Staying Safe in the Mountains of North Georgia & Western North Carolina

 

Is that The Stig** next to my motorbike?

ATGATT (All The Gear All The Time) , situational awareness, conspicuity, skill level. No, this is not a soap box diatribe on motorcycle safety, although I completely espouse the aforementioned safety attributes. Rather, this post is a recap and mini-review of a most excellent street oriented motorcycle safety weekend tour put on by a company called Stayin’ Safe Advanced Rider Training.

Those of you not residing in the USA may not have heard of Stayin’ Safe, those here in the States probably have. Started in the late ’80’s or early ’90’s (?) by Larry Grodsky, a witty and sarcastic (I love it!) moto safety guru and author, the program is a on street, real world, real speed, training course to help motorcyclists become more proficient, and thus safer, dealing with riding environments we encounter every time we straddle a saddle. Upon Larry’s untimely death, Eric Trow, lead instructor at the time, took over the company and expanded it to what it is today.

Friday

My gear is packed in my tank bag and drybag, I’m ready and chomping at the bit to get on the road, put miles on my tires, and fully immerse myself in the Stayin’ Safe Training Tour. It’s been a hell of a long winter. My ride today is about 130 miles to the town of Cornelia, Georgia. The tour actually starts just six miles from Cornelia in Clarkesville, a beautiful small North Georgia town that Roo and I visit often. The Super 8 hotel I am staying in is ……………..well, it’s a Super 8, what more is there to say.

Saturday

It’s six AM as my alarm goes off. I jump out of bed anticipating the rigorous riding schedule that Ryan, our instructor for this tour, has on tap for us. I pack up my gear, eat a small breakfast and caffeine up. It’s going to be a long, tough day riding the twisty roads of the North Georgia and Western North Carolina mountains. My Honda NC700XD parallel twin has been warming up and is ready to go. Six miles away is Java Joe’s coffee shop in Clarkesville, where our group will meet up and begin our training tour. It’s 43 degrees at 7:30 AM, but I’m so excited I don’t even feel the cold.

The Group

Surprisingly, everyone in the group starts rolling into Java Joe’s parking lot at the same time. We have five total in this group; four participants and one instructor. Stayin’ Safe Tours are intentionally kept small. Everyone in the group was a “seasoned” rider. At 22 years of riding experience, I was the novice. All the others had started riding before they could walk, rode dirt bikes at Baja when they were five, have owned sixty bikes over the last 10 years, blah, blah, blah. You know the story..

L to R: Joe, Skip, Ryan our instructor was the “baby” at 36, Steve. That’s Skips Yamaha FZ09 they are gathered round.

We came from all over; Joe & Skip trailered their bikes down from New York, Ryan is from Dahlonega, GA., Steve from Atlanta, and myself from South Carolina. A diverse group with the common goal of learning to become better, safer motorcycle riders and have fun doing so. And, as I had hoped, we all got along really well and enjoyed each others company throughout the weekend.

What’s it like?

In a nutshell, Stayin’ Safe Advanced Rider Training is motorcycle safety training in real time at real speeds on everyday roads. Riders receive instruction and feedback via one-way radio from the instructor. Training is broken up into lessons that are “taught” at roadside stops throughout the two day tour, each lesson building on the other. As the tour goes on, every rider gets to lead the group while the instructor gives instruction, tips and positive feedback to the rider in the lead.
A roadside lesson stop

As we warm up in Java Joe’s, eating breakfast (number two for me), and drinking Java, introductions are made, forms are filled out, tour packets are passed around, and Ryan lays out the plan for the next two days. “Be prepared to work, be more prepared to have fun!” he says.

By 9:30 we are on the bikes and heading to a community college parking lot for some slow speed drills and warming up of tires (and bodies). Then it’s off to the mountainous terrain of North Georgia we go. I haven’t ridden in the mountains since last year, so I knew I was going to be a tired puppy tonight.

