Road Rage

by

Jeff Hughes

 

“It’s as good as Deals Gap,” Jim said. 

That got my attention.  I looked at him with sudden seriousness.

“Really?”

“Yeah, really,” he nodded.

That was years ago.  Jim and I had been discussing good roads in the Mid-Atlantic region, as we often did.  He had discovered this little treasure in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia on one of his recent adventures.   And his comment had instantly made me want to go find it.

It didn’t take long.  On one of our trips just a few months later, Dave – another friend who was familiar with the route - had led us up rt. 220 to where the secret road began.

Alas.  It was a very nice road, to be sure.  It wound for miles through an isolated, rustic canyon.  It was a pretty road, one to enjoy for its mellow character.  Most definitely a fun road.

But it was no Deals Gap.

Sure, it had plenty of curves.  But the road was narrow and abrupt, with sketchy pavement in spots; and guard rails that frequently came to the very edge of the pavement, forcing a rider towards the center of the road and seriously limiting the line one could take.  Most of the curves were blind.

It was a road you couldn’t really get your suspension working on.  You most certainly couldn’t rail on it.

I marked it in my mind as one of those pleasant little roads I’d welcome visiting again, but probably wouldn’t go out of my way to do so.

Fast forward a handful of years and that’s what I’m thinking as Michael, David, and I cruise northward.   We had left our homes in Northern Virginia early in the morning and were now long into a 400-mile loop through West Virginia.  It had been a terrific day so far.  We had enjoyed a mix of roads - everything from technical, out-of-the-way county routes to bigger roads with high-speed sweepers, to a single, gnarly, oh-so-cool mountain road that connected nowhere to nowhere and made me glad I had brought my GS rather than the Gixxer or KRS.  Now we’re heading back north on rt. 220 and I’m wondering if we’re anywhere near Jim’s secret, good-as-Deals-Gap road.  I wouldn’t mind riding it again.

A few miles later I get my answer as Michael turns left.  “Smoke Hole Road” is written on the little green sign.  I smile to myself.

Michael and David are both excellent riders.  Brothers, they grew up riding bikes.  Now, decades later, they bring that relaxed assurance that comes from many years of riding.  Michael is riding a Buell Firebolt and David is on an RC51.

Michael has led all day, adjusting our pace to suit the road we’re on.  I’ve been impressed by his judgment, running a crisp, fast pace where conditions warranted; pulling back our tempo where it wasn’t.

Now, on this pleasant, narrow little road, Michael sets a relaxed pace that has us gliding through the turns with smiles on our faces.  The road is demanding enough that even at our reduced pace there is little time for sightseeing, but we’re able to steal the odd glance here and there at the bucolic landscape.  The forest the route tracks through, the odd house or cabin that sit hard along the roadway, and the creek running next to us all add to the atmosphere.

It’s around twenty minutes later, after we’ve run most the length of the road, that we come upon the truck.  Because of our reduced pace we’ve been running pretty close together, our three bikes within a handful of bike lengths of each other. Third in line, I’m maybe two seconds behind David, just in front of me; and four seconds behind Michael.

I come around the blind left-hander to see a large, red Ford F-250 King Cab pickup halfway off the road, partially in the ditch on the left-hand side of the road.  It’s a surprising sight.  He’s deep enough in the ditch that his front axle is almost on the ground.  It’s the vision of that that has my attention in the split-second before I’m past him.  It seems an oddly-poor job of parking if he was just fishing or hiking and it makes me wonder if he ended up there from having jerked to the side of the road to avoid Michael.

There’s no time to sort out that question before we’re around the next corner and gone. 

Five minutes, and a handful of miles later, we get to the end of the road.  David pulls up alongside Michael at the stop sign and the two brothers start talking.  Thirty seconds go by.  Then a minute.  I can’t hear what they’re saying, but the length of the conversation tells me they must be talking about the truck.  That answers the question.

Finally, Michael turns right, followed by David.  I’m just easing out the clutch when the sound of screeching tires on my left prompts me to freeze.  It’s the red truck, which has come lurching up alongside me.  I’m taken aback, first by the unexpected sight, then by the shouted obscenities by the four people inside.  After gesturing profanely at me for an instant, the truck launches down the road after Michael and David.  My first thought is that it has been every bit of six or seven minutes since the clear-to-me-now incident where Michael and the truck driver must have surprised each other on that blind corner.  Normally that would have been plenty of time for the anger of a traffic altercation to subside.

This is not good.

I fall in behind the truck, trailing at a reasonable distance.

This is a bigger road, straight, and it only takes a few seconds for the truck to catch the two riders.  They’re doing the 55mph speed limit and either they don’t see the truck, or they don’t realize its import.  After pressing within inches of David’s ass for a few seconds, the truck jerks around in a pass.  Once in front, it slows, trying to force them to stop.

Fully aware now of the situation, Michael attempts to swing around in a pass.  The truck lurches leftward to block the road.  Reacting, Michael quickly moves to the right, looking for space on that side.  Just as quickly the truck does likewise, keeping the road blocked.

David, following and seeing the gap that has now opened up on the left, accelerates hard up that side.  The truck, seeing it is too late to block the road, swings hard in an attempt to hit him.  He is a microsecond too late, missing the RC51 by inches.

 Several baited seconds pass as the truck continues to weave from one side of the road to the other, keeping it blocked, even as it slows.

Timing his move, Michael waits until the truck has moved to the right and then launches a pass up the left, just as his brother had done moments before.  And again, the truck shoots left in an effort to hit the bike.  Michael avoids being struck only by diving off the pavement, tracking a foot into the soft debris of the shoulder.  I breathe a sigh of relief as the fishtailing Buell finally makes it around the truck and accelerates into the distance.

The truck now drifts to the right and stops, waiting for me.  I judge I can get around him easily enough.  But I’m not familiar with this road or what obstructions might lie ahead and a quick calculus tells me that I do not want this truck behind me.  I pull up alongside to have a chat.

 

 

It’s unfortunate, but anger on the highway is an increasingly common aspect of modern America.  And as motorcyclists, we are particularly vulnerable.  The open-vehicle freedom which attracts us to two wheels in the first place automatically makes us more susceptible to those who would turn to violence.

Some might suggest a macho, in-your-face response when confronted with an angry driver.  To that I’d simply offer that - Hollywood scripts notwithstanding - a motorcycle makes a very poor platform from which to wield a weapon or otherwise play the tough guy.

The best thing, if you can’t defuse the situation, is to simply get out of there.  Use the one advantage you have – your bike’s speed and maneuverability – to put distance between you and your attacker.

Our little tete-a-tete that day?  It turned out okay.  I discussed things with the occupants of the truck for a couple of minutes and by the time I pulled away a hint of perspective had begun to seep back into their thinking. 

Michael and David were waiting for me a mile up the road.   “Get going,” I motioned emphatically.  It had been a close-run thing.  I wanted time and distance between us and that truck.

Be careful out there.

 

© 2009 Jeff Hughes