paige.

This is a young town, built in the late 1950s to house workers building the damn that created Lake Powell. Now it survives as a magnet for tourists… but the rest of them are more organised than me. The tours of Antelope Canyon and the boat trips on Lake Powell that everyone comes for are fully booked-up in advance, so just turning up means I get turned away.

The Navajo Bridge

Actually, I don’t mind that much. Next day I head off, enjoying the ride to Navajo Bridge and along the foot of the towering Vermillion Cliffs – though I finally find a road that’s too long and straight (basically 11 miles of straight with a handful of very slight kinks). It ends, though, in a flourish of tight turns and hairpins as Highway 89A climbs up from the scrubby desert and into another world.

Vermillion Cliffs on board Simon Weir's Kawasaki Z1000SX

The run from the top of the escarpment to Jacob’s Lake could have come from the foothills of the French Vosges: it’s all pine trees and gently twisting tarmac. It carries on as I turn south on SR67 – with meadows opening up between the trees. On one of them… buffalo! I stop to get a pic, though one young bull is shaking his head and pawing the ground. Fending off deer last week was one thing, but I’m not arguing with a bison, so I head on.

Not far, though: only to the tollbooth where I spend the best $80 of the trip on an annual pass to the US National Parks (I should have bought one at Skyline Drive…). With that in my wallet, I’m free to go into the North Rim of the Grand Canyon – and any other National Parks I come to on my travels. This will come in very handy and save me a fortune in the days that follow.

Bryce Canyon

The Grand Canyon is, quite frankly, mind-blowing. Even if you’re not standing precariously on top of a rock like an idiot… The views are so vast, so strange and so peculiarly beautiful, it’s quite hard to take it all in. As well as Bright Angel Point, the North Rim has a long spur road out to Cape Imperial with equally magnificent views. What I thought would be a quick visit easily gobbles up the entire afternoon, making me fairly late getting to my overnight stop in Hatch.

Bryce Canyon from another angle

From there I’m planning to ride a road that was recommended by MCN reader Rick Janes: Utah SR12. But as it’s passing the Bryce Canyon National Park – and as I now have the pass to get in – I decide to peel off for a quick shufti. Won’t be much after the Grand Canyon, I think… Wrong! Okay, it’s another rock-admirer’s paradise, but this isn’t some strange fetish of mine: there are loads of people here, stopping at the scenic viewpoints to stare in wonder at this bizarre landscape studded with pink-and-white rock columns. It is very different to the Grand Canyon, but just as mind-blowing in its own way.

Like all the National Parks, though, Bryce Canyon does have a low speed limit. Good job it’s followed by SR12, then… which is a fantastic ride (thanks for the tip, Rick!). The most memorable sections cut through the rocks, climbing up and round the edge of cliffs before dropping again in a cascade of perfectly-surfaced corners. It’s riding heaven.

Simon's Kawasaki Z1000SX in Moab

I stop overnight in the small town of Torey, then head to Moab – a destination suggested by adventure guru Chris Scott. This is a slightly larger town, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. On its doorstep are the Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, and a state park – Dead Horse Point (this is the Wild West…). So Moab is stuffed with motels and restaurants for the huge tourist trade, as people come to see the sights or take plane, ATV, Jeep, dirt-bike or boat tours. Basically, it’s Keswick with even more dramatic scenery.

I decide to visit both National Parks. After all, I think, they won’t impress me much after the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon… I realise that’s wrong as soon as I get to Arches and the park road starts by climbing towering cliffs in a sublime confection of hairpins and gently arcing "straights". I spend a bit of time off the bike here, stumping my way into the desert to see the stone arches the park is famous for, even though it’s about 37°C and I’m in Draggin Jeans and Alpinestars SuperTech-R boots… I spend most of the day there.

Simon's lid at Canyonlands

On Thursday morning I’m supposed to start slowly heading to Denver, where I’ll get my tyres changed on Saturday morning, but I can’t miss out Canyonlands while I’m here. It won’t take long, I think; it won’t impress me much after the other three National Parks… Clearly, I’m a slow learner. I’m presented with another mind-blowing collection of views – I know on one level the vast canyons that stretch across the horizon are just holes in the ground… but boy they’re impressive holes in the ground. I now regret being too tight-fisted to take the Jeep tour Chris Scott had recommended. There’s no time for it now, though.

