Learning to Fly

“I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings.”

I knocked “Harls” out of gear and let her roll to a stand on the edge of the car park. I let the engine idle freely for a minute or so, letting the valves cool a bit after the arduous climb, then switch off and … silence, save for the gentle metallic “tinkle” of an air-cooled engine cooling down.

Time to take stock.

We were sitting on top of the Nufenen Pass, at 2478 metres/8130 feet above sea level. It’s the second highest paved pass in Switzerland and the eleventh highest in Europe. There was early snow lying around, the air crisp, cold and blown by a keen North Westerly wind was just enough to catch your breath.

Nufenen Pass

We had just climbed from Airolo in the Bendretto Valley; 1319 metres of climbing over a distance of 24 kilometres, average grade 5.5%, maximum grade 10%. No wonder her engine was warm! The panorama of the Bernese Alps before us was magnificent, a fair reward for the effort of the climb.

It had been a long day with seven passes collected, a fair distance covered and hideous traffic on the Gotthard Autobahn, but we now had only 14km and 1108 metres of decent down to Ulrichen and our stop for the night. I was almost blowing the froth off the top of a cold one!

First though, I just needed to drink in the scenery and bask in the satisfaction of crossing another high pass…

It’s been just about a fortnight since Harls and I got back from our Italian travels and I think that I’ve almost recovered. If I’m honest, for the first few days after I got back I could have done with a holiday to get over the trip, these long distance adventures don’t get any easier with age!

That said, our schedule on this last excursion was pretty punishing, even with a day off from riding, but you know I never seem to learn! The trip was pretty epic; 2736 miles in total, 40 “mountain” passes, 7 countries, one return sea crossing.

The thing to focus on though, is those mountain passes….that’s where I have a bit of a problem.

I’m hooked on them!

I’ve always had a love of high places, right from an early age stomping around the beautiful Welsh mountains in Snowdonia. It’s something I can’t really describe adequately, other than “Put me on a mountain and see a happy Dookes!”

As I result, when I got into this motorcycle touring habit it just seemed such a natural thing to head for the high passes and then keep going ever higher. Please understand that I don’t necessarily have to go touring in the mountains, it just makes me a bit happier. I written before about my quest to ride Galibier, but by visiting that magical place it sort of opened up a “Pandora’s Box” of other possibilities; the more I pondered the map of Europe things just got even more interesting.

What started out as a whimsical idea began to grow into a list of targets!

I made a few rules for myself along the way, otherwise the whole thing was going to get totally out of control.

1. The road must be paved, no dirt tracks.
2. Dead end roads do not count.
3. The road must be open to all public traffic.
4. Military or private service roads are not allowed.
5. Closed or disused roads also not allowed.
6. Europe West of the Carpathian Mountains only (at the moment).

Oh yes, whilst I think of it. For those of you who may be wondering what old Dookes is on about with a “Mountain Pass”…..

A Mountain Pass is a route through a mountain range which often crosses over a ridge, gap or saddle. Mountain ranges make formidable barriers to travel and transport, even in our modern era, so passes have through the centuries become vital for trade and defence. They are also some of the most beautiful places on earth.

Albula Pass

Looking at the options from my self-imposed rules, the highest road is the Cime de la Bonette, 2802m, which is near Jausiers in the French Alps; the highest Pass being Col de L’Iseran, 2770m, which is near Val d’Isère also in France.

Cime de la Bonette


Now because I’m not the sort of chap who settles for the easier option, it had to be the big ones that I went after first, but no it’s not at all been downhill from there! At the beginning I didn’t make a conscious effort to chase the list, but it’s sort of evolved and become a bit “semi-organic” …almost with a life of its own. To be honest, one day I started crossing out the places that we’d been and it sort of took off from there!

Back to the recent trip. I have to admit that “Pass-Hunting” was part of the planning process and that we were pretty successful with it too. Of the highest paved passes on my list I’ve now bagged the top nine, 24 of the top 30, 40 out of 50 and a whole bunch of “lesser” passes too; the really great thing though is that most of them have been done on my beloved Harls and I can’t be happier for that.

Cole de Mont Cenis 2083m.

What’s next then?

