For European bikers, the USA is the ultimate road trip. California Dreaming, riding through California as an overseas visitor, will take you one step closer to realizing that dream. California may not be the biggest state in the union (that’s Texas), but regarding geography and climate, it's undoubtedly one of the most diverse.
The state manages to include everything from mountains to the east, giant redwood forests to the north, desert to the south, and the beautiful Pacific Coast to the west.
For the most part, the weather is similar to that of a warm Mediterranean climate, which makes it a biking paradise. Apart from offering some of America's most scenic rides, California is a great starting point for many road trips.
This reason is why more and more motorcyclists from all over the world are using the Golden State as a launch pad for their road trip of a lifetime.
The Laughlin River Run is in neighboring Nevada, and a ride to Sturgis will take you northwest through cowboy country. Ride to legendary bike mecca, Daytona, and the 2500-mile journey will guide you through most of the southern states.
Runs and rallies aside, California offers stunning scenery and excellent roads that you can appreciate best on two wheels. The Pacific Coast Highway is a journey of a lifetime in its own right, while San Francisco's Napa and Sonoma Valleys make for a great tour too.
The beaches of Southern California are legendary, and you can even take in winding mountain alpine roads.
If more overseas bikers are eager to sample some ‘California Dreaming,’ just how different is it to ride on American blacktops, and what are your two-wheel options once you’re there.
Rules of the Road and Knights of Old
American’s ride on the right side of the road, so if you’re from mainland Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, Africa or South America, you won't notice any difference. If however, you’re from the UK, South Africa, Japan, India or Australia, you're a leftie, in which case it may take a day or two to adapt.
If you’ve ever wondered why there’s a difference on which side we drive, I'll tell you. It all started in merry old England when knights would pass on the left to keep their sword and lance arm free.
Drivers in the USA also used the left side of the road up until the 1700's. After this time everything changed. In both America and Europe, farmers would drive their four-horse wagons sitting on the rear left horse's back to keep their whipping arm free, so preferred keeping to the right side of the road.
There you have it, the side of the road on which you ride was once dictated by whether you wanted to be chopped down or whipped!
Once you've gotten used to the general ebb and flow of the traffic, you shouldn't experience any problems; there are however a few things to keep in mind. The number one cause of motorcycle traffic accidents in the US is another vehicle turning left in front of you.
This type of incident can happen any time on the highway, but intersections are a particular hotspot. On the interstates, wagons tend to travel faster and closer, and although overtaking is supposed to take place on the left, it doesn't.
Take the Scenic Route
Because of the vastness of the country, interstates may seem like a good idea for covering distance, but for a bike rider on tour, try and avoid them. Not only are they boring as hell, but road maintenance is carried out without any consideration for two wheels.
It's not uncommon for long stretches to be grooved or have edges where a lane is stripped back. Either way, you’re in for a white-knuckle ride. Let's not forget the highways around LA made from concrete sections too, the bump, bump, bump from the joins sound very much like you’ve got a flat tire.
Another difference between European interstates and their stateside cousins are the rest areas, or that should that be the lack of them. Take a break on the Italian equivalent, and you can get gas, bathrooms, and a reasonably priced three-course meal with wine.
Do the same in Great Britain and similar gas and bathroom facilities apply, but the food is notoriously poor and expensive. In the USA, rest stops are traditionally just a place to park, with basic restrooms and picnic tables.
It's important to note, however, that a recent article in USA Today, revealed more and more states are closing these essential stop-off areas to save on maintenance costs.
The bottom line is if you can ditch the interstate for a highway, then do so at once. You’ll certainly get to see a lot more of the countryside and pass through plenty of places to stop and re-fuel both yourself and your bike.
For identification purposes, interstate signs usually display a number on a blue shield. Odd numbers go north to south while even numbers run east to west.
Highways use the same odd/even, north/south system but appear as a black number on a white shield.
No Sense of Humor
While you’re out and about traversing the highways and byways, you should also look out for the Old Bill (police). In towns and cities, you'll find regular everyday cops. These are usually okay to deal with, and you can actually play the out of town card and get away with it as long as you haven’t done something really stupid.
Out on the highways and interstates, you'll meet the County Sherriff's Department or State Police. These folks are notorious for not having a sense of humor, so kill your engine, take off your lid, stay polite, and make sure you have all your documents ready.
Speeding is usually the reason behind getting a tug (pulled over), and the fines can be steep depending on the speed involved. I was once relieved of a hefty amount on the way to Savannah, Georgia by the world’s most serious Deputy. I was offered a driver awareness course instead, but that would have meant staying locally for another two weeks.
