Indian Summer on the Crest

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By VFR Pilot

Got up expecting to do chores all day and found that it was a perfect seventy-degree fall day. Checked oil, gas, tire pressures, threw on the leathers, grabbed the tankbag, fired up the Ninja, and headed out for the Crest.

For those of you who don't know, the Angeles Crest Highway is a two lane strip of blacktop with 57 miles of uninterrupted curves. The road ranges in altitude from one to eight thousand feet, rising and falling over several alpine passes as it follows the spine of the San Gabriel mountains north and east of L.A. To the south is the L.A. basin, the Pacific ocean, and Catalina island on the horizon. To the north is the Mojave desert, replete with pastel washes of reds, yellows, and browns, the whole thing being framed by the peaks of the High Sierras beyond. The Crest is closed all winter due to avalanches that frequently remove and/or bury portions of the road, so if you want to ride it you must do so either before the first snow falls or after it's melted off in the late spring.

The Ninja did pretty well, although it got a little short of breath at altitudes above six thousand feet. The 'flickability' of the bike proved just the thing for threading between the frequent remains of rockslides without upsetting the bike's balance. Just put your eyes where you want to be, and the bike will go there for you. Also discovered that the Ninja is pretty forgiving of braking into corners (rockslides again), and tends to stand up less than most sport bikes when you hit the binders. The bad news is that the too-soft stock suspension lets the bike really nose-dive when under full braking. This sudden weight transfer pretty much means that you must do 99% of your serious braking with the front wheel only, because the rear locks up very easily as it unloads. (The stock tires that the bike came with are pretty hard, which makes the problem worse.) Other than the soft suspension, the bike seems to have no bad habits even when pushed pretty hard. Getting the most out of the engine seems to mean keeping it up between 6000 RPM and redline, but it does have a wide enough power band to accelerate all the way through most corners without shifting, provided that you choose the correct gear before entering. (And the bike does like to accelerate all the way through a corner rather than try to trail brake up to the apex and then accelerate. That soft suspension again.)

Altogether, the little Ninja did a pretty good job on a very challenging road that will show up the weaknesses in any bike. The day was beautiful, the road was full of sportbikes (and Harley riders), the leaves were in full color, and I even hooked up with a friendly (!) Ducati rider and stayed with him for most of the downhill homeward run. Until we finally got to a straightaway...