Living la vida Laguna Seca!

by frEEk

There are certain things that everyone has to experience at least once. Everyone needs to stay up all night and watch the sunrise. Every guy has to go to a strip club. Every Elvis fanatic has to visit Graceland. And every sportbike rider has to ride the California coast and go to MotoGP. We just have to. It's universal law.

Of course, not all riders are up to the challenge. And make no mistake, riding a couple thousand miles through some of the world's best motorcycling roads is a challenge, especially when your bike is loaded with all the gear you need to spend a couple weeks on the road and at the track. Muscling your weighted down bike through twisties every day is one helluva workout, and you don't stop and take a day off to rest after every day of riding. But then the challenge is part of the attraction. This is after all what I would call true riding: you, your bike, a thousand miles of awesome roads, and several days to do nothing else but string them together and enjoy. You ain't riding to the Starbucks and back home. You're not even riding your local day loop then retiring to your house and your daily life. For the next week or more, you are truly a biker.

Now as much as it may not suit the cool biker image, weeks before you leave you want to start planning. Between finding recommendations on the best route, getting your bike in shape for a long trip (there are a lot of places where a shop and parts are a long way off, so you want everything in top shape), and putting together a checklist of everything you need to pack, there is a lot of work to do. That last part is surprisingly challenging. Every time you make a big trip you end up needing one or two new things you didn't pack, so you want to be as complete as possible. Yet there is definitely a skill in balancing completeness vs compactness and light weight. Having the right equipment certainly helps, such as a compact tent (see our review on the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL1) and sleeping bag. You probably won't get it quite right the first time, but don't worry, after the first trip you'll be hooked, so you'll have plenty of chances to improve your packing list for the next trip.

Possibly even harder than planning your gear is planning your route. More specifically, planning your accommodation. Although the vagabond romantic in me would love to just go where the bike takes me and stop for the night when I feel like it, unless you're riding in the off season you may find yourself without a place to sleep when you're done for the day. This is especially true for a trip like the ride to Laguna Seca for MotoGP, as the California coast in July is a very popular place. Whether you're camping or hoteling it, you run a high risk of finding a lot of "Full/No Vacancy" signs. For this reason more than anything, if you can find a riding partner or group that has done this trip before and knows the roads, how far you'll probably get each day, and where to make reservations, you'd do well to ask to join the gang.

Speaking of accommodations, there's a strong debate on the hotel vs camping question. No doubt, camping is the purer of the two options. If feels very nice to have everything you need, short of food and fuel, self contained on your bike. And if you find the right campground it's hard to beat for sheer beauty of experience. But assuming you're past your early 20s, after a hard day of riding you don't always feel like setting up your tent, squeezing yourself and all your gear into it, and resting your weary bones on a thin camping mat. Don't even get me started on how miserable the experience can be if it's raining and cold.

Setup for the night and ready to relax.

Enough of the boring planning stuff! That's for squares and we're bikers right? Time to hit the road, and pulling out of your driveway at the beginning of this trip is absolutely titillating. You know what's ahead of and can't wait to get into the good stuff. Leaving from Vancouver, BC, I unfortunately have a bit of a commute to begin with. Through downtown and an entire day spent on the superslab titled I5 takes me a bit south of Portland, OR. This highway drone has its own challenges, those being the traffic and trying to avoid adding any "speed tax" to your trip. The I5 runs through a couple major city centers - in States that don't let you lane split - and unless you time your trip just perfectly, you're going to spend some time in gridlock. Not exactly what you were looking for in the ultimate biking experience. The one upside is you can revel in your cool image of fully loaded sportbike, while the cagers around you can only look on with envy. Luckily for me, the end of this day's commute sees me arriving at a friend's house, a friend from Bikeland by the name of Dino - who would be joining me for the rest of the trip.

And this is one of the secondary joys of making this trip. You invariably end up meeting a lot of kindred spirits; fellow bikers who share the need to live the open road and soak up the atmosphere that you can only find at a motorcycle race event. It takes a certain type of person to take on this trip, and a lot of them are very interesting folks. For some people certainly, the friendships made and solidified on the road are what it's all about. But for others, it's all about the riding, so it is time to hit the road again and head for the good stuff.

