I Came, I Rode, I Conquered: Tackling Mountain Roads Safely

Many of my fondest, most happiest moments have occurred while aboard a two wheeled steed, moving at speed down a smooth sheet of blacktop asphalt.  Warm air flowing past my face as the rising growl, “braaap”, or buzz of the engine drowns out all usual woes and cares.  The dotted, yellow center lines appearing to merge nearly into a single solid strip as they flash by below.  It’s been a blissful, two wheeled nirvana right from the first ride for me.

I have often thought if it were possible to bottle these experiences into a liquid form, just one drink would move everyone to drop what they’re doing and go out bike shopping.  Yeah, it’s that good!

Why is riding so therapeutic?  The art of riding demands your undivided attention in order to be safe.  You can’t worry about the past, future, bills, politics or work while riding.  An ever present element of danger chases the rider, but you can leave it behind with every well executed gear shift, steep angle lean in a turn, or launch off the line from a stop.

A Motorcycle in the Mountains: My Favorite Place to Cruise

Take all that to the mountains and you’re really turning up the “volume on the stereo”.  By far it’s my favourite place to cruise.  The land of extreme weather and elevation changes, sharp shoulders with 1000 foot dropoffs, switchbacks, long arcing curves and abundant animal life to view (and dodge!).

The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful.  The rock formations and snow covered peaks of the Rockies awe me no matter how often I see them, and when I’m very old and no longer able to ride, it’s what I will think back on often.

Riding in the mountains can be more unforgiving than regular flat land roads, but this also means the reward or sense of enjoyment is greater.  Across many cultures mountains have a great symbolic and spiritual significance centered around enlightenment, achievement and escape from worldly struggle.  Let’s face it, we all owe it to ourselves to ride the spine of the continents we live on.  

In order to do it and come back whole to tell the tale, being prepared mentally and physically is paramount.

Before Hitting the Mountains, it’s Wise to Get Prepared

Two areas of focus are key here:

  • Mechanical fitness of your motorcycle systems
  • Selection and use of appropriate riding gear

It should be obvious how crucial keeping your machine maintained is.  They are high performance vehicles after all.  A thorough pre ride inspection should be done before attempting the mountains especially.  Staying on top of things will mean these checks should only take 10 to 15 minutes.  You’d much rather find a problem before you leave home.


I can’t stress enough how important good brakes and braking technique are.  Coming down some steep passes can take 30 minutes or more and brakes are going to heat up if you don’t downshift to lower gears and modulate brake applications.  Brake fade is terrifying to experience if brakes are overused coming downhill, so you can’t just rely on the right side levers while descending.

Inspect your brake lines, fluid level and rotors for issues.


Many people just assume their transmission, engine and coolant fluids are “fine”, until they aren’t.  In the mountains you’re essentially “going to war” with the road and need protective fluids to be on your side of the struggle.


A quick check of blinkers, high/low beam headlights and your horn.  Sunset comes early in the mountains since the peaks around you block the light out earlier.


Look for nails, cuts, cracks in the sidewall and correct inflation.  You are going to be cornering hard at times and need to be able to rely on a good contact patch from your bike’s sneakers.

Chains and Other Primary Drive Systems

It’s a good time to;

  • lube your chain and check for correct tension,
  • inspect drive belts for cuts and objects embedded in them and also tension,
  • if you’ve got a shaft drive have a look for oil leaks and correct level in the final drive housing.

Rider Gear

Opinions are varied on what works best since everyone is different in their tolerance of cold and heat.

Most riders invest in a quality riding jacket which is a huge part of staying warm, dry and protected while riding.  I have found layering to work best underneath your jacket.  I like to wear something similar to underarmour or other turtleneck style shirts that are moisture wicking material as a base layer since it covers my neck nicely.  Even most full face helmets don’t do much to keep the neck warm after all.

Another option for open face helmet users are the neoprene type masks becoming more popular.  Cotton bandanas don’t offer enough heat retention for my liking, but the neoprene ones are more effective.  My only complaint with them is sometimes they can direct breath upwards and fog up sunglasses.

