|At Neels Gap, GA, almost finished with the Suches Loop, before I got really challenged.|
Yesterday I passed 7000 miles of riding since I bought my motorcycle last year. I guess 7000 isn't really a milestone, but I did pass it while on a day trip to Suches Loop in the north Georgia mountains. The Loop is 11 miles of winding mountain roads that involves 318 curves, its sometimes called the "Georgia's Dragon's Tail."
I had the day off, and the weather was looking perfect, so I took the opportunity to drive the two hours north of Atlanta to experience the loop for my first time. I went solo, as always, I don't have any close friends in Atlanta that ride. Heading out solo on a motorcycle for any distance away from home always produces some anxiety. But it also creates a real feeling of accomplishment when you get home.
I was a little anxious about this trip. Curves are one of the funnest parts of riding, but also can be the most challenging, especially when faced with back-to-back curves, sloping roads, blind curves around cliffs and through woods, long drop offs, narrow roads, down hill sharp curves, spots of gravel and whatever else the world wants to throw at you. Driving a bike through such roads takes focus and really test the skills of an inexperienced rider. Which is what I was looking for.
Despite the perfect weather forecast, I did decided to take along my chaps and a rain liner for my Kevlar mesh jacket (it provides protection in a slide, but no protection from rain without a liner). It was a good call.
About 30 minutes from my destination, in the middle of nowhere, under mostly blue skies, a cloud decided to open up and dump buckets on me. Fortunately, I could see it coming about a half mile off and was able to pull off on a side road under a tree for some shelter. I pulled on my rain gear and saw blue skies ahead, so I pulled back out onto the four lane state road and continued on.
I hate riding in rain. I avoid as much as possible. Besides just being uncomfortable, its scary. Helmets don't have windshield wipers, so visibility is impaired along with tire traction, and braking becomes far more dependent on the less powerful rear brakes. I've gotten caught out in the rain a few times, but only on city streets. The worst was in stop and go traffic, where I basically just got soaked for an hour. This was my first time riding on a highway at speed in the rain. Fortunately, traffic was light and the road was long and fairly straight.
A few minutes later, the rain stopped and I kept riding until I was dry. Challenge faced and conquered! On to the curves!
I stopped for gas and headed into the mountains, north of Dehlonega, GA. The Appalachian Trail passes through this area. Its mostly national forest and park, lots of green trees, parting for occasional overlooks -- and LOTS of curves.
The first stretch wasn't bad. I arrived at Two Wheels of Suches, a burger joint and camp ground for bikers only. What I didn't know was that the restaurant was only open Friday through Sunday, so I wasn't going to get the burger I had planned on. Having missed my chance for lunch in Dehlonega, I opted for a soda and candy bar from the gas station across the road and figured I'd get food after finishing the loop. There really weren't any other options.
I headed up Wolf Pen Gap Road, the heart of the loop. This is a well maintained, if narrow, two lane road where the curves come fast, with banked roads, steep drop offs, switchbacks, steep dropping curves and lots blind curves. It was challenging, constantly managing the brakes and shifting up and down between 2nd and 3rd gear to manage speed and power as I went up hills, then engine braked on steep declines.
One of the most critical skills of motorcycle riding is managing brakes and turning. Bikes have separate front and rear brakes, which affect the handling of the bike differently, and which must be handled differently in the event of a skid. Braking and turning both require increased traction, and tires only have so much traction to use. You cannot brake hard while turning, that's a good way to wreck. One of the cardinal rules of motorcycle riding is brake before the curve, accelerate (slightly) through the curve. Needless to say, coordinating both brakes, gears and throttle through constantly changing directions and elevations tests ones ability to keep it all upright.
Add in the distraction of cliff faces and long drop offs, plus on coming traffic and you have another issue: Target fixation. One truism of riding is that the bike goes where you look. If you get fixed on looking at something that scares you, like an on coming car as you go around a curve, your body unconsciously tends to steer the bike toward the car... Or off the cliff, or where ever it is your mind and eyes have fixated. This is the mental, and emotion challenge, of riding something like the Suches Loop. In my opinion, its the more critical part of the equation. You must be in control of your mind.
I'm proud to say I managed it all, including a few unexpected things, like spotting a gravel patch at the apex of a downhill set of switchbacks, which I had to navigate around at the last second while avoiding an oncoming car that was very close to the yellow line, with a drop off on my right. A scary moment, but I was impressed with how calmly and smoothly I handled it. Of course, my instant of self-congratulations was short lived because I had to immediately lean the bike the other ways and enter the next curve. Focus.
At the end of Wolf Pen Gap Road, I turned south onto Georgia 19, which is still a curvy mountain road, but wider (three lanes in some places) and most of the curves are not as intense. Following this up hill, I finally stopped at Neels Gap, the top of the mountain, for a scenic over look and to stretch my legs and hips.
|The view from Neel Gap, GA|
It was the kind of rain that you see like a curtain crossing the road ahead. Only I didn't see it until I rounded a curve and it was right there, and I didn't have time to stop. I found a spot to pull off under a tree where it seemed a little dryer to decide what to do.
|Decision time: Wait it out, or make for the blue sky in the distance.|
I decided to ride and face my fear. I knew the real risks were higher than on dry road, but I also knew they were not as high as my anxiety riddled brain was screaming. I had learned, and had some practice, with rain riding techniques and the roads were mostly free of other cars, so I set out.
Ten minutes or so later, I was on dry pavement that hadn't seen a drop all day. I had faced the challenge and over come it.
Challenges come in different ways in life. Riding a motorcycle, like many other things, is objectively a skill that anyone can learn. Taken in progressive steps and with practice, the skill can be mastered. But the real challenge is overcoming your fear. Your mind gets filled with images and ideas of everything that can go wrong, and you think about that, instead of what you need to do to be safe.
I chose to ride the Suches Loop to challenge my fears. I knew I was capable of riding curves. I wasn't trying to take them at full speed or prove what a bad ass I was. I just wanted to prove to myself that I had the skills and experience to take curve after curve after curve, of all variety of sizes, slopes, lengths, diameters, etc. And I did, the small fears of falling, of skidding, etc, that I feel every time I get on the bike were still there, I just had to push them down and focus on the task, like I do every time.
But the unexpected challenge of rain... That brought up a whole other level of fear. I would not have faulted myself if I decided to wait it out. It wasn't what I had set out to do, I had not mentally prepared myself for it, and it wasn't "do or die." I 'm glad I decided to face that fear, too.
There are challenges in life that we choose, like riding the Loop, and there are those life chooses for us, like riding in the rain. But a challenge is a challenge, whether we choose it or not, it is faced the same way: with courage and thought. Courage to acknowledge your fear, and thought to navigate the challenge safely.
The more challenges I set for myself in life, the more easily I find I can overcome the ones life throws at me. And that is how I create an amazing and interesting life for myself.