The Pain of Leaving…

Travelling is great, if you love it as I do.

There’s a big BUT that goes with it though and it’s called “The Pain of Leaving.”

I am really lucky, no honestly I mean Really Lucky, because Mrs Dookes gives me the support and freedom to go off and chase my dreams and visions and has done for years now.

Inherently, what I do is selfish.

It’s possibly a little risky too, I’m not saying dangerous, but it is totally self-indulgent riding a motorbike around Europe alone. Many wives or partners simply wouldn’t accept or allow it, but that’s where I’m lucky; Mrs Dookes does.

I couldn’t say that she encourages me to clear off, but she certainly doesn’t stop me either!

In a way, I guess that’s where our relationship is strong, we both respect each others space and also trust each other implicitly. In addition, Mrs Dookes also has the view that without a good bit of “Me-Time” preferably on two wheels, I become, in her words “A monumental pain in the backside!”

Of course the flip side is that whilst I’m having my fill of “M-T” she has her “M-T” too!

To me the journey is the main thing; something to savour, enjoy and at times test me.

To Mrs Dookes, a journey is something to be endured in order to get to where you want to be.

You see the subtle difference?

As I get older, one thing I have noticed is how much more difficult the actual departure gets.

Yesterday, we had a lovely lunch together and I watched the end of the 24hours of Le Mans race until 14:00hrs.

Then I had an hour and a half to kill. Mrs D snoozed after lunch whilst I tried to find something to do.

Check the luggage. Check the ticket. Check the Passport. Check Harls.

Then it started to rain, not much, but just enough to annoy.

Mrs D and I became uncomfortable around each other; there was a tension.

Best go.

I put on my riding gear, made a fuss of the dogs. Hugged Mrs D and told her how much I loved her, we kissed and then I started up Harls.

The first ten miles were the hardest and not just because of the persistent drizzle.

It hurts, leaving……

Then Harls and I clicked; the team was back together.

….and then later, in totally self indulgent mode on board the ship taking me to Spain, I sat reflecting.

I have a De-lux Class cabin, I have just dined on a superb meal and am enjoying an expensive glass of Beaune de Château 2013 Premier Cru Burgundy, I’m setting off on a new adventure.

Yet still the pain of leaving hurts.

The Moon over The Bay of Biscay…travelling again.


Sometimes though, you have to experience a little pain to put things into perspective and make you appreciate even more what you have got.

Yes. I am a bloody lucky chap!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

24 Du Mans, Getting Twitchy!

I’m getting twitchy…less that 24 hours to go before Harls and I set off again on other adventure.

The same old weird feeling is beginning to grow; apprehension, excitement, impatience.

Harls is ready, bags are packed and I’m killing time.

Killing time watching Le 24 Heurs du Mans on television, possibly the greatest motor race on the planet…well it is in my view anyway!

Located in Central Northern France, the city of Le Mans is a splendid mixture of the old and new and is also a magnet for motorsport petrolheads the world over. The city hosts an annual 24 hour motor race over an 8.4 mile long circuit that encompasses public roads as well as a dedicated circuit section.

Le Mans Bentley Speed 8,
Winner Le Mans 2003


Over the years all the major marques have made their name at Le Mans; Porsche, Ferrari, Ford, Aston Martin, Bentley, Jaguar, Audi and Toyota have all tasted victory there.

Wow!


….and Harls and I have had our own little bit of fun there on he famous Sarthe circuit!

Oh my, wonderful!


Last year, on the way to La Route des Grandes Alpes, we had the opportunity to ride the Mulsanne Straight, scream under the Porsche Bridge, flick through the Indianapolis Curves and then howl around Arnage and fly down to the Porsche Curves.

Indianapolis


Needles to say, it was beyond magical and will remain with me forever….right up there with my spin around Monza on Baby Blue!

Porsche straight

Yeah, I know, I’m a lucky old geezer!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

D-Day 75 Years On. Remembering Heroes.

Five years ago I published this post. Much has happened since then and for various reasons, not least the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, I have decided to re-post it in a slightly edited form. I do hope that you enjoy it and spare a moment to remember those who gave so much for freedom.

