No Sweat - Beating the Heat at Sportbike Northwest

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Michael Pierce

I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler, I'm a long way from home,
And if you don't like me, just leave me alone,
I'll eat when I'm hungry, I'll drink when I'm dry,
And if the whiskey don't kill me, I'll live till I die.
-old English folk song

We're a gathering sort of species, and most riders are more gregarious than average. As for me, I ride alone.

I ride alone to work, to lunch, to parties, to meet friends and to all kinds of places where complete strangers want to talk to "the guy on the bike." Really, I ought to just find a few good roads and go riding with my buddies.

Tom Mehren, publisher of Sound RIDER!, had just that idea in 2003. He found a few more roads, invited a lot of folks, and dubbed it Sportbike Northwest (www.sportbikenw.com). Base-camped outside Stevenson, Washington on the banks of the Columbia River, participants can scamper west into the hills if it's fair, or blaze east across semi-arid wine country if it rains on the wet side.

Turned out, Sportbike '09 was calling my name. $99 bought rally-goers a plastic bracelet, a fistful of route maps, poker run, admission to various seminars and sound-impaired movies, four nights of camping, some reportedly meager chow on Saturday and a Sunday morning sendoff from the Christian Motorcyclists Association.

Saddled up for the week on a K1300S courtesy of Ride West BMW in Seattle, I dipped south into Portland to link up with pro cameraman Michael Pierce. The Orange Krusher proved itself deceptively swift and smooth. It even had the GM's personal tank bag strapped on for a little unearned sport-touring cred. It's good to know things, but it's better to know people. It's especially better when June's thermometer spikes well north of 100 degrees.

We arrived at the Skamania Fairgrounds to find that fairing-mounted beer cozies, chewed frame sliders and leather g-strings were in short supply. These rally cats incline more toward GPS-guided, low-altitude mileage missiles saddled with tank bags full of protein bars. By the time we got sealed into our orange plastic Bracelets of Admission, riders were emerging from the Small Animal Barn carrying pulled-pork sandwiches, while other barns full of tailored bikes offered better browsing than a three-ring dealer showroom.

Brains bubbling inside our helmets, we chose commuting from a buddy's Vancouver home over tenting on the ol' fairgrounds. That added 300-odd miles to our rally tally, but while the hard corps unrolled their creaking bones onto scorched Skamania grass, we were filling our Camelbaks out of Dread Pirate Kermit's icemaker and lingering over chilled cantaloupe and café au lait. We later heard from a diehard tentizen that campers queued up hundreds deep for a single, 50-cup urn of tepid brew.

Friends can last a lifetime, bikes for years and brekkie for a couple of hours if you're doing it right, but a road is only new once. Well provisioned, we sallied forth with a glint in our eye...and were promptly lost in the horse acres outside Washougal. Michael and I stopped to soak our heads in a stock tank and talk horses with Melissa, a sandy-haired, green-eyed pixie who's cowgirl enough to make an old motorcyclist reconsider his mount.

North out of Amboy runs a choice road wriggling with sun-dappled curves. It sails into a town where you can leave a $700 jacket and $500 helmet hanging on your bike with a D-SLR in the tank bag and stroll into the Cougar Café without a care.

In retrospect, it might have been better if someone had stolen the camera. I needed shelf space for my gut after piling through a chili-cheeseburger plate the size of seven McDonald's combos, washed down with half a gallon of sweet tea.

"Ultra-size me, honey."

The geeky goodness of BMW's Electronic Suspension Adjustment let me toggle over to the Comfort setting until I finished belching 200 miles later. The K may not have Black Betty's everyway-adjustable (and shiny!) Öhlins dampers, but really, aren't wrenches for the underclass? Sport mode tightens the chassis right up to let you steer the rear without fear, but the real fun lurks in its electronic quick-shifter.

Inhumanly smooth and quicker than any hand can fan the clutch, the quick-shifter works best when you're hard on the gas. It also works better the higher you rev it, which can lead to naughty behavior. Whoop-burp-whoo-OOM-burp-WHOOOM! Damn thing's a gateway bike...

On Friday afternoon, the mercury finally dropped to a frosty 91 at the pass junction where we decided against pushing our rocket sows over 50 miles of gravel to Berry Field. Instead, we plunged our steaming feet into Rush Creek, a fast-flowing trout stream of run-off water cold enough to seize up toes. We suffered a few gnat bites but wreaked bloody vengeance on their tribe later with our Headlights of Death.

A couple of miles above Wind River Road, practicing trail-braking into downhill sweepers, I gazed off into the treeline for a moment and kissed the gravel-frosted fog line. I don't mind Death tapping me on the shoulder occasionally, but I wish he wouldn't distract me when I'm searching for my mislaid front-tire traction.

"Pin and grin," I reminded myself, "not pin it and bin it."

Just as I was re-establishing the kind of sweet rhythm that loosens up my lower back, we cranked around a right-hander to see a car yanked over and a tall woman waving us down.

In a ditch to the right sat a narrow fella in his early 40s, unzipped and perched disconsolately on his pretty, red, capsized bike. I pulled up my visor.

"Y'alright?"

"Yeah. Collarbone."

"Got ibuprofen and water if you need some."

"Nah, I'm okay."

