I began my motorcycle riding life in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, nearly 35 years ago. I believe it is fair to say that I cut my motorcycling teeth on mountain passes, and in the ensuing years I managed to ride (I believe) every single paved pass in the Rockies at least once, including those in Canada. During this same time I also managed to ride most of the best passes in the Sierras, Adirondacks, the Great Smokies and several other, smaller mountain ranges here in the US, plus some of those in Africa, Asia and South America. Yet, somehow, the legendary motorcycle Nirvana of the Alps eluded me. Three times in 15 years I made plans to ride through the Alps, and three times something happened in either my personal life or on the national scene (like 9/11), to force the cancellation of my trips.
At 56 years old, I began to think that perhaps it just wasn't meant to be--and then the call came from Rob Beach.
Rob said he couldn't help but notice that of virtually all of the better-known motorcycle journalists in the world, I alone had never participated in one of Beach's Alpine tours. While I personally questioned whether I really belonged in the "better-known" category of moto-journalists, I wasn't about to let that stop me from considering Rob's most generous offer. If I could arrange my own transportation to and from Germany, and procure my own motorcycle to ride, along with insurance, etc., he would "comp" the cost of the tour itself, with no strings attached. Of course I'm no amateur at this, and I know that Rob's motive was his hope that I would write about his tour in one or more of the magazines I write for, but still I appreciated the fact that he placed no specific publication demands on me.
A quick check showed that though I didn't have quite enough frequent flier miles to make the trip, all of my miles plus another $600 would get me to Munich. And an e-mail to BMW's press department was responded to almost immediately. They would be happy to loan me a "press bike" from their Munich fleet for the trip. Everything looked good, and then got even better when I found that my old friend and riding partner, Marc Souliere from Canada, was booked for the same trip, so we could share motel rooms and keep costs down even more.
The tour I chose to participate in was Beach's "Classic Alpine Adventure," a 13-day jaunt through Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Northern Italy. This was the tour I had read so much about in John Hermann's excellent book,
"Motorcycle Journeys Through the Alps," which is considered by many to be the bible of Alpine motorcycle touring.
Robert and Elizabeth Beach have been running organized tours of the Alps for over 30 years, starting in 1972, and to date have led nearly 5,000 riders on more than 300 Alpine adventures. These days the senior Beachs are semi-retired, but the Alpine tours are still led by their son, Rob Beach, who literally grew up (though some might argue that Rob never quite really "grew up") riding these fabled mountains with his parents. With that kind of history behind the company, I figured I could hardly go wrong.
At first I thought that I would try to take a one-week tour, as I didn't know if I could really spare the time for a two-week trip, but on checking, I found that unlike most other tour companies, Beach didn't offer anything shorter than two weeks in the Alps. Later, when talking to Rob Beach about this, I found that they had long-ago considered offering shorter tours, and often had requests from their clients for a shorter tour, but firmly believed that anything less than two weeks simply didn't "work."
As Rob himself put it: "Vacation time is your personal time--time for attitude adjustment and time to relax and reorient yourself with the ideas and things which are important in your life. Over the years, we have found that it takes most people a week to forget the pressures of work, to adjust to the local time, and to understand the ebb and flow of traffic and the road systems of Europe. With only a seven-day vacation, one is returning home just as he begins to find himself in sync. Therefore, all of our tours are two weeks or longer so that our participants can really enjoy the experience, unfettered by internal stress or outside pressures."
I have to admit I questioned that philosophy a bit at first, but after observing our own tour group, I was amazed to see just how right the Beach philosophy was. Somewhere between the 5th and the 7th day of our tour, the group dynamic underwent a shift that was very noticeable to everyone involved. Almost overnight, you could see people begin to really relax and start enjoying themselves. Fears of getting lost, or being unable to cope with the traffic and road conditions, all simply seemed to vanish.
Not only that, but the level of camaraderie and personal interaction with other group members increased dramatically. The nightly dinners evolved from polite conversation and "early to bed to be ready for tomorrow's ride" affairs, into loud, backslapping, teasing and laughing evenings that no one wanted to see end. Everyone became much more adventuresome, ready and willing to strike out on their own to find interesting roads during the day, or to wander the quaint little Swiss villages at night. It was a remarkable transformation, and I had to admit that Rob was right--to have the tour end just as this was all really getting into high gear would have been a shame.
Another part of the "Beach philosophy" is distinctly spelled out on their website: "If your desire is to ride herd from point-to-point, or to take a short tour to give you cocktail party bragging rights, or if your idea of a great ride is cruising Main Street at Daytona with your buddies, other companies' tours will better suit you.
