And so it came to pass that we embarked on another trip to ride that famous road in the Smokey Mountains as we have now done as a group four times and I have done at least 12 times. In many ways. it was a trip similar to the previous ones but there were also stark contrasts.
There was the pre-trip preparation. Each time it's a mad dash to get everything done. I left plenty of time but I began to feel rather poorly and tasks that should have taken part of a day took days on end. Oil needed to be changed, tires needed to be replaced, brake fluid needed to be flushed and there were a host of other tasks needed to get both bikes ready. I take this very seriously as friends of mine would be riding these machines.
It took me forever to get this work done. It was as if the bottom had dropped out from under me and I was moving through molassas.
But if you can't go fast, you go slowly. Being sick for the duration of my time on this hapless rock, I've learned not to hold my goals too tightly and keep my expectations flexible. But now, with this flaky restrictive diet of mine, it's so much better than it used to be but I do still have bad days. Back in the day, it was much worse. I rarely planned anything because I could never rely on how I would feel the next day. I never got to the frustration phase as this was all I had ever known. As I get older, lessons learned from those times are serving me well. With great sadness I watch as my friends, who have been rock solid healthy their entire lives, are now facing similar challenges but without the perspective to let their expectations go. It's a very difficult thing to feel your way through. I would not have thought a lifetime of illness would have an upside but it does. I sometimes wonder if the the Buddha had been ill his entire life. It would explain a great deal.
There was the day of leaving.
This year would be slightly different. Instead of rolling down in one big group we went in separate smaller groups. It's easier. So Duncan, Bruce and I reprised our roles and rode down together. There's a peace that comes from riding with brothers you've been riding with for decades.
There were surprises! At a Starbucks in Front Royal, Duncan noticed a bike but failed to notice the sticker.
Joel and his dad John, it turns out, booked a room at Deal's Gap for the same week we were to be down there. They kept is a secret as a surprise. We all had such a great time two years ago when we met these two and have stayed in touch via Facebook and on this site since then.
So now we were four. Riding with Joel is a pleasure. He had already ridden a couple hundred miles so it turned into a pretty long day for him.
We met up with Joel's dad, John, along with Rob and Josh in Wytheville. And, to our surprise, Sean, who we met last year, rode down from Maine and joined us the next morning. He did 1011 miles in the rain to make it down in time. Mad man.
Now we were 8 bikes which represented the largest gathering of Miles By Motorcycle bikes to date.
For the rest of the ride down we broke up into three groups. Bruce, Duncan and I would go as one group. Rob, Josh and Sean decided to do a longer loop through the Blue Ridge Parkway which added some significant mileage. Joel and John went to meet up with a friend and would be joining us at the Gap a couple of days later.
We arrived at the Gap earlier than we usually do and the week continued as it usually does.
My beloved Blue K100RS "oil burner" had a shock issue that could not be repaired before the trip. Bobs loaned me a new but much less capable and shorter shock which would let me take the bike on the trip. It unfortunately severely affected the handling and I was finding it quite challenging to go through the Gap on it. Bruce, who was doing more of the scenic day rides, offered to let me use the guest bike which is a turning beast in the Gap. It was very kind.
There were day rides.
There were beatiful vistas under sunny skies.
There were touching moments. Not only had Joel and John come down to surprise us but it turned out that Wednesday was Joels birthday.
Two years previously, I had taken both of them through the Gap and helped them with their riding. It's something I really enjoy doing. I figured we would probably do more of this. I wanted to do something nice for them, so for Joel's birthday I ordered a pair of Sena SMH10 helmet communicators. Yun is responsible for getting me into these things. The last thing I thought I wanted was to have some more voices in my head, but, it turns out, they completely change riding for the better. And for training, coaching or "consulting", they are invaluable. When Joel and John first arrived, the first thing Joel said to me was "You're an expensive friend." Thinking exactly the same thing I had been , he and John had picked up a set on their way down! "Damn, I was afraid you guys might do that. Bummer!".
Rob kindly bought the two units off of me so it worked out in the end.
There was lounging around in front of our prison cell, bad coffee in hand.
I still get a kick out of the license plate on the Ninja.
There was the Tree of Shame which waits ever patiently.
This year we all managed to disappoint her.
