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…

BUT…

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.

Dookes

In memory of Tom Petty 1950-2017