"Should your interests lie in discovery, in new vistas, in that little road heading off to the west, and in adventure, then the tours conducted by Beach's Motorcycle Adventures are what you have been searching for. Many of our most fervent supporters are riders who never considered a "group tour" prior to joining us. The constraints of group riding and group rules and regulations run counter to their philosophy of motorcycling. "Like these individuals, our company philosophy runs counter to others. We don't try to be everything to everyone; we make no attempt to conduct tours to every corner of the globe; we don't have ten thousand customers annually; and we don't structure our tours for the masses."
Imagine that. A tour company that actually advertises that if you like highly-structured tours, or riding in a tight-knit group, then you really should consider some other touring company!
As it was, there always was a tour leader you could follow if you wanted (Rob). But oftentimes even Rob himself wasn't quite sure what route he might be taking on any given day. Most riders found they liked following the leader some of the time, but going off on their own more and more as the tour progressed. We always knew where we would all end up at the end of the day, and were provided with lots of maps and advice for how to get there, usually at dinner the night before. Rob and the other tour leader, Al Walker, would always discuss three or four optional routes, with lots of discussion of the roads and the highlights to see along the way. For myself and Marc, and most others, we would then make up a route of our own, pieced together from the three or four available, and including all the things we wanted to see and do. That way, everyone could ride the tour most suited to their style, or how they felt on any given day. Some days, Marc and I opted for a short ride, with lots of stops at scenic little villages, churches and castles, while on other days we decided to just ride and ride. One day, we rode across the Alps on seven different passes between breakfast and dinner. An awesome day of riding that I will probably never be able to duplicate again in my lifetime.
In a nutshell, I learned to really appreciate the Beach philosophy of "guiding" a tour by offering advice, suggestions and maps, rather than by being "babysitters" that lead us around by our noses. That way, we could stop when we wanted, for however long we wanted, eat lunch at those places that appealed to us, grab the photo opportunities we liked, etc., etc.
I began this story by noting that I have ridden through every one of the paved passes in the Rocky Mountains. When you consider that the Alps are approximately one-seventh the size of the Rockies, it would seem, then, that after riding the Rockies, the Alps would be something of an anti-climax. Believe me, nothing could be further from the truth! To start with, the Rockies have, at my last count, I believe, 48 paved passes. The best estimate I could find for the number of paved passes in the Alps is 224, and I know for a fact that Marc and I found at least two that weren't even marked on any of our maps!
Add to that the fact that our North American passes were almost all designed and built for modern motorized traffic. That is to say, they are wide, unobstructed and, for the most part, devoid of curves that would be challenging even for large, commercial trucks. In Europe, many of the roads across the Alps were originally built hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. Many were blazed by the Roman armies of conquest, and I remember one in particular that I rode, called "Sustenpass," was built by engineers of the Napoleonic Army, to carry supplies to the emperor's far-flung armies (hence the "Susten," for "sustenance."). These roads were built for footsoldiers and horse-drawn wagons, with a top speed of maybe two miles per hour, and without the benefit of bulldozers and such, so they pretty much follow the terrain. That means, in most case, lots and lots of extreme switchbacks, unbelievably steep grades, and very, very narrow roadways. Perfect for motorcycling.
At this point, though, I should add that your choice of motorcycle for riding the Alps should not be predicated on your choice for riding in North America. Luckily, I took the advice given by Rob Beach, and procured a BMW F650 GS for my ride. This was absolutely the perfect bike for this kind of riding. Small, light, torquey and frugal on gas. If you think you need something larger, I'm here to tell you that you are wrong, unless maybe you are going to be riding two-up, and even then, I'd advise you stay with something as small as possible. I really felt sorry for a number of Americans I ran across over there, who had shipped in their Gold Wings for the ride.
Now, I like Wings as much as anyone, and have toured hundreds of thousands of miles on them, but they don't belong in the Alps--no way. More than once I saw these hapless Americans stuck in a severe, 180-degree switchback, on a 10% or better grade, either backing up two or three times to try to bend the big bike around the almost-impossible curve, or with the Wing laying on its side at the edge of the road. And even the larger sportbikes were having a pretty bad time of it on some of the smaller passes. I can't count the number of times I scooted by a CBR, FZ or GSX-R as its rider struggled at full steering lock and maximum lean angle. On these roads, big engines and big horsepower are nothing more than lots of extra dead weight. If you ride the kind of passes we did, your average speed at the end of the day is going to be no more than about 35mph (checked by several bikes with GPS systems), and shifting higher than second gear will be something you accomplish only rarely. Riding at about 20-25mph, in first or second gear, while leaned over as hard as you dare, a small, light bike with good bottom-end torque will run circles around a liter-class superbike every time.
So, how was the riding? In a word--awesome.