When Harley and I visited Normandy earlier this year we were privileged to be able to visit some of the famous D-Day beaches and contemplate the events of 70 years ago when the liberation of Europe from Nazi dictatorship began. Much is said about the actual landings on the beaches, but I mentioned then about the contribution that airborne troops also made to the operation. Sometimes I feel that this vital contribution is not given the full focus that it deserves, because without it the whole operation would not have been the success that it was. I am not decrying what happened on the beaches, merely drawing attention to the oft forgotten massive contribution by the airborne operation

In the hours leading up to D-Day itself, 6th June 1944, 13,000 allied airborne troops either parachuted into occupied Normandy or arrived by glider under cover of darkness. They had set out from fifteen airfields across southern England and crossed over the English Channel in a massive stream of 220 aircraft that was described as being nine aircraft wide and five hours long! Soldiers from all of the allied nations were involved, but the majority were British and American. Let me tell you a little about one of those American soldiers.

Daniel L. Reiling was a classic Mid-Western American kid, he didn’t have the easiest of starts in life, he never knew his father and at times life was a little tough. Determined to get on in life he joined the U.S Army as a career soldier. He progressed well through the ranks and married a good-looking girl from Chicago, named Florine, whose father owned restaurants and whose mother came from Britain. By the time that the war in Europe was raging Daniel was a Sergeant in the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment. Soon he found himself and his men crossing the Atlantic to Britain on a troop-ship which constantly zig-zagged to dodge the deadly threat of Nazi U-boats. On arrival in the U.K. the troops were posted to various locations for more training and preparations. Some lucky ones managed to get leave, which Daniel did and took the opportunity to visit his wife’s family, though by all accounts the poor chap was suffering from influenza and spent a fair bit of his leave in bed being looked after by his wife’s uncle, my Grandfather William. You see now that there is a big family connection here!

Following his leave, Daniel returned to his unit and began the final preparations for the Liberation of Europe. His regiment was allocated to two airbases, RAF Membury and RAF Greenham Common. Unfortunately, we have not been able to ascertain yet exactly which one Daniel’s platoon was at. On the evening of 5th June 1944 the various airfields involved swung into action. At Greenham Common, General Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, dropped in to encourage the troops. IMG_0343Men and equipment were prepared and loaded onto the C-47 transport aircraft which at the assigned time taxied to the runways and began to take off. Sergeant Daniel L. Reiling and his men would have been dressed in full combat kit armed with a variety of weapons, they sat in total darkness inside the noisy vibrating fuselage of the C-47 as it took off and turned South towards Normandy.IMG_0342Once over the French coast the pilots took the aircraft down to the jumping altitude of 500 feet  The green jump light came on at 00:48 and Daniel threw himself out into the Normandy night, landing in a field near to Saint Martin de Varreville and set about making life difficult for the occupying German force.

By 06:30 St Martin had been captured and shortly after the German garrison at Mésières was taken as well. Five days later the town of Carentan was liberated after fierce fighting that included a bayonet charge. The 502nd then moved to assist in the capture of Cherbourg before stepping down for regrouping and rest, before rejoining the war and fighting their way across Europe, finally capturing Hitler’s private residence and many senior Nazis at Berchtesgaden in May 1945.

By the end of the conflict Daniel had been promoted to Master Sergeant and shortly after was promoted to Sergeant Major, one of the youngest in the Army. Later he was to see action in Korea and became an officer, finally rising to the rank of Major.

During WWII and the Korean War, Daniel was in a total of 13 major campaigns. In all that fighting he was wounded in the leg during the Ardennes offensive near Bastogne, but never received the Purple Heart. He won two Bronze and one Silver Star plus several other wartime decorations. Sadly, he died young in January 1969. I guess you could say he lived a full life, a real American hero, a John Wayne kind of guy. In our family we are all incredibly proud of him; none more so than my cousins, Peter and Marianne.

Over the last few weeks I have been able to visit the remains of both RAF Membury and Greenham Common. There’s not much left at either place to recall events of 70 years ago. There is however, another old base about 60 miles away from Dookes H.Q. that also played a prominent role in that airborne assault, RAF Upottery, here there is still quite a lot to see. Last evening I took the opportunity to make a pilgrimage with Harley and my little brother Greg to the old airfield and remember the events that unfolded on that fateful night.

