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FS 25: Riding Mt. St. Helens
Mastering the road and staying out of trouble
Considered one of the best motorcycling roads in the Northwest, FS 25, the road that wraps itself around the eastside of Mt. St. Helens, dishes out a ride like no other. If youíve ridden the road a few times you know itís got a set of traits all its own. Understanding these aspects can lead to a better ride throughout.
For this exercise weíre going to look at riding the road in four sections from North to South. Then weíll ride it back in four sections from south to north, because this road is an entirely different animal depending on which direction you ride it.
N-S Part 1: Randle to FS 99 Junction
Randle makes a logical point to top off your tank before hitting the road, especially if you plan to venture out to the overlook on FS 99.
From here the road starts out gently crossing over the Big Bottom plain, which is cut through by the Cowlitz River. You ride into the forest as the road rolls gently to the Cispus River, and itís here that the road begins to climb with a series of tight corners increasing its elevation.
If you havenít learned how to use the Vanishing Point Technique, take a moment to google it, then learn and use it on roads like this to achieve a smoother, safer ride which reduces the need for braking and helps you better control your throttle as a result.
At this point the presence of Frost Heaves rears its ugly head now and then. These are drop outs in the pavement that cause your bike to require added control from you to maintain the line youíre riding. They occur as a result of a crack in the pavement which allows water to penetrate below the asphalt. When the water freezes it expands and breaks the pavement. As the ice thaws the pavement can rest back down, but is now broken and sinks below the original height. Youíll find several in this section riding south bound, and coming northbound they exponentially multiply as we will soon see.
Above: When a corner like this appears with a nasty frost heave, it's time to place conventional thinking aside and pick a safe line, rather than try and conquer the corner with good technique as you would any other.
In a basic motorcycle training class we are trained to start on the outside, then come in close to the inside of the corner on the motorcycle later. In an advanced class, or by learning from a book, we gain the knowledge of the Delayed Apex technique which teaches us to enter a corner late and then aim for the inside beyond the typical apex. It's a great technique as long as there are no frost heaves around. For better control, the preference here is to stay out of the frost heaves, especially their deepest depressions which are often on the inside of the corner. To do this you must look well ahead and develop your own riding line separate from the textbook contour of the road.
In 2009 I hit a frost heave in this section so hard I bent the luggage rack on the back of my motorcycle. It cost several hundred dollars to get it and the frame straightened by a professional metal worker.
Picking a line and constantly adjusting it becomes par for the course in this section of road.
N-S Part 2: FS 99 junction to Clearwater Viewpoint
Arriving at the junction for FS 99 provides the option to ride out to the Windy Ridge Viewpoint, a wonderful road indeed, but weíll continue south. This area has plenty of pavement for riders to pull out and collect their group which is now undoubtedly scattered based on riding abilities.
From here the road surface becomes better and the view opens up with several vistas along the way, but anticipate a frost heave here and there nonetheless.
In order to accommodate the terrain and the task of getting the road from north to south, designers had to deal with a number of elevation and geographic challenges. These resulted in vast radii differences from one corner to the next. A sweeping 150 foot radii corner can give way to a far tighter corner just around the next bend. Thus there is no rhythm to the road here, and strong focus is required to deal with each corner along the route. Your brain will probably burn more calories while riding on FS 25 than any other part of your body.
To add to the complexity of mastering this road, up until now most of the riding youíve been doing has been uphill, which makes it easier to use throttle control and gravity to control your motorcycle, minimizing unnecessary braking. But now the road provides several sections of descent which require you to compensate for downward gravity and execute a slowdown sooner than you would traveling flat or upward - and that means you must think about it sooner.
To assist in this technique, compression rather than braking becomes your friend Ė and lots of it. Many riders rarely ever get their bikes to the 50% mark of their rpmís redline before shifting, but now is the time to rev high. If youíre bike redlines at 10,000 rpm, having a minimum of 6,000 to 8,000 rpmís in your right hand at any time means youíll have lots of compression for slowing the bike smoothly and plenty of power for throttling it back out of the corner. If you ride using this technique on Mt. St. Helenís youíll rarely go beyond third gear at any time.
