I was recently in Maryville, Tennessee, and had the opportunity to ride the famous Tail of the Dragon, also known as Deals Gap on Route 129. If you’re not familiar with this road, it boasts 318 curves in just 11 miles, which is why its on many motorcyclists bucket list rides of the east. All the turns are banked and the pavement is near perfect. There are no crossroads, intersections, or driveways along the stretch of wonderful curves.
They’ve recently paved all the pull-off areas which were previously gravel. The blacktop makes pulling off the road to enjoy the view much safer. However, there are no guard rails. That means if you over-ride your skill level, you’re either going to ride off a cliff or crash into the mountain on the other side. The speed limit is 30 mph with 20 mph caution turns at some of the switchback sections.
I made a point of staying within 5 mph of the speed limit just to see if I could still enjoy the ride. The answer is a resounding “yes!” I arrived at the start of the Dragon in Tennessee at 7:15 a.m. on a Saturday morning. There was virtually no traffic coming or going at this early hour. In fact, from the start of the Dragon to its end in North Carolina, I passed only two riders. The husband and wife duo on Harley-Davidson touring bikes averaged about 10 mph below the speed limit. Even at their low speeds, they still managed to cross the double yellow line into the oncoming lane several times in the few minutes I was behind them.
I stayed a safe distance behind the two so as to not push them to pick up their speed. Once they noticed me, they both pulled onto a turn-off area and let me pass safely.
If you’re not used to riding a challenging road like the Dragon, here is the general rule: if the turn curves to the right, enter the curve from the left portion of your lane. That will give you the best view around the turn. Do your braking prior to entering the turn, then release the brakes and roll on the throttle slightly throughout the curve.
Of course, if the road curves to the left, enter from the right portion of your lane. Never look at the yellow line or an oncoming vehicle. Instead, focus on the end of the turn. Ride your own ride. In other words, don’t try to keep up with faster riders. If a rider wants to pass you, pull to the right side of your lane and wave them by.
Don’t push your skill limits on a public road. If you want to find your cornering limits, do so at a track day. There are track days all over the country most of which include professional instructors. Until next month, keep the shiny side up.
About the Author
Jerry “Motorman” Palladino is the founder of Ride Like A Pro, Inc., a company that teaches advanced rider training classes, and produces motorcycle instructional DVDs and books. Jerry is a former motorcycle police officer who teaches riders the same skills that motor officers use when riding their motorcycles. His classes are aimed at experienced riders who want to enhance their motorcycle skills. Visit RideLikeAPro.com to learn more about the classes and to purchase and download digital copies of the DVDs.
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21 thoughts on Motorcycle Riding on the Tail of the Dragon
I live pretty close to the Dragon and have been on it so much I am almost over it (but not quite). We have seen many accidents, many lane-crossers and semi-trucks even though they are banned! We have spoken to a lot of people who were afraid to try it, but as the article says, ride your own ride. If someone is on your backside, do not let them make you feel pushed, pull over when you can. Buy a T-shirt when you concurred the Dragon. But please avoid the Tree of Shame. Ride safe my friends.
I road the Dragon in 2008, ’10, ’12, ’13, ’14, and ’16 on my 2006 Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe. It was an awesome ride. I always rode the Dragon one time up or down. But this year was different with my new bike—I rode it six times in three days! It was so much more exciting and fun with my new 2017 Street Glide CVO. I kept my own. I didn’t try to do any more speed than I felt safe at.But every time it did get a bit easer. Learning the curves, twists, turns, and dips each way was like heaven with the sun peeking out of the trees, warm on my face, and the wonderful cool breeze under my arms. I slayed The Dragon with confidence of a warrior. I’m already looking forward to the near future to Slay the Dragon again this August.
Love the Dragon.
Rode the Dragon down and back three times last week. It was amazing ride.
Been there, done that, got the shirt to prove it. Nice ride, I had fun but the tripple nickle in Ohio Highway 555…now that was a challenge. I just completed 2,000 miles (new rider) two weeks ago and the Dragon was one of my last stops. I would go there again if I lived closer.
Excellent advice. On a road like this, always ride your own ride and wave faster riders through. The chief cause of accidents on The Dragon is not paying attention and overriding your skill level. Pay attention to your ride and keep your mind on what you’re doing!! I live about two hours west of The Dragon and ride it frequently throughout the year as well as the Cherohala Skyway and other local roads. It is an enjoyable ride providing you keep your head in the game and don’t override your skill level.
