Running Curves

Riding pix by Jack Chou

Old Route 66 runs past my front door as it twists over the Black Mountains in northwest Arizona. This stretch of the old highway is 34 miles of hairpins, decreasing-radius bends, and blind curves; prime pavement for a fast-handling 500 Single. I started out westbound on the 25-mile run to Topock, nice and easy, getting warmed up.

The road winds out of the mountains and turns south along the edge of the range, curving in and out of all the washes and ravines cutting across the desert. A typical set runs left downhill into the wash, curves to the right, up the opposite bank, then hard left again heading to the next cut. Each set is different, and there are some extras thrown in, like a blind rise where the road zigs left and leaves an airborne rider to a hard landing in the rocks. In a recent 18-day stretch there were two serious motorcycle wrecks and one rollover down that way - it's a tough road, and full of tricks.

So at first I took it easy, leaning the Blast through the curves, testing the brakes, looking for fixed hazards like sand slicks and rocks in the road. The motor was drumming along, and it felt good to be out in the morning sun and the wind. I could smell flowers and the resin scent of the desert. The bike's response made me happy and confident. By the time I turned around at Topock I was ready to step it up.

Coming back I hit the curves faster, kept the revs up and made the engine roar. I hit a few tight ones too fast, but a little pressure on the brakes and a little more lean kept me out of trouble. The bike felt taut and resilient over the bumps, well connected to the road. Smack the shifter, roll the throttle, roar on to the next set.

When I got back into Oatman I was wide awake and ready for more. The road changes here, hugging cliffs and heading in and out of canyons on its way over Sitgreaves Pass. The worst hazards are not fixed, but pop up around blind curves like targets at a SWAT range: wandering wild burros, short-cutting semis, and terrified RVers taking their half out of the middle. Vehicles over 40 feet are prohibited.

But there are fewer wrecks over these next nine miles. The road is less tricky, the dangers more obvious. I took the curves easy, back in scouting mode over the range to Cool Spring Station out on the open desert. After the fast run from Topock I had confidence in the Blast's back road ability, and felt comfortable swooping around the bends.

On a long easy right-hander I let the bike run, happy to lean, and suddenly felt my right foot buzzing. At the Station I got off and hopped around on one leg checking my boot. Sure enough there was a chunk out of the outside edge, and the foot peg was a little scraped. It was only the first of several; cornering g forces press the bike down on the suspension, and the pegs drag before the tires start to slip. I reminded myself to keep the big feet well inboard, and gave the motorcycle a once-over. The run back would be a little harder.

Meanwhile the big red Coca-Cola semi was heading my way on a shortcut over the Pass.

I picked up the pace on the way back, still leaving enough leeway for the unexpected. I was leaned over in a blind left around a cliff when the Coke truck stuck its big red nose out at me, running wide and about to take my head off. A flick of the bar and the Blast snapped to the right on a new line out of the fool's way. Not a quiver, just instant precise obedience. The "real thing" passed like a red flash.

That perfect emergency response raised my confidence in the motorcycle and my adrenaline level. I pushed it harder, rolling it fast from lean to lean in a rapid-fire series of tight esses, faster almost to violence, and when the curves opened I kicked it up and blasted open the throttle, racing the engine up to a fine deep-throated howl, and laughing like Death on a day off. Perfect.

That satisfied me for one day. But now I had to know: how fast is too fast?

The Cyclone

I hadn't ridden a Buell motorcycle before this, and the design of the Blast impressed me; so thinking anything worth doing is worth overdoing, I rode up to Las Vegas Harley-Davidson/Buell and rented a 1203cc M2 Cyclone V-Twin for 24 hours. Cost: $96.

At first I was intimidated by the bike's size and reputation. The clerk's voice was quivering as he pointed out the controls, and when I mentioned power, his eyes rolled toward Heaven. But it's just a matter of control; the power is tractable, brakes excellent, and by the time I got out of the parking lot I felt right at home. In the crazy Strip traffic it was like a 10-speed with 80-horsepower legs. What a dream.

I immediately aimed it over the mountains west of Vegas, into the vast deserts between the city and the Sierra 160 miles away. Out there speed cops are as rare as Mounties. I found myself doing 100 as soon as I got out in the open. On a back road barely wide enough for two cars I was comfortable at 80. After a while I came on a wide 2-lane with long lazy banked curves, and rode at 90 to 100 with several runs to 110. The bike was so steady at speed it was like hitting a Fast Forward button.

They say it's good for 125, and I wanted to wind it right out, but had too much motorcycle and not enough road. As it was, the wind at 110 pulled the silk scarf right off my neck. I was too hyped on speed to go back for it.

After sundown we rode across Hoover Dam and headed for Route 66. The plan: Cyclone versus Blast; same road; same rider.

Early next morning I got up and rode the Cyclone 50 miles to Topock and back to warm up the engine and tires. I also got my a.m. adrenaline charge and some hi-test for the bike. Then on to Cool Spring Station for the timed run back over the range.

I rode the bike as hard as I could, hard on the brakes, gearshift, and throttle, levering it back and forth through one turn after another. The Cyclone has tremendous reserves of power, but it had no room to stretch its legs here. It just ate this road for breakfast. Time over 8.5 miles 12:30; average 41 mph. At a relaxed pace the same run takes 18 minutes, so it's more a test of handling than power and speed. After the run my wrists, arms, and shoulders felt tired from wrestling the big bike over such a tight course.

A few days later I did the same run on the Blast. Again I rode as hard as I could, and I found myself pushing some of the bike's limits: fast high-rpm shifts missed with a whizzz; pegs dragging; the bike airborne off bumps with the suspension kicking back out to the stops before landing. The precious stability was still there, though; the bike wasn't upset, but that kind of riding belongs on a closed course, and the bike was ranging out of its element.

Handling was still fast, light and precise, and when the Dunlops hit the road they held it. The bike's agility and powerful brakes let me throw it around turns hard enough to almost bottom the springs. When I pulled in, my hands were shaking. I wasn't tired, though; the Blast was far easier to handle than the Cyclone, and I could ride like that as long as my luck held out. Time 12:05, average 42.2 mph. At that, I had to get around four slow-moving tourist vehicles; on a clear road I think it would've beat the M2 by a full minute.

"Horses for courses", no?

Joy in Motion

This road is my "home stretch", and I ride it often. Once I learned the Blast's strengths and limitations I began to relax and enjoy it to the fullest. I knew I could trust it to the limit of smart riding and beyond, and I seemed to ride faster with less effort. No worries - whizzing fast around curves, leaned over, pressed deeper into the saddle by the g force of cornering, the bike tracking like it was swinging on the end of a string. Bring it up, smooth brakes, downshift, lean it way over and gun it through another one, engine thumping, growling, roaring and howling, the road flashing by in a blur, hunched over the bar shooting curve after curve like a rider-guided rocket.

The Blast was in its element, and on a twisty back road its combination of speed, handling, and perfect control is joy in motion.

Exiting 20 mph esses at 50, with plenty of lean to spare.
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