Jürgen's 2009 Alp Adventure

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Jürgen's 2009 Alp Adventure

Post  Admin on Wed Nov 11, 2009 1:32 pm

Our Favorite Pass Time
By Jürgen F Brune, Spokane, WA. MOA #104942
October 2009

This is a story is about a ride of passes, and a ride of passage.

It began when Doug Weir asked members of our local club, the Inland Northwest BMW Riders in Spokane, Washington if anyone would be interested in joining him on a riding tour through the Alps in the fall of 2009. Doug’s proposal was spending 10 days in the Alps with a focus on riding the mountain passes only, not spending time sightseeing the castles, museums or souvenir stores.

We would rent motorcycles in Germany and then ride south into the Alps, where our goal would be to ride as many twisty roads up and down the mountain passes as possible in 10 days.

About three weeks before our departure, I called my old friend Bill Evans in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bill and I had ridden together many times, including a Saddle Sore 1000 from Pittsburgh to Kansas in September 2007. Bill was setting up his new law office but could use a break so he agreed to join us for our tour.

What are passes, and why do they make exciting motorcycle rides?

The word pass has its origin in Latin passus - the step. Germans say Pass or Joch, the French, Col, and the Italians, Passo or Colle.

The technical definition for a pass in a range of mountains is a saddle point in between two areas of higher elevation. If following the lowest possible route through the mountains, a pass is locally the highest point on that route.

Although a pass is the shortest, most direct connection between two valleys, the route requires a long steep climb and equally long, steep descent. Crossing the pass means riding an extremely windy, twisty road – so, for us motorcyclists, the word pass simply translates to FUN. Many of the high Alps passes have 30 or more switchbacks on either side!

Since the Alps have such a strategic importance separating European trade routes north from south, the earliest civilizations in Europe – long before even the Roman empire - sought to conquer and control the Alps passes. Therefore, passes are much more than just a travel route. They can be:
  • • a language, dialect and cultural divide
    • a country or regional border – even though we were never asked to show our passports
    • a strategic location to defend against invaders and to collect road tolls and passage fees
    • a smuggling route – many books were devoted to this theme
    • a watershed between two valleys, springing some of Europe’s major rivers
    • a weather divide: Weather can change significantly when crossing a pass
    • a place to spend the night: Nearly every Alps pass has a hospice near the top where travelers can spend the night. For motorcyclists, this may be tricky as due to the high elevations it is possible you may wake up to several inches of new snow!

Historically, Alpine nations have prided themselves in building and maintaining excellent roads across the passes because of their strategic importance as trade routes and in times of conflict. Many passes still bear remnants of military fortifications, tank barriers and troop quarters at the top.

Today, most important pass roads in the Alps have been replaced by tunnels so that they can be kept open year-round. This is great for us motorcyclists because it keeps truck and transit traffic off the winding pass roads!

Motorcycle Rentals
Bill and I rented our motorcycles from Knopf Tours in Heidelberg, www.knopftours.com. The owner, Stefan Knopf, is a long-time BMW enthusiast who provides full service with rentals, guided tours, motorcycle storage, insurance, motorcycle shipping, a fully-equipped shop and other services for motorcycle travelers. Stefan is a regular at the MOA rallies so many ON readers know him. Stefan coordinates door-to-door shuttle service to and from the Frankfurt airport and also provides a bed-and-breakfast and camping opportunities at his place in Heidelberg. Bill’s bike was a 1999 R1100RT and I rode a 2002 BMW R1150RTs. Both bikes were equipped with OEM side and top cases and a tank bag to provide plenty of carrying space.

Doug rented his bike through Beach’s Motorcycle Adventures, www.bmca.com. Beach’s is a worldwide touring provider that works with local dealerships for rentals. Beach has many brands and models available – usually near-new demo bikes. Doug picked his 2008 R1200GS up from a BMW dealer near the airport north of Munich. Of course, the bike came with the OEM side cases and a large tank bag as well.

Maps and Trip Planning
Doug had introduced us to a great book, “Motorcycle Journeys through the Alps” by John Hermann, published by Whitehorse Press. This book is considered to be the bible and ultimate authority on motorcycling in the Alps. John Hermann frequently tours the Alps and updates his book regularly. Besides descriptions of all passes and touring recommendations the book provides a wealth lots of other valuable travel information.

I used a Garmin GPS276C loaded with the latest Mapsource Europe NT 2010 map software. The GPS came in especially handy routing us to some of the hard-to-find turn-offs and it gave excellent estimates of travel distance and time.