And even that over-used superlative comes up short in describing the experience. As noted earlier, I've done more than my fair share of mountain riding, all over the world, and I can state without the slightest reservation that if you haven't ridden the Alps, you have no concept of how incredibly exhilarating a motorcycle ride can really be. Some days we rode through five, six or seven passes in one day. Some were so twisty that we didn't see a straight section of road more than 50 feet long for over 100 miles at a time. Often, we found ourselves pulling to the side of the road after an hour or two just to let the adrenaline rush subside a bit. We would jump up and down, pound each other on the back, try to get our breathing and heart rates back to normal, shoot a few pictures, and then take off again. It is almost indescribable.
Almost without exception, the roads were in excellent condition, though some were incredibly narrow. It was not unusual to be riding on a road surface that would just barely accommodate the side-to-side wheelbase of a compact car, and yet there would be oncoming traffic! But the saving grace is that everyone is used to these conditions, no one panics, and everyone just puts a couple of wheels on the narrow shoulder to give you (barely) enough room to get by. Even better, if you come up behind someone, they automatically move over to give you room to pass. The politeness shown to motorcycle riders by automobile drivers is almost unbelievable, and universal. And that carries on to the parking accommodations, restaurants, hotels, etc. Everywhere we went, the signs were up. "We (picture of a heart) motorcycles!" "Bikers welcome!" "Biker Hotel" "Motorcycle Café" and on and on. Many hotels advertised special, indoor, heated parking garages for motorcycles only, and a lot of the little cafes we stopped at had stands in their parking lots equipped with buckets, rags and spray bottles for cleaning your faceshield and windshield. More than once, when I stopped for gas, the cashier would hand me a little packet with moistened cleaning towels inside for wiping off my faceshield, lights and mirrors. I was stunned.
The accommodations arranged by Beach were always quite nice, and ranged everywhere from modern hotels to very quaint, very old inns, filled with period antiques. Without exception, we were treated as honored guests wherever we stopped, and one of the beauties of traveling with a well-organized tour company was that when we found our lodgings for the night, we just had to walk up to the desk and give our names. No paperwork, no hassles and no delays. We were greeted and handed our keys, and found our luggage waiting in the rooms. Real luxury. After a quick shower we would meet in the hotel bar for a sampling of the local beer or wine, then on to the restaurant for a pleasant evening of dining and storytelling, followed by Rob and Al's explanation of the routes available for the next day.
Sometimes, Marc and I planned an early arrival at the hotel so we could relax in the hot tub, take a quick swim, or do some shopping in the local village. Again, that's what's great about planning your own day instead of being locked into what the group is doing.
Though the "official" tour was planned as 13 days on the road, Marc and I arrived at the starting/stopping point in Munich three days early, to allow ourselves time to adjust to the 13-hour time difference, and to get acclimated with our surroundings. As it turned out, six others in our tour group did the same, and I highly recommend this practice. Though we didn't have our bikes yet, it was only a two-block walk to the nearest train station, where Munich's excellent, fast, clean and cheap mass transportation system would take us anywhere we wanted to go. By the time the tour actually started, we were well-rested, and were already starting to feel at home in Germany. And if you have any reservations about the language barrier, I'm here to tell you that you can put this entirely out of your mind. In our 17 days in four different countries, I can't recall a single time when not speaking the local language presented us with any difficulties at all. For the most part, Europeans all speak at least some English, and even when they didn't, a little bit of pointing or picture drawing sufficed. Usually, it was more amusing and fun than being a problem.
The cost for Beach's Classic Alpine Adventure is $5,030 for a single rider, or $8,310 for two-up, and includes your bike rental, hotel rooms, dinners and breakfasts. However, if you pay in advance with a check or money order, they will give you a 3% discount, which lops about $250 off the two-up rate. That's about $320 per day, per person, which to me, at least, is a bargain. If you were to rent a bike yourself, and pay all your own meals and hotel rooms, I figure it would cost at least that much, if not a bit more, and you wouldn't get the luggage van service, the guides and routing assistance, or the camaraderie of the group each night. Not to mention the time and trouble spent finding your own hotels and restaurants, and hoping they will be as good as those the Beach's have scoped out from their 35 years of experience. And in addition, Beach will inundate you during the weeks leading up to your tour with all kinds of brochures, maps and good advice on things like what to pack, how to prepare, exchanging money, local customs, tipping and all sorts of other useful information.
There's no way I can adequate describe how great an Alpine motorcycling adventure is. You really need to experience it yourself. All I can say is this: I've toured over 1.2 million miles on several continents and in over a dozen countries, and this tour was, without any doubt, the greatest of my lifetime.
You owe it to yourself to find out what I mean.
Beach's Motorcycle Adventures
2763 West River Parkway
Grand Island, NY 14072-2053