My trip report from a couple of weeks ago. first time posting a trip report... if you have any questions...lemme know. I have a lot more shots but I don't want to try your patience too much...so pull up a beverage or whatever...hope you like it.
A Mountain Tour through the Alps
So can we do that again?Pleeaassee….
It all started with a harmless enough idea…I guess most trips do. I had always fancied a ride in the Alps. After many years of travel there by mountain bike, car, train, etc. I knew the alps fairly well. I found myself always admiring the roads and the thousands of motos that I saw and thought “this looks like it would be way too much fun.” I mean what’s not to like from a mc point of view? You have endless pavement, mc friendly culture, great food, lots of cheap accommodation everywhere, generally good weather, superbly engineered roads and beautiful scenery. Oh yeah…few police and speed limits. Seemed perfect.
The first decision was what to do for a bike. We knew the cost of shipping and when weighed against renting…unless you are going for 10 days or more…it was definitely better to rent. There is no end to the models of bikes you can rent but I wanted something different than the average fare of BMW’s or Japanese sportbikes. Something exotic would be good since this may be a once in a lifetime trip. Then the bike has to be the perfect canyon carver…after all, we are not going to be spending any time on motorways, cols and passes are our goals. Being a big fan of KTM’s I found the one shop (Moto Schwyz) in Europe that had a Super Duke 990 for rent. Sorted.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0406.jpg –the smiling idiot is me feeling like I am about to have a good time
I figured this to be the perfect bike for paved mountain roads. Incredible brakes, precision lightwt handling, comfortable enough, more upright riding position to see the views and exotic (only 75 were imported into Germany this year!). I only saw one other in over 2200 kms of riding. I lost count at the number of BMW 1200’s as well as sportbikes of all kinds. It attracted admirers every time it was parked.
My partners were four friends from Germany. Dirk, an old friend but new to the sport (FGS 650 Dakar). His partner Suzi (FGS 650) who had been riding bikes in the Alps since she was 16. Her parents Mike and Dota, both of whom rode Moto Guzzi 750’s. Mike was our leader as it were. He was a Moto GP 250 mechanic back in the early 80’s. The two of them live to ride and there are very few places in Europe that they haven’t ridden. But we were going to explore some areas that Mike had never been to so it would be an adventure for all of us.
A short note about riders in Europe. Generally speaking the skill level of both the moto riders and the car drivers is higher than what we are used to here in Canada or North America. To get a license is no easy task and driving is taken seriously. My accomplices were a perfect example. Dirk was the newby but even so, showed a composure and confidence that I have rarely witnessed in a novice rider in my 30+ years of riding. Suzi was supremely confident and quick on her GS, and Mike and Dota…hilarious! I have never seen or imagined that a lazy Moto Guzzi could go so fast around corners. Mike in particular was one of the smoothest riders I have ever seen. Rarely did he touch his brakes which is saying a lot when downhill riding the hundreds of corners in a single col or pass. I know of only a few riders that would be able to keep up with him on a proper bike.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16.../IMGP0404.jpg– a bunch of posers!
As for the cagers…they certainly are so much more easy going about bikes. You can filter at intersections, pass on single roads, split traffic, dip and dive, and they are unfazed. They universally recognize that bikes are faster, more maneuverable so why wouldn’t you let them through? Brilliant because as a rider…you get to be on top of the food chain…which gives you an even greater sense of freedom.
Cols and turns
There are hundreds of cols (passes) in the Alps. These are as high as 3000m which is bloody high (2000 ft higher than Whistler Mtn). Some are relatively benign while others are intimidating to any level of rider. Over the centuries the Euros have engineered and built roads in the most impossible and unlikely places. While most of these high routes are closed in winter, depending upon snow they are ready to go by early June.
The more technical routes are typically single lane but well maintained. Afterall, each of these are major tourist routes in the summer and offer incredible access to the high alpine that only a skiers or climbers would typically have a chance to see. We saw every kind of pavement from perfectly manicured race track clean to scary sand covered, frost heaved adventure surface. Mostly the former. Usually but not always, if there is debris on the road a sign will serve notice.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0463.jpg – Some of the routes were very narrow even low in the valleys as we pull over to let some trucks by. Don’t want to meet them in the corners!
At least once a day that we came around a corner to find a truck, car or another bike, cutting the corner in our lane at a high rate of speed. This is not for the faint of heart nervous rider. As a result anyone who rides these passes at more than 80% is likely to not live very long. The weather, the trucks, other bikes or surface conditions can change very, very quickly. It can be 30 degrees at the bottom of a pass and by the time you get to the top it is 4 degrees and pissing rain, blowing at gale force. Afterall, you are in the high mountains.