Well, I had been thinking of a trundle around Scandinavia to Nordkapp sometime next year, after the snow has melted. The thing is, I’m torn, there’s still unfinished business in the high mountains and that little obsession is gnawing at me again. The other consideration is the small matter of age. Riding some of the passes is hard work and whilst I love the scenery and flying around the clouds, but I’m not the greatest fan of really tight hairpin bends, they are far too much hard physical work on a big bike with an impingement in one shoulder and arthritis in the other!

Learning to fly around the clouds…

BUT…

There’s a tourist itinerary in France called “Le Route des Grandes Alpes.” It runs from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean Sea and takes in some of the best mountain roads and passes in Europe; it caught my eye a few years ago. For sure there are a number of the “big ones” on the route that we’ve done in the past, but hey going back to Galibier and dropping down to the Med would be no hardship at all! In addition, we could put in a side trip just across into Italy and grab a couple of targets that have eluded us so far and whilst I’m still half capable.

Notice I keep referring to “We” and “Us” in my narrative?

That’s because “Harls” and I are a team when it comes to those Passes. Sure, big “Baby Blue” is more comfortable on the transits and she has got a few Passes to her name, but she’s sooo heavy when it comes to doing the business in the mountains.

Déjà vu.

It’s a no brainer, there’s only one bike for me and anyway I want “Harls” to have the glory when we finally clear the list!

Déjà vu two!

Looks like that’ll be the plan for next year then, with suitable domestic approval of course.

“I’m learning to fly, around the clouds
But what goes up must come down.”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

In memory of Tom Petty 1950-2017

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Red Sky In The Morning.

Sometimes it’s worth getting up the first time the alarm sounds and not hitting the “Snooze” button. Yesterday in Brittany was a case in point.

Surprisingly the evening with Denis didn’t get out of hand and I slept “The sleep of the just,” with only the alarm disturbing me. I got out of bed and threw open the shutters, dawn was breaking in the Eastern sky with rich hues of amber, red and gold; it was too good to miss, so I sat I the window taking in the show that the sun was giving.

In the back of my mind I pondered the old adage,”Red sky in the morning, sailors warning.” Hmm, oh well, we’ve taken pretty much everything that the weather clerk has thrown at us this trip, something else won’t matter. Will it?

Denis was waiting when I wandered downstairs, his smile every bit as warm as the sun.
“Bonjour Gallois, bien dormi, ça va?”
“Oui mon ami ça va et merci, j’ai très bien dormi!”

He broke into a rare bit of stilted English,
“Bacon and eggs? Zee full English?”

He roared with laughter as I shook my head…he knew what I was going to say.

“Merci, non. J’aurai une omelette, comme d’habitude!”

More laughter, Denis knows I always have an omelette for breakfast with him; it’s because they are the best, which I frequently remind him. Anyway he gets fun out of the bacon and eggs routine!

Of course there’s the usual French breakfast fare to go with it; bread, croissants, pain au chocolat and as this is Bretagne, little Madeleine cakes…which just beg to be dipped briefly in your cup of coffee to give sublime breakfast happiness!

Soon, too soon, it was time to hit the road again and in the French way there were hugs and kisses all round. Ann stood on the steps of the Château waving me goodbye, Denis had disappeared off to feed his horses, he doesn’t do the actual departure bit very well.

I turned Harls North West and headed for our ferry port at Roscoff, just over 100 miles away through delightful Breton scenery. True, Brittany isn’t as spectacular as the mountains that we’ve been in for the last fortnight, but to me it has a homely feel. It’s the region of France where I first “got it” about the country and the people, that’s wholly down to Mrs Dookes; she worked here years ago and imparted her love of the place to me. I’ve never really looked back since!

Then there was the weather, what a lovely day it had turned into and stayed that way right to the ferry. Thank you La France, I’ll forgive you the downpours we had to endure previously!

….and so to sea. The ferry link between Brittany and Plymouth is really convenient for me as Dookes H.Q. is only about 25 miles from the port and usually a doddle to cover.

I like travelling with Brittany Ferries, that’s not an advert for them – I’m just a satisfied customer. I always get a cabin, irrespective if it’s a day or night sailing, as it makes a good base to securely dump things whilst I enjoy the facilities of the ship and also because I appreciate getting some sleep. No difference this time either!