Holding the Right Papers
On the subject of producing documents, let's take a look at the type of documentation us out-of-towners need to stay legal. California has an incredible array of rules and regulations issued by the DMV, including mandatory licensing for all road users.
The first thing you need, therefore, is a current driving license; this needs to be a full motorcycle license at the very minimum. In the State of California, Vehicle Code 12502 covers non-resident road users.
This law says a non-resident over the age of 18 years must have in his or her immediate possession a valid driver license. This license needs to be issued by a foreign jurisdiction of which he or she is a resident.
If your license is not in English, get a translation before you leave for your destination, in other words, an International Driving Permit. This paperwork is needed as well as a license, rather than instead.
Next up is insurance. If you’re renting a motorcycle or joining an organized tour, this will be all in with the overall cost. Just make sure you take a really good look at their coverage.
May Sure you're Covered
Having a solid insurance policy is always a good idea, especially in a foreign country. However, California is only one of two states out of the 50 that have different laws regarding insurance on rental vehicles.
So while not getting suckered into outrageous add-ons, State law says the renter is liable for accident, damage or theft. This law is the opposite of the rest of the USA where it’s the responsibility of the rental company to insure their vehicles.
Minimum requirements by CA law say your insurance has to be 15/30/5, in other words, 15k for bodily injury, 30k for dual person injury and 5k for personal property.
The above, refers to renting a bike in California, but what if you intend to ship your own bike over? European insurance companies have no problem with insuring you for riding in other European countries. Going further afield to the States, however, seems to be for them a bridge too far.
You will, therefore, have to find a specialist company that will give you fully comprehensive cover for the term of your tour. Remember, if it's not in English at least get the first page translated.
It is possible to buy insurance once you arrive in the States, but you will need family or friends to supply you with an American address. Ok, this option will save you money, but if you have to make a claim, you're heading into very gray waters.
You will also need some documentation for your bike, either the rental agreement or the documents of ownership from your country of origin. Finally, always keep your passport and travel visa handy too and keep the whole lot in a waterproof ziplock bag.
Choosing your Ride
So far we've covered some basic rules of the road, a few potential problems related to foreign riders, and the documents needed to keep you inside the law. All useful information, but what about the actual bike on which you are choosing to clock up the miles?
Fortunately, there are a plethora of motorcycle rental companies in CA, who will kit you out with pretty much whatever you want. From the latest sports bikes to adventure style bikes, to heavyweight tourers and of course, more Harley’s than you can shake a stick at.
Rent the bike only, plan your adventure, and head off into the wild blue yonder. Alternatively, join a guided tour with a set itinerary and turn up with your riding gear. As to which is the best alternative is entirely down to what you want out of your road trip experience.
Just so you have a rough idea, here are some basic costings. Figure on any bike capable of covering decent distances being a minimum of $100 per day. Plus, you can count on spending around the same amount per day on food, fuel, and a motel. Take a guided tour and expect anything from 3k-4k per week.
As it's a relatively big deal, due to the distance traveled to arrive at your starting point, many people quite rightly, treat it as a ride of a lifetime. Ride vacations are therefore not unusual to last for four or five weeks or more.
If this is something you have in mind, then your final option for getting the best out of your road trip is to ship your own bike. This option may sound like a big deal, but it’s comparatively easy and as for cost, if you’re thinking of renting for a multi-week trip, then it's a viable alternative.
Getting your Motorcycle Stateside
It depends a lot on where you ship your bike from, but if we take the UK as a starting point, you have two options on how to get it stateside. One is by sea, and the other is by air.
Choose the ocean freight option, and although it may be cheaper, shipping times are questionable, and it can take anything between 6-12 weeks in transit. Add to this extortionate port fees, and any cost advantages go out of the window.
Option two is to send it by air. Even including the two days the airfreight company may require the bike before the flight, total transport time is less than a week.
Air-freight companies have slightly different ways of doing things, but most will crate the bike for you so that it conforms to airline packing regulations. It’s usual to drain the gas tank to around a quarter full, leave the battery connected, and the key in the ignition. The shippers will also sort out all the relevant paperwork too.
As for an approximate price, freight shipping is either charged by weight, or volumetric size (the size of the packing crate). As a rough guide, a large capacity motorcycle like a BMW GS1200, Harley-Davidson Sportster or Triumph Bonneville, will cost somewhere in the region of £2000-£2500.
Enjoy your two-wheeled tour of the states either independently, as part of a tour, riding a rental or on your own bike. However, you decide to do it, California Dreaming, riding through California as an overseas visitor, will make sure it's the trip of a lifetime.
(Photo links courtesy of: Loughlin Buzz, Picclick, Autoexpress, Simply Registrations, Stack Exchange, and Spiegel.de)