Watson On: The Highway To Hell

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Category: HFL

There appears to be a constant debate amongst the U.S. motorcycle community as to which are the best riding roads here and in the rest of the world. I’ve ridden a few of these “best” American roads and am none the wiser, while over in Europe I have found that the highly recommended places to ride suck big time.

For example, friends of mine get all glassy-eyed about Germany’s notorious Nurburgring. I confess I have never ridden a bike around it. I did agree to go in the back seat of a car once with some Italian work colleagues. After less than half a lap we crawled out of the car’s smashed rear window and surveyed the damage of the upturned Fiat. I swore right there I’d never set foot in the place again.

Nurburgring
Nurburgring

Yet motorcycle loving friends of mine think the ‘ring, as they refer to it, is the ultimate place to go and ride a bike at the limit. You pay around $36 and for that you get to ride one lap on one of the most astonishing race circuits anywhere in the world. There are no speed limits or anything really to stop the stupid wiping themselves and others out. You get to mix it up with road cars, race cars and motorcycles. The important thing to remember when you’re out there is that it’s not a race and always keep to the right. After that it’s down to you to make it around the track in one piece.

The Nurburgring was built in 1927 and snakes its way through heavily forested hillsides with more than 1000 feet of elevation changes. It’s probably claimed more drivers and riders lives than any other track that I can think of. Anyone can turn up with your bike today and pay to ride on its tortuous 12.9-mile long circuit. Many who do, simply don’t return and die out there. There are no run off areas, there are 33 left hand and 40 right hand corners and like the hills you fly up and over, they are all completely blind. It is completely bonkers.

Nurburgring
Nurburgring

Unfortunately, motorcyclists die on the ‘ring too, but I have a feeling they just shoot off into the trees and are never found again and are therefore not included in the annual fatality statistics, which at the last count was averaging 10 deaths a year. If you are thinking of trying a lap, it’s good to know that if you damage the Armco barriers during an accident, you (or your family if you die) will end up paying for the repairs. And if your accident closes the track for an extended period, that’ll cost too.

On the plus side, the ‘ring is no longer a car or motorcycle Grand Prix track. That’s not surprising really as even the professionals nicknamed the place The Green Hell.

Even with all of that against you, there is someone trying to set a new lap record around the Nurburgring. Currently the motorcycle lap record at the Nordschleife (as the Germans call it) was set by Tim Rothig who, in 2008 on a Suzuki GSX-R 1000, posted a time of 7 minutes 46.7 seconds − and lived to tell the tale.

That’s an average speed of 99.96 mph, which is completely and utterly barking mad. The Nurburgring though is one of Europe’s great motorcycle destinations with thousands flocking there ever year to test their bikes and I suppose ultimately themselves. I simply don’t understand why. For me it’s just too dangerous.

Stelvio Pass
Stelvio Pass

I also don’t understand the hype of the Stelvio Pass, another great European riding destination.  I was told for years and years by motorcycle loving friends and automotive journalists that I had to go and ride or drive this road and it would change my entire life. It was, in their opinion, simply the best driving road in Europe. Heck, even Moto Guzzi named one of its bikes after it. The BBC’s Top Gear series not so long ago named it as the greatest road on the planet, only to promptly change its mind and say that the best was actually an obscure mountain road in Eastern Europe.

You may well have seen photographs or even videos of the Stelvio Pass that runs between Switzerland and Italy. It looks like an achingly beautiful riding road with hairpin bend after hairpin bend (72 in total if my memory serves correctly) as far as the eye can see.

Stelvio Pass
Stelvio Pass

The reality is, the Stelvio Pass is plain dreadful. It may be, at 9000 feet, the highest paved road in Europe, but it’s also slow, repetitive and I am probably going to get banned for life from the place for saying this, it’s actually quite boring.

You have to ride really cautiously as there are sheer drops on some sides with little protection. Everybody coming towards you is either trying to break a speed record or is equally as cautious and you pass each other with frozen grins pretending you’re having a good time while stuck behind a tourist bus that is rumbling along at 15 mph full of sight seeing German pensioners.

If you want to really experience the Stelvio Pass then you need to get up at 4 am and blast up it from the Italian side to the Swiss side. The chances are at even at that hour in the dark you’ll still be held up by a procession of RV’s and tourist busses.

Tail of the Dragon
Tail of the Dragon

There are a couple of roads here in the U.S. that have been highly recommended to me by fellow motorcyclists as great roads to ride. The 11-mile, 318 curve Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina.

I have grappled with the Ortega Highway here in Southern California and hated every inch of it. Not the road but the sheer lunacy of other road users and I’m including fellow motorcyclists in that group.

Tail of the Dragon
Tail of the Dragon

My best road? There is a road in Nevada I know of in the mountains that is quiet, empty of traffic, miles from the nearest town and I could ride that road all day every day. But I’m keeping it a secret, as I don’t want you turning up.

What places do you dream of riding?

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