Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why France (and Italy)?

In my last post I addressed the question that comes up about why it's so great to ride in the Alps.  Next up is the follow up question, of all the alpine countries, why France?  Good question.  The Alps span France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Slovenia, and you could even include Liechtenstein and Monaco in that list.  You'd think that surely there must be great riding in those countries, and you'd be right.

After all, Austria is the country of The Sound of Music and its expansive alpine scenery.  Austria is home to many roads - often toll roads - that seem to exist primarily for the pure joy of riding or driving them.  The Grossglockner is a case in point.  Austria is also home the greatest concentration of Biker Wilkommen signs I've ever seen.  It seems the whole country is filled with restaurants and hotels competing for the business of vacationing motorcyclists.

Then there's Switzerland, the archetypal alpine country, all beautiful lakes, perfect houses with exquisite flower boxes, perfectly trimmed lawns, and roads without a speck of litter.  Combine that with it being the home of some of the most legendary alpine roads (Furka, Bernina, etc.), and it would seem to be the one perfect place for an Alps motorcycling vacation.

Germany is a classic portal to the Alps.  It's easy to get air connections from the US to Munich, visit the BMW factory, and take off into the Alps.  The reality is that Germany is only a tiny portion of the Alps, and while there are nearby places to ride in Germany that are great such as the Black Forest, if you want to experience much of the Alps themselves, you won't be restricting yourself to Germany.

I can't really speak to Slovenia because I haven't ridden there yet, but what I know about it makes Slovenia very attractive, and I'm looking forward to trying it out.  It looks wild and rugged and remote, and that's just what I most enjoy.

This brings us to France and Italy, and the things that are great about both of them.   This may not win me any friends with the ministries of tourism for these two countries, but here goes.  What I most love about France and Italy is that they are just a bit wilder, at bit less controlled, a bit more rugged,often a bit more remote, a bit more ragged than the other alpine nations.  This is true in many ways, but seems particularly true around attitudes towards motorcycle traffic.  It seems that both police and other road users in these countries understand that you're on a motorcycle and that you're going to be going quickly, and they make allowances for that.  That hasn't been my experience in Austria, or particularly Switzerland - where it is joked that everything that is not obligitoire is most certainly interdit.  France and Italy are just a little more like the wild west. 

Where else can you come flying up behind a police car, have the officer look in the mirror, then wave you around?  All this in a no passing zone!  Where else do car drivers routinely move to their right a foot or so to enable you to easily overtake them on narrow mountain passes (truth be told, a lot of California drivers are pretty good about getting out of the way)?  Where else is it acceptable  to split between lanes of traffic moving opposite directions?  Where else in the Alps can you find passes as wild, rugged, and simultaneously perfect and imperfect as the Col de la Cayolle or the Passo di Gavia?

An exaggerated  analogy might be that France and Italy are to Switzerland as California is to Disney's California Adventure.  One is the real thing; wild, imperfect, chaotic, and maybe a bit more dangerous.  The other is refined, perfected, triple-distilled, constrained, controlled, and safer.  Fair?  No, not really, but fun. 

For me, the greater wildness and tolerance of France and Italy make the experience of actually riding there ever so much more intense and enjoyable.  As a rider it also requires me to be more on my game, more vigilant, more flexible, and more responsible for my own conduct because traffic enforcement isn't going to save me from myself. 

France over Italy?  Yes, by a slim margin.  I somewhat prefer French food, but Matt prefers Italian.  We both prefer French drivers, if only because they're slightly less aggressive than Italians.  Both are a huge improvement over Americans.  Oh, and I love the sound of the French language, whether I understand what I'm hearing or not, though Italian is quite nice too. 

There you have it.  Why I love riding some countries more than others.  Some of the touring companies seem to concentrate on Austria and Switzerland.  My suggestion is to try France.  All those GS's with German plates seen each summer in the French passes may be on to something.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why the Alps?

From time to time folks will ask what the big deal is about riding in the Alps.  After all, we've got some pretty great roads right here in California.  We've got Yosemite and we've got Tioga Pass.  We've got Big Sur and we've got the Sonoma coast.  We've got Hwy 36 and we've got Hwy 25.  We've got Mulholland and we've got teh (sic) 9.  Hell, we can even lane split here in California, and if you get bored with that we can ride to Oregon, or Montana, or Alaska ferchissakes!  So what the hell is the big deal?

Good question and good points!  There is a wealth of great riding here in California, and even more in adjoining states.  You could keep yourself busy riding new California roads every weekend for years.  In fact, you should. 

The great gift of riding in North America is space.  Once you get out of the big cities, north or south, or across the valley, suddenly you have space.  Even here in populous California you can easily find places that are empty.  Riders coming here from Europe marvel at the distances you can travel in Nevada, or Utah, or Idaho where there is nothing for miles.  It truly is a gift.

The Alps are different.  The area has been densely populated for centuries, millennia really.  And much of that time the tide of governments and cultures and armies have washed back and forth over them.  It's the inverse of the space of the West.  Not that it's what you'd call crowded, but it is developed.  The benefit of this for motorcyclists is that all this development involved building roads, and those roads go nearly everywhere.  Every river valley was a path for commerce.  Every high cirque that didn't have a glacier became summer pasture.  In between were countless farms and villages, and roads were needed to connect all of them.  So today the place is positively cross-hatched with roads and trails, and many of those roads are paved.  And most of those paved roads are positively brilliant on a motorcycle.  

What it comes down to is sort of the inverse of space.  It's road density.  You can base around one town, and ride exciting, beautiful roads day after day, with very little repetition, and not much time spent on big busy roads or and big crowded cities.  For example, one day in particular this year, Matt and I left the inn at Serre Chevalier, rode Izoard, Vars, Restefond, Bonette, Lombarde, Sampeyre, Agnel, and Izoard again in one day - and that's just the high passes!  That does not include some of the really fun roads that connect them through the countryside.  There is nowhere that I know of near where I live in California where you could ride so many amazing roads in just 400 kilometers (~240 miles).

There are other reasons to ride the Alps.  The scenery is obviously spectacular.  When little kids draw mountains, the mountains their crayons depict seem to be inspired by the Alps.  The architecture is often nearly as breathtaking as the natural scenery.  The food is great.  And in my experience, the people are wonderful.  

That said, for me there is at least one more reason to ride the Alps.  If you're a baseball fan, and you love the game and all of its history and pageantry, if you love all the great games and players that have come before, you may feel the pull to make a pilgrimage to the sport's hallowed ground.  Maybe for you it's Yankee Stadium, or Fenway, or Wrigley Field.  A place where you can go to feel connected to all that has come before, and all that is yet to come.  The Alps are like that for motorcyclists.  I recall reading about alpine touring in Cycle World when I was a kid, seeing B&W photos of tourists on BMW R69's and Triumph T100's, gear lashed to the seat, layered up against the chill, with stunning mountainscapes in the background.  I knew then at age twelve that this was where real riding happened.  This was where a motorcyclist went for great riding and to meet great riders.  This was hallowed ground.  

Now after four trips I can say with all honesty that it has been everything I'd hoped it would be.  That the roads, the scenery, the food, the people, the quality of the riders, and the quality of the riding I was inspired to do exceeded anything I could have reasonably expected, and often even exceeded what I'd unreasonable dreamed.  

The Alps, you must try them.