My trip to the Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap
I got to the Tail of the Dragon after two full days on the Blue Ridge Parkway - which frankly is an amazing bit of road. It runs from Rockfish Gap in Virginia right down to Cherokee in North Carolina. Before setting off, I'd mentioned that I was going to ride the Tail of the Dragon to my friend Bob, who sucked his teeth and shook his head: there are other roads down there that are better, he told me...
I was straight out on the first of those: Highway 28, the Moonshiner 28. Now, I have to say, at the time this was an instant contender for the title of "best road I've ever ridden". Wide, immaculate tarmac laid down in an irresistible series of tight turns - mostly forgiving, but mostly just past 90° with the kind of long radii that encourage running in deep and then turning hard for the apex, driving hard to the exit and repeating.
I was following a couple on a BMW K1200GT and they were going well - very well. With my instructor hat on, I was a little concerned that the rider never went very ride when setting up left-handers - seemingly making up for accuracy with bravery - but the tarmac was so grippy that the bike just went round, apparently without terrifying the pillion, even if it was scaring me. I backed off and let them get ahead a bit, then caught them up, then did it again.
Reaching Deals Gap, I rode straight past the "Motorcycle Resort" - straight out onto the Tail of the Dragon. This 11-mile road packs in a preposterous 318 corners - and they're rarely gentle sweepers (in fact, the time-lapse video makes it look a lot straighter than it actually is). My first run was steady - mostly because I had a gigantic pickup in front of me, encouragingly liveried as a recovery vehicle... That was fine: this was just getting a feel for it.
This is a madly twisty road. Imagine the twistiest road you know in Europe. It's twistier... Honestly, from the Pyrenees to Liguria to the loopy roads in the hills inland of Tarragona (never mind the Cat n Fiddle), this is the craziest collection of corners I've ever encountered, some of them with extreme cambers and one or two with cracked or patched tarmac.
It's helpfully pegged out with mile markers, so once I was past mile 11, I stopped, set up the GoPro on the back of the bike and waited as long as I dared to get the biggest gap of empty tarmac in front of me, then set off. I had a good, clear, uninterrupted run for most of it (and the one car I caught helpfully moved out of the way, as did one of the bikes I caught).
I have to say, it's a brilliant ride. Taken at your own pace (ahem, clearly that's within the marked 30mph limit... yeah, right) the corners flow naturally and easily into each other. It's easy to see how it can catch people out, though. Go into one corner just a little hot and you're instantly wide on entry for the next corner: if you don't scrub that speed off, the problems will escalate and in two more turns things could get very nasty. Though not at my steady-away pace (I have the full touring fat suit of luggage on the bike, after all). It's a tiring road to ride - not just because of the physical effort required to flick the bike from side to side all the time but also because of the climate: it's so hot and humid, and there's so much concentration required to move at anything over walking pace, that it's draining.
This time, when I get to Deals Gap I do pull into the parking lot. I get off the bike and take a few pics. I quite like the sculpture of the dragon, but it's the infamous Tree of Shame that is the somber one: a large tree festooned with bits of broken bikes, left by those who crashed on the Dragon. As I'm taking a pic I hear one guy tell his friend that on the other side are memorials to those who died on the road... Glad I didn't hear that before riding it.
I go inside for a burger (surprisingly reasonably priced and very tasty) then wander into the shop. I buy a sticker for my toolbox at home. Even though I've been here and done it, I don't buy the T-shirt, though... More importantly, I buy some chain lube and head out to give the bike some much-needed love. Poor beast's done without it since getting here as I haven't seen any in the garages along the way.
From Deals Gap I head south on the 129 towards Robbinsville - a fabulous ride, though for one stretch I'm stuck behind a convoy of Harleys doing 35 in the 55mph limit. I pass as politely as I can and leave them to it. At least they're out on their bikes having fun. I'm having fun, too - because at Robbinsville I turn onto the road that overtakes the Moonshiner 28 to be the best road I've ridden so far. Possibly not just on this trip, either...
The Cherohala Skyway is one of Bob's recommendations and frankly it's brilliant. It's a lot like some of the better roads in the Pyrenees or the Picos de Europa - but with even less traffic. In the first 10 miles I don't see a single other vehicle in either direction. I stop at an information point, warning motorcyclists not to get carried away - also noting a sign explaining that this area has flying squirrels, which can't quite glide across the road, so there are telegraph-type poles along the route with projections to give them enough of a launch pad to clear the tarmac. Ain't nature wonderful...
Anyway, I set off again. Trying to keep things steady but, largely, failing. This is another of those roads with a grippy, unspoilt surface and a collection of forgiving turns like a selection box of the world's greatest corners. They're all easily read - often with a helpful advisory sign recommending a speed. Tests have shown that the posted speed on these signs - be it 20, 25 or 30mph - is a good guide to the correct speed for the turn. Take that number and double it: that's pretty much the optimum speed for the corner, if you're riding spiritedly. I assume these posted speeds are based on the idea that you might come round a corner to find a cartload of Amish in a horse-drawn buggy, or possibly a bear, somewhere on the road but the sightlines are so good there was never a time when I couldn't have stopped under control on my side of the road.
So I tear along wondering why nobody else is on this road. At one point I do spot another bike - it's the crazy GT rider and his brave pillion, parked up in a lay-by and admiring the view. I give them a wave and carry on. For mile after mile after mile. Eventually it strikes me that the big difference between this road and the great passes of Europe is that there aren't many actual hairpins - and certainly none of the tight, first gear ones (hairpins here are third gear and go on for ever). It's all those brilliant corners you normally find halfway up a climb once you've left straights of the valley behind, before the final tight assent to the top of a European pass. That makes this the perfect mountain road for people who don't like the tight hairpins and belly-floating drops of roads like Col de l'Iseran or Stelvio.
I stop at a drive-in at the bottom of the Skyway for a much-needed cold drink and a cheeky ice-cream. From there, I keep on descending into the heat and humidity of Georgia, pilling on the miles. Now I'm heading to Florida to see a friend and get the bike serviced. And celebrate my birthday. Cheers