Motor Bike Ride through the Dolomiten in the Italian Alps

 

 

Every couple of years I really long for a good long motorcycle ride in the Alps. So every couple of years I call up my friend Frank to organize a fine trip. Then we only have to be lucky enough with the weather. This time we picked July 11th, and it was a great day with near perfect weather.

As for the motorcycle, every couple of years BMW comes out with a better bike. I was interested in the refinement of its most popular bike model, the GS – recently BMW brought out the R 1200 GS; with less weight and more power it’s an even better bike than its predecessors R 1100 GS and R 1150 GS. It’s handling and response is superior to the previous one. So when I rented this newest bike for a day in the Austrian town of Kaprun I liked it immediately after the first couple of km. I picked it up the evening before and went on a short reconnaisaince ride up a local mountain in the setting sun.

I very much looked forward to the coming day with perfect weather and this new bike for the trip to the ‘Dolomiten’ just South of the Austrian Alps.

 

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

We meet at 6:45am at a gasstation in ‘Mittersill’ near my Aunt Rosi’s house. For Frank this means another 180km approach from Munich, with his alram clock ringing before 5:00am! Anyway, the sun is out and everything looks great when he pulls up in the early morning.

We refuel our bikes, I put on some cloths Frank brought for me and soon we’re off heading for the first couple of mountain passes and tunnels. At 7:20am we’re at the entrance of the ‘Felbertauern Tunnel’, a 5km long tunnel which will bring us to the South side of the central ridge in the Alps (‘Alpenhauptkamm’).

There is hardly any traffic this early in the morning and we have the roads to ourselves. After crossing to the South we ride down the big road through the ‘Tauerntal’ valley. I remember ten years ago we came back after a long ride crossing to the North late in the evening. Then we were doing upwards of 160 km/h (100 mph), but today we’re not in a hurry, so we take it easy and mostly obey the speed limits…

Soon we turn to the West into the ‘Defreggental’ valley, which leads up to our first real pass, the ‘Staller Sattel’ (2052m). This pass marks the border between Austria and Italy. Just short of the pass is a nice lake. The morning sun at 8:30am paints everything in beautifully warm light. We stop to take in the scenery, one of the first photo stops, but certainly not the last one for the day.

At the highest point there is the border to the Italy towards the West. On the Italian side the road is a single lane road; as a result of this road being so narrow and very curvy, they created a time-dependent one-way rule: Between the full hour and 15 minutes thereafter, you can descend to Italy. ½ hour later you can ascend to Austria. In between you have to wait. This gives us time for a 15 minute coffee break with a nice view from this terrace:

 

Soon it is 9:00am and we’re getting ready to depart again. Now we are entering Italy, where we will stay for the better part of the day.

Exiting through the ‘Anholtzer Tal’ valley and passing slightly to the East of ‘Bruneck’ we’re heading South for the village of ‘Corvara’. The roads are small and windy with countless turns. You can’t go fast on these roads, but in my opinion they are the best roads for motorcycle riding. Today we will have hundreds of km of these roads, with literally thousands of turns... motorcycle heaven!

About 2 hours after crossing into Italy we’re ready for another break. We stop at a nice restaurant on the way up to the ‘Grödner Joch’ pass. The view of the towering rock formations is spectacular. We’re in the heart of the ‘Dolomiten’ mountains now.

This terrain is a playground for the outdoor enthusiasts: Mountain hiking, climbing, biking, skiing, hanggliding and paragliding, river rafting, motorcycle touring, … there’s so much to do here. The rock climbers, for example, often leave a parking lot on top of a pass and within minutes they can start climbing a vertical rock wall.

The scenery is quite picturesque: You often have meadows above the treeline (1800m) with plenty of wild-flowers, some cows, horses or sheep grazing on the slopes, with the steep mountains towering overhead. Well worth stopping for another photo op:

You may see some paragliders in the air aloft, a few motorcycles passing by, some tourists craning their necks to watch some rock climbers, and some cyclists sweating up to the next pass. I can harldy imagine a better outdoor playground than this terrain on a beautiful summer day!

