I awoke to the distinct sound of rain pelting the windows. My first day of riding on a Edelweiss Tour in the High Alps…. and it was about 50 degrees F with low clouds and rain. But I expected this type of weather in early June in the Alps.
My riding buddy glanced out the window and shrugged. We'd ridden in far worse. I stepped out onto the veranda and listened to the sounds of rain and gurgling downspouts, the surrounding mountains hidden by the low clouds, the flat grey light filtering the street lights and the small street in front of the Hotel.
We were staying at a wonderful little Hotel - Hotel Central in Seefeld Austria. We got dressed and headed down for breakfast. Strong hot coffee, fruit and a selection of breads, cheeses and cold cuts, scrambled eggs and bacon or even made to order omelettes…. and we were ready to roll. However our Guide - Godfreid came over and explained that the other riders weren't interested in riding in the rain, so he had quickly organized a small bus to take the group down to Innsbruk for a sightseeing and shopping tour.
Right. No. Shopping? We had flown 5000 miles across the pond for Alpine riding and that is precisely what we were going to do! Godfried grinned and produced an excellent map and pointed us in the general direction of Munich - outlined a couple a sights and towns that should be experienced… and we were happily off on our own.
We trooped back up to the room and geared up in Aerostich gear of varying vintages - I grabbed my waterproof winter gloves, and a BMW rain jacket to wear over my Roadcrafter one piece (it's old so waterproof is increasingly just a concept with my gear) and walked down to the protected shed where our BMWs awaited us.
Thomas had opted for a late model R1200RT and I for a lighter F800ST.
We thumbed the starters and quickly left in light rain heading North on one of the few roads that led to and from Seefeld. We weren't disappointed - tight small roads thru Bavarian forests, open meadows with flowers blooming, beautiful farm houses with obsessively cut and stacked firewood, smoke curling from chimneys, cows in green fields all surrounded by looming mountains enshrouded in mist and clouds.
We pressed onward eventually stopping for coffee in Tegernsee, Germany a tiny hamlet next to a deep alpine lake. There was a small rowboat on the lake, the anglers protected from the rain by a large umbrella, drifted slowly in a light breeze.
There were obviously big fish in this deep mountain lake - mounted specimens adorned the walls of the tiny restaurant. Looked to my unpractised eye like Pike and Lake Trout were top of their lists.
We basically just wandered - there aren't all that many roads with the steep mountains surrounding us, so getting very lost would be difficult. Thomas was placed in charge of the navigation and maps - he also speaks passable German, a useful skill for two Americans riding in the rain. (He may speak perfect German - 'hard for me to tell - anyhow he was placed in charge of maps, directions and ordering coffee. And beer, but that would come after riding.)
We discovered a large reservoir and stopped for some photo ops - we also discovered what a small road on the map with red bars across it means - it was a private toll road thru a deep forest while Thomas negotiated our toll with the guard, I kept a close watch out for Red Riding Hood, Trolls under bridges and the Brothers Grimm.
We sometimes leapfrog for photo shoots on roads like this - we take 20 pictures and usually one or two turn out. Anyhow Thomas went ahead and stopped to take pictures of me - He dressed in the HI-VIZ Darien Jacket with a Gleaming white Schuberth helmet standing next to a R1200RT - I guess might have looked a bit like a cop at first glance. OK, he really looked a lot like a cop running a speed trap.
Anyhow a driver in a Fiat sure thought so as he rounded a curve and saw this 'cop' aiming a portable device at him. His ABS worked as he braked the Fiat hard to reduce his speed!
We eventually returned to Hotel Central to a wonderful Dinner with the other riders after a wonderful day of riding and exploring both history and this lower Alpine region.
The day dawned cool and cloudy - temps were in the low 40sF in the morning, but the others riders were properly dressed and impatient to get moving! There were three 'two-up' couples, and rest of us were solo riders. The bikes selected included the aformentioned RTand 800ST, two R1200S, a R1200GS, a Ducati Monster, a Ducati Multistrada and a F800GS.
We again left Seefeld after another great European breakfast on a tour of King Ludwig's Palaces and Castles. King Ludwig has been properly portrayed as nuts, but kept building beautiful castle after beautiful castle. I think we saw three. I also did the math and noted that his Castle building spree occurred in the early to mid 1800s - about the time of a lot of the German migration to the States. I suspect that the common folk got sick and tired of paying for his spectacular excesses. The group started off slowly as everyone got the feel for their bikes and the collective riding styles, but as the day wore on the speeds and temperatures began to creep up to acceptable levels.
We rode to the first Castle and I began to really appreciate having a local Guide who knew all the back routes, great roads, knew how to balance a group dynamic and keep us all together. We had lunch at the Guest house below the first Castle and since we weren't as involved in the whole Castle fantasy thing (soaring ceilings, fountains, gold leaf, wretched excess, princesses, Kings, Dragons etc. etc.) Thomas and I opted to continue our ride in Germany with random side trips on our own and skip the guided Castle/Palace Tour. Two other Riders - Marwan - a Medical Doctor from the Bay area and Said, his nephew from Bahrain chose to join us 'uncultured' types.
This turned out to be another great idea - Marwan also speaks Fluent German and rode a very nice R1200R and young Said rode a snarling Ducati Monster. We found our way to the Mad King's other Castle and found some great back roads that Godfried had suggested. We covered some fast miles/Kilometers…. when reality intervened and I got a work related phone call.
Both Thomas and I use the Sena Bluetooth system for bike to bike communication and like all modern systems this ties in my iPhone. Ironically the person calling was a chap from our office in Hamburg, Germany who had called my US Cell number. He literally had no idea that our 20 minute phone call took place as I was carving a wonderful Alpine road through another Black Forest at the other end of his beautiful Country!
