The Alps (Part 1)

The next morning we took off to Austria and headed in the direction of the Grossglockner, the highest mountain in the country and one of the tallest in Europe at 12,460 feet (3,798 m). Here there is a pass high up in the mountains that is possibly more popular to visit by motor bikers than Mecca is to Muslims.

We decided that given we were so close we should have a go at getting to the top, by all accounts we had heard from many bikers it was well worth the effort.

The day before it had been closed due to some late spring snow, but we had lovely sunshine the day we rode towards it so were hoping it would be open by the time we got there. However, as we arrived in the valley that funnels you to the mountain, some late-afternoon clouds had rolled in, so we thought our best option would be to stop for the night and hope for the best the next morning. There was a small hotel about 12km for the base of the mountain pass, which was clean and quiet. They had food and drink so we spent the rest of the afternoon chilling out amongst the abnormally large collection of stuffed animal heads nailed to the walls. It appeared the owner was a keen hunter and was delighted to share his passion of all things shot with his hotel guests.

After a good night’s sleep and an early breakfast it was off to do the High Alpine Road right into the heart of the Hohe Tauern National Park, the Grossglockner and its glacier, the Pasterze. Say all that after a beer and it sounds very different.

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We rode to the base of the mountain having a passed through Heiligenblut, a picturesque little village complete with picture-perfect Gothic pilgrimage church. The weather was ideal, sun shining, blue skies, no wind… Today was going to be good… Then it starts, a 48 km long road, with more bends than a decompression chamber and vistas down the valley that made Nicola want to sing the whole soundtrack to ‘The Sound of Music’… Which she did, starting with “the hills are alive, with the sound of Nicola”… “High on the Hills was a lonely biker”…

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It was a fantastic morning of riding on the road that seemed to be specifically designed for bikes, we practically had the mountain to ourselves on the way up as I don’t think anyone else got the memo that it was going to be near perfect conditions. It’s a private road that costs 24 euros, but worth every penny. At the top the snow is thick on the ground and freezing cold at about -5 degrees. We ordered two coffees and I watched my wallet have a cardiac arrest on the counter as I pulled 16 euros out to pay for them. After the coffee shop Bumbles, around the corner from where we live, I think this sets a new record for ridiculously over-priced coffee. But as we sat there enjoying our hot coffee, I thought, imagine waking up every morning to go to work, driving an altitude ascent to 2,504 meters, navigating 36 bends and sitting at -5 degrees (and that’s in the summer) and making coffee for the tourists who greet you shivering. I decided they are well justified, but what was my local coffee shop’s excuse?

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If you choose to continue your drive over the mountain pass to Salzburg, which we didn’t, you would find yourself following ancient trails that now make up the bitumen road. Finds like pre-Celtic bronze knives, Celtic gold jewelry, a Roman Hercules statue (what the hell was that doing up there we will never know) , and medieval pack-animal bridles are proof that this road was already well travelled 200 years B.C.

Just as we were about to head off we noticed in the distance that the main car park of the lookout was packed with red trucks, old fire trucks that were privately owned to be more accurate. I guess if you own a big red fire truck and somebody shouts “anyone fancy a drive to the top of Europe’s highest pass for a get-together” then how could you refuse the call? There must have been over 150 of them in all shapes and sizes divided in the two parking areas. There appeared to be a few die-hard enthusiasts that thought it was worth the effort and had come from far afield, Germany, Italy and just about every nation within 200 km. We watched for a while at the commotion of them trying to park, which was more amusing than the outfits they were wearing. Guess when you have a 1940’s fire truck one must pull out the uniform of the day, and if that was a pair of lederhosen with a red shirt, funny little hat and silver axe on your belt, then who was going to say you looked ridicules? Certainly not us as, (not many people know this) Nicola and I own a fire truck… I say no more on the subject…

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We got local advice from a nice guy on the top of the mountain, who was part of a team that spend all year keeping the pass clear of snow and rocks. He was also a biker and basically said we would have a better ride if we went back down the way we came and headed into the Dolomites in Italy. As we have said all the way through this trip, the plan is continually changing so we decided there on the spot that we would make the most of local knowledge.

The ride on the way down was very different than the way up, apart from the compression on your wrists as you hook into the very tight corners, we saw literally hundreds of bikers heading up. Looked like the memo was finally sent, but the newcomers had missed the bright blue skies as late morning clouds had started to form above the peaks and the views that took our breath away were slowly disappearing.

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But saying that, most of the bikes we saw had no luggage on them and were sports bikes with a capital S… So they were probably there for speed rather than sightseeing. Judging by the registrations, many of them came from Italy, just over the far mountain. It’s incredible the number of Italian bikes on the roads in Europe, ridden by guys in all kinds of coloured leathers…

There are generally four kinds of bikers on the road it appears. There is the traveller, Triumphs and BMWs with a ton of luggage including camping equipment, cameras, partners’ wardrobe changes and cosmetic bags… we generally keep to ourselves and don’t have too much to do with other bikers apart from a quick chat at a coffee stop, as we are all on separate journeys, which seldom point in the same direction.

Then there are the bikers that like to ride in packs, clubs that have their name blazoned on a T-shirt or waistcoats for easy identification when it’s time to stop for a cigarette. They decide on the route in the morning and ride together until they stop for a greasy lunch somewhere, before heading home. Usually a very friendly lot who would welcome anyone to join their group along the way and smile and wave at all those who pass on a bike.

