In which our correspondent undertakes the California Curvin’ tour from Leod Escapes.
The omens were not good. The Ducati coughed into life, immediately emitting a small cloud of oil smoke from around the crankcase - and then spat a screw-bolt out onto the tarmac with an air of disgust, as if such basic parts were not worthy of such a thoroughbred. But after some intervention from Mo, our man at the Eagle Rider rental shop, we were soon on the road and on the way to Alice’s Restaurant, San Francisco’s famous biker haunt nestling in the hills some thirty miles to the south.
We four (Hartley & his wife Christa from Houston/Holland, Christian from Melbourne/Houston and myself) had flown in from Texas the day before, and headed straight for the 47 Hills Brewing Company, just around the corner from our hotel in the San Bruno district of San Francisco. As a keen home-brewer, Hartley’s habit of making a beeline for the local micro-brewery was to become a staple feature of our tour, and this first one set a high standard. The location might not have been great, being next to a cement works, but a couple of pints of The Decoy went down nicely just before we were startled by the first of many fast passenger trains zooming by a few yards away. Plane spotting became the next activity as we tried to identify the many airliners climbing close overhead, having just left the nearby San Francisco International.
The tour’s first official day was a big one, and involved leaving the city by the double-decker Bay Bridge which takes you east from SF and onto the true mainland. I was hoping that the San Andreas fault didn’t choose this particular moment to let go – we’d all have been crushed like a bug. All the bikes had pre-programmed Sat-Navs on board, but even so I was glad to be led by the experienced Christian as we made our way out and along the very busy roads around Oakland. Away from the seemingly constantly foggy coast around San Francisco, the temperatures soared. The first of many coffee stops was made and then we hit ‘the valley’, the broad and fertile plain where high density agriculture rules and almost any crop you can think of is harvested.
Guessing the crop became a mind game, and was helped by the samples spilled from trucks at the ninety degree bends onto bridges negotiated to cross the local swollen rivers, whose waters are so vital in this arid region. The lunch stop was taken at the strange little town of Copperopolis, a brand new place designed to look and feel old. It did have a certain charm, and was my first experience of the very high quality of service and of food here in the US. Salads soon became a favourite, washed down by ice-cold lemonade, the glass often being replenished by the attentive waitress. This comes at a price though, and the customary 20% tip on top soon had me re-examining my budget. The good news is that petrol or ‘gas’ is cheap compared to the UK. Even the Californian prices approaching $3.50 per gallon (around £2.40) is less than half our price at home, and this is much more expensive than petrol elsewhere in the USA, as I saw in Texas.
I was suffering in the heat, unlike the Texas residents riding alongside, and so was grateful as we started the climb onto the Sonora Pass (at over 9,600 feet) which would take us across the mountains to our first night’s accommodation at Lake Topaz, just across the border in Nevada. Although not so grateful when Christian took us on a detour on some really remote and high back roads, where an oncoming pick-up truck passing me on this single track road had me ‘puckering’. At 6ft 1, reaching the ground on the XR was always a stretch, and stationary, I made sure that my right boot didn’t slip and send me cascading over the edge to the drop far below, inches away.
The hotel at Topaz was fine, but the only place to eat was in the casino a five minute walk away on the lonely road climbing past the lake. Eating a dinner while listening to Vivaldi in, basically, a glorified amusement arcade is a memory which will stay with me, although I doubt that I will take the tip offered by the old timer at the bar, who told me to bet the ranch on the Seahawks winning the next Superbowl.
The next day saw us heading south west over both the Monitor and Ebbets Passes, and back over the Carson Pass. This was High Sierra riding at its very best, with well surfaced roads, clean soft air and absolutely spectacular views over the surrounding Stanislaus National Forest. There is always the conflict between taking in the views and, more importantly, reading the road ahead. I did have one scary moment when taking a blind right hander, hugging the mountain side. Loose rocks and scree can spill onto the road anytime, and it became etiquette for the lead rider to point out such with his boot. Somehow under the dappled light I missed seeing sand right on my line, and my front wheel skipped sideways about 6 inches before the Bridgestone gripped again. This gave me a real scare and made me much more conservative on these twisties from then on. The gold rush town of Murphys was truly charming and followed our descent through the lovely Bear Valley.
Lake Tahoe was our overnight destination. It’s a very busy resort and something like Windermere on steroids. We had a stroll down to the lake to watch the sunset, and were well fed at the California Burger Company just near the hotel, dining al fresco and being entertained by a pretty good band. The leggy blonde waitresses in denim shorts weren’t too shabby either, and made a happy man feel very old.
