Costa gets to finally sample motorcycling’s Holy Grail of riding areas – the European Alps, courtesy of Edelweiss Tours.
I guess you can say I have the opposite of a bucket list. Not a list of things I’d like to get done before kicking the proverbial bucket — the risk of having unfulfilled dreams is just too great with that formula — rather a list of things I did, that I never thought I’d actually do!
An anti-bucket list of sorts.
I began compiling this list several years ago, the first item being a change of career from mechanic to what I now do. Soon after that came a ride on a MotoGP machine, a truly rare opportunity that very few riders will ever experience, I being the last person to imagine it possible. But it happened.
More recently, my anti-bucket list grew, though this time the content was much more accessible – the high Alps.
I’ve heard the European Alps referred to as the Mecca of motorcycling, the rider’s Shangri-La, but until I actually rode through this mountainous region of Europe, I had no idea just how much the rugged landscape was two-wheel suited.
My ticket to this terrestrial motorcycling heaven came via the High Alpine Tour, one of numerous motorcycle tours offered by Edelweiss Bike Travel.
Edelweiss tours include the motorcycle, lodging in modest to very nice hotels located conveniently in city centres, breakfast and dinner (there are a couple of midday picnics included), as well as the route and tour guides.
Tour prices vary depending on the motorcycle chosen and single or shared occupancy (they start at $2,800 U.S.), though you’d likely be wise to spring for single occupancy, as one rider in our group discovered after sharing a room with a chronic snorer!
You provide airfare, fuel, the occasional meal and incidentals (post-ride booze and, errr … travel pussy, for the more lonely traveller).
My girlfriend Roxanne and I were part of a group of 22 tour participants from Germany, Canada, the United States, Brazil and Venezuela who took part on the six-day tour that took us from Munich, Germany, through Austria, Italy, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and back to Munich – a distance of 1,600 glorious kilometres.
THE CAST & CREW
Being that the High Alpine Tour was graded as “tough” on the Edelweiss website and guaranteed challenging riding along narrow, winding mountain passes riddled with switchbacks, my chosen steed for the deed was a 2010 BMW R1200GS, equipped with ESA and hard saddlebags and top case.
-The tour group was split into two to make it more manageable for the tour guides, and though I usually balk at the thought of riding in groups of more than four bikes, after meeting our eclectic bunch it was clear that the ride would be much more entertaining if we flocked.
Among the colourful bunch was Rich, an outspoken architect from New Jersey, who carried ice in a cooler on his bike to make sure his cola was cold when we stopped for a break. In fact, he made sure everything he drank was ice cold, including his evening lager, which he also iced – to the bewilderment of more than a few barkeepers.
Then there was Chick, a portly train engineer from Nebraska with a hearty laugh and a passing resemblance to Jerry Garcia, who’s business card boldly listed services rendered, including such rare specialities like kingdoms overthrown, couches broken-in, and my favourite, virgins cured.
Yup, I was definitely going to ride with this group, a decision I did not regret as we gelled immediately and lasting friendships were formed.
Markus Hellrigl, Edelweiss’ senior tour guide, has 17 years of caring for his “little ducklings” (as he refers to riders in his charge) under his belt. Hellrigl, an Austrian, is a ruggedly handsome and windburned former U.N. peacekeeper with an infectious personality.
The crow’s feet flanking his eyes are either evidence of a life spent outdoors squinting in the bright sunlight or a product of his constant laughter; either way he’s an affable gentleman with endless travel stories – and he’s a hell of a good rider.
No less enthusiastic were his partners, Andy Bucher and Alan Magnoni, all three men leading the daily rides more like riding buddies than tour guides.
THE BEAUTY OF THE PASS
Leaving Munich we headed south towards our introduction to the Alps, Austria’s Grossglockner Pass.
Hellrigl told us the Hohe Tauern mountain range, which includes the Grossglockner (at 3,798 metres it’s Austria’s highest mountain), acts as a continental weather divide – weather to the north, temperate and comfy; weather to the south, cold and wet. I took his word for it when I saw him slip into his rain gear at the top of the pass and did the same.
Sure enough, as we descended the Grossglockner High Alpine Road it was as if someone hit the “change season” switch and the temperature plummeted into the single digits and rain began to fall. Fortunately it was about the only rain we encountered on the tour.
The High Alpine Tour wouldn’t be tough if it didn’t include several mountain passes. The most memorable — and challenging — of them was the Stelvio Pass located along the Italian/Swiss border.
Before long my arms were pumped and tingling, and despite temperatures in the low teens Celsius I busted a sweat that soaked my riding gear from the inside. I frantically tugged and pushed at the GS’s handlebar, wringing its throttle on short straights and hammering the brakes before hairpin turns.
Approaching from the north, it took 48 gruelling switchbacks — some so tight you could catch a glimpse of your own taillight — to climb the 1,870 metres to the crest of the pass. Once there, I stopped and glanced over a stone barrier at the impossibly convoluted strip of asphalt below. I felt triumphant. I had conquered Passo dello Stelvio, the second-highest mountain pass in the Alps.
Up top were parked dozens of motorcycles, their riders mingling and sharing their own Stelvio experiences. Local vendor, Bruno grilled sausages from his cart, and for five euro served them up in a bun with sauerkraut and mustard – a succulent reward for a very successful ascent.
