CHASING THE DRAGON’S TAIL

EX-EDITOR WESTLAKE LANDED IN THE USA, WITH HIS HAYABUSA, AND TACKLED NEW YAWK. NOW HE'S ON HIS WAY WEST, BY WAY OF THE DRAGON'S TAIL...

CHASING THE DRAGON’S TAIL

by Bike Magazine |

If by 'crashes' you mean leave the road, slide into a ditch and get back on again, there’s probably 10-20 of those a day on a busy Saturday,’ says Killboy, who’s been photographing at the Tail of the Dragon for 16 years. ‘The sportsbike guys fall off at higher speeds, but they tend to be wearing more gear, the bikes are lighter and they’re fitter. The cruiser people tend to wear less gear, the bikes are heavy and they’re maybe not as in shape to take the beating. Those guys tend to get hurt more. We see one or two people ambulanced away each Saturday and Sunday. There are two to three fatalities per year. But you have to remember there are 250,000 bikes coming through here every year – we take 50,000 pictures a week.’

CHASING THE DRAGON’S TAIL

Welcome to America’s most hardcore stretch of tarmac. For distance and history Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway take some beating, but spectacular though these are they’re really about views. You could happily do them in an RV. If you want a road that can frazzle the edges of your tyres as fast as it frazzles your concentration you need the Dragon’s Tail. This 11-mile section of US129 in North Carolina has 318 corners – that’s more than the entire 37.7 mile TT course – and when planning Bike’s trans-American trip, it was one of the first pins stuck in the map. The problem is, I think I’ve found a better road. Nothing can match what I’ve just ridden.

It’s day three and I’m piling on the miles from New York, mostly sticking to Interstates to keep up my average daily mileage. By 3pm, after a lazy start, I’ve done nearly 350 miles and I’m feeling smug; that wasn’t so bad. The gel seat on the Busa is only just starting to connect directly to my arse nerves and my neck muscles are acclimatising to the Busa’s sporty riding position. At the next services I eat a Baconator (reason why Americans are fat #482), drink a gallon of Sprite (#483) and consult my map, which, for the benefit of younger readers, is a paper sat nav. Just up the road is the Skyline Parkway, which wriggles from one Interstate junction to the next through the Blue Ridge mountains. Excellent. A 20-minute interlude of corners is just what I need before a final burst of Interstate 81 and a motel search.

CHASING THE DRAGON’S TAIL

What I don’t realise is that this Parkway actually goes through a park and there’s a $15 charge to get in. Seems a bit extravagant for a 20-minute taz through some hills, but I grudgingly pay up. It is wondrous. Imagine the faster bits of the best Alpine roads, with a perfect surface, no hairpins, no decreasing radius tricksters and masses of elevation changes.

THE BIG IDEA

The plan: prove that you don’t need a soppy tourer to ride coast to coast across America. You can do it on the almighty Hayabusa. We hope.

The route: start in New York, head south west through Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina to the Tail of the Dragon. Then head west across the southern states to Los Angeles. 3400 miles.

The bike: a brand new 1300cc Suzuki Hayabusa with Yoshimura pipes, a gel seat and touring screen.

CHASING THE DRAGON’S TAIL

You surf through forest for five miles, the trees a brown strobe either side and your ears popping as you climb and lean and lean and climb. Then you emerge into baking sunshine as the road traces the edge of a mountain before diving back into the cool of the forest. In motorcycle heaven, this is the main thoroughfare. The speed limit says 35 but there’s no traffic or junctions and it’s easy to find yourself doing double that while still holding plenty in reserve for wildlife and ambushing rangers. It’s bend-swinging at it finest and the Busa is in its element piling along in second and third, driving seamlessly out of corner after corner. I’m intoxicated, drunk on never-ending sequences of corners.

Eventually I stop and switch on the sat nav to find out just how long it goes on – it didn’t look more than 20 miles on the map and I must have been riding for at least half an hour. Distance to Interstate: 74 miles. Bloody hell. This genius piece of squirming tarmac is long enough to go from Peterborough to London. But that also means I could be looking for motels in the dark after a 500-mile day. I bottle it, duck out of the park early and find a local motel. I know my limits: God knows how Nick Sanders and those other long distance wallahs manage to concentrate for so long. When I finally lug my bag up to the room I barely have the strength to shout at the village idiots advertising things on the television.

CHASING THE DRAGON’S TAIL

When I approach the Tail of the Dragon a day later I’m excited, but not as much as I should be. I feel like my palate’s been ruined by too much rich food. But I needn’t have worried; the Dragon is a completely different platter. Where the Skyline Parkway was like the highlights of Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Switzerland, the Dragon is like nothing I’ve ever ridden. It’s your very best road, distilled until it’s pure motorcycling methamphetamine – barely any straights, no sweepers and no opportunity to look at anything other than tarmac. There are, apparently, two locations with lovely views of the Smoky Mountains. I saw neither.