Ryan started us out easy for the morning session, on nice sweepers as we climbed upward, with Ryan in the lead on his BMW GS1200, followed by Steve on his Indian Springfield, myself on my Honda NC700XD, Skip on his Yamaha FZ09, and Joe bringing up the rear on his Triumph Speed Triple. By lunch time, we had crossed the state line into North Carolina. Lunch was a welcome respite. Information processing and putting that information into practice on mountain roads was beginning to take it’s toll.

Ah! Lunch! Everyone say beagle! (Can’t say beagle without smiling)

Our lunch stop is a very popular moto destination!

 

Look at that smile! This pup was having a field day! Treats from everyone!

After lunch, it’s back on the bikes for the afternoon session. Ryan kept it easy for a little while, letting lunch digest a bit until blood flow gets back to the brain. He coaches us to get our “motorcycle minds” in gear, as we start working on the skills to negotiate the much more technical mountain roads in North Carolina.

Lessons in the afternoon session focus on being aware of potential hazard areas and how to spot them when they are hidden and finding the proper line for optimum sight distance in the many blind curves of these North Carolina mountains.

I am very familiar with the roads here, as this is part of my moto playground on any weekend day. But, Ryan took us down some roads that I never knew existed, or be able to find by myself, except perhaps,from making a wrong turn. And these roads were sick! One and one-half lane roads with no center line and no shoulders makes you stick to an optimum line for maximum sight distance, or you could become a hood ornament. Trial by fire!

By early evening we arrive at our destination for the night, The Oak Park Inn in Waynesville, North Carolina. We’re all tired from a long, just shy of 200 mile day, negotiating mountainous terrain. Park the bikes, clean up, we all pop a beer and hang for a while talking about the day before walking to the Sweet Onion restaurant for a most excellent dinner, compliments of Stayin’ Safe.

Oak Park Inn 

Sunday

Sunday was an early start. Where’s the coffee? Two hard boiled eggs and a Hammer Nutrition bar, then I’m off to Ryan’s room to meet the other guys for a 7:30 AM rider’s meeting and video review of yesterdays lessons. We all had questions and suggestions and ideas about the topics we were discussing. Ryan guided us with questions and scenarios as to why our strategies may or may not be best in a given situation. Like riding, it was a dynamic exchange, ever changing with no hard and fast rules.

After the riders meeting, we suited up, bid farewell to the Oak Park Inn, and headed to a vacant parking lot for some smooth braking practice, and learning how to “push the bike down” as Ryan put it, to execute tight, slow speed turns. It’s counter intuitive, and a bit scary, but once you get the hang of it, it’s really lots of fun and effective!

Back on the road, we headed to Clydes restaurant in downtown Waynesville, for brunch, again, compliments of Stayin’ Safe. Clouds were rolling in, as rain was forecast for this afternoon. The afternoon session was similar to yesterday, albeit shorter, putting into practice what we had learned, but on even more technical roads. By 3 PM we were done. Everyone received a certificate of completion, a patch, decal and pin. E-mails and phone numbers were exchanged as we all said our goodbyes and headed home or to hotels.

Clouds were heavy as I headed south. Looking up at Cold Mountain I could see the summit was enveloped in cloud. As I climbed to the Blue Ridge Parkway, visibility decreased to about 10 feet. I did stay ahead of, and sometimes behind, the rain, but it was very wet and misty going through the clouds. Up and over the top, about one quarter mile down the other side, I burst through the cloud cover. From then on it was clear sailing into South Carolina, practicing the new techniques I learned all the way home.

Thoughts

This is a very well designed on-street safety course that I encourage everyone to take, regardless of how many years riding experience one has. You will be surprised at what you will learn, and what you may have forgotten. This is a thinking riders course, using dynamic mental strategies to safely ride a motorcycle in what can be described as a ever changing hostile environment. It can definitely make your moto riding safer, build your own self confidence, and increase the fun factor to your motorcycle riding.

For more info: Stayin’ Safe Advanced Rider Training:

** The Stig. BBC TV series Top Gear, The Stig is their track car tester and race driver. Nobody knows who he really is (except the producers).

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Hiking, Paddling & Trail Running in the Blue Ridges. Oh yeah,and Motorcycling!

