Not that long ago, but far, far away...
Europe, July 20, 2001 -- Some years ago, Michelin ran an extremely effective advertising campaign in British biking magazines. In the ads there was a large black & white photograph depicting a beautiful snaking alpine road. At the bottom of the picture, and against any advertising common sense, a small rider and bike could be seen leaning into one the road's corners. The copy of the ad was genial and smug: "Between Aosta and Montblanc lay some of the world's most breathtaking roads. Probably."
More than once, I stared at the ad while in bed, just before falling asleep. Could such an amazing road exist? And then, one day, that little bulb popped up in my head. Wasn't it time to check that place out?
And that's how I found myself one day in Munich, aboard a BMW F650GS with all my gear for the next few weeks packed neatly away in the hard cases, heading west towards France.
The plan: A loop, a few thousand miles long in and around the Alps, by the end of which I should be back in Munich after passing through that marvelous snaking road I dreamt of years ago. But that's a long way off. My first target as I am leaving Munich is the area of the Magny Cours racetrack, right in the heart of France. Even dyed in the wool bike racing fans shouldn't be unfamiliar with this name. It is usually the home of the French F1 car GP, but this year it is going to host for the first time the grandest 24 hour bike race of all: the Bol d'or. This is not just a race; it is very much France's largest biking event, their very own Daytona if you wish, with some 70,000 bikes pulling in last year.
So although the desire to hit those Alpine roads was burning my gloved hands, the temptation of watching for 24 hours straight, some of the best racing Superbikes and joining this massive bike fest, wins me over. I have 500 miles to put away and about a day before the race starts at 15:00 hours the next day. Mission Possible I.
The first couple hundred miles turn out to be really boring. The southern part of Germany is almost featureless, green pastures, fat cows, little farms and Autobahn intersections. It is a good time to examine the living conditions on my F650 G/S BMW, my home for the next weeks. "Effie," as I should call her from now on, tries to do her best to comfort me. The seat is very relaxing and the engine totally vibe-less as I flog the thing at an indicated 110 mph. Pretty impressive for a 650 dual-purpose single, but Effie doesn't complain. The only problem I have is the same as I had when I road tested the bike some time ago. The handlebar is a bit too close to the rider. But within a short time I discover that I can change the riding position to suit my 6'4" frame in a jiffy by simply sliding my butt way back over the passenger seat. It also allows me to cant my body forward and resist the wind blast better. Problem solved.
Two fuel stops later and I am already approaching Switzerland, side stepping Zurich. My previous European touring experience has tought me already that entering the big cities just to have a snapshot of you and your bike in the main square can take hours, so I skip that one.
The Austrians managed to spoil this portion of my journey somewhat. They oblige you to pay for a full two months of highway toll even though I am using just a 30 mile shortcut through Austria just once on my way west. A nice way to balance the national debt, I suppose. Huge traffic jams in Basel stop my forward momentum. There is no tangential road bypassing the city and it is rush hour. A deliberate use of trade tricks learnt while working as a bike messenger in heavy traffic see me off the entanglement with minimal harm to my time schedule. A few dozen miles more, and I am in good old France.
Although there is still a long way to the track, the stream of sport bikes heavily loaded with camping gear is noticeable. I join one of the groups, thus saving myself the constant use of the map. Some pleasant surprises lurk along the way. First is that the bikers riding over to the Bol d'or race don't have to pay the road tolls. Cool! Typical biker friendly French policy. The second surprise is the hospitality areas that the French motorcycling association has put along the way. Bikers who pull in get a free visor cleaning, cold and hot drinks, biscuits and even recommendations as where to find cheap hotels.
Soon, night is falling and, following their directions, I pull into a town called Besancon. By now, the high season is already over and finding a cheap and nice hotel is no hassle. Finding a cozy little restaurant that serves amazing French cuisine is no problem either!
I decide to spend the next day away from highways as it's time to start enjoying the ride. With a 1:200,000 scale map, I find some nice 'n twisty roads that'll take me to the track. A hilly nature reserve named Du-Morvan, stands between Besancon an the Magny Cours track and I have a great time scraping Effie's footpegs in the superb and empty mountain roads. The surrounding vistas just add to the whole experience. Out of the mountain range, I join the amazing stream of bikes headed to the track and spend the whole day there watching the unbelivably close racing that goes on for 24 hours. Only 50 seconds separated the first two places after some 2000 miles of racing!
At the end of the day I finally start heading to the south, towards Italy and the Alps. I follow the fast sweepers of a road that mimic the flowing curves of the Loire River. Wide open corners, plenty of adrenalin-charged riders and amazingly good asphalt. Need I say more? After a while I hook up to the highway again, just to quicken my arrival to the proper mountain roads.
I am headed now to Annecy, close to the meeting points of France, Switzerland and Italy. By sunset I am almost there, the Alps making their presence felt by casting long shadows on the roads that I am leaving behind. Just a few miles into a mountain road, I find a nice little town called Frangy and pull into an hotel that has quite a lot of bikes parked outside. It's off season, so again there'll be no sweat finding a room. The hotel owner gives me the keys to the garage without even asking. "You'll have a dry seat tomorrow." No better anecdote than this to exemplify the amazing attitude of the French towards motorcyclists. On the road people move over so you can pass safely and, generally speaking, they just adore us. Amazing but true.
