Kicking Stelvio

I often think that my life is full of departures, never any arrivals, always in motion and moving on.

Take this morning for example. Sure I’d enjoyed staying in Ritten, but loading up Harls and firing her engine into life, then moving back on the open road; I was never happier.

We hit the Bolzano morning commute traffic right at its peak. It was total fun, street-fighting on level terms with the Italians, Harls growling around the city like she owned the place; I could never have done that with the big Ultra Limited! Then it was a spirited romp along the autostrada to Merano, where predictably everything ground to a halt as the road slimmed down to a normal highway.

On Italian roads you have to get your head around one thing, they are either mad all-out racetracks or you need to predict your arrival by the calendar – all or nothing, that’s just the way it is. Being honest, I put up with the tedium of stop-start traffic for about ten miles before I hit the “Stuff this, I’m on a motorbike” button and started, shall we say, “making progress!”

The weather forecast for the weekend ahead is rubbish. I had planned to spend two nights in Livigno and catch up on some of the local passes, but with snow due tomorrow afternoon and right through the weekend, I’ve pulled the plug on that idea. Instead we are only here for one night and then running away from the weather, before we get snowed in.

As a result, I changed the route for today. I was going to ride Passo Di Gavia from the South and have a play elsewhere tomorrow. Instead we headed into the Mustair valley and at Santa Maria turned left onto the Umbrail pass route. This is a narrow, little used back door road up to the (in)famous Stelvio Pass and until only a couple of years ago was not asphalted throughout. I knew it was narrow, so last year with Big Baby Blue I avoided it; good move, as after riding it today I don’t think I would have got Blue up it! For a large part of the route it climbs up through delightful forest, but of course the disadvantage is that there is no view, only road and trees. Until you hit altitude, but today that was up in the clouds.

The road is very narrow in places and some of the bends a tad tricky. After our exertions of yesterday I found that my dodgy left shoulder, locked up; I have an impingement in the thing and as usual it chose a good time to play silly! What it meant in simple terms was that I couldn’t move my arm far enough forward to push the handlebars through tight right-hand bends.

Time for a rethink, as I was riding like a muppet!

I stopped and did some stretching exercises, took a couple of painkillers, had a drink of water, ate some fruit whilst the pills kicked in and then got on with it! It didn’t half hurt, but at least we got going and soon were back into the swing of things. I got pretty good at going round hairpins one-handed too!

Not bad, one hand!

Soon we got into the clouds, then it began to get really windy and predictably the temperature plummeted to a little over zero. I was every pleased to have brought my heated jacket – doh, heated jacket! Turn up the heat nice and high and “Ping” the shoulder was feeling nearly normal; my heated gloves were nice to!

We paused to grab a photo at the standardly deserted Swiss customs post on the Umbrail Pass border and roared back into Italy. Ciao Italia! – We missed you for the last 30 miles.

On the border, anything Blue can do, I can do better!

Déjà vu / Déjà Blue!

Just after the fronter we turned left and knocked off the last half-dozen hairpins to Passo dello Stelvio. Umbrail is at 2503m/8212ft, Stelvio 2757m/9046ft, poor Harls with her simple carburetor was running very rich through lack of oxygen at these altitudes!

Looking East on the top of Stelvio.

I’ve said it before, I find the top of Stevio tacky, but today was about proving a point to the big lump of a mountain. I’ve beaten you now with both my bikes!

Harls on Stelvio, a touch of class amongst all that is tacky!

The top was fairly busy, very cold and with a bit of snow in the air, so after a quick look around and grabbing a bratwurst for lunch, we headed down into Bormio and then on towards Livigno. Knocking off Passo Foscagno 2281m/7517ft and Passo d’Eira 2208m/7244ft on the way.

Stelvio hairpin, “Going Down!”

Gnocchi and pizza for supper tonight!

I can’t eulogise enough how much I enjoyed riding my Harls up that mountain today. I feel that, despite taking Big Blue up there last year, I can now fully exorcise that beastie that was Stelvio.

Harls came, growled her contempt and kicked it just where it counted and I had the ride of my life!

“Been down one time
Been down two times
I’m never going back again.”

Catch you soon.


PS Trip total mileage so far 1584.

Beastie – Beating Stevio.

Just under a year ago I was in Italy with a brand new bike. One day I wrote this:

“Today we should have ridden the Stelvio Pass, but poor weather at Bolzano, low cloud and rain put paid to that idea. In addition I have come to the conclusion that Baby Harls just ain’t the girl for that type of road, she’s too heavy and her long wheelbase makes it “interesting” on the tight hairpins. What she is good at though is “mile munching” and today she did that just fine. ”

A few days later we crested the Col de Lombarde and rode the Cime de la Bonette, the highest paved through road in Europe. Was I wrong a few days previously? Yes, totally!

Since then there’s been a beast gnawing at my back and it’s name is Stelvio.

In the past year there hasn’t been a week when I haven’t studied the map of that bloody Pass, or read articles about it, or watched videos of people riding it’s famous hairpins. I wasn’t obsessed, it was eating at me and mocking me from a distance. It seemed that Stelvio believed that it had beaten me, it’s reputation had scared me away and it had wormed into my psyche.

