Twisting on North Carolina’s Tail of the Dragon.

Riding Tips to Tame a Dragon

This article, written by Tom Batchelor, was originally published in STAReview Magazine, a publication of the Motorcycle Sport Touring Association and is republished here with permission.

Avid motorcycle enthusiasts have undoubtedly heard about Deals Gap North Carolina (US-129), perhaps better known as “The Dragon” or “Tail of the Dragon”. The road is famous for pilgrimages across many states, and sometimes continents, by both first-time and returning motorcyclists.  Riding this technical road will satisfy the soul but demands every bit of skill a rider can muster.       

The Dragon creates an ideal environment in which to examine common mistakes and how to avoid them based upon good-practice riding theory, control techniques and of course a measure of lived experience.  This material pertains more to the novice or infrequent Deals Gap rider, but even experienced riders might appreciate a review of the basics.

A Bit About The Dragon

Map data ©2021 Microsoft – The Tail of the Dragon lies in the middle section of US-129 between Vonore and Topton.

US-129 is a technical road for most of its 64 miles between Vonore TN and Topton NC.  But the section known as Deals Gap, i.e. The Dragon, takes things to the next level.  This short 11 mile section of US-129, between Housley Drive and Indian Lakes Scenic Byway, jams in 318 curves of all kinds in a pattern that only Mother Nature could conceive. 

Several businesses thrive on the Robbinsville side, with fuel, food, and memorabilia available for purchase. In fact, an entire cottage industry has evolved specifically around this section of road. While the entire length of US-129 itself is certainly well suited for motorcycles, the 11 mile Dragon is the most revered – and most dangerous to ride.   

Not all turns on The Tail of the Dragon are this easy, but certainly as picturesque.

Understand Where You Are Riding

Many have seen the degree of difficulty scales in skiing and mountain bike riding, those symbols that denote “beginner” or “expert” areas.  Well, consider Deals Gap a double-black-diamond run; in other words, a significant degree of difficulty rating. This is not suggesting that you cannot ride the road safely under any circumstances; of course, you can. However, the pace must be commensurate with your skill level and motorcycle cornering clearance. Also, this is a very popular road for all motorsports enthusiasts, not just motorcycles. Expect sports car clubs and standard or exotic cars to likewise traverse the twisty bits.

Do the Prep Work

They have a saying in Emergency Medical Services, “check your own pulse before checking the patient’s”.  The same thing applies to riding technically challenging roads.  You must have your head in the game. That means, understanding your current riding abilities and having no illusions of anything more.

Preparing includes getting needed rest.  Riding 10 to 12 hours to get there and then immediately hitting these roads is a bad idea. It is also unwise to ride after dark. Be rested and fresh then go ride. Lay off the heavy partying the night before as you will absolutely require a clear head. Eat a good meal and drink plenty of water.  Stay hydrated and focused.

Corners on The Dragon are fast and relentless.

It goes without saying never omit protective gear no matter the ambient temperature. These roads are unforgiving, ATGATT (all the gear all the time) is mandatory.  

Also included is machine preparation, maintenance, tires, you name it. There is little margin for error riding these roads, especially at a spirited pace. You must also know your machine’s capabilities. We must face facts, a big bagger chassis does not have the ground clearance of a SuperMoto, Sportbike, an Adventure bike, or Sport Tourer. Physics wins every time the movable (bike) meets the immovable (road).

Read Up – Practice Up

Good riding, really good riding, takes a lifetime of practice.  An enlightening first step includes reading books like Keith Code’s A Twist of the Wrist (Volumes 1 and 2); articles such as Nick Ienatsch’s The Pace – Separating Street from Track, Riding from Racing (Motorcyclist Magazine, February 2009) plus numerous other material online and in print. Most importantly, work to apply these good-practice theories into psychomotor skill development. 

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A brand-new rider on a brand-new bike is a recipe for serious problems on roads like these. Ride elsewhere first, develop good entry-apex-exit techniques on less aggressive turns. Even returning riders with some decent experience can benefit from refreshing skills before tackling this or other challenging roads of this type.

Another great training opportunity is riding with an individual or a group who are more experienced and proficient than you. This is exactly how many riders improve. Most motorcyclists are more than willing to adjust their pace, allowing you to watch their lines and how they negotiate especially challenging parts. Doubly beneficial is if you have helmet communications, this is probably the best way to ramp your skills way up and do so in a very safe way.

