Checkmate in Two


Jeff Hughes


Dawn breaks slowly, emerging with a fitful reluctance.  A light overcast hazes the sky, reflecting my mood, which is anything but ebullient.  The thrumming in my head, the cottony numbness of my tongue, and the sandpaper which passes for my eyelids bear silent witness to too many beers and too little sleep.

Coffee doesn’t help.

But we are here to ride, so come eight o’clock we’ve shrugged into our riding gear and are rolling down the mountain.  When we get to the bottom I drop in behind Dave and immediately switch to autopilot, steering dumbly onto his wheel tracks. 

I’m kicking myself for the late night and the surfeit of “okay, one mores,” smiled to the pretty barmaid, like we were singers doing a bunch of encores or something. But at least the cooling breeze coming through the chin bar of my Arai gives faint promise that maybe I’ll feel human again.  Someday.

If there’s a saving grace, it’s that our group is larger on this run than most.  Kevin has brought along a bunch of friends from North Carolina.  Because of the new guys and the general unwieldiness of the group, Dave is keeping the pace down.

I’m glad when we pull into Watoga for breakfast an hour later.  Eggs and toast and sausage and a couple glasses of ice water bring the first tendrils of relief.  And when we walk outside the sky is likewise brightening, with occasional patches of blue appearing through the broken cloud cover.  Maybe the day won’t be such a bust after all.

Dave’s plan for the day is ambitious.  He has us heading south and west towards some squiggles on the Delorme Atlas we’ve never been on before.  New roads and new mountains to try.

But first we have to get past the traffic through this section of West Virginia.  Dave has us on remote, secondary roads wherever he can, but at some point you have to deal with rt. 219, the only major north-south artery through Pocahontas County.  We’re stuck behind a line of slow-moving cars when we get to the really nice stretch south of Droop Mountain.  That sucks.  And it’s a struggle to keep our dozen-odd bikes together when we begin the double-yellow-line dance.

So it’s with a palpable sense of relief when we finally turn off onto an obscure county route.

We haven’t gone more than a handful of miles when Jim rolls around me and slots in behind Dave.  It was his “anyone want to walk up to the bar?” last night that had prompted my present misery.   Watching him now, I wonder if he feels half as bad as I do.  He’s one of the new guys on this run but is anything but inexperienced.  He and I had reminisced long into the night about bikes we had owned, roads we had run, and trips we had been on.   And he had spent much of yesterday goosing the throttle, pulling wheelies, and otherwise making it plain that he was impatient to get it on.  Now, apparently, having passed a sign alerting us to the mountain just ahead, is that time.

Dave waves him on around, offering him a clear road.  Jim answers aggressively, spooling his CBR 600 into a long, loping wheelie as he powers around into the front.  He immediately lays down the hammer, putting quick distance between himself and the rest of our group.

I watch all this unfold with surprise.  Our years-long protocol has been to choose a lead rider – usually either John or Dave – let them choose the day’s route, then stick to the roads and the pace that they select.  Jim has just broken that unwritten rule.

But even as I am processing this development, I’m charged with an enervating, predatory excitement.  A moment passes.  Then with a quick glance in my left mirror I likewise pull out, punching a downshift even as I roll the throttle of my BMW hard around to its stop.

It takes me a minute to catch up to him, by which time we’ve left the rest of the group far behind.  As I pull onto his tail he acknowledges my presence by bumping the pace even further.  The curling road hardens as it begins the ascent and we both bend to the task with an intense scrutiny.  Faster and faster.  In moments I’m at the absolute limit of my comfort zone.  I run a quick calculus of how much is left, painfully aware of the disadvantages of my BMW compared to Jim’s Honda.  The answer comes in a flash – not much.  Our spiraling run has become lit by a harsh edginess, held together by the most tenuous of threads.  I shake my head, knowing how unwise all this is.  But I don’t stop.

Halfway up the mountain Jim makes his mistake.  He glances at his mirror for just an instant, to see if I’m still there.  Just the merest sliver of a second.  But it’s enough.  When he looks back his line has already shifted the few inches that make the difference, has hardened into inevitability.  It takes him off the road into the grass.

Watching it all unfold, I am aghast.  In the blink of an eye Jim is a full two feet off the pavement, heading straight for a large strip of Armco.  I am certain I am about to watch a man die.

Instead, he makes the greatest save I have ever witnessed.  He stays on the throttle, kicking up an enormous roostertail of dirt.  Struggling against the sloping, off-camber dirt bank he somehow manages to work the bucking Honda back onto the tarmac, making it just ahead of the razor-sharp Armco.

“Are you okay?” I yell as I come to a stop alongside him.  Flipping up his face shield he turns toward me.  Even through his helmet I can see the blanched look on his face.  There’s a long second while we both absorb what just happened.  Then he squeezes his eyes into a smile and flips his face shield back down and drops the clutch.



Riding at speed is not for the faint of heart.  It punishes the unwary – or simply the unlucky – with a swift harshness.  We preach moderation – and believe it when we’re saying it.  But then we get out there where the roads are fine and the possibilities seem endless… and our restraint is left behind in a trail of spun rubber and intoxicating petrol fumes.

So it behooves us to understand this craft of ours.

One of the subtleties that sometimes is lost even on advanced riders is the need to perceive the road in a holistic fashion.  To understand it as a single thread, a connected whole.  Too many riders simply ride each corner as it comes to them, treating each turn as an individual entity.  Alas, that’s not the fastest or safest way to get down the road.

This is easily seen on a racetrack, where a rider will sometimes take a deliberately sub-optimal line through one corner in order to better set himself up for a subsequent turn.  The racer is interested in optimizing his time across an entire lap and is more than happy to lose time in one corner if doing so means he’ll more than make up for it somewhere else.

Such thinking is not nearly as obvious in the complicated arena of the street, but it also applies there – where we’re not just trying to maximize speed, but also to find the optimal balance among all the risk factors that exist.  We do this subconsciously on roads that we ride a lot.  We’ve learned through simple repetition what the road holds.  And we’ve adjusted our lines and pace very subtly based upon that knowledge.

I’m going to suggest two things.  First, that we think about this inter-connectedness of corners, that it become a conscious affect of our riding style.  And, second, that we practice it in the hardest realm of all – on roads that we’ve never been on before.

“How do you do that?” is the obvious question. 

The answer is that even strange roads give off faint tell tales of what lies beyond the apex of the corner ahead.  The rise and fall of the landscape, how the light touches the trees, and how the line of the horizon subtly moves in front of us all provide clues.  And the road itself will impart a rhythm that, once perceived, provides a starting point for understanding what lies ahead.

The reason why all this is important, the reason why we seek to see what at first seems impossible, is so we can place our minds there, down the road.  For, like a chess master, the good rider is always thinking a few moves ahead. 

The benefit is that the time compression that occurs for all of us at speed is lessened.  Our mental pace unwinds.  The rider with his head down the road is better able to go fast on the one hand.  And to deal with the unexpected on the other.

Just don’t look in your mirror.


© 2010 Jeff Hughes