ADAC (the German equivalent to AAA) has excellent motorcycle tour maps as well – Stefan has several of them available which were available to us on loan for our trip.
The German Tourenfahrer magazine has touring recommendations on their website (www.tourenfahrer.de) (unfortunately, only in German) including free downloads of POI (points of interest) databases for various GPS brands.

Generally, European roads are well equipped with direction signs but in addition to the GPS we still needed a good road map for overall trip planning and potential routes.

We took our trip from September 8-17. This is usually a good window as the summer holiday season is over and hotel prices are sharply reduced for the off-season. Still, the roads are usually passable and temperatures are comfortable. We did not pre-plan the routes or pre-arrange hotel stays for two reasons. First, we did want to have flexibility in case we encountered bad weather, and second, we did not want to force our riding schedule to arrive at a certain point too early or too late in the day.

On average, we rode from 9 am to 6 pm with breaks for pictures, snacks and lunches. Sightseeing was not our objective, having fun riding was!

There are many languages spoken in the Alps – German, French, Italian plus many dialects that vary from valley to valley, region to region. Due to this Babylonian mix of languages, maps may refer to a “passo rombo” where you might be looking for the “Timmelsjoch” at the Austria-Italian border. A map purchased in Italy is likely to have the Italian names while one from a German or Austrian publisher will use the German names. US maps often anglicize names (Munich instead of München or Great St. Bernard Pass instead Grosser St. Bernhard). John Hermann’s book and the GPS seem to use the more common names but if you are looking at street signs you should expect names in several languages.

Languages transcend political borders – Switzerland alone has three official languages, German, Italian and French, plus the Romansh which is spoken in the southeastern Swiss canton of Graubünden. The northern region of the Dolomites is called South Tyrol and is bilingual, Italian and German.

The locals are usually fluent in at least two local languages and most of them speak excellent English so communicating is usually not a problem.

Hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodations are widely available, and advanced reservations are not required in the post-summer season. Rates ranged between US$50 and US$80 per night including breakfast and room rates were often negotiable – the hosts knew that we travelers had plenty of other options. We usually asked to see the room accommodations before agreeing to stay. Some hotels offered us a package that included dinner – usually, that was a good deal. Most places seemed to recognize that motorcyclists are an important component of their business and frequently we saw signs saying “Bikers Welcome”. Often a biker friendly hotel sports an old motorcycle somewhere in front or on the roof.

Hermann’s book, Tourenfahrer magazine and other organizations have their own, biker-friendly hotel recommendations – places that typically include a locked garage and a room to dry wet gear. I had downloaded some recommended hotels to my GPS and we were quite happy with those acomodations.

Some hotels also offer less expensive “dormitory-style” quarters but getting a good rest and a full breakfast was important to us so we opted for regular hotels.

Our Tour
Bill and I arrived in Frankfurt on separate flights and took a shuttle to Heidelberg. In the afternoon we had time to visit Heidelberg with its historic Altstadt, or old town, and to the famous medieval castle that towers above.

Our ride started the next morning and led us over the peaks of the Black Forest, riding the curvy “Schwarzwaldhochstrasse” (Black Forest High Road) which compares quite well to riding the “Dragon” in Tennessee. This was only a prologue to the Alpine roads but it gave us a chance to become familiar with our motorcycles. Our ride continued through Basel and Zürich into Andermatt, Switzerland where we met our friend Doug who had started his ride near Munich.

Andermatt is at the crossroads between a number of famous passes, including the St. Gotthard which marks a major thoroughfare between Switzerland and Italy.

We had about two hours of daylight remaining so we decided to do a quick warm-up run to the top of the Oberalp Pass (2049 m) just east of Andermatt. Our first impression was that lots of fellow riders were enjoying the pass ride, playing in the sunshine. The weather forecast was sunny for the coming several days!

We spent the next day exploring the passes around Andermatt, winding up Susten Pass (2224 m), down to Grimsel (2165 m), on across the Nufenen (2496 m) and Lukmanier (1916 m) passes and completing the loop back to Andermatt via Oberalp.

At Andermatt we were not yet ready to call it a day so we added a quick run up the Furka pass (2431 m) immediately west of Andermatt. Along the east side of Furka road, we stopped to see several waterfalls marking the headwaters of the Reuss, a major tributary to the Rhine river. Furka is a major European watershed – its west side drains into the Rhone valley.