The corners are piled up on each other as the road dances up and down through the forest with cambers so huge that many bends are, effectively, banked. It’s far, far more intense than any race track I’ve ever ridden and for the first time on the trip I’m grateful for the Busa’s sporty riding position as I hunch over the bars and lever it from left to right and back again hundreds of times in just one run, my eyes chasing a vanishing point that never stops moving. Put it on the bucket list: you certainly won’t be disappointed.

‘IT’S BEND SWINGING AT ITS FINEST AND THE BUSA IS IN ITS ELEMENT’

CHASING THE DRAGON’S TAIL

Near the end of the Dragon is Deal’s Gap, which used to be a hunting lodge for mountain beardies and now consists of a small motel, restaurant, a couple of shops and a large bike park. I pull in next to a phallic sports car painted to look like a Highway Patrol vehicle. Next to this are 30 or so other supercars surrounded by expensively dressed 20-somethings shouting excitable horseshit at each other while their female companions wander round in hot-pants pretending no-one is staring.

‘Climb the Dragon Dwayne!’ yells one horseshitter, and sure enough Dwayne clambers up a huge metal dragon sculpture, eventually sitting on top wearing a panda mask waving a sword. It is unclear why. Sighing Britishly, I stroll off to find Killboy, the Dragon’s most famous photographer and an expert on the road. I’m intrigued to discover how a squiggly mountain pass an hour from habitation has become a magnet for tourers, cruisers, Rossi wannabes and panda plonkers. And how come it’s allowed? The Busa and I were not hanging about on our way up, but a guy on an R6 going down was trackday fast, all scraping pegs and Marquez hang-off. If this sort of nonsense happened in the UK there would be a squad car traffic jam.

CHASING THE DRAGON’S TAIL

I find Killboy in the bike park outside the Tail of the Dragon store, standing among glinting Harleys watching the supercar herberts across the road with a patient amusement. His real name is Darryl Cannon – he called his photography blog Killboy after an Offspring track he liked at the time and it stuck. ‘I’ve been riding my bike here since 2000,’ he says. ‘I got a digital camera when they were just getting started and between rides I just hung out, taking a few shots and putting them up on a little website, building up a following because nobody had seen this area before.

Then people started stopping me and asking me to take their picture so they could download it and I thought I could make a living. In 2003 I quit my job driving a fork lift and now I’ve got five guys shooting for me.’ They sit under awnings on the Dragon’s few sunny corners snapping everything that goes past. Most of the Dragon posters and T-shirts for sale emphasise the road’s reputation for being dangerous – ‘Dare you tame the Dragon?’ etc – but Darryl plays this down. ‘The road’s not as dangerous as it sounds. Most of the Dragon’s corners are short duration and they’re close together so it’s almost like you’re dancing, constantly bouncing back and forth, left and right. None of them turn back on themselves, like you get on roads that are climbing up the side of a mountain. Also, there are no real straights, so it’s more difficult to come into a tight corner real hot. It keeps you in check, keeps your speeds down.

As long as you don’t short-cut and cross the double yellows you arrive at speeds that are doable, more or less. It’s one of the safer places to ride around here. Everywhere else is faster.’ But the sheer volume of riders ensures the Dragon claims regular victims. ‘Because of the dipping cambers you can hustle through without too much worry,’ says Darryl, ‘but the corners roll off camber at the exits to set up for the next turn and you have to watch out for that. If you’re still leaned over and pushing it you can get in trouble – although you haven’t leaned over any more, there’s suddenly a lot more angle on the tyre because the camber has gone. We see a lot of highsides that way.’

CHASING THE DRAGON’S TAIL

The police, meanwhile, are trying to contain matters without destroying a flourishing tourism industry (I tried to get into the motel but it’s fully booked for the next two weeks). ‘They’re looking for the worst of the worst to rein in, so people know it’s not an open track day,’ says Darryl. ‘Often it’s good that they’re nearby because things happen and we need help because there’s no cellphone reception up here. They can get on the radio. But even then it’s difficult because it takes an ambulance an hour to get here.

If you have a punctured lung or a ruptured femoral artery and you can only last 15 minutes it’s not going to be good. We’ve seen that happen – people have got up and they were fine, and 15 minutes later they were gone.’ Thanks for that. I set off down the Dragon to do a couple more runs. The bus is a delight, banking gracefully from side to side, effortlessly piling on speed from apexes then not quite so effortlessly wiping it off before tipping in again. We glide past hustling Harleys like a frigate passing tugboats, eventually emerging into the sunshine at a T-junction by a lake. I point the Busa west. 2500 miles to go to Los Angeles. Bring it on.

'THE BUSA IS A DELIGHT, BANKING GRACEFULLY, PILING ON SPEED'

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Brad Hanson

I come here for the bends and the atmosphere. A friend and I brought our families in RVs so they're out shopping and we're riding. I kinda feel guilty to drag them here, but not that much. The bikes go in a trailer behind the RV. For the first couple of rides on the Dragon we were very cautious, now we've done it a couple of times we think we're experts so it's starting to get a little dangerous. The Goldwing isn't that bad u2013 you scrape the pegs, obviously, but it's good fun.'

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