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The Long Road to Indy, A Scenic Sport-Touring Ride to the MotoGP

Is this the road to Indianapolis? It is if you believe that a straight line is the least fun between two points.

Is this the road to Indianapolis? It is if you believe that a straight line is the least fun between two points.

Photo Credit: Lance Oliver

Lance Oliver
June 6, 2012
Filed under Features, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel

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(This Long Road to Indy feature was published in the June 2012 issue of Rider magazine.)

Imagine a multi-state Main Street for Motorcycling, a cross-country route made just for riding. Miles of sinuous asphalt draped over rolling hills, winding past tumbledown barns with faded Mail Pouch tobacco ads, splitting through shady forest glens and immaculate pastures where racehorses graze that are worth more than my house. The route would end at a big Saturday night street party for motorcycles only, where new street signs bear the names of racing legends (Kenny Roberts) and legends in the making (Ben Spies). Man, wouldn’t that be a great ride? If such a thing didn’t exist, we’d surely have to invent it.

Well, it does exist. It’s just that some assembly is required.

Anyone who has ever suffered the monotony of Interstate 70 east of Indianapolis knows that said route is appropriate only for those severely lacking in time or imagination. Or lacking a motorcycle. Long-haul truckers no doubt find it convenient. It’s not my kind of ride, however, and I avoid it if possible.

It doesn’t take much time with my maps to figure out that if I head south from my home in eastern Ohio, sticking to the Appalachian foothills, and only turn west to approach Indianapolis from the south on a flanking maneuver, I can have good riding nearly all the way to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This is the site of the Red Bull Indianapolis GP, the eastern entry in the United States’ two MotoGP rounds and one of the few times all year it can truly be said that the motorcycling eyes of the world are upon us. Because we ride motorcycles, it’s not just the destination that matters, but how we get there. Personally, I plan to get there by enjoying the ride as much as possible.

“I took the road less traveled…” and made it to Indy just the same. Better than just the same, actually.

“I took the road less traveled…” and made it to Indy just the same. Better than just the same, actually.

I started south via two of my close-to-home favorites, State Routes 555 and 93, and then sampled Ohio 775 through the Wayne National Forest in the extreme southeast corner of the state. These are old roads, linking sleepy communities rather than population centers, so my riding was only briefly interrupted by the unpleasantries of stop lights, traffic or urban congestion. By the time I finally reached the Ohio border, the sun was near its midday position and I was no closer to Indianapolis than I was when I left home three hours earlier. But with these roads, the ride is its own reward.

Just north of Huntington, West Virginia, I crossed the Ohio River on one of the attractive new suspension bridges. Why veer east when my destination was to the west? Did clipping the corner of West Virginia get me any closer to Indy? No, not really, but as a general rule I’ve always found it’s worthwhile to seize any possible opportunity to ride in that topographically rumpled patch of Appalachia that aptly and proudly calls itself the Mountain State. The western edge of the state actually has the least dramatic topography, but there are few bad motorcycle roads in West Virginia, and Route 37 offered a very fine warmup for the next stretch, the one that’s probably the highlight of the trip.

I crossed the Big Sandy River and entered Kentucky at the town of Louisa, where I finally started making some westward progress. State Route 32 is my kind of progress. From Louisa to Morehead, it is 60 miles of rural curve sampler: take a breath as the road flattens out in the valley, then scrub in the tires as the curves tighten and scramble up and down the ridge. Repeat as necessary. The road builders threw in a few hairpins on Route 32, just for the sake of variety, and outside Elliott City there’s a nice ridgetop stretch with fine views.

There’s not much stirring on a late summer afternoon in western Kentucky farm country.

There’s not much stirring on a late summer afternoon in western Kentucky farm country.

Kentucky is a state of church-going people (13th in the nation in church attendance) with an economy historically based on old-style vices: smoking, drinking and gambling (growing tobacco, making bourbon whiskey and raising racehorses). People here are as down-to-earth friendly as you can stand. The woman who checks me into my campsite at Taylorsville Lake State Park calls me “Hon,” as does the waitress who serves me breakfast the next day, and the cook who comes out to do double duty at the cash register when I pay my tab. Riding west on Route 44, the hills flatten a little and I endured a few highway miles as I skirted the entrance to Fort Knox.

As soon as possible, I looped off onto more three-digit Kentucky backroads. Now I was definitely in farm country, where cornfields fill the bottomland to take advantage of the rich alluvial soil along the Ohio River, while stately old houses perch on the bluffs above to take advantage of the river views. The day had warmed, so I found a spot of shade and a cooling breeze in the riverfront park in the little town of Cloversport and rehydrated. The roads I was riding are barely more than country lanes; the river itself is the real business route around here. Barges hauling 12,000 tons or more of coal churn up and down the Ohio, feeding power plants that keep the lights on across the Midwest.

Indiana Route 135 is a favorite for weekend rides and day trips out of Indianapolis.

Indiana Route 135 is a favorite for weekend rides and day trips out of Indianapolis.