I follow that up with a T shirt and a hoodie or something made of fleece.  The layers can go on or come off as necessary depending on desired comfort.

Taking along rain gear is a good idea and can also double as emergency cold weather gear if what you’re wearing isn’t cutting the mustard.

Good quality gloves are a must in the mountains, especially if your bike doesn’t have a fairing which blocks the wind from your hands.

Your Mom says not to forget to wear clean underwear too.  If you have a fear of heights and decide to ride the Going To The Sun Road in Montana, feel free to bring along a second pair.  Before you go, first check to make sure the road isn’t closed due to avalanches or landslides too.


Heated Clothing and Other Equipment

Heated gloves, socks and vests can greatly improve your cold weather riding.

For many riders, the vests specifically are favoured because keeping your core area warm is most important.  Usually heated vests plug into harnesses installed on your bike and run off your electrical system, but there are also vests and coats which have their own battery pack.

Battery powered ones are nicer in some ways because you don’t have to concern yourself with extra wires hanging around, or the increased electrical draw on your bike’s charging system.

However, batteries need recharging or replacing with use over time, and they aren’t always easy to turn on or off while riding without first pulling over.  So you have to gauge how much you’ll want to use these gizmos based on your personal cold tolerance level before you hand over your hard earned money for one or all of them.

I prefer using heated handlebar grips and seats since they are wired into the bike, are easily turned on/off, and are effective. Many newer bikes come right from the factory with these options as standard now, and so the electrical system is engineered to handle the load called for.

If your bike is not thusly equipped there are plenty of good aftermarket options for just about any bike available.

I have ridden fairly comfortably in temperatures right around 0 Celsius (32 F) using only heated grips and layered clothing.

Elevation and Temperature

Why all the words about staying warm?

In the mountains the temperature can drop very quickly.  The relationship is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 6 to 10 degrees Celsius colder for every 1,000 metres in gained elevation- averaging about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit every 1,000 feet for my US friends.  Add to that cloud cover, fog, or rain and the drop is felt even more keenly.

Last year while riding through the Highwood Pass Loop in Alberta’s Kananaskis Country I got to experience this effect first hand.

This is the highest paved highway in Canada and is known as one of the most perfect mountain rides you’ll find.  At the peak, elevation is 2,206 metres (7,238 feet) which meant almost a 1,200 meter (3,900 foot) gain from Calgary (where I started riding from).

At the start it was a clear, sunny and comfortable 18 degrees Celsius (64 F), but as I neared the peak the sky turned dark, overcast and snowflakes began to bounce off my windshield, even accumulating on the sides of the road!  The temperature had dropped to only plus 1 Celsius (33 F).  I was beginning to feel the wind chill and uncomfortable, especially at the realization riding through snow was threatening to become my new and unwelcome reality.

The idea of using my 860 lb, Harley Davidson Ultra Classic as a toboggan has no real appeal.  I can’t see myself installing a timbersled kit on it either… although that would look pretty cool.

Happily, as I descended from the highest point of the Pass, snow stopped falling and the air climbed back to more comfortable temperatures.

I actually have witnessed bikers out riding around the city with more than 2 inches of snow on the ground and it’s really something to see.  They ride along VERY gingerly at low speed, both feet down and dragging on the road for support.  They don’t dare get on the brakes with any authority as the wheels will lock up easily due to low levels of friction on icy roads.

I think they are crazy like a soup sandwich, since most on highway motorcycle tires weren’t designed for winter use.  Winter motorcycle tires are a real thing, but hardly the norm and most likely not what you’re running on your bike at the moment.

If you find yourself forced to ride through snow, keep this in mind and take it really easy.

Altitude and Lower Air Pressure

I didn’t experience any significant change in the performance of my fuel injected bike at the top of the Highwood Pass, but if the road had kept climbing over 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) I likely would have because the air is less oxygen rich up there.  That factor inhibits the engine from taking in ideal amounts of oxygen molecules needed to burn fuel efficiently resulting in bikes running rich.  If your particular bike is running a little rich to begin with, the symptoms will be even more pronounced.