The Blue Ridges

Quiet. Peaceful. Haunting. Beautiful. These adjectives are an apt description of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. The beautiful blue shade one sees in the early mornings is a spectacle worth getting up early for, a result of the sun rising above the horizon and it’s rays bouncing off the clouds that have settled overnight. Hence, the name.

Quiet. An adjective that one cannot use to describe many places anymore. Except here, in the Blue Ridges. You can hear birds singing, the wind rustling the leaves of the trees, a farm dog barking way off in the distance, a cow mooing from a pasture. And you can hear nothing, absolutely nothing, in between. No cars, no phones ringing, no music blaring, no construction noises and none of those damn leaf blowers. This is what Roo and I came here for this weekend: to escape to peace and quiet in an idyllic setting.

Except for one particular sound. The bark of motorcycle exhausts. What, what? The third weekend in July is our moto club’s annual rally in Little Switzerland, North Carolina. Our wonderful mom & pop motel is the Big Lynn Lodge, and it sits right by two of the best motorcycle roads in the East: The Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), and North Carolina 226A; The Diamondback Motorcycle & Sports Car Route.

Friday: Chasing the bigger latitudes

This year we took a different approach to this rally. Roo’s back was acting up, as such she didn’t think it wise to be perched on the pillion seat of a motorcycle. So she drove her car while I straddled my NC700XD and rode to the Big Lynn Lodge. As we were heading to the Blue Ridges, there was only one road appropriate to take us to our destination: The Blue Ridge Parkway. I had a blast negotiating the curves of the BRP while setting the NC’s transmission in auto mode, Sport Level 3 (highest). A stop for lunch at Mount Mitchell State Park, home of the highest mountain peak east of the Mississippi River, then onward as we rode to bigger latitudes and cooler temps. Five hours later, we pull into the Big Lynn parking lot amid motorcycles and our people.

If I did dirt, this would be the bike I’d do it on……. 

After unpacking the car and parking the NC in front of our room, we cleaned up and went out to say hello to friends we hadn’t seen since last year’s rally.

Roo (right) greeting her moto-buddy, Barbara. Barb rides a Yamaha FZ-09

Three members of our club are accomplished Blues musicians, and on the first night of the rally each year they donate their talents to entertain their fellow motorcyclists.

The Alligator Blues Band

They always put on a fantastic show playing and singing classic blues and jazz with a bit of rockabilly thrown in. Awesome!

Saturday: Peace and quiet with Ma Nature

This is the day Roo and I would really decompress. It has been an emotionally and physically fatiguing past few months. The chill out started with the ride up to Little Switzerland on the BRP yesterday. We all know the therapeutic value of riding a motorbike. Seeing old friends, catching up, and a couple of adult beverages got us in the chill groove. Today, Mother Nature would take over.

After a communal breakfast in the lodge, everyone geared up, fired up their bikes, and went out on their respective routes for the day. Except me and Roo. We hopped in Roo’s Nissan Versa and turned onto the BRP. It was 9:00 AM. A beautiful, crisp morning. We drove about ten miles, the only vehicle on the road. We pulled off to an overlook and shut the engine. We heard ………………. nothing. Nothing but the breeze rustling the leaves and birds chirping. It was heaven.

Our first stop was to Linville Falls. Beautiful and breathtaking. We would hike out to the falls overlook, then hike down into Linville Gorge.

On the way out to view the falls, we came upon this very, very old pine tree. The trunk of this pine was tremendous, as you can see below:

Roo the tree hugger

We could hear the rushing water of the falls as we got closer and closer. Just the sound of rushing water is enough to make me relax. Don’t even have to see it. We did, and it was gorgeous.

Linville Falls

That’s a long way down into the gorge, and that’s where we’re headed next. We are a few hundred feet above the falls, and the falls drop another few hundred feet into the gorge. It’s going to be quite the hike, especially climbing back out!

Linville Gorge

Our descent started on this staircase, the only man made steps into the gorge.

It continued on rooted and rock strewn singletrack through rock tunnels like this:

Halfway down, I looked up along side the wall of the gorge and took this photo. The tree gives some perspective of the depth of this gorge, and we were only about half-way to the bottom! Looking up while going down!