On board at Canyonlands

I leave town on Highway 128, alongside the Colorado River. This is the one that carved out the Grand Canyon and its practice run outside Moab is fairly staggering too, with the added advantage of having a great road rising and falling between the river and the cliffs. It eventually gets me to the interstate which I take to the east, heading to break the journey to Denver at Grand Junction… where I detour to another National Park. And this time, I arrive ready to be impressed. The Colorado National Monument is a vertigo-testing 23-mile cliff-top drive with spectacular views. Am I impressed? Absolutely…

Loveland Pass sign

Next day I complete the run to Denver by returning to the near-Alpine riding of the Rocky Mountains, over Grand Mesa, McLure Pass and Loveland Pass. I get an early start on Saturday morning, so I’m at the head of the queue when the service department at Fay Myers Motorcycle World opens. It’s a great getting-your-bike-serviced experience: while the tyres are being changed, I have a great chat with Eddy in the clothing department and get some destination suggestions; when Casey the technician hands me back the bike with its new Michelin Road 5s, he recommends some local roads – including Mount Evans, the highest paved road in America. Well, where else would I go to scrub my new tyres in?

Simon's Kawasaki Z1000SX at Mount Evans

With the bike fettled, I’m heading north next – before turning west. I’ll be heading to California, so suggestions for what to see on the way would be very welcome.

The Kawasaki Z1000SX in front of some striking desert rock formations


Ride of a lifetime: Rocky Mountain highs - and lows

Simon takes on the Million Dollar Highway

Hitting the deer wasn’t the best way to start my time in Colorado. I was travelling down the deserted Highway 40 when it fired itself out of the yellow grass by the roadside. My first thought was "Oh buck…" but there were no antlers: doe!

I pushed the left-hand bar to swerve away and opened the throttle – no way was I letting it get under the front wheel. It must have been trying to avoid me by jumping over my Kawasaki Z1000SX because I felt a massive impact on my right arm. The bike shimmied and I thought I was going down – but I stayed loose, kept looking down the road and kept the gas on… and momentum pushed the bike upright again.

My heart was still hammering a mile later when the sheriff stopped me – I hadn’t done anything wrong (this time) but the road was closed. "I just hit a deer without crashing," I told him, still barely able to believe it myself. "How’s the deer?" he asked. I had no idea. I was so amazed to have got away without crashing that I hadn’t even looked back.

Barber Vintage Motorsports Museuma

If you read my last blog post, you’ll remember I was in Florida… quite a way from Colorado. After getting the bike serviced in Jacksonville, I’d headed up the coast, inland across the Okefenokee Swamp and made my way to Birmingham (that’s Birming-HAM) in Alabama. I wanted to visit the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum – the world’s largest collection of motorcycles. It’s a brilliant place and properly organised, with crazy statues on the lawn and motorcycle parking right outside the entrance…

Crazy statue outside Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum

Inside, in the cool hush of the museum, I wandered slowly around looking at the exhibits – ridden that one, owned that one, watched someone crash that one right in front of me, always wanted that one, what the hell is that one… I quickly realised that, as fascinating as the collection of bikes is, travelling solo isn’t the best way to appreciate it. Really, you need to be swapping anecdotes and observations with likeminded mates as you go round.

Inside the Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum there's a huge amount to see - image from MCN's feature in 2018

Barber was the last thing on my must-see list in the south-eastern corner of America. I considered doing some more touristy, less bikey things… but I’m not as rich as Paul Simon, so I wasn’t going to Graceland and tropical storm Barry was soaking the New Orleans area, so that was off the agenda. I decided the best thing for it was to head west.

It’s a long way from Alabama to Colorado, though. I’d been trying to decide on my best route west through Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas when an RT rider I was chatting with at a diner summed it up for me: "We call them fly-over states for a reason…" So I decided to fly through them. Besides, every book or film about the great American road trip always includes long days on endless straight highways: masochistically, perversely, I want to experience that myself, so I can say what it’s like.

Not all the roads are arrow-straight for miles on end

Actually, what it’s like is pretty dull, exactly like any high-mile ride on main roads – whether it’s riding back from the South of France to Lincolnshire in one hit or rushing from Glasgow to London on the motorways. I wish I could say the weather made it all seem marvellous, but as well as the heat and humidity I also had driving rain in Mississippi and wind like you wouldn’t believe in Kansas (no, it’s not all the Mexican food I’ve been eating…).

