2013 International Motorcycle Show, San Mateo: Part 3 – The Demo Rides


( continued from Part 2 – The Bikes )

Those Sweet Demo RidesDemo rides

There were a lot of interesting bikes, motorcycle accessories and people to see at the 2013/2014 Progressive International Motorcycle Show in San Mateo. And the rear parking lot of the Expo Center was full of manufacturers offering demo rides on Saturday and Sunday. Only the San Mateo, Long Beach and Phoenix shows have demo rides available, I suspect because of poor weather when the other nine shows are in their respective cities. The participating manufacturers this year are: Can-Am Spyder, Harley-Davidson, Indian Motorcycle, Kawasaki, Star Motorcycles, Victory and Yamaha. A full listing of which bikes are available for demo rides is here.

My First Demo Ride
A first for me at the show was taking two demo rides Saturday morning courtesy of Kawasaki. My new mission is to learn how to ride off-road on a dual sport and my first step along that journey was to test ride a Kawasaki KLR650. The KLR is a beloved dual-sport machine that was introduced in 1987 and remained virtually unchanged until 2008, after which it received excellent upgrades without fundamentally changing the platform. Although arguably less famous than BMW’s GS series, the KLR has circumnavigated the globe just like Ewan McGregor’s storied ride in his excellent “Long Way Round” and “Long Way Down” TV documentaries.

My KLR650 Demo Ride

I talked to Danny and Roy an the Kawasaki booth Friday night and found out that signups started at the Kawi trailer at 8:00 A.M. Danny’s wife would handle the signups. It was great to meet and greet the Kawi crew the evening before the rides and then talk to them the next morning as I signed up.

I arrived at 7:30 and took advantage of the free motorcycle parking in the front parking lot, and was the only bike there at that early hour. Unfortunately, the show didn’t open until 9:30 and the demo ride trailers were all the way in the rear parking lot where parking was $10. That meant that I couldn’t walk through the show, but had to walk all the way around the San Mateo Expo Center. But, it was a beautiful morning and a 15 minute walk in the brisk morning air was welcome.

Kawasaki Demo Ride Signup

When I arrived at the Kawasaki trailer there was already a line of about a dozen riders ahead of me. There were plenty of bikes and ride-times to go around, though, along with great camaraderie which made arriving early a very pleasant experience. Coffee and pastries were offered by the ROK people (Riders of Kawasaki) for their members or new enrollees. As I waited to show my drivers license and sign the all-encompassing waiver, I noticed the sign below. It actually made me sad to think that this sign was needed at all, but such is life in a world full of squids.

I am sad they need this sign

I came to learn that Kawi limited demo rides to two per day per person, which seemed eminently reasonable. The way riders accomplished a second signup was to go to the rear of the line and sign up again when you got to the front of the line—a very fair system. After I secured my back-to-back demo rides for the KLR650 and new 1400cc Concours, I then waited for the safety briefing.

First Demo Bike: Kawasaki KLR650
Riding a new bike for the first time can be a nerve-wracking experience. Especially going from a 650 lb. top-heavy, 1000cc Kawasaki Concours like MyConnie, to a tall-in-the-saddle thumper like the KLR. I first needed to ensure my feet would touch the ground so I wouldn’t fall over at every stop. Like most dual-sports, the KLR has a tall seat height, and my 28-inch inseam legs worried me at first. I quickly found out that once my body weight was on the bike and the suspension compressed a bit, I could firmly plant my toes down on both sides to balance the bike. Or, I could plant my whole foot flat on one side or the other if necessary. It took me a little getting used to, but I checked the first item on my list: I could ride this bike even with my rhinoesque legs.

After the excellent safety briefing they made a big point of asking if anyone was new to riding on a freeway. I was surprised to find out that this was frequently answered in the affirmative, but not this day. Today we were all chomping at the bit to get on our steeds and out on the open road. A few moments later we were told to saddle up, start our engines and get ready to roll.

The Route
The demo ride route was much better than I expected. We received a 30 minute, escorted ride through town, 55 mph freeway, 65+ mph interstate, 35 mph back country roads and then back to the show. Each group of about 15 riders had an escort who wore high-visibility vests with one up front, one in the middle, and one at the rear. Here is a map of the route we took.

Map of Route: Google Map

Map of the demo ride route

My Impressions of the KLR650
The KLR was a lot of fun. Danny at Kawasaki told me that the KLR felt very much like what we all originally wanted to get out of motorcycling: a light, nimble and quick ride that can go anywhere. He was right. Since the seating was high I felt very different than when on my relatively low-slung Connie. Also, being a mostly naked bike, I was unaccustomed to having a lot of wind hitting my legs, torso and helmet. This wasn’t a problem, but it added a bit to the first ride jitters associated with getting accustomed to any new bike. After a few miles, though, I felt like had owned the KLR for years. What especially surprised me was how comfortable it was at 70 mph on the freeway, even with knobby tires! I could easily see a KLR in my future for motocamping trips, especially since they only cost about $6,200 brand new. There are also many available used online for a good amount less than that. As much as I would love to consider a BMW GS, it’s hard to rationalize the $15K+ price tag and oft-bemoaned service costs which helped coin the snarky acronym Bring My Wallet.