Some of the corners and switchbacks are cut out of very large cliffs. And rarely are there guardrails. So if you screw up, there are a great many places that you and your bike will be falling a very long time. Add to that the possibility of being forced off the road by a negligent nob and the riding gets very interesting indeed. Because all this has to be managed while enjoying incredible scenery and laughing and screaming in your helmet because the road itself is simply the best riding you have every experienced on a bike.
South to the money…
We started in Switzerland just outside of Zug. We headed immediately to one of the granddaddy of all passes, the Furka. It is a one in a trio of passes that form an incredible loop. The Furka, the Grimsel and theh Susten, one of the most famous groups of passes. On a weekend there are thousands of bikes ripping up and down these passes. The death rate per thousand must be huge because the pavement is perfect, the corners are engineered to perfection but falling off anywhere is pretty much certain death or life changing. These roads make the Sea to Sky look like an autobahn driven by little old ladies.
Our destination for our journey was….wherever, however far we were able to go on the time we had. Head to the French Alps since the southern Alps are not nearly as busy as the Dolomites or the Swiss Alps for riding. Too far for most Germans, English and such to hit on a weekend or two day blast. We hoped we would make it to Gorge Verdun in Provence where we would sample some food, wine, beer, food..etc and then head for home. Besides, the weather was looking better in that direction.
I wanted to travel real light so I had a 30 l drybag and a small daypack. My German friends carried way more gear with saddle bags, tank bags and the like.
We headed loosely along the Le Routes du Grandes Alpes. Which is a serious of passes and roads that the French have named as the ultimate driving route to see the Alps. Much like our BC circle routes in theory. Many of the cols we rode were part of the Tour de France route which explained why some of these passes had perfectly prepared pavement. We passed through only a week before the famous race…lucky us.
Brig...first town stop..http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0410.jpg
Into the mountains
Our first day after I picked up the bike was to start with the legendary Furka (2431m) then through the Valais to the town of Brig. An ancient trading center at the base of the Simplon pass to Italy. The route goes up through the town of Andermatt, at the geographical centre of Switzerland and one heck of a ski area in the winter. We left hot warm plus 30 temps along the valley and lakes but could see very dark clouds indeed firmly settled over our route. Once we got up to Andermatt it began to pour…and pour…and pour. It was late in the evening with the temperature dropping and I froze my can off. My boots filled with water and I had to try and warm my hands on the motor. Couldn’t see too much but the road ahead through a foggy and wet visor. We passed a number of bikes but none riding…all trying to sit out the weather under cover. But we had to make our hotel in Brig that night so….suck it up Princess!
We wake up to bluebird skies and we are quickly off to the Col de Grand St. Bernard (2469m) which separates Switzerland and Italy. It drops you into the Aosta Valley…hot and muggy by being a Sunday I counted at least 400 bikes throughout the day. Up the valley dodging the locals who like to ride 2 cms off your tire if your not riding fast enough. What a great start. Then towards the the south face of Mont Blanc (Monte Bianco) and a spectacular climb up the Col du Petit St. Bernard (2188m). Not as high as the senior version but just as many turns on impeccable pavement. This col separates the Italians and French and drops you into the valley of Bourg St. Maurice, Les Arcs, Tignes and Val d’Isere.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0435.jpg Looking south from the Petit St. Bernard towards Val D’Isere which is way at the end of the valley.
This was our first really fast section on the downhill section and my first intro to riding very heads up. Knee scraping corners can be rudely interrupted by either bikes or trucks in your lane as you come around. All quite exciting really. The descent from many of these passes can be over 6000 ft! Do the math given a reasonable grade that a car or truck can drive up and you are talking hundreds and hundreds of corners. Magic.
We then had a fast run along the valley floor…still haven’t seen a single policeman and everyone is riding fast. Up through Val d’Isere which is a beautiful old town and ski resort to the Col de Iseran at 2770m. One of the most beautiful of the passes due to the views and the aspect of the road that constantly throws the views at you of spectacular glaciers and peaks in all directions. We finished the day in the Val Cenis area which is this amazing above treeline valley hosting a fast and swooping road along a river with towering peaks along each side. We stayed the night in a great B & B in Lanslebourg and since we are traveling in the off season for these mountain resorts…prices are dead cheap..20 Euros for the night. How can it get better than this?
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0441.jpg – This is near the end of the first day and already it has been one of the best riding days I have ever had.
The Super Duke is proving to be the perfect choice, incredibly flickable with some of the best brakes ever put on a bike. Perfect roll on power for every turn so you don’t have to be in the perfect gear…particularly helpful on unfamiliar roads. Very precise throttle control gives you the feeling that your right hand has a direct link with the rear wheel. The bike is comfortable enough for long days…and this was a long, long day with over 350 Kms of riding roughly took over 9 hours with only one 45 minute stop!