I reached Colorado in a day and a half, expecting instant mountains – but Highway 40 was just as straight and flat as the roads across the prairies of Kansas that had preceded it (only with added homicidal mule deer). However, as I rolled into Colorado Springs at the end of the afternoon, things were looking up – quite literally. Rising ahead of me, swathed in ominous dark clouds, was Pikes Peak. My first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains.

The spectacular view from Pikes Peak

Next morning, I set off to ride Pikes Peak. I admit, I was a little cautious about tackling the mountain famous for its hillclimb (the second oldest race in America, after the Indianapolis 500). Four-time winner Carlin Dunne had died within 20m of the finish line just three weeks before I got there. Just how dangerous was this climb?

Well, if you’re not competing in the race, it’s not dangerous at all. Unless you fall asleep on the bike, which is a possibility as this fantastic road – sweeping, scenic, climbing like a champagne cork fired from a winner’s bottle – has a 25 or 30mph speed limit, which most of the tourists driving it don’t seem to manage. There’s no overtaking for most of the road and even at 30 I was reeling in traffic doing 15-20mph. I arrived at Mile 16 feeling I’d been cheated: this wasn’t the epic mountain ride I’d come for; this was like riding round a supermarket car park, only with better views.

All the traffic was stopped at Mile 16, as construction work at the summit meant there was no parking there. So it was onto a shuttle bus for the final, equally stunning, climb. The top of the mountain looked like a bomb had gone off – rocky rubble everywhere, dotted with huge machines. But behind the visitor centre, another world was waiting – more jumbled rocks cascading down towards huge drops. The views out over the lower peaks and valleys were simply stunning. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad about the frustrating ride and the bus to get here: this was amazing. Absolutely worth the effort it had taken to get here.

Simon Weir at the top of Tenderfoot Pass

Next day I set off to head further west, into the mountains. I found myself on Scenic Route 67, a fabulous flowing road that delivered all the thrills I’d hoped Pikes Peak would give – with some pretty marvellous views of its own as it climbed through quiet pine forests. I stopped at the top of Tenderfoot Pass… and when I restarted the bike, the engine-management light was on, the traction control was off and the dash was flashing like a dim Ibiza strobe. Uh oh…

I coasted down the hill to Cripple Creek, where I found a half-decent coffee and free Wi-Fi. The nearest Kawasaki dealer was Rocky Mountain Cycle Plaza back in Colorado Springs, 50 miles away. I rang them and they agreed to squeeze me in that afternoon, so I nursed the SX gently back over the mountain and they plugged it into the diagnostics. One of the secondary injectors was sticking: they cleared the error and got me going again. But I’ll watch it carefully from now on. I don’t need mechanical issues like that on a trip like this.

The sign outside Cripple Creek

I stayed another night in Colorado Springs, then tried my route again. The ride to Cripple Creek was even better than the day before and then I hit a host of amazing roads: highway 11, highway 9 and finally highway 50 – 175 miles of amazing, varied, beautiful highway 50. This road runs from Washington, practically outside the White House, all the way to Montrose in Colorado. I don’t know about the rest of it, but the section I rode was amazing, swooping through gorges, blasting across rolling grasslands, clambering over the spectacular Monarch Pass and flowing through rocky canyons beside the Gunnison River.

Simon's Kawasaki Z1000SX on Highway 50

If I was a bit, ahem, flexible with my approach to the speed limit as I enjoyed Monarch Pass, I rode the last leg like a saint… having been stopped by the sheriff in Gunnison town. Because this time I had done something wrong: filtering. I was lucky – I was let off with a warning after I apologised and explained it was legal where I came from and I didn’t know it wasn’t in the US ("Not even close," he said).

Warning ticket for Simon as he filters where it isn't legal

I stayed the night in Montrose, then headed south on Highway 550, seeking another famous road: the Million Dollar Highway. After the disappointment and frustration of Pikes Peak, I tried to keep my expectations down. I didn’t need to. After limbering up on the plains around Montrose, the road swept through the foothills towards the snow-tipped mountains, climbing steadily to the town of Ouray. I stopped for a look around and instantly took to Ouray – a real taste of the old frontier, without a trace of the cookie-cutter chains you find in other American towns. Mind you, all that boutique charm wasn’t coming cheap so I didn’t stop there for lunch…

One of the many curves on the Million Dollar Highway

Instead I headed up the two massive hairpins that start the Million Dollar Highway, leading to the mountains and into the Uncompaghre Gorge. Like Pikes Peak, this amazing road is saddled with a low speed limit – but with massive drops into the gorge and rain making the surface shiny (though the Bridgestone T31s still seemed to have plenty of grip) I didn’t mind taking it steady.