This idea of “thinner” air is a little unclear, but think of it this way;

Picture a typical donut shop with 100 people inside.  This will represent the makeup of the air around us presently.  Of those 100 people, 21 of them would be police officers as we will imagine them to be the percentage of oxygen molecules found in the air around us at typical elevations (21%).

At high elevation the same donut shop would only have 10 people in it and 2 of them would be police officers.  The shop is still the same size, and the ratio of police inside per patron remains the same, but there are quite simply fewer people total.

Fuel injected engines seem to do a bit better in dealing with the thinner air, but aren’t immune to its influence.  As the fuel/air mixture in the engine turns more fuel rich the bike will feel weaker and even run rough.

Carbureted engines can really feel the pain at times since they don’t have computers and sensors working together to adjust the mixture of air and fuel going into the cylinders.  I have heard riders report really rough running and even black smoke coming out tailpipes at higher altitude.  Some try and do things like adjust fuel screw settings or remove their air cleaners temporarily to help compensate, but in reality unless you’re going to be riding up high permanently, I would suggest you’re just better off powering through to get to lower ground eventually.


The highest paved road in North America is at the top of Mount Evans in Colorado, boasting a final elevation of 14,130 feet (4,310 meters).  Imagine the changes you could experience on that climb considering what I encountered at almost half the altitude!

Mental Preparation

Visualizing, anticipating, and planning your response to the unpredictable mountain roads is what I’m driving at when it comes to being mentally prepared.

The roads are quite often bumpy and uneven in parts due to frost heaving.  Some of the many things you may encounter are;

  • Blind corners with sheer rock faces on both sides of the road,
  • Lack of shoulders on roads or narrow shoulders with very sharp drop offs
  • Rocks, gravel washed out from side roads and shale patches
  • Large potholes
  • Switchbacks and other tight corners with little warning at times
  • Slow moving RVs and camping trailers being towed
  • Distracted drivers leaving their lanes while sightseeing
  • No guard railings on the side of the road
  • Narrow bridges that only allow one vehicle to cross at once
  • Especially strong gusting winds
  • My favourite: animal life

Some of these aren’t anything new to bikers and the best way to deal with them is to stay alert and focused on the road ahead while enjoying the view.  It’s not like every inch of the mountain roads are like minefields, but probably a few times every ride you’ll encounter two or three of these hazards.

A Few Suggestions

    • Start a turn through a blind corner in the outside tire track so that you can see further ahead than if you stay in the inside tire track.
    • When riding in a group through “S” curves and other tight corners back off your speed more than usual to give yourself ample reaction time to others’ emergency maneuvers.  You may also want to leave the staggered riding formation after backing off when you enter these more technical sections since I find it easier to pick a safe line that way.
    • Ensure your head doesn’t accidentally cross over the center line when you lean during sharp turns.  The roads are often narrow and cars can wander
    • Avoid excessive speeds, especially on unfamiliar roads.
    • Stop and relax regularly at proper pull out locations to take in the scenery, keep mentally sharp, and to give your posterior a breather from the saddle.
    • Save the “wobbly pops” for after you’re totally done riding for the day.
    • Avoid riding at night, unless your parents are bats and you have echolocation abilities.
    • Countersteering.  If you haven’t mastered this technique yet take some time to learn as the long curving roads in the mountains are the perfect place to use it for smoother cornering.
    • Fuel up at half a tank.  This way if gas stations are few and far between you don’t end up stranded in a most awkward location.

Deer, Wolves, and Bears… Oh My!

I really look forward to catching sight of elk, deer, bison, moose, bighorn sheep, wolves and bears while riding in the Rockies.  They are common to come across and just as beautiful as the landscape… that is until they decide to interact with your motorcycle.

Beware of Bambi

A friend of mine recently got his bike license and purchased a new to him Honda CB1000R for his first road bike.  It was located in Kelowna, British Columbia which is in the heart of the Okanagan Valley and would be about an eight hour ride back to his home.