It was a super evening to be on a motorcycle and riding through the beautiful Devon countryside I pondered if it was like this all those years ago?

The old airbase was quiet and still and much has reverted to farmland, though the runways, control tower and a few other buildings remain. P1010774Just by luck we met the local farmer who gave us permission to go on the site. It was with some awe that I turned Harley onto the main runway, the strip of concrete and tarmac from which 81 C-47’s took off, this was hallowed ground indeed! It seemed fitting that an American motorcycle was visiting the place where so many young American soldiers took off, some never to return.

P1010782

In some places the grass is beginning to win.

P1010779

After spending some time soaking up the atmosphere, we decided to leave the ghosts of the past to enjoy the sunset. As we rode off the airfield we were aware of other people who were gathering to pay their respects as well. DSCF3394

Stopping to chat with one guy he observed that we have much to be thankful for, we have indeed; like a super ride home west into a crimsoning sky on a growling Harley Davidson! I’d like to think that those young paratroopers would have approved!

Dookes

 

The battle patch of the 502nd, I think that this will look good on my leathers!

IMG_0344

 

 

Dedicated to all those who came by air in 1944.

And in loving memory of Greg, Paul and Florrine.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Engineering Baby!

It’s one of those lovely early summer mornings here at Dookes H.Q., the sun is shining, there’s a gentle breeze and all seems well in the world…until some crazy person messes it up.

Mrs Dookes is out, which means I can play a Jethro Tull album without snarky comments and grumbles; no, she really doesn’t appreciate Prog-Rock!

I’m also studying maps because trip planning time is here, actually that really came long ago, this is more like “Contingency Planning Time.”

This year’s adventure should see Harls and I heading off to the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain in a couple of weeks, we have unfinished business in those mountains.

There is, however, a slight spanner in the works.

We are due to sail from Plymouth to Santander on Brittany Ferries lovely flagship and one of my favourite vessels, the MV Pont Aven. Unfortunately the lovely white lady is currently dry docked in the port of Brest with fairly major problems in her starboard steering gear.

The poor ship has been a bit unlucky this year, back in April she suffered a fire in one of her engine rooms which led to a spell in the shipyard for repairs. Then, only days after her return to service, this fault in her steering system appeared.

One of the problems with modern transportation companies like Brittany Ferries is they operate on very tight margins, meaning that the assets are “sweated.” In plain language, they don’t have spare ships standing around doing nothing and those that they do have are kept earning revenue with minimal downtime. One breakdown can and usually does cause chaos to schedules. It’s difficult for operators to accurately predict when things are going to be back to normal and putting pressure on the engineers to get the job fixed as soon as possible can be counterproductive; better to do it once properly than to need to return through rushing or corner cutting.

Years ago a late friend and I undertook engineering services for a cross-channel ferry company operating out of Portsmouth. One of the jobs that we did was a repair on a vessel’s steering gear which necessitated a visit to dry dock in Southampton. One day I’ll dig out and scan the photo’s of that and maybe do a retro post about it. The job was straightforward enough, but getting all the parts, labour, heavy-lift equipment and inspection agencies together in one place when the dock was available was a logistical nightmare! I share the pain that the BF engineering team are going through.

Brittany Ferries operate a number of routes across the English Channel between the UK and France, plus serving Spain and Ireland. The impact of this breakdown has reached far and wide.

I have read some affected passengers grumbling that the company has not offered them good customer service by way of alternatives or compensation. From a personal point of view I do not agree.

Yesterday, I called into the Brittany Ferries offices in Plymouth to discus options for Harls and I. Basically, in the event of the ship not being back in service by our departure date, I was offered the option of being booked onto an alternative ferry to France, with costs if I have to travel to a different departure port and then provided with onward travel costs to get me to Santander as well as a refund of the difference in fares; or I could have a complete refund if that meant that I was unable to travel.

This I thought was perfectly reasonable and I’m probably going to accept the former, after all it’s no hardship for me to have to ride Harls for an extra two days!!

I did offer my engineering services as well, I was told to pop home and get my spanners; at least the staff haven’t lost their sense of houmour!

In the meantime, I’m really hoping that the MV Pont Aven is repaired as I do love sailing on her and best of all she has a fabulous restaurant.

Catch you soon.