Day two sees my newly acquired riding partner Dino and myself leave the dreaded I5 at Grant's Pass, Oregon. After a couple more hours of highway droning we start heading south west towards the California border and the beginning of motorcycling Nirvana. The road isn't too exciting for a while - yet, but the change of scenery and traffic compared to the superslab is welcome. We're definitely into small town America here, lots of farmland and forest interrupted by the odd tiny town. Traffic is, as one would expect, light.

Some 10 miles from the border we discuss the fact that we are running behind schedule (we are hoping to meet Bikeland's fish_antlers and Princesskiwi a bit south of Eureka tonight) but decide to roll the dice and choose the longer, but much more enjoyable, route. We hang a left down an even smaller road that has so little traffic it feels deserted. Some 10 miles further... we arrive. Ahead of us lies about 150 miles of pretty much nonstop twisties. This is why we are here, why I am willing to take almost two weeks of time I don't have and some $1500 of cash I can't afford to make this trip. There simply isn't anything that compares to these roads where I live, or most any other place. And the thing is, this is only the beginning. Tomorrow we continue to more twisties, many even better than what we're salivating over now. And this is one of those rare cases where the reality actually lives up to the anticipation. The riding is awesome. The corners just keep coming at you, some medium, some tight, with the odd brief straight just when you need it so you don't take the corners for granted. I find myself thinking a smaller bike with no baggage would be more appropriate but the challenge of hustling a loaded, larger machine through the bends has its own appeal. After what seems like simultaneously a long time and the blink of an eye, we arrive in Happy Camp, and boy would I be happy to camp here and just spend the next few days riding the roads around here... that is, if I didn't already know it gets even better further south. We stop to fill up (a frequent event on a bike trip like this where you are eating through the tank fast and you never know how far it is to the next gas pump), to ponder the heavy smoke produced by the raging forest fires this year (it is literally raining ash), and to say hi to another group of riders we come across, similarly equipped for several days on the road.

Dino and a fellow rider in Happy Camp

After filling up we take the south-west route (one of only 3) out of Happy Camp. The road is a bit more mellow but still a lot of fun. After the workout the twisties further north provided, a little less taxing riding is fine with me. But just because the road eases up, doesn't mean you can completely relax, as we were about to find out in a very violent way. Less than an hour after leaving Happy Camp, Dino is lying on the pavement, done for this year's trip. He did everything right, slowing right down when he saw a deer, waiting till it left the road and ran into the woods before accelerating again. Mother nature however, decided to almost literally throw a stick into his spokes as the deer came running back out of the woods and straight into Dino's front wheel. He braked for all his brand-new ZX-10R was worth, and that's saying something when it's Dino at the controls. This guy is good. He's the kind of rider that other good riders watch and say "damn, he's good". But it still wasn't enough. End result: one bike with munched headlights and plastic plus a missing footpeg, and one Dino suffering a world of hurt and a year or more of recuperation, but lucky to be alive. A yin of bad luck that big certainly demands at least a bit of yang, and that arrived in the form of an ambulance that was only about 15 minutes away thanks to the forest fires. Any other time Dino may have been lying there in grotesque pain (yet enduring it unbelievably well) for two hours. I stayed on that ambulance's tail all the way to Eureka some two hours (and a nearly empty tank) away, cursing the beautiful twisty route all the way as it did its best to make Dino's ride to the hospital slow and rough. Yes, I wished for superslab to replace 80 miles of California twisties. For shame.

The next morning saw me wishing (and feeling like) it was all a dream and pondering the safety of our chosen hobby. It was certainly a reminder that motorcycling comes with some very real dangers, and even if you do everything to minimize the risks you can still end up in the dirt. And this is probably one of the biggest factors that divide bikers from those who don't ride. Some people simply cannot get past the thought that you are putting yourself in danger, even though they accept the risk of getting into the car to go to the grocery store. Go figure.