There was no sense trailering it back.  It was a perfect opportunity for him to get in some awesome riding in one of the country’s most beautiful mountainous areas.  He enjoyed the ride as expected and got home safely, but I couldn’t believe it when he told me that only about an hour into the trip he had a group of deer walk right out in front of him on the highway.

He avoided hitting any of them full on, but did manage a glancing blow on a small one. The hit was hard enough to crack the fairing and front fender on the bike.  Scary stuff for a new or experienced rider!  Welcome to motorcycling, eh?

The Big Bad Wolf

Biking with wolves sounds a lot like a Kevin Costner movie title.

A few years ago a rider named Tim Bartlett from Banff, Alberta was zipping along on his new bike in southeastern British Columbia, when suddenly a wolf came running out of the woods and tried to get a hold of him and/or his bike.  It actually chased Tim for almost a mile before it gave up, and I can only assume waited instead for something slower to come by.  Maybe the wolf just wanted his belly rubbed- we’ll never know for sure since Tim’s bike was capable of better than maximum wolf speed.

Tim was one cool customer through it all and took the opportunity to snap a few pictures of the shaggy brute in question even when it got to within spitting distance of the back of his bike.

I suppose if he hadn’t gotten that photographic proof no one would have believed him.  What’s with all these animals wanting to check out the new bikes so up close and personal?


Let Your Bike do the Talking

It’s difficult to give any infallible advice about dealing with wild animals since they are all so incredibly unpredictable.  All I can offer is what’s working for me up to now.

If you’re a big game hunter, as I am, then you’ve spent some time studying animal behaviour.   That knowledge helps me and could also help you read them better while out riding.  Watch their body language closely as you come up to any animal on the road or near it and follow your instinct on how to proceed.

Many times I’ve seen deer in particular start to run one direction across the road only to abruptly double back, putting them on a collision course with me.  Sometimes you need to stop dead and wait, other times you just slow down and roll right by depending what signals they’re sending you.  Stay on your toes and be ready to react quickly.

If you opt to drop a gear and go wide open throttle to blow by them, you’d better be really confident they are staying put.  The animals you don’t see in the tall grass or trees just beyond the ones you’re passing might get startled and run out in front of you while you’re approaching at light speed.

It’s fairly common to come across bighorn sheep hanging out on mountain roads.  I happened upon some just last weekend when I was out riding near Canmore, Alberta.

These sheep were in the middle of the lane opposite me about half a dozen strong, blocking oncoming traffic as they love to do.  I slowed down and rolled up to about 50 yards away from them before I started revving my engine in such a way as to sound like a giant, angry, wild boar.  Harleys aren’t called  “hogs” for nothing, after all.

I figured it would either annoy them and they would get off the road, or they would charge me and I would gain a new nickname like “Rammer” or “Smash”.   A win for me either way.

Fortunately, the Screamin’ Eagle exhaust “symphony”, coupled with my innate ability to annoy man or beast, proved to be the solution and so the sheep cleared out allowing me to be a hero to all the cars taken hostage by those cheeky sheep.  I actually have a 100% success rate using this technique with deer, sheep, bears and elk.  I haven’t had the chance to try it on moose or wolves yet.

Animals are typically more active between dusk and dawn, and that’s mainly why I avoid riding in the mountains at night if possible.  A 1,000 lb moose can seemingly come out of nowhere at night despite its size.  I’ve seen what they can do to tractor-trailer units and don’t like to picture what it would do to a bike.

Time to Ride!

Now that you’ve read about it, probably day dreamed about it and gotten yourself physically and mentally prepared to safely ride the high country, it’s time to go and earn your own stories to tell around the campfire.

Don’t let the obstacles and challenges discourage you from tackling the mountain roads.  I promise you it’s so very worth the effort and can be done safely.  For each of the somewhat dramatic stories there are thousands more filled with nothing but good times.

Veni, Equitator, Vici.   I came, a Rider, I conquered.