The mountain roads of Santa Barbara, CA have the plump curves and stunning views that you barely have time to take in on motorcycle.
On one side, a cliff that falls for an innumerable number of feet -- I’ve never bothered to estimate -- when you’re ripping corners in jeans, a t-shirt, and converse, there’s no second to spare on the consequences of breaking your line.
The other side: a mountainous face with fingerling weeds and stubborn boulders. A rider on these roads is the epicenter of ascent and descent.
I ride a 1982 Kawasaki KZ550C. I found it on Craigslist stored in a sterile garage in Ventura, CA. I lowered the handlebars and threw some bar ends mirrors on her. I’ve kept up with basic maintenance and replaced the chain and sprockets. The back suspension is fucked and my front brake squeals when i squeeze it lightly, but my steed is comfortable and reliable. It was love at first sight.
I won’t say that riding is a way of life -- like so many new and oblivious riders would -- but it’s my freedom. When the helmet straps on, the gloves are tight, and Betty levels out around 55mph, my mind is clear. But it’s a moment that doesn’t come for free.
When your back tire slips, it isn’t free.
From start to finish, East Camino Cielo is a solid 1.5 hour ride. It’s a gem. After about an hour in from my preferred point of entry off CA 154 the road turns to freshly paved gold. Black gold. So fresh that it still stinks.
There are turnouts flanking the road where vehicles can pull out to take in the views. When they pull back on, their tires drag sandy pebbles into the road; the kind of pebbles that might cause a motorcycle to drop. And that’s what happened to me. Almost.
I came around the corner on my line. Betty was brushing 8,000 RPMs in second gear. My components are busted, but I know what 8k feels like; 2k from the redline. I dropped into the left turn. Too fast, but I held it. Half way. Almost clear.
And then I fell out of sync with gravity, overwhelmed by that stomachless feeling. I had gotten squirrelly before, but I’d never dropped. The professionals tell you to just go down if you feel yourself falling -- never try to correct. A low side is always better than a high side. But I’m stupid and lucky so I went for the save.
I killed the throttle and heard a screech -- my tire grabbed, and the moment was fast approaching where I would go down… or pop up! My feet were off the pegs -- only my hands had a hold on the bike. Betty straightened herself out with me hovering inches off the seat, I landed back on the bike, and dropped into a hard turn to avoid the a sheer cliff.
This time Betty held like a champ.
It was kind of her to gently bump me up while she straightened out. “Ejection seat” is the usual, and violent, result of losing traction and regaining it like I did. I think she loves me like a rescue dog loves their owner.
I rescued her from withering away and in return she’s guiding me -- firmly but gently -- through the ropes of riding two wheels.