I’ve mentioned before that I live next to one of THE great biking roads, the A84 from Callander to Killin. That’s all of 20 miles of fast, wide sweeping bends that every so often turn into narrow, bumpy, twisty complexes that test machine set-up and rider anticipation, skill and basic sense. And far too bloody many people are failing that test: we’ve just had what (I think) is the third biking fatality of the year — and all of these on the mere eight miles between Callander and Strathyre, particularly through the twisties of the Falls of Leny, just North of Kilmahog and at the notorious “Doctor’s Bend” a couple of miles further North.
The consequences of this aren’t just limited to the motorcyclist and his or her (almost always ‘his’) family and friends but affect the local community: firstly, this is the only road South from here (without a 50-mile detour), so when it’s closed for most of a day it has a real local impact. Secondly, and mostly importantly, people here are genuinely upset about the sheer bloody waste of life that’s going — I haven’t spoken to a single person who’s anti-motorcycling in any way, but to many who are affected by the knowledge that another life has been needlessly lost on our doorstep and who genuinely feel the sense of lost humanity. While writing this blog entry, I’ve been approached by several friends and neighbours, each asking me if there’s anything at all I can do to raise awareness of the specific risks of this road. So here it is.
Firstly, what’s happening and why?
It’s not speed per se that kills, but speed in inappropriate times and places (of which there are many on the A84) and differentials in vehicle speed, which tend to be very high hereabouts. The recipe is a combination of the generally poor standard of driving with erratic, slow-moving tourist traffic, local chav yoof running on testosterone and single-figure IQs, equally brain-dead reps (watch out especially for Vectras), holidaying rental car drivers (’07 registered Fiestas and Espaces are the worst offenders here, according to the local police), psychotic white van drivers and the big stuff — coaches and trucks who have no wish to slow down for anything and which are actually too big to fit entirely within their own side of the road in the tighter stuff. The result is a lethal cocktail of road and traffic conditions, a single sip of which can be fatal to the unwary or actively participating motorcyclist.
So the A84 has a track record of both collisions between bikes and other vehicles and bike accidents that are entirely unassisted by other road users. In the first scenario either the other vehicle is the prime cause or they are merely minding their own business and suddenly find themselves in what is all too often a head-on collision with a misplaced motorcycle.
The prime cause version can only be dealt with by increased awareness by motorcyclists and a healthy dose of assumptive paranoia about what may be around the next bend — in effect, you need to give yourself more time to react, by planning further ahead where there is a visible ahead to plan for and by travelling just a tad slower on the many blind sections of road or by taking just a little longer to assess the potential behaviour of the vehicle you’re about to overtake.
The “misplaced bike” scenario itself breaks two ways: bikes who aren’t paying enough attention to the anticipation of hazards whilst technically on their part of the road and those who’ve failed to react in time to the sudden changes in the nature of the road and who end up departing at a tangent into another vehicle or the scenery. Both of which are decidedly hard and lumpy.
The first of those has played itself out more than once on this section of road in a particularly grisly form: decapitation. Too high a corner entry speed on right-handers, with a poor entry line, means a high lean angle where the rider’s helmet is on or actually over the centreline of the road. When that’s on a blind right-hander where a vehicle of any size is coming the other way, the result is as inevitable and instantaneous as it is terminal.
The second — the tangential departure from track — is almost invariably rider error, the rider ‘freezing’ when confronted with an unexpected change in the road or traffic, and thereby failing to negotiate a bend or avoid a hazard, be it vehicle, deer or toast in the road (real example). A couple of years ago I was on a course run by Gary Baldwin of Rapid Training – amongst other things, he’s an accident investigator, and I remember him saying that, in about 2/3 of single vehicle accidents involving bikes, at the speed the bike had been travelling, it was perfectly capable of negotiating the bend — it’s the rider that wasn’t. In these cases, it’s the combination of failure to anticipate, target fixation and the operation of what Keith Code calls “Survival Reactions” — instinctive reactions that are actually counterproductive on a bike — that lead to these sort of accidents.
So, as ever:
- If in doubt, back off!
- Remember Jackie Stewart’s maxim of “slow in, fast out” – it’s as true for bikes as cars.
- On a right-hander, take the furthest left line that’s safe into the bend. And hold it – road riding isn’t about treating the centreline apex as a target but about maximising your visibility at all times.
- Look where you’re going, not where you’re trying to avoid: if you stare like a frightened rabbit at an errant car, lump of rock or approaching armco, that’s exactly what you’ll end up hitting.
- (and this is one of the best bits of advice I was ever given) If all else fails, stick it on its ear — modern motorcycles are almost invariably far more competent than their riders and, even if it does all go pear-shaped, you’ll most likely end up low-siding on your side of the road rather than firing straight on into the other lane. Of course, if you end up having to do that, you’ve failed to anticipate the hazard and are already going too damned fast. Which takes us right back to the first point.