There were strange contraptions to be seen.
There were stark reminders of what can happen when you ride beyond your skill.
(She's not flipping me off. She's holding up her injured finger.) Initially, I thought she had taken the thing off-road but then I noticed the damage and realized she had crashed pretty badly. Her injuries were minor but it could have been much worse.
There was disappointment handled with grace.
Joel had bought the bike the week before so he could make it on this trip. It's an older machine and suffered an intermittent ABS fault. I ended up riding this bike pretty often as a result so Joel could ride the 'S.
There were storms. Wicked wicked storms.
During one of these we got pelted by the worst hail I have ever ridden in. 1/4"+ sized hail. Even through my Transit Suit it hurt. The poor guys in textiles had it worse.
The most beautiful moments at the Gap are always right after a storm.
There was swag. "So Yermo, when are you going to have some swag like baseball caps for M-BY-MC?" Sean had asked some many months earlier. So i put in some effort and got some M-BY-MC swag.
Want swag? It's available here.
There were group dinners at Fontana Lodge. I, as usual, look completely deranged.
And there were bikes. On this trip, I got to ride a KTM Motard, a Ninja 1000, a Triumph Speed Triple, a BMW R1150R, and a BMW R1150RS in addition to riding my own two bikes.
James, the Mississippi pushboat captain, had also made arrangements to be at the Gap at the same time we were. He let me ride his Motard, which is essentially the motorcycle equivalent of a go-cart. These super light dirt-bike like road machines are by far the fastest through the Gap. I had never ridden one before. "If I total it, I'll replace it." I told him. I should probably have asked how much the bike cost before making that offer. The thing was a blast but took a while to "get".
Riding all these different bikes in such a short timeframe enabled me to learn a few things I don't think I would have otherwise. "To see, you need contrast." I always say. More on that later.
There were moments of silliness. As always the Harleys would show up but they were in significantly smaller numbers this year. I noticed one bike, which turned out to be a customized Suzuki, that had a diamond plate (i.e. steel) seat. "That can't be comfortable." I said to the guy. "It's not bad." he replied. I had to find out for myself.
No front brake. Effect lighting. Metal seat. There's no way to take this seriously. No, I didn't ride the thing.
There were UFOs.
There was waiting. "Delays are proportional to the square of the riders involved."
Seeing Rob suited up and ready to go patiently waiting for the rest of us was a common sight.
In an apparent attempt to see what it felt like, Duncan would, on occasion, be the one waiting.
There were birds. They were angry.
Then they were friendly.
There were interesting very knowledgeable people to meet. This included humbling moments where I learned that I know very little about things I know a great deal about from building fires to riding.
Doug, the crazy goldwing guy, and his wife rode out on our last night there. I had talked to Doug a couple nights before and had wanted to follow him through the Gap. He only rides it at night and is the owner of the UFO bike above. The way he is able to ride that beast of a bike is truly impressive and I sincerely doubt that I have much of a chance of keeping up with him. I had hoped to learn something but the scheduling didn't work out.
Just because someone rides a super sport bike and is dressed in full race leathers does not mean they are fast.
Just because someone rides a Goldwing, or even a Harley, does not mean they are slow.
Books. Covers. This theme would repeat itself a few times.
Duncan, who is a big fan of old two strokes, had been talking to a guy who seemed like he knew what he was doing. I made some comment about wanting to follow him figuring I'd have an easy time keeping up with someone on an antique two stroke.
It turns out he was an old 250 GP racer and may very well have been the fastest most competent rider I've talked to down there. We walked over to the guest bike and he looked at the tires and was able to accurately tell me about the bike and the riding style of the rider. I did not konw that tires could communicate so much. I have much to learn.
There were sunsets, beautiful sunsets.
While the others went on longer riders, I typically stayed at the Gap. For the first few days, I was quite miserable. Whatever had been bothering me the week before came back with a vengeance. By Wednesday it started to clear up and I began to feel better. So instead of venturing far or pushing myself, I mostly helped a few people with their riding. Because Joel's bike was giving him fits and he wouldn't be able to come back to the Gap for a couple of years at least, I spent most of my time with him riding his bike while he rode the 'S.
