Updated May 6, 2019
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Before we dive into the sensory flooding that any Kentucky motorcycle tour might offer, consider that somewhere around Louisville there are a couple hundred people who still see Jennifer Lawrence as that goofy blonde horse chick they knew back in high school. There might also be a few who remember Hunter S. Thompson as that really weird kid over on Ransdell Avenue. “I wonder if that idiot ever ended up in prison …”
What I’m getting at here is that the “girl next door” effect is real. It’s easy to overlook the movie star or genius in your backyard, which is why I only figured out this year that I live about two hours away from some of the finest pavement on the planet (Kentucky motorcycle roads).
Pull up Cincinnati, Ohio on Google Maps. Now, scroll a bit south into the bulge of Kentucky just across the Ohio River. Scroll a bit further, beyond the suburban sprawl. Turn on the terrain layer and marvel at the deliciously wrinkled landscape.
Zoom in a little and look around. Your mind will begin to race at all the twisty little lines wiggling through the hills.
Like so many great things, this Kentucky motorcycle ride began as something else entirely. Earlier in the summer, my KLR650 buddies Tim and Wazz and I decided to take a Friday off work and go do a couple of days of dual-sport riding nearby. We grabbed a cheap motel room just south of Cincy and I mapped out a GPX track on the tiniest, wiggliest white lines I could find. I figured there had to be some interesting dirt roads in them thar hills.
Kentucky Motorcycle Riding Rediscovered
Interesting? Oh my goodness gracious, yes.
Dirt? Not so much. Our knobbies remained entirely unsoiled, yet somehow we spent each day giddy as schoolgirls. #AintEvenMad
There’s some hardcore dual-sporting further south in Kentucky’s coal country but it turns out in this part of the state (further north), pretty much every last road that isn’t a dead end has been lovingly coated with racetrack quality pavement.
Our knobbies were fried but our eyes were opened. We vowed to return … and soon.
Which led us to the approaching close of the Midwest riding season and a realization that we had better get on the stick or get frozen out until spring. A weekend and a base camp location in Florence, Kentucky were chosen through a flurry of emails sent out in early October to a list I call “Riders of the Apocalypse”.
Using what little I had learned from the last Kentucky motorcycle trip (plus a large amount of pure guesswork), I stitched together a few 215-230 mile GPX tracks ripe with interesting, wiggly bits.
Eight riders managed to escape dreary duty for this mostly unplanned, totally unorganized grabassticly shambolic gathering. I call it the “Late Season, Late Notice Kentucky Krawl”.
Northeast Kentucky Motorcycle Extravaganza, Day 0
Our chosen base camp was the Baymont Inn in Florence, Kentucky purely because Google showed the lowest price in the southern suburbs of Cincy. Why yes, we ARE cheap and not exactly picky. The fact that this Baymont turned out to be freshly remodeled and actually pretty damn nice was a surprise bonus.
I’ll just go ahead and admit it here: most of us trailered in. My V-Strom DL1000 took its first ride on a trailer, in fact. With nightfall about 7pm, temps in the 40s, and a full day of work to do before departure Thursday evening, dodging sleepy idiots while freezing my ass off for 100 miles of interstate in the dark had less than zero appeal.
Wazz arrived from northern Indiana with his KLR650 in tow around midnight. Sometime before dark, Neil from Chicago unloaded his SVF650 Gladius and Dave from Minnesota rolled a nasty little Triumph 765 Street Triple R off his trailer. Robin cruised over on his BMW R1200RS Starship something-or-another from his family’s current encampment just across the river in Indiana. Mark (holy crap, izzatta real live Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports?) and Greg (Triumph Tiger) were the truly hardcore riders, tallying 300+ miles from Peoria, IL and Murfreesboro, TN.
A motley selection of riders and hardware, we all share a past connection through vintage Suzukis, a tale for another time. Suffice to say, we’ve all done a lot of rapid riding together.
We pondered that night’s frosty forecast and decided to dawdle over a nice breakfast at the Waffle House the next morning, letting things warm up a bit before … blastoff.
Northeast Kentucky Motorcycle Curvapalooza, Day 1
After a few games of seven-man Frogger getting to and from breakfast across a busy highway, we suited, saddled, gassed, forgot stuff and generally faffed around as per usual procedure before we started rolling at the crack of 10:15 or so.
… Aaaaand spent ten+ minutes idling at the stoplight that Would. Not. &^%$#@!. Turn. Green.