Simon's Kawasaki Z1000SX in Ouray

After the gorge, rain stopped and the road began to climb, with miles of glorious turns leading to Red Mountain Pass – a staggering 3358m above sea level (Cime de la Bonnette, the highest non-dead-end road in the Alps is a mere 2808m). From the summit the road dropped like a stone to Silverton and, in my ignorance, I thought that was the end of the excitement… Ouray to Silverton is the stretch of Highway 550 that’s called the Million Dollar Highway, after all. I sat back to coast down to Durango.

On board Simon's Kawasaki Z1000SX on the Million Dollar Highway

Oh no – Highway 550 had plenty more great riding to deliver, scaling Molas Pass (3340m) and then Coal Bank Pass (3420m). Mile after mile of brilliant, flowing riding. While some sections had low limits, most was 50mph (and everyone seemed to be treating the limit… flexibly). Ears popping, I was descending the final pass when the heavens truly opened as I came into Durango. I hid in a Burger King as the clouds passed and the sun came out.

Leaving Durango on Highway 160, brilliant sun beat down and the landscape changed again. The mountains receded and I found myself on a sea of sage grass crossed by a long, straight road. My last night in Colorado was in the town of Cortez and from there my route heads further west – into the heart of the wild west.

Simon Weir is an MCN contibutor who also runs his own motorcycle travel website.


Ride of a lifetime: 7 amazing American days on the Z1000SX

Skyline Drive. Blue Ridge Parkway. Moonshiner 28. Tail of the Dragon. Cherohala Skyway. This isn’t a wish-list of great biking destinations. It’s just a few of the roads I’ve ridden in my first week on the road. The riding has been simply mind-blowing. It’s hard to believe it’s only seven days since I set off from Toronto.

My first night after shipping the bike to Canada is just across the border in Niagara Falls (see first instalment). I leave there heading south through Pennsylvania with not much of a plan and no real expectations. I had no idea how good the riding would be when I got off the interstate, but south of Buffalo I pick up Highway 62, which twists its way through a countryside that seems eerily familiar: red-painted barns and white-painted houses with pick-ups in the yard. Rural America, as seen on TV.

Simon's planning to camp for much of his American adventure

What the television never quite captures is just how involving the quiet, twisting roads that cut through shady forests and well-tended farmland are. Another thing I’m not ready for is the speed limits: 45mph in most places and 35mph on some of the most spectacular roads, like the 144 to Snow Shoe. That’s first gear, maybe second, on my Kawasaki Z1000SX. And the United States is a big country to cross in second gear…

Well, it would be if people stuck to the speed limit. I’ve been behaving nicely for the first few miles when a huge pickup swept past me, clearly doing about 70. I see… So I pick up the pace a bit, but still keep it kind of steady – especially after my first white-tail deer skitters its way across the road in front of me.

Simon stopped at a roadside motel for an evening

I was supposed to camp, but overshoot the campsite and accidentally end up in an old-school roadside motel instead. It’s quick, convenient, and another genuine slice of the American road-trip I’ve read and watched so much about. No frills, but it’s dry, warm and a bed for the night – with dinner in the Burger King next door.

My target after Pennsylvania is Skyline Drive – a road I’d heard about for years. Starting at Front Royal in Virginia, it heads south for 105 miles, passing handily close to my old friend Bob’s house. I break my journey with him and spend a day chasing his BMW K1300S as he introduces me to more flowing, involving roads. He explains how the speed limits work: flexibly, as they’re lightly enforced… but don’t ever get caught doing more than 80.

After a day with Bob, I set out to continue along Skyline Drive. It’s an incredible road, corners jinking right and left through the trees. Scenic "overlook" viewpoints offer vast panoramas over the Shenandoah valley on the one side and the Potomac valley on the other. It has a posted 35mph limit but, approached… flexibly… it’s a lot of fun – though it is as much about the views as the endless stream of perfectly surfaced bends.

The Kawasaki Z1000SX encountered some serious views on its first section of USA road trip

Skyline Drive finishes at Rockfish Gap – not a town, just a catchy place name – and the road continues after about 40 yards as the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s another tourist route, with regular scenic overlooks, but there’s a 45mph limit and no toll (Skyline costs $25 - around £20 at time of writing - for a seven-day pass).