You never want to end up on the “tree of shame,” a large oak tree at one end of the Dragon that contains the remnants of motorcycle parts from bikers who took curves too fast.
Great article. I’ve ridden the dragon a few times. I 100 percent agree … ride your own ride. Don’t let anyone push your limits. My most memorable time was going around a curve and a wild turkey on the side of the road decided to fly right over my head. I swear that thing looked like a mini dragon. Ride safe everyone!
Rode the Dragon Memorial Day weekend 2015. We went in early a.m. and the traffic was not bad at all. I got through it OK and was proud to have ridden it! Agree on all points, make sure your head is in the game, you ride your own ride, and you don’t overthink things. I have been riding for three years and this was honestly challenging for me coming from flat farm land. I felt a little “pushed” by riders behind me and really had to focus not to let them bother me. After I got a little flustered from the speed higher than my comfort zone and finally getting to the end, I already had doubt in my head and did not enjoy the rest of the trip as much as I could have because I was envisioning those crazy curves everywhere and reducing my speed too much because of it. Best advice would be to ride your own ride, take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the ride!
I rode this twice a few years back. I’d heard horror stories and had never thought I’d ride it. But I met a couple of guys who were going. I rode with them and was convinced to do it. I had a ball. It’s an awesome road, and a ton of fun.There were a couple memorable moments. One was when a chopper with an extended front end came around one of the hairpins with his front end in my lane. Paying attention to the road and traffic averted a possible accident. The second was coming upon a rattlesnake coiled up in the middle of my lane. Eeek! We don’t have snakes here in Alaska. I avoided it and went on to finish one of the coolest rides ever.
Very good article. Excellent advice. The dragon will eat your lunch if you do not respect it. I ride it a couple of times a year. It’s always fun to go back. Always ride at your own pace and you’ll have a safe, enjoyable ride. Now go slay the dragon!
I have rode the Dragon two times, and it is one of the most challenging roads, but so fun. Take your time and go slow. Hoping to get back there this year with my new ride.
Great article. Ride your own ride. Rode Dragon in August 2010. Turn offs were still gravel at that time, but road was pristine. Went through just around sunset, maintaining 30 mph and very little traffic coming past. On my bucket list to do again.
I just rode the Dragon for the first time this past weekend. It was my first time riding in the mountains and also, in the rain. (If it rained an inch, it rained 5 million gallons from July 1 – 5 and from NC to Florida.)I was very nervous to do this but I read this article many times, practiced slow turns and friction zone control in my favorite empty parking lot, and rode my own ride. The pullovers are nicely paved and the traffic was light and very agreeable. I kept my eyes on my line, paid no attention to the photographers, and pulled over for others when I was ready to do so. I look forward to going back again!
Thanks for sharing your quick and immediate feedback Hilary!
I ride every year with my scooter club!
I have been riding for 4 years. In May 2014, I rode the Dragon Tail. A black bear crossed in front of me. Riding my own ride prevented me from hitting it. I suggest “Riding the Snake”, Hwy 421 in Tennessee also. It has 489 curves in 33 miles. This year we rode in South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. Beartooth Pass in Montana was awesome. The best rides in South Dakota are Needles Hwy and Spearfish Canyon. On our ride through Yellowstone, we watched buffalo while eating lunch at a picnic area.
He puts it best in the ending – if you want to show off, go to track day. This is a Federal highway, the speed limit was 55 years ago. Folks turning it into a playground required the speed limit to be dropped. Know that the local resources are limited. If you need an ambulance it could be hours for one to reach you. This is a rural area. That said, it’s a beautiful ride with limited access so few people are pulling out in front of you. But, check out “Killboy’s” facebook or website; recently a biker met a semi that had crossed the yellow. Screaming around a blind curve can be hazardous. And yes, both TN and NC ban long rigs, but there’s no gate to stop them and once they start up the narrow, forested road they cannot turn around. Locals (like Killboy) will escort them through, warning oncoming traffic.
We just returned from a trip to West Virginia that included Tail of the Dragon and Devils Triangle. The article hits the nail on the head with riding the Tail of the Dragon early in the day. We were threw it by 8:30 in the morning with basically no other traffic. To me Devils Triangle with its steep climb and 10 mile speed limit switchbacks was much more challenging than the Dragon.
I was in Tenn. last Feb. and rode the Dragon Tail on my Harley Dyna. It was scary going into the ride not knowing what to expect but I soon became comfortable and enjoyed the curves. I am 63 years old and I would encourage anyone who loves to ride to make this run. The tips were right on the money. Best tip is to go at your own speed.