Frost heaves have a way of moving around. The Forest Service will patch the big ones and new ones will occur in other places. From year to year they will be in different places with different extremes. A frost heave has now ruined one of my favorite banked sweepers just before the Clearwater Viewpoint. But with the road being in fairly good condition this year, that simply means Iíll have to go find a new favorite.
N-S Part 3: Clearwater Viewpoint to Muddy River Viewpoint
A sweet ride from here downward leads to series of corners marked between 15 and 25 mph. The downward descentís added gravity coupled together with the tightness of these corners have sent hundreds of riders into the trees beyond the road and many a wrecking company and repair shop has profited as a result. Thereís no need to be a victim here.
These wrecks often occur within groups. A common factor in many of the crashes is riders riding too close together, following the line of the rider in front of them instead of determining the one that is best for them. The moral of the story here is to spread out and pick your own line.
Above: Another wreck on the twisties down to Muddy River. Don't be a victim.
Several years ago the local law enforcement applied for and was granted a permit to build a road behind the final 20 mph corner nearest the Muddy River viewpoint. The purpose of the road was to provide access to wrecking trucks from the lower backside so they would not have to cable winch bikes and cars up from the upper side of the hill where the road is.
The question begs to be asked Ė "Why not redesign the road?" A look at the overall logistics and costs to do so arenít in the budget, so itís up to you to ride what is there with care.
N-S Part 4: Muddy River Viewpoint to FS 90
As you pass over the Muddy River, the road takes a few more turns and straightens out a bit. Now and then youíll encounter a frost heave and eventually the road terminates at the junction point with FS 90. This was the easy ride. Going back the other way is another story.
S-N Part 1: FS 90 to Muddy River Viewpoint
Traveling south to north on this lower section of road requires we learn a technique rarely used by street riders. In dual sport riding, riders often stand on their pegs to reduce the forces that a bumpy road can send to the upper body via the spinal column. Here, you will want to do the same. Although it may not seem cool or prudent to completely stand up on the bike, transferring the majority of your upper body weight to the pegs rather than your seat will allow for a much smoother ride. In this section, as well as the final section, this will be a critical part of smoothing out your ride, and will allow you to focus on dealing with everything the road is throwing at you.
Bumping along this section you may notice something else. With so much tree cover, the contrast of the road disappears and makes it harder to see whatís happening with the topography of the road ahead of you. Thus, frost heaves simply sneak up on you without warning and you must either compensate for them or arrange for your chiropractor to meet you in Randle.
S-N Part 2: Muddy River Viewpoint to Clearwater Viewpoint
Riding away from the Muddy River Viewpoint itís easy to spot the service road previously discussed. However, weíre going to ride up the tighties, not down them, so controlling the bike in this section is easier with gravity on our side.
Using the vanishing point technique here makes the speed warning signs almost a secondary factor. You may know how much the corner is going to tighten up well before you reach the signpoint, just by looking far ahead. Using higher rpmís provides the needed compression for slowing and the higher you climb the more you master this unique piece of roadway.
S-N Part 3: Clearwater Viewpoint to FS 99 Junction
Several sections of this stretch were easy to do coming southward because the higher elevations were on your right. But the northbound lane is on the side of the road that gives way to various weather and geologic conditions. Rock slides and washouts occur with regularity, and these areas of the road are under constant repair. Working your way through these corners gets tricky and navigating the asphalt band aids requires all the focus you can muster. Staying light on your seat and keeping your speed at a level that allows you time to compensate quickly pays off here.
S-N Part 4: FS 99 Junction to Randle
The final stretch. Those frost heaves you encountered southbound? Those were just a preview of what is to come. Like the previous section, the northbound lane of this road gives way to slides and frost heave erosion much more often than it's southbound partner. The frost heaves here occur far more often and are much more drastic. The next ten miles wonít be pleasant as you navigate your way across countless imperfections, and the delayed apex technique goes right out the window. If you have downhill mountain biking experience, your line selection experience rules now!
After ten harsh miles the road relaxes a bit, and for the next fifteen miles it meanders through the trees, flattens out and eventually gets you back to Randle. And while you may ponder about the harshness of the final section, you know you canít wait to ride the whole road all again!
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