Sunday Morning Ride: More Than a Ride and Less Than a Race

The Sunday Morning Ride in San Francisco's Bay Area has become an integral part of the northern California motorcycling scene.

'70s Sunday ride

Dave Neal (Norton P11) leads Rick Taaffe (Suzuki GT750) on a Sunday Morning Ride in the mid-’70s.

Photos by Mush Emmons and Clint Graves

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Just about every motorcyclist with a passion for riding can relate to the phrase “Sunday Morning Ride.” Who hasn’t, at one time or another, laid plans to join other bike-crazy friends for a Sunday morning ride? I know I have countless times during my 50 years in the sport.

For a contingent of die-hard riders in San Francisco’s Bay Area, the words “Sunday Morning Ride” are especially significant, because every Sunday morning at about 7 a.m. — without invite or public fanfare — they gather at an ARCO gas station on Shoreline Highway in Marin County’s Tamalpais Valley for a weekly ride dating back several decades. Anywhere from a dozen to a couple hundred bikes gather, and what eventually became known as the Sunday Morning Ride has become an integral part of the Northern California motorcycling scene. Anyone can join the Ride: Just know that the regulars are intolerant of unskilled, unpredictable or showy riders.

Through the years, the Ride has followed essentially the same route, snaking northward along Shoreline Highway on California’s fabled Route 1 before reaching a final destination for breakfast. Originally, riders regrouped at a café near the small community of Inverness, just west of Route 1 on the other side of Tomales Bay. Today, the ride is just a few miles shorter, terminating 39 miles after leaving the ARCO station, stopping at the Station House Cafe in Point Reyes Station for food and plenty of bench racing.

It’s those 39 miles of twisty two-lane blacktop that really make the Ride so special. It’s more than a leisurely putt, too, and many a seasoned veteran of the Ride is more familiar with the coastal route’s countless turns than they are the few walking steps from their house to the garage. As you might guess, many of the more skilled riders take those turns at relatively high rates of speed. It’s not a race, but neither is their pace for the faint of heart, prompting some riders to follow along at a more leisurely tempo. And even though modern-era sport bikes rule the roost, the Ride is fully accommodating to older bikes, or to retro-vintage models such as the two bikes that my brother Alan and I rode last spring.

Retro ride

We went on the Ride to celebrate an adventure we experienced back in 1967 when, fresh out of high school, I rode my brand-new Honda Super Hawk from Southern California to the Bay Area to visit our friends Scott, Jim and Bob Keys, who were regulars on the Ride. Alan’s bike was in the shop that week, so he drove our 1958 Chevy Biscayne to San Francisco so he could ride on the back of Scott’s Honda CB450, a bike we nicknamed Earthquake due to its “massive” size compared to the 305cc and 250cc bikes the rest of us rode.

For this year’s ride, Alan straddled a new Royal Enfield Continental GT while I sampled Yamaha’s new SR400, and we were joined by my good friend Brad Von Grote who rode his “old” 2000 BMW K1200RS because his hot rod 1975 Honda Gold Wing was suffering ignition problems. Admittedly, our two retro-vintage thumpers were slow — yet oh-so-fun for this venture. Think in terms of mixing 1960s design with modern technology, then pointing the combination onto a road that’s remained pretty much the same since it was originally laid out back when radio waves, not microwaves, filled the air.

The beginning

Nobody knows exactly how or when the Sunday Morning Ride set its roots, but one source credits expatriated Englishman Peter Adams for making the first run, to meet a friend for breakfast in Inverness, probably during the late 1950s or early 1960s. Adams, who owned a bike shop in Marin, continued his weekly rides to Inverness and eventually other riders joined him. In time, a tradition was born.

The Ride has had some colorful participants, too, perhaps the most notable being Bill Boyd, who became its figurehead in the mid-1960s. Boyd lost his left leg when he committed the unspeakable act of crossing a double-yellow line to pass a car, only to find the other lane occupied by another car. That was Christmas morning, 1966. Down but not out, Boyd rigged his Yamaha 180 with a special shifter, and for subsequent years he remained one of the faster riders to pull into the Inverness cafe parking lot. Today his son Wade pilots a Yamaha YZF-R1, and his experience competing at the Isle of Man and vintage races throughout America has helped him carry on the family tradition every Sunday morning.

Perhaps the rider with the most longevity is “Dangerous” Dan Sharmins, who completed his first Ride in August 1963 aboard a Triumph TR6. As Dangerous Dan — now 68 years young and currently riding an aging Honda Hawk with 110,000 miles on it — tells it today: “Bill Boyd gave me the nickname. He had a name for everybody. Mine was Dangerous Dan.”

The road

With 39 miles of twisty asphalt, you’d think that one turn would be just like the next and the next after that, but the Ride’s regular participants are familiar with the idiosyncrasies of nearly every major turn on the route. For sake of discussion, riders refer to various sections of the road when describing their morning ride to breakfast. For instance, there’s the Mountain Mile (so named because someone familiar with the Isle of Man’s treacherous mountain section felt that this magical mile of Route 1 shared many of the island’s same geographic features), the 13 Turns and the landmark known as Farmer’s Gate.

