I've been riding motorcycles for quite a while as have a number of my friends. In our little circle, I'm often known as the "one who knows the good roads." As soon as I got my license as a teenager, I would wander off in search of good roads to ride. I would stumble across them here and there. Once I found one, I would always return to it especially if I was guiding friends. Who wants to take the risk and lead your friends into heavy traffic, a stoplight nightmare, or some suburban hell or dead end?
Back in 2001, I think it was, Ian suggested we go on a trip down to the area near Ashville to stay with a friend of his and then go tour the scenic waterfalls that area is known for. At this point I had been riding for decades and, believe it or not, had never thought about riding the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had always assumed it would just be more of Skyline Drive. I was very wrong, but this fact didn't cause me to pause and consider the larger error that I was making.
The evening of our arrival, Tom, our host, as an aside mentioned, "Oh, Deal's Gap is only about 100 miles from here."
"Deal's Gap?? The Dragon? That place actually exists?" I replied. I had heard mention of the Gap years earlier in an internet news group called "The Denizens of Doom" or DOD for short. I had always disregarded it as fantasy.
Tom assured me it existed and then in a move very uncharacteristic for me, I implored Ian that we skip the waterfalls and instead ride out to this mythical place. I, of course, feared it might be a tourist trap or not nearly as good as people said.
But I needed to go find out. We rode out to US129 and not knowing exactly which section the Dragon was we just kept going eventually passing a run down looking motel and gas stations on the right. "Was that it?" we wondered. We decided it must be further ahead. And then we hit that first hairpin. By the time we reached the far end 11 miles later, Ian said to me, "We don't need to see anything else. We've arrived." We spent the rest of the day just riding back and forth.
That fateful decision started me down a path that has fundamentally altered the course of my life. In many ways, I often think of the Dragon as the "road that made me".
The most famous road in the area.
After riding the Dragon that first time, I would go on to make a yearly pilgrimage down there to ride it again along with the occasional surrounding road for a week straight. Eventually, I talked my buddies Duncan and Bruce into joining me and we've made the trip down there more years than not over the last 9. The first year, we went down the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a road I never tire of. In subsequent years, we would barrel down the I81 super slab so we could get to our target area quicker.
"There are no better roads than the ones you'll find in the Smokies. I know. I've been all across the country a number of times." I would confidently say completely unaware, as is true of most humans, of the gaps in my knowledge.
As a result of my recurring trips, I've gotten to know a number of people down there. The motorcycling world is, after all, very small. Some that I met had told me of a rider who made his living by finding the best roads around, riding them, and then producing motorcycle maps from that knowledge. These maps covered the Smokies and Blueridge. You could find these pocket maps for sale just about everywhere down there. I bought a few one year at the Deal's Gap Resort. Duncan, Bruce, and I then followed some of the routes. That was the first hint that maybe there was much more to know, but I again didn't ponder the right questions.
Years later, through the persistent efforts of Darryl at Bob's BMW, I was introduced to a man named Jim Ford who runs the Riders Workshop. At the time, Darryl had been hearing me talk repeatedly about the social motorcycle mapping site I was trying to build and he thought I should meet Jim. "Jim knows good roads." he said. Jim takes people on two day mountain riding training tours. He invited me to join him on a ride and we and some other riders spent a day in Northwestern Maryland riding great twisty little roads that were better than any I knew of in the area.
"So close to home. I've ridden past here hundreds of times. How did I not know these roads were here?" I thought.
I told him about my trips to the Gap. "You should meet Wayne down there who runs America Rides Maps." he said.
Small small world. This was the rider I had heard about.
"I'll introduce you. But you should know, he's a very fast rider and he doesn't ride with just anyone."
On our next trip down to the Gap area, Bruce and I met up with Wayne. Our bikes were fully loaded. Wayne was on an unloaded Tiger 800. "We're not fast riders and our bikes are loaded." I said to him. "I'll keep it at a moderate pace." he assured us. He guided us along a road we had not previously encountered that the locals call "The Rattler".
NC 209, "The Rattler" is an outstanding ride from Junaluska, NC to Hot Springs NC. It crosses picturesque valleys, climbs over mountains, and twists along creeks with a nice mix of relaxed and technical riding. Twisty mountain climbs, scenic valleys, historic sights make this one of the most popular rides in an area rich with great motorcycle roads.
It was a wonderfully twisty challenging mountain road. We kept up but it was effort.
"If this is him keeping things at a moderate pace, I don't want to know what an aggressive pace might be like." I remember thinking. His riding was disciplined and never out of control and he had clearly been riding these kinds of roads for a very long time.
We reached the far end and Wayne was all smiles. "I know I said I was going to keep it a moderate pace ... but you guys looked like you were keeping up ok."
A friendship was born.
In subsequent years, we would sometimes visit Wayne and he would take us tours of the area. One year, he gave us a route home based on one of his maps that avoided a good chunk of Interstate and that involved so many corners, literally hundreds of miles of them, that the sides of my tires wore out before the center line did. By the end of that day I was screaming into my helmet, "Make it stop!". So many corners! Such views! The roads were fantastic, and once again we had been riding past them on boring super slab for years just not knowing they were there.
Wayne would say, "If I haven't ridden it, it doesn't go on the map. You can look at a squiggly line on Google Maps and you'll know nothing about the road. You have to go take a look. You have to ride it."
This philosophy appealed to me as it matched in complimentary ways what I've been trying to do here. There are those who advocate "machine learning" and algorithmic approaches to laying out motorcycle routes, but I think the human element is preferable. A rider needs to ride the road and report back about the experience because twisty by itself is meaningless. More over, you need to know something about the rider who has gone out to look at the road. Having a system for qualifying good roads is a key element here. Wayne has a system.
