The Triumph Bonneville as Escort Bike
A month ago, I received a text from my friend Doug, looking for motorcycle escorts for an upcoming two-day charity bike ride. From Cle Elum to Leavenworth over Blewitt Pass on Saturday, and back again on Sunday. Each bike ride would be about 55 miles. I knew absolutely nothing about motorcycle escort work, but had always been interested. Doug knew I’d worked in the motorcycle business for 14 years and figured I’d know people.
Well, I do. I was about to volunteer myself, as it sounded intriguing, but thought to ask for more info first. Turns out it included a motel room Friday and Saturday night, breakfast, lunch and dinner Saturday and breakfast and lunch on Sunday, plus expense money, plus free beer Saturday evening! So…did he need anyone besides me?
After some fun telling my friends I would be spending the weekend working as a paid escort, I installed the Cortech bags on my 2016 Triumph Bonneville and was off for the 90 or so freeway miles to Cle Elum.
The Friday night motel was at Suncadia Resort, although some of the hardier bicyclists camped in town next to the start. I don’t really care for high end resorts (see my previous essay), but when the room is provided, I can stifle myself.
In the late afternoon the other “motos” arrived. Doug on his police spec BMW, Bill, Mitch, and Ian on BMW 1200 GS models, and Rob a bit later on a Kawasaki Concours 14. All of their bikes looked like moto escorts, and I was a bit concerned at what I might be asked to subject the Bonneville to. Over a beer the role was explained. All we were to do was to be a presence – riding slowly behind or ahead of groups of bicyclists, with the four-way flashers on. We were not responsible for first aid or mechanical assistance or much of anything really. Those sorts of things would be attended to by a squadron of “SAG wagons,” and I asked and learned that the acronym stood for “Support and Gear.” These vehicles had bike racks on the back, and the drivers were members of a ham radio club that had been working this event for a decade or two. There was also a bicycle mechanic with a pickup truck who would be roaming the course. I began to relax.
In the evening there was a fascinating meeting with the SAG wagon crews and the moto riders. Most of the moto fellows had been trained to do events similar to the Tour De France bicycle race. The company that puts on that also organizes bike races in California and Utah and other places. A bike race is an entirely different kettle of stew than a charity bike race, and much more demanding for the motos. To work those, you need an international license, which requires training and passing of tests and all that sort of thing. I was awash in ignorance, but at least 3 of the moto guys had that license and a lot of experience.
The tension in the meeting with the SAG crews, motos, and the event organizer sizzled with unspoken tension, and I soon figured out why. The SAG crews had been doing this for years and were positive their methods were the right ones. Same for the motos, but their methods were different! Last year there had been disagreements that had become extremely heated, so the purpose of this meeting was to iron out the ruffled feathers. If you have even attempted to iron ruffled feathers, it is difficult. Everyone was polite, and by the end of the meeting agreement was reached. During the event, it seemed that nothing really had changed. Each group did what they usually did – they just dropped the heated exchanges.
The problem seemed to be that both groups wanted to ensure the safety of the bike riders, particularly those at the tail end. The SAG crews all had communication, but the motos did not. If you were a moto going back to pick up the tail end Charlies and Charlottes, you could not be sure how far back to go, because the person you thought was at the back an half and hour ago might have had a mechanical or simply become too fatigued and had been picked up by a SAGH wagon and you would not know. This happened to me on Sunday, but in the end, everything seemed to work well.
Saturday morning we motored to downtown Cle Elum to the start, where an immense breakfast was laid out by one of several Rotary clubs that supported the event. Well fed, we lined up the motos under the inflated arch that served as the start and finish. Eventually we left, riding at a moderate pace for the first mile or so of the course. Frequent signage pointing out turns was welcome, since I did not actually know the route! Eventually we pulled over to a side lot and waited for the bicycles to begin to come by, and procedures were reviewed – probably for my benefit. Most of the procedures seemed to come down to “use your best judgement,” never my strong point. The idea was to troll behind a small group as they pedaled up a hill. If they crested the hill and began a long straight or a downhill, you would flip a U-turn and go back and pick up another group.
There was something like 275 entrants on bicycles, and 6 motos – so ideally, we would be spaced about 50 apart, but there was more of a concept than a reality.
As the bicycles streamed by, many of them thanking us for being there, we waited until a large group had passed and one of us would follow. I was about the 3rd to go – again, using my best judgement.
It was really a lot of fun, actually, and more mentally involving than I would have thought. If I went back to pick up another group, how far back should I go. If a group was in an area that seemed perilous due to the road or traffic, I would stay with them. Back and forth, and thinking all the time – with no way of knowing if the thinking was appropriate or utterly daft. If I saw a bike stopped, I would pull up next to them to ask if all was OK, and it always was, and then continue.