Getting near to the U.K.the weather closed in and by the time we docked it was full-on driving rain. Oh joy in the darkness!

Then, just to add to my overflowing cup of happiness on the way home, the highways authority had decided to dig up the road and install diversions…then we ran into fog and still it rained…bear in mind that these are rural roads with no street-lighting, not fun. That blasted red sky!

Grumbling aside, it was good to roll Harls into my workshop, shut the doors, turn on the dehumidifiers, thank her for a job well done and promise in the next couple for days to wash the considerable amount of road grime off her.

2736 miles without missing a beat. “Pas mal,” as Denis says, yes not at all bad for an old lady, the true star of the show!

Incredibly big thanks to Mrs Dookes for the latitude that she gives me to go travelling, whilst she keeps H.Q. ticking over; yeah I know that I’m a lucky chap in so many ways.

There’s more to tell about this trip dear reader, so please pop back again soon when I post more pictures and stories of things we saw along the road.

“Let me be a travelling man, I’m a roadrunner baby, roadrunner.”

Catch you soon

Dookes

Slow-Road, Small-Town France.

Good evening everyone from the delightful town of Autun in the Bourgogne-Franche Compté area of central/eastern France….wow that was a mouthful!

I’ve been through this place before, liked it and vowed to pop back again. I still like it.

Originally the town was founded by the Romans, about 2000 years ago and it still carries traces of their presence today. Back in the UK we have Roman remains too, but they are all either foundations or other things in the ground like mosaics. We don’t have things like this, the Saint André Gate.

It’s one of two remaining gates to the Roman walled city, excuse the distorted photo; yes I know that one shouldn’t photograph converging parallels….but it’s the only way I could get the shot! Just think about it for a second though, no not the technical bits of the photo, that structure is really, really old! Almost enough to fry your head if you try to get a handle on how old and it’s still standing!

Anyway, enough about the Romans, after all, what did they ever do for us….?
(Apart from, roads, law and order, sanitation….) Ooops, sorry, I slipped into a bit of Monty Python!

We started out from the Jura this morning in pretty heavy rain, could have been worse though it was snowing in Switzerland. Fortunately the wet stuff stopped falling out of the sky, leaving Harls and I to enjoy a gentle potter across a delightful corner of France and covering a mere 125 miles. With no pressure to munch miles, I made sure that we stuck to the minor roads and frequently we went for ages without seeing another vehicle.

I think this is the right way up…
Reflections in a Jura lake.


Autumn is certainly beginning to set in and the early colours were looking good; they would have looked better with a bit of sunshine though.

Around the village of Mercurey, in Bourgogne, the air held a particular scent of raisins. The wine harvest was largely over, but the last grapes were exuding a lovely smell. The village dates from pre-historic times and is the most widely recognized and important wine village of the Côte Chalonnaise, producing more wines than all other village appellations combined and some of the finest in Bourgogne.

Vineyards, Mercurey Bourgogne.

The small towns we passed through were delightfully still, this is Sunday after all and the French still know what Sunday is all about; note that well you money-grabbing politicians in London’s Parliament!

The fountain in the village of L’Etoile; It means ‘Star,’ that’s a nice name for a village.

Sitting on Harls, luxuriating to the rumbling note of her engine, all was well in the world of Dookes…I just needed a bottle of the good Bourgogne wine and a portion of the wonderful roast chicken they serve around here!

Riding motorcycles is Not at all about how going as fast as you can, higher than ever before, or taking that corner oozing arrogance that you are “King of the Road.” No, it’s about breathing in the moment, smelling the air and celebrating the pleasure of passing by this way if only once…!

Anyway, the traffic will be busier tomorrow, but I’ll still be searching out the back roads and enjoying small town France; I might even grab a bottle of something to take home for Mrs Dookes.

“I will choose a path that’s clear,
I will choose freewill.”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Tradition

Hello everyone.

Tonight we have returned to La France and are in the Département du Jura. This is a part of L’hexagone that is new to me and I must say so far I am very impressed!

