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Common Tread

Fuelish anxiety: Hyper-miling a Sportster in the desert

Mar 21, 2014

"Next Service Station 56 Mi" was the last sign I saw before entering the unknown, the desert of the Los Padres National Forest. I didn't think twice about heading in, but I'll definitely be more prepared the next time.

So, I'm a Philly boy, usually doing my riding in the cold hills while heading north, through the Poconos, the ‘Gunks (that’s local for Shawangunks) and Adirondacks. But an opportunity arose to go to Los Angeles, I knew I had to ride a bike while out there, and I wanted it to be a Harley. Figured that would be a nice change from my Triumph Thruxton.

I enjoyed some absolutely epic riding on the Sportster 1200, up the Pacific Coast Highway, through the Angeles Crest Forest on SR 2 and winding up and down mountains of San Bernardino Forest. Those rides all deserve their own separate stories. I have a point though, and I'm determined to get to it.

The Sportster poses. Photo by John Strader.

Here I am, sitting on my Sportster 1200, at what the sign indicates is the last gas station in 56 miles. I trust the sign. I fill up, which I'm sure provides some laughs for the locals. This California environmental stuff is not as easy as it looks. You California residents know what I mean, with the pump collar thing.

With the Sportster refreshed, I ride off onto what looks like the most beautiful, deserted road I've seen. It's hot, but the kind of dry hot you don't realize, because the sweat evaporates before you ever feel it.

The ride is just what I’d hoped for. Winding up and down the mountains with breathtaking views around each turn that become almost unreal, due to their abundance. Steep cliffs, alternating from side to side while sweeping through corners on the hot, sticky asphalt. Not a single car to be seen the entire time. The only encounter is a fully loaded BMW GS with panniers and topcase that flies by me. I instantly attribute that to my sightseeing pace, but it’s probably more than that.

As the mountains begin to fade in my mirrors, I realize I can see further and further in front of me, with nothing of interest catching my eyes. That's when I look down at my odometer and realize I’ve gone 55 miles. So, one more should bring me to that "Service Station." To my surprise, I look up and see a truck stopped on the side of the road. This truck driver has to know the service station ahead, so I roll up in front of the truck, shut off the nice rumble I’ve become accustomed to, and the guy hops right out. We exchange howdys, I explain my situation, and he smiles at me with a grin containing fewer teeth than gallons I have left in my tank.

"No worries,” he says. “It's just up the road a piece, on your left. About a mile or so. But be careful, after that, it's another hundred or so."

"Great, thanks! I gotta get going. Have a good one." No clue why I have to get going so bad, but I guess I am starting to get a little antsy about this gas situation.

I'm off. Half a mile, three quarters, nothing. One mile, nothing. Two miles, an old house. Four miles, I see the very last foot of a mountain, and as I come around it, my field of vision opens up to flat earth, as far as I could see, and I even had my glasses on. Okay, I'm at 59 miles and I have obviously screwed up and somehow missed the only gas station around. There's no way I'm making it an additional "100 or so" with an uncertain gas station in my future and an unknown distance this Sporty tank wants to carry me. I’m guessing a range of around 130 miles.

This is the gas station? Photo by John Strader.
I'm heading back.

Huh? Photo by John Strader.
You have got to be kidding me. Right in front of me, about three miles back, is a red building I guess I'll call a barn, a house and a sign that says, "Next Service Station 56 Mi." This is it! But what the heck is it? I walk up to the house, trying desperately to avoid noticing the cow skulls, hanging chicken bones, shot gun shells, and iron bars that block the windows and doors. I knock. Nothing. I knock again with more enthusiasm, then regret the volume. I hear some shouting in the distance and can't even tell if it's coming from outside or in. Something tells me this is no longer a gas station. And, if it was, what were they going to do? Bring out an old water jug with gas in it and I just throw ‘em a few bones? I think I'll test the Sporty's tank range.

If my memory, and math, serves me well, I'm at about 62 miles and I have 56 miles to go, so, no sweat, that'll leave me at, what, something like 118 miles? I'm sure the Sporty can handle that. Oh, wait a second. I forgot, I've been stopping and starting to take pictures an obscene number of times. And I guess I could have been a bit more frugal with the fuel, but come on, there's no one around for miles, who wouldn't be absolutely ripping it?

These wide-open spaces are impressive, but also gas-guzzling. Photo by John Strader.

I'm off, again. This time, I need to be careful. What's that called? Hyper-miling, yea that's what I'll do! So I get going, maintaining a steady 47 mph or so in fifth gear, almost lugging it. But wait, there's more! Maintaining a steady speed of around 50 mph means I’m absolutely dragging pegs and almost putting knees down while I "hyper-mile" my way to safety. These roads are twisty!

I'm close, I can feel it. Also, I'm watching the miles tick away as I swear my odometer was counting down to an unknown zero. I’m oblivious to the heat, the roadrunner zipping across the road in front of me, or the giant boulder I could have sworn came crashing down as soon as I passed under one of the last tunnels, but I’m very aware of those miles ticking away. I feel a lurch. I tell myself it’s a hiccup. There it is again, and that’s no fluke. I'm running real low. The Sporty is thirstier than I am.

Selfie by John Strader.
I'd be switching to reserve right now on my Triumph, but I reach down instinctively and grab nothing but air. No petcock on the Harley. It's all downhill from here, so I kick it down to neutral and let it roll. Just as I begin hearing what I know will be the last final coughs of the motor turning over, I see the big, beautiful 76 ball rising over the horizon.

I have seen the most beautiful sights, endless landscapes, and roads any rider dreams of, but seeing that 76 ball pop up was top-notch.

I couldn't have timed it better. As I pull up to the empty pump, the bike shuts off, and I'm laughing hysterically, trying to avoid eye contact with the attendant who thinks I'm nuts. It's the small victories that feel the best. That wasn't the end of my day’s ride, it wasn’t the greatest riding of my California trip, but it’s the part I’ll remember most.