These and other stretches of the Ride have accumulated backwater stories that riders continue to share with one another. My friend Jim Keys, a regular back in the late 1960s, recalls when his brother Scott got out of shape at Farmer’s Gate: “I saw Scott picking up Earthquake after he’d overcooked it going into the left-hander,” recalls Jim. “And just past that it’s downhill to the right, and fast. That’s where [brother] Bob wrapped his Yamaha around a telephone pole” a few weeks later. No riders or animals were harmed in the making of either crash, which took place in 1967.

Several years later a fresh-faced 17-year-old named Mush Emmons, who later gained notoriety as a top-notch race photographer on the West Coast and who today rides his trusty 1970s-vintage Norton Commando, was summoned along with his Ducati 250 to the roadside after approaching 13 Turns from the north with more speed than caution. Recalls Emmons: “As I was barreling down the hill in the fast series snaking through the eucalyptus trees, a corner wrapped around an embankment to the right, then doubled backed into sight again. When I approached the unfamiliar hidden corner, I realized this was clearly a third the velocity of the series leading to it.” You can probably visualize the immediate outcome, and yes, even a 1960s-era Ducati 250 single can gather enough speed to momentarily overtake the laws of physics.

The law

As you might guess, another group of people frequents the Ride, and they’re usually found stoically sitting in their black-and-white cars. Officer Goodman headed that cast of characters, and he was followed by Officer Newcomer (real name) who eventually was supplanted by Officer MacLean. If you have the impression that the officers and riders know each other on a personal basis, you’re right. Dave Neal, a Ride participant since the early 1970s, offers several stories involving these officers. One episode includes MacLean encountering Neal “after the fact” of carrying a little too much speed through a corner. That extra speed enabled Neal to conveniently make it to the Inverness cafe, where he dismounted before MacLean showed up. Officer and rider stood in the parking lot, glaring each other in the eye until MacLean said matter-of-factly: “Dave, one day I’m going to bust you.” That day never came, and MacLean eventually retired, while Neal continues to make the Ride, as he did with us last spring aboard his Norton P11.

Perhaps the scariest episode involves a one-man vigilante movement by a guy who regulars today describe as “Jetta Man” because he took his fight onto the road while driving his Volkswagen Jetta. According to lore as passed down for about 30 years now, Jetta Man’s wife had been spooked by riders when they overtook her through some turns. The following week Jetta Man retaliated, first by driving excessively slow when the pack approached him. That effort failed — the riders simply motored around him — so the following week he videotaped riders crossing the double-yellow line, but the local law deemed that insufficient evidence. Those and other high jinks went on and on, playing like scenes from a Wiley Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon, with Jetta Man (who else?) playing the part of Wiley. Finally, he dropped a smoke bomb in the riders’ path and the local law had enough. They cited him for obstructing traffic, and Wiley, er, Jetta Man, quietly slipped away into oblivion.

The future

Don’t look for the Sunday Morning Ride itself to slip away anytime soon, however. The Ride has survived more than 50 years of landslides caused by bad weather, Bay Area earthquakes, rider fatalities and even road blocks and speed traps by the California Highway Patrol. Through the course of time the Ride also has served as a springboard for aspiring road racers in the area to try their hand at racing at nearby Sears Point Raceway’s (now Sonoma Raceway) challenging course, and the Ride has allowed family members to join together for spirited romps on a road overlooking some of California’s most scenic coastlines.

Indeed, the Sunday Morning Ride has taken on a life of its own, and it shows no signs of aging. As Dangerous Dan pointedly shared with me, “I hope I never lose it.” Of course, Dangerous Dan didn’t need to explain any further that “it” was the love of riding, not just the Ride itself. MC


Going back in time

I’m lucky to have a brother who’s also one of my best friends, so when I ventured north to experience the Sunday Morning Ride after nearly 50 years, I asked him to join me. For our little blast into the past it seemed appropriate to ride bikes in tune with yesteryear, and fortunately for us Yamaha and Royal Enfield made a couple of retro-style bikes available to us — Yamaha’s 399cc SR400 single and Royal Enfield’s 535cc Continental GT single — so we packed the thumpers in Alan’s truck and off we went.

I rode the SR400 during the ride up the coast, while Alan manned the Continental GT. The kickstart SR400 felt nimble and light, and its torquey engine offers adequate power for exiting the tight turns on the Ride’s first stretch. A stout chassis, coupled with a rather low power delivery makes for rock-steady handling.

Alan touted the GT’s 535cc engine for its broad torque band. “Pretty good brakes, too,” he said, although bikes with nominal speed ranges usually garner such comments anyway. We switched bikes for the southerly ride back, and when we cut the ignitions, we compared notes. Alan still preferred the GT. “Its ergonomics feel more like a road racer,” he said, although the last time he actually raced was 1979.

The SR400’s more conventional riding position was more in tune with encroaching arthritis in my neck and shoulders, so I favored the Yamaha (incidentally, Al and I raced Yamaha RDs “back in the day”). The SR’s electronic fuel-injected engine was easy to kickstart (no electric foot on this baby), and the power was sufficient through the Ride’s slower sections, although once we hit the open road past Stinson Beach there was pretty much nobody immediately in front of me — everybody was way, way ahead! — Dain Gingerelli