Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Alps, UKRM style - part 1

I don't remember exactly how it started. Somebody suggested a trip to the Alps, somebody else said it sounded like a good idea, there was some talk around dates and before too long we had a list of people wanting to go and play.

I'd done a few trips abroad on the bike before, but never gone further than northern France and Belgium. Once you get past the tedium that is Nord-Pas de Calais there are some lovely roads and not a lot of traffic, so despite knowing there was better stuff out there, I'd not really made the effort. We tried to get to the Vosges one year, but foul weather and and one unreliable bike stopped us going any further than Verdun. But this time it was going to be different.

After several months of general procrastination we ended up with a rough itinerary. Across the channel on day one, meeting up in Laon. A day riding down to Alsace for a night at Bruce's. Then down through Switzerland, over the mountains and a night by the water in Italy. Then up into Austria, a couple of days larking about, and a leisurely ride home via the Black Forest. Total distance, a couple of thousand miles. What could possibly go wrong?

Day 1 - London to Laon

Since we were all heading from different parts of the country, we'd agreed to meet up at the end of the day at a Campanille on the outskirts of Laon. Far enough into France to get the really tedious slog down from Calais out of the way, near enough to cross the channel and get to the hotel without needing to rush.

Since I was riding on my own, I took the chance to revisit the memorial at Thiepval, which I'd seen on a school history trip to the Somme the thick end of twenty years earlier. Back then we were perhaps a bit too young to really appreciate the scale of the thing or what it meant - sorry Mr Barker -  and, having seen the Menin Gate at Ypres more recently, I thought it might be nice to go back and visit as an adult, not a teenager.

Off the train at Calais, down the A26, hang a right at Arras and cross country to Thiepval. It gave me a chance to test out my new satnav, since I'd bought a Tomtom Rider v2 specially for the trip. I remembered the Lutyens memorial being big but the sheer scale was somewhat unexpected as I came over a crest and it loomed on the horizon.

Anyone who's not been to one of the big war cemeteries really should - nothing brings home the scale of the conflict quite like seeing thousands of graves, meticulously maintained, next to a depressingly huge list of names.

Slightly subdued, I headed back to the A26 at Saint Quentin and down to Laon to meet the others. It was very much beer o'clock.

I pulled into the car park and as I got off the bike I heard 'wanker' shouted from a nearby window. Confirmation, if it were needed that Andy had beaten me to it. By the end of the day we had a full complement: Andy and Adie on ZX10R and R1 respectively; Champ, also on a 10R; Steve on a GSXR1000 he'd bought just for the occasion, on the basis that you don't take a knife to a gunfight; Preston on his tart's handbag of an MV Augusta (sic); Wessie on some manky old Beemer and Ginge on another 10R, albeit the wheelbarrow kind. We'd be meeting up with Colin and Pat on their ZZR14 in Austria in a few days. Also appearing, for one night only, was Brownz, who'd wangled his way into being in the area so thought he'd show his face. For the rest of the day we stood around, talked crap, drank beer, ate dinner and crashed out for a good night's sleep before a long day's ride. In other words, we started as we meant to go on.

Day 2 - Laon to Alsace

On any road trip, somebody will get nicked, break down or crash.  Steve had made a good start by making a contribution to the local police benevolent fund as soon as he'd made it into France, and Andy drew the short straw for the next incident. Somebody always needs petrol at the start of the day, and on this day it was Andy, so off he went to a supermarket round the corner to get some fuel. Or, at least, that was the plan. Instead he somehow managed to highside the bike riding through the hotel car park at walking pace, slam it down on its side and effectively write it off. All before breakfast.

With Andy on the phone negotiating recovery, and Adie hanging around to stop him spitting his teeth across the car park (again), the rest of us set off for our next stop in a loose convoy of two gixer thous, a 10R and an MV. Ginge and Wessie, riding at a more leisurely pace, made their own way down. After a bit of autoroute to get some miles under our belts we headed cross country to find some proper roads. A few uneventful yet pleasant hours later, punctuated by occasional puffs of smoke from the back of Preston's MV as the seat unit spontaneously combusted, we dipped into the Vosges for a taster of what was to come. Dropping down past Mulhouse we rolled up at Bruce's to get some important work done.

