Alppikierros Day 18: Finland Again


This morning dawned warm and sunny, rather unusual in our experience for an arrival in Finland. After a coffee and a snack on deck, we packed and donned our riding gear for one last time. Though tired, I felt ready for a full day of riding if need be. Riding the motorcycles was what we did.

It took the crew a while to clear truck trailers out of the way before we could ride out of the hold, but after that everything was smooth sailing. There was no passport check whatsoever. Apparently the authorities trusted that Finnlines had done their work when checking us in. Either that or they realized that terrorists and other problem individuals usually flew rather than taking boats or other slower forms of transport, and it was even more rare still that they bought and rode motorcycles as part of their cover.

We rolled on out of the harbor and took the scenic route home. 25 kilometers today, 4760 for the trip. Whew!


25 km


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Alppikierros Day 17: Floating Home


Today was a fairly uneventful day of relaxing on the boat and we were happy to have it.  We ate our morning meal, lounged around, and went to the gym and sauna in the afternoon.  We’d have this evening to sleep again before arriving in Helsinki at 9:30 Finnish time the next morning.  Trump and his sugar daddy Putin were going to be meeting in Helsinki on Monday, so strict passport controls were going to be put into place for this intra-European arrival.  It was anybody’s guess how long that would end up taking, but probably long.  But that was a problem for another day.  For now, we relaxed.


0 km


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Alppikierros Day 16: The Slog


We started out the day with a lovely breakfast, but…

I suppose every adventure trip worthy of the name has one day that can appropriately be titled, The Slog.  So today it was in our case. We had 750 kilometers on the slate. The one factor working in our favor was that today, unlike yesterday, we didn’t have an initial section of mountain roads. The whole ride would be pure highway. In theory we should be able to accomplish the longer distance in not much more time.

In practice, that hope went out the window pretty early on when we hit our first “stau” on the A6 on the way towards Frankfurt. Apparently these jams, which we’d experienced a particularly bad example of on the A9 down to towards Austria at the beginnning, were not at all uncommon in Germany. The heyday of the autobahns must have been in the 80’s and 90’s, but they are now crumbling under the twin demands of increasing truck transport and a growing European love affair with the automobile. One would hope they would have observed and learned from the mistakes of the US in its failure to curb the excesses of autophilia that have so unfavorably transformed our landscapes and lifestyles, but it seems the same problems have snuck up on them here anyway.

Anyway, we were speeding along happily on a three-laner about an hour into our ride when everything came to a grinding halt in the space of a few hundred meters. We were in the middle lane with an exit coming up on the right, and once we saw people casually getting out of their vehicles up ahead to see what was happening, we decided we’d better take it. We got off and found ourselves on a divided B highway speeding west. We pulled over to a parking area to assess the situation and mapped out a loop back to the highway some 30 kilometers further north.

This went smoothly, in fact so smoothly that when the GPS started directing us back towards the highway I decided to override it and take the B road a bit further north. This turned out to be a bad move. First we got stuck behind some trucks, then we found the road itself blocked due to construction. It took us a while and some backtracking to eventually find a route back to the highway. About an hour lost all told. If we had too many more of these it would start to be quite a grueling trip to make it to the boat.

Fortunately things settled down for a while after this and we began to make steady progress. For most of the day after that, all I remember is a blur of riding and gas stops. We would stick to the right lane when possible, or the middle if the right was full of trucks, with occasional forays into the left when the coast seemed clear. We were always looking behind us as much as ahead, as well as to the sides to make sure no one jumped into our lane. For the most part people saw and avoided us, but some cars seemed not to believe we had a right to our entire lane and would blithely drive halfway in it. I have no idea what they were really thinking, if they were thinking at all.


German gas stations were a bit of a hassle. Electronic pay-at-the-pump systems had not made it here for whatever reason, so it was necessary to fill the tanks, then leave the bikes, go in and pay for the gas, go back, move the bikes, and finally go back in again for food or coffee. Invariably there was a line at the counter to pay in both cases (and often a line at the pumps as well), so a simple process could become quite long and involved.

