(2011) French Alps


Yet Another Motorcycle Tour in the French Alps. May 21-24, 2011

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Text and photos by Mark, photos and text by Markus.

Day 1, Saturday, May 21st

This is the earliest hour we’ve ever planned to leave for a motorcycle tour. Although it’s past sunrise already, as was the intended departure time, 5:00am is really early enough to leave. It’s dry, and it promises to become a warm and sunny day. While warming up my engine, I encounter the only other awake motorcyclist for miles. I take over some of Markus’s luggage and we’re off on mostly empty country roads. Although we plan to reach Cassis on the French south coast in about two days from now, we figured we can still avoid the motorway if we’re leaving this early. I really like the sleepy surroundings of mornings like these and the crisp air flowing through the opening of my visor.

The often congested road along the shores of the Urnersee is still void of traffic – definitely a rare experience, and a motivation to leave early more often. We stop quickly in the village of Amsteg to mount my new action camera. I’ve been playing with the setup for a while now, and I’m all set to record our ascent to the Susten pass. Fortunately, it hasn’t snowed much last winter, so all Swiss pass roads except the Grand Saint Bernard have been opened ahead of schedule. Being more of a motorcyclist than a skier, I consider myself lucky this year.

The higher we go up the pass road, the sunnier it gets. We’re taking it easy for now. The riding will automatically become a lot more spirited over the next four days. We encounter a few high snow banks beside the road as we reach the 2000m (6000ft) mark and are soon engulfed by the tunnel right before the pass summit. I decide to ride on as there’s not much to do here in the shade, and we have some more distance to cover today. We coast down to Innertkirchen and south toward the Grimsel pass. The few other early risers are cyclists and a couple of drivers. This part of the pass road is not very curvy, and overtaking the cars is a breeze with the ST3. Riding is already smoother again, and after a quite a few hairpins, we arrive at the top of the Grimsel pass. The parking lot is nearly empty, and, surprisingly, so is the lake.

### Our second breakfast on the Grimsel Pass
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We follow the less exciting south ramp down to Gletsch in Wallis. We’re making good progress and by the time we reach Brig it’s time to fill up and mount the camera to my helmet. They are working on the road up the Simplon pass with alternating directions, controlled by traffic lights. A police car pulls up behind us, and the sound of Markus’s clutch through the open clutch cover magically disappears. I can hear his engine running a unusual, slightly higher “idle”. This is to prevent a long discussion with the police about the sound of an open clutch, which is like loose change in a washing machine. This palaver would be about how illegal that is based on a non-existing law, and how dangerous it is because you could fail to put your finger, or the absent laces of your riding boots, in between the narrow slits of the clutch cover.

### Impressive clouds, south of Simplon Pass
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### Swiss camouflage with an Italian twist
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### Simplon Pass, north view
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### Simplon Pass panorama
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After the road works, the police decide to take a turn and we can start overtaking cars without drawing undesired attention. I haven’t been here for years, and I wrongly assumed that it has a lot of curves. It is open all year for all kinds of traffic and that’s why it is less spectacular than the scenery. It’s time for lunch at the pass, so we pick the first open restaurant we can find. In Wallis, they like hiding their food under a big layer of cheese. After a bit of digging, Markus finds out that his cheese covers a slice of bread. We’re sitting outside on some wooden benches enjoying the sunshine a lot more than the “music”. It’s one of the worst German Schlager sound either of us has heard, which reaches its climax with the pathetic song “Ich liebe den DJ”. That’s when our french-speaking neigbors can’t take it any longer and manage to shut off the noise by pounding the window with their fists and shouting “silence!”.

We reach Italy quickly after an uneventful ride down the south/east ramp of the Simplon. What follows, unfortunately, is a rather boring bit from Domodóssola to Turin, with a nearly endless stretch of shabby and partly empty small towns garnished with decrepit industrial estates. To increase our confidence, one of them is called Pray. The roads between them have some curves between ample green bushes, but the surface is too damaged for me to enjoy myself. Closer to Turin, there are some rewarding views onto the Po Valley from some hilltops, but all in all I don’t really need to ride this part of the route again.

We try to slip around the outskirts of Turin, but the road we want to take is closed because of road works, or rather closed by signs spanning the width of the road, to put it more accurately. The best alternative is being blocked by the police. We’re now headed towards the cramped center of one of the largest industrial cities of northern Italy. We didn’t even want to be there in the first place, and now there’s no quick way out. There we are, in hopelessly dense traffic, with my cooling fan running and Markus’ engine temperature rising.

The reason for all this is a big crowd protesting against the construction of a high-speed train track. Ironically, I would rather put my bike in such a train right now to get out of here fast, and I don’t care in which direction. By splitting lanes wherever possible we’re rolling again after the better part of an hour, when Murphy, the bastard, puts a tractor with a hay trailer in front of us.. in the city.

The roads through some plains southwest of Turin are nearly wide enough to land an Aibus A380, but have a ridiculously low speed limit of 50km/h (30mph). Some sensible pensioners in small rusty Fiats are actually doing 30km/h (20mph). A speed camera probably costs as much as a thousand speed limit signs over here. Therefore, we reckon, there are no speed cameras at all, because there really are thousands of such signs, which almost everyone chooses to ignore. Another interesting feature of Italian motoring is a frequently occurring sign that says “rallentare” (slow down). This relative statement confirms that, although they don’t know what speed you’re doing, you’re probably speeding.

It’s about time to fill up again, and while searching for a gas station, we see a woman reading a paper while sitting on a matress between a few piles of garbage. Her car is parked next to her, so she’s probably only waiting for the bus if it brings her next customer..

We’ve had our experiences with automated Italian gas stations, and know that many of them do not accept foreign credit or debit cards. In our search for gas, we encounter two that manage to top that by not accepting any cash at all, so even some Italians are out of luck. After a bit of searching, we find one that is obviously broken because foreigners are also allowed to fill up here. The attendant tells me in quick Italian that I should pay “twenty-and-something” Euros. I give her 22 Euros as that should cover the bill. She kindly refuses to accept my unintended tip and returns my two Euros. I think my Italian needs some work.

We continue and encounter some historical towns that don’t have a main road running through them. When entering such a town, I’m often suspicious of the route that my GPS recommends, but always relieved to find the road to the next village after many seemingly random turns into narrow alleys and past curious inhabitants.

I can see Markus mimic my excited fist in the air as we enter the village of Duc. Despite the joy, it appears to be as abandoned as all the other small towns with signs saying “centro abitato” (inhabited center). Sometimes these signs have a display that shows your speed, which may be 10km/h off in either direction.

Turin and the quirks of Italian traffic are quickly forgotten as we ascend the hills towards the skiing resort Sestriere and soon reach the French border over the damp road of the Montgenèvre pass. Fortunately, it’s not more than a drizzle, which stops as we roll into Briançon. This time, there’s no urologist conference to prevent us from getting a hotel room, so we take the first one we can find in the center of town. The hotel room is comfortable and the toilet is ideal for people without legs. We have good pizzas and call it a day.

### Route of Day 1: Langnau to Briançon, 604km (375mi)