“She’s out of my league…”
That’s what I thought as I drifted into a slumber on the red-eye flight back home to the East Coast. I was in California for business in January, and once again cheated on my beloved VFR. This is the second time I got past third-base with a motorcycle-mistress in 9 months. After the first time, I seriously questioned my commitment to and long term relationship with my VFR800.
I knew about this trip for a couple of months and thought several times about how sweet it would be to ride through the So-Cal mountains before finally caving in to those fantasies. In early December, I contacted a good friend [and former VFR owner] who lives in the area for some advice and to see if he would be a willing wingman. If there is one thing I learned from Top Gun, it was to never fly [in unfamiliar territory] without a wingman. Well… That and flying @ full afterburner past an ATC tower @ more than 400 knots is probably not such a great idea. Eric was game so long as _he_ wasn’t traveling for work. I immediately began researching motorcycle rentals in So-Cal. I had one free day in Cali to make this happen.
Unfortunately many of the places I called were out of business – the motorcycle rental biz in the U.S. is feast or famine and highly seasonal even in California. I landed on the website of a larger business, Eagle Rider, with franchises across the US. The only challenge was finding something that I might be interested in riding. Honestly, I find anything with wheels and a motor entertaining to some degree, but I wasn’t interested in chasing my friend on his sportbike while I ground the frame rails off of a full dress V-Twin cruiser. To compound the challenge, I needed to find a place that was north of Carlsbad, CA for logistics reasons (I had a red-eye flight out of LAX). This eliminated the Ducati rental joint near San Diego. Bummer – no hot Italian g-force orgy this time. The pickin’s were slim.
Eagle Rider has a location in Costa Mesa, with a decent selection of willing escorts. I surfed through their website and the respective websites of the motorcycle manufacturers for each model comparing specs. This was tantamount to surfing through the personal ads on craigslist. OK, not that creepy, but I was trawling for a good ride. I decided to hire a BMW R1200RT. If the Duke 690 is the motorcycling equivalent of a female volleyball player, then the R1200RT is at the opposite end of that spectrum: an aristocratic heiress to untold fortunes. Prim and proper with lady-like manners, if not a bit stuck up – think Lady Mary Crawley of Downton Abbey fame. I told Eric about my mistress. He approved. “The BMW R1200 family of bikes are great.”, he replied.
I packed light for the work portion of my trip, but packed all of my gear – boots, jacket, pants, gloves, helmet, and insulating layers for the fun portion. As my date with the BMW grew closer, it appeared that the weather would cooperate. Cool beans. My palms were sweaty – I had never had a fling with such a sophisticated lady from ‘upstairs’.
I met my escort for the day early on Sunday morning – ‘Lady Mary’ was a 2011 R1200RT dressed in a flowing Polar Metallic night gown. By comparison’s sake, I was in black coveralls – my Joe Rocket Alter Ego gear. “Wait a sec – who is hiring who ?”, I pondered for a second. With all of the bells and whistles on the RT Premium Package equipped Bimmer, I needed a quick run-down. The rental agent covered all of the techno-bits in quick order: cruise control, electronic suspension adjustment (ESA II), heated grips, radio controls, power windscreen, multiple trip data pages, etc. With the ‘you bust it, you bought it’ briefing and motorcycle introduction complete, it was time to make the 20 minute ride south to San Juan Capistrano to meet Eric. I thumbed the starter and the Air/Oil cooled 1170cc boxer twin stuttered to life. “Hmm, this is much smoother than the lopey twin I was expecting.”, I noted. [The last boxer I sampled was a 1970’s vintage R90.] I rode down a side street to ensure the controls, brakes, and ergonomics were up to snuff. I thought everything checked out and I waved ‘see-ya-later’ to the rental guy on the way back to the main road.