Back on the road, and minus my riding partner, I soon find myself at Legget, 90 miles south, and at the beginning of my single favorite stretch of road on the whole trip. I suppress a pang of guilt at being here while Dino lies in a hospital bed in Portland by reminding myself that Dino would kick my ass for thinking like that. I fill up at a gas station that would give an image consultant a heart attack for all the disrepair, then literally gulp as I roll west onto the northern terminus of the famous California Highway 1. The corners come at me hot and heavy for 20 miles straight. Even among this stretch of near constant tight bends there are a couple stretches that stand out, with several miles of corners marked 10 to 20mph in quick succession. With perfect pavement and virtually NO cages to boot. On the odd occasion where a cage does get in your way, passing is a breeze. Nerves are kept on edge as I keep a hair trigger on the brakes every time I come around a blind right corner (there are quite a few of them) in case there is a nearly-stopped cage on the other side, but thankfully my braking skills are never put to the test. The sandy cut banks on the immediate edge of the road have me constantly on the lookout for dirt on the pavement, yet almost miraculously the road remains clean. I swear they must have a street sweeper that takes a pass on this road every night. The perfection continues as I flick (as much as you can "flick" a 460lb dry bike with a full camping load) the bike through the corners, when all of a sudden I come around a corner to a vision that I can only compare to seeing the light of the Pearly Gates at the end of your tunnel. After 20 miles of riding through thick forest and following a river at the bottom of a very tight and steep valley, the road hits the wide open California coast. The transition is quite breathtaking. The coast here is quite severe, with rough waves hitting the tall cliff side mercilessly, creating jagged spires that poke through the shallows like from some kind of apocalypse movie. There is a well-worn pull off right where you hit the coast, and it is easy to see why. Every year when I pass this point there are a few bikes pulled over here, taking pictures, resting from the dream they just experienced, and excitedly recounting the last 20 miles, sharing every last hiccup and pointing out to each other that they got their tires scrubbed in hard right to the edge. Sadly, I now have no-one to shoot the shit with this year however, so I don't stop at the pullout, choosing instead to enjoy the signature of this coastline: stretches of pretty relaxing road with a lot of straights, interrupted by short bursts of insane cliff-hugging low speed corners as the road follows the coast inland for a few hundred feet where a creek has cut a miniature fjord into the cliff sides.

I also enjoy the cool air. Head inland 5 or so miles from the coast and California turns into an oven, but when you are right on the water it is always cold. Not just comfortably warm, it's cold. But it's easier to put on an extra layer in the cold than to cool down when the air is so hot that riding faster doesn't cool you down anymore. But that doesn't stop me from heading inland anyway, because between Highway 1 and 101, about 30 miles east, lie some fantastic roads. Highway 20 between Fort Bragg and Willits is a long time favorite, as is Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs Road (say that 10 times fast) which Dino and I stumbled upon several years ago quite by accident. Previous trips have seen us double back on these roads because they were simply too good to just ride once. Others, such as the 128, have some very nice sections but are not as consistently twisty as the superstars, such as the 36, whose western terminus lies just south of Eureka. There are plenty of other roads in the area which look like they have big potential judging by the map (Google Maps has revolutionized the game of exploring roads and route planning by the way), which means that every trip offers another opportunity to explore a bit, and perhaps find a new favorite. But sometimes it is hard to pull yourself away from the tried and tested roads you know. Frankly it's hard to go wrong short of sitting on the 101 or the I5.