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0439.jpg – What the hell is that? Seems like a poor choice for riding passes!
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0444.jpg – looking back up the Val Cenis from Lanslebourg
Next day five passes on the menu… Col de Izoard (2360m), the famous Col du Galibier (2646m), Col de la Bonnette (2860m - the highest paved pass in Europe), Col de Vars, (2110m) and Col de Lauteret (2058m).
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0450.jpg – Looking north from the Col du Galibier. This shows only about one tenth of the route riding up! Follow the road...
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0455.jpg – near the top of Galibier looking east.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0471.jpg – Col du Vars with some of the best, most perfect pavement of the day
Being Monday there is very little traffic. Huge day with the highlights being the Col du Galibier and the Col de la Bonnette not only because it is so high but also because of the history as this was part of the route the Napoleon took on one of his adventures. He had set up a camp called the Haute Camp that housed some poor recruits for a very long time up high in no man’s land. The finish of the day is in the town of St. Etienne de Tinee. Only in France would you see the 55 + year old couple on a ZX 9R, riding over the pass with no gear… he was wearing knickers with no socks or gloves. His lovely wife looking like a couple years over 60 perched up on the back with the same very light gear…holding onto the dog, that’s right, the poodle actually, while managing to stay on while Dad rips around the corners. We caught up with them at the end of the day in St. Etienne playing Pentanque and both of them looked like they stepped out of the Mercedes on the way to Monaco. Only in France...composed insanity! We drank some of the tastiest beer of the trip…well deserved from our point of view.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0477.jpg what else can you say?
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0474.jpg – there is a poodle between her legs…honestly, you just can’t see it in the shot. Try holding onto a dog in these turns and twists whilst sitting on the large back seat of a ZX 9R. we are at almost 10000ft here.
We holed up at another great B & B for 40 EU each with breakfast. We were up early for the next day to ride the Alpes Maritime route which includes the Col du St. Martin, Col de Turini which is particularly famous as one of the most important sections of the Rally of Monte Carlo. This was an incredibly twisting and variable in rise and run. Large drops and gorges, roads that when you look back on them you can’t really see how the route made progress. Hard to imagine how they built and engineered these roads so many years ago. Very rugged limestone mountains, dry and steep.
To think that this route was raced at night in the winter is mind boggling. Truly brave lads to race this section of road.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0485.jpg – Col de Turini down low. Remarkable engineering to say the least.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0486.jpg – Col de Turini a little higher up…just kept getting better and better. No traffic either.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0487.jpg – C de T…higher still…better still
By this time the temperatures were in the lower thirties and we went looking for some maritime breezes off the Med. Down to Monte Carlo. A quick look at the beautiful people as we look down over the cliffs above Monaco. Like Dirk said you can smell the money just rising up. Everyone looked impeccably dressed and driving way too many nice cars.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0494.jpg – looking down on the poor folks in Monte Carlo
We then turned north to the highlands through the spectacular medieval town of Vence. The old walled city is spectacular and still fully maintained and used as residences and for shops. Really well done and preserved. The roads out of Vence to the highlands and plateaus behind the ritzy shoreline, while not huge on relief, most are at about 1200 – 1800 metres…they don’t take a back seat in excitement for riding. Perfect asphalt rules with amazing corners, amazing rising and falling crests…everything. Some unique aspects are the variety of smells throughout the countryside. Heads full of lavender, thyme, coriander and the like, giving off these amazing odors. We finished the day in the village of Castellane on the Verdun river.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0510.jpg – Local herbs and spices in the morning market.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0499.jpg – The KTM attracting a crowd…again.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0504.jpg – Local rush hour on the way to Verdon in the morning.
The next day we checked out the market in the main square before heading out for an early loop around the Gorge du Verdon. The loop around the Gorge breaks out into numerous spectacular viewpoints. It never ceases to surprise you with the turns, the scenery, the flow of the roads. Being mid week we found very little traffic but speaking to some locals, on the weekends the place is full of sportbikes. Castellane is famous for being the base for exploring the incredible roads in the area. Some of which are rated as the best motorcycle roads in Europe.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0498.jpg – Castellane looking up at the famous church at the top the cliff.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0509.jpg – the Gorge..note the road on either side of the rim in background.
We had to start moving home to get Suzi back in time for work so we headed back through the Col d’Allos (2250m). This then dropped us back into the Ubaye valley and Barcelonnete.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0514.jpg – great bridges and narrow single lane all the way down 5000 ft to the valley.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0516.jpg the gathering storm which was too big to ride around. Looking over Lac De Serre Poncon
The weather forecast up north was for severe thunderstorms which we soon ran into. Large hail and howling winds meant we decided to find a way around it. Luckily in the alps, finding a route around something is as simple as turning left or right. The route we took wound up the Col de Montgenevere (1850m) through the resort of Cesana Turinese one of the sites for the 2006 Winter Olympics) and down into the Italian alps. We then finished the day over the high pass of …..which then dropped us back into the Lanslebourg in Val Cenis. It is quite an experience going over a high pass in a full blown storm. We were the only bikes out there and even the trucks who had been forced over the pass due to the tunnel closure had pulled over to wait it out. Cold and miserable would be an accurate description and we were glad to see the end of the day and the descent into the valley just as night fell.
