For the sixth installment of "Trippin' on Two Wheels," classic car legend Dennis Gage, Gage's son Sam and the author journeyed over 1,100 miles from Indiana to Florida in four days.
From left, Neale Bayly, Dennis Gage and Dennis’ son, Sam Gage, at the start of their Trippin' on Two Wheels ride from Indiana to Florida.
Roaring majestically along in the sprung saddle of a 1967 Moto Guzzi V7, the afternoon sun burns the landscape a rich, deep golden hue as the shadow riders chasing us along the twisting country road grow longer and longer.
Night is coming down, and my inner dialogue turns to the question I am repeatedly asked: “How did Trippin’ on Two Wheels get started?” And for this trip specifically, “Why Indiana to Florida?” Forcing an inner smile, I look over to see Dennis Gage’s un-waxed mustache flying horizontal in the 60mph breeze. His face is set in a comfortable way as he indulges in his own motorcycle Chautauqua, roaring down the road on his 1969 BMW R60. Dennis’ son, Sam, is on point for the first time in the series, and looking back for the answer, it all seems like such a long time ago.
It was a brutally hot, humid afternoon at the Santa Monica Raceway in Misano, Italy. Working a story about the 2002 World Ducati Week, the place was teeming with Ducatisti from all over the world, and at times it was hard to move. Yet somehow amongst all the madness, Dennis and I ended up talking over a cold drink. Looking back, it’s not surprising that the two weirdest, anti-establishment loonies at the event should find each other. Nor does it seem strange that a couple of hours later we found ourselves splitting traffic on a pair of Ducati Monsters at triple-digit speeds while heading back to Bologna. Or that less than a week after that we were both in Janesville, Wis., covering the Triumph Across America ride. Judging by our particular orbits, it’s clear now that the planets of insanity were in some sort of cosmic (or is that comedic?) alignment. Dennis, host of the highly successful My Classic Car on SPEED TV, was starting a new show called Corbin’s Ride On; I had some television production skills and knew a few things about motorcycles.
During the ensuing years there was much dialogue, lots of hard work and plenty of fun. As editor Backus will attest, when the caller ID says Dennis, you better have your mental “A” game on and at least an hour of free time. It was during one of these conversations that I suggested making a travel documentary in Scotland. Click! Dennis obviously didn’t like it, but at least I’d found a way of getting him off the phone.
This continued for months, with me constantly upping the ante. “I’ll have new Triumph Sprints ready to ride! We can take Sam! I’ll sell stories to cover the beer.” He was softening, but not yielding, when I finally went for the jugular. Using the line that has carried us to the Highlands of Scotland, Sicily, Southern Spain, Quebec and the Alps on two wheels I asked, “Could you live with yourself if you didn’t?”
The pair of us quickly adopted this as mantra, conveniently employing it when common sense and rational thinking are out to ruin a good adventure.
And suddenly here we are, with Dennis in the seat of his BMW R60/2, Sam riding a toaster tank BMW R75/5, and yours truly, the Big-Nosed One, riding my favorite motorcycle in Dennis’ collection. We’re rolling south from the Gage estate on a day so beautiful it could send atheists heading to church. Brightly colored flowers fill the fields, the sun dances majestically with whimsical clouds, and Trippin’ number six is a go.
As grand marshal of Riding into History in St. Augustine, Fla., Tripmaster D, (as Dennis is known in Trippin’ speak) had thought about riding down on one of his vintage bikes. Maybe Sam might join him? Maybe I could come down to hang out? Maybe if we didn’t have free Verizon to Verizon it might have ended there? But we are not that smart, and following along behind us in the Gage family mini-van is our producer/camera man Ben, and our new driver, Sam’s high-school buddy Adam, which means it’s really happening.
Dennis put a lot of work into the bikes during the previous weeks, tuning them to make sure they’ll survive four hard days of riding. The R60 hadn’t been started for five years, the Guzzi had transmission seal issues, and the R75 needed nothing special, as always.