Dookes

RDGA Finalé – Up With The Big Ones!

I’ve written about Col de la Bonette on several previous trips, I fact it was the first big Col that I ever took Harls up and in many ways the one that got me hooked on “Col Hunting”.

In a way it was ironic, because it’s been downhill ever since I made that first ascent of “The Big One!” Strictly speaking Bonette isn’t the highest paved pass, that honour lies with L’Iseran, Bonette lies in 4th place, but what makes it crazy-special is the Cime de la Bonette; Cime translates as “Summit.”

The Cime de la Bonette is probably the most wonderful folly that the nation of France has ever constructed. It’s a road that just loops around the mountain from the Pass and back to the Pass reaching an elevation of 2802m/9193ft and that makes it technically the highest paved through road in the whole of Europe.

On the South side the road climbs steadily from Isola, the big mountain taunting you from miles away. The grandeur of the scenery is almost overpowering as the ribbon of asphalt snakes skywards and leaves trees and waterfalls far behind.

Wide vistas open as the hairpins steadily kick in, but in a civilised way; although this is a high climb it isn’t savage.

Remains of high altitude barracks from over a hundred years ago straddle the road. Soon after comes the first Pass, Col du Raspaillon at 2513m and then things start to get really serious.

The mountain begins resemble a lunar landscape, bare black and grey rocks dominate, very little grows up here. There is always snow lying, what ever state of the summer, this is probably the hardest country that you can take a road vehicle and definitely not a place to come in bad weather, if you value your life. This mountain has claimed many unwary visitors.

It’s because of it’s unique, wild, dangerous beauty that I love the place.

The last kilometre from the Col de la Bonette at 2715m to the summit at 2802m is like taking a ski jump to the clouds as the gradient hits 15%!

I kicked down Harls side stand at the summit stone and just drank in the majesty of the place and the moment, we were back.

Looking South I could just about make out the Mediterranean Sea, over 60 miles away, we were down there earlier. All around I was surrounded by high peaks, many snow-capped and all stunningly beautiful; it made me feel both very small and also incredibly lucky to be there to enjoy it all.

It was one of those moments that make me feel so alive and glad to be so.

When you hit a high, both figuratively and also in this case literally, it’s easy to think that it’s only downhill from here. Well, ok, geographically it is, but riding amongst these mountains you’d be crazy to only look on the downside. Also I had a “rest day” tomorrow and as the weather was looking good I wanted to do a bit of exploring whilst I was up here.

First off I took a stroll to the real summit of La Bonette which stands a further 58 metres above the road. Walking in motorcycle gear is never much fun, but believe me doing it at altitude is really not to be recommended. At 2860m/9380ft the effects of altitude are very noticeable if you try to do any strenuous exercise without allowing your body time to adjust; riding a motorcycle from sea level to this height in just a few hours is not adequate adjustment, I can assure you!

I like to think that I’m pretty fit for my age, true I don’t spend hours in a gym, but I do live an active life, I’m not overweight and I don’t smoke; but that eighty metre climb to the summit was something else! Never before have I found a short stroll to be such hard work and whilst I wasn’t struggling unduly it was clear that nature was giving me a gentle reminder as to who exactly was in charge up here!

It was worth it though, the view just got even better and I had the place to myself.

With a tinge of sadness I turned to start the descent down to Jausiers. RDGA had been a blast and it literally was going to be downhill all the way from here, but in the back of my mind I knew that I’ll be coming back one day.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to do what I do. Looking back on that adventure last summer much has happened since and people dear to me have been lost to this world. I sometimes wonder how much longer I can keep doing these trips, because believe me they don’t get any easier with age! I’ve got a wonderful family and small network of close friends who support my crazy yearning to travel and explore the high places, so whilst I can I’ll keep going; you are, after all, a long time in your box!

What next?

Well, if all goes to plan, I’ve got some unfinished work to do in the Pyrenees in June this year. Then whilst perusing some maps the other day, I spotted some lovely looking passes in Switzerland and Northern Italy…!

Catch you soon.

Dookes

The whole of RDGA is dedicated to the memory of G, my little brother who left us too soon.

“Escaping the ghosts of yesterday,
you were behind me following closely, don’t turn around now.”

RDGA 9 Heading South, Getting Hot and Following a Mini.