That slight increase in speed limit makes a big difference – there’s less guilt and more enthusiasm when riding with a bit of spirit. It really flows.

At more than 400 miles long, it’s far too long a road to complete in one go, so I break my journey outside Roanoak, camping in the woods. My new Robens tent is easy to put up and I have a great evening – apart from the fact that I don’t have gas for my stove. Guess it’s cereal bars and beer for dinner, then…

Cereal bars and beer? Diet of champions...

Next day I make a fairly leisurely start and carry on south along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The further I go, the more I like it. The road becomes more open, with longer straights and more long sweepers – though there are occasional tight sections. I do have a couple more deer jump out in front of me in places, but always so far ahead my heart’s only halfway to my mouth by the time they vanish.

Then, nearing Cherokee in North Carolina, I get the wildlife moment I’ve been hoping for: I see a bear waiting to cross the road. I’m hard on the brakes before I have time to wonder if stopping next to it is such a smart idea, but it’s turned and disappeared back into the woods before I’m anywhere close to it.

I’m dog-tired but delighted by the time I get to my motel in Franklin. After a good night’s sleep I’m ready to pick up a road Bob recommended to me: Highway 28, also known as the Moonshiner 28. It doesn’t have the views of the Parkway or Skyline Drive but the bends are on another level, tighter and more demanding, rolling through the hills like God’s personal rollercoaster.

Simon on his Kawasaki Z1000SX tackling Moonshiner 28

In some ways, though, even this is just the starter: the main event is waiting at the end of Highway 28… at Deals Gap. This is the start of the legendary Tail of the Dragon: 11 miles of road with a fearsome 318 corners. I ride it twice: once heading north, very steadily; then back to Deals Gap with a little more enthusiasm.

What’s the Tail of the Dragon like? Exhausting, dizzying, fun… None of the corners on its own is especially demanding, but it’s relentless. The bends just keep coming. More and more and more of them. It’s tiring flicking the bike, with all its luggage, from side to side in the humid 30°C heat and concentrating on keeping a good line on such a demanding road is draining. By the time I get back to Deals Gap I’m drenched in sweat and seriously thirsty.

Bends were very much the order of the day for Simon's blast through the northern states of the USA

I fill up with a burger and Sprite, then set off for the desert on this banquet of brilliant roads: the Cherohala Skyway. This was another road I’d never heard of until Bob recommended it… but it might just be the best road of the day. From Robbinsville to Tellico Plains, it’s 50-odd miles of broad, swooping, motorcycling heaven clambering its way over the mountains. It’s the broadest, most swooping of the day’s three roads, reminding me some of the best passes in the Pyrenees or the Picos de Europa, though without the tighter hairpins.

Just in case you hadn't spotted the bend

From Tellico Plains, I head south and gradually east, into the sweltering heat of Georgia. I break my journey just north of Atlanta, then next day settle in for a big stint on the interstate. I’m heading to Jacksonville in Florida – which turns out to be a lot further away than I realised… About 400 miles into the ride, the sky darkens, then the heavens open. I’m practically blind, as rain hits my black visor like a pressure washer. I’m down to about 30mph, following the rear lights of a giant pick-up – the rain is so bad I can’t see the cab. Cars are stopping on the hard shoulder, every crawling lorry we pass throws up huge waves of water and I’m absolutely soaked as lightning lashes the land on either side of the road. After five of longest miles of my life, the rain calms down to merely being a torrential monsoon…

Next morning, it’s glorious again. You’d never have guessed the storm had raged at all. I ride to Jacksonville Powersports, where the service is booked. The guys are quick and efficient, so soon I’m on my way to Jacksonville Beach. I get the bike as close to the lifeguard station as I can; beyond it is the Atlantic Ocean. I turn around. From now on, I’ll be heading west until I reach the Pacific.


Ride of a lifetime update 1: SX shipped Stateside

Uncrating the bike in Canada

First published July 15, 2019

The plan was simple: quit my job, sell my house, set off on the ride of a lifetime. The hard part was picking the trip. Coast-to-coast across the USA? From the top of North America to the bottom of South America? Or what about riding right round the world, to Australia.

Why not do them all? Or at least combine as much of the best bits of all three trips into one three-month-long two-wheeled adventure? So that’s what I decided to do.