But these shortfalls, surprising in a country with as modern and competent a reputation as Germany, were nothing compared to the incredibly low quality of the bathroom rest stops. They seemed more appropriate to a third-world country than one of the leading developed nations of the world. Parking facilities were uniformly cramped and poorly designed, landscaping was nonexistent, and when there were actual bathrooms (half of them had just porta-johns) they were invariably graffiti-covered, rarely-cleaned concrete blocks where soap, towels and tissue, and even running water could not be taken for granted.

At any rate, we carried on through all of this, making occasional snack, coffee, or gas stops until finally we rolled in at 8 to the Hotel Gruner-Jäger for a dinner and drink while we waited to board the boat at 11. It had taken us two hours longer than yesterday, one lost to the first stau, a half hour to a later stau outside Hamburg, and the last half hour simply due to the distance, which clocked in at nearly 800 kilometers.

Food always tastes better when it has been earned, and our meal and beer at the Gruner-Jäger were most enjoyable indeed.


Afterward we rode the three kilometers over to the boat, checked in, and waited an hour until boarding. We made short work of strapping down our bikes, got on board, collapsed into our cabins, showered, and tumbled into bed.  Hallelujah!

790 km

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Alppikierros Day 15: Starting towards Home

Today was the first of our two long slabbing days to cross from close to the south of France all the way up to the north German coast. It was going to be brutal, but in theory doable. The first day featured a 650 kilometer ride starting out with a descent down our local hairpins, then a mini-motorway section over to a highway that would take us in to Albertville. It was a weekday and rush-hour traffic was present in some areas near the beginning, but no one seemed to need to go to Albertville. After that we headed north into Switzerland with Geneva as our first landmark, followed by Lausanne. Each Swiss city has its own associated lake, and now the highway ran one or two hundred meters above Lake Lausanne along the north side. We had a fine view to the Alps including Mont Blanc in the distance on the far side, and it was to be our last.

From here it was a hard day at work. Switzerland’s roads were filled with traffic, and despite the strict, camera-enforced speed limits everyone was seeking to eke out the smallest advantage. In addition there were frequent tunnels thrown into the mix, which were claustrophobia-inducing as they boomed and echoed with the sounds of our own engines.

When we finally got in to Germany we did not find our hoped-for open autobahn, but rather a truck-choked pair of lanes where we alternately sat in slow logjams and then ducked out of the way of fast-flying traffic. Not fun at all. Apparently the term “autobahn” still applied only in eastern Germany; here in the west railroad transport had never been invested in to the same extent and we were left with “truckbahns” along which automobiles squeezed when they could find room. Motorcycles had to fill the chinks in the chinks, and we would have much rather not been there at all, but we never could have covered the necessary distance on B roads in the time available.

Finally at the end of the day we got off the highway and had some brief enjoyable riding on narrow winding roads up into the Black Forest, which had been running on the hills 20-30 kilometers off the right side of the highway the whole time.


We ended up at the Waldhotel Forellenhof (Trout Inn Woodland Hotel).


This was a first class hotel in all respects. Beer in the lounge areas, spacious rooms with original layouts, and a delightful garden restaurant whose house wine was a solid Riesling that outshone what you’d get from the wine list most of the time anywhere else. Every dish from opening soup to the end was a taste experience just on a higher level than ordinarily encountered.


All this, and running just above the hotel was the road we’d taken here, route B500, famous within Germany as a great motorcycling road within the Black Forest. We had rode a full day away from the Alpine roads and our companions and our roadside biker hotels, but now we found ourselves still at home.


650 km


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Alppikierros Day 14: Tour de France

Today we had a day ride around the area. Everywhere we went we saw signs proclaiming the roads would be closed on the 17th, 18th, and/or 19th for the Tour de France. The Col de la Madeleine was on the docket for this year and we rode that, and another stage would finish in La Rosière, just above us. The next one would start in Bourg Saint Maurice just below.