I begin the next day by riding to Annecy but the huge mountain that oversees the city and the lake of Annecy draws my attention. A quick check of the map shows that there is a tiny road that goes up, almost all the way to the 4,000 foot summit. I give up on the city attractions and head to Mont Barron. There is a paved road indeed, but it soon turns into a fire road. This is exactly the moment that I am grateful to be on a dual-purpose machine and not on a proper sport-tourer. There is no way a BMW R1100S would have taken me up here.
Standing on the pegs of Effie, I reach the end of the trail and make the last few hundred yards to the mountain's top by foot. The view of Annecy and the lake from the summit was really worth the sweat.
The challenges are not just off the main road. The deeper I drive into the Alps, the more the roads begin to look like spaghetti twisted on a fork. The nature of the roads draws in sporting riders from all of the surrounding areas. In the little picturesque town of Bourg St. Maurice, I pull into a cafe that has a huge Joe Bar (a hugely popular comic caricature in the back pages of European biking magazines) comics sign to attract riders. A couple of sport riders on R1 Yamahas invite me over to sip coffee. They're Swiss, know the area well and confesse that, in August, this area just gets too crowded with bikes.
They are heading, like me, towards the Mont Blanc and I simply guess that it might be a good opportunity to measure the F650's competence on mountain roads. The beginning of our joint trip goes nicely as I pitch Effie hard into the bends and somehow manage to keep in contact with the two R1's. But these guys are good and dive into the blind cliff-lined turns like men possessed. Also, as soon as the road starts to climb, with my fully laden 650 single I just have no chance. So just in case you get the temptation of racing the locals on their home turf, remember, some of them are really fast. And then, do not attempt to do it on a D/P single.
I roll off to a more sedate pace and proceed to enjoy the beauty of this road, the one that actually triggered this whole trip. If you have the chance, you must try the N90 road once in your life.
Strangely enough, as beautiful as the road is, it's not the real highlight of the trip. It takes me to a border crossing point between France and Italy, a desolate and high pass called Col du Petit St. Bernard. There, after a coffee break, I realize that an amazing trail climbs up to the huge mountain top above me. I decide to go off road again and hit the steep trail that takes me up to no less than 8,500 feet. The 360-degree vista from the top of Mont Belvedere is breath taking. You could easily be misled to think that you have just landed somewhere on the moon. After taking mental notes of this unexpected highlight, I say goodbye to this living landscape painting in blue and grey, and head down, to the highway.
It is already dark, I've ridden loads today and I still have some 150 miles to my hotel room in Varese, Italy. By the end of the day I collapse in the hotel bed, my head spinning from visual and riding stimuli.
During the next week, I proceed to check out - in greater detail - the Italian Northern Lakes District. But what I came for initially was the Alps and, eventually I would happily head east from Milan towards Verona. My plan is to cross back to Germany by way of Passo de Stelvio, a high mountain pass deep in the Valle di Sole next to Austria. In the winter time, it is a prime skiing zone. But now, at the end of the summer, it might be the last chance to cross this 9,000 foot pass. Just before Verona I turn left and take the toll road that leads to Trento. My only problem is that it's been pouring for the last four hours and my good rain equipment is having a break down. A lardy German rider thinks that trying the Passo de Stelvio is "not good idea," nevertheless, I decide to risk it, leave the safety of the highway behind and head up into the mountains.
I manage to find a Hotel in Male, a small skiing village and proceed to put the hairdryer to good use on my wet gear. The next day starts promisingly. The roads aren't exactly dry but the rain has stopped. But my joy was premature. As I keep on climbing, the weather turns nasty again. After a 5,000 foot altitude sign, I am riding into a freezing cloud. But the cold is not the issue as my visor starts fogging so badly that I start to ride with it open and now it's my eyes that kill me. The Alpine road that snakes between cliffs isn't helping my cause either.
At Passo de Tonale, at 6,000 feet, I make the unavoidable U-turn and head back to the highway to Germany. The high passes of south Tyrol will have to wait for another time. But then it's not such a bad thing to end my trip in a more relaxed fashion. I have carved enough turns, seen enough, ate enough. I switch into cruise mood till Munich and eventually head straight to the BMW factory where I consign the keys. The sleepy porter sure has no idea from what sort of trip I have just pulled in. Never mind, though. I do, and all the wonderful memories are safe inside my head and a few rolls of film.
Note: We've all heard about those organized tours that will take you to all the right places on rental bikes. And yes, they will at times really save you a lot hassle. But if you're more the type that just hates following directions or you just plain want to go at it alone at your own pace, Central Europe is an extremely easy place to tour on your own. Quite a few businesses out there are willing to rent you bikes and if you can time your trip after the high season, you shouldn't have problems finding hotels along the way. For those to whom motorcycling equals total freedom, this is the way to go. Try it. Useful phones and links follow:
Mototouring: tel +39-02-2720-1556 - fax +39-02-2720-1140 http://www.motorcycle.com/cgi-bin/redirector?www.europe-motorcycle-rental.com Rent-a-dream: tel +39-02-93548-043 - fax +39-02-9343-175 http://www.motorcycle.com/cgi-bin/redirector?www.rent-a-dream.it Bianco-blu tel +39-02-3082-430 - fax +39-02-3349-4266 http://www.motorcycle.com/cgi-bin/redirector?www.biancoblu.com