Winter Motorcycle Riding in New England (The Connecticut Coast)
When will wonders ever cease, anyway? Maybe next Tuesday. But sometimes I wonder about these wonders. For example, I had honestly thought that here in the 21st century, winter still meant winter. And in Connecticut, most motorcycles hibernate during this particular season. But thanks to an unusually large shipment of hot air to these parts (caused, I believe, by either greenhouse gas accumulation or politicians likewise accumulating) I had the chance to do something I never would have thought possible: tour the Connecticut coast, all the way from Greenwich to Pawcatuck, in February.
February. Usually, this is the time of year when we have snow, cold weather, and a great deal of coughing and sneezing. But this is also the time when the tourists are away, and things are unusually deserted (and tranquil) out by the water.
This lack of humanity attracts me. I love to ride where the roads are free from traffic, and the teeming throngs (as opposed to teeming thongs, which one finds in the Victoria’s Secret catalog) are somewhere else.
Therefore, when it became clear to me that I was going to have at least a string of three days where the weather would be relatively “clement” (which means friendly and interesting), I decided it was time to do some off-season exploring.
To accomplish this, I obtained a sample of one of my favorite off-season touring motorcycles, the BMW RT series. I rode the original version of this modern generation Boxer many years ago on a similar wintertime trip, and was anxious to see how the latest edition (the R1150RT) handled the plethora of touring tasks I would hurl at it.
From BMWNA HQ in New Jersey, I motored my Titanium Silver Metallic companion up through New York state and over to Port Chester on the eastern coast of these United States. This get-acquainted segment of my trip revealed the RT’s transmission had grown an additional gear (sixth) and had a bit more power than its predecessor. The fully linked brakes meant touching the rear brake pedal could put you through the windscreen if you weren’t careful, but the bike’s suspension, which was always tops in the sport-touring genre, is a silky-smooth masterpiece. This was going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
In Port Chester I accessed Route 1, which would serve as the backbone of my trip for three reasons: (a) it runs along the coast all the way up to Rhode Island, (b) it is one of the few highway numbers in existence that I can usually remember without checking the map frequently, and (c) it is also called the Boston Post Road in most locations, so I have decided that’s its true moniker. Any road that’s this long and has a real name instead of just a number is worth riding on, in my view.
In short order I passed a “Connecticut Welcomes You” sign and my mission was well and truly under way. I crossed into Greenwich, a crowded urban thoroughfare that can best be labeled as “upscale.” In a span of less than a couple of miles I passed Ferrari, Aston Martin, Mercedes and Range Rover dealerships, and a church that was raffling off a Jaguar. I didn’t feel out of place, however. I was on a BMW, after all.
Older parts of Greenwich display some wonderful old New England architecture, which is subsequently replaced with a very modern downtown with modest skyscrapers. I motored through the traffic with ease—for even though there are a lot of lights on this stretch you can make good progress if you desire.
Just outside of downtown I encountered a strange American cultural headquarters: the home of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). I studied this glass edifice for a bit in the hope that I would see somebody get fired, which I assume would mean picking up said dismissed employee and spinning them around for a bit before tossing them out the front door. I was disappointed.
I needed food to offset this lack of mindless corporate violence, and Swanky Frank’s down the road in Norwalk fit the bill. The owner (whose name is Bob, oddly enough) is both motorcycle aficionado and sports car fiend, which made for great conversation while I laid waste to a cheeseburger.
Back out on the road, Route 1 dodged in and out from the coast and squirmed underneath the interstate from time to time, something it would do with great regularity during my journey. Once in Stamford I was treated to some really neat slices of life as I rolled right into the middle of neighborhoods with old, cape-style houses closely arrayed on both sides of the road, creating canyons and all kinds of pedestrian traffic. This is a culturally rich area, with cool little restaurants and colorful locals, including one unusually tall gent I spied carrying a massive African drum to some undisclosed location. Before you know it, this world disappears in your mirror and you find yourself in a strip-mall settlement that offers much for consumers but little in terms of culture.
By this point the Beemer showed it was as comfortable in stop-and-go traffic as it was on the open road, with only a trace of driveline lash and the odd bit of part-throttle indecisiveness that is barely worth mentioning. Otherwise the big bike whips through traffic like a two-stroke single and the clutch is wonderfully progressive and snatch-free.
Outside of Bridgeport I left Route 1 for Route 113, which took me out on Stratford Point, around the funky little Sikorsky airport, and to the ocean. The beach was pretty much empty, even though the weather was mild. I combed in peace for an hour or so and then headed back to the Boston Post Road in Stratford.