It never did turn, either. We eventually dealt with the obstacle in an undisclosed manner and headed west and south.
The general idea here was to head southwest to get out of the suburban sprawl, then turn southeast again after passing Big Bone Lick (hur hurr hurrrrrr) State Park where traffic would lessen and the twisties would start to get tighter.
Our Northeast Kentucky motorcycle ride begins with a jaunt along KY-10 just outside of Augusta. It then connects with KY-22 for an epic riding experience.
This part of the day was pleasant: moderately twisty and scenic but honestly, until we crossed under I-75 again it was, well … meh. Next time, I’ll probably skip it. We’re all red-eyed, nail biting, slobbering curve addicts here and the faster we get our fix, the better.
The fix kicked in just south of Walton, where we started getting samples of a strange NE Kentucky specialty. It’s the four-digit, one-lane rural road with racetrack caliber pavement. Oh yeah!
Watch for those dually pickups coming the other way, though and have a little respect for yards and yapper dogs. It’s all worth enjoying as part of the Kentucky motorcycle challenge.
There was a method to the madness. Our goal as we wriggled south was the centerpiece of NE Kentucky, the reason we ride fast motorcycles, one of our most holy high temples of twistage …
If you’ve got that deep-down inner ear itch that only lean angle can scratch, this is one of those rare Kentucky motorcycle roads that’s nearly perfect.
And it goes on … and on and on and on. Then it goes on some more.
It’s very lightly traveled, and the few friendly locals we encountered promptly waved us around. “Welcome, travelers from afar! Sample our delights!”
We took a short break in Falmouth to gas up, mindlessly seal clap out of sheer joy, fist bump each other and grin and jabber incoherently. Yeah, it’s that good.
And there was even more to come!
Once you get out of Falmouth heading east, 22 follows a river for a little bit, then veers left, climbs out of the valley and skips back and forth along the ridge tops headed southeast. The sheer sudden perfect insanity of it is delightful.
“Nah, the river’s too easy. Let’s drape this road over the teeth of the hills.”
Let’s Do Lunch
We could have enjoyed a whole day railing back and forth along 22 but you can’t just eat cake all day every day. We zigzagged south on a selection of three and four-digit roads that kept us from missing 22 too much.
In Kentucky, the number of digits in the road number are inversely related to the width. Four-digit roads are often barely one lane wide, three digit roads usually have two marked lanes but still have quite a few limited sight lines and some very tight curves and right-angle corners. Two digit roads are a bit wider and always have two lanes.
After casting a practiced eye over my gaggle of riders with glazed eyes and dopy grins, I felt they looked hungry. Off in the distance, there was a large water tower and soon we were rewarded with the expected county courthouse in Cynthiana complete with an excellent restaurant called Bianke’s.
One of the core maxims of rapid rural riding is: lawyers gotta eat. It’s paid off for me many times.
It was a late-ish lunch and clouds were starting to roll in when we left. More fantastic three and four digit Kentucky motorcycle roads ensued as we worked our way east and then north to the centerpiece of our ride back to the barn, Kentucky 10 from Germantown to Mount Auburn.
I’ll just admit it …
If Kentucky 22 is a better than perfect 11, Kentucky 10 is a solid 8 or 9. It gets the same general description (a superb road) but it’s not quite as … stimulating? There are a few more towns and thus a little more traffic, so perhaps it’s just missing the sheer nutty relentlessness of 22.
I’ll also remark here that something happened this afternoon I’ve never even heard of before …
We ended up behind a school bus that was dropping off kids. We were keeping a respectful distance, but the school bus driver actually pulled off at a wide spot and waved us around with a friendly smile. All the kids were waving and generally going bonkers looking at the bikes.
Seriously, how moto-friendly is a place where the school bus drivers wave you around in the twisties while a bus load of kids cheers you on like a GP rider?
Somewhere around Mount Auburn, Greg and Dave peeled off for a quicker, less twisty return. Greg’s Tiger was leaking a small but worrisome amount of oil onto the back tire.
Back To Base
When Kentucky 10 turned north to the river, we picked our way back west on a selection of tasty triple digit roads as clouds gathered and darkened. We felt random drops of rain here and there, but only encountered a light mist the last five or ten minutes as we were slogging through the suburbs. For late October, I’ll count that as a weather win (hey, it didn’t snow).
