Tail of the Dragon Rerun

There was rain in the forecast for the afternoon, so I decided to ride first, then work later. (I love the flexible schedule that comes with freelance work.) Today’s ride was a rerun of the loop I did during my last visit, the Tail of the Dragon and Cherohala Skyway. I thoroughly enjoyed this ride on my KLR650, and couldn’t wait to try it on a bike that’s far more road-oriented, not to mention has about twice as much power.

The conditions were almost perfect for a ride. It was cool enough to wear my armored riding pants, but not so cool that I’d be cold at higher elevations. The roads were still a little bit damp in places from overnight fog, but there were no puddles, and I wouldn’t be pushing hard enough for the difference in traction to make a difference. I started by heading east down the Cherohala Skyway. I’ve written about it before, so I won’t repeat myself here.

It was a wonderful ride, even better than last time. There was absolutely no traffic on a Tuesday morning. The more powerful V-Strom 650 didn’t struggle on the hills where I was full throttle on the KLR. Even better, its fuel injection ensured that this remained the case even at higher elevations, where I’d noticed a slight drop in power on the KLR, especially with a passenger.

This was the first time I’ve taken the V-Strom down a twisty road like this. Being from Arizona, it was probably the first time this particular bike had experienced a twisty road like this. It’s still set up primarily for pavement rather than dirt, especially the tires, but this is where that configuration shined. It was here that I realized the V-Strom 650 is really just a tall SV650, not a hard-core adventure bike like a Yamaha Tenere 700. In my past life, I spent a day thrashing a friend’s SV650 around the back roads of western Massachusetts, and loved it. That experience is why I got a V-Strom with the same engine. In a similar type of riding, it felt almost the same as my friend’s bike, just a little bit taller and more comfortable.

Before I knew it, the Cherohala Skyway was over, and I was onto the next leg of my ride. It wasn’t the exact same route I took two years ago. Back then I’d originally wanted to ride a bit farther east, then ride the northern section of Moonshiner 28 to get to the Tail of the Dragon, but I had to cut that leg short due to time constraints. That wasn’t a problem this time, so after fighting a bit of construction traffic, I turned left to try out another famous road in this area.

It was well worth it. The curves were a bit more intense at times than the Cherohala Skyway, occasionally as technical as the Tail of the Dragon itself, but only for short stretches. It had the steepest hills of the entire ride, forcing me to drop all the way to first gear for some steep hairpin turns. It was a different kind of challenge than the rest of the ride, but an enjoyable one. Moonshiner 28 runs all the way to Walhalla, Georgia on its south end. That’s a bit farther than I was prepared to ride today, but now I understand the appeal of doing the whole thing. Maybe I will someday.

Moonshiner 28 ends at the intersection with US 129 and the Deals Gap Motorcycle Resort. I stopped here, just like last time. I visited the Tree of Shame, the final resting place of bike parts that see the end of their life on the Tail of the Dragon. As before, I hoped that I wouldn’t be making any donations to this tree. But having ridden it before and survived unscathed, I was much more confident that this would be the case.

It was about noon, so I grabbed some lunch at the restaurant. It was far less busy than my last visit. The less traffic on the Dragon itself, the better for me to set my own pace, not getting slowed down by traffic or worrying about impatient people stuck behind me, allowing me to focus on riding my own ride. After lunch, I set off.

Once again, my GoPro has gone missing, so yet again I have no video to share of the ride on my V-Strom as compared to the KLR. I wasn’t going too fast, but nobody caught up to me, either. I caught up to a few people, but either they pulled over and let me by, or when I realized they weren’t going to, I pulled over to put some distance between us, then resumed my own pace. It was an absolute blast on a bike with sporty roots.