Adjusting to Old Mother Goose, as the Guzzi affectionately becomes known, takes a little time. The Goose has a long, lumbering wheelbase, four hard-to-find gears located on the right-hand side of the bike — with an upside-down shift pattern — and a spongy lever on the right handlebar that someone had mislabeled as the brake. The throttle is like some sort of forearm enlarging exercise machine, and the screeching sound the rear brake gives the first time it’s used feels like it will loosen the fillings in my teeth. There is no word in her vocabulary for acceleration, just a gentle gathering of speed. But with the ignition key in the beautiful, polished headlight nacelle firing her to life every time, her perfect carburetion making each amble up through the gears a delicious experience to be savored, and the comfortable riding position, it doesn’t take long to fall in love.
While Dennis is frantically kicking away at the R60, I let Old Mother Goose gently rock away beneath me, cracking the throttle to indulge in the mellow boom from the aftermarket pipes. Sam kicks the toaster for the camera, but anytime it isn’t going well he resorts to the electric boot for back up. Smart lad.
Leaving Evansville, Ind., (the “E’ville” in “E’ville to St. A”) and starting out on smooth four-lane gives all of us a chance to find our pace. By the time we turn south on state Route 231 around Owensboro, Ky., we’re getting in the groove. Picking up the Natcher Parkway, we’re soon swinging through a series of relaxed bends, and I’m pleasantly surprised by how solid the Guzzi handles for such an old girl. Above 70mph she has a disconcerting weave, but who wants to go that fast on a vintage bike anyway?Constantly stopping to film is a big deterrent to making big distances, and with more than 250 miles planned for the first day, who knows if we can make it on these old bikes? Caring not a jot, we have a long, leisurely lunch break at a small mom-and-pop restaurant in Portland, Tenn. Meeting a few new best friends, we eat all sorts of local delicacies, including deep fried macaroni and cheese nuggets. Sam eats all of his, the waitress falls in love with Dennis, and we entertain the local folk with stories from the road. Truth be told, I doubt they can understand my English accent, but we must look interesting, what with Dennis’ mustache and all the camera gear we’re toting.
Bloating down the highway after lunch, we meander south as the road runs up hill and down dale. The sky is clear and vibrant trees line the road, but I’m developing an itch that is going to require scratching. We need another adventure to film, and making uninterrupted miles isn’t giving us what we need. Fear not, as the gods of motorcycling are lining something up. U.S. 52 takes us right past some signs for a motorcycle museum. Feeling Old Mother Goose turning the way a divining rod pulls to water, we’re soon rolling through the small, picturesque town of Red Boiling Springs, Tenn.
Arriving in the parking lot of Cyclemo’s Motorcycle Museum we quickly realize it isn’t open. No worries. We see signs of life in the workshop out back and pull the Dennis Gage card. What self-respecting gearhead wouldn’t recognize the mustachioed maverick of motoring television? Before long the owner, Mike Silvio, is giving us a personal tour of the museum, which is packed with an interesting and eclectic collection of largely American vintage motorcycles, and we enjoy a fascinating hour of Mike’s time learning about his collection, restoration shop, and plans for the future. Located in one of the most charming small towns in America, and filled with awesome machinery from across the decades, this should be a destination spot for any motorcycle tour to this area.
Roaring on, with Dennis wanting to make our evening destination before dark, we pick up Interstate 40 to make time and find ourselves at the Inn at Evins Mill in Smithville, Tenn., in plenty of time to work. With comfortable rooms, a fascinating gristmill to tour and grounds to walk, it makes the perfect end to our first day. The bikes are doing fine, except for the R60 weeping some fork oil, we aren’t fighting, and we’re on schedule. Can we keep it up for another three days?
