Highway 129, or “The Tail of the Dragon” as it’s more commonly known, is a dream road for many motorcyclists with its 318 turns in 11 miles. But for the unprepared, or unskilled, it can be a nightmare.
Mention riding the Dragon to non-motorcyclists you’ll get responses full of words like “die,” “death,” “insane,” and “stupid.” These really aren’t the best words to have in your head when skirting Tellico Lake on the way to see if the hype is real.
My first experience riding the long Tail came a few weeks ago after a coworker who recently moved to Knoxville invited me along. He had ridden it the previous weekend and returned with tales of excitement. The same sentiment was echoed by my brother, a more-experienced rider, who had tackled the beast for the first time a few months back. (He thought it was over-hyped.)
And though I’m a beginner rider, I’ve put enough twisty miles under my tires to prepare myself; at least that’s what I hoped. As it turned out, all you need to survive the Dragon is an understanding of how to ride curves, when not to brake, and common sense about your speed.
I met my friend early that Saturday morning dressed to crash in riding boots, leather riding pants, jacket, and gloves. If I was going to fall, the theory goes, I wanted to keep as much skin as possible.
We took a leisurely approach to the Dragon by riding through Lenoir City and the sparsely populated, but scenic, Greenback. A brief hop on Highway 411 deposited us at the “start” of the roller coaster, Highway 129 South.
For those who haven’t ridden the Dragon, the approach road can be a little deceiving. The danger doesn’t begin right away—you ride through some gentle country before dipping down along Tellico Lake.
And don’t worry about filling up before getting on the Dragon proper. You’ll find a well-stocked gas station and food market before you hit the twisties. It was this part of our ride where I started getting the jitters, in fact.
I let my friend lead as we exited the gas station since I knew he, the more experienced rider, would quickly lose me when we started down the Tail. I was content to simply make it down in one piece—he wanted to get to third gear. (And he did.)
The “real” start to the Dragon begins as you turn away from the Lake and up into the mountains. There are a few tight switchbacks before you’re presented with an opportunity to pull over and take in the fantastic view of the peaks and river below. This is also where things get violent.
My first few turns down the Dragon were a little timid. Traffic was thankfully light, except for that jackass on a red sports bike that passed me and my friend a few minutes down the road across the double-yellow line, and I was able to stay light on the brakes and use my engine to prep for the curves. I spent the majority of my time in either first and second gear.
By the time I reached the middle of the Dragon I was actually having fun. I no longer heard the descriptive words of folks from work (die, death, yada yada) and thought instead about the smooth pavement and the feeling achieved when hitting turns at the correct angle. Oh, and the beautiful surrounding mountains were nice, too!
Since I’m a bit of a bad-ass, and a masochist, I didn’t end my virgin Dragon ride where the road splits to either Fontana resort or Robbinsville, N.C. Instead, my friend and I continued on to the Cherohala Skyway, which I thought more enjoyable than the Dragon due to its long, winding curves and higher speed limit.
Riding the Tail of the Dragon for the first time is an intimidating and scary experience. But by staying calm and using the skills you’ve built up in previous rides, nearly any rider can tame this incredible road for themselves.
TIPS FOR RIDING THE DRAGON
- Put some space between yourself and any cars that get in front of you. Bikes can take turns much faster than cars, and you’ll find yourself riding very slowly in first gear the whole way down if you don’t.
- Don’t be tempted to go faster than the speed limit. If the police presence doesn’t deter you—I saw three in the course of a few miles—the death awaiting you in each corner will.
- Enter corners like you leaned in the MSF Basic RiderCourse: Outside-inside-outside with some room for traffic in left-hand corners.
- Stay within the lines! There are many blind corners and many cars that don’t take these into account. Be prepared to react if needed.
- Never, never touch your brakes in a turn. You will go down. Use your engine to slow down instead.
- Pay attention to the word “slow” painted on the road for several turns. These will help you judge speed the first trip down.
- Don’t be tempted to show-boat for the photographers that occupy several turns. That is, unless you prefer a photo of you and your bike sliding down the mountain.
Patrick Beeson is a rookie rider who attempts to cover issues important to newbies each month while splicing in anecdotes about his journey from citizen to motorcyclist. If you’re new to riding, or simply want to share a story from your early days in the saddle, send him an e-mail at patrickbeeson(at)gmail(dot)com.