Typical NorCal country

Continuing south towards Laguna Seca, the number 1 offers up some insanely twisty sections as you approach San Francisco. Unfortunately, the constant beating the road receives from the severe coast weather means the pavement is sometimes so bumpy I end up crawling at close to cage speed. Crawling is something I would be doing a lot of if I choose to head straight through San Fran after crossing the great icon that is the Golden Gate Bridge. Thankfully, there is another option. A hard right immediately after clearing the tool booth takes me right along the coast and clear past the congestion of the city, and eventually dumps me right back onto Highway 1 after it has come to its senses and split from the 101. But I don't stay with my Pacific Coast mistress for long, for there are more exciting roads to be ridden (blasphemy, I know!). At Half Moon Bay I head inland a bit on the 92 and soon find myself turning onto the poetically named Skyline Boulevard. Another favorite. Seemingly suffering from a frequent case of only the lightest of traffic, with incredible views and a comfortingly lonely personality, this road may not be as hard core twisty as some of the superstars farther north, but it is still a feast for the chicken strips, plus it offers up a cultural surprise. You may even count this as another "must do" experience. Alice's Restaurant, made famous by motorcicle-riding folk singer Arlo Guthry, sits at the intersection of Skyline and La Honda Road, offering riders a pace to rest, to gas up, and perhaps to grab a bite.

Time to decide once again which route to continue on. Alice's sits at a 4 way intersection and every direction leads to a beautiful road. You could spend a couple days just enjoying this small section of land south of San Fran, west of the populous areas stretching south-east of the city, and north of Santa Cruz. This time I decide to continue along Skyline, until the next major intersection, where I take the 9 south-west as it looks rather curvy on the map. The map does not lie, but it doesn't tell the full truth either when I choose to take the longer loop offered up by route 236. This road turns out to be quite possibly the twistiest road I've ever ridden, and provides an incredibly beautiful forest view to boot. Sadly, it is also really bumpy in many places and is strewn with forest junk from time to time, a result of being almost entirely under a forest canopy and all but deserted. I find myself wishing for a supermoto for the first time ever. This short loop back to the 9 takes far longer than expected (you get used to things not going as expected on these trips) as I have to ride so slow. The ZX-12R definitely doesn't have a low enough first gear for this road.

Next thing I know I'm riding through famous Santa Cruz and back on the 1 with a fairly straight shot to Monterey and my final destination: Laguna Seca. The bikes are starting to get thick now, as many track-destined riders are arriving early Thursday evening, like myself. I can only imagine how packed with bikes this stretch of highway must be on Friday evening or Saturday morning as the weekenders arrive. Thursday seems to bring the more hard core riders who have traveled far to get here and look forward to camping at the track for several days. A number will already arrive Wednesday, before SCRAMP (the organization that runs the track, including camping) takes over from the County.

I hit Monterey and head inland the 7 miles to the track entrance. Somehow this stretch of road has grown to feel familiar over the years, like a neighborhood I lived in when I was a child. It's a home stretch of sorts. And here I am, at the gates digging for my tickets, briefly freaking out thinking I have forgotten or lost them before finding them stuffed in a corner of my very cramped and not all that well packed bags. Up the long and surprisingly steep driveway to the top of the hill and there it is: Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in all its sun-parched glory. Much of the track sits at the bottom of a natural bowl, making for many fantastic viewing angles. Except for those parts that are hidden by Fox Hill, the top of which I will be inhabiting for the next 4 nights.

Fox Hill as viewed from the inner track

I cross the track on the bridge between turns five and six, then head up the worn out pavement and finally dirt road to the very top of the hill and let my bike rest on the puck-supported sidestand (the leg would sink right into the mix of freshly cut dry grass and sandy dirt without a puck). Time to meet challenge #1 upon arriving at Fox Hill: finding a reasonably level spot to set up the tent. Laguna Seca's description of "open/unimproved camping" is apt. There are no designated camp sites here, you just find the best spot you can and position your tent so you don't roll off your sleeping pad with the angle of the ground. There are precious few spots that could be considered close to level. Best arrive by early Thursday afternoon if you want a chance at grabbing one of the good ones. There are a few clumps of low, somewhat gnarly trees at the top of the hill that offer some shade; I make sure to find a spot under one as I know just how hot it can get here. Don't think they'll keep you dry though: the California coast fog turns them into shower stalls nightly.

