I was in the Dolomites, the wild mountainous range that stretches between Italy and Austria, at the tail end of a long European tour, days away from flying back home. I was dying to sample the ultra high passes that were lying ahead, but the rain, the cold and my constantly misting visor convinced me that it was best not to finish this fine 2000 mile trip at the bottom of a sheer 1000 ft. drop. I meekly turned around back to the safety of the highway while promising myself that I would come back here sometime. Two years pass slowly, in the meantime I find myself living in Milan, Munich's INTERMOT show is in the cards and there's a ST2 Ducati that's in need of some road testing. Last chance to check if these passes are indeed Europe's finest free roller coasters before the looming winter.
Two years ago, my U-turning point was at Passo del Tonale, the first real pass as you start making your way up from the center of Northern Italy and that's where I put my sights on. I take the autostrada (highway in Italian) that leads to Lecco and gas it. As you pass Lecco and enter the pre-Alpine area the autostrada turns more into a "tunnel-ada".
A small and slow road takes me through the Valtellina area, a valley that crosses straight from west to east between two huge mountains. The slow traffic gives me a good chance to enjoy the views and enter a proper touring state of mind. Whoever has the time ( and doesn't have to be on time for press day at the Intermot) should sample the typical pizzoccheri pasta and the excellent Nebbiolo wine. After my tranquil valley ride is over, the heavy traffic disappears as if by magic and its time for some climbing. The Passo dell Aprica is a very good starter. Its only 3700 feet high but the not so tight hairpins that lead to the pass are an excellent way to warm the tires and clean their tread right to the very edge.
The ST2 turns out to be an excellent and playful partner in this foreplay, before the heavy pounding. Although its officially a tourer with hard luggage it doesn't try to hide the fact that its frame has the same DNA of the good ole 888. Highish handlebars makes throwing the ST2 with abandon into the turns, a doodle, while the grunty twin lets you surf on a very nice torque curve that's shaped just right. After the Passo dell Aprica, things smooth out a bit and I am really near to the spot where I chickened out last time. Only that this time around I can see all what I missed because of the fog, and its great! The road climbs up to 6000 feet, riding the mountainside and every turn opens up to wide screen scenes of blue skies and green mountains, injecting joy straight to the veins.
At Passo dell Tonalle I stop for some rest, its getting dark, and its time to look for an hostel, no big deal in the off-season. Tiredness though, is a non-issue. The ST2's seat is very comfy, the wind protection does what it is supposed to do and it shouldn't be a problem putting eight hours straight on this mount. Thing is I want daylight to keep on enjoying the views. The day after, with a good caffeine shot in the blood stream, the luggage clicked back efficiently into place and I am ready for the real hairpin orgy that lies ahead. The names Passo dello Stelvio and Passo di Gavia might not mean much to most American riders but for Europeans these are almost a cult thing. A huge amusement park, a motoring paradise, two-wheeled nirvana, call it as you like. Fact is that as I take the road to Passo di Gavia there is something in the air that fills your lungs with perfectly legal stuff. And the stuff does arrive, and in spades: countless hairpins in every style and fashion, slow, fast, up and down.
Hard not to get stoned on this stuff and it's all backed up by breath talking views that fight for your precious attention. A word of warning. If you do intend to ride here, better be ready for hours on hours without a single straight stretch in sight and no shortcuts to flat land. Another unexpected aspect is the fact that here we are a majority! The area is sparsely populated, the cars are few and in a sunny weekend as this, two wheelers rule. Many hotels, bars and restaurants carry signs with bike pictures and welcoming greetings for riders. After the pass summit at 7800 feet it's a steep downhill ride, hairpin time again and eventually the road straightens up somewhat, letting you rest before the big one, Passo dello Stelvio. Coffee time again at Bormio, the isolated alpine town and I am refueled. But nothing quite prepares me to what I see as I leave Bormio. A huge mountain, one that makes your neck strain just to see its summit and the road heads right into it. And on the mountain side there strange insect like creatures moving around, bikes.
The climb begins, turn after turn after turn. If I am not mistaken I pass at some point a sign that says that there are still 48 hairpins till the summit.
The road is full with any conceivable two-wheeler. Crotch rockets, cruisers, dual-purpose and tourers, and above all Beemers, most of them with German plates. Up at the summit there's a big party. Dozens of bikes parked by the wayside, everybody is either taking pictures, having its picture taken or eating amazing hotdogs with "Wurtsell" (sour cabbage). At a certain point, some 15 KTM supermoto singles drown their engines after the whole of the congregated crowd heard them barking their way up to the summit. Among the parked bikes I spot a stunning Gilera 500 Saturno, the first one I've ever seen outside a museum.
