Bikers have been rebelling against convention since Gottlieb Daimler attached a gas engine to a bicycle in 1885. And 125 years later, with gas prices topping $2 a gallon, only a reprobate would spend all summer riding around with mere pleasure in mind, right? Wrong. Plenty of people think guzzling a few gallons of gas is a small price to pay for a day of motorcycling on the open Texas road. If you want to join them, here's how. Before any would-be rider saddles up a motorcycle, he or she needs some basic skills. Mancuso Harley-Davidson and other area dealerships offer the Rider's Edge class, a course that in just a few days teaches students how to take a motorcycle out on the big scary road. Those who can ride a bicycle already have what it takes to enroll. To participate, newbies must wear some basic protective clothing and, of course, a helmet. The dealership will provide the sportbike -- a 492cc Buell Blast, aptly named -- as well as instructors, who share that hands-on-the-throttle experience necessary for negotiating Houston's notorious driving scene. Completion of the class exempts pupils from the riding portion of the license test down at DPS. Plus, once legal, riders can rent real Harleys -- Mancuso's start at $69 a day. (A V-Rod might run a smidge more. Damn.)
So the class is taken, the license secured and the bike rented -- or bought. But where to ride? There are two options: Stay in town with the local nutjobs, making the most of the few curves Houston has to offer, or suck it up for a couple of hours on the freeway (with the outlying nutjobs) to reach the really good stuff.
If you're too chicken to play chicken with tractor-trailers, we don't blame you. And anyway, a great day's ride awaits right here in the H-town comfort zone. Some voluptuous routes flank the waterways of the Bayou City. Allen Parkway is especially choice because it's got some ups and downs as well as side-to-sides, with only a few points of ingress and egress -- meaning there's less chance to get run over. Some bikers spend all morning on this stretch, revving up and back from Shepherd to downtown. Others branch out by taking Shepherd down to curvy, residential South Braeswood, or going up Houston Avenue to funky, park-lined White Oak Drive.
Once the experience quotient is ramped up, it's time to take that baby on the road. Get a Texas Gazetteer and make color copies of the areas to be explored. The terrain-and-road detail therein is far superior to that of a regular road atlas.
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Sure, it's terrifying as hell to merge onto a freeway, but it looks a lot scarier than it is. After arriving in the boonies, stick to the state routes and farm-to-market roads. They're much less traveled and way more curvaceous.
A good Piney Woods jaunt will explore the Big Thicket, and a couple of national forests and reservoirs. The aromas of sawdust and burning trash accentuate Highway 355 south of Groveton, and the two-lane blacktop boasts sweet curves flanked by 40-foot pines. Other highlights include Highway 1818 near Diboll, a road less traveled that starts and ends with some great twisties. The tiny town of nearby Zavalla is home to Carlene's Cafe, where everything's fried and the nonsmoking area is an afterthought. From Zavalla, you can shoot across 147 and over the Sam Rayburn Reservoir, with its pleasant temperature drop and mossy aromas. And for people who like taking big sweepers at 80 miles an hour, Highway 350 west of Moscow offers an exhilarating ride. Beware the packs of loose dogs that range in these parts. Watch out for roadkill, too; one trip treated riders to a glimpse of a pristine rib cage, picked clean by scavengers.
Now, with the best of East Texas under your belt, set aside a weekend to explore the Hill Country. Any trip out west should begin with Buescher and Bastrop state parks outside Austin. Their tiny winding asphalt roads go up and down and side to side (often all at once), and it's a real thrill never knowing what's around the next corner in the forest.
Another must is the beautiful, remote landscape of Bandera and Real counties. Taking in the scents of cedar and cowshit, follow your nose to New Braunfels and pick up 1863 out to the west. The humps of this route generate a childlike glee that makes you want to scream, upon reaching the end, "Again! Again! Again!" But only good things lie ahead, so motor west, past the cactus patches, goat and sheep farms, and limestone outcroppings, all the way to Bandera. When you get there, stop in at the OST Restaurant on Main Street for a wedge of fresh peach pie la mode. Beyond Leakey, Highways 335 and 336 promise some of the best motorcycle riding in the country. Yes, they're 300-plus miles from Houston, but they're an incredibly scenic, well-paved blast. The hills are more like mountains, and the canyon carving is unparalleled.
For the return home, we suggest busting out the map and planning your own itinerary. This is Texas, baby, and the possibilities are infinite. Just remember the cardinal rule: Keep the shiny side up!
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