With EMS summoned and the site secured, we eased on down the road meeting a fire truck, an aid car, a deputy, a two-ton aid truck, another deputy and an ambulance on the way up. The helicopters must have been deployed to an ankle-sprain site.

Inevitably, our brunch-enabled morning laziness was punished. Alongside host Kermit, Michael and I rolled out at 0415 on Saturday for our fourth day of road-burning. Bleary and blinking, we had a sunrise date with Stonehenge Memorial.

Their names inscribed on small bronze tablets, spirits of soldiers past greeted the warm dawn breeze as did our three-man patrol of former soldier, sailor and airman-quietly. The dated plaques divulge no history, only stories' ends: boys by their ages, men by their deeds.

Three middle-aged men, grateful for another day's chance to improve, bowed our heads, walked slowly out and rode into the future on our once-unimaginable toys.

Few experiences are finer than strong, swift bikes on good roads in the company of skilled friends. Motorcycles aren't actually better than women but they are, as Secretary Rumsfeld once said of American soldiers, fungible. Swapping mounts reminded us that all men may be created equal, but all liter-bikes are not.

If Ferrari built a tractor, it would sound like Kermit's IBR-farkled Tuono R. While the big orange K-bike scratches that occasional itch to revisit 175 mph, the Aprilia is a KTM for grown-ups, with build quality that makes the Super Duke look like a high-school shop project.

Michael's Yamaha FJR1300 did everything the Big Beemer did, dragging its saddlebags for 20 percent less money. When Michael sits straight up in the saddle you may as well be following a school bus for all you can see, but the big bugger is too sneaky-fast to get around, even with Ride West buying me tires.

Delicious road days call for exquisitely crafted desserts, and Maryhill Loops Road is as rich and refined as a Napoleon Torte. Maryhill was Washington's first paved road and remains a peerless playground, so tight and steep and sweetly cambered you could shred the wheels off a skateboard.

An improved section of Maryhill can be reserved for special events. It packs 25 turns-including eight hairpins-into 3.6 miles. On Friday, it was reserved for runs by rally participants (reservation required). We had passed up our chance to trade paint with Friday's horde of scrabbling squidlings, instead meeting Rolf Vitous of Advanced Training Concepts (www.atcrider.com) at the spot for a private clinic.

Nearly binning my high-ticket Beemer half a dozen times on the sighting lap relaxed me enough to slow down until I could speed up. Our ATC clinic graduated from line-picking exercises to one-gear laps to coasting laps, then to coasting laps without touching the brakes.

A 600-lb. K-bike will schuss brakeless down Maryhill like a toboggan on afterburner, but not without tracing peg lines around the hairpins and shagging its tires to the edge lines. Brakeless coasting on steep twisties is eerily peaceful. Like glider aerobatics, there's no sound beyond whistling wind, grinding teeth and the squeaky squinching of seat vinyl.

Around 2 p.m. we decamped for Mexican food in Wenatchee, then burnt west after lunch, wind turbines on the bluffs as still as alien tripods. I watched the K-puter readout climb steadily from 109 to 114 degrees. Then we dropped into the Klickitat River Valley and it hit 116. All vents open, I yanked bottle after scalding bottle of water out of my tank bag and poured it into my riding suit, bemused. Northwest riders spend most of the year trying to keep water out of our riding clothes!

Back at the fairgrounds, we ambled past dealer pavilions and aftermarket booths where evaporative vests sold like coldcakes, test-rode a couple of KTMs (no wheelies allowed), and eyeballed tables jammed with silent-auction items and raffle prizes. Running up another 400-mile day, we had missed supper but were right on time for dessert. Ride stunning roads all day, then eat ice cream-this is the sport for me!

Because Sportbike NW is part of the Sound RIDER! Rally in the Gorge-a constellation of events including Sport-Touring NW, Dual-Sport NW and (be still, my heart) Maxi-Scoot NW-there's a lot to tie up at the closing ceremonies. We learned that two or possibly three participants had crashed out on Saturday; no one seemed quite sure. Mention was also made of "boo-boos" on the poker run, prompting a woman who'd tipped over to yell, "'Cause ya dit-n't have no sign!" I wondered how one might word a sign advising poker-runners not to belly-flop their bikes.

Sponsors were thanked, attendees exhorted, and Mr. Mehren's contributions exalted. Raffle giveaways featured everything from beer cozies to a BMW Street Guard 2 to instant karma: the same guy who coughed up his KTM-specific prize to a grateful KTM owner won the BMW riding suit about 4 minutes later.

No one begrudged him, but the crowd remained sluggish. After four days riding through convection-oven heat, cold beer and a live band could have brightened up the vibe had someone thought to lay them on. Mehren grabbed the mic to announce that attendance dropped from 550 in '08 to 400 in what participants were by then calling "Sweatbike NW." He blamed the weather and the economy. If global warming doesn't get you, Goldman Sachs will.

Choose you this day whom ye will serve, but as for me and my buddies, we will worship the road. The next Sportbike NW gala is slated for July 29-August 2 at its traditional location. You can sign up online at www.soundrider.com/sbnw, but you won't find us bivouacked there.

Look for us out on a secondary road, happily lost and running on fumes, or arc around a bend to discover motorcycles parked by the creekside. Pull over if you feel like it. You don't need an invitation to stop and talk bikes.

And we don't need a ticket to ride.

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