Learning to Fly

“I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings.”

I knocked “Harls” out of gear and let her roll to a stand on the edge of the car park. I let the engine idle freely for a minute or so, letting the valves cool a bit after the arduous climb, then switch off and … silence, save for the gentle metallic “tinkle” of an air-cooled engine cooling down.

Time to take stock.

We were sitting on top of the Nufenen Pass, at 2478 metres/8130 feet above sea level. It’s the second highest paved pass in Switzerland and the eleventh highest in Europe. There was early snow lying around, the air crisp, cold and blown by a keen North Westerly wind was just enough to catch your breath.

Nufenen Pass

We had just climbed from Airolo in the Bendretto Valley; 1319 metres of climbing over a distance of 24 kilometres, average grade 5.5%, maximum grade 10%. No wonder her engine was warm! The panorama of the Bernese Alps before us was magnificent, a fair reward for the effort of the climb.

It had been a long day with seven passes collected, a fair distance covered and hideous traffic on the Gotthard Autobahn, but we now had only 14km and 1108 metres of decent down to Ulrichen and our stop for the night. I was almost blowing the froth off the top of a cold one!

First though, I just needed to drink in the scenery and bask in the satisfaction of crossing another high pass…

It’s been just about a fortnight since Harls and I got back from our Italian travels and I think that I’ve almost recovered. If I’m honest, for the first few days after I got back I could have done with a holiday to get over the trip, these long distance adventures don’t get any easier with age!

That said, our schedule on this last excursion was pretty punishing, even with a day off from riding, but you know I never seem to learn! The trip was pretty epic; 2736 miles in total, 40 “mountain” passes, 7 countries, one return sea crossing.

The thing to focus on though, is those mountain passes….that’s where I have a bit of a problem.

I’m hooked on them!

I’ve always had a love of high places, right from an early age stomping around the beautiful Welsh mountains in Snowdonia. It’s something I can’t really describe adequately, other than “Put me on a mountain and see a happy Dookes!”

As I result, when I got into this motorcycle touring habit it just seemed such a natural thing to head for the high passes and then keep going ever higher. Please understand that I don’t necessarily have to go touring in the mountains, it just makes me a bit happier. I written before about my quest to ride Galibier, but by visiting that magical place it sort of opened up a “Pandora’s Box” of other possibilities; the more I pondered the map of Europe things just got even more interesting.

What started out as a whimsical idea began to grow into a list of targets!

I made a few rules for myself along the way, otherwise the whole thing was going to get totally out of control.

1. The road must be paved, no dirt tracks.
2. Dead end roads do not count.
3. The road must be open to all public traffic.
4. Military or private service roads are not allowed.
5. Closed or disused roads also not allowed.
6. Europe West of the Carpathian Mountains only (at the moment).

Oh yes, whilst I think of it. For those of you who may be wondering what old Dookes is on about with a “Mountain Pass”…..

A Mountain Pass is a route through a mountain range which often crosses over a ridge, gap or saddle. Mountain ranges make formidable barriers to travel and transport, even in our modern era, so passes have through the centuries become vital for trade and defence. They are also some of the most beautiful places on earth.

Albula Pass

Looking at the options from my self-imposed rules, the highest road is the Cime de la Bonette, 2802m, which is near Jausiers in the French Alps; the highest Pass being Col de L’Iseran, 2770m, which is near Val d’Isère also in France.

Cime de la Bonette

Now because I’m not the sort of chap who settles for the easier option, it had to be the big ones that I went after first, but no it’s not at all been downhill from there! At the beginning I didn’t make a conscious effort to chase the list, but it’s sort of evolved and become a bit “semi-organic” …almost with a life of its own. To be honest, one day I started crossing out the places that we’d been and it sort of took off from there!

Back to the recent trip. I have to admit that “Pass-Hunting” was part of the planning process and that we were pretty successful with it too. Of the highest paved passes on my list I’ve now bagged the top nine, 24 of the top 30, 40 out of 50 and a whole bunch of “lesser” passes too; the really great thing though is that most of them have been done on my beloved Harls and I can’t be happier for that.

Cole de Mont Cenis 2083m.

What’s next then?

Well, I had been thinking of a trundle around Scandinavia to Nordkapp sometime next year, after the snow has melted. The thing is, I’m torn, there’s still unfinished business in the high mountains and that little obsession is gnawing at me again. The other consideration is the small matter of age. Riding some of the passes is hard work and whilst I love the scenery and flying around the clouds, but I’m not the greatest fan of really tight hairpin bends, they are far too much hard physical work on a big bike with an impingement in one shoulder and arthritis in the other!

