There’s no end to the models of bikes you can rent in Europe, but I wanted something different… something exotic – this may be a once in a lifetime trip after all. There are constraints though, 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. Then I found the one shop, the only shop, (Moto Schwyz) in Europe… that had a Super Duke 990 for rent. Sorted.
It all started with a harmless enough idea…I guess most trips do. After many years of traveling the Alps by mountain bike, car, train, etc., I’d always fancied a ride in the Alps. Each bikeless trip, 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, a mc friendly culture, great food, cheap accommodation everywhere, generally good weather, beautiful scenery, and superbly engineered roads. 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’re going for 10 days or more… it’s 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 – this may be a once in a lifetime trip after all. There are constraints though, 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. So 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.
I figured this to be the perfect bike for paved mountain roads. Incredible brakes, precision lightweight handling, comfortable enough, more upright riding position to see the views and exotic, very exotic – only 75 were imported into Germany this year! In 2200 kms of riding, I only saw one other. I lost count at the number of BMW 1200’s and sportbikes of all kinds. The big KTM attracted admirers every time it was parked.
My partners for the adventure were four friends from Germany. Dirk, an old friend but new to the sport (F650 GS Dakar). His partner Suzi (F650GS) who had been riding bikes in the Alps since she was 16, and 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 making it an adventure for all.
A short note about riders in Europe, generally speaking the skill level of both the moto riders and the car drivers surpasses that which we are used to here in Canada or North America. To get a license is no easy task and driving is taken seriously, and 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.
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… giving you an amazing 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. These are no exception, most of these high routes are closed in winter, and depending upon snow they are ready to ride 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 and race-track clean, to scary sand covered, frost heaved adventure surface. Mostly the former, but in the case of the later usually there are signs serving notice of debris on the road.
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. After all, you are in the high mountains.
Some of the corners and switchbacks are cut out of massive 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 alternately laughing and screaming in your helmet because the road itself is simply the best riding you have every experienced on a bike.
The Route: 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 the 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, and falling off anywhere is pretty much certain death or life changing.
These roads make B.C.’s cherished the Sea to Sky look like an autobahn driven by little old ladies.
Our destination for our journey was… wherever, or however far we were able to go on the time we had. We headed to the French Alps, since the Southern Alps are not nearly as busy as the Dolomites or the Swiss Alps for riding. It’s 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, making it a dictating factor as with most bike trips.
For myself I wanted to travel real light and so had only a 30 lbs drybag and a small daypack. My German friends, we’re not so minimalist, and 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 series of passes and roads that the French have named as the ultimate driving route to see the Alps. It’s much like our B.C. circle routes in theory, be they the “loop” or the “Rockies”. Adding to the experience was that many of the cols we rode were part of the Tour de France route – explaining why some of these passes had perfectly prepared pavement. We passed through only a week before the famous race…lucky us.
Day One: 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 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!
– Written by Jayson Faulkner