Journey to Glass Mountain

by

Jeff Hughes

 

It was on the descent of Sherando Mountain that the old man came upon the group of five sportbikes. On seeing the extra headlight behind them the lead rider bumped the pace, and so the old man made no effort to pass. He simply hung at the rear, enjoying the road and the visual choreography of the bikes in front of him.

His quick observation was that these were good riders, excepting the fellow in the rear, the one right in front of him. This guy was obviously struggling to stay with his mates. He blew the line on many corners and nearly ran off the road more than once. After a bit the old man backed off a ways, fearing that his presence might be contributing to the struggling rider’s anxiety.

He didn’t intend to stay hooked up with these riders, but after forty minutes of watching the numerous miscues of the fellow in the rear he was convinced that this was a disaster in the making. When the group pulled into the gas station, the old man followed them in.

After fueling, the old man walked over to the bench outside the door where the riders were milling around. Nodding to the young men, he introduced himself. They were a friendly bunch, obviously impressed with his ability to match their pace, and quickly included him in their laughing discussion of the road just run. When they began to suit up a few minutes later it was Jeremy, the young fellow in the rear, who asked if the old man wanted to ride with them.

He didn’t really want to, but the plaintive look on the young man’s face made him reconsider.

“Sure,” he said, after a moment. Then turning so the others couldn’t hear, the old man added “You need to take it easy out there.”

Jeremy looked at him with a slightly pained look and nodded. “I know.”

The old man hung with them for the rest of the afternoon. Despite his admonition to Jeremy, the young man continued to struggle. It was obvious he was determined to stay with his faster friends, but had neither the skill nor the experience to do so. The old man, convinced throughout the afternoon that he soon was to be an eye witness to tragedy, breathed a sigh of relief when they finally pulled into the motel parking lot.

Two to a room, the ride leader tossed the key card to the old man. “You and Jeremy, ok?”

After dinner and a couple of beers at the restaurant across the street, the riders wandered back to their rooms.

Inside, the old man finished stowing his gear. Turning to Jeremy, he looked at the earnest young man. “How long have you been riding, son?”

“About six months.”

The old man nodded, the answer having affirmed what he expected.

“You know you’re going to get hurt, don’t you?”

Jeremy looked at him with a blank expression. “Look, I know I’m not the best rider in the world. But my friends tell me I’m doing ok. They’re all pretty experienced and they say that all I have to do is keep riding with them and do what they do and pretty soon…” His voice trailed off.

The old man gave him a hard look. “You believe that?”

Jeremy shrugged. “I dunno.” He looked down, and then back at the old man. “How else do you get to be fast?”

The old man let the question hang in the air for a moment before he answered. “You need to take a track school. And then you need to do another one. And then another. Then you need to do a bunch of regular track days.” The old man paused. “And you have to live through the early days. That’s how you get to be fast.”

“I don’t know. The racetrack seems pretty extreme. And anyway, I can’t afford it.”

The old man sighed, shaking his head. He pondered for a moment, then sat down on the bed, nodding at Jeremy to sit on the other.

“Look, there aren’t any short cuts.” The old man paused. He started to say something else, but then stopped.

“Listen Jeremy, when you go out tomorrow you need to do a few things. First, you need to stop hauling ass deep into the corner and then grabbing a big handful of brakes just before you pitch your bike into the turn. The time you think you’re saving by doing that is immediately stolen back from you – with interest – as you roll through the corner with less than optimum corner speed. Your exit velocity is less than it might have been and you pay for that long after the corner is behind you.”

“Forget trail braking,” the old man went on. “Forget going deep into the corner even as your anxiety level shoots through the roof. Do this instead: Way before the turn decide what your entrance speed needs to be and set it. Then simply maintain that speed all the way through to the apex, at which point you can begin to add throttle as you power out. This does three things. It settles the suspension early, allowing higher corner speed with a whole lot less drama. It eliminates the distraction of braking, allowing you to pay more attention to things like tire feedback and the appropriateness of the line you’ve chosen. And it has a calming effect. Since you’re no longer hurling yourself deep into the corner at a speed you know is not sustainable, a speed which has to diminish before you actually get into the turn, you’ll automatically relax.”

