Even after a long ride the day prior, I was chomping at the bit to get out on the road, yet rapidly reminded that they don’t call them the “Smoky Mountains” for nothing. While not the case all year, the fog can be pretty thick into the later morning hours in this part of the country, especially if you’re planning a ride at elevation. As much as I like running in the fog, riding a motorcycle in the fog sucks. The upside, I had plenty of time to get a hearty breakfast from the Iron Horse, and get my gear set for the day.
Being labor day, there were still a few stragglers hanging around the Iron Horse from the holiday weekend, but by this point it was predominantly just the Triumph faithful. While the Dragon Raid is a “rally”, most rides are typically just a group of folks that decide on a given destination the evening prior, and often at breakfast the morning of. Still having virtually no idea how to get from “A” to “B” without GPS down this way, I was purely along for the ride. As previously mentioned, staying at the Iron Horse offers great roads right out of the gate; a couple guys suggested that we go ride the Cherohala Skyway over to Tellico Plains (TN) and around. The Cherohala, an item on my Moto Bucket List, runs from Robbinsville along NC-143 and TN-165 into Tellico Plains; from the lodge that means you get the chance to pick up some great sections of NC-28 “The Hellbender” in the process. This being day one, several of the boys were itching to get a quick run across the Tail of the Dragon (US-129) on the way, myself included. Chasing my buddies on their Ducati’s (isn’t this a Triumph Rally?), Lola’s physical limitations became evident (Lola is the bike’s name, and no I’m not a fan of scraping pegs; it’s often the precursor to the crash). Winding up NC-28 toward Deal’s gap, the Speedmaster was nimble enough to keep up with my buddies’ sport bikes (thanks for taking pity on the cruiser guy), as most of the curves are marked 25 MPH and up, but once past Deal’s Gap, all bets were off.
On the Dragon I was rapidly reminded of how boring the roads are in Ohio. Having not been through such technical curves in a year, I was “taking it easy”, telling myself that I still had 5 more riding days ahead of me, including 400 miles home. The Dragon is exhilarating and somewhat nerve racking all at the same time; mind you, this is coming from a guy who’s ridden it all of about six times up to this point; still not enough to remember any of the curves. My biggest concern riding in the mountains is that decreasing radius turn that always manages to sneak up on you, especially downhill. Keeping that in mind, I tried to save a little “extra”. Settling into the limitations of my ride, we hadn’t made it as far west as “Gravity Cavity” before I noticed a couple of my buddies ripping past me the opposite direction. Turning around in one of the pull-offs, I later found out that the road was closed for an accident up ahead. While the rest of the week was “relatively” uneventful for the Triumph rally, this is probably a good lesson for first timers at Deal’s Gap, it was mid-morning labor day weekend, day 1 on the Dragon for most of us, and the Dragon was closed due to an accident.
After twisting back down the Dragon, we stopped at Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort to take a break. For first time visitors to The Dragon, folks looking for keepsakes can find patches, stickers, T-shirts and whatnot at the resort gift shop. Fuel is also available at Deal’s Gap, one of the few places in these parts. The Dragon’s Den Pub & Grill is also a convenient place to grab lunch for riders spending the afternoon in the local area. Across the street from the resort is Tail of the Dragon T-shirt Shack; visitors can purchase other stickers and patches, and get photos with the big dragon statue. Killboy.com also rents and sells GoPro cameras and gear from the T-shirt shack for folks looking to document their visit. As previously mentioned (in the YouTube video), Killboy was the first to set up photo “booths” in the curves along the Dragon. As a side note, Killboy.com is also a sponsor of the Triumph Dragon Raid, but more on that later.
After a short break, we were back down NC-28 toward NC-143 into Robbinsville. Unbeknownst to me, once west of Robbinsville I was actually on the Cherohala Skyway. It’s kind of funny thinking back, there I am, riding along, admiring the curves and the view, but trying to save the GoPro battery for the “main event”. We finally stopped at an overlook for a break, and I asked “are we on the Skyway?”, having been riding the Skyway for like the past 20 miles. While I felt somewhat goofy for asking, the Skyway isn’t marked clearly like the Blue Ridge Parkway. I had an inkling that we were at least close as I unmistakably noticed the temperature dropping with elevation. I admit, the Skyway was not how I envisioned it, I expected vast scenic views of the mountains around each curve, similar to US-441 through Newfound Gap. I didn’t realize until writing this that the Cherohala Skyway is just a name for a State route, which wouldn’t be maintained nearly as well as federal routes that are lined with more popular tourist destinations like Gatlinburg. That aside, from a motorcyclists point of view, the Skyway is excellent; unlike the Dragon, the Skyway is mostly long sweepers through the trees. The speed limit is also 45, which is significantly higher than the Dragon, but still somewhat slow for the riding conditions in my opinion.
At the far side of the Skyway we stopped in Tellico Plains (TN) for lunch. Again, just along for the ride, one stop was just as good as another, but being a “Foodie”, KramBonz BBQ was right on par with my expectations. A small mom and pop place, we were pushing capacity just after lunch hour when we rolled up about 8 motorcycles deep. Fortunately, the weather was nice, so we took up some of the outdoor seating. The menu was quaint, which suited me just fine. At most places, if there’s fried pickles or hot dogs on the menu, I order it; if I’m at a BBQ joint, I have to try the brisket. The Brisket with Texas toast (and side salad) may appear like typical diner fare; sitting just down the aisle from the smoker, I knew I was in for authentic southern barbecue, and the tender brisket was just that.
Across the street we stopped at the Tellico Motorcycle Outfitters. No sooner than I had a patch in my hand, a buddy stuck his head in the door and said we’d better hustle unless we wanted to get wet. Last year’s raid still fresh in my mind, I zipped the jacket vents shut and prepped for battle. My buddy Andy suggested we skirt around Tennessee route 360 and back up the Dragon to the Iron Horse, while my other buddies scrambled back across the Skyway. Not getting wet and going somewhere new sounded a lot better to me, so TN-360 it was (in the end I sweltered but we never got wet; the boys on the Skyway got soaked).
Smoky mountain backroads are incredible; riding 360 I was again reminded of how boring Dayton roads are. While gravel driveways and Sunday drivers are legitimate concerns when twisting along state routes like 360, it was yet another good road. 360 dumped us off at US-411 for a hot second before taking a shortcut across TN-72 to US-129 just before the bottom of the Dragon at Tabcat bridge.
Along the Dragon we stopped at the overlook for the obligatory group photo. Just as we were pulling in I flipped down the inner tinted visor on my helmet, breaking off the thumb slider. I moved the bike about 5 feet and combed over the parking area for ten minutes… never found the broken part. Flustered at my carelessness I wiped the recently splattered butterfly guts off my GoPro, but didn’t fuss with putting in a fresh battery.
Frustration aside, I finally got my first good run across the Dragon I’d been waiting all year for (Killboy.com photo shown). There were a few damp spots here and there but in general it was spirited riding across the Dragon, back through the “Hellbender” NC-28, and finally to the Lodge for dinner, good beer, and maybe a cigar.
146 (ish) miles
1 item checked off the bucket list
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