How to Avoid Mistakes

Consider these points on mistake avoidance, not just on Deals Gap but every technical, twisty road you ride.

Throttle/brake –Smooth is safe. Slow in, fast-out of turns. Hard throttle and hard braking between turns has no place in safe riding on these roads. As Mr. Ienatsch accurately wrote, “hammer on the racetrack. Pace yourself on the street.”

Focus on control, not speed – Upsetting chassis dynamics by braking mid-turn must be avoided. Braking is done with the front brake not the rear (again, training – read the books by the experts) preferably using the two-finger method, before the turn to set up the proper speed for entry; then throttle management to carry you through and out of the turn.

Ride with some cushion remaining – This means, not pushing to the maximum but maintaining a manageable consistency of speed and control. This keeps your traction and maneuverability within your budget in cases where evasive or emergency measures are required. 

Brake vs sight distance – Your brake distance should never exceed your sight distance. Blind corners, rise-and-drops, anywhere you cannot see far enough to brake safely, you must scrub off speed to accommodate.

Go where you look, look where you go – Your sight picture must be as far through the turn or into the next turn even as you enter the first. These roads have many “S” curves, one after the other, so setting up for the next one is imperative. One major mistake on any curve is target fixation, or locking on to a fixed object, a rock, tree, or other object – or even at an oncoming vehicle. Your bike will go where you look, so look ahead where you need to go and not anywhere else.  Remember from Basic Rider Training, head and eyes-up, turn your head and turn your eyes towards the target.

Nothing feels quite so good as being smooth through the corners.

Use your entire lane if possible – Often, road debris or oncoming vehicles (many may cross the center line) reduce that width; however, entry-apex-exit strategies must be calculated and executed using all the real-estate available.

Ride fast enough to have fun, not to scare yourself – If you have that feeling of terror approaching a turn, you are going too fast, period.

Decreasing radius – Many turns start at one radius and aggressively decrease (get tighter). You must be prepared for that. Trust your bike and your tires. Running wide is not an option, therefore, you must practice throttle discipline and simply countersteer your way through. Yes, this means digging-in a bit more but with smooth, even throttle and no aggressive braking, your tires will hold. The bike is designed to lean and sometimes, lean far! Let the bike do what it is designed to do.

Do not panic! – This goes with decreasing radius turns especially. Panicking causes brake stabbing and rapid throttle roll-off all of which upsets chassis dynamics and traction. You must train yourself to remain calm and in control. Experience helps, as does riding within your limits. Remember your cushion (above) and this will help keep you off the panic button.

Ride your own ride – Trying to keep up with a faster rider out of ego or some other motivation will surely put you in harms way. Be honest with yourself about both your own and your machine’s capabilities.

Road conditions – These vary widely depending on the time of year and weather. Rainy, windy days are probably not a good time to shoot the Gap or any highly technical road. Wet leaves will consume your traction in a heartbeat as will wet tar snakes.

A Few Final Points

Roads like The Dragon are entirely ridable by anyone on any bike, the variable is the pace or speed. That said, it is important to mention etiquette, unwritten “rules” specific to this kind of road.

First, realize that you are likely going to be passed. The debate on whether legal or not aside, someone faster will want to overtake you. Give them space by slowing down, moving over, and waving them by. This is a big deal with riders on The Dragon and it goes a long way towards rider fellowship.

Second, cellular service in many of these mountainous, twisty areas is poor or nonexistent. Emergency services are thin; an ambulance can take 45 minutes or longer to arrive. 

Finally, US-129 or The Dragon is only one of many roads in this area which are technical and challenging.  Others, with similar names like The Snake (US-421 in Tennessee), Devils Whip (NC-80 in North Carolina), The Rattler (NC-209 in North Carolina) and The Diamondback (NC-226A also in North Carolina) require the same discipline and attitude as US-129.

An Informed Rider is a Safer Rider

This material is not meant to dissuade anyone from riding these glorious twisty roads but rather as a primer for doing so safely. The reality is an informed rider is a safer rider. And sometimes safety is a rather harsh topic to cover honestly and directly; but not nearly as harsh as sliding across the pavement.  Embrace the ride and enjoy the flow of experience to enhance and hone your safe riding skills.

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