Second Demo Bike: Kawasaki Concours 1400 ABS
Right after returning the KLR to the demo area, it was time to saddle up for my next ride on the new Connie. I’ve heard a lot about this successor to my bike from the other members of the Concours Owners Group (COG). I knew that at 1400cc, it had 40% greater displacement than MyConnie and almost double the horsepower making it good that it also had ABS brakes. Last year, a 70 year old Connie rider in the show parking lot told me that the variable valve timing made it so fast that his son’s Suzuki Hayabusa had to work hard to keep up.

Kawasaki Concours 1400 ABS Demo ride

What I noticed after mounting this supersport touring beast was that the speedo went to 180 mph. Humm-baby! But even though I had great anticipation of feeling those ponies beneath me, after firing up the Connie the first thing I did was turn on the heated grips and adjust the temperature to “microwave” to take the chill away from my previous ride. Sport tourers are so much more civilized than canyon racers.

Demo ride on a Kawasaki Concours 1400 ABS

My Impressions of the Concours 1400 ABS
Pulling out of the parking lot felt much more natural on the Connie than on the KLR. It was  more like MyConnie in how it handled. But I soon found out that the similarities between this 1400cc model and my current ride were few. Surprisingly, the new larger Connie handled very well, and felt significantly less top-heavy than my 2001 version. There was no time where I felt uncomfortable in terms of handling the bike. It seemed to have less wind protection than the older Concours but the electric adjustable windscreen was neat. I preferred riding with the screen in the lowest position which placed my chest and helmet into the wind. At its highest position, the wind still hit me mid-helmet, so I would imagine achieving a full tuck to get out of the rain would be difficult, but not impossible.

Except for the demo rider in front of me who decided that 60 mph was the right speed for the freeway, I had a glorious time on the new Connie. This would be a fantastic bike for touring, camping, commuting, canyon carving…or whatever. But, with a MSRP of $16,199, MyConnie doesn’t have to worry about being replaced by MyConnie II anytime soon.

The Kawasaki Crew
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what a tremendous group of people the folks at Kawasaki were. I spent a significant amount of time talking to the different folks, especially Roy and Danny, and I have to tell you that they made attending the show a fantastic experience. Having been a veteran of trade shows myself for over 30 years, I know it‘s their job to do so. But they went above and beyond the call of duty getting me interesting in what was going on, answering my questions about the different Kawi models, and demonstrating their personal enthusiasm for motorcycling. I guess the people at Kawasaki really do let the good times roll.

Up Next: Part 4 – The Show

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A Great Father’s Day Weekend


Starting Out
How’s this for a great Father’s Day weekend: Load up “MyConnie” with camera and camping gear, point the front wheel north, and GO! Just me and MyConnie getting some quality time together since the wife and youngest son are away for a few days. I plan to update this post throughout the trip, so come back often to check it out.

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Rest Stop
Thank God for Starbucks and lane splitting. Sitting still in 88 degree weather on the freeway is not my idea of a good time. Seems like everyone else in the world is escaping to Lake Tahoe. Well, at least a rider can get hydration, caffeine, a healthy snack and WiFi thanks to the Pequod’s chief mate.

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Cooling Off
Possibly the best $29 I have ever spent was on an evaporative cooling vest. After a two minute soak in the bathroom sink at Starbucks (which was immaculately clean) the vest is “charged” with water. You then blot off the inside fabric barrier that stays dry against your shirt, and put it on under your riding jacket. I was then able to ride in complete comfort in 90 degree heat. Amazing.

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Dark Territory
After stocking up on pita, avocado, bananas, water and a salad bowl at the Grass Valley Safeway, I headed north on Hwy 49 towards Downieville. This road is listed in the Destination Highways moto-map book as DH9 and carries a score of 81/100, and it deserves it. It is wonderfully scenic, twisty and empty of traffic. Downieville itself looked very cute, like a preserved gold rush era town. I decided to camp instead of finding a room, but on some future trip, I’m definitely going to stay in Downieville.

I timed my ride so that I could set up camp while it was still light, but only just. I use a great iPhone App named “Sol” that tells you times for sunset, dusk, dawn and sunrise wherever you are. This allowed me to keep riding until I found Chapman Meadows campground around 8:00 P.M.

Getting old is terrible. I remember when hotel rooms were $6.00 at Motel 6, so it makes it painful to pay $21 for one night at an unimproved campground. Well, at least it had “nice” pit toilets. The mosquitoes quickly drove me into my tent where I fell fast asleep straightaway.

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Zero Dark Thirty
The great thing about traveling alone is that you don’t need to cater to anyone else’s schedule. So, at 4:45 A.M., I rousted myself out of my down cocoon, performed my morning ablutions, and started breaking camp. I got on the road a little before six and headed over the Yuba Summit to be treated to a gorgeous sunrise over the Sierra Valley. I left Hwy 49 a little before Sattley and turned north on Hwy 89, headed towards Quincy and Lassen Volcanic National Park beyond. Although I was bundled up in layers, winter gloves, and TurtleFur neck warmer, I was freezing when I arrived at the Express Coffee Shop. Nothing that a spinach omelet and 10 cups of coffee couldn’t cure. Something tells me MyConnie is going to get a few more RPMs now that MY motor is running.

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The Pine Forests
Can you ever overdose on the beautiful conifer forests of the High Sierra? I think not, but you certainly get your fill traveling through the Tahoe and Plumas National Forests. But every once in a while, the trees are interrupted by a glorious body of water like Lake Almanor. I crossed over Canyon Dam and marveled at this man-made interruption to the Feather River. The outlet tower shown behind MyConnie sends the product of this 90 foot deep reservoir to two smaller reservoirs and others downstream to powerhouses capable of creating a total of 360 megawatts of electricity!