M. had joined our group just recently in Livigno, but had extensive experience riding Alpine roads and had already proven himself active in leading rides with some variations separately from the main group. Today he promised to lead anyone who wanted to come on the “officially” planned route for today, but was interested in obeying the speed limits in town areas and straight sections. This sounded good to me. The local police had already proven themselves active the day before, and the trip thus far was expensive enough as it was without speeding fines added in.

Regardless of those restrictions, we spent the day riding like hell up and down passes, with a few motorways thrown in for good measure. We took a couple of coffee breaks in between.





There were eight bikes in all, two of which were two-up, not including this Harley, which was in our larger group but not with us today after the first break.


I hadn’t come on this trip with any plans to prove myself as a rider, and most of the time I needed to stay with Päivi who wasn’t able to keep up with the group’s pace, but I do consider myself able to ride to some extent. I had to work and sweat at it, but I kept up today. My hat was off to the two-up’ers and one guy who’d rented a Triumph T120 Bonneville after he’d crashed his MV Agusta Turismo Veloce. (A tragedy for that beauty to have been laid down.) I was really having to concentrate, but the few times when I’d fallen behind while waiting for a gap to pass a car, I noticed it wasn’t taking me long to catch back up.

The end of the day came after almost 300 kilometers, and we all tanked up in the town below our hotel. (The group tended to get places a little outside of the main drags, which was nice.) I was one of the last to fill, but ended up being second behind M. when we left. His bike: a BMW S1000 XR — adventure tourer like mine, but with a sport orientation: quick shifter, slipper clutch, 160 horsepower on tap. Me, an Aprilia Caponord 1200 with side bags mounted, giving up 35 horsepower while collecting probably a good 30 kg in weight. No shifting aids or Bosch cornering ABS, but active suspension and a beating heart of Italian soul. We started heading up the pass and I stayed with him. At some point I realized he was going maybe a touch faster than we had during the day, and a little later I noticed the guy behind me and everyone else were gone.

Now I was like, “No way is he going to lose me.” We had about 15 kilometers with a mix of hairpins and smoothed right angles. Occasional traffic coming down, but not much going up. I leaned it low on the turns, pulling my feet in to keep them from scraping outside the Ape’s short pegs, and poured on the gas coming out. I could have used that slipper clutch more than once on late downshifts. A couple of times I started to fall back, but reeled it back in, relying on seeing ahead of time where he was braking. Finally we were getting towards the end and I was back a couple hundred yards when he passed a car. It took me a bit of time to find the chance to get past it myself, and just like that I’d lost contact.

I don’t know how much I missed him by because he went for a bit past the hotel before coming in, but I’d already parked up, lifted my bike onto the center stand, taken off my helmet and gloves, and was getting ready to oil my chain before the next bike arrived. M. rolled back in a little later while we were having our beers and mentioned that he had cranked it up a bit since he wasn’t expecting any police on the way up here at the end of the day. I complimented him on his bike, but he said it was heavy and slow compared to his previous one. Which was? An S1000 RR — BMW’s superbike. Be that as it may, the 1000 XR is still a hell of a machine. And me? I’m 75% of the time a mellow rider and had the least Alps experience out of anyone in the group. But, the Caponord!


310 km


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Alppikierros Day 13: Switzerland to Italy to France

This morning started out with a run amidst beautiful scenery above the town of Ulrichen.



This bridge, by the way, is an excellent illustration of Swiss engineering.  Whereas in any other place a little footbridge like this would be made purely of rope and wood, here the two outer “planks” are in fact beams of aluminum, and there was probably a metal undersupport as well.  It looked and felt rustic enough when walking on the wood, but this baby was built to last.




Once we got out on the road, today was a long transfer day highlighted by two border crossings at high passes, both named Saint Bernard. First up was Great Saint Bernard Pass at an altitude of 2471 meters. This was actually the origin of the Saint Bernard dog breed as well as their barrel-carrying rescuer image. Saint Bernard of Menthon set up a hospice in 1049 at the top of the pass to help ensure safe passage for travelers, including rescue if necessary. The hospice later came to be named for him, and large dogs were bred to help with rescue operations. They were said to be sent out to search in pairs for lost travelers, and when one was found, one dog, carrying a barrel, stayed with the traveler to provide wine or brandy to keep him alive, while the other went back to the hospice to lead human rescuers to the scene. Some of these details may be legend, but the breed of dogs is clearly not, and in fact a number were kept at the pass until 2004 and still spend their summers there.  Here’s where they would have been, but we didn’t see any though.


Near the top of each pass there was a lake, and we had another view to Mont Blanc in between them.




330 km


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Alppikierros Day 12: Swiss Adventure Ride

Today was a tremendous day of scenic pass riding at the beginning and end divided by a grueling hot highway ride in the middle. We originally had a meandering 390 kilometers planned for today, but J., our routemaster, had kindly shortened this by 100, though whether because of rode closures or threats of revolt I’m not sure. Everyone headed out around 8:30 instead of the customary 9:00, perhaps still intimidated by the lengthy “siirtymä” (transfer) that lay ahead.

Traffic was light and we made good progress. Fairly early in the proceedings we passed by Diavolezza, the cable gondola plus hiking / climbing / skiing center that we’d visited yesterday.


Then it was still onward to Saint Moritz. This was a town with a lot of hotels situated in a small but open valley with a pair of blue lakes. Ski lifts ran up from all sides. We didn’t stop for a banana split or anything else but carried on straight for Julierpass. This was a bit indirect but there wasn’t really much else better. Roads were even fewer and further between than usual in this section of the Alps.


Once we finished that, Päivi and I went ahead and got on the motorway. Our pace tends not to match that of the rest of the group, and we needed to make progress somehow. However the motorway here was only two lanes and had a similar character to many of the normal Alps roads we’d been riding on before. Then we decided to get off at a “rest stop” and that ended up being quite an adventure riding up and down inclined and winding roads through a canyon that ran parallel but separately from the motorway. The Swiss are excellent road engineers. When we finally got to the actual rest stop we met some Italians riding Harleys while here I was an American riding an Aprilia. I guess we get every sort every where.

Onward and back on the motorway, we ground it out through a hot valley reaching elevations as low as 250 meters. Finally we were supposed to get off at an exit for the last pass, but two signs leading up to it had it crossed out, as is generally done when road construction has closed a route. I started having doubts and then when the exit came I failed to get off at it. This ended up being a fatal error, because there were no further exits before a long tunnel that we wanted to avoid.

Indeed, avoidance would have been the right move. It was 18 km long and around 45 degrees celsius inside. No fun at all. It took us well north of where we wanted to go and then dumped us out in a place with a confusing array of pass and train options that almost had us ready to head back through to the other end of the tunnel for another attempt. But instead we ended up shimmying up a quick set of hairpins into Andermatt, the Swiss town popularized for motorcyclists by its mention in John Herman’s Alpine motorcycling “bible”, then sneaking past all the trains and finding Furka Pass. This featured some of the best riding and had by far the most spectacular views of all the passes we’d rode, including of Mont Blanc from a distance.



It was a rough, narrow road leading up to 2431 meters, but its hairpins were wider and more manageable than those on the Stelvio. Now we were not only riding roads that looked like ones featured in James Bond movies, but we were actually riding one that had been featured in a James Bond movie. Specifically, Goldfinger — look it up!

day12_P1030622 day12_P1030626

The European north-south continental divide runs along the pass, so the Rhône, starting from the Rhône glacier near the top, flows to the Mediterranean, while the Furka-Reuss just on the other side runs to the North Sea. Apparently it was possible to go inside the Rhône glacier into an “ice grotto” maintained artificially but over a hundred meters long, but we unfortunately missed this.

In the evening we took a stroll around the town, which featured cobbled lanes, houses build out of railroad tie type wood (though without the pine pitch smells, thankfully), and mini squares / courtyards with outdoor faucet / fountains pouring water into hollowed out logs. Everything looked like it could have been the same 400 years ago, and yet these houses were occupied, and perfectly modern cars sat outside a number of them.




260 km


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Alppikierros Day 11: And Now for Something Completely Different

Today was going to be another day when people did a little bit of everything. But this time the main arranged activity was going to be a hike rather than a ride. M., a Swiss-residing Finn, had joined the trip the night we’d arrived in Livigno, and he had an idea for an outing over the border in Switzerland. We didn’t know much beyond that a hike would be involved, and figured a break doing something else besides motorcycling would be an excellent idea. Not everyone in the group thought so, however, and a number of folks figured out a day ride and headed out on it. One or two other independent rides also took place, and perhaps there were some loungers and shoppers again as well.

The group had also had its numbers reduced recently by leavers. Many people on the trip either could not swing the entire period off from work, or had a couple of other places they wanted to visit while on the Continent. Thus a few new faces, like M., came, but many more, it seemed, were leaving. This was unexpectedly sad. We may have only just met these people and found only a few things in common with them besides motorcycling, but nonetheless we had grown used to their company and enjoyed the occasional conversations and stops on the road that we had. Each departure tore a small hole in the fabric of our trip experience.


Anyway, after all was said and done on all of these accounts, we had a band of seven waiting for the bus in the morning, and two more planning to ride and meet us there. I wondered at first why we all didn’t just ride, but not everyone had lockable luggage to store their motorcycling gear while we hiked. Did I say bus? Yes, that’s right, we were now going to be part of the problem rather than the solution on the roads.

However, as slow as buses were relative to other vehicles, we soon saw that the bus drivers themselves did tremendous work with what they had.  Their vehicles were wide, and whenever there was any sort of wall or barrier on the side of the road (which was often), they actually kept to within less than a foot of the walls and often just inches.  This over long periods of time and with few straight sections.  Blind curves and oncoming traffic left similarly little margin for error.  Seeing our own driver at work, I was quite happy I would be sticking to my motorcycle for the foreseeable future.

We arrived at the base of the Diavolezza gondola in beautifully sunny weather. There was some wind, but that was only to be expected here, a mountain region above the tree line.


We paid up for tickets and boarded the gondola, which was luckily just about to start out. It was a smooth, efficient, fast ride and it just kept heading up.


And up,


and up,


until we arrived “at last” (after about 10 minutes).


In a different world.



I suppose a Swiss cable car ride in the mountains is a part of the standard American bucket list when it comes to European travel. I asked Päivi if it was on the Finnish bucket list as well, but to my surprise she said Finns didn’t really have one. Maybe Europe was too close by to merit that kind of attention. At any rate, we had our lunch on a terrace restaurant overlooking mountains, slopes, and the tongue of a glacier (and I checked off the “having lunch on a terrace amidst snowy mountain vistas” item as well),


then tightened up our boots for a hike up a minor peak just off to the side.


It was great to be doing something different than motorcycling for a change, and getting our blood pumping in this fantastic terrain was a great way to do it. We climbed a few hundred meters over the next couple of hours,




relaxed and took a few shots on the peak,



and headed back down,


in a somewhat more dispersed state as everyone found their own pace down the mountain.


A beer on the terrace finished things off, and we headed back down on the gondola, satisfied customers.


Also on the gondola with us were the real men of the area though — climbers carrying backpacks with ropes and ice axes. They must have ascended one or more of the higher peaks in the area.



0 km


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Alppikierros Day 10: A Little Bit of Everything


We were going to spend 2 full days in Livigno and both would be more loosely arranged than usual. There was an official day ride today, but less than half of the people were going on it. Others were going to rent mountain bikes, go for other rides, or just go shopping and lounge around. We’d had a week straight of hard riding and the change of pace was welcome.

As for ourselves, since we had shortened our journey yesterday and missed the big Stelvio pass, we decided to do it today. A couple of others were game, but we ended up leaving earlier and never managed to meet them on the road. Unfortunately it turned out that our leaving time, 9:00 am, was the worst possible. It was just in time for the “rush hour” when cyclists, their support vehicles and spare bike transports, and car and bus tourists were all out in force to head up the mountain. Motorcyclists, probably coming out of accomodations in Livigno like ourselves, also threw themselves into the mix in healthy numbers. The overall result was that at basically all times on the road you were either trying to pass something, waiting to pass something, or being passed by others less patient than yourselves.



In addition, the hairpin curves on this route — of which there were many — were far narrower than they had been on other roads, particularly the Grossglockner. They were practically U-turns here, which made it very difficult to find the happy medium on right / inside turns between running smooth and swinging wide or feathering the clutch and turning the handlebars in an awkward close-quarters turn. The scenery was nice, but the riding just wasn’t fun. We ended up making it halfway up the pass and then having a coffee and turning around. Blissfully, the surge broke during our coffee break, so the way back down was smooth and more enjoyable sailing. If it had been that way on the way up, maybe we would have continued. As it was, we were left with an unsatisfied feeling and a nagging desire to come back.


Thankfully the day was somewhat redeemed later on when we went for a hike up the slopes just east of town. There was a ski lift there, which busily transported a never-ending supply of mountain bikers and their equipment to the top, where they could bombardier their way down to the bottom complete with crash helmets and knee pads just like in Steamboat Springs. There were also some trails set aside specifically for hikers so we wouldn’t have to dodge kamikazes while slogging our way slowly but healthily up the mountainside. The sky was practically cloudless and the air was cool and breezy. We made it to the top in about an hour after pausing partway up to enjoy a tart and some soda at a coffee shop. While we were doing so a cyclist came in for a similar refueling stop, and then a couple of motorcyclists as well. Everyone was out enjoying themselves on a beautiful July day in the Alps.





90 km ride + 5 km run + 7 km hike


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Alppikierros Day 9: Tunneling to Livigno

Today we were off on the road again to the Dolomites. We were starting to notice certain patterns as we bounced back and forth this way between Austria and Italy. Austria had better showers and well-sealing windows; Italy had better food. The roads were better in Austria, but filled with healthy-looking cyclists only in Italy. Every town in Austria no matter how small had its straight-steepled church,


whereas the places the Italians worshipped in were more varied.


Both sides of the border shared a passion for espresso coffee, but the quality thereof varied independently of which side you were on.

Today we threw a third country into the mix, though only passing through it for now: Switzerland. Judging from what we saw on the side of the road, the Swiss are a fairly cheerless lot. Whereas in Austria and Italy both, every small town threw up nice-looking cafes and restaurants on the side of the road to tempt motorcyclists, drivers, and cyclists alike, in Switzerland there was nothing of the sort even in the larger towns. Not much business of any kind actually, just blank buildings. The speed limits on the highway sections were low, and you got the feeling they were enforced. The only signs of leisure activity we could detect were white-water paddlers, loading and unloading kayaks and rafts at seemingly every other parking area along the road. It is hard to think of the Alps without thinking of Switzerland, but maybe there was a reason our own trip was spending only one night in the country, and that just passing through on the way to France.

At any rate, the day started out and promised to be almost entirely rainy. In the rain, the tables were turned between cars and motorcyclists on the Alpine roads. On the tighter curves cars suddenly have the advantage, but it doesn’t quite make up for the ability of motorcycles to accelerate out of them, or the enthusiasm that all riders here have for speed. But that’s true in a light to moderate rain. If it really starts coming down then the cars start to pass the motorcyclists. Eventually the latter will just pull over if things get really out of hand, as with the hailstorm a couple of days before.

There had been plans for much pass riding on the way to Livigno, including the famous “Stelvio”, a high pass between Austria and Italy. But the rain dampened most of our group’s appetites for these, and we ended up taking mainly tunnels instead. We took a number that were several kilometers long, including a remarkable one from Switzerland to Italy that was just a few meters wide and permitted traffic one way at a time. Unfortunately we did have to fork over twelve euros apiece for the privilege of using that one.


190 km


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