OK, this is going to be brief…no hotel WiFi available to be worth a biscuit. Actually it’s a great little provincial France hotel, the sort that is rapidly disappearing. I don’t know what it is about paper-thin walls and floors, threadbare carpets, questionable electrics and cheap tatty furniture that people don’t like these days. These places are all about tradition!

Personally, I love these old places for the bags of character that they have and I feel it will be a sad day when they are all gone, honestly I do. As usual there is limited choice in the restaurant, but what you get is plenty of good freshly cooked food typical of the region and enough to satisfy the hungriest diner.

Anyway, have we had an experience today…more big passes in the Swiss Alps, got caught up in a fantastic Swiss traditional feast day, beat the weather(just about) and rolled into France in time for supper! – All of which I’ll tell you about when I get some decent internet access.

Harls is safely tucked up in the hotel garage, keeping the owners Suzuki company and I’m just about to eat, après un petit apéritif, salut!

Bonsoir et attrape-toi bientôt!

Dookes

It’s a bit Parky!

(Old British saying for “It’s a bit cold” and a favourite of my old mate Chutney.)

What a lovely alpine morning I woke up to; blue sky, sunshine and what’s that glistening on the grass? Frost!

I took a short walk outside the hotel and the still morning air really made me catch my breath. Gee-wiz it was cold, minus 3°Celsius by the sign on the pharmacy just down the street, was going to be a bit of in interesting morning.

Just before I left home I was prevaricating about whether to take my heated jacket with me, September is meant to be summer after all. The wise-ness that is Mrs Dookes took the decision out of my hands, her suggestion that if I had it and didn’t use it against not taking it and wishing I had, totally persuaded me. Actually, it just took the decision out of my hands, but today I loved that woman just that little bit more, because I stayed lovely and warm.

I’m too tired now to do the math, but -3° in Livigno, bloomin’ colder at Bernina Pass, -5 at Julier Pass and -7° at the Albula; then add in the wind chill even at a modest 40mph, oh yes you’d better believe that I was so much more in love with Mrs D as the heated gear did its stuff!!! What a brilliant suggestion to bring it, thank you darling!

Unashamedly we were Pass Bagging again, well depending on your take, it was either Nature or God that put ‘them thar mountains’ there, so it would be crass stupidity not to enjoy them!

From Livigno we topped Forcola di Livigno at 2315m, and slipped out of Italy;

Swiss side of Forcola Di Livigno, no-mans land!

it’s a bit weird then, as you trundle along for a good five kilometres before you arrive at the Swiss customs point and border which is actually halfway up the climb to Bernina Pass. I pulled Harls over by the summit board on Bernina for the customary photo, what I assumed were puddles were actually solid ice….we were on a mini skating rink!

From the summit, the road sweeps North, like piano wire passing through glorious scenery and with the world famous Rhaetian Railway keeping close company. The swanky resort town of St Moritz lies at the bottom of the hill, but best not say to much about it and just ride on to Julier Pass, at 2284m we were getting higher….and colder!

Julier Pass

Funny that there weren’t many other motorbikes about, I wonder why?

At the Julier we did a ‘U’ turn and cruised back to St M, then hung a left for a few glorious blasting miles on almost empty road before turning left again onto the Albula Pass road.

In contrast to the Julier, which is built on the alignment of a Roman road, the Albula is pure Swiss sheep herder track. Tight, tricky little hairpins catch you out if you don’t pay attention and yes, I was daydreaming when one nearly caught me out…no harm done, the road was pretty much deserted. A pair of BMW bikes caught me up, poor Harls was struggling with the altitude and the cold, her carburetor was icing and I had to give her about 25% choke to keep her happy. The first BMW swept by me, but the second tucked in behind me.

Nearing the Pass I could see that this was hard country, almost a cross between the Arctic and the Moon, I wouldn’t like to get caught out here, even though it was mind boggling beautiful.

Parking Harls outside the Gasthaus at the summit, it turned out that the two BMW’s were a husband and wife from Munich. He had powered by me and she was happy to ride behind me as she though her husband was riding too fast; so did I, but I didn’t say anything!

Spot the icicles!

After taking more photos we continued North towards Tiefencastle, eventually picking up the St Bernadino Autobahn and having a bit of higher speed fun.