Getting closer, we can now see the Linville River, below the falls. We’re almost at the bottom of the gorge!

Finally! We break through some dense foliage and climb around a couple of huge boulders, and we hit bottom! Standing on the banks of the Linville River at the bottom of the Falls.

Some folks were here already swimming in the river.

This photo of Linville Falls was taken from the banks of the Linville River at the bottom of the gorge.

We pulled up some rock and relaxed, just taking in the astounding beauty of this place. After a while, we started the climb back up. Wasn’t as bad as we thought it might be. It pays to be in good physical condition!

Back in the car and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway for our next adventure. Paddling and trail running at Ray Price Lake, right on the BRP. In a very unusual role reversal, Roo wanted to trail run, and I wanted to do the chill thing and paddle on the lake. She changed into running gear and quickly took off down the trail. I rented a canoe and serenely paddled out onto the lake.

Ray Price Lake

What a gorgeous lake. Paddling here in a canoe had me seeing flashbacks to Boy Scout camp as a kid, paddling lakes in Upstate New York.

I came across this beaver dam in a backwater section of the lake. How cool!

Interesting flower.

Photos from amidships

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What a wonderfully decompressing day. Outdoors all day long, a wonderful lunch in a fantastic Italian restaurant in the town of North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and driving the Blue Ridge Parkway for hours. The sun is setting, it’s getting darker on the Parkway, and it’s supper time for critters moving about, as we head back to our motel and our moto buddies.

Sunday: “One more cup of coffee before I go, to the heat in the valley below.” (Bob Dylan paraphrase).

Yes. Heat. Lots of it is forecast for back home in South Carolina. Triple digits worth, topping out at 101 degrees F. But right now, early morning in the Blue Ridges, it is wonderfully cool. Roo and I pack up her car, then head into the lodge for breakfast. Everyone is geared up and wanting to get on the road early. Some have hundreds of miles to travel. We, too, are anxious to get an early start., so I can minimize time spent in the heat and humidity. As soon as the NC’s headlight is tilting downslope, the temps begin their upswing.

Hugs, handshakes, goodbyes, and everyone is heading out. The sound of motorbikes is everywhere. It’s not quiet, but that therapeutic sound is a fitting end to another great rally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riding Through the Land of Waterfalls in North & South Carolina

Here in the Upstate of South Carolina and Western North Carolina, we are fortunate to have numerous beautiful waterfalls as well as breathtaking vistas, thanks to the Blue Ridge Escarpment and the Smoky Mountains. Not to mention (but I will), the best motorcycling roads east of the Mississippi River. But the focus of these words is not about the riding, but about the absolutely beautiful natural surroundings we were riding through.

A few Sundays ago, 30 or so motorbikes showed up at our local meet-up to ride the much anticipated Waterfall Tour. After the pre-ride briefing, we broke up into four manageable groups and headed out on the route, two groups clockwise and two counter clockwise (or anti-clockwise for those across the pond). The group I was in with seven other bikes were making our first stop at Twin Falls, here in South Carolina. The ride through the South Carolina countryside was beautiful. My NC700XD rode flawlessly as we made our way to Twin Falls, a waterfall I had yet to see in my twenty years living here.

Our group on the trail to Twin Falls

After traveling on gravel and dirt roads for about a mile, which I (a street only guy) and my NC did with aplomb, I might add, we parked our bikes and took a short hike to the falls overlook. It was a stunning sight!

Twin Falls

These falls are off the beaten path. There are no signs, so unless someone told you about them or you read about them somewhere, you would never find them. A true back country find if you were hiking!

Mounting up, we rolled back down gravel and dirt and headed north to cross the state line into North Carolina. Looking Glass Falls sits on the main drag on US276, connecting Greenville, South Carolina with Waynesville, North Carolina. As such, these popular falls become very crowded. Visiting as early as possible is one’s best bet to be in the tranquil setting of nature. We did not, and were not. Beautiful just the same.