Our next valley is the ‘Grödnertal’, from which we ascend up to the Sella Pass, at 2240m the highest point in Italy we reach today. The view in all directions is magnificent.

No matter where we look, we associate memories and outdoor experiences from our early adulthood with nearly every mountain we can see, typically involving skiing or hanggliding experiences.

The picture above shows the highest mountain in the ‘Dolomiten’, the ‘Marmolada’ (3342m) and it’s glacier on the far left as well as the town of ‘Canazei’ in the valley below. When friends in Florida ask me why I consider riding a motorcycle in Florida somewhat boring, I’d like them to just look at this one picture: There is an additional 3rd dimension which makes all the difference! (Not to mention the seasonal change.) Just turning 90 degrees from this very spot, you can see the ‘Langkofel’ mountain, a classic ‘Dolomiten’ picture as if taken from a post card:

On a day like this, you can leave your worries from the office behind – no wonder Frank is giving me a bright smile and a big thumbs up!

It is tempting to just sit there and enjoy the view, but we know we have a long way ahead of us today, so we never stop for too long. That said, when we reach the ‘Fedaia Pass’ just North of the ‘Marmolada’ mountain, it is 12:30pm and we stop for lunch. Again, it’s a terrace with a stunning view up the glaciated mountain:

There is excellent skiing on these slopes until late in the spring. Just 12 days ago I saw this mountain massif very clearly from the air on our flight from Milano to Munich:

Back to the ground: Refreshed from our long lunch break we take off again and follow the roads further South along the border between the Italian provinces of ‘Veneto’ to the East and ‘Trentino’ to the West. Just South of the ‘Marmolada’ massif is the ‘San Pellegrino’ valley, namesake to the famous Italian sparkling water. From here we cross over the ‘Passo Valles’ pass (2032m).

We descend into the ‘Val Cismon’ valley and reach our Southern most point in the litte village of ‘Fiera di Primiero’, just 30 km (arial distance) West of ‘Belluno’, from which you could reach the town of ‘Venezia’ in about 1 hour on the autostrada highway. I have never been in this neck of the woods, and let Frank and his onboard GPS lead the way. We’re definitely on the Southern side of the Alps now, with Italian influence more dominant than the Austrian elements in many parts of the Dolomiten region called ‘Südtirol’, formerly part of Austria.

Several little villages and countless turns later we’re getting very hot under our helmets. We stop to cool off with the fresh water of a local fountain and a breeze in the shade of a small chapel - very refreshing. What a different world from, say, my office park at Citrix Sytems in Fort Lauderdale, to which I shall return next week!

From here we’re heading North-East over three consecutive small passes: ‘Passo di Ceredo’ (1369m), ‘Passo Duran’ (1605m), ‘Passo Cibiana’ (1536m). This doesn’t sound like much when coming from the likes of ‘Sella Pass’ (2240m), but when you consider that the little villages in between like ‘Agordo’ are only at 611m above sealevel, there are still 1000 m to climb and descend everytime. And the roads are extremely narrow and with so many turns, it’s often difficult to pass cars and trucks, even on a motorcycle. And you can’t go fast even without traffic, as you always have to be able to stop going into turns, as you never know what to expect coming the other way… Even in the villages, the traffic patterns take on a more relaxed, and less organized, shall we say ‘Italian’ flavor.

    

It is on this part of our trip that we realize we won’t be back by 7:30pm in time to return the motorcycle that same evening. Our GPS indicates an ETA of past 9:00pm, and we realize there is no way on these roads to pick up the average speed. This neck of the woods is not for people in a hurry, it is for people who take time and enjoy the scenery!