Tuesday saw our little group ride around Lake Tahoe, cross the high mountain terrain once again and, after lunch in the excellent Pangaea pub in Quincy, eventually wind up back in the valley at Chico, where my abiding memory is of the intense heat and jumping into the outdoor pool within minutes of arrival, surely the only way to really suck the heat out of your core. The next morning we rode north to Red Bluff and onto the famous Serpent To The Sea on Highway 36, which famously boasts 1811 curves in its 140 miles. Great fun, especially for the three locals on serious sports bikes who blasted past us within minutes of the start point. We had to drop down to Hayfork for fuel before continuing to Fortuna.
The motel at Fortuna served as a base for the many forestry and road repair crews in the area. Luckily, the Eel River Brewing Company is based here for more great beer and food, but initially I had thought that I’d walked into a casting session for the Village Peoples’ YMCA video - more hard hats, plaid shirts and dungarees than you could shake a chainsaw at.
By now, we were quite close again to the Pacific coast. We set off early the next morning to have the huge redwoods on the Avenue of the Giants all to ourselves. Gualala was our base for the final night on the road where our rooms, virtually on the beach, were a real treat. The Pacific Coast Highway was our sinuous and foggy companion for the final run back to base in San Francisco. As so often happened on the tour, major road works once again made progress slow, with the usual escort vehicle leading traffic through the contra flows. Your only option is to switch off, kick the side-stand down and rest your body for 15 minutes. Repairing the roads which traverse the inhospitable landscapes we had seen is often a major undertaking, clearing landslides and repairing bridges with huge drops alongside - I can hardly imagine how hard it was to lay these roads in the first place, but I salute the men who did, making this terrific route possible.
BMW R1200RT – I’m sure his name is a typo, such is his allegiance to his Harley Davidson, but Hartley was impressed with the RT. He found the gear lever’s location odd at first, but soon came to appreciate the bike’s nimbleness and surefootedness, even fully loaded and two-up on the twisty mountain roads. He was very impressed by the bike’s sophistication and comprehensive accessories, but felt that the engine was slightly rough at Highway cruising speed. I suspect that it simply needed a good service and the injectors/throttle bodies carefully balanced between the two cylinders, crucial on these boxer engines. Both he and Christian, a fellow HD owner, still insist that something like the Street Glide is the best tool for touring the USA, its comfort ensuring that knees never ache and that 500 mile days are entirely possible. I may well come to believe them.
DUCATI MULTISTRADA – Once on the road, a big problem came to light with the Italian temptress – rolling on the throttle at around 3,000 rpm produced one of three outcomes, totally randomly; a backfire, a lurching hesitation or taking off like a scalded cat. Christian’s only way round this was to keep the thing revving, by selecting either one or even two gears too low for the prevailing road conditions. A fellow Multistrada owner we met high in the Sierras reckoned that this, being a rental bike, had missed out on the vital air-box and mapping updates which would have cured this. Although the bike was beautifully balanced and had superb brakes, various other niggles with the luggage system and the keyless ignition made Christian reluctantly take it off his next-bike short list, where it had been for some time.
BMW S1000XR – My bike had done 30,000 hard rental miles, and they were beginning to show, although I can see why bike journalists rave about this machine. Slinging a detuned version of their mighty World Superbike engine into a dual-purpose chassis was a good idea. My only real issue was the one about which I had read so often – a strong tingling in the bars. A pair of foam ‘grip puppies’ might have helped a little, but your hands really do suffer and begin to lose sensation quite quickly. Because the XR is so low geared (pulling exactly 5,000 rpm at 70 mph in top), it’s impossible to ride around this problem. It really could pull two more gears, although I suppose you could always fit a smaller rear sprocket, something not normally possible on BMW’s traditional transmissions. Of course the upside of this is that the bike’s top-gear roll-on is brilliant, the motor sounding like an F1 car taking the Monaco tunnel as the tacho climbs pass 6k. My left hand switch gear died three days in, leaving me with no indicators, trip, main beam or horn, which made me feel a little vulnerable in traffic, and there was a glitch with the overheating warning light. Not good enough on a quality brand. BMW have rationalised their output in recent years with great success but I can’t help feeling that they left a large hole where the K1200/1300S once lived.
I’ve come to realise that a large part of the pleasure of tours like this comes from beforehand - where poring over maps and road books and reading exciting and strange place names give a wonderful sense of anticipation - and afterwards, when looking through the photographs evokes strong memories which will last forever. I’m sure that even the most devoted biker will admit that sometimes riding looks more fun than it actually is. You know, big days with another hundred miles to go but your backside is already numb, your eyes are tired, your knees and shoulders are hurting, sweat has cooled and is now making you shiver. Of course, these feelings are interspersed with the good stuff, the sublime, when you are completely in ‘the zone’, rider and machine one entity, seemingly controlling the bike by telepathy, the wheels rolling and pushing the planet backwards beneath. It’s this that keeps us hooked and coming back for more. Leod Escapes planned a great tour, and offer many others in various countries. Cat and Nancy MacLeod would love to tailor one to your exact needs, so give them a call and make some memories for yourself.