Looking Glass Falls

By now it was getting near lunchtime. Leaving Looking Glass Falls, we turned southbound to Brevard, North Carolina, riding through the beautiful Pisgah National Forest. Our lunch venue this day is Hawg Wild BBQ, right at the entrance to the Pisgah.

Hawg Wild

A very popular place, especially with motorcyclists. Bar-B-Que is the name of the game here, but they also serve up non-BBQ for those that don’t want to eat what used to be this:

Lunch!

Part of our group

The food here is very good, highly recommended if traveling in this area. Good food, good conversation (i.e. no religion or politics), new friends made with a great bunch of men and women with the common passion of motorcycling. We pushed away from the table, suited up, and off we went down the hill towards South Carolina. A more obscure waterfall was on the docket next; Connestee Falls.

Connestee Falls

Finished with the waterfall sightings, now it was time to look out over the beautiful and stunning vistas that South Carolina has to offer atop the Blue Ridge Escarpment. An escarpment is a geological upheaval of the earths crust. Unlike the formation of a mountains gentle slope, an escarpment, almost literally, juts vertically toward the sky. Riding through the escarpment from South Carolina to North Carolina is a motorcyclists dream. The roads are laid out in multiple, steep switchbacks to accommodate the vertical gain of the escarpment. Going up is fun. Coming back down is Mr. Toads Wild Ride!

Perched atop the Blue Ridge Escarpment is Caesars Head State Park, our next destination. The views from the observation deck are just stunning and absolutely gorgeous.

Caesars Head State Park

The View

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It is a very weird feeling standing on the deck and looking down to see hawks flying below you, above the treeline! Whew!

Still heading southbound, now in South Carolina, we pull over and park to take in the view from another popular place. Graffiti Rock.

Actually, it’s real name is Jumping Off Rock. This huge rock formation is called a bald; a rock outcropping in a mountainside.

Rumor has it that there have been a few non-bungy jumps off the end of Jumping Off Rock. Not sure how true that is, but I have seen a few automobiles that have crash landed at the bottom of the bald. Jumps not withstanding, the view is beautiful.

One final scenic stop before rolling back into the city awaits us. A small waterfall and a popular swimming hole, right by the side of the road:

Wildcat Wayside

After a rain, the small waterfall turns into a torrent of raging water, but not for us today. Still beautiful, and a great place to cool off after a long day in the saddle.

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The riding was great, the group was wonderful, and the natural beauty of our corner of the world was the main event.

 

The New Concept: Everymans & Womans Automatic

As you all know by now, I am enamored with my new moto purchase. My reasons for buying Honda’s NC700XD were many, but basically the decision came down to four criteria: I wanted to downsize from my ST1300, I wanted updated technology, I wanted to re-introduce fun into my riding, and I wanted a unique motorcycle. Unique you ask? It looks like any other adventure/enduro bike out there. Ah, but the uniqueness is in the technology, not what the eye can behold.

Honda built this bike to appeal to a new generation of riders, while also appealing to experienced motorcyclists. The NC in the designation alludes to the name New Concept, where Honda has introduced a few new concepts to the motorcycling community. Let’s look at a few:

Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT)

This is the heart and soul of the NC. The DCT is an automatic transmission with a drive mode and three sport modes. In drive mode, the transmission upshifts quickly, getting into 6th gear by 40 MPH.This is ECO mode, where the best fuel economy is generated. I have been getting about 65-70 MPG in this mode. Switching to Sport modes 1,2 &3 causes the transmission to upshift later, holding the revs higher before shifting. Sport 3 in the twisties shifts spot on for me.This is not a scooter Constant Velocity Transmission. This is a computer controlled double clutch system, similar to what is found in some of Honda’s automobiles. If the engineer in you would like a techno-geek description of the DCT, find it here.

 Neutral, Drive, Sport: Right handlebar array

For enticing new riders to the sport, this is a godsend. For experienced riders, speaking from my experience, not having a clutch lever and foot shifter to deal with has actually enhanced my brains ability to focus more on situational awareness while riding! This can be a huge safety factor!

Look Ma, no clutch lever!