Pulling out into a light shower of rain, Dennis is chipper as can be, having risen before dawn to fix the leaky fork. Perusing his trusty manual the night before, he had figured out the process, made the repairs and buttoned everything up before the rest of us had struggled out of bed. Joining us for a superb full-course breakfast, we overeat, saddle up and roll out of the inn, bound for the Appalachian Mountains. With 280 miles on the trip ticket for the day, and a lot of climbing, twisting and turning to do in these peaceful mountains, we need to put some long stints in the saddle. This means filming is kept to a minimum, and we just get to ride.
The road surfaces here are exemplary and the old bikes are making hay. Eighty miles into the Appalachians we cross into Georgia before turning east on U.S. 76, bound for South Carolina. Coming down out of the higher mountains, we enjoy some spirited riding as we push the bikes to their limits. Dennis has the handling and cunning but the least power. I have the power but the worst handling and brake set up. And Sam has the slickest machine but the least experience. It makes for a wild time pitting our wits against our machines, forcing me to wonder a few times what’s going on in Dennis’ head as we race south. Rolling along some flatter roads, the sun scorching the fields beside us, we ease off and find our way to our stop, The Fieldstone Farm Inn, in Westminster, S.C. When I blogged the trip for Motorcycle Classics, I described the place as “bizarre with a Capital Weird.” We’ll just leave it at that.
Today I really find my vintage motorcycle mojo. Blasting into the misty morning, my bones seem to have settled into the right place to fit naturally on Old Mother Goose. I no longer try to use my left foot to change gear and no longer desire disc brakes; I’ve completely arrived in the moment. Dennis seems to have come to the same place, as evidenced by his unusual calm, and the day just flows perfectly. Riding through South Carolina, it is evident the standard of living here is lower and the roads are a lot rougher, but the people are fabulous, and finding an authentic diner for lunch in Evans, Ga., we pile into the next adventure.
We are Trippin’ in America for the first time, and everywhere we go people recognize Dennis. Lunch is taken in the mayhem of photos, autographs, e-mail swaps and general madness. Sam has lived with this his whole life, but it’s a fun new adventure for me. A little behind schedule, we finally tear ourselves away to find a place for Dennis to do a phone interview with a local television station.
This is taken care of in the tiny, near-deserted town of Register, Ga., after which we ride into the blackest, heaviest rain clouds we’ve seen during our Trippin’ adventures. We have an excellent record at finding rain. Hitting I-80 with rain suits on, it’s not long before it starts, and we splash our way toward Savannah, Ga., wondering if the torrential rain is going to affect our old steeds.
Arriving in Savannah around twilight, the rain abates and the low hanging trees drip water from their saturated limbs. We head out along the river to play tourist. Huge ships ply the waterway, tourists walk the cobblestones, and Dennis stops many times for fans to get his photograph. Rumbling along past historic buildings and tended gardens, the sweet smell of jasmine fills us with a sense of mischief. It’s long past midnight by the time we are finished with interviews and dinner, so we retire to our uncharacteristically plush accommodations at the stately Presidents’ Quarters. I think Dennis is trying to make amends for the previous night’s strange choice.
Our last day on the road is our first day with the Riding into History crew, and we meet them on the other side of a ferry ride across the St. Johns River in Florida after a 131-mile non-stop blast through rain and storms. There’s a gang of riders waiting who lead us through the most scenic of routes to the World Golf Village, just outside St. Augustine.
Riding with a fascinating collection of vintage bikes from Japan, England, Italy and Germany, we know we are in for a treat at the show. As we savor the last few miles with our gracious escort, the sense of excitement at having pulled off more than 1,100 miles in four days on vintage bikes is overwhelming. We have enough footage in the can for another show, had another incredible adventure, and still have a couple of days left at the event to bask in the sunshine and enjoy one of the best vintage shows in America.
Stay tuned for info on when the episode will air on SPEED, and whenever common sense is getting ready to nix your next adventure, ask yourself, “Could you live with yourself if you didn’t do it?” MC