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Mount Lassen
I had been to Mount Lassen Volcanic National Park years ago but wanted to experience it’s burbling mudpots and sulphur-spewing springs anew. So I checked my trusty map book and found that the roads to, through, and around Lassen are included in their lists of great motorcycle roads. Without any hesitation I pointed MyConnie north along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway.

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One of the troubles of blogging “live” from my AT&T iPhone is how poor their rural mobile phone service is. However, after paying my $10 park entrance fee, I noticed this sign and for a fleeting moment hoped that the U.S. Park Service had embraced modern technology by installing WiFi thorough the park. Alas, it was the icon for an amphitheater I mistook for WiFi symbol. D’Oh!

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The Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center shows a great 20 minute documentary film every half hour that explains the history and formation of the park which is the only place on earth with all four types of volcanos.

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A mile north is The Sulphur Works where you can smell noxious fumes and see bubbling mud.

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After that, it seemed that every quarter mile were increasingly beautiful places that beckoned me to stop and take a photo.

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Unfortunately, the walking trails to “Bumpass Hell” which take you right next to all of the bubbling water and mudpots were closed due to safety concerns. But the ride up and over the ridge at around 8,500 feet elevation was spectacular as was the ride down and around to the north end of the park.

The Road Home
At this point, I had enough of solitude and decided to head home. I took a few more “Destination Highways” that were perfect for motorcycles on the way, but most was spent traveling 75 MPH on Hwy 5 in 90 degree heat. Once again, thank God for my evaporative cooling vest and the many rest stops and convenience marts along the way.

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Volcano Ride ‘n Photo Tour
I’m thinking of hosting a “Volcano Ride ‘n Photo Tour” for anyone who might want to join me. If interested, I’d be happy to share some tips on taking photos and “processing” them in the computer, as well. Please leave a comment if you are interested and I’ll start thinking about this for later this year.

As for this trip, I racked up 671 miles from noon Friday to 6:30 P.M. Saturday, a bit over 30 hours. Not bad for my first Father’s Day weekend solo trip. It’s not often I get so much “me” time to think about life without the distractions of other people (no matter how pleasant) or social media (no matter how addictive – then again, I am writing this post!). I might just have to make this an annual pilgrimage.

Note to fellow bloggers and those thinking about blogging: I took all of the photos above and wrote all of the text during the trip itself using the WordPress App for iPhone. This made ‘capturing the moment‘ much more spontaneous and added to my enjoyment of the ride. I went back later on my computer and added the sections below.

Ride Map: Click here for Google map
( Note to riders: map waypoints M through R are how to beat backed up traffic headed to San Francisco like a boss! )

Mount Lassen Ride Map

Ride Report:
– Date: February 14 & 15, 2013
– Roads: Since this trip covered so much territory, I encountered: 20 miles of lane splitting to get around everyone headed for Tahoe, wonderfully engineered and paved roads, nicely paved but less well-engineered roads, and tight curves with limited sight lines on the roads between Shingletown and Dales.
– Scenery: What can I say, I have been living in California my whole life and I am still awestruck in seeing its majesty. If you are from some other state, COME HERE AND RIDE!
– Weather: The weather was absolutely perfect on this Father’s Day weekend, albeit a little warm at times (high 80s) at the lower elevations. The sky was a sapphire blue with those intense puffy white clouds you want to photograph because they are so perfect.
– Challenge: Intermediate throughout with the biggest challenge being not getting run over my a semi-truck on Hwy 5.
– Food: Plenty of choices along this route. I stopped at Safeway in Grass Valley and stocked up on healthy food and snacks this time – what a concept!
– Gas: There were no problems finding gas, but then again, with my 7.5 gallon tank, I could have done the whole thing on way less than three tanks.
– Rating: 5-stars (out of 5) for scenic beauty. with a few most excellent motorcycle roads thrown in along the way.

Destination Highways: 
For you aficionados of Bosworth & Sanders excellent book “Destination Highways of Northern California” this trip included these DHs & TEs:
Destination Highways:
DH9 (81.9/100 rating)
DH3 ALT
DH38 (70.7/100 rating)
Twisted Edges:
TE-A (from DH59)
TE-F (from DH9)

Note: I bought the Destination Highways of Northern California book at the last International Motorcycle Show I attended. It is pretty expensive at $60, but I have to say that it is absolutely worth it. I use it to plan all of my northern california trips to ensure I get the most out of my time on the road. Although it is pricey for a map book, they actually put in the time and effort to bring the value to the rider than exceeds your expectation. Highly recommended for anyone wanting to ride in northern california.
Destination Highways of Northern California

Additional Photos:
The following photos were taken with a d-SLR: Canon EOS Rebel XSi:   

Chapman Creek Campground near Calpine MyConnie on Canyon Dam Lake Almanor June in California Vulcans Eye on Mt Lassen Peak MyConnie at Bumpass Hell Me and MyConnie in Mt Lassen MyConnie fronts Helen Lake and Mt Lassen Peak MyConnie and Vulcans Eye Sulphur Works in Mt Lassen Debris from volcano blast MyConnie fronts Helen Lake and Mt Lassen Peak 2

Me and MyConnie: First Year, First 10,000 Miles


One Year Down, 10,000 Miles in the Mirror
This week I’ve reached the one year anniversary of my getting back into motorcycling with the purchase of a 2001 Kawasaki Concours which I named “MyConnie.” Over the past year I’ve learned many things. Not the least of which is how much enjoyment I’ve been missing in the intervening years since 1990 when I sold my Suzuki GS750LX. I thought this would be a good time to reflect back upon the last year and what I’ve learned about motorcycling…and myself.