Not all of these are easy to get your head around, and that’s where taking advanced training really, really does help you to have more fun and more fun more safely – check out your local IAM or RoSPA group, find out if the local plod run a Bikesafe scheme or book a course with an outfit like Rapid Training. And track-based training (California Superbike School, Ron Haslam, HRT and their ilk) will makes a big difference to your machine handling skills and knowledge of just what you and your machine can do when all else fails.
Knowing the A84
Now for some specifics about the A84. And this is NOT meant as a comprehensive riding guide, simply a note of a few particular problem areas — what you do with the information is up to you. I’m describing the road heading North – that seems to be when most accidents happen, as people head up from the cities of the South.
The A84 starts at Stirling and runs fairly wide and open up to Callander, with a few deceptive bends through the woods after Buchany — the main problems along this stretch are a few blind crests, junctions, particularly those for the Ochtertye Road, at Blair Drummond Safari Park and, paradoxically, the long, straight sections that encourage some seriously dodgy overtaking by improbably ill-equipped vehicles and drivers. Watch out for farm vehicle mud on the road as you approach Doune.
Once past Callander, you’re into more three-dimensional territory, as the road twists and turns through the Falls of Leny and then heads along the side of Loch Lubnaig, interspersing long, broad, sweeping sections of road with narrow blind bends and crests around the rocky outcrops along the lochside.
There’s a particular Northbound bend at the Northern end of the Falls of Leny (just after you pass the car park entrance on the right) which rises steeply to the left, then crests and drops away very steeply, turning sharp right as it does so. Anyone piling over this crest at high speed and cranked over will simply find that their suspension comprehensively unloads, losing traction and throwing them down the road. Taking the same on a sloppy line and then suddenly finding that you have to turn in hard right puts you right into the head-over-centreline scenario I’ve described above. And keeping it hard left simply puts you at risk of tail-ending an innocent cyclist who’s recently crested the same brow. And, even when you’re on line and on speed, the sight of an oncoming enormous coach or artic suddenly appearing to rise out of the earth like a mobile block of flats is disconcerting, to say the least. Go slower than you can possibly think is necessary here.
This particular section has also recently been resurfaced (good) but hasn’t had any new white lines painted on it (very bad) – it’s now near impossible to pick out the crest and line at night or in heavy rain.
There’s a lot of Shellgrip (pale-coloured and grippy stuff) at many (but not all) of the tightest bends. It’s a mixed blessing from a bike’s point of view, where I’d suggest that predictable consistency of grip is more important than absolute grip at any point, and it is laid with cars in mind, so that it has a nasty habit of running out just at the point where a bike is still leant over but is hard on the gas. Best therefore to use the Shellgrip as a warning of tight bends rather than to rely on it for any reason at all.
Watch out for the well-hidden turnings on the left into the car parks along Loch Lubnaig and for caravans and camper vans lurching into and out of these and various laybays with neither reason nor warning.
Running along the contour of a lochside, you are of course following a spring line so, even on the sunniest days, there are damp patches on the road, invariably (of course) on the exit from tight bends – being hard on it when you hit one of these can make life interesting.
Once past the two car parks on the lochside of Loch Lubnaig, there’s a sequence of sweeping bends that pass the walkers’ parking layby for Stuc-a-Chroinn (on your right as you head north), which then pull you into two tight, narrow blind, separated by a short straight past some holiday lodges. The approach to the first of these is preceded by a well sighted left hand bend that has a large rock face on the landward side. This seems to be a visual magnet for some motorcyclists: I’ve twice helped haul bikes and riders out of the ditch there, fortunately without injury, save to pride. The tight right hand bend thereafter demands that you be on the correct line, at any speed – coaches and forestry lorries have a habit of being well over the centre line on this bend. The next bend is the infamous “Doctor’s Bend”, where the local doctor died in a car crash, in around 1908 – it’s still very much a danger bend, with Armco on the outside and a rock face on the inside.
Once North of Strathyre (and you were sticking to the 30mph limit there, weren’t you?), there’s a complex of deceptive and bumpy bends past a couple of cottages at Beananach (not signed), then a long sweeping section up towards Lochearnhead. Watch out here for the short-notice left turn into the Golden Larches restaurant at Balquhidder Station. Past Lochearnhead and you’re into Glen Ogle and rising rapidly to the head of the road — once you’re away from the glen floor, there are some well (and a few not-so-well) sighted curves up the mountainside before you crest the summit and immediately run into another series of off-camber bends and sweeps, with turnings into tourist lay-bys (and a snack van). Thereafter, it’s downhill towards Lix Toll and the turning to Killin, which marks the end of the A84. There’s a final sting in the tail — as you drop into the forested section of the road, there are a couple of near 90-degree bends, left and then right, followed by a sharp curve down towards the petrol station, which partially conceals the turn to Killin and the traffic slowing down to turn right there.
And that’s the A84, not a long road, but one that, with common sense and a helping of awareness, makes for a superb ride, and one that I and everyone else around here would much rather you were around to do many times. If you find this remotely useful and you spot a slightly grubby grey Ducati parked up outside the Munro Inn in Strathyre, drop in and buy me a second coffee!