I know from previous experience that you can ride through Owensboro, Kentucky, and never get the slightest clue that you’re in the hometown of Tommy, Nicky and Roger Lee Hayden, probably three of the top-100 U.S. roadracers today, and all from the same family. Maybe if they’d played football or something there’d be a sign at the city limits, bragging on them. Despite the slight, Owensboro still seemed like an appropriate place to turn north on my way to Indy. There’s a Saturday night party I had planned to join and the sun was drifting westward. I crossed the river into Indiana and started north on Route 37, a road that, unfortunately for my purposes, had been “improved,” meaning the engineers blasted through the hills to straighten the route in the interests of efficient transportation. Lucky for me, some enjoyably inefficient roads were still ahead. In the town of Salem, Indiana, I finally got to Route 135, a direct route through the southern half of Indiana into downtown Indianapolis and, at the same time, not a direct route at all.

Route 135 has not been modernized, homogenized and sanitized for your protection. It hugs the natural contours of the land, flows like the streams and ravines that define much of its course, and sometimes shoots off on its own direction, for reasons unknown. It’s also dotted with interesting spots to stop and stretch your legs, such as the tiny but quaint former crossroads called Story, which now doesn’t really qualify as a crossroads since one of those roads was made a dead end, thanks to a lake. A little farther on is the bigger town of Nashville, which calls itself the “Pioneer Art City” and offers a variety of strolling or eating opportunities. For all these reasons, Route 135 is a popular day trip for riders living in the Indianapolis area. Indiana is primarily cruiser country, and dozens of riders were doing just that on Route 135 as I made my way north. A steady flow of U.S.-built and metric cruisers, many of them two-up, flowed past me as I wound north on 135, their riders taking advantage of a warm and sunny afternoon as they could see the end of summer coming up on them all too fast.

If I can believe this street sign in rural Kentucky, I must be on the right path.

If I can believe this street sign in rural Kentucky, I must be on the right path.

They seemed to be having a good time. Still, knowing what lies at the end of this road, it was hard for me not to flag them down and suggest they were going the wrong way. North of the quaintly named town of Bean Blossom, the curves give out, and before long the transition from rural to suburban becomes obvious. Residential developments, churches, real estate offices, shopping centers, all of it new looking, start to crowd the road. If I stayed on Route 135 until it becomes Meridian Street as it enters Indianapolis, I think I’d be forgiven for abandoning Main Street USA for a faster expressway into downtown Indy. Either way, the goal was the same: to end up on Meridian in the heart of the city, because that’s where the motorcycle-only party takes place on both Friday and Saturday nights during the MotoGP weekend.

The event is called Motorcycles on Meridian and it’s the city’s way of making Sunday’s big race into more than a race. Motorcycles on Meridian is like a five-block-long exclamation point: Monument Circle, in the heart of downtown, is the dot, with the five blocks south of the circle closed to everything except motorcycles and pedestrians. Three separate stages offer entertainment, but the best show is walking Meridian and enjoying the bikes. A remarkably clean early Honda 750 leaned on its kickstand beside a new Sportster, stretched and lowered drag-strip replicas posed at the curb as a cluster of five identical Hondas in Repsol livery rumbled by, and a restored 750cc two-stroke Kawasaki sparked a lot of admiring conversations that began with a phrase something like “I remember when…”

How to turn a half-day ride to Indianapolis into a two-day tour: choose roads like these.

How to turn a half-day ride to Indianapolis into a two-day tour: choose roads like these.

Along with the popular flat-track races taking place at the Indy Mile, the weekend party downtown definitely fulfills its mission of making the GP weekend a bigger event than just a race. You don’t have to have the slightest interest in MotoGP racing to enjoy this party. You don’t even have to have a motorcycle. It’s clear from the attire and demeanor of many of the people strolling Meridian that they had come to check out the show, whether they rode or not. Riders and non-riders, race fans and fans of taking an easy cruise down Route 135 all wandered through the maze of motorcycles on Meridian as the music bounced off the walls of downtown Indy’s concrete canyons and the sun’s fading light gave way to the city lights.

And you could call that the end of this particular ride. It would be a fine ending. But I’m not done yet.

My personal road to Indy ended the next day on a hot Sunday morning as I gratefully bypassed the line of cars waiting for parking and rolled through the Speedway’s Gate 10 tunnel to take advantage of the free motorcycle parking on the back straight, which is not used by the road course inside the massive grounds of the oval.

All along its length, the Ohio River is the real business route, as barges carry tons of coal to keep power plants humming.

All along its length, the Ohio River is the real business route, as barges carry tons of coal to keep power plants humming.

Technically, I can now say I’ve ridden on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, even if I was going the wrong direction and my speed was nearly 200 mph below the fastest velocity ever recorded there. A few hours later, Ben Spies led a howling pack of MotoGP bikes into Turn One, the roar of some of the world’s most exquisitely tuned four-stroke engines welling up in a wave that sounded like the earth was tearing itself apart. That’s where my road to Indy ended and, for 17 men who are far better riders than I, where the road to glory begins.­

You see a little bit of everything at Motorcycles on Meridian. An old Honda 750 and a brand-new Sportster are just the beginning.

You see a little bit of everything at Motorcycles on Meridian. An old Honda 750 and a brand-new Sportster are just the beginning.

Motorcycles on Meridian stretches five blocks south from Monument Circle. Despite three stages offering entertainment, the real show is ogling all the bikes.

Motorcycles on Meridian stretches five blocks south from Monument Circle. Despite three stages offering entertainment, the real show is ogling all the bikes.

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