Journey from Pillion to Pilot: Cheryl’s Story
by Cheryl Jones
I was born on a bike, well on the back at least. For as long as memory serves, I had been a back seat passenger to the men in my life. The recollection of my first ride with my father at 8 years old is a little rusty now but I do remember the rush of speed, feeling the wind in my face and holding onto him as he leaned that bike into corners. It was father-daughter time and I am sure he holds onto these precious memories as tightly as I do. As he ages and can no longer ride, there is a bittersweet fondness in these reminiscences.
As an adult, I became associated with the Iron Bike Association (IBA) and worked my way up to professional pillion, clocking thousands of kilometers, hours of seat time and certificates acknowledging these feats of endurance. It would not be long however, before I would decide a change was in order.
I recall the day I decided I was done being a pillion and was determined to pilot my own bike. Ironically, the joy of relaxing and soaking up the sights, which I had deemed a benefit to riding two up, became the ruin of my journey. During my last IBA ride what should have been a 17 hour ride ended after 22 validating the “cons” of being a passenger. I wanted control. Of everything! I wanted to ride at my own pace, on my own course and stop where and when I chose. I wanted the wind in my face and to see the open road in front of me, not as a passing glance from the side. I was tired of missing magnificent sites barely gleaned in a blur of speed and always too late to appreciate. I was done taking that backseat!
I had a Suzuki DRZ400 sitting in the garage that screamed, “I can teach you!” It was lightweight and easy to manage. Yet I was scared to death! Was I going to fall over? Crash because I hit the throttle too hard? I am well versed in the workings of a manual transmission and understand the principles of the clutch, gear, gas sequence, but now I had to learn this task with my hands. Slowly. Painfully. Up and down the driveway, turning it around using the bipedal method, eventually brave enough to click it into second gear. The road would prove more challenging.
After a few short road trips, my confidence increased, I settled in and felt comfortable on the bike; we began to click. It was not long before I found myself doing “the loop”. A huge accomplishment and one that was somewhat astounding given my experience. I conquered the 6-hour trip covering 272km of twisting pavement and gravel roads with less than a month of saddle time.
I continued to ride but determined I needed a bike bigger and better built for the type of riding I planned to do. I was looking for a dual-sport and found the perfect bike, a 2007, Suzuki V-Strom 650. A little old and outfitted with bash plate and crashbars, I had no fear of dropping the aptly named, “Beast”; well maybe a little. I mean who wants to drop their bike? In that moment, exchanging cash for keys I swore I would never drop him. I forgot to knock on wood.
It was like starting all over again and “Beast” was intimidating. The V-Strom was heavier for sure and that made me nervous, so round the block. As with the DRZ it did not take long to get into a groove, but I knew I needed better skills so I enlisted the help of former racer, rider, photographer and acquaintance, Ray McKenzie. I was nervous as heck because my skills were not great and I feared looking like an idiot. I arrived 20 minutes before our first ride so that he would not bear witness should I drop my bike in the parking lot!
I continued my “lessons” and picked up some valuable riding tips. I practiced all the time and soon became proficient at preloading my shifter for a smooth transition between gears and eventually got the hang of rev matching, preventing shock loads through the transmission. My lines were good but I continued to improve them with each ride. The joy of riding only increased as I learned the nuances of being a smooth rider; it was all I wanted to do.
It was the planning of an extensive trip with long, grueling off road travel, which sparked my next course of action. More skills were required in this area and thus I ensured I was included in an upcoming off road skills course with Don Hatton, an experienced Rally racer. That was an experience I shall never forget and one that prepared me for the challenges of all manner of terrain. Lock to lock steering; positioning on the bike for steep uphill climbs and difficult downhill encounters; how to use proper biomechanics to lift mybike both on a flat surface and on hills; riding in a rut – you name it, I did it!
June 15th arrived and I was ready for my first big trip. Excitement was in the air as we made the BC Ferry voyage and then crossed into Washington. After a celebratory meal and a few bevvies, I lay down for the night, but sleep was elusive, thoughts drifting to the next day’s ride.
In the morning I shed my hand-me-downs and donned my new Klim gear; it fit perfectly. Dressed head to toe in suitable attire, I felt like a rider. It was a good start to what would be a taxing first day as we rode the Interstate through Seattle. Tackling traffic through busy metropolitan areas is stressful for the experienced rider never mind one who is green.
