Mount Hamilton’s lessons

A new road reminds of the basics of sporty riding
Published May 24, 2009

It took a new road to remind me of old lessons. Riding the same routes every week, I get sloppy. I don’t need solid form to get ’round 84 anymore, I know what’s around the bend and can admit to frequently concerning myself more with lean angle and less with the stuff taught in MSF and Proficient Motorcycling. But charging headlong into foreign corners this weekend quickly jogged my memory and exposed the over in my confidence that’s done a bit of damage to my riding skill.

Yesterday’s adventure began as a group 250 ride along Mines Road south of Livermore. I haven’t ventured east of the bay for riding roads before, but I didn’t mind the 50 miles of damp freeway to get my bike to the starting point. Roughly half the riders showed up with little Ninjas.

Mines winds through a narrow valley, running south without an intersection for about thirty miles. A lack of intersections usually means a lack of traffic, a convention that held true as we crossed paths with no more than two or three cars during the hour trek. The road is divided into two lanes at the north end but soon turns vaguely goaty as the center line gives way to one-lane blind turns occasionally surfaced in light gravel. The surface quality is pretty good but Mines holds enough tricks that I wouldn’t ride it real aggressively without knowing it more intimately.

Fortunately, the group ride pace was bang-on, and though a few slower riders fell back there was no risk of getting lost in the valley. We grabbed lunch at the unassuming Junction food stop before I parted ways with the group to cross Mount Hamilton.

As much as I enjoy meeting people with a shared interest in riding, I really do prefer riding on my own. I don’t get distracted by the rider in front of me, and I remember more details of the excursion. It’s also easier to stop for photos when I chance on a particularly inspiring bend of asphalt, a liberty I exercised almost immediately after hitting Highway 130 on my own.

And I find it easier to focus on my riding when I’m alone. My lines were pretty pitiful as I executed the bad habits learned over months of mundane commute. I got away with it for a while. The base of the mountain is twisty but the curves are forgiving. A few bits of strewn gravel posed the most serious concern.

But approaching the peak, the sharper the turns twist, the steeper the switchbacks switch. Sudden hairpins emerge from what appear as modest bends. Want to ride fast? Stay away from Mount Hamilton. The mountain seems eager to buck off the insolent, saving its treasure for the humble. After getting caught by a couple of turns, I mentally reset. No more attempting hang-off heroics, focus on the basics.

After coming to grips with the concept of counter-steering, the first thing new riders learn from MSF is to look through turns, not at the ground in front the bike. Big head movements make big turns possible. Physically, it doesn’t make real sense. My chin does not touch the handlebars, so how can it steer my bike? But in practice it’s perfect, and I know this. I apply this. And in an instant my lines are looking smarter.

The reward is sweet. At the peak of Mount Hamilton is the Lick Observatory, a substantial complex built to observe stars. A shame the telescopes are pointed in the wrong direction because there’s stunning beauty below.

I spent quite a bit of time at the observatory. Bikes crowded the corner of the lot where my Ninja was parked and a few drivers in cages nervously, slowly filtered through the crowd. Sights like this draw all sorts. I arrived at the site just after a pair of guys on sport bikes I’d photographed earlier as they stormed the mountain with their snarling pipes. And after me rolled in a hodgepodge group, including a sharp Triumph America sullied by a set of ridiculous ape hangers. Not my taste, but even the rider admitted they weren’t the best idea on these roads where dropping arms for a second to regain blood flow could mean missing a turn.

They weren’t arms anymore, just numb sticks loosely attached to my shoulders

The descent down the west side of Mount Hamilton tested the endurance of my own forearms. Lots of short straights and quick downhill hairpins demanded hard braking and shoved my weight into the handlebars. After a few turns my arms were taxed. After thirty minutes of the business, they weren’t arms anymore, just numb sticks loosely attached to my shoulders. But I couldn’t be distracted by the discomfort ’cause the challenges do not relent. Every turn is a possible surprise. And by the end of it, almost every corner had a healthy patch of gravel and dirt in the center of the inside lane, carved narrow by the double tracks of cars that preceded me.

The hour or so freeway marathon home was actually pleasantly relaxing. At least until I got nearer to The City, at which point I was reminded of another bit of riding wisdom that’s especially applicable to the Bay Area: dress in layers, because 80 degrees of sun in one ‘burb is no guarantee that home won’t be shrouded in bone-chilling fog. I won’t forget it soon, I won’t forget to look through turns, and I certainly won’t forget the mountain.