Thursday, June 15, 2006

Virginia Highlands Camping Trip

For the third year in a row I participated in my friend Daryl's annual Virginia Highlands camping trip at Comers Rock campground north of Independence. I really enjoyed it the last couple of years and had been looking forward to it this year for some time; again, I had a blast!

I left Columbia Saturday morning around 10:30 and took I-77 up through Charlotte to US421 west. I stopped at a greasy spoon right off 421 in Wilkesboro for lunch, where I had a tasty Philly cheesesteak sandwich and some excellent coffee. I then continued until I encountered the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of my absolute favorite roads.

I took it to US21 N, which leads to the 4-mile gravel road that leads to the campsite. I arrived around 4:30, and Daryl's wife Sheila, her cousin Bob, and Tim from the Ninja forum were already there; shortly thereafter Daryl and his friend Larry from Columbus, riding a Concours, and then Jeff from Raleigh and Jeb from the Ninja forum all arrived. We had a nice leisurly evening visiting and tossing the frisbee around. That evening we cooked brats in beer and the first of many servings of baked beans. That night we experienced one of the most severe thunderstorms I've ever been through; the rain got pretty heavy at times, and there was lots of lightning, several strikes which were very close to us - the thunder claps occurred almost simultaneously with the flashes; it was a bit unnerving and made sleep nearly impossible, but we nonetheless got up early Sunday morning and felt fairly well rested. My tent once again proved its worthiness by not leaking a single drop.

After a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast, Jeb and Tim headed homeward, and the rest of us headed into Independence to buy groceries, and Jeff and I headed across the state line into NC to buy beer and wine, as VA doesn't sell alcohol on Sundays. Shortly after we got back to camp another storm moved in, so we headed across the way to the picnic shelter, where we encountered a lady and her three daughters; her husband was back with their pickup truck, which they'd run off the road into a ravine. No one was hurt, but the truck wasn't going anywhere without a wrecker. Another couple had stopped to help them out and had brought the women back to the shelter and had gone into town to call a wrecker. We visited with them while the storm pounded down; they were really nice folks, and I think she was glad to have someone to talk to; they were understadably shaken. The rain tapered off, and then the wrecker made it down and got them out and they got off on their way. That evening we had pork chops, couscous, and corn grilled in the shuck. Yum! And, like every night, generous portions of tasty dark beer. :-)

We had another powerful storm that night; the rain was even heavier than the previous night, but fortunately there was no accompanying lightning with this one. I actually slept very well that night.

Monday morning we cooked pancakes, bacon, and sausage, and then Larry headed homeward, while Daryl, Jeff, and I headed out on a 200 mile circuit. We found some really great roads, though we had to be cautious of gravel in the corners, which was pretty common due to all the recent rain. We still managed to ride quite spiritedly, and my Ninja 250 was staying right on Jeff's Bandit 1200's tail; the Ninja 250 is such a good bike on tight roads like that! We had a great ride and were pleasantly worn out at the end of the day. Monday night dinner was cheese conies and more beans. Beans, beans, beans. And the associated after-effects. :-)

Tuesday morning was another egg, bacon, and toast breakfast, followed by a ride out to Grayson Highland State Park to use their shower facilities (ahh, that felt so good!), and then out to Smokey Mountain Barbecue in West Jefferson, NC; they looked rather mainstream from the outside, so I was concerned their food may be mediocre, but it was surprisingly very good. We then headed out to Thistle Meadow Winery in Laurel Springs, NC and did a tasting. I know my beer, but I'm not much into wine, so they all tasted the same to me, but Daryl and Jeff assured me they were quite tasty, so I'll take their word for it. That night Daryl cooked his famous beef and noodles, which we augmented with some more tasty grilled corn.

Wednesday morning we packed up and headed out. After stopping for breakfast in Speedwell and saying our goodbyes, I took 21 down to I-77 and shot straight home; I was home by around 2:30 or so. I rode along the western edge of tropical storm Alberta, so I got a bit of sprinkles and wind, but nothing too bad.