The Gap is such an incredible place for training. From a practical perspective, motorcycling is all about cornering. There is no place that I know of where one can practice cornering more effectively than at the Gap. It's the reason I go. To practice.
Racers will tell you to practice on a track. But cornering on a track doesn't translate well to cornering on the street. The Gap has some of the most challenging technical corners anywhere. Because it's not a major thoroughfare commuter traffic is very light. Because there are so many motorcyclists, people clean the corners so there's almost no gravel or dirt anywhere.
What I find some compelling about the Gap is that the corners there are much like the kind of cornering you might have to do in an emergency situation. It lets you explore, in a street context, the limits of what you can comfortably do on a motorcycle. I have learned more by practicing at the Gap than anywhere else.
It is also a great place to teach someone how to become a vastly better motorcyclist.
"Yermo has an interesting approach to coaching. Instead of focusing just on what a rider is supposed to do, he focuses on the feeling of the man machine interface and how the rider is feeling internally." Doug had explained to his wife. His memory is clearly much better than mine.
I worked with a number of riders during the week. Slowly, a picture began to evolve. Each rider knew roughly what they needed to do. They knew to grab the tank with their legs, to remain loose on the handlebars and to look through the corners. Each rider could do this flawlessly some of the time. But each rider would lock up at different points.
The Sena's allowed me to ask questions like "How are you feeling?" as they worked through the 318 turns that make up the Gap.
The whole point to a motorcycle suspension is to keep the tires in contact with the pavement. But as the motorcycle leans over it starts to ride up on the side of the tires where the suspension, since it's an up and down thing, is less involved and the flex of the motorcycle, a side to side thing, becomes more important. If the motorcycle doesn't flex in response to the road, the tire will have the tendency to skip or "chatter".
A big part of that flex comes from the fact that the front wheel can turn side to side. Now imagine grabbing onto the handlebars with a death grip and your elbow locked. For one thing, if you try to turn the bike you fight yourself since your attempt to push on one side of the bar will be met by the resisistance of your other arm. It's absolutely classic, "Suddenly the bike didn't want to turn. It felt so heavy." is what a rider will say when they deathgrip. Additionally, by deathgripping the bars in a corner, the ability of the bike to keep the tire in contact with the road surface is reduced. You can force even a sticky tire to skip if you deathgrip enough.
Now consider a rider who can corner comfortably in some circumstances and not others. There are a variety of different corners in the Gap. Some are easy. Many are not.
Joel could do most right corners easily but not lefts. Duncan could do sweepers easily but not the super tight corners. "My bike is best for sweepers, not this tight technical stuff." he would often say.
I would follow riders through or I would lead. I'd ask questions like "What do your hands feel like?". I'd use the analogy that even when the bike is leaned all the way over, you should never have more pressure on the bars than you would have holding eggshells. I would ask them to pay attention to the feel of their hands. "My hands hurt." is a classic sign that someone is deathgripping even when they know they are no supposed to.
And then it hit me. We tighten up our hands and arms to express our tension, our fear. You come into a corner too hot, or maybe there's some obstacle, it doesn't feel right and you become afraid. You immediately grip the bars tightly completely unsettling the bike and making it so much harder to turn. You run wide in the corner or worse, you crash.
Fear expressed as tension makes people crash. Fear expressed as tension is probably the biggest impediment to riding a motorcycle effectively.
"Learn to express your fear, your tension, through your legs." I would say. It's a truly amazing feeling to be able to lean a motorcycle over into a corner and grip the tank with your legs to the point your muscles are screaming and to feel the bike glide through the most challenging corners near effortlessly.
But there is a problem. From an evolutionary psychology point of view, human beings begin to freak when leaned over more than 20 degrees. This is why, when a rider first learns to lean a bike, they always feel like they are leaning so much further than they actually are. To this day, I always feel like the bike is leaned further than it is.
"I have no feeling for how far this bike can lean." John had said. Duncan had said the same thing.
If you fear that the tires won't stick or that you're near the furthest lean angle you can handle, you will experience fear. This fear will get translated into tension. The tension will be expressed through your arms and hands and suddenly the inability of the bike to go around the corner becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy confirming your fears that the bike can't do it.