By day three, after travelling along some impressive secondary roads, it all fell into place. I felt one with “Beast” and we rode in complete harmony. Like a dance, the choreographed movement – throttle, clutch, shift, throttle, repeat – feels rhythmic as you take those corners fluidly, lean with confidence. You can almost feel the music of the ride.
As we travelled through the high desert, a voice came through my Sena Bluetooth, “alright, here we go.” We rounded the corner and began our descent into Moab, our base for the next 4 days. I was gobsmacked and excited about reaching our objective. Colossal red rocks rose up on either side of me and a noticeable rise in temperature materialized as we continued down into the valley. We would do some serious adventure riding throughout surrounding canyons.
Our first outing included Arches National Park. Resplendent scenery and the hike to Delicate Arch in 114°F heat with virtually no shade, was grueling. From a photographer’s perspective, this monument is one that begs to be captured no matter the trek. I sat for a long while taking in the vista and giving thanks for the ability to witness such a natural wonder.
We stopped at the top of Schaffer Road looking down onto White Rim Trail; this was our ultimate goal and we would be tackling this monster the next day. I was mesmerized by the view in front of me. A deep canyon gouged its way across an expanse as far as I could see, the only way down, a series of intimidating switchbacks cut into the side of the chasm. I was not sure if I was ready for this ride. Remember to focus on what you have been taught and ride smoothly. Ha, ok! As I sat, feet dangling over a two thousand foot drop to the canyon floor, I captured the sunset and sent a silent prayer for survival, across the vastness.
The day arrived! Today would be a testament to my skills as a solo rider and the faith I had put in my companions. With “Beast” fully fuelled and my camelback brimming, we headed towards White Rim Trail. At the top, I received the usual pep talk and instructions on riding along the edge of a cliff …“don’t fall off”. My heart was hammering as we begun. The gravel was tight packed and the cornering nice and easy around the top. This would soon change. The switchbacks got tighter and the gravel, looser. My mind raced with self-guidance; front/rear brake, engine braking, enduro steering, arms over the handlebars, bend your knees, grip your tank… you know the drill. It is my mantra until I round a corner and see a huge drop off ahead. I am so fearful of going over the edge that I hug the inside corner as tight as I can and go so slowly that keeping the bike upright is impossible. Down I go in a graceful tip over. My cohorts stop and rush to help me upright my bike as I embarrassedly apologize. That would not be last time “Beast” lay in a heap along this trail; a patch of soft sand would get me later in the day. I managed to navigate the remainder of the decent with the rubber side down and danced a jig once we hit the canyon floor.
The trail proved a challenge; sand, loose gravel, rough rock and uneven terrain pushed my riding to the limit. Add the staggering 100°F degree heat in full protective gear and the constant need to be up on my pegs. I was physically and mentally exhausted by the time we stopped. A passerby advised us that in the road ahead was a very deep river crossing, thus we were faced with a big decision; three more hours with limited supplies and a high probability of impassability or turn around. Resting in a shaded overhang, the choice was obvious; we would not complete the trail. This decision did not sit well with me for two reasons: I like to finish what I start and I would be forced to repeat those switchbacks back up the canyon! In the end, choosing the route that ensures survival seems the wisest. I made it back up without a hiccup (well the occasional stall) and was encouraged to lead the group out of the canyon and back to the main road. After hours of intense riding, tires now back on pavement, I was met with high fives and hugs. I had exceeded my own expectations, and wept with relief and pride.
The trip continued to be epic as we rode through Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods, and Mexican Hat. We rode out onto the white barren land that is Bonneville Salts flats and steered the north edge of the Grand Canyon, but aside from White Rim Trail, Death Valley is an experience I will never forget. The temperature at Furnace Creek read 118°F and eventually rose above 122°F as we hit Bad-water Basin. At 282 feet below sea level it is the lowest point in North America and an incredible site to behold. We cooled our jackets in the local gas station’s ice box, before continuing our adventure.
The last night was bittersweet yet powerful. This journey changed the way I ride, instilled greater confidence in my skills, and proved to me that fear can be converted into determination and that if cultivated, can lead to success. I rocked this trip with less than 4 months experience on a bike and I gained independence as a woman in a still primarily male dominated activity. Encouraged and empowered by my own fortitude and the support of those in my life, I am glad I took that leap of faith, learning to ride on my own and I eagerly accept whatever challenges await me in the future of adventure riding!
All photos in this post are by Cheryl Jones or Ray McKenzie’s @maptacsray
Love this? Check out The Two Rules of Being a Great Pillion!