What I’ve Ridden
I’ve only owned three bikes in my life: a 1967 Honda CL350 Scrambler, a 1979 Suzuki GS750LX Cruiser, and my current ride, the 1,000cc Kawi Concours. I’ve only ever ridden three others: a 2010 BMW R1100RS that I rented, an 80s-era GPz550 I rode at Laguna Seca during Keith Code’s California Superbike School, and my friend’s 2009 Triumph Speed Triple. But it was the advice of an ex-CHP friend of mine that steered me towards the Concours, and I’m so glad he did.

My limited experience with different motorcycles hasn’t allowed me to have much of an opinion about other bikes like v-twins, dual-sports, or the like. In fact, all I really know is Japanese iron with one luscious weekend on a German boxer. So when I reflect on the specs of the rides I have owned, it shows me the following:

What this also tells me is that in terms of power-to-weight ratio (HP/LBS), my Honda was loads o’ fun—something I already knew. But even at a more sedate PTW ratio of 0.16, MyConnie will still impress any Porsche Carrera driver off-the-line, considering their PTW ratio is 0.19. Still, comparing motorcycles to cagers is a fools game as any biker knows. What got me thinking about the past year’s travels was more what I’ve learned, where I’ve gone, and where I’m going.

What I’ve Learned
One think I learned was how healthy it is riding a motorcycle. You read that correctly…healthy! That is, of course, assuming that I keep the rubber side down and don’t get too near the surrounding traffic. What I mean is that when I’m on MyConnie, I’m not trying to make my commute productive by scheduling conference calls in the car. Nor am I stopping on the way to work at Mickey-Dees to get a coffee or whatever other concoction passes for breakfast. And whenever I’m riding, whether on my commute or on the weekend, with helmet on head I’m not likely to be stuffing my face. Plus being in a tuck in the cool morning air does wonders for my abs while burning calories to keep warm. All in all, I’ve found that riding is quite an effective weight management tool.

I’ve also learned that the old saying that “you’ll never see a motorcycle parked in front of a psychiatrist’s office” is really true. Spending a minimum of 1.5 hours a day riding to the office and back has given me the ability to shed tension like no other activity. Seeing the beautiful sights and smells when I take the back roads to the office has put me in the best frame of mind of my entire working career. I can’t even believe I’ve missed out on this for the past twenty years.

And I’ve learned—no…remembered—how great it is to take up an activity that has a huge learning curve with resulting stellar rewards, and also serious penalties. There is no greater learning than putting yourself in a situation where you will be tested. I think it is that, more than all the rest, that I enjoy the most. To challenge myself and see whether I will rise to the occasion, or fall down trying…only to get up, and try all over again. Call it my own “hero’s journey” of sorts. But one where there is no brilliant flash of heroism, only the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from mastering a complex endeavor.

Where I’ve Gone
I’ve spend the last year exploring the wonders of Northern California including the golden passes of the High Sierra, the windswept bluffs of the North Coast, and the twisty backroads of San Francisco Bay. The sheer magnificence of our natural surroundings is something that you take for granted when driving inside a cage of steel. Air conditioning masks the smell of eucalyptus, tinted glass dulls the glow of aspen groves, and soft suspension separates us from the hand-hewn roads originally carved by rough men across our great land. More than just a vehicle, my motorcycle has been the vehicle through which my five senses have been reignited.

How I Learned
I’ve approached re-learning the craft of riding through friends, through practice and by reading and watching the experts in print and onscreen. If I had the time and money, I would have preferred to take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course…and may still. I would also like to repeat the course I took at Laguna Seca with Keith Code. But with the realities of budget and workload, I’ve settled for a do-it-yourself course of learning which has taken some discipline.

There has been an incredible amount of information that has helped me from an unlikely source, the Concours Owners Group. Besides being the quintessential knowledge bank for the Kawasaki Concours motorcycle, the group also represents hundreds of years of riding experience through its members who share their wisdom freely, with good humor and camaraderie. Their motto: “Join for the bike, stay for the people” couldn’t be more true. And besides the colloquial wisdom of serious amateurs, there is also a potent community of motorcycle professionals within the ranks of COG, both vendor companies like Murph’s Kits and regular people like Shoodabeen Engineering who have raised the level of home wrenching to an art form, and a business that Kawasaki could learn a few things from.

The Path Ahead
I have found in life that it is never good to drink your own bathwater. Meaning, all of the skill I have regained in the past year has really only served to make me more dangerous by potentially becoming too cocky. Now that a year has passed, it’s time to take stock and plan for the next year of learning, and trying to get rid of that last inch of chicken strip that defines my contact patch like bookends. A few predictions…

I predict that I…
– will watch Keith Code’s A Twist of the Wrist II DVD another 4 times…at least.
– will re-read David Hough’s book, Proficient Motorcycling to bone up on what I missed the first time.
– will continue to take my secret commute to Silicon Valley to work…every once in a while,  taking the long way.
– will start doing overnighter rides where I camp instead of staying in a motel.
– will do a dozen farkles to MyConnie.
– and I predict I will only increase my love for riding and hopefully my skill level, as well.