But, as long as you have a good suspension and good tires, bikes can generally lean much further than one would think. In general, if you aren't hearing hard parts scraping the ground the bike can lean further.
Audrey, when I was working with her, had said she was comfortable leaning a bike because she had ridden with me so often. That gave me an idea.
Words are merely a starting point. When instructing, we focus of what we do, not how we feel. Communicating the internal feeling is the hard part. In motorcycling, in my humble opinion, the feeling is far more important than the what we do. You can learn to ride a motorcycle very quickly as the Motorcycle Safety Foundation courses prove. But, what you cannot learn so easily, is how to avoid letting your fear turn into a crash. If you see gravel in a corner from the middle of the lane to the outside can you comfortably turn tighter even though you are startled? What does it feel like to be startled? What does the bike feel like when you are startled to communicate to you that you are upsetting it's balance?
Rob rode Josh's Speed Triple. This thing is beast, as Yun would say. It has a super tight suspension and is wickedly responsive. Coming back Rob used a brilliant and very insightful analogy that would occupy my thoughts for the rest of the trip. "That front end is so awesome it's like a chatty little girl telling you about every little thing that's going on in it's day non-stop. It communicates so much about every little thing, a fire-hose of information."
Josh let me ride it. Josh had just bought the bike a couple weeks earlier. It was quite the compliment to be trusted to go through the Gap on it. Thinking about Rob's words I paid attention to my own reaction to the bike. It didn't feel right to me. "It feels like the front tire is low." I would think. I had ridden Rob's Ninja 1000 earlier and felt the same thing. Rob proved to me it wasn't the tire pressure. The bike felt unlike anything I had ridden. Communication. It took me quite some time, maybe 200 corners, before I began to understand that I was misinterpreting the feel. What the bars were communicating to me about the road surface, about the position of the bike, about it's handling ability, were causing me to be afraid. That fear, even though I knew better, was getting translated into tension. I could feel it in my shoulders and arms. Because I was misunderstanding what the bike was telling me, I was causing it not to handle well.
The right words were communicating the wrong emotion to me.
It took a while but eventually I was able to force myself to release that tension and express it through my legs and suddenly I got it. The bike started to flow through corners effortlessly chatting at me the whole way.
I've been riding long enough that I know how to do this for myself, but how do you talk someone through that fear point? How do you show someone that it's not the bike but that it's something they are feeling that's causing tension?
It seems to me the only way to do this is to put them on the back of their own bike and show them, two up, going through the Gap.
I took Joel, Duncan and Bruce through.
"I had no idea this bike could lean this far." everyone would say. It takes a great deal of trust and some practice since both pilot and passenger have to work together smoothly to negotiate these corners. I don't understand the mechanism but tension in a passenger seems to also affect handling in corners. Maybe it's just empathy, me being able to feel their tension and becoming tense myself.
After a run through on the back of his bike, Duncan got on the 'S and suddenly he got it. Duncan was riding with a confidence and smoothness through the Gap I had never seen. "Damn that was fun." he would later say. Joel had a similar breakthrough after passengering.
I rode back to the resort with Bruce on the back of the bike.
Coming back there are some really challenging downhill corners. Duncan's bike doesn't decellerate on it's own like the 'S does. In one corner, I got startled as I was about 1/6 of a lane further out than I wanted to be. The bike shook and became a bit unstable for a split second.
"Was that you hitting the brakes?" Bruce asked over the intercom.
"Nope, that's just what it feels like when I get startled and grab the bars. The bike becomes unsettled.".
Communication, feel and fear. The shake, that lack of confidence, is not the machine telling you that it can't do it (in this context, there are certainly others), but instead it's telling you that you are doing something to unsettle it.
We got back to the Gap Resort and Duncan had the biggest smile on his face.
We decided to go out again, this time with Duncan on his own bike. I was saddened when he started to report that it didn't feel right to him. "On the 'S, I could do these corners easily but on this it just doesn't feel right." he would say implying that it was a limitation of his bike. "But remember we did these corners easily two up." I would remind him. The 'S is actually a less competent machine when compared to the K1300S. The 1300 is "sport mode" is communicative while the 'S actually masks more of the road surface. So the 'S feels more planted but is actually less planted than the K1300. "The K13 is such a fantastic bike." I would tell him. Honestly, I have ridden it several times before but it wasn't until this trip that I really understood how to ride it well. Such a great machine.