California coast morning fog

Did I mention it gets foggy? Unless you live on the south west coast you don't know what fog is. You can literally feel this stuff. And it shows up almost every night here, and sticks around till mid morning when the hot inland air pushes it back out to sea. I already mentioned that the coast is always cold. Well that cold comes inland to the track every night, providing a strong contrast to the blistering hot sun and clear skies you deal with most every day. Fog and an over-zealous sun aren't the only things to deal with on the hill though; the wind sometimes decides to throw its hat into the ring. This year brought some rather blustery days that had me glad I brought a quality tent from Big Agnesa and didn't forget the stakes.

Top of Fox Hill, fully populated

Thankfully the tent is the only thing I ever feel needs to be bolted down. Fox Hill has a real safe feeling to it. I suppose it is simply because you know you are surrounded by fellow bikers, "real" bikers who pack light and travel far, and there is a sense that no such person would be low enough to steal any of the few precious possessions you have with you. I've never locked up anything other than my bike, and haven't noticed anyone do differently. Even when the place is mostly deserted in the middle of the day while most are wandering the vendor area or paddocks, sitting on the hillside watching the on-track events, or gone off-track for a ride, most everyone's campsite is left wide open. That's not to say that the whole track is safe. The showers are notoriously unpleasant; flip-flops in the shower are a must. Thankfully this year they seem significantly improved. The showers and their complementary permanent bathroom facilities are a bit of a walk though. All you have on the hill is a line of port-a-potties and a water tank on a trailer. Once again "open/unimproved" rings true. No doubt about it, this is roughing it.

Looking down on the inner track without fog

Of course there is much more to Laguna Seca than camping. There is the whole motorcycle racing thing. There is something happening on the track from about 8am to 5pm all three days of the event. There are a number of classes racing here this weekend and besides the race, each class needs qualifying and free practice times. Good thing too, as there are many interesting angles to view the action, and all the track time gives you lots of time to try out different spots and decide which one you like best. Many find some shade on the back of Fox Hill and watch the infamously challenging corkscrew, while others prefer the front of Fox Hill where most of the track is laid out in front of you. Some choose to get grandstand seats to be closer to the action. Some know the right people and score free pit suite seats where they look down at the hot pits. Too bad I don't know any of those people.

One of many race teams setup in the paddock

Racing action isn't all there is to see though. The organizers throw in plenty of crowd-pleasing entertainment in the form of top-flight stunt shows, trials demonstrations, and even a few concerts. However the biggest "entertainment" seems to come in the form of commercial presence. All the major manufacturers bring their biggest tents and at least one of each of their bikes to show off. It's like a full fledged bike show. Inside the middle of a track. At a MotoGP and AMA Supersport & Superbike event. Awesome. Of course what bike show would be complete without aftermarket goodies, gear, and accessories? Well those are here in spades too. A loop through the vendor area will give you access to damn near every aftermarket motorcycle product available in the US. It's like a large mall with nothing but motorcycle stores. And half the stores are staffed by top level people in the company that makes the product (unlike most bike shows where it's just some local know-nothing rep). I repeat: awesome. Most everyone has a race special on too, so you see a lot of people coming here with a fist full of dollars and a list of things they want to use on the ride home.

Trials champion Geoff Aaron puts on an impressive demo

Not everything here is awesome though. The food is typical for an event like this: overpriced and underportioned. Not to mention flavorless. The lucky (or smart) have access to one of the many hospitality tents, either run by a company for their loyal customers, or provided by the track for those willing to shell out for a pricey "Hospitality" ticket.

After the day's activities wind down, many head to Cannery Row on Monterey's waterfront where several blocks are closed down for the evening so bikers looking for a way to spend the evening hours can park along the sidewalk next to a few hundred (thousand?) other bikes and wander the boulevard checking out what everyone else brought. You won't find many of your buddies from Fox Hill parked here so much as show bikes which were clearly built for the Starbucks run more than a cross-country run. I've never seen such an impressive collection of show and custom bikes, both cruisers and sportbikes, at any of the International Motorcycle Shows I've attended. Every restaurant and bar along Cannery Row is jam packed, as are the sidewalks and the pedestrian filled street. The tone is excited yet calm. It's a very friendly vibe shared by a huge crowd of people who are mostly all serious devotees to the biker lifestyle. After all, the most casual biker won't travel a few hours from San Francisco, if not a day from LA, or several days from much farther reaches of the continent. I wonder if all the show bikes I see were trailered in on a support vehicle or their riders are so deep into the biker lifestyle that they are willing to spend their time and money customizing a bike and then risk their masterpiece by riding it here.