You see I believe that mountains have something, call it character, call it soul; I’ve felt it many times. Sometimes it’s as if it doesn’t want you there. In my beloved Welsh mountains Aran Fawddwy stands out like that, perhaps it’s because it has claimed so many lives, but it definitely never wants you on its slopes; mountains, like the sea, demand respect.

What Stelvio hadn’t realised was that I’m a Celt, we understand and feel these things and we don’t take crap from anyone or anything.

All that time I was plotting my revenge, looking for the moment when I would return and conquer.

Today I woke early in Livigno. There had been rain overnight, the ground was soaking with large puddles everywhere and the cloud still hugged the mountains like gossamer strands caressing the silent peaks. A slow steady breakfast was on the cards, followed by a gentle stroll through the awakening streets.

By ten o’clock, things were looking up and the sun had begun to break through. Time to move, Stelvio – I’m coming to get you!

Livigno, basecamp.

Livigno, basecamp.

From Livigno the only road to Bormio and today’s target is the S301. At the Passo di Foscagno there’s a customs post, which is a bit strange as we are still in Italy, but it’s all due to the duty-free status of Livigno. I have to say that however laid back the Italians are, they do love a good bit of bureaucracy and this customs post took the biscuit! There was a poor chap in front of me who was made to unpack his car and another who was given a right grilling! When it came to my turn, I’m afraid I tired of the game pretty quickly – “just how many cigarettes and bottles of alcohol do you think I can carry on a motorbike?” I demanded of the official. He shrugged his shoulders and backed off when I told him that he was welcome to search through my dirty washing. “Grazie, buongiorno ,” was all I got, with a thumbs up and a jerk of the wrist indicating I was free to go!

Stelvio, I’m coming for you!

I dropped the bags off at my hotel in Bormio, I wanted the least top weight on Baby as possible, she’s heavy enough empty! Leaving the hotel, we turned left took a deep breath and hit the road.

Passo dello Stelvio at 2757 m / 9045 ft above sea level is the highest paved mountain pass in the Eastern Alps and the second highest in the whole of the Alps being just a tad below Col de Bonette in France. I’ve ridden Bonette on both Harls and Baby, so this upstart needed taming.

The climb and the hairpins start as soon as you leave Bormio. There are 75 in total, split roughly 50/50 between each side, this was going to be hard work! Throw into the mix various tunnels and Avalanche shelters, all dripping with water and having questionable road surfaces, life was getting very interesting.

The great thing about a Harley Davidson is the low-end grunt you get from the engine, there’s torque aplenty even below 2000 revs, so we stayed in second or third gears and just kept plugging at it. Just after a flight of 14 hairpins and about 7/8ths of the way up there is a road that bears off to the Umbrail Pass, right on the Swiss Border; well it would have been rude to ignore it, so hello again Switzerland! The customs post was, predictably, deserted!

Umbrail Pass, customs post. I like to declare...oh don't bother!

Umbrail Pass, customs post. I like to declare…oh don’t bother!

Returning to Italy and a further half-dozen bends took us to the summit…

Oh dear, what a disappointment!image

I love the peace that you normally find on a high mountain summit, maybe a small refuge or café, but this was something else! Every kind of small shop and stall selling any sort of Stelvio branded rubbish that you can imagine! It was all so tacky!

Stevio Pass? Over-used, over-publicised, over-rated!

Ok, so I did buy a pin badge, a patch and a bratwurst… which makes me a hypocrite, but I’m not the first in my family at that!

With perfect timing Mrs Dookes telephoned me whilst I was at the top, which was nice. She’s not a hypocrite incidentally!

We came up there!

We came up there!

Then it was time to escape and trundle back down the seemingly never-ending hill, for me going down is always harder that the uphill stretch.
Stelvio hairpin, just a silly old bend!

Stelvio hairpin, just a silly old bend!

Downhill you are always riding the brake and keeping the speed in check, going up gravity helps with that!
Serious bends!

Serious bends!

Stelvio, the high alp. It's not all hairpins, honestly!

Stelvio, the high alp. It’s not all hairpins, honestly!

Anyway, after a few “moments” we made it to Bormio and being a sucker for punishment I turned left for the Gavia Pass.

At 2621 metres, Passo di Gavia is right up there with the big ones. Unlike Stelvio it’s wild country, unspoilt by commerce and hordes of people. True there’s a cafe and a rundown refuge at the top, but there’s also silence, still tranquility.

Gavia Pass, for those that like their mountains pointy and peaceful!

Gavia Pass, for those that like their mountains pointy and peaceful!

The road up was in a terrible state, but with only eight true hairpins I could relax a bit more than earlier. Where Stelvio was a battle, this was almost a pilgrimage back to real mountain roads. On top of that, the scenery was amazing!

Baby and I trundled back to Bormio happy in a job well done. The beast had been laid to rest and now it was time to move on.

I’ve ridden all bar one of the top twenty paved passes in Europe and goodness knows how many others, maybe one day I’ll count them. For now, I’m going to ride a couple more tomorrow then a few old friends next week, after that if you see me heading for a mountain pass on a motorbike….just shoot me!

“So stand as one defiant – yes, and let your voices swell.
Stare that beastie in the face and really give him hell.”

Catch you later.