The way down from Passo dello Stelvio is pretty exciting too but the corner carving fun is spoilt by a really badly surfaced road. I take it easy, especially after almost losing the front on some gravel and actually enjoy the relaxation of a flat stretch that crosses a green valley while leading north towards Austria. This high placed valley seems to collect all the area's winds and on a small lake in its middle there are plenty of wind surfers enjoying the free ride. But things weren't always so idyllic round here. As the valley narrows down, I spot some strange domes in the fields. I take a small dirt road that leads to one of the domes and it grows bigger and bigger, an old fortification from early last century. It's totally deserted and a missing door reveals 10 foot thick walls reinforced with iron rods.
The perimeter of the dome is full of menancing looking openings for machine guns. History tells that these fortresses were part of huge system built by good old Franz Yossef, the Austro Hungarian Emperor and they were his pride and joy. They received the nick name "The Iron Girdle" and their devastating efficiency was put to test when the Italian Army lost in WWI no less than 300,000 soldiers in its attempts to conquer the Austrian lines in the near Trento area. Only at the very end of the war, with help of British and Americans, did the Italian Army conquer back some lost ground and much of the area has been handed to the Italians as part of the defeat pact that the Austrians and the Germans had to sign.
From here on, I cross Austria through one if its narrower points in order to come out of the Alps from their northern side. Roads are much faster now, fast sweepers that run along rivers. The ST2 is happy to take these sweepers while lying flat on its side, reminding me that there is a true Italian sporting soul behind its protective fairing as well as a firmly calibrated suspension. By the end of my sweepers run I enter the German town of Garmisch, the gate to Bavaria. Hardcore Beemer riders might recognize the name as this is the place of the annual, World BMW gathering. It's a small, friendly and touristy town. All of a sudden, you realize you're definitely in Germany. The Architecture is heavily loaded with dubious ornaments such as kitschy angels and flowers and inside the bars there are plenty of draft beer nozzles.
From here to Munich the landscape straightens up and so does the road. German Autobahns are a great place for low altitude flight although German drivers seem to be afflicted with left-lane hugging syndrome. Nevertheless, I let the ST2's engine express itself after all the curbing in the hairpins and its happy to devour the 50 miles to Munich at full throttle and 140 mph. My previously downloaded Internet maps of Munich let me reach the Hotel with reasonable easiness and that's where I meet my print mag editor. It's always nice to have somebody to chat with after such eventful days. The trouble with my editor, with whom I share a room, is that he arrived with a really bad cold and is sneezing constantly. During the night the air of the room gets nicely filled with fresh microbes and yes, two days into the show and I am ill too. During the show, I try not to shake too much while shooting pictures and not to think too much about riding all the way back to Milan in these conditions.
Luckily, by the end of the show, my cold is not that bad and it's time to ride back. I obviously choose to use as many highways as possiblei, but 45 minutes after my departure, I am still deep in Munich. My downloaded riding instructions didn't take into account my change of plans. One BIG Munich map latter from a gas station and I am on the right track towards Switzerland. The highway takes to Mammingen and from there to Bregenz, the western tip of Austria that sits on the shore of Lake Bodensee. From Bregenz I head south riding through a valley that separates Switzerland and Austria that also passes next to the tiny nation of Liechtenstein. Surprisingly (or rather unsurprisingly) the ride recharges my batteries and turns out to be the best drug.
I pull out to rest in Chur, Switzerland and open up the map. My first intention was to ride the highway all the way to Milan through Lugano, but it turns out that not so far from here there is a little and snaky looking road that enters Italy through yet another mountain pass! The Adrenaline rush overcomes my weakness, so here I come. My last pass for this trip is going to be the Swiss Schpluggen pass and right after leaving the highway the fun begins. The mountains round here are somewhat smoother and the hairpins wider, allowing for a much more sporting pace. Towards the summit the road does tighten up, enough to get a tourist bus stuck in one of the hairpins, its simply two sizes too big, obligating the driver to negotiate the way back down in reverse gear. This group of Japanese tourists has surely chosen the right guide.
At the 6400 foot summit, the scene is quite different from the one at dello Stelvio, no bikes. Maybe its because it's midweek. Anyway, at the Italian side of the border, in a little bar, I spot a trio of 996 Ducs, one of them is a rare SP, including exhaust cans with sewage tube sized openings. Their tires have those little gumballs curling up at the edges. Seems like these guys been having fun. Inside the bar the three riders turn out to be graying fifty something's with ponytails and beards. Good to see that life doesn't end at forty. A good Italian espresso brings me finally back to life, especially after the awful German coffee at the show. Me and the said trio step out of the bar, they head back to Switzerland with a ground shaking thunder and me quietly back to Milan. The road south is still pretty amazing but speed needs some curbing, as its badly covered with cow's dung and at certain points you have to actually zigzag between the things as they roam quite freely round here. Slowly the turns die out, the road becomes the usual point-to-point strip and I glide back to town. I enter the house, luggage in hand. Girlfriend asks how was it. Quite nice actually, I answer and slip into my bed with a nice cup of tea.