It’s 7:20AM and we’re burning down the freeway with Evan Leung, OWD contributor and friend, in the lead. Our destination for the day is Buttonwillow, CA, but for the moment we’re more concerned with Mission Motorcycles in Daly City, just outside San Francisco. The shop is the starting point for the Top of the Hill Motorcycle Club’s annual Death Valley Ride.
Fifteen folks have come (one from as far as Denmark) for the ride which sports few rules:
1. Bob, the club patriarch, decides.
2. No complaining.
3. Bob must have a Vodka martini by 5 PM
None of the rules gives anyone much issue, the 12 riders and 3 pillions are in high spirits and good camaraderie. The weather is mostly co-operating with a grand sunny morning but a quick “sun-shower” ensures we’ve had a taste of most of the weather we’ll encounter on the ride and gets us quickly motivated to get out from under it and be on our way. Left out is snow, but we didn’t travel to sunny California to ride in that now did we?
I admit to having my doubts as the first 80 miles are laid down on the I-280, the I-85 and then the 101 freeways. The freeways sadden me, you can take just about any stretch of them and they can be interchanged, they are the Taco Bell of travel; wherever you go and no matter what you order the flavour is the same. They take the country and homogenize it – making it harder to enjoy for it’s unique scenery and aspect. It’s homogenized more still when it’s done at an average clip of 100mph. Then about four miles past Gilmore the group divides; the larger touring bikes, the Goldwing, the two ST1100s, the Yamaha GTS and the Kawasaki Concourse continue on the more direct route while the sportier bikes amongst us, the three VFRs, the R1150GS, the R1, and the Magna, turn off onto Highway 25 for a more spirited run.
The road starts out slow with gentle rolling Californian hills, farm lands, and a few sweepers, then in Hollister we take the smaller southbound Cienega Rd. Cienega offers more rolling hills and farmlands but more importantly, twists and turns for a pleasant morning warm-up ride. 32 miles later, in Bitterwater, we rejoin highway 25 and find that this is truly farm country – the roads are covered with farm… or at least a lot of mud from the area’s ranches.
There are tractors and then there are shows of power. The green monstrosity of a machine with lots of evil looking slice-y bits causes us all to put on the binders a bit in a show of cautious road negotiation. There is no doubt who would win in a confrontation. We continue on toward King City, the only other excitement is offered by the dirt encrusted road in the corners.
In King City the Touring Pack are already entrenched at the restaurant. They’ve been waiting about 15 minutes, so the time difference between spirited sportbike ride and freeway haul isn’t far off. Later we learn that on the freeway the Touring Pack do not simply lazily traverse the landscape – they haul hiney. The oldest (he can see 65 receding in his rear-views as he pulls away), Bob, on an ST1100, is a former racer, accomplished rider, and periodic pace-setter.
Lunch is at a roadside Denny’s-a-like, where the slightly deaf waitress is sporting a supply of well-practised comebacks to our group’s banter. “How much for that cute chubby little stuffed pig on the way in?” “That’s my sister… you be nice!” The food isn’t as sharp, but serviceable.
After lunch it’s back to the 101 for another 52 miles of freeway before we stop in Paso Robles for fuel, to split into the Sport and the Touring packs, and to wait out a small rogue rain shower. The fuel stops are periodic as the group is kindly considerate of the limited range of the Magna and the R1. I’ve given up on raingear, the bit of wet earlier on has already dampened my leathers, and I prefer mobility to being dry. Why? Because Declan, while plotting and scheming our route at the lunch stop, has intoned that this is going to be a stomping ride. Pulling out of Paso Robles the Sport Pack heads towards Creston on the 229, and I’m hoping the weather breaks – the MEZ4s are performing poorly in the wet and the slip-slop-slide cornering is not the surefooted feel I’ve come to expect from the VFR. It almost feels as if the rear is down a couple pounds of air, but the tires having just been changed in Ukiah should be at spec. pressures, though I failed to check them this morning in the rush.
The weather eases off shortly before Creston, which is good, because the 229… well, suddenly the road goes all Hobbit-y.
It’s a lane and a half wide at the most, overhung by trees, following no clear engineering logic. It would be entirely picturesque except for two things: it is sweet smooth fresh pavement instead of hobbit dirt track, it has a pack of six sport touring bikes screaming along it at a “brisk” pace. “Brisk” by the way means hell-bent for leather and whooping in the helmet.
Up down, twist, turn, up again, descend, turn, more brake, whack the throttle out of the turn, downshift before the next tight one, grin like an idiot, dip around the gravel, do it all over again. A car pulls aside, remember to wave a thanks and apply more throttle with the other hand. It’s a frantic poetry of throttle logic, binders, and contact patches. Then the back slides out and you find the hobbits have been out peppering more than a few corners, passive aggressive little curs. Screw it, you recover and twist the loud handle again. As Declan puts it: “this road is pure sex!”, but if this is the sex and the ride out of Hollister the foreplay, then the latter part of the 58 is a messy, sweaty orgy.
The ride mellows for a bit, the road slows, straightens and relaxes for a bit. We begin to wind downwards toward a valley floor and suddenly the scene changes, it’s plains time. High-speed straights at mad, mad speeds are followed by mind-“feck”ing sudden 25-15 mph turns that are pure S&M business. “You want the speed don’t you big boy?”, you want the throttle logic – slap! Clutch, downshift, blip, brake, lean, corner like mad, then whack the throttle right back to speed. The road repeatedly spanks you for being a naughty, naughty boy. Oh, baby you hurt so good.
On the far side of the plains we grab a quick breather and respite from the adrenaline. The GS rider Chris is amazed… “So there I am, some cruiser in front of me and I’m thinking oh, gawd, he’ll be in my way. Next thing I know we’re in the turns and I’m scrambling to keep up to a guy who never touched his brakes and is playing with a camera.” Yes, well, welcome to OWD’s world of riding with our photographer Kevin.
We begin to ascend and next thing you know the road starts flailing about in well-banked turns. It’s brilliantly kinky as it races all sexy, slinky and frantic along the hillside. This is not just “pure sex”, this is pure sex with a half dozen well-oiled 23 year olds, all slithery and energetic. It’s smooth and frenetic at the same time, and the joy of it is you don’t have to stop any time soon. It’s hot, and in one corner so is my entry speed; I lean and hang for all I have, and while there’s no scrape of the knee, the VFR rewards me with a “tetchhhh!” of the peg feeler and the satisfaction of knowing I’m on the edge… of the tires that is. Actually this is better than sex, there’s no letup and no having to buy anyone breakfast afterwards, and if you wanted you could ride do this again, and again, and again… It’s simply one of the best roads we’ve ever ridden, and on the final ride into Buttonwillow all I can think of is going back.
Slippage surrounds us as we ride into the antithesis of a bustling metropolis that is Buttonwillow, but it’s filtered out. Our brief affair with the 58 has clouded my view of this dead zone whose claim to fame is a race track, and irradiating travelers along the 58 under a huge array of power lines highway-side. In my helmet, out loud, I repeatedly find myself quoting Grr from the Invader Zim cartoons, “I want to do it again!”
That evening, in what may be the cheapest clean hotel anywhere along California’s I-5, we revel in the roads, tell our lies, and slideshow through the photos of the day. Of course our timing was such that Bob got his martini.