Behind the right handlebar is a trigger, which allows you to move from automatic mode to manual mode and back again. Once in manual mode, you are in full control of gear selection. The trigger and push button for shifting in manual are on the left handlebar array:

Trigger with index finger to upshift on front of left handlebar (note +)

Push button with thumb to downshift on back of left handlebar (note – )

Paddle shifting in manual is a blast, and super fast! There is no need to roll off the throttle to match gearing with engine speed, as the computer does this for you. Not having to disengage, foot shift, and engage the clutch has made my riding in the mountains here more fun, more relaxed, and safer, allowing my brain to focus on setting up for each curve. Only thing that moves while shifting is my index finger and thumb. Fantastic!

Some naysayers may say, “Nah! A real motorcycle has a clutch lever and foot shifter. I wouldn’t be caught dead on one of those scooter things.” Whatever. 

This is Honda’s third generation of the DCT. So sure of it’s performance is Honda, they have even put it on their groundbreaking ADV bike, the Africa Twin. Reviews from dirt enthusiasts (not me), have been overwhelmingly positive about the DCT’s performance off road. Both the NC and Africa Twin are also available with the standard clutch lever and foot shifter. For me, I don’t miss traditional shifting at all, except when I find myself “ghost” shifting my left hand and foot! But that too, shall pass.

Africa Twin CRF1000L

The Frunk. Can you do the frunky thing?

No, it’s not a Cool & the Gang song. The frunk, according to the NC 700X community, is a term used to describe the front trunk. That piece of motorbike that sits in front of the rider is not what it seems. Where the traditional gas tank would be is a huge storage bin; a front trunk or frunk.

This thing is cavernous, having 22 liters of storage space that can hold a full face helmet. After putting everything that was kept permanently on the ST; air compressor, tire gauge, sunglasses, tire repair kit, tools, assorted sundry, there was still more than half the capacity available for more stuff! Who needs a tank bag!

Easy battery access is also through the frunk. I have a SAE lead and USB lead attached directly to the battery that stay concealed in the frunk. When I need them for GPS or battery charging/heated gear I just lay the leads over the side and close the frunk lid. Convenient and clean. Frunky, huh?

The gas tank is under seat with the filler neck under the lockable pillion seat. This may be the only minor, and I mean very minor, fueling inconvenience when traveling with a drybag on the pillion. I tried it with a loaded drybag, tent, and camp chair Rockstrapped to the pillion seat. Simply loosen the Rockstraps, slide the bag, tent, chair as a unit onto the driver seat, open pillion seat, fuel, close pillion, slide gear back and tighten down straps. Easy, peasy. With a 200+ mile range between fill ups, it’s no big deal.

This motorcycle has re-kindled the FUN factor in my riding. Weighing in at 200 lbs. less than my ST, with a super low center of gravity, handling this machine is a breeze. She is quick, stable, nimble in the tight twisties, and instills tremendous confidence in my riding ability. Even if you would never dream of throwing a leg over a Honda, just for giggles & grins, test ride one of their DCT models. You may become a believer!

The Virgin Ride

This morning, with great anticipation, like a kid on Christmas morning (didn’t get any sleep last night either), I took the NC out on a proper maiden voyage. It was a gorgeous, sunny and cool morning, which unfortunately gave way to clouds and precipitation. But I was able to get in 120 miles, and a few photos before it started pissin’ rain.

So, how was the ride? OMG sheeeiiittt! This thing is the bomb! Some adjectives: Awesome (overused), FUN, FUN, FUN, flickable, quick (power to weight ratio is superb), light, nimble, planted, did I say FUN yet?

With the transmission in automatic, I played with switching from ECO mode to Sport modes 1,2, & 3, each mode allowing the rev range to go higher before upshifting. Then switching the tranny to manual, and paddle shifting super fast up and down the gears (6 speed) without ever having to roll off the throttle between shifts! Super fun! I’ll post a more complete ride review as I get some miles on this 700cc parallel twin.

Our Miata looks happy with it’s new stablemate

In a future “quickie” post, I’ll showcase the NC’s attributes that make it truly a New Concept machine.