We learned that there was no need for speed limits along the pass roads: The rider’s speed is limited only by his or her skill! Of course, there are general speed limits but they usually do not come into play because the objective is to savor the turns, not to crack the throttle wide open on the straights. We learned another reason why they call it a pass: Either you pass the rider, car or bus in front of you or you will be passed. Most car and motorcycle drivers have a professional courteous attitude but some riders did make, in my opinion, highly risky passes. Fortunately, we did not see a single accident on the entire trip!

After the first 20 or 30 hairpin turns we got the hang of it: it’s almost a rhythm: Brake to the proper entry speed while shifting to second or even first, then lean and roll on smoothly through the turn just to get ready for the next switchback.

Hairpin turns have different names in Europe: The Germans call it “Kehre”, implying a 180 direction change, as in switchback. The French call it “lacet”, resembling neatly-tied shoe-laces. The Italians say “tornanti” (as in tornado?) which best describes the adrenaline spikes when you meet another vehicle in the apex or have to correct your line to avoid a rock or cow pie!

The nice weather promised to hold so the next morning we headed west across Furka, along the Rhone Valley towards the French Alps. Our route briefly led us into Italy when we crossed the Grand St. Bernard pass (2469 m), following the 2009 Tour de France route where the fans had painted the names of their favorite riders on the road. Doug enjoyed meeting the St. Bernard dogs at the famous monastery kennel.
Coming down from the Grand St. Bernard we headed across the Petit St. Bernard (2188 m) into France. Some clouds appeared in the sky as we inspected the ancient defense line on top of the pass designed to block tank invasions in World War Ii.

We continued south towards Val d’Isere - Tignes, a famous, French ski resort. It was 5 pm and time to make a decision. Doug knew a hotel about 50 km south but that meant to cross the Col de l’Iseran, at 2762 m one of the highest Alps passes. Light drizzle started to set in, not hard enough to require rain gear but the roads got wet. Still, we decided to go for it. The drizzle got a bit more intense on the way up and above 2000 m, we noticed white slush accumulating on our windshields: Our latest pass experience was pea-sized hail. There was no time to stop at the col, there was nothing to see and we were plain scared about the road conditions.

The rain stopped on the way down, and another 20 km of riding dried our gear. At 7:30 we arrived at the hotel “L’ Etoile des Neiges” (the snow star) in Lanslebourg. Accomodations were good and the food was excellent: How about a four-course French menu after 444 km and over 10 hours of riding?

In the morning, as the sun came out again, we followed the path of the 2008 Tour de France up the Col de Telegraphe (1570 m) and further up the Col du Galibier (2642 m). The French named this scenic road “La Route Des Grandes Alpes”. Due to their recent Tour appearance, road conditions on these passes were excellent. Both cols are ascents of the “premiere category”, the most difficult classification in the Tour. We were amazed by the number of bicycle riders that make it up these high passes – respect!

Our next pass was the Col du Lautaret (2058 m) on the way to Briancon. We continued through Ecrins National Park and into Queyras National Park, then following the 2006 Tour route up the Col d’Izoard (2361 m) and the high Col d‘Agnel (2748 m), crossing back into Italy. We encountered little traffic on these narrow roads not much wider than a single lane.

Pass #5 for today was Col de Sampeyre. It is almost impossible to find without a guide book and a GPS. The road went up a 14% grade to a top elevation of 2284 m. We saw several groups of dirt riders on mostly BMW GSs and KTMs. This is an absolutely gorgeous road, very little traveled, often single lane, mostly through woods. The timberline is at 2100 m in this area so Doug called it a “paved hiking trail”.

We found a hotel in the village of Vinadio in the Italian Stura valley. Walking around the historic cobblestone streets that evening, we discovered the 19th century Albertino fortress, strategically positioned to control access to four valleys to defend the Piedmont region against French invaders. We also visited the old parish church of San Fiorenzo dating back to 1321 with incredibly rich artwork, wood carvings, paintings and sculptures.

One of the passes controlled from Vinadio is the Col de la Lombarde. It starts out with 12 tight switchbacks over less than a mile – a great morning workout. I saw a couple of marmots dashing across my path: run them over and go down or try avoid them and go down? Luckily they were a lot smarter that I thought and escaped my front tire just in time.

Along the way to the Col we made a detour to visit the Sanctuary of Santa Anna, built in 1680 and overlooking the Stura valley. It served as a hospice for travelers and is a popular site for pilgrimages. Again we found beautifully carved wooden sculptures and other precious artwork. At the Col (2350 m), there are several ruins of troop quarters and defense structures.

