Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Oh, glorious Stelvio Pass - how we missed you

Day 3 of the ride to Croatia was always going to be a long day.

Ian and I decided we needed to leave early, so the plan was to start riding at 07:00 and there we both were, packing gear on the bikes at 06:45. The ride into Turin on the previous late afternoon / evening was very busy as we had hit the evening rush hour and it seemed just about everyone in this part of Italy was on the road at the same time us the two of us. The traffic was very bad and the bikes had been overheating.  We checked oil levels and all appeared fine, so we set off in the warmth of a Turin morning sun.

As we rode through the city, we spotted something that looked familiar. Knowing that the (original) Italian Job film had been shot in Turin, we saw this river next to a bridge. If you have seen the film, you will remember the three get-away mini’s being successfully driven across a shallow river in front of a bridge, and the Italian police cars getting caught in the flow of the river. Is this that shallow river and bridge? No doubt somebody who reads this blog will know....




















The first part of the ride was a quick blast of about 60 miles from Turin to Milan, all on motorway. As we neared Milan, the traffic trying to get into the city was very heavy and we were caught in bad traffic delays, but by riding between the cars, we soon worked our way through the mad Italians, all trying their hardest to get to work seconds before the person in the car next to them. Is it something in the Italian genes that distinguish Italians as fast drivers? Maybe they all have heavy right feet?

Soon we left the harsh motorway environment and headed north, along the eastern shore of the stunningly beautiful Lake Como. There are two roads here that run (almost) parallel – a fast road in tunnels and a much slower and older road that hugs the line of the lake edge. Ian and I took the slower road. It would have been very tempting to stop every mile or so to take pictures, but we resisted and rationed ourselves to just a few places....






































At one of these photo stops, I saw this archway....


























We then suffered a 100 miles or so of perhaps the most boring road I have ever been on. It was narrow, just one lane in either direction, slow and with almost no overtaking opportunities (although some of the Italian drivers can, and do, overtake with cars coming straight at them). We were cheered along this road however by the anticipation that was building inside us, as we were nearing what is said to be one of the best, if not THE best driving / riding road in the world. Stelvio Pass is a winding, twisting road with long sweeping bends and a number of tight hairpin bends as well, all set in glorious scenery. Viewers of the car programme “Top Gear” may remember the team drove this road a couple of years ago (Chris L will certainly remember). Set high in the Alps, the road is a must-do for any petrol-head and in planning the route through Italy, this was the one road that we just had to do.

We got to the start of the road, ready to test our riding skills on this road of roads, to find the pass..... SHUT.

Shit, we had travelled well out of our way just to ride this road and in truth, had probably added a whole day to our route just to ride this road.

I couldn’t believe it. So, resigned to the fact that we would not be able to ride it, we studied the map and realise we would need to detour about 70 miles to get onto the road we needed to get onto. The new road was still a major mountain pass, but it certainly wasn’t up to Stelvio standards. I was so gutted, I could hardly bring myself to get my camera out on the alternative pass, but I did and here are a few pictures....












































After a while, we realised that our detour was so long, we had made it back into Switzerland, we had gone that far north. We did ride along a lake that was amazing to look at. Lake Livigno is formed by a huge dam and consequently the lake is very deep and stretches back a long way into the mountains. By September the lake is full, but over the winter, it is used to create hydro electricity by releasing the water through the turbines. When we rode along the lake, it was completely empty at one end – with just bleached white rocks showing across its entire width. From the dam, the lake looked like this....




















The water from the spring snow melt in the mountains is enough to completely fill the lake. The dam is impressive as well. Note Ian and the two bikes on the top right of the picture, which gives a sense of scale....




















When leaving the dam, we rode through the very narrow Munt la Schera tunnel, which is about two miles long with just a single lane, used in each direction alternately. The noise of two Harleys being ridden through the small tunnel sounded fantastic, but there was a problem. Coming out of the end of the tunnel, we were stopped by the Swiss police (the border is right there) who questioned me about the exhaust pipes on the Leading Ladies. It seemed we may have fallen foul of the tough Swiss environmental laws, but when we said we were not staying in Switzerland but returning to Italy straight away, they let us go. It seems it may have been a different outcome if we had said we were continuing on through Switzerland!

Still in the mountains, we made our way to our hotel for the night, in Bolzano. On the way, I took a couple of on-the-move pictures of Ian, riding in front of me. At one stage, we caught up with another small group of H-D’s from Holland, who were almost certainly on their way to Croatia as well....

















































Just as we pulled up at the hotel in Bolzano, it started to rain. It was cool and refreshing and it felt great after such a long days riding, of 333 miles – quite a feat on these roads!

9 comments:

Charlie6 said...

Back when I was with the US Army in Italy, but not aware of motorcycling's joys, several of the destinations you mentioned in this posting were part and parcel of my wanderings....good times.

Bolzano is where Grappa is made I dimly remember, make sure to have a taste!

It's also where a group of Italians I used to hang out with lived, good times, again.

Lovely pictures Gary, too bad about the Stelvio Pass though, it seemed quite the ride in TopGear.

dom


Redleg's Rides

Colorado Motorcycle Travel Examiner

RichardM said...

Beautiful pictures and I do remember the Top Gear episode. I think I'm convinced that I need to go on a two wheel trip here. Bike or bicycle...

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Gary:

The pictures tell the story, but your commentary is very informative. Doesn't it seem amazing that an electric company would invest in a dam that was only seasonally functional?

I own the original "Italian Job" on CD, and it is a great movie, with Noel Coward as Mr. Bridger and Michael Caine as Charlie Croker. I would have been very impressed if you had robbed a sack of Chinese gold, and rode across the weir, being pursued by compact Italian police cars.

Fondest regards,
Jack/Reep
Twisted Roads

mq01 said...

hope you're enjoying a nice long holiday weekend on local roads

Gary France said...

Charlie6 – I did try some Grappa, in fact too much! We decided to change our route one day on this trip and that took us away from the town on the road to Venice where you were posted. I was going to stop there and take a picture of us in front of the town sign for you! I was truly gutted about not being able to ride the Stelvio Pass. Now I will need to go back one day!

RichardM – That Top Gear episode was a classic! Bike or bicycle – for me there is no choice, it needs to have an engine!

Jack – Thank you. I agree about the seasonal oddity. The dam is at a very high elevation and can only rely on snow melt and some rain, hence they can only turn their lights on at certain times of the year! The original Italian Job is one of my all-time favourite films.

mq01 – I was having a blast.

George F said...

Wonderful pictures, I'm sorry you couldn't go through the Stelvio pass. Funny, I posted a video I found about the Stelvio on my blog about an hour ago and now was catching up on the blogs and see your post. That road is on my bucket list.

Gary France said...

George – I saw you post about the Stelvio Pass. If it seriously on your bucket list, then come to London in the summer one year and we can ride there together - I am serious! That will be a great ride....

George F said...

I might take you up on the offer ;-)
I would love to start a trip in London, a place I have always wanted to visit and ride to Italy and back. You think 2 weeks would be a good trip with stops along the way?
I would love to take my wife but can't do it now because I have a 14 year old daughter starting high school. One day.....

Gary France said...

George – 2 weeks would be plenty, as you can ride to northern Italy in 2 or 3 days if needed. The trip could take in France, Germany and Switzerland on the way and also go via Venice, Turin, Milan and Rome. There is a solution to bringing your wife – I seem to remember she is very good looking, so your daughter could go on the back of your bike with you, and your wife can ride pillion with me. Problem solved!