Deals Gap, also known as the Tail of the Dragon or simply the Gap, is an 11-mile section of US Highway 129 between the Tennessee/North Carolina state line and the Tabcat Bridge on the north end. It contains a dizzying 318 curves that will test riders’ forearms during the first visit, but become an addiction thereafter. It is without question one of the most intensely twisted works of highway engineering in the world. Indeed, visitors regularly come here from all over the globe to spend their days running back and forth on this pavement playground. Although the surrounding roads are arguably better, the Dragon steals the thunder as a must-ride destination for more reasons than one.
Tail of the Tail
The road was named for the mountain pass at the Tennessee/ North Carolina state line known as Deals Gap. Settlers in the late 1700s by the name of Deal had a trading post nearby. the winding nature of the Dragon itself dates back to trails made by Native Americans or early settlers, and possibly by the animals before them. the fact that some highway engineer saw fit to use the trail that was already carved through the woods rather than pave out yet another straight road is grounds for celebration, especially for the riders who visit.
Dissecting the Dragon
The turns are very tightly packed together; they come rapid-fire and will have you dancing back and forth across your bike as if waltzing in fast forward. Many of the curves have cryptic names like “two-Square” (a pair of ninety-degree switchbacks) “Pig Pen” (a turn where wild boar and police are often ready to surprise racer wannabes) and “Local Straight” (a series of straights connected by gentle blind bends that locals know can be taken at full throttle.
There are only a handful of really tricky turns, like the decreasing-radius “crud corner” near the state line, the nauseating “Gravity cavity” at mile marker 3 where the road twists to the right and drops into a deep bowl with a sudden climb out, or the challenging “triple Doubles” around mile marker 5 which is a series of three, double-apex turns on a slope, all of which offer a unique challenge depending on your direction of travel.
Out of Control
Let your ego control the throttle on the Dragon and prepare to hit the weeds. Most accidents here occur from running past a rider’s pace. crashes average two per day during the week and four to six on weekends—that’s enough to open a local bent bike salvage yard. Accidents can happen anywhere, but the two worst corners are “Guardrail cliff,” a sharp off-camber left and the “Gravity cavity.” Most are not serious though, due to the low-speed nature of the road. the speed limit along the entire 11-miles is a very boring 30 MPH. Prior to 1992 the speed limit was 55, but it was lowered in 1993 to 40 and again in 2002 to 30—possibly a move to collect more traffic tickets if not to curb crashes. there is no passing along the entire route.
The few straights tend to lure riders into a WOt affair after being confined in the tight twisties and unfortunately those short straights always end with a tight turn. As expected, shards of plastics collect at these corners.
“My first time through was really hard. I went down my second time because I had a wobble out of a turn,” said caitlyn Muldoon who rides a 2005 r6. “At least I got rid of my chicken strips.”
Crossing the double yellow on this congested stretch of road will end the worst as four-wheeled gearheads frequent the Dragon too. Head-ons occur occasionally but take solace in the fact fatalities have averaged less than two per year—remarkable considering the hundreds of thousands of bikes that come through annually. Still, medical services are an hour or more away.
Beware of Leos
The LEOs (law enforcement officers) are known to patrol the entire Dragon but usually sit at the ends of the tail or shoot radar hidden within the short straights. For most of the year, except two cops patrolling during daylight hours on weekends and one during the week.
Come the holidays, the cops come out in numbers. Fourth of July weekend can see as many as 10-50 officers lurking the route. Not just out for speeders and those who cross the double yellow, equipment violations like non-DOt helmets, improperly mounted license plates and paperwork issues will send you home with a fine. “I got a speeding ticket when I pulled out of the gas station about 15 miles north of the Dragon on Hwy 129,” said Jason crayne, who rides a 2006 Honda rc-51. “I installed a 16-tooth front sprocket on my bike instead of a stock 15-tooth sprocket and my speedometer was about eight MPH off. I said I wasn’t speeding, but he said I was doing 68 in a 55. that’s ok though. this is my golf. My course fees are tickets.” A trick to staying off the radar is minimizing bike noise by running in a higher gear as high revs are not necessary for a fast sprint through the Dragon.
Should You Visit?
Though the Dragon can have a reputation for slapping motorcycles away on tow trucks, there are ways to thoroughly enjoy it. In the words of M.G. Behrand, store manager of Deals Gap Motorcycle resort, “Motorcyclists should consider this place like a ski resort. the Gap is a double black diamond skill level area. You should have at least one or two years experience before visiting.” Like any twisty road, going for a local record will not result well. cops, congestion and a network of turns impossible to memorize without a lot of practice makes the Dragon a potentially dangerous stretch. Locals have been known to offer a hand to newbies interested in educating themselves on the decelaration markers and corner lines.
Like Mulholland Highway on the west coast this east side venue brings out a ton of bikes. the camaraderie, the action and a day full of riding are reasons enough for most to come check it out. Just don’t get to hard on the throttle or you’re likely to get burned.
** Years Riding: 45
Impression: "The first time I rode the Tail, I had adrenaline coming out my ears and I wanted to come back, I've never been on another road as good as the Dragon. When you consider the curves, the condition of the road and the people, there's just no place like it."
** Years Riding: 25
Bike: 2005 R1
Impression: "The roads are magnificent. We have some twisty roads where I'm from, but they're not as smooth or well cared for as they are here. It's a great experience."
** Years Riding: 6
Bike: 2006 GSX-R600 Impression: "It's half way to a track day, but it's a bit more risky with traffic coming the other way. It's not more risk than I'm willing to take. I know if I commit to the corner, I'll be okay."