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

Taking it Easy -Rain Stops Play!

After the excitement of yesterday’s “Hogging the Hairpins” – why didn’t I think of that for a post title?!?! I enjoyed a very pleasant evening meal, did battle with WiFi and WordPress then turned in for the night.

Unfortunately, the adrenaline was still pumping, it took me ages to get off to sleep and then it was only fitful, I was still swinging around those mountain bends!

Halfway through the night it started raining, not your average rain either this was and at midday, still is, full on open the tap and throw away the plug stuff! Admittedly it’s nowhere near the catastrophes that have hit parts of the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean or Southern USA, for those people affected there it’s been life changing; I wish them all well for the future. Is anyone still denying that the world’s weather is all going a bit weird?

On the plus side for Harls and I, this was always going to be a rest-day, so at least we don’t have to go out in the wet stuff!

We are staying on the Ritten (German) / Renon (Italian) Plateau which is North East of the regional capital Bolzano, my altimeter tells me that we are 1268m/4148ft above sea level. The plateau forms the southeast tip of the Sarntal Alps and is between the confluence of the rivers Eisack and Talfer. The local tourist board boasts that Ritten has 300 days of sunshine a year, I’ve obviously copped some of the 65 wet ones!

Talking of the tourist board, these folk are very well organised; they should be really as Ritten has been a holiday destination since the 17th century. There’s loads of information on available attractions and sites of interest, sadly I haven’t time to see them all, especially the mysterious “Earth Pyramids” which are an erosion phenomenon that occurs in certain glacial moraine clays.

What I have got time to see and ride is the famous Rittner Bahn narrow gauge railway which this year celebrates 110 years of service. So more of that, with pictures in future posts.

Those nice people of the Ritten Tourist Board provide guests staying more than a couple of days with a “Ritten Card” it’s like a season ticket to ride the train, cable cars and give admission to museums and stuff like that. What a great idea, I’m off to try it out after lunch!

Catch you soon.

Dookes