The bells of the church in Jausiers work me early, oh the joys of a Catholic Country as the priest called the faithful to early morning worship! Back home in the UK we have a fine tradition for Church bell ringing, we do it melodically, ringing the bells in order and to predetermined patterns, but in most places on Continental Europe the bells are just rung haphazardly, frequently clashing in a cacophony of tonal mismatch and timing; you’ve got to love the difference!

I sat on the windowsill as the sun rose above the mountains; today was going to get a bit warm if the early rays were anything to go by. Time to grab breakfast and hit the road, we had a lot of Cols to climb again.

Today we were back on the classic Route des Grandes Alpes, right down to the Mediterranean Sea. First up was our biggest climb of the day, Col de la Cayolle 2326m/7631ft.

I’d ridden Cayolle before. From the North, where we were coming from, it’s a really pleasant if quite long climb of just over 29km. Leaving Barcelonette we turned onto our old friend the D902 road and slipped into the Gorges du Bachelard. This is quite a road, as it negotiates the narrow, rocky gorge, which is full of roaring waterfalls, tight tricky bridges and towering cliffs. The steepness and height of the cliffs often cut out direct sunlight, the place is cold, even on sunny mornings like we were enjoying and the narrow road makes it difficult to safely stop and take it all in. The road frequently swaps back and forth across the tumbling waters before gaining altitude and passing into delightful high woodland before emerging on the open high alp. The climb isn’t particularly demanding, but satisfying nonetheless and at the summit has a delightful stone marker, plus some wonderful scenery giving a glimpse of the way ahead.

After pausing for the obligatory photographs I eased Harls onto the downhill slope and set off South. The road here is much more technical with sweeping hairpins, tunnels, tight squeezes and just more fantastic scenery. In the small village of Guillaumes we turned left and immediately got into “Ski-Station Land” for our next four Cols…actually, that’s I bit unfair of me; it’s just that after the wonderful isolation of the really high passes having to share the mountains with civilisation gets a bit hard!

The road was fun with enough variation to keep things interesting, passing through the Tinée valley we paused at Ouvrage Frassinéa, one of the remaining forts of the Maginot Line Alpine extension. The Maginot line was an attempt by France to fortify its eastern border immediately after the First World War; the project saw the construction of hundreds of miles of defences, gun emplacements and bunkers. It never really got finished and for the most part was rendered useless when in 1939 the German army invaded and simply drove around the defences; nice try though! Many parts of the old defences can still be seen today and some, like Fressinéa, have been preserved as museums. Sadly, it was shut when we called in!

Col de Valberg 1672m/5475ft, Col de Sainte Anne 1550m/5085ft, Col de la Couillole 1678m/5505ft and Col de Saint Martin1500m/4921ft, are all respectable passes, they certainly have their place in the history of the Tour de France and RDGA, but after the big ones that Harls and I had grown used to, they were…well, just a little tame!

What wasn’t tame was the temperature. I stopped in Roqueillière, which lies in the delightful Vesubie valley, to buy some lunch and noticed that the thermometer was spot on 100ºF!
We were definitely into Mediterranean France now, even the scenery screamed that at us.

We had been travelling for a few hours now and together with the heat, I thought it wise to take a break on the climb to our next Col, the legendary Col de Turini 1604m/5262ft.

Just for once, here is a Col that isn’t legendary in Le Tour de France; it’s only featured three times. No, Turini gained it’s fame from motor sport and specifically the wonderful “Monte Carlo Rally” which is usually held in mid-January each year. More specifically, it really rose to wider notice in 1964, when a young driver from Belfast, Northern Ireland, named Paddy Hopkirk together with co-driver Henry Liddon, won the rally driving a BMC Mini Cooper S and a legend was born.

Paddy Hopkirk winning the 1964 Monte Carlo rally, photo Auto Express.

The Minis were back to win in 1965 and again in 1967, to cement their place in motor sport history.

I’ve never owned a Mini, but back in the day one of my Aunts did, it was a red Cooper S, just like Paddy’s, I thought it was so cool!

The famous red 1964 Mini Cooper S, photo DeFacto, used with thanks.