What’s more, Dale arrived from Ohio on his vintage Suzuki GS1000G just as we neared the motel almost as if we’d planned it.
Later on, we found that Greg’s leak was just a defective K&N oil filter. Turns out it’s common for leaks to develop at the spot welds holding that fake 17mm nut in place. Just a crappy design.
After a furious bout of intarwebnets research, we discovered there was a compatible Walmart Supertech filter that would work perfectly. The nearest Wally World had exactly one in stock, so we took a quick trip for a quart of oil, a foil turkey pan, some kitty litter and a $2.89 oil filter.
El Tigre’s incontinence problem was resolved with minimal effect on the hotel parking lot.
I know reading about food is always boring, but we were a little surprised to discover an excellent Thai place called Mai Thai nearby.
Northeast Kentucky Motorcycle Twistacular, Day 2
Rain came down in buckets after dark but the forecast was tolerable-to-promising. Fortunately, the cloud cover kept things relatively warm overnight. The rain ended about 8:00 am and we set off around 9:00 on wet roads. No rain … but still cloudy, so the roads weren’t really drying.
In some ways, I hate riding in the wet but I also sort of enjoy its Zen. There’s an interesting challenge to staying upright in an alternate universe of different traction rules and responses.
We worked our way east and south out of the ‘burbs and on to roads that slowly got more and more interesting. The wind was picking up and the skies were clearing, so by the time we crossed the Licking River (hur hurr hurrrrrr) most of the pavement was dry. Our selected mix of three and four digit Kentucky motorcycle roads was gaining intricacy.
During a pit stop in Augusta, we decided against a ferry ride into Ohio. Winds were really picking up and the ferry might not be running. Plus, we wanted to get back to the barn a little earlier before damaging winds could kick in and while we had daylight for loading the trailers.
Route Reversal (With A Twist)
The day’s treats began in earnest shortly after Augusta with a quick jaunt on Kentucky 10. Then, a lovely three-digit connector took us back to our old pal Kentucky 22 except this time we were going the other direction.
That’s kinda the cool thing about great roads … go the other way and it’s a totally different road.
The wind was starting to tune up with gusts of 30-50 mph. On the down side, you had to be both aware and prepared for wind to shove you around in unpredictable ways. On the plus side, it finally dried the pavement and made things interesting.
Hey. Headwinds are just one of the many reasons we need high horsepower motorcycles.
Perma-Grin: KY-22’s Side Effect
Highway 22 was again epic, amazing, incredible and every other adjective. There was another stop in Falmouth to giggle, flap our arms in excitement, grin and mutter dazedly and generally recover mentally before tucking in to another steaming slab o’ 22.
After pondering the sky a bit, I passed the word to snack up. We could save an hour or two by skipping the usual sit-down lunch. A horrifying raid on the station’s supply of Bosco Sticks ensued.
After that, we rode 22 west some more and it was … “really neat”. (Seriously, 22 squeezed all the word juice out of my description gland. Gimme a minute.)
Owenton marked our turn north and back to the motel, most of which was zigzagging vaguely north on gorgeous little three and four number roads.
I’m still fascinated by that strange NE Kentucky combination of tiny 1.25 lane roads with flawless, immaculate pavement. The downside is the inevitable pucker moments when dually diesel pickups towing huge trailers appear unexpectedly.
We finished out the day with a cool-down lap out to Big Bone Lick (hur hurr hurrrrrr … again) and back into Florence. (I’ll probably skip this on future routes.)
Trailers were loaded while it was still light, and we hit a nearby burger and brew joint called Flipdaddys for an excellent dinner.
We all agreed that this unorganized, grabasstic, late season Kentucky motorcycle mess turned into a couple of the finest days of riding we’ve experienced. We all ended up exhausted and satiated, with tires frazzled to the edges and our lean angle itches thoroughly scratched.
The weather cooperated just enough to keep things interesting, there were no unpleasant incidents, the locals were friendly and of course there are amazing roads in every direction. We only experienced a small sample of the roads in that area.
We’ll be back.
Just don’t let the word get out about Kentucky 22, okay? I’d hate for some dipstick to give it a stupid name and start setting up bars and photo booths before filling it up with cops and flatlanders on flatulent chrome barges.
What’s Your Favorite Kentucky Motorcycle Route?
There are a lot of great riding roads in the bluegrass state. Which ones have you experienced? What do you like about each and why? Your input is invited. Post an article!