At one point, an oncoming rider tapped the top of his helmet with his hand — the universal biker signal for “police ahead.” I waved my thanks and dropped my pace slightly, not that I was flying in the first place. Sure enough, there were two motorcycle cops on the side of the road. They weren’t running a speedtrap, but dealing with the aftermath of a crash, a bike that had gone over the edge of the road. I’d already passed an ambulance going the other way with no emergency lights on, so I assume the rider wasn’t badly hurt.

I emerged on the other side unscathed, and pulled over to take a drink of water. That was so much fun. Even at relatively slow speeds, it was more of a rush than a track day, because the turns come at you one after another with few straightaways. There’s no way to memorize it unless you live here and ride it hundreds of times. You just have to read the road, react to it, and keep a reasonable pace so that if you get a turn wrong you’ll stay in your lane and still be okay. I only got a couple of turns wrong, and two out of 318 is pretty good.

I checked my gas gauge and trip odometer, made some calculations, and determined that I had enough gas to run back down the Dragon in the opposite direction, come back, and make it back to town before returning to camp. So that’s exactly what I did. It’s a completely different road in the other direction. Some turns that were easy were more challenging, while other tricky ones got much easier. I knew where the cops were at this point, and went extra slowly past them. It was more about keeping everyone working the crash scene safe than keeping myself out of trouble. Once again, there was very little traffic. I reached the other end, and checked out the souvenir shop on the other side of the road from the Deals Gap Inn.

Fun fact: there are two electric chargers available here. Each had a Zero plugged in and charging up. I can only imagine how much fun an electric bike would be on the Dragon. The instant torque that comes from an electric motor would have you rocketing out of the corners like no gas engine at low revs can.

Then I took one more run down the Dragon. I had absolutely no traffic, in front or behind, for most of the run. For the last mile or so, I got stuck in a line of cars, all stuck behind one going extra slowly. I pulled over once to let them gain some distance, but caught up rather quickly, they were going so slow. With only a mile left, I decided that would be my cool-down lap, and I just cruised along with them. The person in front was clearly not about to pull over like they’re supposed to, and I can’t pass four cars in a row on these curves, even if it was legal (which it wasn’t). Not long after the end of the Dragon, the road straightened out, the yellow line went dotted, and everyone passed the VW Passat that had been holding us up. The Porsche Cayman GTS in front of me then passed everyone else and disappeared into the sunset before we knew it.

The rest of the ride back to camp was uneventful. After three runs through the Dragon plus everything before it, I was spent, and ready to get off the bike for the day. I got gas soon before getting to camp. That last bar on the LCD fuel gauge never flashed at me, even after 220 miles on the tank. I was extremely thankful for the campground’s showers, because by now it had warmed up enough for me to need one after the ride.

At the souvenir shop, where the Zeros were charging, I decided to continue a tradition from one of my previous motorcycles. I never rode the Tail of the Dragon on my Honda PC800. I never even left the northeast with it. But it came with a subtle dragon sticker on it, just below the standard Honda decal, that was a perfect match for it. That bike had an old North Carolina inspection sticker on the fork, so it spent some time in this area, and had no doubt ridden the Tail of the Dragon. I kept the dragon stickers because the bike had earned them, even if I hadn’t.

This time, the V-Strom, formerly a desert flatlander, and I had properly earned the stickers together, slaying the Dragon not just once, but three times. So I picked up the smallest ones they had, in the same silver as the Suzuki badge and model name decal. I put them on just like they were on my PC800, as a subtle nod. It’s one of those “if you know, you know” things — and now, you know.

As dinnertime rolled around, so did dark clouds, accompanied by thunder. Two nights in a row, my plans to grill up some burgers were thwarted. I took down my shade cloth, put everything in the trailer, and put the cover on my bke. It’s the first time I’ve used the cover for rain, rather than desert dust. It rained on and off all night. For a few minutes it was even heavy enough to cut off my Starlink internet connection. Temperatures cooled off a little, though, and now they’re quite comfortable. I slept well, except for when the rain was heavy enough to wake me up a couple of times.

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