The Tail of the Dragon

A couple of my friends and I have finalized our plans to visit the Tail of the Dragon in Robbinsville, North Carolina. For some, myself included, it is the second trip. If you are a rider or even a sports car enthusiast, you may recognize the name. It is some of the best riding/driving the United States has to offer. Yes, the scenery is not bad, as it runs through the Smoky mountains between North Carolina and Tennessee. The expanse of old growth trees cupping the mist that gives them their name. Or the dappled sunlight falling across rural roads leading from one almost imperceptible town to the next. The lakes glistening the approach of towering dams that crane your neck. The sun setting as you weave along the narrow ledge between the mountain and the water far below. Your hand can reach out and touch the stone of the cut earth. There is the chill you feel as you climb to more than a mile high, begging the rider to hastily stop and don more gear. Only to take it off again once you have flowed effortlessly down the other side. There is beauty all around. And many other roads in the area that can give you all that and more. But that is not The Dragon.

For the rider, it is not the scenery on this road we notice. Snaking its way up and down the mountain, this mere path is canopied by trees that shade its bulk. There is usually a drop off on one side and sheer mountain wall on the other. Even the small spaces of full sunlight, where trees don’t blind the view, offer no grandeur of overview or scenic beauty. There are but a few nooks where one could pull off to even stop and look. And these are respites for the travelers on the road that are functional by geography rather than view. We are not here for the scenery. Not this road.

The Dragon has a few unique characteristics that make it stick out, even when it is surrounded by the dozens of other scenic and enjoyable rides around it. They are recognized in its name. This road is a smorgasbord of 318 tight twists and turns in 11 miles of paved roadway that truly earn its name. Switch back turns, elevation rises that betray the next lean, sometimes seeing only yards ahead. Traffic mere inches away in the other lane while the dappled sunlight becomes the flicker of an old projector to your eyes. The short bursts of clear vision make you feel a greater sense of speed. Straight road no longer exists, your throttle and brake working tirelessly to keep you upright. Add to all this, for riders specifically, that there are no crossroads, stop signs, or driveways that threaten the danger they impose. And it is a good thing. With light traffic conditions and a somewhat lackadaisical approach to enforcement of the 35-mph speed limit, you have ample opportunities to push your skills a bit. Even at the speed limit, you will be scraping your pegs in some of these turns. It is good this is not the most scenic road around and you don’t have to watch for entering vehicles, because you must watch everything else. I have ridden with very experienced riders on perfectly suited machines and, given the addition of speed, any road can become beyond your skill level. But the focus this road requires is much more, and its forgiveness of your errors much less. So much less, that there is the “Tree of Shame” that hangs full of the battered and scraped remnants of bikes that have given their lives to the beast. And the beast has taken the life of more than one rider. It is as dangerous and unforgiving as it sounds. It is thankful that both ends of this great ride have large areas to pull off and gather. Most will need a moment to collect themselves before turning around and doing it again or moving on. And in that sense, it is like a tattoo. Once you have ridden it, you either want to ride it forever, or never ride it again.

Now, I do not encourage anyone to ride beyond their skill level. And at reduced speeds, even the novice rider could make a run or two. But if you are looking for the kind of asphalt that makes you think and work for 20 minutes without pause. That tests your skills and your metal. The one that makes you feel closest to your machine. If you want to feel yourself slump into the leather as the throttle pulls you through a hairpin, uphill turn. If you feel confident about the inch of rubber, that thin line of contact, between safety and sorrow. Or just want to share the road with a bunch of people for which riding is not a hobby. This is your road!

We will be there for many days and I look forward to sharing the stories that come from there. For my fellow riders, ride safe and keep the shiny side up!

5 Responses to “The Tail of the Dragon”
  1. Sherry says:

    Have you ever seen cyclists there? If yes, I’m sure they are A-level riders?

    • Brad Osborne says:

      I never have, and we spent a week there last trip riding it multiple times each day. I think the amount of vehicular traffic, along with the narrowness of the road, would be prohibitive. But that does not mean it couldn’t be done.

  2. Post some pics :))) !

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  1. […] earlier entry, and in the excitement of preparing for our trip, I wrote a brief description of the Tail of the Dragon. It was written from my memories of our trip in 2013. And nothing I described has changed. It is […]

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