By Jim Hanna
After a year-and-a-half of licking its fire and flood inflicted wounds, the Angeles Crest Highway opened on Friday, June 3, 2011, only to be inundated by another flood--of motorcyclists, bicyclists, sports car drivers, tentatively piloted minivans and cruising patrol units with itchy ticket fingers. Of course, I was one of those careening droplets because I have a motorcycle (1995 BMW R1100R) and a flexible schedule (no job).
What’s so special about this road? Proximity: It’s right here. It’s an airy, undulating whip, flicking the top shelf of the Angeles National Forest. It’s an on/off-camber, peek-a-boo look at Los Angeles, San Gabriel and San Bernadino counties--those valley baking sheets dotted with the glowering urban cookies everyone is turning a crank to escape. For day-trippers it’s a long string of scenic turnouts, picnic spots and hikes ranging in difficulty from Lazy Boy to Rescue Gurney. For road cyclists it’s a chance to be Lance in France without the visa hassle, and for mountain-bikers there’s every size and shape of rock they could possibly want to wrap their ribs around. For motorcyclists such as myself, it’s a gift wrapped up in a long solid yellow ribbon.
There are subsets within the subset of motorcyclists. The Harleys -- slow, wide, loud, chrome -- picture a pimp’s garbage truck. I kid. I like Harleys. Two Julys ago, I rented a full-boat Harley Electra Glide Classic and, with Elizabeth the Adventurous comfortably perched upon the tufted leather queen’s throne, we had a wonderful trip up the Pacific Coast Highway to Big Sur. It handled surprisingly well, got 50 mpg and had a soothing stock Harley exhaust burble (as opposed to the injurious sonic beat down that the hardcore Harley crowd likes to strafe car alarms and sidewalk cafes with). The Angeles Crest Harley guys pretty much slow-cruise and meet up at the gathering spot of Newcomb’s Ranch to catch a burger and wax their mustaches in the reflection of their gas tanks.
Then there are the motorcyclists many Angeles Crest users view as the bane of the road, the racer boys. Most of these guys are in full possession of that odd mix of “I’m one in a million,” and “It won’t happen to me,” mindset. They’re usually decked out in so much gaudy leather, they look like they’re either about to race at Laguna Seca, or go to a Halloween party dressed as a Denny’s booth. Many have top-level riding skills, and get into postures on their Ducatis/Suzukis/ACME Rocketsleds that resemble the little known Kama Sutra position, The Smoldering Knee Slide. But they aren’t clairvoyant, which you pretty much have to be to let it all hang out through blind curves equally available to oncoming drivers more focused on thumbing the new iThing du jour than on maintaining centerline parity.
That’s why an all too common sight on the side of the Angeles Crest is the fire department paramedics’ red E350s, idling at the end of a long fresh set of fuel soaked scratch marks in the asphalt amid jagged bike parts and a $600 helmet turned into a cleaved, seeping, mush holder.
The racer boys seem most contemptuous of their slower-going cousins, and less open to mixing at the Newcomb Ranch smelting pot, because, it seems, they feel superior. To them I say this: By far the most skilled motorcycle riders I’ve ever seen are in Indonesia. I saw a family of five on a Honda 90. Make that six if you count the chicken the grandmother was holding.
I understand the temptation to test oneself on a motorcycle, and the Angeles Crest Highway calls to you, too. It sounds corny I know, but it really feels like a seductive dance, all rhythmic swaying, dipping and swooning. Occasionally some Ass-taire (second ess intended) going for YouTube fame tries to bust an un-bust-able move, and the E350 gets another call. For a considerable stretch of the Angeles Crest, the speed limit is 45, which is entertaining at 50, then on the less-traveled leg further east, it goes up to 55. That’s where it gets fun, and of course, the 5-mph fudge factor bumps you up to 60, and holding that through a perfectly canted curve is simple joy. It’s all of it working together--Mother Nature who built the mountain, the engineers who built the road, the fine Bavarian machinists who built the bike, and the friend who’s wife made him get rid of it for $2,000. Sweeeeet.
Even among the BMW crowd, the R1100R sits at the lunch table all by itself. It’s a geek. It has zero amenities/accessories. The GS riders wonder why the heck anybody wouldn’t want the capability to blast through mud holes and crawl over rock piles, and the RT guys would sooner hitchhike than use a tattered backpack bungee'd to the passenger seat as travel gear. Of course, the Harley guys don’t get the allure of a Singer sewing machine-sound signature, and the racer boys snicker about the corn they’d plant in the rows its massive horizontal cylinders would plow up in the corners. All valid points/quibbles/critiques. But here’s the deal. It’s simple. Though thoroughly BMW, it’s actually cheap to run for the DIY type. It’s strong. I dropped the front wheel into a Hades-depth pothole in San Francisco at 30 mph and it was like kicking a sumo wrestler in the shin. The blown fork seal was quickly noticed, but I didn’t realize the front rim was bent until I got a new front tire over a year later.
Fifteen years ago I had a Primrose 1970 MGB GT that I’ll just go ahead and say, I adored. I bought it from the original owner, a retiring Disney artist, with 56,000 miles on it. It was pristine. As a treat to myself, I would occasionally take a nighttime spin up the Angeles Crest. Coming from Santa Monica, I’d have to keep pushing the overdrive-less little princess to avoid ending up just another chunky, yellow bug, smash-wedged in the grill of a thundering Expedition on the 10, the 110, the 5, and the fast climbing launch pad of the 2. But then, alas, the Angeles Crest. The car responded instinctively, like it was a horse turned toward its barn. After an hour of delightful motoring, I pulled onto a turnout overlooking the sparkling lights of the city and wondered if I’d ever get tired of the Angeles Crest Highway.