The 20 minute sprint down to SJC (mostly expressway) went by quickly – I spent the entire time playing with the electronic gadgetry. It’s a good thing the roads were deserted, because I was a severely distracted rider. I must have put the windscreen up and down 10 times and turned the heated grips on and off half-a-dozen times. I fiddled with the radio for a while, and then decided to just ride. That’s when I noticed that the seat was a too low and the shifter peg was difficult to dig my left boot under. “Shucks.”, I thought. ‘Lady Mary’ was going to need some alterations to fit my style. I arrived at the rendezvous location early and set about raising the seat (no tools required) and adjusting the shifter peg (using an allen-wrench from the under-seat toolkit). Bingo-bango. We were ready for action.
Eric showed up on his R1200R, BMW’s naked bitch. The R1200 series of bikes ride on the same bones wrapped around the 1170cc Boxer mill and incorporate a unique telelever front suspension with a shaft drive single sided rear swing arm. Without a fairing, adjustable suspension, electronic doo-dads, and luggage to weigh it down, the R1200R is more than 70 lbs lighter than the R1200RT. The R1200R has some very small suspension geometry tweaks (to make it sportier), but Eric’s ride and mine were otherwise sisters. Hmm, here’s to keepin’ it in the family !
Eric and I had planned an easy day of riding (300 miles round trip for me) with options to cut it short if we ran out of daylight or mojo.
The first stretch of roadway between SJC and Lake Elsinore wiggles its way between, up, and over the Cleveland Mountains (2600 ft AMSL). It’s a great stretch of road (one of many in So-Cal) and is a favorite cruising route for motorcyclists and performance auto-enthusiasts alike. This would be my first opportunity to really feel up ‘Lady Mary’.
The Ortega Highway is a smooth flowing ribbon of road providing a perfect venue get familiar with a new date. Our first dance, however, was a little awkward as I felt out of sync with the RT’s perceived increase in mass, very isolated powertrain/chassis and slow steering. Interestingly, the wheelbase, weight, and Peak HP/TQ numbers of the VFR and R1200RT are similar, so I was surprised that ‘Lady Mary’ required such deliberate inputs and more time to change trajectory. It’s hard to tell if the telelever front suspension or the touring oriented tires (and associated compound and construction) were to blame. The experience was akin to one of those conversations where you try to make small talk, but you and your companion start talking at the same time. “No, you go first.” “No, you.” “No, it’s OK, you go.” etc… You get the picture. So far, a match made in heaven this was not. I was trying to ride ‘Lady Mary’ like the more sporting VFR. She put up a fuss, fixed her make-up, and adjusted her dress to ward off my advances. OK, I was getting the message. She wanted a few waltzes before going right for the Lambada. “Hmmpf.”, I said. “I’m gonna get you out of that dress today, ‘Lady Mary’, whether you like it or not.” I would have several more opportunities to woo her on this day.
GeekSpeak Sidebar: The Saxon-Motodd front suspension, marketed as Telelever by BMW, has many advantages such as anti-dive geometry which promotes stability under braking, and improved unsprung mass and motion control resulting in better cornering stability when the road surface is less than optimal. The telelever suspension configuration separates the spring & damping function from the suspension kinematics, effectively allowing the motorcycle chassis designer to tune the suspension kinematics and ride control independently. On conventional slider-fork equipped motorcycles, the bike pitches forward under braking as the weight transfers forward which effectively reduces the rake angle of the front fork reducing stability. Have you ever seen stunt riders experience a tank-slapper while performing an endo/stoppie ? That is zero (or negative) rake angle at work. Motorcycle chassis designers have attempted to mitigate this effect over the years with anti-dive mechanisms on the front fork which essentially increases damping in the pitch motion frequency range to slow this motion under braking. With the telelever suspension kinematics, however, the motorcycle chassis designer can tune the rake angle gain by adjusting the pickup points of the trailing link with respect to the upper triple-clamp pickup point to maintain (or even increase) rake angle under braking. They could even design the telelever suspension to have 100% (or more) anti-dive, but this has been deemed an undesirable trait – motorcyclists (and automobile drivers, too) expect some ‘road feel’ and response from their machines. Simple, right ? Let’s get back to this So-Cal fling before I get too far off topic. Geeks: You can continue your suspension research on BMW’s website. Just be sure to come back here and finish reading this story.
