Words by: Tyler Rice
There is a ribbon of asphalt that begins near the southern border of Colorado, just over the New Mexico state line, set at the edge of the western slope of Colorado. This highway is legendary, particularly among motorcyclists. It’s just over one hundred miles in length, and can be run from end to end in just a bit over two and one half hours. Stretching from the Durango area to Montrose, its proper name is United States Highway 550 although locals simply refer to it as “The Million Dollar Highway”. It includes several beautiful mountain passes, a multitude of spacious scenic views (and the cliffside drop offs that provide them), and hundreds of switch back corners that are an absolute blast to lean into. Much like riding a motorcycle itself, this road is not inherently dangerous (despite the claims of some), but it is quite unforgiving of arrogance and foolishness.
The switchback turns and challenges of riding the road keeps travelers coming year after year, sort of a risk vs. reward that calling like a siren’s song. Often the twisties are linked together, meaning a sharp left can be quickly followed by a hard right which opens up to a long high speed straight away and then back to a tight left turn. I often compare the quick hands and focus of a boxer to the attention and humility this road requires of a motorcyclist.
A useful technique for travelers navigating the Million Dollar Highway is to follow both the posted speed limit and the speed advisory signs before tight corners. This road is known globally for its breathtaking views and these sights can only truly be appreciated slowly. As useful as these speed signs are, however, they are not entirely perfect. Often a speed advisory sign will arrive at the beginning of not one corner, but a series of several fun curves in succession. They give the rider an average speed that can be carried through the turns as a whole. This means that a suggested speed of “25 MPH” could be posted for a corner around which even the most seasoned motorcyclist would be pressed to get anywhere near safely. It is important to learn and practice a technique known as “trail braking”.
In order to understand what trail braking is, it is important to understand what it is not. Many new motorcyclists will, out of a fear of locking up their front wheel, rely largely on the bike’s rear brake. This technique, while comforting for some riders, is the antithesis of trail braking and is possibly the worst way to slow down when inside a corner. The rear brake, for lots of reasons that require mathematical description, is not nearly as efficient as the front. Rear brakes lock up quicker and can cause the tire to slide, and as the saying goes, “only a rolling tire still has any grip”. Once the rear wheel has begun to slide in one direction it is apt to slide in another, namely outward, or away from the center of the corner. This could mean drifting toward oncoming traffic (which is bad) or toward a cliff face that may be hundreds of feet to the bottom (this is also bad). A wise old scooter tramp was once quoted as saying “The views along this road are great, but they’re good and well ruined once you become part of them yourself.”
Trail braking is a simple technique that can help eliminate the danger of carrying too much speed into a curve. Firstly, the rider shifts their weight toward the real wheel, this keeps that wheel from rising if the rider ends up applying too much brake. Next, the front brake is applied smoothly and evenly, and above all very lightly. The motorcyclist must be careful not to “grab” at the front brake. While a locked rear wheel causes the bike to drift, a locked front wheel is likely to cause the motorcyclist to fly over the handlebars (yup, you guessed it, very bad). As the bike slows down it can be leaned into the corner while the rider’s eyes remain locked on a target just beyond the apex, the tightest most central part of the curve. Once you’ve reached the apex you can release the brake and smoothly apply the throttle to accelerate. This technique requires practice and feel and is not an excuse to try and beat the Million Dollar Highway into submission with speed. There are far too many views, photo opportunities, and moments with local wildlife that can’t be missed. This beautiful road is best appreciated slowly, not fought, but danced with.
Trail braking is a useful skill for for new riders to learn, and for old scooter tramps to pick up (especially for those who used to ride around with no front brake). It will help dodge the punches thrown by the Million Dollar Highway and smooth out some of its rougher edges. Highway 550 has some of the most beautiful views in America, as well as many hidden wonders, free to visit and easily accessible on two wheels from Durango, Colorado. Savor them slowly and safely, it always gets better the next time you visit!
Photos contributed by Justin George and Katie Rice