Several years ago, back when I was in college and could afford to make rash decisions, some friends and I found out our spring breaks lined up that year. If this had happened several months before, we could have planned a trip together, but it did not. Instead, it happened less than a week before they were scheduled to fly down to West Palm Beach for a week of fun in the sun. I was invited and would have a free place to stay, but I would have to figure out how to get there.
Being a college student, I had very little money, so the prospect of flying was out of the question. It looked like I was destined to spend the week at my parents’ house instead of the beach until one wise friend suggested I ride my motorcycle. To my cash-strapped self, it made perfect sense. I’d get amazing gas mileage, do something cool, and then have my motorcycle at the beach. What could be wrong with that?
As it turned out, being young and dumb while making rash decisions did not lead to me making the best choice because, as I quickly found out, I was woefully unprepared for a solo motorcycle road trip. I got there and back safely, spent some time with good friends, and saw family members I hadn’t seen in a while, but boy, did I have some things to learn. If you own a motorcycle and are considering taking a road trip, here are a few things I learned the hard way.
1. The road is longer than you think
The first day of my trip was a relatively short ride between the cities of Athens and Statesboro. It was about a three-hour ride, and at the end of it, I met a friend for dinner and drinks, then spent the night before my big push to West Palm Beach. While three hours on the road was no big deal, the drive from Statesboro to West Palm Beach was more than twice as long. When I was planning the trip, six or seven hours didn’t sound horrible, but for someone who had never ridden a motorcycle for that long, actually doing it felt like an absolute eternity.
If you aren’t accustomed to riding for more than just a few hours, don’t jump right into a road trip. Try taking some practice rides to get used to being on a bike for longer periods of time. Experienced riders regularly go on much longer trips than I did, but they’re just that – experienced riders. The more prepared you can be for how endless six or seven hours is going to feel, the better.
2. Windshields are great
Getting my start riding mostly in the city, I didn’t see much use for windshields. My foolish, young mind thought they ruined the look of the bike and were for the kinds of people who ride from Miami to Seattle on $60,000 customs. For city riding, I still prefer the look of a bike that’s as naked as possible, but once it’s time to hit the highway, I am fully aware that my position on windshields was entirely wrong.
Feeling the wind blow as you ride is one of the most wonderful parts of riding, but two or three hours at 75 or 80 miles per hour gets exhausting. Five, six, and seven hours into riding, it’s even worse. As I slowed down to 65 miles per hour to give my arms a rest, I realized that not only did I need to work out more, I needed a windshield if I was ever going to do this again. If you’re looking to road trip, save yourself the exhaustion and spring for a proper windshield.
3. Get your position right
As a male of average height, average weight, and average proportions, I never put much thought into my riding position. My bike was comfortable enough, and who was I to challenge Honda’s decision to set it up the way it did? Well, I was wrong. By the time I arrived in West Palm Beach, I had so much back pain that getting a deep tissue massage could have been considered a medical expense.
If you’re going to take a stock motorcycle on a road trip, getting your seating and riding position right is going to be incredibly important. You probably want to buy an aftermarket seat, and you might even want to consider a back rest. Someone might make fun of you for using a back rest on your bike, but who cares? If it makes you more comfortable, it’s worth it. You also want to get some highway pegs and make sure your handlebars are adjusted to be as comfortable as possible. The more comfortable your bike is, the more likely you are to ride it long distances again.
4. The weather constantly changes
There’s an old running joke that on any motorcycle trip, at some point you’ll end up hot, cold, and wet. Despite the fact that I was only driving from one state to another state, it was crazy how true that joke ended up being. Even though the temperature never got excessively hot, my safety gear conspired to roast me like a Christmas ham. When it inevitably started raining, it was a relief for the first few minutes, but before long, being soaking wet started to get old. By the time the rain stopped, I was absolutely freezing and desperate for some sun again. When the rain stopped, and the sun returned, it was only a matter of time before it felt like I was being steamed alive.
Even if the weather is supposed to be perfect, make sure you’re prepared for weather that isn’t. Well-ventilated, waterproof equipment will make the hot parts cooler, the wet parts dryer, and the cold parts warmer. The parts between extremes are amazing, but you have to be mentally prepared for a little discomfort if you’re going to hit the open road. You may even need to be prepared to change clothes a few times.