We went out and back but he still wasn't getting it on his own bike. At the resort, I looked at him. He was tired and normally I would not recommend it but I said, "Let's do a half run, out to the Gravity Cavity and back". I had a feeling.
We went out and it was clear he was still struggling. My heart sank. We talked a bit at the Cavity and made our final run on the final day back. Looking back I made some suggestions about his body position to get him to unweight the bars. I noticed the corners were getting but a bit tight and I was leaving him in every corner. The K13 is the most powerful bike in the group by a wide margin. It's easy to become afraid of the throttle since you can, with easy, break the rear wheel free. But that is mitigated by the traction control system on it. Could his fear be of the throttle. "Try this." I said as I was leading, "The tires will stick. Roll on the throttle a bit quicker."
There was silence and then a "This is starting to feel better."
"Roll on the throttle a bit quicker as you start standing the bike up." I told him.
"If I do that I'll run into you." he said as we were both leaned into a long left hander. I looked in the mirror and to my shock there was Duncan's HID headlight filling the mirror. "Holy shit" I thought as the bike got wobbly because I was startled demonstrating what I've been talking about. We picked up the pace and ran at what Rob and I would call a typical fun pace when we ride on our own.
"Oh this is fun" I hear over the intercom. We had the best run of the day. "Smooth is fast." Joel had said and he was right. When you get it, there's a rythmn, a flow to the road, which almost feels like a dance. It's a wonderful feeling. It's not the speed that matters. It's the flow, the smoothness. When you do it right fast becomes very very slow.
We rolled into the parking lot and you could just see that man and machine had learned to communicate. Duncans smile was infectious.
Of all the trips to the Gap, that was by far the best moment, seeing my friend get it and just clearly having a blast like I have never seen before. I can't wait to go back down to the Gap with him.
Bruce and I would talk about the day later. "So many things from the motorcycle seem to apply to a wider range of things in life." Bruce had said at one point and he's right as I've seen.
When I was a little kid, the old man, a physicist, once explained to me some intractable problem he had worked on as part of this Phd thesis. I was single digit years old and no longer remember the details. But what I do remember is the general idea of mapping physical systems onto imaginary spaces and back again to produce useful results. As a programmer who builds great abstractions as part of writing software, I have made a career out of this.
For me, given the wreckage of my past that I attempt to come to grips with as I navigate the wider world, the motorcycle is in some ways my imaginary space. It is a place where I can by analogy without all the emotional baggage and scarring safely contemplate my being in motorcycle terms and then, later, map that onto my relationship to the world. It is where I mediate. It forces me, just through the sheer desire to survive, to get out of my own head and to contemplate how I interfere with my own being.
And so it was on this trip. So many different bikes. So many feelings mis-communicated which are scary, cause tension and interfere with the fun you want to be having. The same can be said for words in human relationships. So often the feelings understood through words aren't what are intended. Similarly to the way we tend to suspect the machine and not our understanding, when the feelings produced by words cause tension, we suspect the speaker instead of our own emotional reaction. Fear causes tension.
And tension makes you crash on motorcycles just as in human relationships.
I am guilty of this both on the motorcycle and with people, but I'm working on it.
As is the case with any week long trip involving a dozen or so people, there are countless stories and if I tried to tell them all I'd end up writing quite a tome. There were times that were gut wrenchingly funny. There were times that were uncomfortable. There was a clash of cultures of the type I have always feared. There were moments of beauty. There were breakthroughs. There were moments that made me ponder what it would be like if this thing that I do here becomes more popular and whether or not I really want that. There were storms. There was sunshine.
It's not that I was disappointed, but I found it amusing that for all the people I lead through the Gap using the Sena SMH10's, all the while saying "That looks good ... go deeper into the corner ... more throttle ... the bike will lean ... " etc. etc. not a single person asked the question I was waiting for the whole time:
"Yermo, how can you see what I'm doing?"
I had a breakthrough in my own riding on this trip as well and can't wait to go back to practice some more.
And then that sad moment came that we always hate ... the 570 mile ride back home.
Here's looking forward to next year. It is such a pleasure and privilege to ride with you all.
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