"For a road to go on the map, it also has to be useful. It has to go somewhere, it has to have minimal traffic, and it has to have something special about it."
Beyond this, Wayne considers his diverse target audience when laying out routes. There are roads that are wonderful for the big cruisers with long sweepers and dramatic scenic vistas. There are super twisty little technical roads for the more sport oriented riders. And there's much in between.
As part of the map making process, Wayne will travel out on his bike for several days straight scouting roads for inclusion on the maps. He typically does this alone because its grueling and "most people want to take breaks". He prepares for these trips for weeks in advance, pouring over endless sources of information culling it down to a target list of routes to scout. It's real work. Then, once underway, the work continues as the days are long, exhausting, and he has a set schedule to keep. It's not only about the roads but also about the places to eat and stay. So as part of it he will not recommend a place he has not tried himself. This makes the trips quite a bit more expensive to undertake. "Ride hard, rest easy." is his refrain.
As surprising as it is, Wayne has invited me to join him on the last few scouting trips.
Motorcycling as work. I got back last night and I am sore from head to toe.
This photo pretty much sums up what it's like.
But now multiply that by hundreds and hundreds of miles. We rode nearly 1000 miles of twisty mountain country roads and the more we scouted the clearer it became that there were added dimensions to these maps that were not immediately apparent to me. Many of the roads would start out small and twisty but would suddenly turn to gravel. These are excluded from the street maps. If you're on a big Harley or some BMW K1600GTL you are more likely than not to want to avoid gravel.
While none of the gravel roads we encountered were all that challenging some were a number of miles long. It's disappointing when a good road goes to gravel as it can't be put on the map.
There were other roads that were /fantastic/. They met the criteria of being useful, going somewhere, and having something special about them, but were excluded because ... truck traffic.
Some roads are quite good but are too close to industrial areas so have a steady flow of tractor trailers with the resultant pavement damage and gravel in corners. As a result, these roads are excluded as well.
But to know any of this, you have to go ride the roads.
The days started at 7AM at the latest and I think this was largely in deference to me since I am not a morning person.
Shower. Quick breakfast. Back to the room.
From the time we got back to the room to the time Wayne was ready to go was so short as to be nearly unbelievable. I have never before encountered such an efficient traveler.
Then it was game on for the rest of the day with military like discipline.
The list of roads to scout for each day of the trip had been laid out on the site here using the map editor. I would export the routes for each day and load them onto my Garmin GPS.
There was very little talking. Most of our ride was in silence. Wayne would call out when we approached a "new road". After just a few in a row they would blend together to the point where I wouldn't remember which road had what characteristics. It just became one big blur.
"What was your favorite road today, Yermo?" he would ask. "Ummmmmm. The twistier one?"
Wayne, on the other hand, even at the end of the day after 400 miles of seemingly countless little roads could vividly and accurately remember the characteristics of each individual road. He did take notes at the end of each road but it was very quick. Usually there was just enough time for me to pull a glove off and take a single photo with the phone.
I have heard that taxi drivers in London have to learn something called "The Knowledge". At the end of their careers, all the memorization alters the structure of their brains in detectable ways. I found myself wondering if Wayne's brain has altered in similar ways. His sense of routing, road quality, and how these pieces fit together is impressive.
Over these days following Wayne on roads that were so much closer to home than Deal's Gap a theme started to develop that filled me a bit with a sense of sadness.
Some of these roads in Virginia and West Virginia are as good if not better than the ones in North Carolina and Tennessee that I so confidently called "The Best in the Country". It's stunningly beautiful. Duncan, particularly, likes green tree tunnel roads. There were so many of these on this trip.
What saddened me is to realize how close all these roads are. Duncan, Bruce, and I would stay in Wytheville, Va on our way down to the Gap. We were so close. There are roads hidden in those hills that are crazy good. Both Bruce and Duncan have very limited vacation times. Getting away from family and obligations is a major undertaking.
How much of that precious time did we waste sitting in traffic on the I81? We could have opted to ride roads closer to home that are just as good. More riding less travelling.
But we didn't know. So for years, we just rode right by them going for what we knew and having no way to finding what we did not. I would often look to the West and think, "I should go exploring." and at one point I did. I found a few good roads but missed the fantastic ones that Wayne has found. I guess we could have trolled internet forums or poured over maps but which recommendations do you trust? There's so much bad advice.
But now having gotten to know Wayne and seen up close and personally the system he has for putting together his motorcycle maps, we can now see the areas with the best roads and what useful connector roads there are that avoid traffic and lights and development. We have a source of information at our disposal that let's us ride good roads in an area all day long.
I build mapping software, amongst other things. I've pondered trying to build my own maps of the area here that I know. But it's hard. Look at an area with good roads. Try to figure out the best routes to and from that area. Then find the best roads in the area and how to link them together. Then add to that where to stay, where to eat. Then go out and ride all those roads to make sure none of them are duds. Remember all those details. Then translate that all into a useful format that you can use to make the best out of a 7 day vacation ride.
It's surprisingly not easy.
So when I ride to North Carolina, I just take Wayne's maps:
They have completely changed how I ride in the areas they cover. Interestingly, they have also changed the wear profile on my tires. ;)
Wayne is currently working on the updating his existing maps and adding new ones to cover sections of Southern Virginia and West Virginia. My hope is to lure him up further North at some point in the future.
For more information or to purchase his maps visit his site:
Maps of Great Motorcycle Rides in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Blue Ridge Parkway, Tail of the Dragon, hundreds of great biker roads for motorcycle touring. Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia motorcycle ride maps,