Next morning…clear and warm as we retraced our steps back the Col D’Iseran, Val d’Isere, Col du Petit St. Bernard into Italy. It is a surreal experience to be on a road bike riding along at over 9000 ft with wildflowers up to your handlebars at 120 kph.
We wanted to ride the Col du Forclaz out of Chamonix which meant a detour through the Mont Blanc Tunnel which is always a bit of a bore (11kms long) it was nice to get out of the stale air. If you pass through Chamonix winter or summer be sure to visit the MBC brew pub. It is owned by a couple of Canucks and has become the toast of the valley for the beer and Canadian hospitality and attitude.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0522.jpg – Descending down to Martigny and the Valais
We then rode around the Mont Blanc massif which always hurts your neck as you strain to look up over 13000 ft of relief…perhaps the largest immediate relief outside of the Himalaya. The descent from the Col du Forclaz down to Martigny an the Valais drops about 5000 ft. through vineyards. Now it was time for the final act, the grande finale. Here I rode off by myself to just enjoy the last few hours of an amazing trip and to stretch the legs of the Super Duke and get in a fast pace rthym retracing our route along the Valais with a whipping tail wind to the base of the Furka pass at the eastern end of the valley. Rising higher and higher through the gorge at the bottom of the valley was magic. The KTM has proven to be a perfect companion on this trip. Sure the tank range under fast riding saw the reserve light come on as early as 80kms and other times as late as 150 kms (clearly it isn’t very accurate). But, stopping regularly for gas is a small price to pay for the grin factor this bike provided.
http://i5.photobucket.com/albums/y16...n/IMGP0525.jpg – Looking up from Gletsch towards the Furka Pass.
The last two passes were the famous Grimsel and Susten. Michael and I headed off while the storm that had been in the high passes was clearing. It was the end of the day around 6 pm so traffic was very light and the roads were dry. Clouds were scudding through the high peaks as the colours really came to life. The rain all night and in the morning had been very heavy so the there were waterfalls everywhere. Some fell down over 2000 feet from cliff to cliff. And in the middle of all this was a ribbon winding through the cliffs, alpine flowers, lakes and meadows. I swear I could have stayed and rode around and around forever in a circle that is the Grimsel, Susten and Furka passes. They form perhaps the most perfect motorcycle loop in creation and you could get lost just riding around and around, looking ahead to the next perfect corner and the next perfect view.
So if you every find yourself on a business trip or a vacation somewhere in Switzerland or central Europe. Plan to take one day…two days…whatever, and rent a Super Duke, a Super Motard, a CBR 600RR, a Ducati 999…pick your poison for one of the truly great motorcycling experiences that can be done. Can’t wait to go again.
If you go….
Not for beginners - at least not some of the passes unless they are very confident riders. The cost of a mistake is too high and they won’t enjoy themselves anyways. Stick to the more tame valley routes.
Take the right gear – weather up high changes really fast and a detour may not be possible. One piece rain suits work great because they keep a lot of heat in as well. Grip heaters would have been nice. 32 degrees in the valley and frozen on top!!
Don’t rent the giant superbike – too much speed that you cannot use and not nimble enough to really have fun. Cruisers are OK but why waist the turns riding a pig? Go light fast and nimble. A 600cc naked bike is a good call..upright position means you can enjoy the views more easily too. We did no freeway so having a windscreen was of little value.
Take your time, enjoy the view – we did 2200 kms in 6 days which over this kind of terrain meant minimum of 8 – 10 hours of riding a day with only a one hour lunch stop. I would recommend doing half the distance in the same time, more to see and take some time off the bike to look around, hike, eat more, drink more….relax.
Take lots of pictures - obvious
Go with a friend(s) – the more the merrier. Solo you will meet lots of folks too and everyone is very friendly but it is so nice to sit at the end of the day and relive the days’ ride. Besides you need someone to pay for the beer.
Plan your route but be flexible – definitely have an idea of where you would like to go each day but be prepared to adjust depending upon weather, type of road you enjoy, speed of your group…whatever. There are so many options and all are good. The southern Alps are great because they are far less busy than the Dolomites or the Northern Alps throughout. They are that much farther to go for all the Northern Europeans and as such they tend to stick to closer ranges. The weather is generally better as well…drier and warmer.[B]