Peeling off to cross the pass at St Bernadino was a bit of a disappointment, so then it was back onto the Autobahn and more exhaust rasping mile-munching, oh I love that bike!

We dropped off to bag another Pass that had intrigued me for some time, the Splügen, which straddles the border between Switzerland and Italy. The thing that had captured my imagination as the compact set of ten bends just below the summit at the Swiss side.

Splügen staircase. Totally bonkers!

Compact also equals bloomin’ tight and tricky, especially on the inside bends! They do make a good photo though!

Then it was more Autobahn blasting for about thirty miles towards the St Gottard Pass. I had wanted to stick this one in as a cheeky extra, the main road now goes through a tunnel, but the “old main road” and the original cobble road still exist; today though for some reason they were closed with police blocking them off.

Oh well, back to plan “A” the Nufenen Pass / Passo della Novena, at 2478m / 8130ft this is the highest paved pass in wholly in Switzerland and I think it’s just moved up to my favourite pass in Switzerland too!

Broody mountains, looking North on Nufenen Pass.8130ft.

I suppose I need to clarify what I like in a good Pass…

Having esoteric tastes in all things mechanical, I don’t conform to any norms. I ride Harley Davidson bikes because I like them, not because I want to be identified as “a Harley Rider,” I haven’t got a beard, ear-piercing, tattoos or a belt overhanging gut! The only trouble with the Harley’s that I ride, compared to other road or adventure bikes, is that they have a longer wheelbase and that means that they don’t like very tight bends much; neither do I! I do like a good gradient, long sweeping bends, nice views, places to stop and take photos, plus not too much other traffic.

On that basis :
Stelvio = Poor.
Nufenen = Excellent!

Here’s another thing to shout from the rooftops, that old Harls of mine has now topped the highest Passes in France, Switzerland, Italy and Andorra. She’s also done eight of the top ten in Europe and 22 out of the top 30 and we have plans for the stragglers!

The star of the show, on to of Nufenen Pass, looking a bit travel-stained, but we’ve been through a lot.

Any wonder why I love that bike?

At the end of today we rolled into our hotel car park in Ulrichen, tired, very happy and quite a bit warmer.

“One day like this a year would see me right for life.”

Catch you later.

Dookes

Kicking Stelvio

I often think that my life is full of departures, never any arrivals, always in motion and moving on.

Take this morning for example. Sure I’d enjoyed staying in Ritten, but loading up Harls and firing her engine into life, then moving back on the open road; I was never happier.

We hit the Bolzano morning commute traffic right at its peak. It was total fun, street-fighting on level terms with the Italians, Harls growling around the city like she owned the place; I could never have done that with the big Ultra Limited! Then it was a spirited romp along the autostrada to Merano, where predictably everything ground to a halt as the road slimmed down to a normal highway.

On Italian roads you have to get your head around one thing, they are either mad all-out racetracks or you need to predict your arrival by the calendar – all or nothing, that’s just the way it is. Being honest, I put up with the tedium of stop-start traffic for about ten miles before I hit the “Stuff this, I’m on a motorbike” button and started, shall we say, “making progress!”

The weather forecast for the weekend ahead is rubbish. I had planned to spend two nights in Livigno and catch up on some of the local passes, but with snow due tomorrow afternoon and right through the weekend, I’ve pulled the plug on that idea. Instead we are only here for one night and then running away from the weather, before we get snowed in.

As a result, I changed the route for today. I was going to ride Passo Di Gavia from the South and have a play elsewhere tomorrow. Instead we headed into the Mustair valley and at Santa Maria turned left onto the Umbrail pass route. This is a narrow, little used back door road up to the (in)famous Stelvio Pass and until only a couple of years ago was not asphalted throughout. I knew it was narrow, so last year with Big Baby Blue I avoided it; good move, as after riding it today I don’t think I would have got Blue up it! For a large part of the route it climbs up through delightful forest, but of course the disadvantage is that there is no view, only road and trees. Until you hit altitude, but today that was up in the clouds.

The road is very narrow in places and some of the bends a tad tricky. After our exertions of yesterday I found that my dodgy left shoulder, locked up; I have an impingement in the thing and as usual it chose a good time to play silly! What it meant in simple terms was that I couldn’t move my arm far enough forward to push the handlebars through tight right-hand bends.