Adie eventually turned up, having left Andy in Laon with the bike being recovered to a local Kwak dealer. One look at the bike, all Brembo this, Dymag that, the dealer declared it impossible to repair locally. That gave Andy carte blanche to head home via Eurostar to get his spare bike while the 10R was repatriated. While we made merry with the food and drink in Alsace, boozing  and abusing guitars into the early hours, he was busy loading his stuff into panniers on his XTZ660 - not exactly an ideal continental tourer - and getting an early night for another tunnel crossing at dawn. Poor sod.

Day 3 - Alsace to Italy

Andy's second attempt to ride to the Alps got off to a poor start when his XTZ fried its electrics on the M25. While he waited to be recovered for the second time in two days, we were 600-odd miles away loading our bikes for the ride to the Alps proper. Adie decided to stay behind and work out where to rendezvous with Andy, who was by that time trying to work out if there was some kind of cosmic message he was missing. Fortunately he's a committed idiot, so having decided that, and I quote, "nobody likes a quitter", he arranged insurance on Adie's spare Fazer thou and arranged to meet her near Titisee in the Black Forest. Not the planned route, but a sensible staging post for a ride to Austria and quite far enough to ride in one day on an unfaired  bike.

Meanwhile, we headed south. Not wanting to stump up for Swiss motorway vignettes we took a sneaky route across the border through an industrial estate and picked up the motorway near Basel. All motorway is dull, but the Swiss at least provide decent scenery as the road goes round and, more often, through the mountains. The landscape started to get a bit more vertical after Lucerne and by Giswil we were off the motorway and gaining altitude.

One last fuel stop before the first pass near Meringen saw us split into two pairs. It was clear that Champ and Preston were quite capable of leaving me and Steve behind, so they played pathfinder while we made merry behind. The Grimsel was my first Alpine pass and I took to it like a duck to, well, a wiggly road up the side of a mountain. One of the best things about doing this kind of trip on a bike is the way traffic effectively doesn't exist. All the way up the pass, it being a blazing hot Sunday afternoon, we passed convoys of ludicrously expensive supercars stuck trundling along. Not that the Swiss like being overtaken, we'd had a couple of hours of cars practically swerving to block us by this point, but with 160bhp and 180kg it's a simple job to get past. Something that I'm sure came as cold comfort to the locals in their overheating Porsches, Ferraris and Lamborghinis.

At the top, we'd just parked up when a burly-looking Swiss chap in Harley gear wandered over. "Are you guys English?" he asked. "Yeah", replied Champ. "And do you ride like that in England?" he asked. "Yeah", replied Champ. Our first interaction with the locals wasn't going well. One minor bollocking from an arsehole later, we sat down to work on our rosy-red tans in the sun over lunch. Spotting a local cop packing stuff up ready to head down the pass, we hurriedly got back on the bikes to make an exit before running into him on the way down. Better safe than sorry.

The south side of the Grimsel pass leads to the Furkastrasse, a slow and dull road albeit with amazing scenery, so we trundled along to Brig, got lost briefly at the edge of town, and eventually joined the road heading for the Simplon pass. This is an absolutely stunning road, with some of the most mind-blowing bridges I've ever seen. It's a major trucking route, so the roads are relatively flowing, and we made good time over the top and down into Italy.

Once across the border, everything changed. The contrast between the Swiss and Italians couldn't be greater - from a country where everybody's allergic to speeds over 50mph and blocks overtakes, to one where everybody does 100mph an inch from the vehicle in front and if they see a bike they can't get out of the way quickly enough. Exactly what the doctor ordered after 200 miles of faux-Germans.

The hotel near Stresa had a gorgeous location on the shore of lake Maggiore and I'd be hard pushed to think of a more pleasant place to unwind after a long and hard day's ride. Cold beer, great views, more cold beer and, well, more cold beer. It'd been a cracking ride down and this was as far south as we were going to go. In the morning we were heading north again, and things were about to get silly.

What happened next? Here's part 2.

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