Until then, I’ll be the one flashing two fingers to you as we pass each other by…but only if you are on two wheels.

That’s Me on MyConnie

Let’s ride.

My “Secret” Commute to Silicon Valley – Part Two: Mountain Ridges


In part one of my series on “secret” commutes to Silicon Valley, I focused on taking country roads from San Mateo to Los Altos through Portola Valley. Doing this made me realize that half the fun of going to work really is getting there! So I looked for ways to venture even further away from the freeway in search of the perfect motorcycle commute.

I found it on Highway 35, known locally as Skyline Drive which tops the mountain ridges that separate the San Francisco Bay to the east from the Pacific Ocean to the west. Long fabled as a tremendous weekend motorcycle road, Skyline Drive is also home to the storied “Alice’s Restaurant” in Woodside, California.

You can get anything you want, ’cept’n Alice…

Not the Alice’s Restaurant of the famous Arlo Guthrie song—that one is in Massachusetts— but the one on Skyline Drive has been a local haunt for motorcyclists, writers and poets since the 1960s. Alice’s is not only a great place for coffee or a meal, but it is the juncture of a number of roads that lead off to their own versions of motorcycle nirvana. But for me, since I was just trying to find a new way to get to the office, I kept riding south past Alice’s towards Page Mill Road.

Just before reaching Page Mill, there is a great vista point that looks out over all of Silicon Valley. I love stopping here to think about the cornering technique I just exhibited—both good and bad—while looking down on Stanford University and the rest of the land of startups below. This particular day, it was foggy when I first arrived on Highway 35 and then cleared up into beautiful sunshine atop the ridges. From the vista point, however, I could see that the entire valley was covered in thick, wet fog—waiting for me to descend down into on the way to my office. The fog layer was about 500 feet below the vista point elevation and it looked like I was in a plane flying high above the clouds.

Silicon Valley vista point on Hwy 35

What a difference a day makes: photos from my AM & PM commutes that day.

A Highway 35 vista point overlooking Silicon Valley

It was sunny atop the Highway 35 vista point both morning and afternoon.

I took the same route home that day so that I could compare A.M. and P.M. commute photos from the same vista point. The San Francisco Bay Area is famous for its many microclimates. Layering in mountain elevation into the mix helped me encounter fog, sunshine, drizzle, and high overcast all within a forty mile ride in ninety minutes. Crazy.

Page Mill Road gets very twisty for about nine miles, throwing in a few 15 mph decreasing-radius blind curves just for fun. That’s better than any Starbucks Coffee for getting your heart pumping in the morning! As I headed down into the dense fog, getting into a back-and-forth rhythm to match the turns, I reflected on how great it was to get a ride like this in before starting my work day. It reminded me of how TV’s Flipper would save Bud and Sandy from whatever underwater mishap befell them—and it was always over before school started!

After a while, Page Mill Road’s curves straighten out as I emerged out of the hills and down onto the floor of Silicon Valley in Palo Alto. I decided to go straight down Page Mill to El Camino instead of taking my normal route on Arastradero Road and then through residential streets, just to mix things up. After a quick jaunt down The King’s “Highway”—now festooned with traffic lights every few blocks—I arrived at my office: 41.2 miles and 88 minutes after starting. Considering this “secret” mountain ridge commute to Silicon Valley only took an additional 16.6 miles and 37 minutes than my normal backroads route, it provided  some great morning meditation in preparation for slaying the daily dragons at my workplace. Ask yourself, might you have a “secret” commute that could help you shed stress and arrive at your desk with a smile? Open up Google Maps and check it out. You never know what you might find.

Another Cautionary Note:
These are mountain and backcountry roads and are not ideal for motorcyclists who always feel the need for speed. I’ve seen plenty of CHP on this commute and they take a dim view of knee draggers while they are sipping morning coffee in their cruisers. You can have a great time staying within the posted speed limits while enjoying the back-and-forth rhythms of twisty mountain roads. Since this route adds significantly to your commute time, it fails as the shortest distance between point A and B. But if you are looking to feed your inner chi before having your chai tea, you might just look into adding to your commute instead of splitting lanes to make it shorter.

Ride Map: Click for Google map

Taking the long way home: motorcycle commute nirvana

My “Secret” Commute to Silicon Valley – Part One: Country Lanes



Every day, I ride to work from San Mateo on San Francisco’s peninsula to Los Altos in Silicon Valley around 20 miles away. I’m lucky enough to have multiple ways to get to work, and up to recently, I thought I had tried them all. My primary route uses Interstate 280, known as the world’s most beautiful freeway. It’s a 26 mile jaunt one-way that has rolling hills, lots of gentle curves, wide lanes and beautiful scenery (for a freeway, that is). But when the freeway is flowing, if you’re not going 70+ mph, you’ll get run over. Or, if the traffic is heavy, you’ll spend more time with your feet on the pavement in bumper-to-bumper traffic than with feet on your pegs.

My secondary route uses Interstate 101, 70% of which has motorcycle-friendly HOV lanes (high-occupancy vehicle—a.k.a. carpool—lanes) on my 21 mile commute to the office. It’s an ugly freeway hemmed in by ivy-covered sound walls, narrow lanes, and plenty of highway patrol officers looking for cell phone and carpool lane offenders. On Interstate 101, if you don’t get killed by someone changing lanes, you’ll experience a near-miss from another motorcyclist splitting lanes at 15 mph faster than the flow of traffic. To say it’s a “heads-up” route is an understatement.

