A late-December ride in the desert for father and son
I’m getting suspicious as I ride out of Scottsdale into the desert and see signs saying I’m entering Phoenix. Our bike is a rented Kawasaki Concours 14 from AZride.com. We pull over into a gas station to pick up some water we needed anyway, then turn around and start heading the right way. I’m data-less and GPS-less and we’re heading deep into the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix just a couple of days after Christmas, not something my son, Max, and I usually achieve in Canada because of the temperature and the lack of mountains where we live.
Soon enough we’re out of the urban sprawl and feeling the cool desert breeze as we head north on Highway 87 through scattered saguaro cacti. I have that realization I often get when I haven’t been in the saddle in a while: Wow, do I love riding a motorcycle! The vulnerability, the sensory overload and the speed conspire to make a rush of adrenaline that opens you up to this overwhelming experience even more. I’ve tried many things, some of them not particularly good for me, but nothing, and I mean nothing, feels better than disappearing down the road on two wheels.
Free at Last
Once clear of traffic lights, I immediately get lost in the winding corners and elevation changes of the Bush Highway. The bike is leaning left and right, feeling weightless under me and eager to spring forward at the twist of the throttle. At home, my 20-year-old Concours ZG1000 sits under a blanket in the garage. It does a good job with 997 cc, but this newer 1,352 cc machine is a revelation – even two up.
Leaving the city behind, we immediately find ourselves among ranches and desert aficionados, hauling everything from ATVs and Dakar-looking off-roaders to boats and bicycles. It’s the end of December, but it’s still 16 C on the digital dash and people are making use of their time off after Christmas.
The Bush Highway turns back south toward the urban sprawl after crossing Usery Pass, so we drop down to Hwy 60 in Apache Junction, having bypassed kilometres of Mesa strip malls. This first 20 km on Hwy 60 is empty and arrow straight. In what feels like mere moments, the 160 hp rocket we’ve boarded is leaving the desert floor behind and climbing into the Superstition Mountains. It’s like I’m sitting on Saturn V in a full stage-one burn.
We’re both wearing fleeces and leathers, and while they were comfortable on the warm desert floor, the mountains ahead are looking mighty foreboding. We started our ride in Scottsdale at just over 300 metres above sea level, but the road to Globe is going to take us up to almost 1,525 metres, and we can feel the temperature plunging as the altitude increases.
Lay It Over
I’ve wanted to ride this road to Globe since driving it in a miserly Nissan rental car years before. It’s 40 km spent transitioning from one side of the tire to the other. The temperature drops and snow begins to appear in shady patches on the side of the road. We surge ever upward in a cocoon of still air. The Concours’ fairing is keeping the worst of it at bay while that mighty engine makes short work of any chicanes in front of us. Would I like to ride this road on a sport bike? Sure, but the big Kawi makes it easy to enjoy two up with luggage.
As is the way with winding roads, I get to the end of them in a trance and always sooner than I think I should. The outside temperature in Globe is
4 C, and by this point, we’re both cold regardless of the effective fairing and extra layers.
Max and I jump off the bike at the Copper Bistro and stamp some feeling back into our legs. Walking into the restaurant, we’re met with the incredulous stares from the locals.
“Kinda cold to be out on a bike, ain’t it?”
The old-timer at the bar gives us a look as though he understands why we’re out but still pities us for doing it. We can’t help being what we are.
Love the Decor
While warming up with some fine burgers and fries, Max takes a liking to the splotches of copper made into art on the wall – an appropriate choice of of decor, given Globe is home to one of the biggest copper mines in America. It’s no wonder the locals here have the look of toughness that comes with a hard-earned living. Members of the Globe police department come in for lunch, men with no necks who look like they stay in shape by managing the miners on Friday nights – you wouldn’t want to mess with these guys. Warmed up, we’re back on the bike and filling up before ducking out of Globe on Hwy 188 into the Tonto Basin, a 600-metre drop from where we had lunch. In warmer weather, the 188 is usually busy with boat haulers heading to the lake behind the Theodore Roosevelt Dam, but today the road is ours. We wind down into the basin and once again see tree-sized saguaros. The temperature is back into double digits and we’re at ease following the twisties on an empty road. We meet the odd bundled-up motorcyclist coming the other way and get the universal wave, but otherwise it’s wonderfully quiet.
We pull into Roosevelt Dam for a stretch and a drink of water before following 188 to its end at Hwy 87. As we’re kitting up to leave the dam, a bald eagle flies overhead and down the Salt River, looking like a scene out of a movie. It’s now mid-afternoon and we’re both windblown, dehydrated and a bit achy from the swings in temperature and altitude, and I’ve got the trickiest part of the ride coming up. I’ve driven Hwy 87 in a car and know what’s coming. We pull up to make sure our ATGATT (all the gear, all the time) is airtight and for me to get my head on straight for a high-speed descent on a fast two-lane highway down the side of a mountain range.
The first time I drove the 87 toward Phoenix from Payson I was astonished to see large trucks towing full-size boats blow past me at better than 80 mph. This road moves fast and none of it is straight. Some of the corners feel like they last forever and they all generally lead straight into another corner. For a guy from southern Ontario, home of boring, straight roads, this isn’t business as usual. Finding the Line The Concours surges down the highway and I drop into the flow of traffic. Leaning into corners for up to 30 seconds at a time has me concentrating on perfect arcs. In the past, I’d felt frustrated with my mid-corner corrections and an inability to hold a flowing line.
Fortunately, I’d been reading Total Control by Lee Parks and found his advice about one-handed steering to be the solution to my broken corners. Parks’ advice is to only push on the inside handlebar when in a corner. This causes the bike to countersteer deeper into the corner with very little effort and much finer control from the rider. I wouldn’t normally get much of a chance to play with this on the roads around home, but Arizona was made for this sort of thing.
That one piece of advice got me down the 87 with significantly fewer sore muscles. By the time we arrived back on the desert floor – which was once the bottom of an ocean – I’d had many long corners to test and refine my technique, and my arcs were more precise and less meandering as a result. We roll into Scottsdale afternoon traffic like two cowboys time-travelling back from the Old West on our trusty iron horse. The sudden onslaught of traffic is a bit overwhelming. After a last fill up, we return the Concours to AZrides and get checked out in a matter of seconds. Into the Sun The rush-hour drive to our hotel in the rental SUV is tedious and slow, but that blast in the mountains cleared out any cobwebs.
The Concours 14 made for an interesting comparison with my own Concours. I found the newer bike a comfortable and agile machine, but because this was someone else’s bike, they had made choices (like ridiculously high risers) that I wouldn’t have. None of these things spoiled the ride, and the biblical power of the 1,352 cc engine is something that needs to be felt to be believed. This taste of epic power has thoughts of a Concours 14 swirling in my mind as we roll along on four wheels into the setting desert sun.