So, What Does Happen When You Get a Flat Tire on a Motorcycle
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I used to wonder what it would be like to get a flat tire while riding a motorcycle. I did not really want to find out firsthand, I was just curious. Well, I guess you could say, “Curiosity willed the flat.”
It was day one of a 9-day motorcycle road trip to Nashville with another couple. Everything was off to a great start. The weather was perfect and the bike was purring like a tiger as we made our way from the Chesapeake Bay across the Potomac River with only minimal highway time. Maryland and Virginia are connected at Newburg and Dahlgren by the Gov. Harry W. Nice Memorial Bridge. This toll bridge is the only way to cross the Potomac from Southern Maryland, so we were burdened with more than a few miles of mandatory highway on US Route 301 South. The 135-foot-high span affords a beautiful view of the river, but the two opposing lanes of 50-MPH traffic demand your full attention as a rider.
The “Baby Dragon”
As we rode off the bridge, Louise called out the first of many Virginia turns – a right onto Dahlgren road followed by another right onto Caledon Road. That’s where the ride really started to get fun. If you ever find yourself in this area, do yourself a favor and give this road a run. Tree-lined twists and turns… nothing technically difficult, just enough to get your blood pumping. I thought, this is just a taste of what’s to come – we planned to ride the infamous “Tail of the Dragon” in a few days. We jokingly nicknamed this stretch of road “Baby Dragon” and we rode on – destination: Floyd, VA for wood-fired pizza and live music. If our estimates were correct, we would get there by 6PM.
Taking Our Sweet Time
We stopped for lunch at Los Tres Potrillos Mexican Restaurant in Louisa, Virginia. No hurry, we were on the bikes, so we took our time and relaxed. After about an hour (and some great food), we were back on the road.
Some of the best backroads will pop up as last-minute options on Google Maps (when the avoid highways option is selected), so, while Louise juggled the navigation on her phone, I simply settled into a relaxing ride waiting for her to call out my next turn. I knew we were north of Richmond and still southwest of Charlottesville, but, I really didn’t care where we were, exactly – I trust Louise to get us where we are going; my job is to keep the rubber side down, so that’s what I did. However, I didn’t expect the rubber to let us down.
Feeling a Little Deflated
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, we paused at a STOP sign long enough for Louise to verify left, right or otherwise. It would be a right onto Scottsville Road, followed by a left onto Red Hill Road. As I pulled forward and leaned into a slow turn to the right, the lowest part of the bike’s frame scraped briefly on the asphalt. Now, the Softail Deluxe has the lowest ground-to-seat height of any Harley, which means that the lowest part of the frame is closer to the ground than even a Sportster (we would know, since several thousand of our tandem miles were on a 2006 Sportster 1200). We’ve scraped before, but always at speed. To scrape in a slow turn was new. I was convinced that I had just leaned too far in the turn – add to that the extra weight of our luggage weighing on the shocks. The bike still felt fine, so we continued with caution. It wasn’t until a few miles later, that we started to feel the rear end of the motorcycle sway with every turn. I would describe the feeling as squirrely, mushy, soft, not good.
Seriously? Two in the afternoon, five hours into our vacation, and this? A flat rear tire. Louise climbed off and I was able to get the bike off of the the road onto a grass “shoulder.” Ahh, Red Hill Road, one of Virginia’s many beautiful backroads. And there we would spend the next hour-and-a-half: calling around trying to arrange for a tow truck (more difficult on a Saturday afternoon in central Virginia than you might imagine); searching for an auto shop that just might be able to repair a flat motorcycle tire; watching and listening to the North Fork Hardware River run by us just past the tree line and down at the bottom of an embankment; and coordinating service with Shenandoah Harley Davidson in Staunton, VA (41 miles away, in the direction we had not planned to go.)
From 2 Wheels to 6
Albemarle Towing‘s driver, Tommy (a really cool guy and champion bluegrass guitar picker), showed up around 3:30. I have to admit, I was a little nervous about the thought of riding a motorcycle, flat tire and all, up onto the bed of a rollback, but I had help and no other options.
Fifteen minutes later, Tommy, Louise and I sat in the sweltering cab of the truck heading west. We would cross the Shenandoah Mountain Range between Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway – two beautiful roads we had ridden only ten months earlier. Not so beautiful from the cab of a tow truck rumbling along Interstate 64; yep, a highway.
The tow truck did not have air conditioning, but it did have a blower, which was blowing nothing but hot air into the cab. So, we kept the windows rolled down and Tommy kept us entertained for the 45-minute trip with stories of his years playing bluegrass music in the Shenandoah Valley. We kept checking behind us to make sure our friends were still in trail, and that our poor motorcycle was still secure on the flatbed. All was good. We arrived at Shenandoah Harley a little after 4:30.
The Definition of Customer Service
The Harley dealership closes at 5 PM on Saturdays, and we burned up 15 minutes just getting the bike off the rollback and paying Tommy the $300 towing fee – great way to start a vacation, right? But, the mechanic, Gavin, had promised to stay late to get us back on the road. The folks here definitely understand customer service.
Gavin removed the flat tire and inspected everything closely. The tire itself was still good with plenty of tread left on it. But the tube? Well, that was another story. Not only did the tube have a hole in it the size of the Grand Canyon, the valve stem popped off as Gavin was removing it from the wheel, and the entire tube was filled with goop that we collectively agreed was leftover “Fix-a-Flat” or something similar. We had bought the bike used when it had about 30,000 miles. The previous owner assured us that the tires and tubes only had about 500 miles at the time of purchase.
The lesson learned: when you buy a used bike, check EVERYTHING or have a mechanic do a thorough pre-buy. Had we known that tube was comprised, we probably would have been able to avoid this entire situation.
Looking on the bight side, though: nobody got hurt; the bike was not damaged; we salvaged the tire and met some great people, turning this into a memorial adventure – an expensive adventure, but memorable, nonetheless.
The Adventure Continues
Leaving Staunton, we made the decision to take Interstate 81 South towards Floyd, VA. Another highway, but a necessary evil if we were going to beat the impending darkness, as it was now after 6 PM. And even though we hit some heavy traffic near Roanoke, we made it to Hotel Floyd with plenty of time to walk to Dogtown Roadhouse for some of the best wood-fired pizza in the world. I ordered the “Appalachian” – sausage, caramelized onion, aged white cheddar and goat cheese over an Apple Butter Base. Yes, it was even better than it sounds.
We also enjoyed live music by The Trongone Band, a unique jam band that channels the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, with a nice blend of blues and funk.
But, the best part of the evening was sitting there having a cold beer, knowing that we made it through the first day of our trip safely. I’d say we were pretty lucky: we were going slow when it happened, it was the rear tire, and we had cell coverage. We took the flat tire in stride, and just let it be part of the adventure.