The shortest route for me follows highway 82, the venerable El Camino Real (The King’s Highway). At 14 miles door-to-door, it’s the most direct of the three, but by far the slowest and least enjoyable because of its many traffic lights. On the bright side, it has plenty of places to stop for breakfast or coffee, but it is also the route I name most likely to result in a premature death because of someone running a red light or making a left turn without warning.

Now I’m certainly not afraid of the freeway, but being required to exceed the posted speed limit by 10 miles an hour just to stay ahead of traffic pressure is not my idea of a leisurely commute to work. And, lately, the density of the morning commute on I-280 has all-too-often devolved into 25 mph bumper-to-bumper traffic which is definitely not enjoyable. Some motorcyclists enjoy white-line fever, splitting lanes and leaving slower congestion in their wake. I, for one, believe that you decrease your good karma significantly every time you split lanes. I also wouldn’t be at all surprised if the daily motorcycle accidents I hear about on the radio weren’t directly correlated to aggressive lane splitters.

About three months ago, I started wondering if there were options other than Hwy 101 or 280 and started to go exploring. I started carrying my camera rig in one of my saddlebags because the weather was exceedingly beautiful and if I could get some good shots on the way into work, well, so much the better. And although I never anticipated that one of my favorite bicycle roads that paralleled I-280 could be a serious candidate for a new motorcycle commute, it did run alongside a miles-long reservoir and provided very photographic scenery. So without further ado, I hopped onto State Route 92 and turned left onto Cañada Road.

The typical morning view of Crystal Springs Lake from Cañada Road

The typical morning view of Crystal Springs Lake from Cañada Road

On this first day of exploration, I saw that Highway 280 up ahead of me had very heavy traffic, so I was glad to be venturing out onto an alternate route. I had only traveled on Cañada road on my bicycle up to that point because they close the road to cars on Sundays. Along this route is the Pulgas Water Temple, the Filoli Estate and Crystal Springs Lake which is where San Francisco gets its water—pumped all the way from Yosemite’s Hetch Hechy reservoir. Cañada road contains beautiful scenery and a few very nice sweeping 50-mph curves before straightening out. The road crosses under Interstate 280 and then runs parallel to it, so you can see just how bad the traffic is on the Interstate. The final few miles degrade to a 35 mph speed limit with three stop signs terminating on Woodside road. A nice distraction at this junction is either the Woodside Bakery or Buck’s Restaurant, where commonly you can hear an entrepreneur pitching a venture capitalist over breakfast.

The wonderful food and funky decor of Buck's Restaurant of Woodside

The wonderful food and funky decor of Buck’s Restaurant of Woodside

There are a couple of ways to proceed towards Silicon Valley from Woodside. My favorite is to turn left onto Woodside Road and then make a right onto Big Whiskey Hill road after two blocks. Alternately, you can go straight past Roberts Market onto Mountain Home Road which is a picturesque 25 mph road through expensive Woodside estates. I usually opt for the 35 mph Big Whiskey Hill route because it is faster and has more sweeping views of horse farms.

A photo of the Horse Park of Woodside

The Horse Park of Woodside

Two miles later, you turn right onto Sand Hill Road which becomes Portola Road a few hundred yards further on. The speed limit increases to 40 mph and you wind through a nice two-lane country road bordered by ranches, farms, estates and vineyards. After about three miles, you enter the quaint and quite wealthy town of Portola Valley. I say quite wealthy because I looked online and found that in 2009, the aggregated income per household was almost half a million dollars annually. Portola Road tees into Alpine Road where you want to turn left and head back towards the direction of Interstate 280.

The Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto

A walking trail on the Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto

After a few miles, I saw a sign for Arastradero Road which I know crosses El Camino Real near my office, so I took it. What I found was a tremendous road that crosses the Arastradero Preserve. Not only does this road provide enough twisties to be interesting, it dead ends on Page Mill Road which is a major artery into Palo Alto. This is an area where you need to go slow, however, since there are hikers, horses and wildlife. On Page Mill Road I turned left—northeast—and found that Arastradero Road continued off to my right once again just before reaching I–280. I made the right turn back onto Arastradero Road and found that it wound through Los Altos Hills and offered me multiple final routes to my office, either by continuing all the way to El Camino Real, or by turning right onto Foothill Expressway and then winding through residential streets to my office.

On first blush, this was an unlikely commute route. But after taking it a few times, I came to appreciate how it allowed me to…
– traverse a 20+ mile commute without touching an interstate freeway
– avoid inner-city boulevards, stop signs and red lights
– incorporate gorgeous country scenery, sweeping curves and a few interesting twisties
– and only add 10 minutes over the Interstate 280 route when it’s crowded during commute hours

What I also got by taking this “secret” commute to Silicon Valley was less anxiety, more ability to think about my workday ahead, and the incredible smells of country roads including eucalyptus, grass and pine. I heartily advocate seeing if there are back roads like these that could spice up your daily commute. I would have never thought I could have found a plausible alternate commute if I didn’t open my mind to go exploring on a workday. So leave a few minutes early. Don’t schedule any meetings or conference calls for the beginning of your day. Learn how to use your motorcycle to turn an ugly commute into a great ride. The real “secret” is that you get to make this ride every day…twice! Shhhhh…don’t tell your coworkers why you are smiling.