A pause for coffee and a bite at the Athenian III Diner in Milford (a symphony of chrome, glass and toast) was wonderfully refreshing. From here Route 1 became car-laden and stripmallish, meaning in stretches it was indistinguishable from way too much of urban America. But then, things got cool again just outside of New Haven, where I was greeted by a great stretch of road that twisted and banked like an asphalt roller coaster through old factories and over an absolutely massive drawbridge.
Outside of Branford the Boston Post Road became almost rural and briefly bucolic, and as I motored through Guilford I had to stop at a really wild-looking structure that turned out to be Stuzy’s Restaurant. Stuzy told me her tale: The story of an architect who had to quit drafting due to wrist problems yet saw this as an opportunity to buy a cool building she’s always had her eyes on and start her own restaurant. She is the heart and soul of the place, and nothing makes me happier than to see hard work and dedication realize a dream (especially one that you can sit in and enjoy fine dining). Well done, Stuzy.
Onward to Madison. As if Stuzy’s wildly decorated business was to serve as an artistic appetizer, this community features an outdoor display of more than 60 works of modern art distributed all over the town. It’s called the Madison Mile, and some of the stuff is totally off the wall and quite an eyebrow-raiser for many pragmatic New England types. I loved it, and wish more towns would do this type of thing.
Onward I Beemered, and in the Clinton-Grove Beach area I found myself surrounded by marinas stocked with ground-bound yachts, many wrapped in white plastic cocoons for the winter. There’s something wild about how these high, huge vessels appear when sitting on dry land, like so many beached fiberglass whales.
Once again just outside of Old Lyme I left the Boston Post Road and headed south on Route 156, where I discovered the land of the summer cottage in Old Lyme Shores. Rows and rows of tidy cottages whizzed by as I headed toward the Atlantic, and nearly all of them were empty here in the dead of winter. As you reach the beachfront, most of the structures are of the two-story variety, and are nestled so close to each other it looks like they might be sharing the same beach towel.
Riding around in this peopleless paradise was quite surreal, and I half-expected my hero Rod Serling to appear from behind a cottage, submitting for my approval a story about a stranger in a strange land riding a motorcycle that should be slumbering this time of year.
He did not.
So, I said farewell to this peaceful settlement and headed east on the 156, which turned into an absolutely superb ride over smooth, twisty pavement surrounded by bare trees that looked quite beautiful in their own stark way. Just outside of Niantic I discovered both an unusually eclectic antique place (the Thames Trading Company) and the greatest used-bookstore I’ve ever encountered: The Book Barn. The latter includes a series of satellite buildings surrounding the barn itself, where all kinds of reading material is sold and all kinds of four-legged creatures circulate. It’s a unique slice of print paradise for readers of all ages.
I jumped back on the Boston Post Road when the 156 crossed it in New London, and in Groton I made a stop at the Submarine Force Museum. Not only can you board the Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, at this facility the museum itself offers a truly comprehensive look at submarine warfare. This is a fitting tribute to Groton, which is a submarine haven thanks to General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division and the Navy’s sub base. To be a bubblehead is to be a submarine sailor, and many of these noble soldiers call this town home.
Heading southeast, if you visit Groton Long Point off Route 215 you can see what a really beautiful second home at the beach looks like (in case you are curious). As you cruise though the neighborhood, be sure to check out all the cool weathervanes on display, too. I think there’s a subtle battle to have the neatest one on the block taking place here.
From this picturesque community I got back on Route 1 and arrived in Mystic, which is probably Connecticut’s most famous coastal town. There’s the Mystic Seaport and the Mystic Aquarium to keep you busy, and both are incredibly time-consuming because there is an awful lot to see. I spent more time off the bike than on it in Mystic, but finally managed to motor on to Stonington, which is a labyrinth of cool houses, shops and historic sites (like the Old Lighthouse Museum).
Once out of Stonington I headed east and ran headfirst into the Connecticut border in Pawcatuck. After a few days of roaming around my journey was over, even though I badly wanted it to continue. I was enjoying the RT as much as I was the places I was visiting, and the Boston Post Road had been a wonderfully diverse conduit to a rewarding winter tour. And best of all, the weather’s just going to get warmer and the Boston Post Road continues north. Springtime in Massachusetts, perhaps? Count on it.
(This article Heed Not the Calendar: Winter means “Let’s Ride” in New England? was published in the February 2004 issue of Rider magazine.)