Spring is here, and with it another year of great California riding weather. As the temperature warms the mountain curves are rapidly filling with motorcycles. Riders of all styles take to California’s gorgeous mountain routes to escape the heat, gaze over the stunning vistas, or just enjoy the thrill of canyon carving. Unfortunately, these favorite roads are not dedicated to motorcycle use. Instead, they are filled with commuters busily piling home from work and with commercial vehicles servicing the growing mountain communities. For far too many riders, this traffic makes a deadly mix. However, a few basic safety tips can dramatically reduce your chances of becoming another statistic.
Practice your lines
Motorcycles have the ability to carve fantastic turns at exhilarating speeds – when well ridden. In the hands of less experienced riders, motorcycles can chop in and out of turns like a drunken sailor; sometimes leading to disastrous collisions. If you’re not racing in the AMA, your riding has room for improvement. Cutting clean, and safe, lines around hairpin double blind turns on narrow roads covered with gravel while competing with unseen hazards provides a serious challenge. Don’t wait until you’re on the mountain to learn how to ride well.
Watch for hazards
Mountain riding provides a number of special challenges. Poorly maintained roads are often filled with potholes or strewn with gravel from the snowy season. Potentially worse is the possibility of meeting another car or rider – in your lane! It happens more often than we like to think. On tight twisties, there may not be room for correction. Even if you’re merely out for a cruise, you might find yourself the victim of someone else’s carelessness or inexperience. Often it’s other riders that pose the greatest danger to motorcyclists. Many accidents have been caused by one rider coming down a hill and another going up, both on the same side of the road.
Mulholland Drive, Highway 18, and the Angeles Crest Highway are not speedways. There are no hay bales lining the side. The road is not smooth and gravel free. The traffic is not all going in the same direction, and there is a giant cliff off one side of the road. So, don’t treat a mountain ride like a day at the track. It doesn’t matter how fast your bike is or how good you are at taking a turn, you simply never know what’s ahead. The unpredictable nature of mountain riding makes speed trials an especially bad idea. Even the most skillful riders cannot see around blind corners. If you’re going too fast to adjust for an obstruction, there aren’t many options on mountain curves. Do yourself and other drivers a favor and slow it up a bit. Focus on technique rather than speed. Practice proper body position or think about improving your corner braking.
Know your bike
Regardless of the style of bike you’re riding, it’s critical that you understand its operation and limitations. Even if you’re straddling the greatest sports bike ever built, it’s not invincible and cannot defy the laws of physics. Likewise, just because you’re riding a tourer, cruiser, commuter or other motorcycle at speeds well under the posted limit does not mean you’re danger free. In fact, just standing on the side of the road can get you hit by an inattentive or out of control motorist.
To stay safe, you absolutely must know the performance limits of your bike. You never know when you’re going to be forced to drastically tighten up your turn or stop suddenly. Understanding how long your bike takes to stop, how far over you can lean without slipping a tire or dragging parts, and how your front forks handle sudden braking is critical to dealing with emergency situations. This is true on every ride, but the mountains have a special way of challenging your skills.
Expect the unexpected
This little bit of clichéd advice will save your life. It’s not just the usual suspects that can kill the fun of a mountain ride. Sometimes things that should have worked out better turn upside down quickly because of the unexpected. It might be a lowside slide from which the rider could have walked away; except for the fact that the guardrail on that section of highway hadn’t been replaced in years and could not hold. It might be that delivery truck blocking the road rather than pulling into a steep local driveway. Or it might be that oncoming driver who misjudged how tight the turn was going to be. Whatever the case, the narrow sharp turns of most mountain roads add complications capable of turning routine problems into deadly ones.
It’s one thing to talk about the need to exercise an extra helping of caution while running California’s mountain roads. But the real impact comes from seeing what happens when you don’t. Below I’ve compiled a short list of YouTube links that provide a compelling demonstration of the results of careless mountain riding. Pay special attention to the fact that many of these riders are fully geared up, increasing their odds of walking away from their accidents.
Warning: These videos contain mild offensive language and footage of severe accidents; view at your own risk.