We stopped at the end of this road and Said noted that there seemed to be oil leaking onto his rear tire! I wrapped my call and laid under the Ducati to inspect - the rear calliper had blown a seal and the 'oil' was brake fluid. We confirmed by pumping up the rear brake and were rewarded by seeing the rest of the brake fluid pump out onto the wheel and tire. Oops.
Marwan called Edelweiss and whoever he talked to (it was clearly after hours) told us the best course was to take it easy and ride slowly back to the Hotel. Given the fact that we were somewhere in a dark forest and not quite sure actually where - this was the only practical solution. We wiped off what fluid we could and we rode slowly back. There was no way to have predicted this type of failure - sometime it just happens, and we were still in hills, not steep mountains.
However we did get a bit lost, resulting in Marwan periodically interrogating 15 or more random Germans walking their dogs in small towns as we tried to find our way back to Seefeld. I hope this bolstered or at least didn't hurt International relations - anyhow it eventually worked and we got back just in time for the group dinner.
We briefed our Guide/Facilitator on the problem and he immediately started calling to take care of the problem.
This was going to be one of the longest and most technical of our riding days - we were heading over Passo Stelvio - the highest paved Pass in this section of the Alps. 60 (or more) hairpin switchbacks with an average 11 degree grade…, and most of it way above the tree line.
Man - a lot of us consider ourselves to be better riders than we really are, me included….but this road was challenging. I eventually came to learn how to handle these steep grades and sharp turns….all the while dealing with the occasional Motorhome coming down grade. I've biked the Rocky Mountains from one end to the other and never found roads like this in the US or Canada! I'm not even sure they'd be legal?!
One of our group volunteered to go first and to station himself on a curve to take pictures of our other riders on a curve. Well, at a 180 degree uphill turn with the aforementioned steep grade, in my usually smooth riding style was replaced by just navigating the turns and staying more or less on my line! I learned to feather the clutch mid corner - violating about everything I know about taking corners on a motorcycle - to keep the revs up for the next straightaway. Anyhow we all survived - here I should mention that my riding buddy Thomas is not a fan of high roads or high bridges. As a former Army something or other, he is fine with rappelling out of a Helicopter with full gear with incoming fire, but usually resents being made to ride on narrow roads with a 1000 meter drop on one side and a cliff on the other.
He did the road in style on his big RT, though he noted that if he'd had his Stateside K1200LT, this story might have had a different ending.
We gathered at the top of the Pass - blowing clouds and 40 degrees, maybe less - and had an outdoor lunch of grilled brats. More interesting to several of us was a gathering of a European Cannonball Run cars perched at the end of the parking lot getting ready to go down the grade we had just ascended. Really quite an interesting collection of exotic cars - I'm happy that we weren't going up grade as these guys were going down! We timed this right by accident.
A note here - some of the traffic on Passo Stevio was bicycles being ridden by amazingly tough riders. Hats and helmets off to these folks. Seriously.
I think the top of the Pass is actually in Italy, but in Modern Europe it's hard to tell in these gray border areas anymore, as EU member States closed the old border control points, National boundaries are now just marked by signs. We soon headed down grade into Italy and as the altitude dropped the temps rose and a green world returned. The Italian grade was far less demanding that the Austrian side. The roads were also in poorer repair and condition.
We stopped for coffee in an ancient and tiny Italian village which is still completely surrounded by a tall and sturdy wall. Given the ancient strategic importance of these passes, it's not surprising that a walled village here was a good idea, passing armies… from the Roman Legions to more contemporary battalions… probably would have found this village a convenient place to stop and pillage… or to have coffee. Godfried told us it was the smallest village in Italy - anyhow it was very small and the coffee shop offered coffee or expresso. No other choices, no cappuccino, no mochas!.
The village square benches were populated by colourful local guys who undoubtedly were cheerfully killing time by insulting us - but not speaking Italian it was hard to tell. Godfried did speak fluent Italian, but he declined to translate their ongoing comments and commentary.
The roads wound through stunning valleys and into Switzerland going over still another Pass with similarly demanding switchbacks and grade (just fewer and less respectively) - sometimes these twisting narrow roads took us just a meter or so away from those famous Swiss cows each equipped with a sonorous brass bell on a leather collar. The bells musically clinked away as we passed on the steep forested curves. The settings were just too perfect - some of us think the Swiss Chamber of Commerce may have staged these cows just to appeal to passing tourists.
Wait - did I mention European Motorcyclists on their sport bikes? We were a group of fairly competent riders, many with decades of riding experience. We had nothing on these motorcyclists, who both knew these roads and rode in a very aggressive manner, creating an invisible third lane for passing down these narrow mountain roads. They would buzz up and pass with a shriek of tuned exhaust pipes - sometimes overtaking ten bikes, two cars and a motor home in a single 150 KPH burst…and this on blind off camber mountain curves.
Well, at least they all wore helmets and protective riding gear!
Edelweiss has a 'no passing within the group' and a 'no racing' policy which makes good sense. Initially these European guys (and gals) were unnerving - but we slowly built our speeds as a group and by the end of the week fewer passed us this way. OK, when we were passed by a group of Italians on Vespas on a downhill grade - it was a little embarrassing, but we figure they knew that road like the backs of their hands. And I'm sure that those shouts and gestures at the base of the mountain were actually friendly waves. Godfreid again declined to translate.
We rode 310 Kilometres, but these were tough ones! We got back to our Hotel and toasted each other with excellent Austrian Beer - and a few of us adjourned after an educational Austrian wine tasting in the Hotel's large wine cellar, to our balcony for Cuban Cigars and spirits. And ribald jokes…and trying to solve the problems of the Middle East…which became easier after the second bottle. The jokes that is. Middle Eastern problems seem to be like an onion - you peel off a layer and there is another layer of problems to be solved.