Quitting the job was easy – it’s just a letter, after all. Though after more than 15 years testing bikes, with ten years on MCN’s sister title RiDE, it felt dangerous but also liberating to step outside the industry. Even if it did mean no more nice, free bikes or foreign trips someone else was paying for…

Getting all packed up and ready to go to Canada

The house went on the market – it had to go anyway, as part of my divorce – and I started my trip prep. Got my international driving permits from the Post Office. Got my vaccinations (rabies, hepatitis A and B, Yellow Fever and more). Began scheming about what bike to blag for the trip…

But the house sale dragged on and on until I was convinced it would fall through and I’d be stuck, looking like even more of a chump than usual. Meanwhile the reality of not being staff on a motorcycle magazine hit home and I realised I wouldn’t get a free bike to ride for this trip. And nobody else would pay for it, either…

Finally, the house did sell… and I went into a full-on tankslap of panic. There was so much still to do – most importantly, I’d have to sort the bike.

Our Kawasaki Z100SX went into a crate for shipping across the Altantic

I’d already decided that doing the trip on my own a Kawasaki Z1000SX was no bad thing. It had been my long-term test bike in 2017 and I enjoyed it so much, I bought it (ahem, not strictly something staff are supposed to do; good job I quit, really). I love riding it – so why would I take anything else?

Maybe because a 140bhp sports tourer will be no good on unpaved roads… There’s a reason lots of people doing this kind of trip use adventure bikes. True. But I’m rubbish off-road and I don’t really enjoy it (plus I got badly injured on a gravel road on the last free bike on a foreign trip someone else paid for) so I’d avoid that kind of stuff anyway. Using the SX means I have an excuse to stick to tarmac – so it’ll have to be the best tarmac I can find.

I rushed my bike prep. Its weak point is the panniers: perfect for a weekend away, not big enough for three months on the road. I needed a topbox and Givi supplied a V56 Maxxia 4 (still got some of the journo juice) which meant junking the OE boxes and adding a set of huge Oxford R60 soft panniers.

I'd packed my toolkit into the crate along with the bike, which made unboxing a little easier

I had to get the American EPA to issue me temporary-importation approval for the bike and buy a Carnet de Passage as well. Before I had time to get it serviced, it had to be dropped off with Moto Freight outside Heathrow, to be crated and freighted to Canada.

That left me with two weeks to finish a book, put all my belongings into storage, get out of the flat I’d been living in since being invited to leave the family home, sort out all the insurance (how much?!) and say goodbye to family, friends and, especially, the amazing woman who took me in after my wife threw me out.

Then in a rush, I was on a plane, landing in Toronto because it’s more straightforward to freight to Canada and ride into America than to ship a bike direct into the US. I stumbled about like a red-faced idiot in the head, lugging my bags two miles to my hotel because the busses don’t carry change and – having walked straight out of the airport – I had only a $20 bill. Next morning, after a good night’s sleep, I summoned an Uber and returned, sweat-free, to the cargo terminal to get the bike.

The heat in Canada wasn't something I was expecting, but eventually I got the bike unwrapped and ready to ride

This still involved a lot of walking with my luggage: from Air Canada’s cargo terminal to the customs building ten minutes away to get two forms stamped, then back. However, with the forms in my sweaty paw, the bike was brought around and I was left to uncrate it. It was hard going at first, with just a Leatherman to undo screws. Then I remembered that within the cardboard-walled crate was my toolkit. I used the Leatherman to cut them out and the bike was then swiftly unpacked, slowly reloaded and I was off…

My main aim was not to appreciate the lovely Canadian countryside (sorry, Canada). I just wanted to get to the border as quickly as possible, because I anticipated it sucking time. Which it did: a ten-minute crawl to the barrier in unspeakable heat, then a chat with the officer who took my passport and sent me inside to have it stamped. That was another half-hour gone…

No pictures of the US border for obvious reasons, but here's proof Simon was in Canada - briefly - and visited Niagra Falls...

Eventually, I was photographed, fingerprinted and released, free on US soil. I didn’t go far – by this time it was nearly 5pm. Just into Niagra to admire the falls, get some grub and, now, get my head down to get rid of the jetlag and get ready for the real riding that lies ahead. I have a vague itinerary, heading south first to see friends, then cross country to Sacramento and San Fransisco before turning south.

What I need to find is the best tarmac along the way. Please comment with recommendation for great roads (yes, I know about Deal’s Gap). Your tips could shape my trip – so please follow my progress to see if I can pack them in.

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