From Lake Elsinore, we jumped on the I-15 and rode the super-slab to expedite our arrival at the base of Mount Palomar and the start of the next movement. The R1200RT gobbles up real estate like you wouldn’t believe. With the windscreen raised, the noise and buffeting is greatly reduced – even for this 6’4” rider. The top of my helmet poked into the airstream above the windscreen, but I just leaned forward a bit behind it – I am sure that taller windscreens are available in the aftermarket. The six speed transmission has adequate gear ratios for whatever terrain you plan on exploring – from twisties and two lanes to highways and byways.
We arrived @ the base of Mount Palomar shortly after 10AM. Temps at the base of the mountain were now in the 50’s, and we expected the temps to drop as we climbed 2500 ft in 6.5 miles of insanely twisty road up to 5300 ft AMSL. [Sidenote: Palomar Mountain Road is SO tight and steep that several auto manufacturers use this road to accomplish aero-thermal and cooling testing in the heat of summer. The constant sawing at the steering wheel through the turns, high engine RPM’s, and the average 7.5% grade climb push power-steering and cooling systems to the limit.] I have been riding long enough to know my limits and my first dance with ‘Lady Mary’ was less than confidence inspiring, so I told Eric to ride his own pace to the top – I would catch up with him there. There was no sense in trying to keep up with a buddy riding a lighter bike on better rubber – not to mention, he was much more familiar the roads and his bike.
WOW. Palomar Mountain Road does not disappoint. This stretch of road is VERY popular with the sportbike and sportscar crowds. We smartly timed our ascent behind a group of a dozen sportbike riders, many on race slicks – they are that hardcore – as they literally raced to the top. I have had the pleasure of driving sportscars on Angeles Crest Hwy, Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Rd, and Angeles Forest Hwy north of Los Angeles – all great venues for a g-force orgy. Palomar Mountain Road is much shorter, but much tighter, and less congested – at least on the day we rode up. As you can see by the terrain/route map above, there are several corners that nearly loop back on themselves – beyond 180 degree switchbacks. I pressed ‘Lady Mary’ up the hill gently. We took our time and about half way through the climb things came together nicely. Our blood was pumping and our faces flush. For the first time of the day, we were in sync. I didn’t step on her toes and she eventually let her guard down once she realized I had some moves she might not have seen before. I met Eric at the top and my smile must have been visible behind my full face helmet. I didn’t fall as far behind as I thought I might. “How was that ?”, Eric barked over the panting boxers. “Unfuckingbelieveable ! Let’s keep going !”, I blurted. I didn’t want ‘Lady Mary’ to cool off. We headed down East Grade Road back to 2800 ft AMSL, albeit at a shallower average grade of 4.5% (see below). ‘Lady Mary’ and I were in dirty-dancing mode now.
Once we hit the valley floor by Lake Henshaw, we zigged and zagged our way to Montezuma Valley Road (below).
Montezuma Valley Road is more open and flowing like the Ortega Highway stretch from earlier in the day. Unfortunately, this also means heavier auto/truck traffic between the valleys at this time of day. We caught up with some traffic and then paused for a few minutes at an outlook to give the cagers time to get ahead so we could ride at a more spirited pace – in rhythm with our R1200 bred ladies. ‘Lady Mary’s evening gown now had a slit up the side exposing her long legs and the shoulder strap had fallen off of her shoulder. We were having a great romp in the mountains.
We arrived in Borrego Springs and took a 10 minute stretch and nature break at the circle in the center of ‘town’. It was also a good opportunity to hydrate – the desert air dries you out faster than you realize – even in cool temps.