Then we have the ‘road warriors’ who only ride Harley Davidsons… Many are accountants during the week and wannabe-‘hells angels’ on the weekend, unless their wives tell them they have to take the kids shopping for a new pair of shoes. It must be an image thing, because who in their right mind would buy a leather jacket with tassels hanging off it… come on it’s not right… (Please Damon, for the love of God, you don’t have a jacket with tassels, do you?) I do feel a bit sorry for them because many of them take the image over practicality thing a little too far with their tiny, black, bowl-shaped helmets and aviator sunglasses, which offer absolutely no face protection when it starts to rain. You watch them riding into a downpour with an expression that says “it’s really stinging my face and I’m soaked to the bone, but damn I look cool… don’t I?”…

Then there is a group of bikers like no other… The ‘Istallion’ … the Italian-Stallion with slicked back hair (which you rarely see due to their sleek helmets), black visors and an extremely tight pair of crotch-hugging white leather pants and matching jacket. All this is rounded off with the super polished sports bike that makes ours look like a dirty tractor… you can do it with your mates or do it alone… but when you do it… do it flat out and with arrogance… we encountered hundreds of them, one minute you’re riding along quietly looking at the scenery, and then they come past you like a swarm of wasps.

The ride to the Dolomites took about three hours, where we saw some of the most spectacular mountains and towering grey rock formations very different to anything we had seen so far.

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It’s a magnet for rock climbers and mountaineers who wish to conquer nature at its steepest. Some of the rock faces are thousands of metres high, therefore ideal for base-jumpers who take the sport of parachuting to the extreme limit. Given the small amount that participate, it’s one of the most dangerous sports to hit earth, so to speak, as there have been over 200 fatalities since William Harmon became the first official base jumper who landed harder than planned on the 11 April 1981. I used to paraglide for a sport, about ten years ago, and found having a reserve parachute a reassuring addition to the gear I would pack in the morning, just incase something went wrong; at least you have a second go at getting to the ground safely. With base jumpers they rely solely on the first pull of the cord and if it tangles, swings in or doesn’t open in time… “Bon voyage”…

We discovered that it’s also a very popular area for tourists doing activities with less of an ‘impact’ on their lives, the number of campervans and cars packed with bored looking children grew steadily as we navigated our way through the labyrinth of small roads and passes. Our GPS took us on some very unusual routes, and at one stage we found ourselves in the middle of a forest on a track heading towards an area renowned for its pretty vistas overlooking Switzerland. Throughout this area, which in the winter would be a ski heaven, we saw dozens of mothballed ski lifts, some of which were being used to ferry summer walkers to the high peaks. It’s an amazing place if you like the outdoors, skiing and snowboarding in the winter, walking, canoeing and paragliding in the summer. Nic and I would love to come back one day to explore the area a little more, perhaps in a campervan; accommodation prices are ridiculous in summer, we can’t imagine how expensive they would be in winter.

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With our day coming to a close, we set our sights on a small town called Ortisei, but before the boots could be kicked off and the smell of damp feet become the room’s bouquet for the night we had one last pass to get over, The Valparola Pass (Italian: Passo di Valparola) (el. 2168 m.)

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Not as high as the Grossglockner but equally as cold and barren. It’s a strange thing we kept experiencing, one minute riding along with the heat of the sun on your back, lush green grass waving gently in the breeze and then pull back the throttle, turn a load of hairpins and bang, you are high up on the side of a mountain, freezing cold, surrounded by thick snow. The transition takes place in the space of thirty minutes and is a bit of a shock to the system as we couldn’t be bothered stopping, putting our warm gear on and then stripping at the other end. Besides which, we were adventurers following in the footsteps of the Romans who used these passes to cross the Alps, so I’m sure we could tough it out for a while… until I flicked the heated-grips switch and warmed my hands up, indicating I would have made a pretty shoddy Roman soldier.

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Riding in the mountains is completely knackering mentally and physically. With 180-degree corners every ten feet, steep ups and steep downs, shear drops on at least one side of the road and a cliff face on the other, the concentration level required to keep the bike’s rubber parts pointing downwards is on another level. In hindsight, I’m so pleased we navigated the trip the way we did. If we had done it the other way around we would not have been so ‘bike fit’ upon reaching the Alps; I think given the shear kms we have done so far has allowed our bodies to adapt. My hands are the things that get the most tired and painful, I actually think I’m suffering from repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). When I looked it up in Wikipedia, it is described as:
“Injuries to the musculoskeletal and nervous systems that may be caused by repetitive tasks, forceful exertions, vibrations, mechanical compression, or sustained or awkward positions”

Kind of sums up riding a bike for three months and may be why my wrists feel as though they have been hit with a baseball bat every evening. As for the rest of our bodies, we both seem to be so used to the hours of sitting that we don’t even think about it anymore, we now have what is best described as ‘buns of steel’ which would put any buttock firming video to shame, I just wish I could say the same about the rest of me.

We found a little B&B style guesthouse in the main part of the town, showered, ate a slice of pizza (see… fat boy food) and collapsed into a deep sleep dreaming of mountains, roads, corners, tracks and being covered in whipped cream by a midget in a ballerina outfit. Weird, huh?

One thought on “The Alps (Part 1)

  1. What an extraordinary adventure across the Alps. Nicola of course has ridden a bike over the highest passes in the Mongolian Alps – just a mountain rather than motor bike. Hopefully this time was just as adventurous but a little less exhausting. Great to see a photo with the two of you together.

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