What Makes a Great Road Really Great?
Richard Millington, Director of Motorrad Tours, explains why a simple question doesn’t always have a simple answer. If you had a blank piece of paper, what roads would be on your bucket list to ride? For many people the snap answer is “A Round the World Trip”, which is great but where would you actually go?
Richard Millington, Director of Motorrad Tours
“Emelio Scott spent 10 years and rode 500,000 miles and I bet there were some awesome (as in filled him with awe) and amazing rides; but I bet there were some dull days. Search the internet and you can find umpteen lists of the best roads in the world to ride.
“Some dirt, some tarmac, these lists are worth a read and some truly great roads will turn up again and again – The Transfagarasan Road, Romania; The Karakoram Highway in the Himalayas; The Stelvio Pass in the Alps; and Carretera Austral in Chile. You don’t need me to create another bucket list of rides – the internet is out there.
“But there are some roads you should plan to ride sooner rather than later as they are disappearing. You need to move up your bucket list any of the great dirt roads that you read about in those internet lists.
“Thanks to the web, they get known, they get more popular and a little bit of a tourist industry builds up around them. Initially this might be on a micro scale but it steadily it grows. Suddenly, some bright spark in a government office who previously had never even heard of Batopilas, or whichever little town is benefitting, notices and decides the best thing he can do is pave the road as this is bound to improve tourism!
“I am sure the locals and the coaches that may follow appreciate it, but for many bikers the appeal of the challenge, the remote nature and the sense of achievement is lost. Then again, it takes 50 bikes to spend the same as one coach load.
“A prime example of a lost road is the road to Batopilas in Copper Canyon, Mexico. Copper Canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon and I first rode it in 2009. As you turned off the main road (I am using the word ‘main’ loosely!) there were a few miles of tarmac before the road turned to dirt.
“Nice road with great views and then you pass a roadside Catholic Shrine to Mary. If you have travelled in Mexico, or in many areas of South America, you will know there are often little shrines at sites where a loved one has died on the road, so it is always a bit of an indicator of potential danger of the road. A shrine to the ‘mother’ of the national religion could therefore be seen as a little worrying. Round the next hairpin you find out why. The road is single track, dirt and rocks, with a sheer rock face on either side – one face goes up and one goes down, at least 100-metre vertical cliffs on either side.
“There are no guard rails. You are sharing the road with trucks and buses that cannot possibly make the never ending series of super tight hairpin turns, but somehow they do. It took hours to do 85 miles that day, but it was one of the best and most memorable days riding I have ever had.
A couple of years later I was fortunate enough to be back. Ready to relive this epic day and looking forward to the challenge; I could already taste the cold beer at the end of the day.
“They were halfway through tarmacking it! Blasting out the rock face and trying to lay two-lane blacktop on the side of a canyon cliff. The surface was already bowing and cracking and banditos keep destroying the new surface to preserve the remoteness of the area for their nefarious activities – but the authorities are determined to tarmac the whole route.
“A friend was back last year and tells me it is now tarmac all the way to the canyon floor. The old road is lost forever and that epic day is just a memory.
“So, if you want to ride the infamous Ruta 40 through the Patagonian Steppe in Argentina, or Carretera Austral down the spine of Chile, descend the Moki Dugway in Utah, wade through the pink mud of the Trans Labrador Highway in Canada, or any of the other iconic roads that you can find listed on the web, then do so soon before they disappear under a layer of smooth black asphalt. And they are just crying out to be ridden on a GS.
“Now, don’t get me wrong there are many superb tarmac roads to be ridden and you can get your biking fix on the tarmac as easily as you can on dirt, but beware of the ‘great’ roads that are more hype than actuality, or at least not that great to ride.
“The Blue Ridge Parkway twists and turns through Carolina (North and South) and Virginia and will expose you to some breathtaking views and scenery. If you have gone to ride the twists and turns though you’ll be frustrated, as large sections of the road have a 35mph speed limit strictly enforced.
“Route 66 is another example. It has achieved an iconic status with a supporting industry of tour operators, gift shops, stickers and patch manufacturers leaping on the retro-cool bandwagon. Route 66 was designed as a fast and efficient route from Chicago to Los Angeles, cutting a diagonal line across the flat prairie lands of the central US. It quickly became the truckers’ favourite – flat, straight and cool.
“It was instrumental in allowing mass migration to the west in the depression and its notoriety grew from this. Officially it no longer exists as a single road – but bits and pieces survived with new road numbers. They are easy to find as they all have a Route 66 gift shop full of tat at every stop.
“It is a truck road across the plains – so why is this road at the top of so many bucket lists? If it were the other way round could we sell the idea of riding the A1(M)? It was our original trunk road connecting two ends of a country, favoured by lorries – but now largely made obsolete by newer and bigger motorways?
The A1(M) is essentially the UK's Route 66. But it's not on anyone's bucket list.
“Somehow it doesn’t seem so appealing? Maybe if we swap the words trunk road for highway and lorry for truck? No – it still doesn’t do it for me.
“Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying don’t ride these ‘great’ roads. However, do your research and understand what makes a great road great. There are many different reasons – history, scenery, the challenge or great curves – and if you want the perfect bucket list you need to pick the perfect road for you. Neither the A1(M) or Route 66 will be on mine."
Check out the huge range of tours on offer, ranging from a long weekend in Europe to a fortnight of off-road riding in South America or Africa, via www.motorrad-tours.com.