Another very memorable place is an area in Italy known as the Dolomites where we took a mid-tour rest day at the town of Bolzano. Monolithic, jagged and barren, the mountains looked like they erupted skyward at a time when the planet was an angrier place. If you were to picture the Alps in your mind without ever having experienced them in person, it is the Dolomites that your imagination would conjure up.
Part of the allure of such a tour was the unpredictability of the experiences we encountered, and in Bolzano I experienced a rather improbable coincidence.
During dinner on a terrace a few of us were discussing the merits of the BMW R1200GS and the Ducati Multistrada 1200, both among the machines included in the tour. As we discussed ABS, traction control and wheel sizes, another patron of the restaurant approached and introduced himself as Stefano Ciuti.
Ciuti, who was also on a motorcycle vacation, had taken a keen interest in our conversation; he was an engineer working for Ducati in Bologna. As part of the Multistrada 1200 design team, he developed the bike’s engine management system, which we discussed with much praise – to his obvious delight.
ONE FOR ANY BUCKET LIST
Riding the High Alps will have you tied in knots, with winding passes barely a car wide and scenery that fights to pull your attention from the task at hand: negotiating them.
You should also prepare to experience a motorcycling culture shock. Europeans are very receptive to motorcyclists, especially in the Alps where the enticing geography and serpentine roads offer an alternative form of tourism for the summer months, when ski hills are lush and green.
You will often find signs proclaiming Motorbikers Willkommen in front of hotels and bars, sometimes accompanied by some form of motorcycle art, like the retired pre-war CZ 175 hanging from the rafters of the lodge at Passo di Falzarego in the Dolomites.
And maybe the biggest revelation of them all: automobile drivers respect and watch out for motorcycles. Well, mostly – one tour bus seemed intent to not let us pass, wandering over the centreline whenever someone tried to make a pass.
After several minutes of this stupidity, Rich pulled out from behind me, wound up the Multistrada 1200 he was riding and blew past the bus. After pulling in front of it, the ballsy New Jerseyan slowed to a crawl allowing the rest of us to pass the chugging roadblock. Score: Rich 1; tour bus 0.
An Edelweiss tour offers challenging riding, scenery that will occupy several gigabytes on your camera’s memory card, unforgettable moments, and the opportunity to make new friends.
And those friendships crossed the Atlantic after the tour, too. Those of us living in the northeast; Erik and Francois from Montreal, Rick and Sheryl from Ipswich, Massachusetts and Alan and Peter (nicknamed Speedy 1 and Speedy 2 for their gracefully quick synchronised riding) from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Roxanne and I, met at Francois’ chateau (Ludwig II would be envious) in October for a High Alpine Tour reunion.
The four U.S. riders rode up through a snowstorm in Vermont to meet with us. Plans are in the works for some of us to ride down to Deal’s Gap in the spring, where we’ll meet up with Tom from Atlanta, Georgia.
If an Edelweiss tour of the high Alps sounds like the ideal motorcycling vacation, well it almost is.
I did, however, uncover one major flaw in the Edelweiss formula, and this only after returning to eastern Canada, where the sudden absence of switchbacks, mountain passes, Alpine vistas and smooth Bavarian lager triggered a withdrawal that gave me cold sweats and made my stomach churn.
I vote that Edelweiss fund a support group for High Alpine Tour veterans – to help them cope with their return to reality. Or maybe it’s time to start saving for my next fix.
For tour info, visit edelweiss.com.
My Alpine guide: 2010 R1200GS
Wanting to make the most of this experience I needed a bike that would easily manage the switchbacks, offer a comfortable riding position, which for me meant upright, and maintain its handling while loaded with a passenger and luggage for two.
Having previously attended the press launch of the 2010 R1200GS at California’s Yosemite National Park, I got a precursor as to how the bike handled mountain roads – and in that case, snow-covered ones to boot. There was only one choice for the Alps.
With its upgraded HP2 powerplant, the R1200GS easily handled the weight of two, with a healthy bottom-end punch for gassing it out of those second-gear switchbacks. Passing cars quickly along winding roads, which you must do often in Europe, was effortless – I even had to pay attention to how much throttle I applied when passing so as not to lift the front wheel.
My bike was equipped with ESA, and I set the suspension to Sport for two-up riding, but without luggage (which sets spring preload lower than with luggage) most of the time so the seat height would remain manageable.
This provided smooth yet firm compliance, allowing the bike to transition wallow-free through esses. The only issue I had with this setup was that the front end felt vague through very slow-speed switchbacks, as the rear of the bike sat a bit too low.
Bumping up the preload when we climbed mountains cured this, and I reset it lower again when the road was less twisty – it was a matter of pushing a button after all, though I had to do it when the bike was at a stop.
The bike was also equipped with BMW’s Variable hard side cases and top case.
The expandable cases offered a maximum of 103 litres of storage capacity, but since Edelweiss carried of the majority of everyone’s luggage in a truck, I only carried essential riding gear and items we needed daily like shoes and sweaters, and didn’t expand the cases. They were easy to operate and remove from the bike, proving very convenient during overnight stops.
Despite the load and the sometimes spirited pace, the bike managed a very respectable 5.6L/100 km (50 mpg) fuel consumption, which kept expenses to a minimum, as fuel in Europe can cost up to 1.50 € per litre.
The High Alpine Tour was one of the more memorable motorcycle trips I’ve taken, and the R1200GS was certainly a contributing factor.