Crossing over Lombarde led us back into France and through the ski resort of Isola 2000. We continued into the valley to the town of Isola, where we headed southeast on a long loop ride that would takes us up the Col de la Coiullole (1678 m), a small pass road that often serves as a stage on the famous Rally Monte Carlo. We had to use the horn a lot to warn oncoming traffic before heading around the switchbacks because many turns were absolutely blind. Oncoming traffic relies on the same signaling which works out surprisingly well. European riders stuck their right foot out to thank us after we let them pass – nice gesture and it keeps both hands on the controls!

We discovered a tightly twisting road leading to Chateauneuf d’ Entraunes, a small village high up in the mountains. The road was all single lane and the passages between the crude stone masonry houses along “main street” were less than 6 ft wide. After a brief photo break we rode back down to the valley and continued through the Mercantour National Park and up the Col de la Cayolle (2326 m). The weather turned increasingly cloudy so we started to map out our return route to Vinadio where we had decided to stay another night. We rode through Barcelonette and east to Jausiers, then southeast towards the Col de la Bonette – Restefond, at 2802 m the highest Alps pass. Finally completed the loop to back to Isola and over the Col de la Lombarde to Vinadio.

Although there would have been a lot more riding left for us in Sea Alps between Italy and France, the weather report looked bad for the next few days so the next morning we decided to head east towards the Swiss-Italian border region east of St. Moritz, mostly via the autostrada, the Italian freeway.

We crossed the San Bernardino pass (2065 m) and continued east to the town of Splügen, then south across the Splügen pass (2113 m) back into Italy. Our ride took us further east across the Malojapass (1815 m) into the Swiss Engadin valley.

Splügen taught us another variation of pass riding: negotiating cars and cows together on roads barely wider than a single lane, covered with cow pies to make it a bit more challenging to find good lines around the turns. The scary part is that there were no guard rails along the sides of the road. The back side of Splügen has many tight tunnels and lots of ruts and potholes that kept us at an equally high stage of awareness. Maloja was a lot more fun: it is a "high speed" pass – easily up to 100 km/h on the straights, two full lanes wide and with good visibility around and through the turns.

We found a classy yet affordable hotel, the Palü, just outside St. Moritz. Contrary to all forecasts, the weather remained great. We had an exquisite 4 course dinner with Swiss specialties: Rösti (a kind of hashbrowns) baked with cheese and a fried egg on top. Sachertorte for dessert marked the finish of another gorgeous riding day.

The next morning we headed up the Bernina pass (2328 m) that led us back into the high country. At the top, we took a left along a narrow road leading to the Forcola di Livigno into the tiny community of Livigno. Livigno is a duty-free enclave – it’s part of Italy but historically it has maintained an independence because it is cut off from the rest of Italy during the winter months. East of the town we rode along the scenic Lago di Livigno and crossed back into Switzerland through a 2.5 mile, single-lane tunnel. The tunnel ends in the Swiss National Park and we headed east into the Münster valley (famous for its cheese) and up the Ofenpass (2149 m). In the village of Santa Maria we turned south to cross the Umbrail pass (2501 m) back into Italy. Four border crossings in less than 50 miles and no one asked for passports! The Umbrail road is narrow and partially dirt road – another valuable riding experience.

The weather turned increasingly wet on us and above 2000 m, the drizzle turned to light snow. This marked another typical Alps riding condition that one might encounter on any day of the year. Fortunately, the roads retained their grip as the snow melted right away. Still, I had an ice crust on my helmet visor! From the top of Umbrail, we could see the top of the Stilfserjoch or Passo Stelvio (2757 m), one of the most famous Alps passes, only 800 ft above us. We had to make a decision again: Go down the west side of Stelvio into Bormio or head up and over Stelvio and down the east side into Trafoi. The snow let up a bit and we trusted that the road would not get much worse so we headed for the top of Stelvio. Several other motorcyclists were on their way up or coming down from the top so we could see that conditions would be good enough. Combining Umbrail and the top part of Stelvio, I counted 45 Kehren on the way up and 48 tornanti coming down from Stelvio on the east side. There was time for a quick photo and a few snowballs at the top before we headed down to safety again. Due to the wet roads and poor visibility, the ride down the 48 turns was an exercise in motorcycle control rather than the fun we had had earlier in the trip. The snow turned back into drizzle and finally into rain that compelled us to don our rain gear.