These days the Turini is crossed in daylight, but back then it was also infamous for being a night stage and amongst enthusiasts was known as “The Night of the Long Knives,” on account of the high intensity headlight beams cutting through the darkness; it must have been some sight!

In places Turini is best described as “artificial,” but it’s probably more impressive because of that, because the engineering effort that has gone into building this pass is beyond impressive. The road formation is supported by solid, beautifully formed stone block walls, the bends are generously wide, but the short gradients are savage…it’s just great fun to ride!

As we topped Turini, low cloud hugged the high trees and it looked like our scorching weather was over for the day, but no, it was just a temporary reprieve from the heat. Passing through Sospel we started to final climb, to Col de Castillon, which at a mere 706m/2316ft barely registers as a pimple against it’s higher sisters on La Route des Grandes Alpes. That’s a little unfair, because where Castillon fails in the altitude stakes it hits back by being the first/last climb of the RDGA, the only one in the Côte d’Azur and if you are starting in Menton, it’s 706 metres straight up!

We paused at the Col, no fancy stone monument here, just a rather tatty metal sign and then a steady roll downhill in the warm Mediterranean breeze.

Menton is often called the pearl of the Côte d’Azur and in it’s own way it’s an OK place; just not my sort of place. In fact, not much of the French Riviera is my sort of place; it’s just too busy, to built up and to pretentious for my liking.

We rode through the bustling town and at a suitable spot on the sea front I pulled over, kicked down Harls side stand and took the obligatory photograph; we’d done it!

Years of plotting and dreaming, then a few months of planning had brought us here.

What now?

Well, apart from finding our hotel, having a swim in the warm Mediterranean, grabbing a shower and a beer…I honestly couldn’t think of much else to do!

There was finally a monkey off my back.
From finding that leaflet about La RDGA all those years ago, to executing the dream, it was over.

I felt a little empty.

What next?

Where now?

Later, after a nice meal and a night-time stroll around the marina, I reflected more on our journey. It was a job well done, no dramas, no mishaps, just a solid team effort; man, machine and the road in perfect harmony.

Did I ever tell you that I love that bike?

…. and tomorrow?

Well, we’d better start to go back home and find some more hills to climb.

“There ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough…”

Catch you later.

Dookes

RDGA 8 – A Day Off, or Lets Go To Italy and Ride The Hill of The Dead!

I woke early in Jausiers to a typical Alpine morning, sunshine with a few clouds at varying altitude.

When I set off on this trip Mrs Dookes had insisted that I weave in a few “rest days” as generally the going was likely to be reasonably tough. Good idea, but what does a motorcyclist do on a day off? Yep, probably gonna go for a little ride!

Over breakfast I pondered my maps.

Now it is true that I am in inveterate “Col hunter.” I can’t resist the opportunity to climb a new high pass and chalk another off the list, that morning I realised that I had the chance to add to our tally and add quite handsomely at that!

From Jausiers I spotted an interesting possibility, a big loop into Italy and cross five big passes that had until now evaded us. By crossing those off, we would have completed the top 40 highest through passes in Europe; now this was too tempting to miss!

I quickly finished breakfast and headed out to Harls, who was resting snugly in the hotel owner’s garage. I had the feeling that this was going to be some day…

We soon got onto the road and back into the groove, before grinding to a halt on the French side of Col de Larch; road works!

One thing I’ve learnt over the years of our road trips is to always expect the totally unexpected just around the next corner. This was one of those moments.

Normally, any road works spell delays and pain. This morning, however, was just a little bit different. Just imagine the conundrum facing the engineers; a high, relatively narrow alpine road needs repairs and quantities of construction materials delivered to the work site. The two options are close the road, or use a helicopter; how brilliant and give the waiting road users a free air display in the process! I love those French engineers!

We topped Col de Larch then rolled into Italy and onto one of those wonderfully crazy Italian roads that I swear they build just for fun. A series of sweeping wide hairpins that drop down from the pass in a ladder of asphalt, that, but for a glass-like surface and a bit of light drizzle would have been a delight to ride. We had a long way to go, so time to tread carefully!