With our bladders relieved and hydration consumed, we headed down to Banner Grade. For an added twist, Eric recommended that we bypass the town of Julian by taking Wynola Road. Good call. (See below)
As we entered the valley containing Banner Grade east of Julian, ‘Lady Mary’ had lost her gown altogether and was down to just her corset. We had nearly kept pace with Eric and his athletic partner since Montezuma Valley Road, but now we were getting down to business. ‘Lady Mary’ and I moved in concert with each other, carving our way through the mountain road as if we had been partners for years. Never once did she complain about how deep into a corner I rode her, or how hard out of them I would accelerate. Mind you, at a curb weight of 520 pounds, the R1200RT weighs considerably more than the 330 pound Duke 690 I shagged in April, 2012. The R1200RT required more advanced planning and smooth inputs to shimmy her way through the twisties. The Duke 690 begged to be man-handled – chop the throttle, grab the brakes, tug on the bars around the corner, and then whack the throttle open; repeat. Nonetheless, the romp with ‘Lady Mary’ was enjoyable. I just prefer my rides to be more sporting.
It was almost 1PM by the time we stopped for lunch at the Wynola Pizza & Bistro. I had covered almost 180 miles – 150 miles with Eric as my wingman. WOW, what a morning. No less than 5 fantastic mountain pass g-force orgies under our belt.
It was after 2PM when we finished lunch and decided to get back on the road. I had to return ‘Lady Mary’ to her handlers before 530PM so I mapped out a reasonably direct 115 mile route back to Costa Mesa. It was now Sunday afternoon, and the roads were congested with Sunday drivers and errand runners – I needed to account for that in my route planning. Eric and I rode northwest towards Rincon where he split off south towards home. I continued on towards Oceanside and hopped on the I-5 for a ‘quick sprint’ up to Costa Mesa.
For those of you familiar with the stretch of I-5 through Camp Pendleton, you know there is a Borders and Customs Patrol inspection facility on I-5 northbound. As luck would have it, they were performing inspections this afternoon and traffic was jammed for at least a mile. “Not to worry, this is California where lane splitting is legal.”, I thought. It would be my first legal lane splitting experience, but with the side bags on, ‘Lady Mary’s hips were wide – very wide. This made lane splitting a little dicey, but for the most part, the cagers gave way to the motorcycle filling their mirrors and I made good time through the jam. By the time I reached the inspection facility, they had stopped the inspections, and the traffic dissipated. I went back into super-slab consumption mode – windscreen up, hammer down.
I made it back to Costa Mesa with time to spare and decided to head down to the ocean in Newport Beach where I could catch the sunset and reflect on the day’s ride.
As the college kids partied on their beachfront porches and couples strolled along the sand on this clear Sunday evening on the Pacific, I gazed at ‘Lady Mary’ in the glowing sunset. I thought about our awkward first dance, the myriad of electronics onboard, and most importantly our romp through several of So-Cal’s best mountain roads. It didn’t take too many miles together before we saw eye-to-eye. In the end, however, I had a feeling like ‘Lady Mary’ was a little too composed and touring-oriented for me. The VFR800 strikes such a great balance between the sport and touring worlds without all of the luxo-tourer gadgets or the uncomfortable ergonomics of a sportbike. I also reflected on how many truly fantastic roads there are in So-Cal that could be linked together in a one-day ride. If you ever have the chance to duplicate this trip, I highly recommend doing so. Good stuff.
I scooted back to Eagle Rider and delivered ‘Lady Mary’ to her handlers bringing to conclusion an amazingly fulfilling day. I packed my gear up and headed up to Manhattan Beach for a beer and some gastro-pub grub before jumping on the red-eye flight back to the east coast.
Once again, thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this story, please let me know. I’ll be sure to post more when I have the time to write.
Enjoy the ride.
[ Re-posted for the morning crew. ]