Old Age and Treachery


Jeff Hughes

We were tired of the rain. You expect some, of course, on a six-day road trip. But after a couple days of off and on wet stuff – compounded by the mud – we were hungry for some clean, dry pavement.

Day one had been nice, a good omen on which to start the trip. And day two started auspiciously, with good roads and skies that, if not brightly sunny, at least weren’t loosing anything upon us.

But then, as the day advanced and we descended deeper into the heart of Appalachia, rolling through southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia, and into southeastern Kentucky, a light, misting rain had begun. Passing through the tiny towns of Inman and Lynch and Stoney Fork, everything was set off by a dull, depressing grayness.

Severe thunderstorms had pounded the area in the days prior to our departure and had left a layer of sand and mud on many of the roads. Crossing Black Mountain, the highest peak in Kentucky, the bikes felt like we were running on flat tires the road was so squirrelly. That forced a modest pace – a disappointment on what we could tell would be a terrific road in better conditions.

Worst of all was the limestone and coal dust from the many mines in the area which mixed with the misting rain to coat everything in a layer of gray sludge. By the time we stopped in Pineville for a late lunch, our bikes were covered in the concrete-mix-like goo. Even those of us who don’t normally worry too much about such things while on a road trip shook our heads in dismay. It was easily the dirtiest any motorcycle of mine has ever been.

Day three had seen more rain – enough to cause us to abbreviate our day’s ride and head back to the lake resort where we were staying. An early dinner and cold brews seemed the better part of valor.

And so it’s no surprise that we were a bit antsy for some decent weather. When day four finally broke with clear blue skies and pleasant temps, we suited up with anticipation.

And so it proved to be. Other than a minor interruption when we stopped to fix the clutch on Lew’s Ducati, the morning passed in a blur of good roads and laughing camaraderie. Tennessee has a lot of great motorcycling byways and we did our best to see as many of them as we could.

After lunch, Earle led us on a long, looping route intended to get us back to our home base back at the resort. Middle Tennessee is blessed with a rolling countryside not unlike the Virginia Piedmont I’m familiar with. And we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect afternoon in which to enjoy it – perfect temperatures and an azure blue sky contrasting sharply with the deep green of the verdant landscape. The narrow ribbons of black roadway snaking through it all were simply the desert. We lost no time in getting down to business.

As happens, we occasionally would come upon a slower vehicle. No worries. Most people were cool and would pull to the right to help make room for our double-yellow passes. The usual sport riding stuff.

But not the Harley rider. As Earle rolled up behind him the guy was doing the posted speed limit – if that. Earle hung there behind him, obvious in his mirrors. But as the rest of our six-bike freight train quickly stacked up behind the cruiser pilot, he remained planted in the middle of the lane, seemingly oblivious.

Earle gave him a mile. And then, with no sign that the guy was going to move to the side, when a smidgen of space opened in front he dialed up his K1200S and swung around in a quick double-yellow pass. Lew went with him, the bass notes from his Desmodromic twin booming back towards us, a reproachful counterpoint to the Harley’s own sound.

One by one, the rest of us pulled up behind the Harley and, as soon as there was a little space, sped around him. When it was my turn, an instant after I began my pass a car appeared around the corner ahead. A flashing calculation told me I’d be fine and so I stayed hard on the throttle as I rolled the R1200GS a bike length in front of our cruiser friend. I had the merest glimpse of a white mustache on an aged face as I pulled past him.

That left only Eric, bringing up our rear. I kept an eye peeled in my mirrors for the tell-tale of his Triumph’s headlight. A half-mile of hard turns later, there it was. Ok, all good. I relaxed. So long pops. We cranked back up to a sporting pace.

It was nearly a mile after that, as we emerged onto a slightly straight section, that I suddenly realized that Eric was riding my ass, something he doesn’t usually do. And that there were now two headlights behind me, not one. Looking again, I did a double-take. The guy behind me was the Harley rider! Eric was behind him!

Few things have surprised me as much in all my years of riding. Our pace over the last mile, while not grossly excessive, was certainly well beyond that which any Harley this side of a VR 1000 should have been able to match. I was stunned.

Mixed in with my disquieting sense of the impossibility of it all, my first thought was that he was an off-duty police officer and was after us for the double-yellow passes. My second thought was that maybe he was just pissed at us for having passed him that way. In any case I was torn between wanting to light it up and get out of there and wanting to stop and talk to the guy. Regardless of what it was that motivated his sudden hot pursuit, here clearly was an incredibly skilled motorcycle pilot.

I began to watch him closely, glancing in my mirrors as soon as I rotated up through each of the curves. This was a seriously good road, the kind that any sport rider would instantly gravitate towards. The kind that would force all the cruiser guys into a slow toddle.

Only not our new friend. For ten miles he stayed with us, curve for curve. It was true that he would fall back a bit in the more serious stuff, but not by much. Not nearly as much as you’d think. Watching him, I just kept shaking my head.

It was ten miles of the most impressive motorcycle riding I’ve ever witnessed.

That evening, back at the resort and with beers in hand, Eric and I regaled our compadres with the story of the mysterious Harley rider. They had been oblivious to it all, of course, having been ahead of what was happening; having assumed that that guy had long since been dropped just like all the other vehicles we had passed that day. They were incredulous when they heard that he had stayed with us for all those miles.

“You know”, I ruminated, “beyond the obvious difference in handling capability that our bikes had over his, the biggest thing that separated us from him was how close to the edge he had to ride on every corner. While we had plenty of margin, plenty of spare ground clearance to draw upon to deal with anything unexpected, he had to take his bike to the absolute limit of its capabilities on every turn. Over and over, for miles. All while knowing that if he misjudged a single corner by so much as a hair’s breadth it would put him on the ground.”

Even ceding the likelihood that he was intimately familiar with the road, it was a lesson for the ages. And it was an object reminder that good riding is far more about the rider, and what he brings to the table, than it is about the equipment.

That’s sometimes a hard thing to accept for those of us who too-often lust after the latest sporting machinery. We use the performance benefits that we ascribe to that new machinery as our justification for wanting it. We yearn for the reduced lap times we imagine it will provide at our next track day. And we day dream about how it will make those rocking Sunday rides so much better.

When, really, it’s always been about us, not the bike.

Smiling, I raise a silent toast to the old guy - to all the old guys – who got that.

But I still want that 1098R.

© 2008 Jeff Hughes