At Demonte we turned hard left and soon left civilisation behind as we took the Colle Fauniera road. I frequently grumble about the way that much of the French Alps are scarred by the winter sports and ski industry; ski lifts and cable runs dot the landscape whilst the mountainsides are to often sculpted to create better pistes; it creates jobs and livelihoods, but it doesn’t half spoil things at times. Today though was like taking a trip back in time. We entered a beautiful Italian valley that was free from any trace of the winter sports industry and in it’s lower reaches, wonderfully bucolic as our ribbon of tarmac meandered through peaceful woodland.

In fact it was more than peaceful; it was deserted. For mile after mile we were alone. Just after climbing above the tree line we passed a farmer who was making repairs to his stock fence and we exchanged friendly waves.

Then we got stuck into some serious climbing.

The clouds were building a bit as we gained altitude, nothing to worry about, but it was getting a bit colder quicker than I had anticipated, actually a lot colder!

This was turning into hard country, very hard country.

The road was already quite narrow and now gradually narrowed even more and the surface started to show signs of minimal maintenance; actually it was starting to break up and in places there were small patches of ice.

This was turning into a road that demanded respect.

At Colle di Valcavera 2461m/7926ft we paused and tried to take in the view, but the swirling cloud put paid to that idea. Oh well, onwards and upwards!

I think that around this point it began to dawn on me that we were doing something very special. It’s very rare that we have the luxury of enjoying the mountains by ourselves and I resolved to savour every moment, whilst at the back of my mind realising that any problem up in this isolated place could easily become a very big problem very quickly!

The road became, very, very “interesting! Mud, ice, water, and broken asphalt all mixed together to deliver a thoroughly character building experience. Tatty, broken railings appeared just near the summit at Col di Morts (Fauniera) and then turning a corner we arrived at the summit.
We went into a well-practiced routine; kick the side stand down, let Harls idle for a minute then kill her engine, ease into first gear, turn off the ignition and relax.
Silence.
Silence so still and complete it hurts your ears. Or at least it would if I didn’t have screaming tinnitus!
It wasn’t half cold!

Colle Fauniera, 2480m/8136ft is one of the most alluring places I have ever been. It’s also known as Col di Morti, “The Hill of the Dead.” It’s name apparently comes from the scene that was left after a battle in the 17th Century between Franco-Spanish and Piedmontese (Italian) forces. Interestingly, today the pass is currently awaiting government ratification to have it’s name changed to “Colle Pantini” after the great Italian cyclist Marco Pantini.

At the summit there’s a massive statue dedicated to the great man and his epic climb of the Col in the Giro D’Italia 1999.
I’m not sure what I feel about the renaming business, but the statue is quite impressive!
Moving on we crossed Colle del Vallonetto 2439m/8002ft and had an interesting time squeezing past a mechanical digger that was working repairing the road.

This is going to be tight…

As we carefully edged past the driver leant out of his cab and called “Attenzione, neve!” – hmm, “Look out, snow!”

VERY tight!!!!

I gave him a friendly wave and trundled around the corner to Colle d’Esischie 2370m/7776ft and yep, there was snow! Deep banks of the stuff, which, fortunately, my digger-driver mate had obviously not long dug a path through.

Yep, snow!

It was better than that, at Esischie there is a junction and I wanted to turn left towards Marmona which is actually the minor road; luckily this was the one that had been dug out, the other remained firmly closed!

We began a long descent; little did I know that this would be a road that was going to leave an indelible impression on me. If I thought that the climb up to Fauniera was tough, then this was about to change all that.

The scenery was beyond beautiful, it was breath-taking, but so was the road; in a very scary way!

I had a brief glimpse that things ahead were going to be a tad interesting with the array of signs at the top of the decent. Lets get on with it…

Now let me see…the sign says look out for everything!!!


We started the downgrade and I realised that this was no road for heroics. Just stick to the ride-able parts and concentrate on the next hazard, don’t look back or for that matter down! If I thought that the surface on the up-slope was tricky, it was twice as bad now; the best bits had generous amounts of larch needles lubricating the surface with pine resin, whilst in other places there was simply no road surface at all, just soft clay…not fun on a big Harley Tourer! Oh yes, there wasn’t much in the way of barriers either, often just a bit of grassy verge and then a drop of unrecoverable proportions.

It was best described as low-gear country, tiring to ride, yet not at all unpleasant, just very demanding.

Eventually, nearing Tolosano, things opened up, the road got considerably better and we started to make progress; then, rounding a corner cane across a “Road Closed” sign. What the…!