One interesting aspect of the first day was a construction zone. By prior arrangement, the bikes would be herded into groups of 30 to 50 and then led through the construction by a pilot car. The flag guy engaged me in a fun conversation which began with him asking me how far along we were. Of course, I had no real idea – probably half or so – anmd I explained to him my interpretation of what using my best judgement meant. I would find a small group of bikes that included an attractive woman and attempt to keep track pf relative positions by where she was, but I had to admit it was not working all that well.
A few seconds later an attractive woman rode by to join the group waiting in front of me and I said “Like that.”
He laughed and replied “Yeah, I got it., but nice example. He then regaled me with great stories of the adventures and perils of doing flag work. I was almost sad when I had to leave.
Occasionally there would be a rest area or lunch break, each one staffed and catered by one or more Rotary clubs. The bicyclists needed a lot of liquids and food for their efforts, and so just to fit in…
I also enjoyed great chats with really interesting people… like the architect who used to ride Triumphs and also rowed for the University of Washington and was familiar with the book The Boys in the Boat, and the woman who rode a Triumph 650 years ago (way ahead of her time!) before earning her pilot’s license and moving on to marriage and motherhood.
The last part of the ride was a lovely little crooked jaunt into Leavenworth. I ushered my group almost all the way to the motel when Bill flagged me down. He yelled that there were still 60 bicyclists trying to get off the mountain, and that we needed to go back up there. I doubted that, but who am I to question? What followed was an exhilarating ride back up the mountain on the main highway at what would be highly illegal speeds under normal circumstances. Turns out that when you have “Moto” stickers on the bike, an orange safety vest and (most importantly) your four-way flashers on, you can go 80mph and people in cars will pull over and wave you by. Great fun.
When we got back to the last break area, as I suspected, there was pretty much nobody left, so I ushered a small group back on the twisty back road.
In the evening there was a sumptuous buffet dinner, some speeches, and then a break followed by a beer garden. Nice day!
Sunday morning brought another huge breakfast, and then we gathered the motos in front of the huge inflated start line arch, and in time motored down the main drag of Leavenworth to the left turn that led to the twisty back road. I was asked to be the rear guard this time, as four of the others faced a 170-mile ride home at the end, and if they were near the front they could get at least and hour or more head start on the ride home at the end. Doug lives in Seattle, but he was asked to lead out because he had ridden the route Friday and was familiar with the tricky sections, of which there were many. He would hold station at one of the rest areas until I got there and we would take up rear guard duties together.
The bicyclists were allowed to start between 8am and 9:30, which seemed excessive to me. I waved at passing groups for about an hour, trying to make sure all of them spotted the left turn. Some of them ignored me, possibly choosing a straighter and shorter route up to the mountain pass.
Eventually I rode back to the start to make sure all had left. There was only one bike left, and no rider in sight. It was eventually determined that the rider had either slept in or was abandoning the event, so I took off to catch the riders ahead, which was not at all difficult.
Out on the main road I quickly determined who was the last rider, a woman I began to refer to as “good old 98.” She had been interviewed by some of the SAG folks, and she admitted she was slow but assured all she would get there. Eventually, after stopping a few times to inquire of people taking a break and repeatedly riding back to check on old 98, I reached the turn off for Old Blewitt Pass road, which was the highlight of the ride for many. I waited for a goodly amount of time and chatted with two EMTs and their truck, and I think they had nothing to do for the entire weekend. After old 98 passed I ventured down the ancient road, and could soon see why it was the highlight. It went up a lot, with tight turns and a lot of bumps and depressions and jagged holes in the pavement. Occasionally a concrete trench ran across the pavement at a corner apex, there to assist in water drainage. Definitely not a road to play hero on, which was not a problem for me.
Couldn’t help wondering what it was like on a bicycle. Here you are, struggling up steep hills and sharp corners. Along comes a moto, which sweeps around you and, with a casual twist of the wrist, is soon 200 yards ahead. That would be galling to me.
This road was a tad narrow for U-turns, with bicycles coming at any moment, so instead I would pull over at a more or less wide spot and revel in the spectacular views and utter silence. At the top there was a rest area, with Doug waiting for me, and another splendid array of liquids and treats, complete with volunteers cheering each arrival. It was all downhill from here, pretty much literally.
Doug took over tail position, urging me to ride down to the lunch stop, which featured a buffet of Mexican foods.
By now the riders were spread out by at least two hours, so there was always lots of time to sit and ponder, take in the day, and smoke my pipe away from the riders so as not to pollute their pristine lungs.
The rest of the day passed with more of the same, and no incidents worth mentioning. Back in Cle Elum, Doug and I sat for a bit and then took off for the onerous trek on I-90 back home. The stretch from Cle Elum to Snoqualmie Pass is famous for near grid lock in the afternoons. Once you are close to the pass, suddenly things open up and then everyone cruises at about 80mph to Issaquah.
To belabor the obvious, if someone offers you the opportunity to serve as a “moto” for a bicycle event – take it! Hope I get invited back next year!
Copyright 2019 David Preston