Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Hot Road Back To The Alps - Motorbike Trip 2012

Beautiful, hot, busy Lake Como

The green hills which surround Como, making its lake so beautifully dramatic, turn gradually to mountains as you head north until, a few kilometers past the tip of the lake, you find yourself climbing back into the Alps. Before we got there though, we needed to find our way out of the town. Julius Caesar had Como built on a traditional Roman grid, but so narrow are the streets, the town is littered with confusing one-way systems, meaning just getting out of the old town was a feat of exceptional navigation, or at least proof that my Garmin worked. We were unable to leave such a wonderful city without at least stopping for a coffee so, having parked in sight of the lake, we found a café on the Piazza Alessandro Volta (yes, named after the physicist; the battery bloke.) Here we drunk a sublime cappuccino and, in this beautiful place, sat and watched beautiful people doing the same. I could happily have stayed there all day, graduating from coffee to Chianti as the hours ticked past, but we had places to be and roads to ride.

A few years before I had driven along the industrial east side of the lake so, after consulting the map, decided we should try riding up the west shore. Sure there were villages, but they seemed well spaced, with plenty of wiggly roads between. How wrong a bloke can be. The beauty of the area has attracted much money and many visitors, all of whom need to be accommodated. This side of the lake has some fantastic looking resorts, but each seems to merge into the next, creating one massive ribbon like conurbation, with attendant speed limits as low as 30kph. It’s clear some drivers obviously feel this is too fast as they creep along the narrow streets, followed by a queue of at least two hot, impatient motorcyclists desperately searching for a non-existent place to overtake. It was motorcycle purgatory, made much, much worse by full leathers and intense heat. Not only that, but the previous night’s slightly excessive beer consumption, combined with only coffee to rehydrate, meant that the heat was taking its toll, lowering my mood. It took two hours to ride 80 kilometers and the hideous ordeal had me wishing I was stuck at work.

Though there are fewer villages and less traffic north of the lake, the road to the Swiss border is generally flat and far from entertaining until you pass Chiavenna, already well into the Alpine foothills. Just into Switzerland we stopped for petrol and what had become the standard lunch: coffee, a bottle of water and a Snickers, the sort of food which was gradually grinding us into the ground. I’d driven the Maloja pass a few years before and was looking forward to it, despite the less than favourable review on The climb starts in a forested valley, before opening out into grassy meadows, from which you can see the top of the pass high above. Towards the end it gets very steep, with barely 100 metres between some of the well surfaced hairpins.

On one of the very steep ramps I was caught at some temporary traffic lights controlling some road works. For car drivers this is of no consequence, but a motorcyclist riding a fully loaded machine has the problem of how to prevent his bike rolling backwards to oblivion. The lights were red forever and holding one or other of the brake levers was getting uncomfortable. Normally rubbish at going round bends, I’d been alright up to then, but when I eventually set off my rhythm had been broken and I reverted to type; zero confidence and treating each bend like it was my first. It’s just as well I enjoy being frustrated.

Pretending I’d been flying all the way, I blasted past Ian who was waiting patiently at the top, in turn waiting for him a little further on by the lake. It’s a stunningly beautiful and peaceful place, where I could while away hours just looking. But I didn’t, and we headed off towards St Moritz, turning off before we got there to tackle the Julierpass, rated so low on it has a little black pig next to it. I loved it. Yes, it was busy, but one of the best overtakes I’ve ever executed (one of the longest anyway - about 1km) despatched a long queue of cars just before the top and the series of sweeping hairpins which herald the descent. The road surface had been stripped half way down where filtered past two lorries caught at the traffic lights. The rest of the road was relatively empty, with nothing too tight, but barely a straight metre. It was great all the way down to the dual carriageway which took us to Tiefencastel. Glorious.

Not many places in southern Switzerland are flat and after a busy uphill grind to the ski resort of Flims, we descended into one of those rare flat areas, the valley of the Vorderrhein, one of two sources of the Rhine. As you head west it becomes narrower and increasingly rural, before we finally turned right at Disentis, climbing the final pass of the day. Oberalpass is a good road, which is reasonably surfaced and relatively unchallenging, though I can cock up any bend. It swoops gently upwards until flurry of hairpins brings you out at the top. Before the final tumble into the beautiful town of Andermatt, you fly past the silvery expanse of Oberalpsee on fast, wide, perfectly surfaced Tarmac.

I’d stayed at the Sport Hotel Sonne before, and before long we were sat outside chatting in warm Alpine sun. The next day was to be the longest of the trip, so we prepared by drinking beer and going for a walk to find somewhere else for some different beer. After the day we’d had I loved the calmness of conservative Andermatt, where you can sit listening to the silence, or watching others chatting quietly over their beers, but loved the way we’d started in manic, Latin Italy, where the sight of the plaster cast leg of a car driver poking out of the car window was normal. Perfect.