5. Earplugs are amazing
No one ever told me how loud it is to ride on the highway, but let me tell you – it’s so loud. Wearing ear plugs on the highway might be about as cool as wearing ear plugs to a rock concert, but there’s nothing cool about losing your hearing. At the very least, take some with you. If you don’t like riding with them, you can always take them out. Having functional ears by the end of your trip is going to be important though. You probably want to wear them at least part of the time.
6. Technology makes things better
Being entirely alone with your thoughts for hours on end is a very interesting experience, and I highly recommend most people try it sometime. That said, if riding long distances is going to be something you do regularly, embracing a little technology will probably make those rides better. A helmet equipped with Bluetooth, for example, can link you to your phone and not only play music but receive calls, follow GPS directions, and allow rider-to-rider communications.
If you’re using a cell phone for anything from making sure you don’t get lost to playing music, touch screen-capable gloves are also a great idea. The piece of technology I most wished I had, though, was cruise control. Some people think cruise control makes a motorcycle too much like driving a car, but being able to reliably maintain a constant speed for long periods of time helps keep riders safe and discourages cars from dangerously passing a bike that’s accidentally slowed down a few miles per hour.
Make the best choices you can, but don’t be afraid to add some modern technology to your riding experience.
7. Rest more than you think you should
My original plan was to take a break every time I filled up for gas. My Shadow had a highway range of about 150 miles per tank, so stopping once a tank sounded like a pretty good plan to me. It was not. In fact, it was a bad plan. Especially on my way home, I had to stop much more often than once per tank. Taking time to drink some water, have a snack, stretch your legs, and relax your back is a necessity.
Not only will several hours of riding wear on your body, it will also wear on your concentration. The last thing you need is to space out at 80 miles per hour and miss that a driver is about to do something stupid or reckless. Cars on the highway want to kill motorcyclists just as much as cars in the city, and you need to be awake, alert, and focused on your ride. Even if you don’t necessarily need to rest early in your trip, do it anyways to make sure you’re still feeling good by the end of the trip.
8. You get gross
Roads are nasty, disgusting places, and by the time you reach your destination 10 hours later, a lot of that nasty, disgusting stuff will be on you. You will have sweated more than you thought you did, your deodorant will have long since worn off, and somehow, you’ll have dirt and grime in places that you could have sworn were covered by your jacket and helmet.
If you have plans of riding 10 hours and then immediately grabbing a nice dinner, you’re going to want to rethink those plans. Either pick a place that’s popular with local riders and probably less fancy, or make sure you have time to squeeze in a shower before heading out. That first shower after a long ride, by the way, is going to be an absolutely heavenly experience.
9. Port St. Lucie, Fla., thinks it’s too good for Waffle House
When you’re hungry and worn out from the road, there’s no better restaurant to choose for dinner than Waffle House. A cup of coffee, a side of bacon, a big plate of hashbrowns, and a few fried eggs will make anyone feel at home, rested, and relaxed. Even better, Waffle House is used to all kinds of people pulling in for a quick bite, so a few worn out riders won’t turn a head.
Unfortunately, if you try to eat dinner in Port St. Lucie, you won’t find a Waffle House because there isn’t one. If you head back to Fort Pierce, there are two, but in Port St. Lucie, there are zero Waffle Houses. Why is that? I have no idea. I guess nobody bothered to consider providing delicious short order cooking for the city’s residents.
10. I’d do it again in a heartbeat
I may have had no idea what I was getting myself into when I left, the last several hours of my ride home were completely miserable, and I had painful knots in my back for weeks, but despite all that, I would take a motorcycle road trip again in a heart beat. I’d make sure I was more prepared this time, I’d prefer to do it with friends, and I’d make sure my bike was properly set up for a long ride, but there’s really no better way to see and experience the country than on a motorcycle.
As my friend who pushed me to go said, there probably isn’t going to be another time in my life that I can take off on a whim and ride to Florida for a week. That’s an experience mostly reserved for young men, but it’s an experience I don’t take for granted. Maybe with a little more planning and foresight, I’ll finally be able to do the whole East Coast on a bike.
If you ever get a chance to road trip your motorcycle and haven’t done so yet, please do. I strongly suggest being more prepared than I was, but I promise you’ll love it.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.