British BikeBonanza - Oct. 1-2, 2011


There were six riders signed up with deposits. Everyone stopped by within 2 weeks of departure for orientation and to complete paperwork. Bikes were checked over and started; tank bags were mounted up. All this was done to ensure that we could get an early start on Saturday morning. Then on Thursday 2 riders cancelled; unavoidable corporate obligations for one and the other choosing not to ride without his friend. Maybe they had a premonition about the weather?

Of course it has been raining here more often than not for the past month or so. Since August we have gone from near drought conditions to way too much rain. The ground is saturated so every rain storm causes flooding, and motorcyclists all over are suffering from cabin fever when we should be enjoying the best riding season of the year. The four remaining riders looked forward to finally getting out of the house for a weekend. Forecasts for the weekend were very promising through Friday but then suddenly changed for the worse. Now rain was predicted with showers likely throughout the weekend.

As always, riders had been told in advance to be prepared to ride all day in driving rain if necessary, and to expect temperatures ranging from the high 40’s to the high 70’s. Still, we got a bit more than we had bargained for.

This weekend was billed as an authentic British biking experience. I prepared the 1970 Triumph T120R Bonneville, the 1971 BSA Lightning 650, the 1973 Norton Commando Fastback 750 and the 1977 Silk Sabre 700S. We planned to eat fish and chips with warm Guinness Stout for dinner Saturday night near Front Royal, Virginia, and to visit the British Bike Meet in Manassas on Sunday. Richard, one of the riders, was an authentic British citizen complete with Cockney Accent (or at least some sort of English accent; they all sound the same to me), a high degree of civility and a typically dry sense of humor. We really didn’t need British weather to make the experience complete.

But British weather is what we got. We left at 8 AM under bright sunny skies after a fantastic French toast breakfast cooked up by my wife Lynn. We rolled south and west, enjoying warm, sunny, tiny back roads heading for the bridge across the Susquehanna River at Connewingo, Maryland. Within an hour the blue skies had clouded over and it began to become misty. We decided, optimistically I suppose, that at least it was only misty and not actually raining and we pressed on. Soon it was raining steadily. We considered, hopefully I suppose, that the steady rain at least was not an outright downpour and we pressed on. Soon it was pouring outright and we supposed resignedly, that things could not get much worse. Still we pressed on. Then the temperature began dropping and as the mercury reached into the 40’s we dug very deep into our reserves and did our level best to maintain a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity, in the best British tradition. Yes, this was fast becoming an authentic British experience.

The bikes seemed to love the conditions, running almost perfectly all weekend long. In fact there was not one mechanical issue on any of the four bikes for the entire 450 mile weekend which was mostly run in the cold rain. We oiled three of the drive chains (the Silk chain is enclosed and runs in a bit of an oil bath) on Saturday night, but never even checked oil levels or made an adjustment otherwise. My guess is that these machines were engineered with rain in mind.

At 100 mile intervals we stopped for fuel and switched bikes. The trip to our motel in Front Royal wound up being about 225 miles, and we arrived at 5:30 or so, somewhat worse for the wear. I had planned an intricate route which kept us off main roads as it headed south west across Maryland to Whites Ferry, where we crossed the Potomac River. On the Virginia side, we got a little lost but successfully navigated a maze of back roads to come into Front Royal thorough the ‘back door’. At the very end of the day we took state route 601 which crosses the very appropriately named ‘Weather Mountain’. Temperatures dropped into the high 30’s at the summit as rain continued to plague us. We pushed ourselves a bit beyond our limits, as one shivering rider went straight at a hairpin (without crashing thankfully) and another got too aggressive on the front brake (easy to do when your hands are numb) and pushed the front wheel on gravel while stopping and did a zero mph drop. While there was no injury or damage, the tank bag slid to one side and caused the horn to blare continuously while the two of us tried to upright the bike with slippery wet gloves that could find no suitable grip points. Definitely, BEYOND OUR LIMITS!

It was time to regroup a bit and break out the granola bars. Just the act of stopping helped us warm up some and so did dropping down from atop the mountain. Using extra caution to allow for our fatigued and weather worn state we carefully picked our way along route 522 for the last few miles into town. The motel had good hot showers and a laundry room where we could dry our cloths. Local rider Justin had originally planned to ride his Vincent Black Prince into town to dine with us but I was able to convince him to bring a four wheeler instead with the heater set full on. In warm dry comfort we traveled 15 miles south to the Griffin Tavern where English beers and meals like classic fish and chips helped complete the British experience.

Sunday we met for breakfast and considered the weather which looked more like London than Virginia. Temperatures were 15 to 20 degrees below normal and the rain was relentless. Our original plan had been to head south along the Skyline Drive before cutting east to Manassas. The thought of ascending to 3,000 feet for thirty five miles in the cold driving rain was not popular, and as the weather looked to be better to the north we abandoned our original plan and decided to head due north until fairer skies allowed us to again enjoy cruising on the back roads. This we did and at least the rain let up for most of the day, finally wetting us again with mists and light rain towards the very end. Three of the four bikes had wires for electric gear but only I brought an electric vest. It made a huge difference and I actually felt guilty enough to share it around to the other riders. SHARE  WARMTH!

Our tank bags were very empty; we were wearing everything we owned. At one point, we even stopped at a Walmart to allow Richard, who had put a little too much faith, perhaps, in his old leather coat, to purchase some extra layers. While we were waiting outside, one stranger after another stopped to eyeball our British iron, and each one had a story about the Triumph or BSA or Norton that they used to own. This actually happened all weekend long. In fact, I swear that the production figures for the British motorcycle industry must be very understated, judging  by the number of Yanks who claim to have owned one ‘back in the day’. Richard came out of the Walmart looking a bit bulkier of course but also a bit frantic: he could not find the keys to the Triumph! He searched all pockets thoroughly, and retraced his steps. Finally, someone turned them in to customer service and we were able to depart. I was just about to have at the ignition switch with my Leatherman in an attempt to hotwire the bike.

The final leg back to home was uneventful. We were cold, tired and wet and incredibly grateful that Lynn had a fire blazing when we pulled in. After standing very close to the flames to soak up the maximum amount of calories we sat at the table and soaked up the other kind of calories in the form of home made Cottage Pie: more typical British fare. We verbally downloaded our adventure, talking the way survivors do, reluctant for the weekend ride, harsh as it may have been, to end.

I had to take a 40 minute nap in order to find the strength to climb the stairs to my bedroom where I passed out at 8:30 PM until 8 the next morning. Amazingly, I did not get sick and 2 days later, I am nearly back to normal. I feel bad that we didn’t get to run the whole route that was originally planned out; it looked like a really great one. Still I must admit that I am glad that we decided as a group to modify our plans. I’m not sure we would have made the planned 12 hours of day two in the cold rain. In spite of the nasty weather, I think I can speak for all four of us when I say that it was still great to get out of the damn house and to get away from my life for a weekend. I feel emotionally rejuvenated and ready to attack my endless list of projects with renewed vigor. I still have my route sheets, and one warm sunny weekend in the future we will complete the entire route

We four faced adversity and overcame it. Good men all, we traveled cross country on tiny traffic free roads enjoying the best of British motorcycles, beer and food. We ran the gauntlet and survived. Typical British weather be buggered; life doesn’t get much better than that.

                    CHEERS, and LONG LIVE RETROTOURING!


Joel Samick

RetroTours, Inc.