Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Road Trip: The Kancamagus and Sawyer Highways

The morning was cool, water droplets still littered the lawn and the previous night's rain had yet to fully evaporate, leaving the pavement slightly damp to the touch. Nonetheless, I grabbed my gear and mounted up, the K1200S purring along smoothly as I hit the highway, headed towards NH. As I rode, the temperatures began to rise and the roads had dried off, allowing me to open up the big Beemer's motor and really stretch its legs. Settling into a rhythm, music playing through the speakers in my helmet, I cleared my mind as the lane markers flashed by beneath me.

With one slightly extended detour to check out MAX BMW while I was in the area, I arrived in the tiny hamlet of Conway, NH right around noon. The holiday on Thursday meant a lot of people had taken this Friday off and the roads were crowded with all manners of cars, trucks, and motorcycles. Not having taken that into consideration when I left home that morning, both the bike and I were running on fumes by the time I pulled into town. Luckily, the main stretch in Conway offered both a place to grab some gas for the bike and some refreshments for me. Getting out of the mid-day heat, I camped out at the Sweet Maple Cafe for a bit to have lunch and do some work on the laptop I had been lugging around with me all morning.

The bike fully fueled, my bloodstream coursing with caffeine, I stepped out into the hot afternoon sun and saddled up for an afternoon playing in the mountains of central New Hampshire.

Traffic, to my chagrin, still plagued the tiny main street like a bunch of giant metal cockroaches attempting to devour the poor town. Luckily, the majority of the traffic was not headed up to the Kanc, so as I rounded the turn behind a couple on a Goldwing, the break from the bumper-to-bumper conditions was a welcome one. Hundreds of thousands of trees lined the road, growing ever denser as I made my way into the White Mountain National Forest that this road bisects.

A couple of miles in, I came upon a rather unique sight -- literally hundreds of people climbing around on a sloping rock face, sunning themselves on the bank of the Swift River, which had swelled a bit from the previous evening's storms. Passing this sight, I could not help but feel just a touch warm in my protective jacket and full-face helmet. Still, so long as I kept moving, I knew I would be able to manage the temperatures just fine. Luckily for me, the weather was highly unpredictable and before too much longer, the skies filled with ominous looking clouds, heavy with moisture, that proceeded to burst, drenching the road in a sudden downpour. The rumbling of thunder was so loud that I was able to hear it over the motor of the Beemer, but I knew that this cloudburst would not last and, sure enough, as suddenly as it came, it was over. I was barely wet, though a few drops remained, slowly making their way up the windshield.

The Kanc, as this road is affectionately known, is a 36 mile ribbon of mountainous road that is beloved by local motorcyclists, bicyclists, and drivers alike. And for good reason. The broad selection of sweeping corners and elevation changes keeps it entertaining and the road surface is well maintained, offering tons of grip and few obstacles. Once the few stragglers that I had not yet been able to pass cleared away, I picked up the pace and started to really get the bike leaned over, pressing deep into corners and carrying probably way too much speed. However, my fun was short-lived as a rather difficult driver in a large Lexus sedan suddenly materialized up ahead. With no passing areas for a little while, I was trapped and had to pull my pace down through some of sweeping hairpins that would have been a great opportunity to really enjoy the tremendous performance that the K1200S has to offer.

Unfortunately for me, the presence of a few other slower traveling vehicles would make picking up the pace difficult, so I settled into the slower pace and started to focus on my technique and the surrounding lush scenery. Even at this slower pace, the Kanc was proving quite enjoyable, if not quite challenging. However, in what felt like an instant, the road dropped out of the mountains and I found myself trudging along in traffic again through the ski resort town of Woodstock, NH. Luckily,in short order, much of the traffic dispersed onto I-93 and I was given another chance to really push the bike. Or so I thought...

Branching off of the Kanc is NH-118, also known as Sawyer Highway, a windy stretch of country road that, at least from overhead, looked promising in terms of continuing the fun. However, this strip of asphalt was one of the worst roads I have ridden in New England to date. The surface was nearly completely composed of tar snakes, and was so broken and uneven at points that I was literally clinging on for dear life. Despite a rather high speed limit of 50 mph, which under normal conditions would have me traveling much faster, I held back and focused on keeping the bike from pitching me off as it bounded all over the place like a bucking bronco. Luckily, I was able to keep the rubber side down and make it to tiny little Warren, NH, where I paused briefly to catch a photo of my very fast machine with the even faster Redstone Rocket.

By this time, it was already past mid-afternoon and I knew that I still had quite a bit of distance to cover to get home. However, the ride along Sawyer Highway had really taken its toll on me, in combination with the now stifling afternoon heat. Pointing the bike back towards I-93, I found myself trekking through the tiny college town of Plymouth, NH, home to Plymouth State University. A tiny coffee shop and its air-conditioning beckoned so I dismounted to hydrate and check up on email one last time before heading home. The final stretch on I-93 flew by as that afternoon's rush hour never quite materialized, allowing me to collapse onto my couch after a full day of riding shortly before 6PM.

Although at about 322 miles, it was not that much mileage, the traffic and challenging road conditions, in conjunction with the heat of the summer sun, left me exhausted. The Kanc is such a uniquely compact stretch of sweeping turns and twisty roads that it would be fun to spend all day back and forth on just its all to brief 36 miles. On the motorcycle, however, it did not feel terribly challenging, especially when you compare it to something like Glendora Canyon Road in California, but it was still enjoyable and is certainly worth it to explore the local environs. Perhaps next time, I will return as a cyclist and tackle the road under my own power to see how I would hold up.