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Ride of a lifetime: California dreaming

Published: 19 August 2019

Updated: 19 August 2019

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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