A Cautionary Note:
These are country roads and are not ideal for motorcyclists who always feel the need for speed. I’ve seen plenty of county Sheriffs on my commute and a couple of CHPs, as well. They take a dim view of side-road shenanigans. So if you can stay within the posted speed limits and truly enjoy the beautiful sounds and smells these roads can offer, give them a try. If you are merely looking for a short-cut, stay on the freeway and split lanes like all the other biker banshees.

Ride Map: Click here for Google Map

Here is how I commute from San Mateo to Los Altos in Silicon Valley

Epilogue:
I wrote most of the post above only a few months after I got back into motorcycling. As I reread it prior to finally finishing and posting it I remember how much more anxiety I had back then cruising the freeways during commute hours than I do now. For others of you who are considering getting back into motorcycling after a long hiatus, I can tell you now after a year back in the saddle: it gets better.

Ride Map: Calaveras Reservior, Santa Clara County, CA


What a great day for a lap around Silicon Valley! My brother-in-law “Bocci” was on his usual ride: a 2010 Triumph “Bonnie.” And, I as usual, was on “MyConnie” – a 2001 blue Kawasaki Concours. We started out from our usual jumping off place in San Mateo. Then, after crossing San Francisco Bay on the historic San Mateo-Hayward bridge, we shortcut through a series of industrial parks which were virtually empty on a Sunday. Within only a few minutes, we made our way down to Niles Canyon Road, a great curvy jaunt for a crisp, clear morning.

Our objective was to ride down Calaveras Road which runs alongside the large Calaveras reservoir. There were many signs saying that the road ahead was closed due to work on the dam, but the road was actually open all the way, making us assume that the signs were for weekday work.

Calaveras Lake near Sunol, CA. photo: Janice L. Green

Calaveras Road is slow, curvy, and not well-designed as a road with many one-lane sections and blind corners that invite an accident. In fact, right before our ride, I was reading on the Pashnit Site about a rider that collided with a minivan at one of those blind corners. The vivid descriptions of his broken femur and the $4,000 air ambulance bill certainly stuck in my head while I rode around those blind corners.

The lake is idyllic within its May greenery all around. And the road was at least well-paved, if ill-designed. At the end of the lake, the park land switchbacks gave way to ranch land and rolling hills. We decided to take a side-loop around Felter Road which connects to Sierra Road. There are some beautiful houses there, some that overlook Calaveras Lake and some that overlook Silicon Valley and the south bay salt ponds.

The South Bay from Sierra Road. – Photo Credit: Richard Masoner

Since the day was young, we continued through Silicon Valley and over to Stevens Creek Road, heading up to Hwy 9 and then to Hwy 35, thinking that lunch at Alice’s Restaurant would top off our great ride. We were not disappointed. Highways 9 and 35 are a beautiful romp through the redwoods and allowed us to get up to speed with wide sweepers and a 50 mph speed limit.

Many motorcycles in front of Alice’s Restaurant - credit: Nina Hale

You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant – Photo Credit: Nina Hale

For anyone reading this who hasn’t been to Alice’s, you really need to get there someday. It is just an unassuming little restaurant, but it happens to be mecca for weekend warriors of the motorcycle kind. It is located at the confluence of a number of highways, each of which have a beautiful day ride stretching out from Alice’s to great destinations like Santa Cruz, Pescadero, Woodside, Half Moon Bay, and Skyline Drive — making it the perfect jumping off place or rallying point.

After a leisurely lunch ( leisurely because the management of Alice’s seems to value food quality more than additional wait staff – not a bad tradeoff, mind you ) we headed off up Hwy 35 back to San Mateo. All-in-all, not a bad Sunday morning ride at 124 miles and a little under four hours.

Ride Map: Calaveras Road, Santa Clara County, CA

Epilogue:
I wasn’t going to write about this, but have reconsidered because of the safety message contained within. Bocci bought a new fluorescent yellow jacket to satisfy his delusions of being able to add safety to his motorcycling pastime. He commented every time we stopped, saying, “Can you see me?” After leaving Alice’s Restaurant, we got back up to the speed limit of 50 mph and were headed down a straight stretch of Hwy 35, noticing a group of bicyclists that had stopped off of the right side of the road. Apparently, one of the bicyclists must have been very tired, because he just got on his bike and crossed Hwy 35 without really looking. I was about 50 yards behind Bocci and I saw the bicyclist start to cross directly in front of him. In what seemed like slow motion, I saw the two of them headed for the same point in space and time and I cringed, waiting for the nasty collision. But ’twas not to be. The bicycle crossed through Bocci’s path, and they missed by about four feet. I’m sure Bocci’s heart was racing, but it was all over in the blink of an eye. Just goes to show you, that all that fluorescent yellow in the world won’t necessarily make a difference to an exhausted bicyclist.

I thought the adage was: “Friends don’t let friends wear neon”?

Ride Map: Mount Hamilton


Bonnie, MyConnie and “Bocci” atop Mount Hamilton

Towering above Silicon Valley, majestic Mount Hamilton is a place I had never visited even though I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area all my life. The tallest of three mountains that rim the bay, at 4,196 feet Mount Hamilton bests Mount Diablo at 3,864 and Mount Tamalpais at 2,574 (see earlier post) feet elevation. With the weather being unseasonably warm and dry on December 31, my brother-in-law and riding buddy, “Bocci” and I decided to get one more ride in before the end of 2011.

