There is a very particular terror you find sideways, on the edge of a ridge, in the dirt, in a $76,000 carbon fiber sports car you do not own.
(Full disclosure: Alfa Romeo wanted me to drive the 4C so much, they let me drive this yellow soft top through the dried-out husk of what once was Northern California for a week with little to no definite plan. I pointed myself at the twistiest road on the map and went looking for stories.)
Let me begin by saying that I did not want to be here.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Let’s say that I did not start my day with any intention of finding myself at the top of a gravel ridge road in a $76,000 carbon fiber sports car I did not own.
I started my day with the intention of driving Mix Canyon Road, the steepest mile in California. It is a road that took me eight years to drive, a road that struck fear into my heart as a kid with a learner’s permit and a Volvo 240. The grade hovers something above 15%, about as steep as one of those streets in San Francisco that everyone takes pictures of.
I had read that Mix Canyon Road is five miles long. And it is. But it doesn’t exactly stop at the five mile marker.
The pavement bleeds out and there’s a small turnaround, but the road does indeed continue. It’s just gravel.
I had intended to write an article about Mix Canyon Road, explaining my personal connection with it, and the kind of stomach-in-your-throat feeling you get going downhill. There is a little voice in your mind that reminds you of what would happen if the brake lines somehow cut themselves, and how far down that hillside you would fall, and how long it would take for anyone to find your body.
I did indeed drive Mix Canyon Road in this Alfa, and it was the experience I imagined it would be. It was as steep and as narrow and as blind and as daunting as it looked in all the pictures I’d seen. It was wild and thrilling and amazing and I wished it would never stop.
So when I got to the five mile marker and saw that the road blended into gravel, I figured I should find out how far it continued along, and what was at its end. Really, it was my journalistic duty.
The surface was very even, the gravel very smooth. I had a great deal of confidence in my decision to keep going ahead, even though the Alfa has rubber band-thin tires and about half an inch of suspension travel. It also has carbon fiber body panels that I very much would not like to chip. This Alfa was not my car, and I did not want to hurt it.
Hesitatingly, I tried a few panic stops to test how much pressure I could give the brakes before they threatened to lock up. I pressed on a little further. I started to feel a little comfortable.
After a few turns it was abundantly clear to me: driving an Alfa 4C on an even, smooth gravel road is absolutely, unbelievably, mind-shatteringly amazing.
Going sideways in this thing isn’t like going sideways in a muscle car. That’s a different kind of rumbling, smoking happiness. In the Alfa the joy is feeling the mass of the car behind you shift, and holding it with the gas and the steering. Your eyes are up. You don’t take time to savor the moment. The reward is the sound of rocks pinging off the bottom of the floor.
On pavement, the Alfa really does not want to slide. On gravel, it is a rabid power maniac. It feels like it has 700 horsepower, not 240. I should know, I have driven one such 700 horsepower car, and the sensations were similar.
You enter a curve. You feel the front end load up. This is simple enough in the Alfa; the steering is manual and the chassis seems like it talks to you. You patiently await a clear view through the curve, so you know what is coming up. Does the road immediately flick the other direction into another turn? Does it straighten out and widen significantly? You take a moment to analyze the situation.
It is in this moment when your right foot becomes very heavy. The throttle pedal suddenly exerts a strong gravitational pull.
The whole world dissolves away from you. All that is present is the view of the road ahead, the sound of the revs climbing as the turbo whistles, and the sensation of joy running from your hands as you catch the little slide. Or the very big slide if you are dumb enough to grab another gear with the paddle shifters in the midst of it all.
The Alfa was shockingly good on this road. Most gravel roads are straight and rutted. This ridge road was perfectly smooth and it followed the curves of the hillside. The Alfa might have looked hilariously out of its element up there along the power lines, but it felt completely at home. A manic turbo creature let off from the leash.
The feeling sliding this Alfa on gravel is indeed not greatly unlike the feeling you get driving a huge horsepower turbo drift car. In both cars you need some firm commitment in your actions (particularly with the throttle) to get the thing sideways. You commit, then you deal with whatever loud, likely terrifying consequences happen thereafter.
That being said, the time I drove Tony Angelo’s Formula Drift car, I drove it off the race track. I did not want to repeat that course of action. There is grass and runoff if you go off track at Raceway Park. On this ridge road, there is a very long fall. The turkey vultures soaring overhead looked like they were flying a little bit closer with every turn I took.
So I decided that continuing to drive the Alfa 4C on this extremely pleasurable ridge road was likely hazardous to my health, or worse, my job security. I turned around, I drove back at a more sedate speed, and I happily returned to the world of pavement.
It is not a drive I would personally seek to recreate. There are only so many times that you let the tail hang out on a car before you take a step too far, and on a road like that the repercussions of such an indiscretion would be dire.
This Alfa was not my car. It was my responsibility to return it to Alfa in pristine shape, and it didn’t take long for the thrill of driving it up here to sour into dread that some fox would run out into the way, or another car would come around a curve, or I would lose hold of a slide and spear off into the bushes.
If this was my car, I would be up on these kinds of ridge roads as often as possible. The car is unbelievably good in these low traction situations. And even though it’s an Italian sports car, dirt does not make it break or shrivel up or disintegrate, as a stereotypical Ferrari owner might imagine.
But I’m a long way from affording a carbon fiber turbo sports car. And until then I can safelysay that the world looks especially bright and wonderful with that kind of road safely in your rear-view mirror.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove
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