What the….!


I consulted the map, nope, no other way. Lets go explore.

I trundled Harls around the roadblock and slowly moved along the road until, yes I could confirm that the road was quite securely closed. A largish truck blocked our way whilst a group of workers shovelled stone from it. A chap who appeared to be the foreman approached and clearly indicated me to go back.

I think that signal is quite clear…!


In my bad Italian I asked when the road would be open? “Four o’clock;” it was 12:30 now, hmm.

“Any other way round?” “Si, go back and take the first right, you’ll be fine on your motorbike.”

I was a bit dubious, but really didn’t have another option, so I spun Harls around and set off explore. Sure enough there was right turn, but it just seemed to head into a farmyard.

I saw young couple and asked if I could get through?

“Where have you come from?” “Colle Fauniera.”

The young man looked at me and smiled, “In that case you’ll be OK, but it’s not easy!” he smiled.

I thanked them and started up Harls, here we go then old girl!

Leaving the farmyard the road dropped towards a small steam, then became a rough stone track, then morphed into a grassy bridleway, then a muddy track, then back to grass and more like a footpath than road; OK, lets see how we get on.

The diversion!


I left Harls to tick-over in first gear; “I’ll look after the steering, you just give us a bit of forward movement,” simple teamwork.

After about half a mile the path began to change back into something resembling a road and then we got back on real tarmac again. I gave Harls her head and now on a good road for the first time in hours she sang a happy song that echoed back off the steep valley sides.

At Bassura we turned North and hit the hairpins again, San Martino was left behind as we growled skywards into the clouds again, target Colle di Sampeyre 2284m/7493ft.

I’d love to tell you that Colle di Sampeyre was impressive, but apart from a solitary chap on a bicycle all there was to see was thick cloud.

Colle di Sampeyre, look at those muddy tyres!


More hairpins took us down into the Varaita valley where we turned left. Now we were on one of my favourite roads in the whole of Italy, it leads to Col Agnel/Colle dell’Agnello 2744m/9003ft the highest paved international pass in the whole of Europe.

We are going to Agnel.


The road over Col Agnel is one that Harls and I first rode some years back and has fondly remained in my memory ever since, it was great to be back. This is a road that has everything; long fast sections, stunning views, great surface and the ever beckoning view of snow tipped mountains ahead, then the technical twisty bits begin and are an absolute joy to ride.

Last time we were here, the place was almost deserted; today was not quite so quiet as it was a public holiday in this part of Italy, but it wasn’t unpleasantly busy.

There’s a small parking area at the Col, which nestles between high peaks on a knife-edge ridge and offers amazing views across both Italy and France. It’s a lovely place to visit and a wonderful road to ride.

Looking into France, oh that road!

I could stay here forever!


Never look back…it’ll break your heart!


Saying “Ciao” to Italy, we began our long decent into the Queyras valley. This is a fun road with a lovely surface; crossing the river we turn left and power through the miles towards the famous Queyras Gorge balconies just before Guillestre.

Queyras Gorge balconies.

Then it’s onwards for Col de Vars and back to Jausiers, I could almost taste that first beer!

I sat in the hotel bar. Fabienne, the hotel owner, poured me a cold Demi.

“Alors, où as-tu allé aujourd’hui?” “So, where did you go today?”
“Oh, juste pour un petit tour en Italie …” “Oh, just for a little ride in Italy…”

I produced a map and showed Fabienne where we had been. At first she just looked at me, then rolled her eyes skywards, “Tu l’as fait en seul? Tu es fou!” “You did that alone? You are crazy!”

Fabienne laughs, it’s a laugh of one who has spent her life in this very hotel; it’s a laugh tinged with too many cigarettes and just a little bit of jealousy.
She pushes my beer across the bar and smiles.

Perhaps Fabienne, perhaps I am, but undoubtedly I am also very happy.

Happy because I realise that I had experienced undoubtedly the most demanding day I have ever had on a motorcycle and I loved every moment of it.

“I’m alive!
And I see things mighty clear today, I’m alive!
I’m alive!
And I’m breathin’ clean, fresh air today, I’m alive!”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Every inch of this ride is for you G, may we ride together again one day, but not too soon!