We’re also slowed down by road construction, which often leads to one-way traffic controlled by red lights. At least we can always roll to the front of the queue with our bikes and be the first to take off when the light switches to green! Another picture stop around 5:00pm when we cross the ‘Passo Duran’:

At times the roads are so small and the little villages so confusing that despite previous excursions and GPS on Frank’s part we need to consult the map to make sure we’re taking the right turns.

For the next 2 hours we’re hardly stopping at all and I don’t take any pictures. So many turns, vehicles to be passed, tunnels and bridges to be crossed, hard to describe in words. One memory I have of this part is a long straight tunnel with a 80km/h speed limit. There is one lane each direction with a double solid line in the middle, practically no traffic, so we’re doing maybe 90-100km/h. After a minute or so of entering the tunnel I hear a deafening roar and see a small white light in my rear-view mirror. In what seems only seconds later, a motorcycle overtakes us and flies by on the opposite lane doing perhaps 160-180 km/h (100+ mph), in very dim light in a tunnel! This is riding with very high risk, and if the Italian carabineri clock your speed, kiss your drivers license good-bye…

Eventually we exit via the ‘Sextental’ valley and reach the nice village of ‘Toblach’ in the ‘Pustertal’ valley. From here we follow the main road to the East and cross near Silian back over the border to Austria. It is 7:30pm and the sun is getting lower when we stop to refuel our bikes for the second time.

Such stops are always good for some refreshing drinks or icecream. I also carry a little backpack with pockets for small water bottles, which we regularly refill at such stops.

The next section offers the best road in terms of riding fast, hardly any turns and long straight-aways, but also plenty of traffic. Once I finger out my camera and take a picture while driving, somewhat complicated by the fact that I have to operate the camera with the left hand (as the right hand controls the throttle).

After maybe a minute or so of riding slowly behind a truck and putting my camera away I decide to accelerate and close the gap to Frank up ahead. This is where a 100 hp motorcycle really makes a difference. Opening up full throttle in 5th and 6th gear I quickly close the gap to Frank and briefly see speeds up to 180 km/h on my speedometer. Last time I (briefly) moved this fast on 2 wheels was on the Seven Mile Bridge on my Harley ride to Key West.

Soon we reach the town of ‘Lienz’ and carry on over a little pass to ‘Winklern’, from where we retrace the route up the ‘Mölltal’ valley to the village of ‘Heiligenblut’ at the bottom of the ‘Grossglockner’ mountain. I’ve been here many times, including 1 week ago with my son and mother with the car, as well as on a mountain bike ride 2 years ago crossing the ‘Grossglockner Pass’ from the North. In fact, I stop at the same parking lot and take a self-timed picture from the exact same spot each time, with the ‘Grossglockner’ peak just above my helmet.

It is getting dark and we practically fly up this last pass road, with barely any traffic remaining this late in the day. It is almost 9:00pm when we reach the ‘Hochtor’, at 2505m our highest point for the day.

Always a high point and a highlight! Just last week we also stopped here with the car, and I was looking at all the motorcycles with envy – now we’re here and riding very finne bikes ourselves J

What a great day it has been! We didn’t waste any time and thus maximized the number of passes you can cross in daylight and thus the mountain scenery you can take in on a day like this. Now the sun has set and it is getting too dark for the sunglasses…

On the way down the North side we hook up with a group of 5 riders who also finish the day with one last descent. I pull ahead a few turns and stop to take a picture of the evening action:

My odometer shows close to 600km which is also the mileage limit I negotiated with the dealership for the 1 day rental. Frank will log 900km by the end of the day due to his ride back and forth to Munich! See also his GPS track log of the entire trip.

At the bottom of the pass we reach the village of ‘Fusch’ and decide to stop for dinner. I will stay overnight at a nearby Inn and return the bike tomorrow morning. Frank will ride home tonight, as he needs to work tomorrow. But first we relax, enjoy a good dinner and remember the ride of the last 15 hours. What a spectacular way to see the Alps, to experience the landscape, and to experience the thrill of high-tech motorcycle riding. Wouldn’t you have as big smile on your face as we did?