While we were stopped in a parking lot near the bottom to don our rain gear, we saw a number of riders still trying to make their way up. A few stopped to talk to us, and we advised them of the conditions we had experienced at the top. One rider went right back to his hotel yet several others continued their ride up.

The rain stayed with us for the entire ride as we made our way east into the Dolomites via Meran, Bozen and Brixen to spend the night at a spa hotel in Bruneck, a ski resort between the Italian Dolomites and the Austrian Alps. For probably 50 miles, we rode through endless apple orchards of the Vinschgau region that supply all of Europe with apples. The “trees” are shrubs only about 10 ft tall so that the fruit can be easily picked from a stepladder. Farmers had large crates stacked up, ready for the harvest. Occasionally, we also saw a vineyard – the area is also notable for its wines.

The next morning we left the hotel in a sea of fog. Yet, soon after we had turned south from Bruneck, the weather gods sent the sun back out to smile on us. We headed past Badia across the Passo Valparolo (2192 m), the Passo Falzarego (2105 m) and west to the Pordoijoch (2239 m). The Dolomites are some of the most impressive cliffs in the Alps. Steep, rocky faces above lush green meadows make for postcard pictures. There was a fresh blanket of snow above 2000 m and the high pass roads had already been plowed that morning.

From Pordoi, we headed east for the second half of our loop across Passo Fedaia (2057), Forca Staulanza (1773 m) and Passo Duran (1601 m) for a lunch break with a hearty goulash soup. We were almost by ourselves – we only saw a half dozen other motorcyclists. The restaurant was about ready to close for a brief fall break before the start of the ski season. After lunch, we headed for north through the San Martino Nature Park and over Passo di Rolle (1970 m). The final stretch included the Karerpass (1745 m) to Brixen and back to the spa in Bruneck where we arrived at 7:30 and after 359 km, just in time for dinner: four courses, of course.

The weather forecast called for clouds and rain the next morning. Since Doug needed to drop his bike in Munich, he decided to follow a more easterly route through the central Austrian Alps around the Großglockner region.

Bill and I headed west to Brixen and north to Sterzing at the southern end of the Brenner pass, probably the most strategically important crossing of the Alps. Roman armies built a road in the second century AD to cross into Germany. The Franzensfeste fortress named after Austrian emperor Franz was built in 1833 at a location where remnants of earlier settlements date back to 2500 BC!

From Sterzing we headed west across the Jaufenpass (2099 m). It did not rain but the air was humid and the wet roads slowed us down a bit – no time to take risks. On the way down from Jaufen we encountered pea soup fog with visibilities of less than 20 ft, creating another memorable riding experience. The fog cloud hung in the middle between the valley floor and the pass – from above, it looked as if someone had spilled milk in the valley. We crossed into Austria at the Timmelsjoch (2474 m), another “must ride” motorcycling road. It took us into the Ötztal valley and on to Landeck, gateway to the Arlberg region, the birthplace of downhill skiing. Crossing the Arlberg (1793 m) and Flexen (1773 m) passes we reached the ski resorts Lech and Warth, a stop on several organized motorcycle tours in the Alps. We crossed the Hochtannberg pass (1679 m) and the Faschinajoch (1486 m), then headed through Liechtenstein (country number six!) back into Maienfeld, Switzerland for our night stop.

The final day took us back to Heidelberg via Zürich and Basel, enjoying on last look at the fantastic Swiss scenery. We had light rain until Basel but the remainder on the trip was dry. Our ride was mostly on the autobahn, but several traffic jams forced us to take a detour here and there.

We arrived at Stefan's at 4:30 pm, after covering a total distance of over 4000 km (2500 miles) in 10 days. It was just an amazing tour crossing 45 passes with an estimated 1000 switchbacks!
Comparing to organized Alps tours, we did about twice the daily mileage by cutting down on time spent for breaks, meals and sightseeing and by riding in a small group of seasoned riders that are used to spending long hours in the saddle. While this was the objective of our tour, it certainly cannot be recommended for everyone.

We saw a good cross section of alpine roads, from the scenic roads in Switzerland to the high passes in France, some of the many strategic crossings between southern and northern Europe along the Italian border and to the majestic peaks of the Dolomites. The weather was great except for three rainy days but we experienced all types of adverse conditions typical for the Alps: Fog, hail or snow can happen at any time of the year.

The trip was a lifetime experience which we all hope to repeat. There are many more passes are waiting for us to ride on!

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