The old man paused. “Motorcycles are really great at doing one thing really well – be that accelerating, braking, shifting, or turning. They’re a whole lot less happy about having to do multiple things at the same time. So set your entrance speed early. You think you can do that?”

Jeremy nodded.

“Ok. Next, you need to be in the right gear well before you tip your bike into the corner. In addition to unsettling the suspension, shifting late simply adds one more distraction at a point where that’s the last thing you need.”

“How do I know what gear to be in?” Jeremy asked.

“That’s a good question,” the old man answered. “It’s something that’ll vary a bit from bike to bike. But here’s a tip that works for most: Put your bike in the gear corresponding to the first digit of those yellow caution signs you see. If the sign indicates a maximum speed of 20 or 25, put your bike in second gear. If the sign recommends 30 or 35, put it in third.”

Jeremy brightened. “That’s easy to remember. But that seems like a lot lower gear than I’ve been running. Why would you do that?”

“Because you want to control your bike with the throttle,” the old man answered. “By being in a lower gear you’ll be running higher revs. That puts your engine in the fat part of its torque curve. The bike becomes much more tractable. It’ll respond immediately to even subtle changes in your throttle position.

You’ll have more of both acceleration and deceleration instantly available. And you want that. You want that because you want to use the throttle as your primary control, the one thing you use to manage your speed, your acceleration, your deceleration, and even your line through the corner. “

“I guess I never realized you could do all those things with just the throttle” Jeremy said.

“No, it’s not obvious,” the old man replied. “As you roll your bike towards a corner, use tiny changes in your throttle position to first set your speed and then, if need be, to adjust it.”

“Ok, I think I can do that,” Jeremy said.

“Good. Now do you know what positive throttle means?”

“You mean like to have the throttle open or cracked?” Jeremy asked.

“Exactly,” said the old man. “Well the suspension on your bike is really designed to work well under only one condition: When riding down the road under positive throttle. If you roll off the throttle you’ll instantly notice the weight shift forward. The front suspension loads and there is some degree of chassis upset. If you add in any braking, it gets even worse. So make any speed adjustments you need to well before you begin to tip your bike into the corner. Once you reach that point, stay on the throttle, no matter what else happens.”

“What if I end up going in too hot?” Jeremy asked.

The old man nodded. “Yeah, that’ll happen sometimes. It doesn’t matter. Stay on the throttle, no matter what.”

The old man paused. “Ok, last few things. Stay off the brakes. They’ll get you in far more predicaments than they’ll get you out of. So stay off ‘em.”

“Don’t hang off the bike and don’t be trying to touch your knee to the ground. Lean into the corner with your inside shoulder, like you’re aiming the sights of a rifle, but keep your ass planted in the seat.”

“And look – look hard – at wherever it is that you want to go. Because that’s where you’re going to end up.”

“You think you can remember all that?”

Jeremy nodded. “I think so.”

“Good. The thing is, Jeremy, there are lots of techniques for riding fast on a motorcycle. Many of them are appropriate for a very advanced rider or in a controlled environment like a racetrack. But many of them don’t translate well to riding on the street. But you do these things I’ve told you and you’ll be alright. Later on, after you’ve gotten a bunch more miles under your belt you can try some of that other stuff if you want, but forget them for the time being.

Ok?”

“Ok,” Jeremy replied.

“And remember,” the old man softly intoned, “riding is as much about this” – he tapped the side of his head – “as it is about any kind of technique you apply to the bike.”

Jeremy nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll try and remember that.”

 

 

The old man awakened early the next morning, long before Jeremy or his pals would rise. He packed his bike quietly in the dark, with just the faintest tinge of light smudging the eastern horizon. By his calculation he would be at Glass Mountain in about an hour, just when dawn was fully realized. How long had it been? Nearly twenty years since the trip over that pass with John, his old riding partner.

As he thumbed the starter he looked toward the room where Jeremy still slept. The young man who reminded him so much of himself, a long, long time ago.

“Good luck my young friend.”

 

© 2008 Jeff Hughes