Rhythms of the Road

by

Jeff Hughes

 

Leaving before dawn always seems special. The breaking sun meets you out on the road, light spilling into the crevices of the world just as your anticipation of what the day will bring gladdens your heart. So as I turn out of my driveway and point the bike westward, my back towards the smudge of light tingeing the horizon, I can’t help but smile.

A five hundred mile day awaits.

I eschew the secondary roads that normally comprise my weekend riding diet – those delightfully convoluted rural routes which take forever to get anywhere. The first couple hours today are for making time. And so the first thirty minutes passes in thoughtful deliberation, the mostly-straight road I’m on demanding little attention. It’s actually a pleasure to just sit back and ponder what the day will bring. My mind wraps around a particular fascination – how it is that this thing, riding, can remain so deliciously enticing ride after ride, year after year. It never becomes tiresome.

I’m gently pulled from my reverie when I reach the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. The hardening landscape and the swiftly tightening kinks in the road put an end to any daydreaming. It’s a delight to have the road suddenly imposing demands upon me – knowing that there is a none-too-subtle consequence in not getting it right.

With the sun just now breaking over the horizon behind me I remind myself of the deer. The forest I ride through is a national park and they are ever present this time of day. With that caution in mind I’m just a touch restrained, the tarmac rolling under my wheels with a modest degree of aggression. Like flexing your muscles a bit, but knowing there’s more to be had.

Descending into the Shenandoah Valley, I turn southward, enjoying the gently rolling road which flows through this storied place. It’s the final bit of prologue to the day and the last chance for introspection. Like the first road I traveled this morning, this one requires but a modicum of effort.

Ninety miles from home, I stop for gas. A quick splash-and-go for both me and the bike. Then I’m back aboard and climbing the ascent, sudden impatience welling up inside me. The sun is an hour in the sky.

Perfect.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the finest motorcycle roads in the world. Purpose-built as a scenic highway, stretching nearly five hundred miles across a hardened mountain landscape, it has no traffic lights, no stop signs, no intersecting traffic, no trucks, no cell service, no soccer moms, and no gravel. It’s a roadway which runs through a landscape of stark beauty. But within a half mile of having turned onto it I’m reminded of the real reason I have always found it so special – its amazing rhythm. Curve after curve rolls in upon you like gently breaking waves. There is a symmetry to the road. Even at seriously extralegal speeds its even cadence imparts a smooth mellowness, not unlike the whiskeys that once came from the stills in the hollows down below. Of all the roads I’ve ever been on, this one is probably the most cathartic.

The reason, of course, is the vague similarity in all the curves and the deliberately-engineered turn radii which remove any abruptness. This is not a road with discrete turn-in points and braking markers. This is a road to be ridden with the deft swirling touch of a surgeon’s scalpel.

Two hours later I turn off on one of the occasional side roads which lead down off the Parkway, the next leg in the grand loop I have planned for today. And within a hundred yards I know that this one has an entirely different character. If the BRP is even and consistent – this is anything but. The turns here come at you in staccato, abrupt bursts, like jabs from a boxer. Far more technical, the road has a ragged and edgy quality. And whereas a road like the BRP can be enjoyed – even at speed - with a relatively modest amount of attention, this one demands a far more intense focus. It puts me as close to a racetrack mindset as I ever get on the street.

Eight miles later, down in the valley, with the road having unkinked itself and my frenetic focus having abated, my mind mulls over the contrasts in the roads I’ve ridden so far this morning. Everything from that mostly-straight, get-there-quick road I started with, to the moderately technical road over the first mountain pass, to the road meandering in a gentle lope down the valley, to the Blue Ridge Parkway and its constant but easy curves, to this latest highly-technical road so laced with challenge and danger that it was emblazoned across its length with numerous public warnings.

And it occurs to me that each of those roads has its own unique character. Each must be ridden differently. What works on one might not work at all on another. A riding style that gets you down the Blue Ridge Parkway perfectly well might just get you killed on that last road I was on.

At a superficial level that distinction between roads is fairly obvious. But at a deeper level it’s full of nuances. There’s more to it than simply paying greater attention to a road which is somehow “harder”.

Riding well involves, among other things, establishing a rhythm. Finding a cadenced set of responses to the demands imposed by a particular road. It’s not unlike the metered time signature which sets the backdrop to a piece of music. In our case it sets the baseline for the pace, effort, riding style, and focus we’ll bring to bear on a particular road.

We can choose to ignore that baseline, of course. The easiest example of that is pushing the pace beyond what our skill level or the road conditions suggest. Doing so, we’ll find that our riding quickly deteriorates. It turns ragged. Without a rhythm we’re left simply riding corner to corner – rarely the smoothest or fastest way to get down a road. It’s a truism on the racetrack that one oftentimes must deliberately take a particular corner more slowly in order to be better setup for a subsequent turn. A racer looks at a racetrack in a holistic fashion. He will gladly cede corner speed in one place in return for a faster overall lap time.

The same thing applies on the street. A good rider doesn’t simply bull his way down the road, trying to impose his will upon every corner he comes to. He doesn’t take each turn as a single entity wholly unto itself, but rather recognizes it to be part of a larger tapestry. He seeks to understand what the road demands, and what it will give him. He searches for the rhythm inherent in the road itself.

And then, finding it, he syncs his pace and riding style to match it.

How does he know when he has found it? Because it will feel right. Riding to the rhythm of a road will feel smooth and effortless, even if the pace is very intense.

If you sharpen a knife upon a whetstone, there is a proper angle at which to hold the blade. Held at that correct angle, drawing the blade’s edge across the stone feels uncannily smooth. It has an almost perfect “rightness” to it. Drop the angle a little bit, or increase it a little too much, and the blade instantly tells you that something is amiss. The difference between a man who knows his way around blades and the vast majority who don’t is that nuanced feel – the ability to quickly and consistently find that proper angle.

The same holds true in riding. Many riders treat the road they are on as simply a surface to ride along, something separate from themselves and their bike. They don’t see it as an environment with which they should actively interact. And they are unable to read the nuanced cues that the road communicates.

The rhythm of a particular road will be essentially the same for all riders. But that doesn’t mean that all riders will ride that road in exactly the same way, or that their individual paces will necessarily be similar. Rider skill level, the type and condition of motorcycle one is on, and familiarity with that motorcycle are all factors in that equation. But the rhythm buried in the heart of a road sets the same stage for everyone.

A few miles further along I turn left, on a road I’ve never been on before, prompted by one of those yellow caution signs which warns of a curvy road ahead. Throttling up gently, my senses are on high alert as I roll through the first handful of turns. Wondering what is here. What is being offered.

And listening for whispers.

 

© 2008 Jeff Hughes