Yet another fantastic camping trip! I'm already thinking about next year's. :-)

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Keith Code's California Superbike School

This past weekend my buddy Hugh and I travelled to Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, AL to participate in Keith Code's California Superbike School. Hugh took level 1 back in September, so he took level 2 this time, and I took level 1. Friday morning I rode up to his place in NE Georgia, prepped my bike (removed mirrors, taped lenses, etc.), and loaded it onto his trailer along with his GSX-R750 track/race bike.

We managed to hit Atlanta right around rush hour, then we encountered contruction, and finally we encountered some pretty nasty weather, so it took us quite a while to finally get to Birmingham. En route we stopped at a gas station, and the easiest way to leave seemed to be to circle around behind it; we didn't realize there was a car wash on the other side until it was too late, so we drove through it and got some REALLY odd looks from folks as the bikes emerged. :-) Couldn't resist a photo.

Once we got to the hotel and got checked in, we met up with Hugh's parents, Don and Roma, who came down from Nashville, and had dinner with them; they were super nice. We got to bed at a reasonable time, but I had the toughest time sleeping; I must have awoken half a dozen times; that's pretty rare for me, even in a hotel, so I must have been keyed up about the next day.

We awoke at 5:30 on Saturday morning; I was pumped up and ready to go! We were at the track around 7:00 for registration. There was plenty of time for getting our bikes lined up, eating breakfast, and chatting with fellow riders. There was a wide assortment of machines, including another VFR, several GSXR's, some Ducatis, CBR's, etc.

It was also quite a site seeing the flock of Ninja ZX-6R's available for student use.

We had a brief intro by Keith, who is a super nice guy with a great attitude, then we suited up and began the day. I rented leathers from them, and the size 38 AGV suit fit me perfectly.

The format of the day was pretty much 20-minute class, 20-minute time to relax and think about the class, then 20 minutes on the track. Rinse and repeat five times, with lunch thrown in the middle. Keith and his son Dylan alternated teaching; Dylan was very cool and knowledgable like his father.

Our first session focused on throttle control. Keith explained why it is so important in corners, and how being on the gas keeps the suspension in its sweet spot. We were required to run fourth gear only and no brakes for the track session. I wussed out and used brakes a couple of times, but it taught me to accurately choose an approach speed and throttle through the turn.

The second session focused on choosing turn-in points. They actually marked desirable turn-in points with x's on the track, but it was a good exercise to think about why those spots were chosen. Some were natural, some seemed odd, but they worked. We were still required to run fourth gear and no brakes, but having the turn-in points marked helped a lot, and I ran faster.

The third session focused on turning in quickly, which reduces necessary lean angle. For me, this was the most useful exercise. It basically boils down to pressing harder on the bars to get the bike leaned over in a shorter period of time. We could use third and fourth gears and a touch of brake. By this session I was feeling good and really nailing some corners. Turn 5, the hairpin, no longer bothered me, though the museum turn, which is a tight downhill turn, tormented me all day. I got better at it, but never quite conquered it.

The fourth session focused on relaxation. Once the bike is leaned over in a turn, no further steering input is necessary; if you didn't need to keep the throttle turned, you could theoretically remove your hands from the bars and continue in your turn. If it feels like you're having to press through the entire turn, it's because you're pushing against the other bar. If you relax once the turn is initiated, things work much better, and the bike is happier.

The fifth and final session focused on the two-step turn, in which the rider looks at his apex before before initiating the lean; this is something I'm already pretty good at doing, but extra analysis and drills certainly didn't hurt.

My BT020's performed very well, even though they're not the stickiest tires out there.

A girl on Keith's staff had a 125cc 2-stroke Honda cafe racer that she was tinkering on and ran a few sessions; she could haul on it!

That evening Hugh and I, Hugh's friends Rick and Steve-O (who was wearing a hillarious shirt that said "Orange County Who?"), and Bo from the Ninja 250 forum, got together at Ed and Nick's Barbecue, where we had some awesome barbecue and enjoyed discussing the day's events.

Sunday morning Hugh and I had breakfast with his parents, and then I headed homeward. On the way I took the Talleda Scenic Byway in eastern Alabama, which offered some nice vistas and opportunities to practice some of the cornering techniques I'd just learned.

What a fantastic weekend! The school was excellent, all the staff were awesome, spending time with Hugh was fun, seeing Bo again was great. Couldn't have been better! I look forward to taking level 2 at some point in the future.

Click here to see all my photos from the weekend.