Cannery Row after dark, both sides of the street lined solid with bikes

Back to the track to stumble around in the dark while finding my way to my tent, hidden as it now is among a sea of tents packed tight together at the top of Fox Hill. It is cold as Hell getting ready for bed in the midst of the fog and ocean air that has moved in. Now settled in and having thanked the rain Gods for another dry day so I don't have to worry about squeezing all my gear into my compact tent, sleep finds me quickly. Hanging out at a track is surprisingly tiring.

Saturday and Sunday bring more of the same fun, and a visit or two with Bikeland members who are in attendance, such as the ever hospitable Big Gar and his better half. Chit-chat with campsite neighbors eats a fair bit of time too. It's hard not to get sucked into lengthy conversations with people who obviously share a lot with you. I wonder if all that time stuck inside a helmet means we feel the need to talk more to make up lost time once the helmet comes off...

Next thing I know it is race day. After some warm-up sessions and one of the support races, it's time for the main event. MotoGP starts with a serious introduction including the singing of the National Anthem, an Air Force fly-by, and a visit from a skydiving team. The stands, largely empty for most of the weekend, are completely packed now. All the good general-admission viewing spots are equally packed. The race starts and people go nuts and don't let off for the next 45 minutes or so. Even though I haven't followed the series closely this year, it's easy to get into the spirit, cheering and "oh no!"ing as my favorites make and lose places. This year I'm watching from the Turn 11 grandstands which sit near the beginning of the front straight, along with fish_antlers and Princesskiwi. Support seems to be largely split between Stoner and Rossi, with the crowd exclaiming both ways whenever either makes a move. In the end Stoner appeared to choke coming into turn 11 and Rossi flew past, never to look back. Though the majority seemed to be backing Stoner, everyone erupted into cheering when Rossi crossed the finish line to take his first win at Laguna.

Grandstands at capacity for the main event. Nobody sits down for the entire race.

This headline race isn't the end of the weekend. The AMA Superbike race starts just an hour after MotoGP is done, but much of the crowd is already rushing to their vehicles (mostly cages) to get back home to San Fran or LA tonight. I choose not to fight the crowds plugging up all exits from the track and the highways beyond, opting instead to spend another night here and head out in the morning. By the time the Superbike race is over and I head back up the hill to my tent, most of the campers have left, and several more are in the middle of packing up. Only a few, mostly the same people who were already here when I arrived, remain. We trade stories from the road and share favorite routes, each insisting that their state offers the best roads in the country. These are people that understand why I put all the effort and money into this trip, and why I endure the less than comfortable aspects of camping from a motorcycle.

The trip home usually seems to be a bit shorter as I'm getting tired of riding and ready to get home. Never thought I'd say that. Who could ever get tired of riding such beautiful roads? But while the joy and appreciation remains, fact is riding a sportbike is very tiring, especially when you're hitting twisties like these all day. If you have loved ones waiting at home, you find yourself missing them too, as much as you may have been happy to have a break from them when you started this epic trip. So you ride a little longer each day, and sometimes even opt for a stretch of I5 instead of taking the longer route through more twisties. A few years ago I went so far as to ride from northern Cali all the way hope to Vancouver, BC in one go. Suffice it to say that arriving home at 3am after leaving that morning at 8am isn't something I recommend. But sometimes you just want to get back to your own bed and a fresh change of clothes, so you push on.

And thus you realize there is one more thing everyone has to experience: the heretofore unimaginably comforting joy of arriving back home. But the feeling doesn't last long, because a couple weeks later I'm already thinking about next year's trip...

Watch turns two and four right from your tent

Teams hard at work in the paddock

Catch one of several concerts, this one complete with umbrella girl backup dancers

Did I mention umbrella girls?!?

Tent with a view


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