Learning to fly around the clouds…


There’s a tourist itinerary in France called “Le Route des Grandes Alpes.” It runs from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea and takes in some of the best mountain roads and passes in Europe; it caught my eye a few years ago. For sure there are a number of the “big ones” on the route that we’ve done in the past, but hey going back to Galibier and dropping down to the Med would be no hardship at all! In addition, we could put in a side trip just across into Italy and grab a couple of targets that have eluded us so far and whilst I’m still half capable.

Notice I keep referring to “We” and “Us” in my narrative?

That’s because “Harls” and I are a team when it comes to those Passes. Sure, big “Baby Blue” is more comfortable on the transits and she has got a few Passes to her name, but she’s sooo heavy when it comes to doing the business in the mountains.

Déjà vu.

It’s a no brainer, there’s only one bike for me and anyway I want “Harls” to have the glory when we finally clear the list!

Déjà vu two!

Looks like that’ll be the plan for next year then, with suitable domestic approval of course.

“I’m learning to fly, around the clouds
But what goes up must come down.”

Catch you soon.


In memory of Tom Petty 1950-2017

13 thoughts on “Learning to Fly

  1. It was serendipitus that I should open your blog post and see the lyrics of Tom Petty. A great rock and roll icon whose music I have loved through the years, passed way too early this past Monday. Gainesville, Florida’s number 1 son always resonated with me. I spent many years in Gainesville, having finished my undergraduate work at University of Florida, and my post-grad studies there as well. Petty’s music was with me through those fantastic years. I met my wife in Gainesville (many years later), and she too is a Petty fan. His music comes with me on the bike during long interstate drones as My two wheels burn up American asphalt. He will be missed.
    Great photos HD!


    • Thanks Bob.
      I haven’t got the same links to Tom Petty as you, I just love his music and will sorely miss another great rock genius who has passed far to soon. Tom Petty and his music have accompanied me, like you, through many miles in the past and will, for sure, do the same on future trips. The man may have departed, but his music remains and will live on.
      “I’m free, free fallin'”


      Liked by 1 person

  2. G’day Dookes, I’ve been following your recent adventures and I’ve got to tell you I now have withdrawal symptoms in a big way. I think I’ve said before that you could have another career change and become a travel writer and photographer. specialising in the high passes and the twisty roads that you have a great knack of discovering. When I get over it, I’ll do a lengthy blog featuring nothing but flat, straight roads, red dirt and the odd sand hill.

    Having said that I must remind myself that I wouldn’t swap the Land Down Under for anywhere else on earth, except perhaps the odd trundle from Lands End to John o’groats( if that’s how it’s spelled)
    Hoo roo for now


    • Hello Bones!
      I am so pleased to hear from you, with no posts and no comments I was beginning to get a little worried about you, so it’s great to hear from you again.
      You flatter me with your kind comments, I just tell it as I see it and the roads….well they’re there for everyone to find! Let me know when you want to do L.E. To J.O.G. I’ll sort the route and tag along with you.
      Like I said, good to her from you my friend.
      Stay safe, Dookes


      • Thanks for your most generous offer Mr Dookes. LE to JOG has been on my bucket list since 1976 when I bought a touring bike from Condor Cycles just out of London. Monty Young who owned the shop made my frame to measure and I rode it around Britain, into Scotland for a bit and some of Wales, I really loved the hills, down of course, not too pleased with the ups that I encountered in the Lakes District. Fond memories of Kendall Mint Cake too. For some reason or other L to J didn’t enter into the equation then. However time is that sneaky enemy and I reckon riding one end to the other, powered 98 RON or by pedal will have to remain a distant dream.

        Hope to get back to the Blog soon when things settle down here and go back to normal.

        Keep the shiny side up and hoo roo for now


  3. Another great slice of Holibags and biking wisdom from you D 🙂
    Agree wholeheartedly about the loss of Tom Petty. I was privileged to have seen him in May at Champaign, Illinois on his 40th anniversary tour. A great night and I was hoarse from singing along. “Buy me a drink, sing me a song, take me as I come because I can’t stay long” ❤️


  4. Loved your post as always Dookes! I’ve always been a mountain person than a beach person. I do like my time at the beach and I love rugged shorelines like the ones in Brittany. But I am always called back to the mountains. Maybe not on a motorcycle though… 🙂

    And I was not a Tom Petty uber fan, but his music was certainly a backdrop for many of the events in my life. Way too young.


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