Time for a rethink, as I was riding like a muppet!

I stopped and did some stretching exercises, took a couple of painkillers, had a drink of water, ate some fruit whilst the pills kicked in and then got on with it! It didn’t half hurt, but at least we got going and soon were back into the swing of things. I got pretty good at going round hairpins one-handed too!

Not bad, one hand!

Soon we got into the clouds, then it began to get really windy and predictably the temperature plummeted to a little over zero. I was every pleased to have brought my heated jacket – doh, heated jacket! Turn up the heat nice and high and “Ping” the shoulder was feeling nearly normal; my heated gloves were nice to!

We paused to grab a photo at the standardly deserted Swiss customs post on the Umbrail Pass border and roared back into Italy. Ciao Italia! – We missed you for the last 30 miles.

On the border, anything Blue can do, I can do better!

Déjà vu / Déjà Blue!

Just after the fronter we turned left and knocked off the last half-dozen hairpins to Passo dello Stelvio. Umbrail is at 2503m/8212ft, Stelvio 2757m/9046ft, poor Harls with her simple carburetor was running very rich through lack of oxygen at these altitudes!

Looking East on the top of Stelvio.

I’ve said it before, I find the top of Stevio tacky, but today was about proving a point to the big lump of a mountain. I’ve beaten you now with both my bikes!

Harls on Stelvio, a touch of class amongst all that is tacky!

The top was fairly busy, very cold and with a bit of snow in the air, so after a quick look around and grabbing a bratwurst for lunch, we headed down into Bormio and then on towards Livigno. Knocking off Passo Foscagno 2281m/7517ft and Passo d’Eira 2208m/7244ft on the way.

Stelvio hairpin, “Going Down!”

Gnocchi and pizza for supper tonight!

I can’t eulogise enough how much I enjoyed riding my Harls up that mountain today. I feel that, despite taking Big Blue up there last year, I can now fully exorcise that beastie that was Stelvio.

Harls came, growled her contempt and kicked it just where it counted and I had the ride of my life!

“Been down one time
Been down two times
I’m never going back again.”

Catch you soon.

Dookes

PS Trip total mileage so far 1584.

Taking it Easy -Rain Stops Play!

After the excitement of yesterday’s “Hogging the Hairpins” – why didn’t I think of that for a post title?!?! I enjoyed a very pleasant evening meal, did battle with WiFi and WordPress then turned in for the night.

Unfortunately, the adrenaline was still pumping, it took me ages to get off to sleep and then it was only fitful, I was still swinging around those mountain bends!

Halfway through the night it started raining, not your average rain either this was and at midday, still is, full on open the tap and throw away the plug stuff! Admittedly it’s nowhere near the catastrophes that have hit parts of the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean or Southern USA, for those people affected there it’s been life changing; I wish them all well for the future. Is anyone still denying that the world’s weather is all going a bit weird?

On the plus side for Harls and I, this was always going to be a rest-day, so at least we don’t have to go out in the wet stuff!

We are staying on the Ritten (German) / Renon (Italian) Plateau which is North East of the regional capital Bolzano, my altimeter tells me that we are 1268m/4148ft above sea level. The plateau forms the southeast tip of the Sarntal Alps and is between the confluence of the rivers Eisack and Talfer. The local tourist board boasts that Ritten has 300 days of sunshine a year, I’ve obviously copped some of the 65 wet ones!

Talking of the tourist board, these folk are very well organised; they should be really as Ritten has been a holiday destination since the 17th century. There’s loads of information on available attractions and sites of interest, sadly I haven’t time to see them all, especially the mysterious “Earth Pyramids” which are an erosion phenomenon that occurs in certain glacial moraine clays.

What I have got time to see and ride is the famous Rittner Bahn narrow gauge railway which this year celebrates 110 years of service. So more of that, with pictures in future posts.

Those nice people of the Ritten Tourist Board provide guests staying more than a couple of days with a “Ritten Card” it’s like a season ticket to ride the train, cable cars and give admission to museums and stuff like that. What a great idea, I’m off to try it out after lunch!

Catch you soon.

Dookes