We both live in San Mateo and saw on Google Maps that this ride was only 60 miles one-way. “No problem!” I said, worrying about being home before dark, “It should take us no time at all to get there and back.” Little did I know that we would encounter some of the longest sections of twisties in the Bay Area riding up to the summit.

We took the slightly longer, but much more scenic I-280 freeway around the bottom of the bay to where it morphs into I-680 and then exited on Alum Rock Avenue. Only a few miles up the road was the turn for Highway 130, the road to Mount Hamilton. The road was similar to those in many California foothills with a few tight turns interspersed with longer sweeping curves in between. What is deceiving about this ride is that you first need to go up and over a first set of mountains before having a fairly long stretch of road prior to climbing up to Mount Hamilton peak.

This first set of mountains provides some incredible views of the East Bay, but there aren’t any vista point pull-offs to make it easy to stop and take photos. Much of the road lacks guard rails and there are precipitous cliffs at the road’s edge, so this is a good road to practice caution and have your speed under control. Last year, I came partway up this road and nearly ran into a flock of turkeys! What is it with turkeys and motorcycles? This makes three times I’ve nearly hit the stupid birds wandering across well-traveled highways! A full grown coyote also deftly crossed the road well ahead of our bikes as we came down the mountain. Suffice it to say that this is a “heads up” ride more suited to intermediate and above riders rather than novices.

The first set of mountains gave way to the beautiful and intriguing Joseph D. Grant County Park and Halls Valley Lake, known for its bass, catfish and crappie fishing. This enticed me to do further exploring on another day, but Bocci and I kept our goal in mind and pressed onwards towards Mount Hamilton. We traveled onward and worried that we might have missed the turnoff, but then noticed the prominent observatory buildings on the mountain peak far above beckoning us to continue.

Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton

Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton

Having our goal in sight didn’t mean it was close by. We traveled another fifteen minutes and only then found the Mount Hamilton turnoff sign which noted it was still seven twisty steep miles before reaching the summit. We came across many ambitious bicyclists along the road and were passed by a number of lightweight dirt bike riders festooned with helmet cams. Eventually, we arrived at the summit and went alongside the observatory building to its parking lot and were not disappointed by this the most spectacular view of the Bay Area.

Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton

The Lick Observatory

Mount Hamilton panorama

The view from Mount Hamilton

Above is a panorama I shot and stitched together to give just a partial view from the summit. We were surprised to see another panorama in a photo inside the observatory that showed Yosemite’s Half Dome as seen from Mount Hamilton! Since Yosemite is a four-hour drive away, you don’t imagine that this elegant dome could be seen from your own Bay Area backyard, but it can! Here is a photo I clipped from the web showing California’s most famous peak.

Half Dome from Mount Hamilton

Half Dome as seen from Mount Hamilton

More amazing facts were found inside the Lick Observatory, such as…
– The Lick Observatory was built in 1887
– It was the first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory in the world
– In 1939, because of a nighttime fog that engulfed the summit, an Air Force A-17 attack plane crashed into the main building (only the 2 pilots were killed)
Suffice it to say that you could spend a lot of time visiting and enjoying the Observatory. We didn’t see that the telescopes were available to visit, and we didn’t have time to ask to see if that would be possible at all. On my next visit, I’m going to find out ahead of time whether it is possible to visit at night and participate in a star gazing event. What a wonderful gem to have hidden in plain view of where we live and work! Here is a photo taken in the direction of Mount Hamilton from my office in Sunnyvale March 2006 with the snow level falling down to 2,000 feet!

Snow on Mount Hamilton and surrounding foothills - March 2006

Coming down off the mountain, a bicyclist drafted behind Bocci the whole way! I actually felt pressured to speed up because he wasn’t 20 feet behind my brother-in-law’s Triumph Bonneville and no matter what we did, we couldn’t shake him until arriving on flat ground. It was amazing that he could keep up and not slide out in the many curves that had handfuls of gravel in them. I would label him an idiot if he didn’t show such nerve and skill.

My final comments to anyone reading this post is “do this ride!” And go early enough to spend time taking lots of photos and poking around Lick Observatory. If you are really into astronomy, see what public programs are available for nighttime star gazing (if any), but don’t attempt this road at night on a bike.

Learn More:
Mount Hamilton Web Cam
Time lapse video of the day of our ride
Lick Observatory on Wikipedia 

Ride Map: Click here for Google Map

Ride Report:
– Date: December 31, 2011
– Roads: A well paved road with sections of fresh paving, generally smooth with intermittent sections that are not well-cambered
– Scenery: Mountains, canyons, valleys and a unique view of Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area
– Weather: Perfect for New Year’s Eve: mid-50s on the mountain top, no wind or rain.
– Ride: Tight, steep twisties with precipitous cliffs at road’s edge. Be careful and ride within your limits!
– Challenge: Intermediate to advanced (doable, but not fun for beginners)
– Food: Bring your own for during the ride, but there are vending machines with drinks and snacks at Lick Observatory
– Gas: As this is not far from civilization, gas should not be a problem. But, there is no gas available en route, so make sure your tank is filled
– Rating: 5-stars (out of 5) for overall enjoyment, although the ride itself was challenging and less fun than a romp in the Sierras
Additional Fun: Inside Lick Observatory is a gift shop and U.S. Post Office. Bring or buy some post cards and drop them in the box so you can delivered them postmarked from atop Mount Hamilton. This is a fun activity that so many people have forgotten to take advantage of.

Additional Ride Photos: