Latitude Adjustment

Living in the heart of the Northeastern United States has its advantages. There is rich history, dating back to the discovery of America and the foundation of the nation. Within two hours along great, twisty roads, is gorgeous countryside, the Atlantic ocean, a variety of mountains, and major cities. From rural to urban, the options are unlimited.

Except for the weather. The weather is awful. There is some beautiful riding weather in the spring and autumn, but a very large chunk of the year is spent contending with falling water—liquid or solid. The summers are humid and hot, and the winters are long and frigid. 

The desire for winter to end and spring to begin starts in early February. Even though it tends to be one of the colder months, the cabin fever gets oppressive and it can lead to some questionable decisions. Like, heading to Florida to check out Bike Week.

When I originally had the idea of taking the Bonneville 950 miles south to Florida, winter had just begun. March was still far enough away that it seemed impossible winter wouldn’t be over by then. Nevertheless, I quickly decided that a straight run down the coast was not a good idea. Leaving the Northeast for the Mid-Atlantic states, there is a long stretch that is heavy on interstate miles and light on interesting places to stop and refuel. Moreover, even enduring 350 mile days in the saddle, it would take multiple days to ride down and back. As much as I like to ride, the view of Interstate 95 for unending miles is a recipe to give up motorcycles.

So, the better plan was to take the Amtrak Auto Train to cut off the boring miles. The Auto Train is an aberration in America’s very limited rail system. Running between Lorton, Virginia, and Sanford, Florida, Amtrak puts cars and motorbikes in railcars, and you sit on the train for 855 miles instead of on the highway. The Lorton to Sanford run is, bizarrely, the only Auto Train in the country. 

On a good day, Lorton is about 4.5 hours away from where I live. From Sanford to Daytona is about an hour. The train ride is 17 hours. With boarding and unloading, it’s about 20 hours total. Considering that a straight ride from here to Florida would take about three days, it’s an appealing idea.

Two days before I left, it was 72 degrees, clear, sunny, and I took the opportunity to pull the front brake off the Bonneville and grease up some squeaks that were driving me insane. Not quite t-shirt weather, but it felt like an early Spring. When the Thursday of my departure rolled around, however, it had dropped to below 40 degrees and was a mix of sleet and rain. 

My journey was for several weeks, so the bike was adorned with Ortlieb dry saddle bags and a Kriega dry tailbag. Camera gear was packed into the usual PacSafe, and that was then put inside an Ortlieb dry backpack. (Motorcycles at speed are paint shakers, and I’m loathe to ever put cameras in anything other than a backpack.)

Because of the timing of the train and the uncertainties of the weather, I had made prior arrangements to stay with family for the night in Washington, D.C. From here to there was five hours of miserable weather. I was layered in a t-shirt, a thermal shirt, a sweatshirt, a waxed cotton motorcycle jacket with a liner, and then a rain jacket on top of that. Under Goretex motorcycle pants I had on thermals, and over my boots I had rubber rain covers. My winter gloves had the rain fly deployed, as well. Nevertheless, two hours in I was shivering so bad my knees were knocking the tank. Every gas stop just meant wet hands going into the gloves, making everything colder. The rain made it impossible to see anything, much less navigate, and made me even more a firm believer that Bluetooth in the helmet is a miracle of technology. It was a hellish ride.

The morning of the train departure wasn’t much better. I did pull the rain covers off the boots, but it was still drizzling enough and cold enough that I had to layer up again for the hour ride to the train station. 

The AutoTrain is a fairly efficient operation. Tickets are sold in advance, so they know you’re coming. When you pull up to the booth at the entrance, each vehicle gets a number. Employees then stage the vehicles and eventually drive them on to two-level fright cars. Motorbikes are put on trailers, and then loaded between the cars. After the vehicles are loaded, passengers board. The process takes about two hours.

Specifically, bikes are directed to a loading ramp. Directed by an Amtrak employee, you ride your bike onto a trailer and into a wheel chock. You stay on the bike while it is strapped firmly down. Afterwards, you sign something that basically says whatever is on the bike isn’t Amtrak’s problem.

The trailers are designed to fit three bikes, side by side. Since they’re universal, they’re sized for large Harleys with hard luggage. There was no issue with having big luggage on my Bonneville. For the trip down, I took the Kriega off and bungied my helmet onto the seat, leaving the saddlebags on the bike. On the way back I did the same, but kept my helmet with me because there is plenty of luggage space in the passenger cars.  

Fitting with its aberration status, the passenger cars are not normal Amtrak fare. They are double-decker, with big, reclining seats and more leg room than a giraffe would need. Although there were plenty of passengers, the cars were not full and I had two seats to myself. (Pro tip: the further you sit from the dining car, the more likely you are to have multiple seats to yourself.)

The train ride was the standard formula you would find on a transatlantic flight: get everyone settled; serve a sketchy dinner; shut the lights out; and drop the temperature to the “cryogenic” setting to induce unconsciousness.

The progress was steady. There was one stop in Florence, South Carolina, for a shift change, but otherwise the journey was a steady 50 mph. We arrived early into Florida. It was blissfully clear and warm, and I was finally able to shed some layers. 

After about an hour and a half, the bike came off the train. With clear and warm weather, the remainder of the ride was  pleasantly uneventful, though Florida highways are like raceways. The first leg of the ride was on a five lane stretch of about 80 miles. (That’s five lanes in one direction—10 total.) Traffic was very fast. While the Bonneville can do the ton, she was loaded with quite a lot of weight, which always makes high speed riding interesting.

While it was a snowing in the north, I got an early jump on the riding season by zipping around Florida. There were the occasional days of rain, but most days were dry, with cool temps in the morning and heat in the afternoon. Such was my time at Bike Week.

Bike Week is an entity unto itself. Events like The Race of Gentlemen and Wheels & Waves are a gold standard by which to measure motorcycle events. Bike Week, however, can’t be compared to either of them for several reasons, not the least of which is the sheer size of the event—nearly 500,000 people make their way to Bike Week. Moreover, Bike Week overlaps with Spring Break, meaning there is a mix of both riders and the college crowd. And then there’s the difference in biker culture that Bike Week represents: in the States, most bikes are garage-kept and well taken care of, rather than the European daily riders. So Bike Week comes off as more a parade of shiny bikes than as a gathering of bikers. (My Triumph was definitely the dirtiest bike for miles around!)

It’s also a more difficult event to attend simply because of the numbers of people. Parking is difficult and sparse, and Daytona Beach is a small venue. The streets are packed, and the crowds can get oppressive. It was oftentimes difficult to get any view of things other than the backs of heads on a sidewalk. There are shops and kiosks, lots of live music, and rivers of beer. But the focus is more on relaxation and entertainment than the activities of an event like Wheels & Waves. 

All that said, it was an interesting event to witness. From the scantily clad, to the Vietnam Vets, to the woman trying to save souls, it’s a unique event. And whenever you need a break from the crowds, the beach is, literally, right there. If you find yourself in Florida in March, Bike Week should be on your list.

Whether you head to Bike Week or just want a change of scene, I can recommend the Auto Train as a viable option if you happen to live in the Northeast. Although Lorton, Virginia is not the most convenient station to reach, it still beats adding 855 miles of superslab to a trip. It’s far cheaper than the hotels and additional gasoline, and you arrive with in Florida with a full day of riding ahead.