When Michael overtook the first car, then the next, then the one after that… and then vanished around the hairpin, I knew two things. First, this was going to be a good ride. Second, we were going to have a great couple of days.
I’ve had that odd feeling of déjà vu so many times on this trip that I’m getting used to it – always when confronting landscapes that seem eerily familiar because I’ve seen them on TV so many times before. Meeting Michael in the petrol station at Sparks, outside Reno, on the California/Nevada border, I get that same feeling – the first time with a person.
You see, I’ve kinda known Michael for about 13 years… but this was the first time we’d met. He was a reader of Bike when I was staff there, when the magazine had a short-lived internet forum. When my friend Paul set up a troll-free lifeboat forum for those he considered pleasant and sane(ish), we both migrated there, then became Facebook friends. When both our marriages fell apart within days of each other last summer, we exchanged messages of support and I promised that, when I got to America, I’d come to California and we’d go riding together.
Which is how we end up on the 431, the Mount Rose Highway, heading to Lake Tahoe. I don’t actually have a clue where we’re going – Michael’s the expert on the roads round here, so I’m learning from him. I wouldn’t say I’m judging him on his road choice and how he rides his BMW R1200RT… but of course I am – it’s what bikers do! However, it’s no real surprise that I’ve been led to the kind of road I love by a man who can really, properly ride a motorbike.
Once we’re past the cars, it’s a fabulous ride up to the 8911ft (2716m) summit and then descending again. It might be August, but it’s cloudy and overcast, so with the altitude I’m absolutely freezing. The views as we descend to Tahoe are fantastic – the broad silver bowl of the lake appearing through the trees. Michael pulls into a layby with an epic vista: “Did you want to take any pictures?” he asks. I shake my head and with chattering teeth suggest we keep going until it gets warm.
We grab lunch in Kings Beach by the lake – it is warmer, but madly busy and touristy. After that Michael leads me north on the 267 and 89 until we pick up Highway 49. Over the next three days, I’ll ride three stretches of it and they’re all quite different but <spoiler alert> they’re all good in their own ways. This first section is simply brilliant: it’s properly Alpine, like the eastern end of the Deutsche Alpen Strasse.
Mr Google tells me this road is called the “Golden Chain Highway” and it’s listed as Highway 49 in honour of the “49ers” who came to California looking for gold. For me, this is gold dust: finding roads like this. The weather takes a turn before I get too carried away… chucking icy rain and hail at us briefly. We shelter in a café in lovely old Downieville until the weather passes, completing a fabulous ride to Michael’s house in Folsom.
I know nothing about Folsom apart from what Johnny Cash told me, but it turns out to be a booming town – thanks to Intel – with a nice historic core. We meet Michael’s friends Bobby and Akime for dinner and persuade them (ahem, it doesn’t take much) to come riding with us in the morning.
I’ve seen so many groups of bikes in America – almost all Harleys, and not just around Sturgis. As the four of us set off on Sunday morning, we make a fabulously diverse, European-style group: my Kawasaki Z1000SX; Michael’s BMW R1200RT; Bobby’s Triumph Tiger 800 XCX; and Akime’s Honda CB500X.
Bobby and Michael have discussed the route and we start with some of their local favourites – tiny back roads with more bends than Uri Geller’s spoon drawer, some serious elevation changes and one or two iffy surfaces. Frankly, there’s no way I’m keeping up with Michael or ex-club-racer Bobby on some of these… with my bike loaded down and the rest of the trip ahead of me, I’m too cautious to turn hard enough or gas it out of turns fiercely enough and I have to watch them gradually pull away.
Another stretch of Highway 49 follows. This stretch is a little busier and more like a flowing British A-road, like the A15 (and it goes past the Glory Hole Recreation Area – I kid you not!). This gets us to Sonora, where we have lunch in a brewery (this is proper touring!). This is where Bobby and Akime turn back, while Michael and I pick up Highway 108 to Sonora Pass.
I have to say, at first I think Michael has lost his mojo. A dual carriageway leading to a fairly dull A-road type gentle climb: worst road we’ve ridden… I should have known better. Soon it’s climbing properly, bolders on one side, views on the other. Mile after fabulous mile. The descent is tighter and dustier, but still absorbing and generally brilliant.
At the end of the pass, we pick up Highway 395 south to our overnight stop in Mammoth Lakes. I’ve messed up the booking and there’s only one bed in the room, so Michael nobly volunteers to sleep on the floor (I did tell him, it wouldn’t be like Planes, Trains and Automobiles…)
Next day we head back north for a few miles before swinging into Yosemite and over Tioga Pass. We’re lucky that the road is fairly quiet and we have a fantastic ride. Yosemite is simply beautiful – especially on a sunny day with a cloudless sky.
Michael has to peel off once we get over the pass, heading home to collect his daughter, while I head into the heart of the Yosemite valley. In its way, it might be the most beautiful of the National Parks: tall pines surrounding grassy meadows and a crystal-clear river, all ringed by spectacular rocky peaks, some bedecked with waterfalls. Everywhere you look, it’s just beautiful – if you can see past the bloody tourists, of course…
Being a bloody tourist myself, I accept that to get the uninterrupted view you want, sometimes you have to wait while other people take their pictures. I’m sure I must wind other people up while I fanny around trying to get the pictures I want. It’s worth the effort in Yosemite: it’s simply beautiful.
After a few hours soaking in the peaceful atmosphere of Yosemite, I leave the National Park and head for a ride I’ve done before. The descent from Groveland to Moccasin is so good, I knew I had to come back and ride it again. I enjoy it so much that, at the bottom, I ride up the old road – the crazy-steep Old Priest’s Grade – and do it a second time.
When I get to the bottom of the hill the second time, though, I have to get moving if I'm going to get to my overnight stop at a sensible hour. I turn left on the 49 again… and am blown away by it again. What a fabulous bit of road: wide, well-finished, with long, sweeping corners and leg-stretching straights that give way to tighter corners and even hairpins as it climbs again. And in the 25 miles I ride, to Bear Valley, I see only three cars going my way (two of whom pull over to let me by). It’s simply fabulous.