Uncle Dave Burns Fossils
Riding Motorbikes in the Alps: Part 1
A warning. What follows is a few thousand words with little or nothing to do with mountain bikes. "Why is NSMB writing about motorbikes?" you ask. Because I wanted to.
The inevitable pre-junket apology
One of the things I've really struggled with in life is making decisions on what to do. Where to work. Where to live. What to buy. What to sell. I am left, at times, paralyzed by these decisions.
Here is one thing that I have decided, though: If somebody is willing to pay for me to travel to some kind of interesting location in order to write about something...gosh darn, that sounds pretty good to me. Yes, that decision usually comes after a solid week or two of stress and stomach pains, but it is a decision that eventually gets made. I mean, I can see the impacts that participation in such things has on the bicycle industrial complex and the reporting thereof. I question the sustainability implications of flying halfway across the world for something so frivolous. And I somewhat fear the shit-taking repercussions that I will inevitably experience by saying "yes" to these sorts of things. But I've kind of set up my life with the goal of experiencing interesting things, taking a job in order to fund the experience of interesting things, and it would feel somewhat crazy for me to now start saying no to interesting things based on the potential negative opinions of others.
Of course, I do have a few lines that I won't cross. I mean, you don't get to tell me what to write. Directly. You can certainly try to sway my opinion using large quantities of alcohol and food. And I'm probably not going to take you up on your African big game hunting expeditions or Antarctic plastic dumping soirees. But, if you're offering up something that I'd be interested in doing regardless...and you're footing the bill...and the activity is for the most part legal and moral within a large portion of respectable societies...gosh darn, sir, I'd be happy to fly to Northern Mongolia to talk with you about your new pro model grips! I'll take an extra large Yak, please!
You, of course, might feel differently about such things. I get that. It's easy to look upon others and pass judgement. But...I don't really care. I mean, I care...but not really. But sort of. I'm sure your work comes with perks that I wouldn't necessarily agree with. Free pens, and such. For me, this is one of the few things that I get out of this whole enterprise. What you get is free content generated daily, complete with unfettered access to a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week NSMB writer shortcoming database entry system (aka the comment section). What I take from this relationship is the occasional vacation. Funded by a bike company. Which feels like a win-win, to me.
Piling Junkets upon Junkets
But then... once you've experienced a few junkets, even that starts to get a little boring, and a need to spice things up develops. Yes, flying to the French Alps to ride bikes for a few days sounds pretty good...but is that all? For this junket, I decided that what I really needed to do was to generate my own pre-junket. Figure out a way to really spice things up and make a week of it, and maybe even generate some kind of tax write-off. So, I decided to rent a motorbike for a few days to tour around the Alps.
Which proved to be one of those decisions that very nearly killed me. On one hand, there was this thing that I've always wanted to do, and an opportunity to do it. On the other hand, nobody was offering to pay for the entirety of it. And the first lesson you learn as a bicycling journalist is that you're going to go broke pretty fast if you start paying for your own junkets! Plus, the logistics of organizing such a thing! Nobody to organize meals, hotels and airport shuttles on my behalf? Still, this felt like an investment in the future. After a few weeks of stress and waffling, the bike was booked, and I was off.
Motorcycle #1 - The 2019 Suzuki GSX-S750
Powerplant - 749cc, 4-Stroke, 4-Cylinder, DOHC
Fuel - 16 L fuel tank (unleaded gasoline)
Range - Approx. 300 km
Weight - 213 kg (full fuel and fluids, no rider)
Suspension Travel - 4.7 inches front, 5.4 inches rear
Frame - Aluminum
Geometry - Unknown
Wheels - 17" dia., front and rear, tubeless, Bridgestone Battlax Hypersport
Transmission - 6-speed (Suzuki)
Top speed - 234 km/hour (approximately)
Price -CAD$13,199 (as ridden)
Junket Lesson #1 - Bring everything with you
In my search for a motorbike, I cast a comically large net in the hope that somebody would take pity on me and lend me one. Somehow, during this process, the fine folks at Dainese offered to set me up with all the gear necessary for traipsing across the Alps on a motorcycle. This was surprising, but also meant that I wouldn't need to haul a bunch of sub-par, clapped out crap across the ocean. After a few dozen e-mails and lots of visits to the DHL parcel tracking webpage, it looked like all my gear was ready to meet me in France, and that I had pulled off the near-miraculous feat of aligning a flight, a motorcycle and a hotel room with the chaos of international parcel logistics. I landed, sprinted to make it to the motorcycle shop before it closed (hit up Phillippe at MotoShop in Geneva...tell him Uncle Dave sent you!), and then spent a white-knuckled, jet-lagged hour riding through rural France to my hotel in a pair of high top Vans, jeans and windbreaker, happy knowing that I was going to be well-protected for the remainder of the journey. Needless to say, I spent the rest of my journey wearing a really nice Dainese motorcycling jacket, coupled with a pair of high-top Vans and jeans (the windbreaker got packed away). Package #1 showed up on time. Package #2 did not.
I only tell this story because I really hope my photos inspire questions in you such as "Why is that guy wearing high-top Vans and jeans for a motorcycle journey across the Alps?" I deserve your scorn.
Junket Lesson #2 - European motorcyclists are crazy
It took a very, very short period of time to realize that motorcycling in Europe is different. For one thing, motorcyclists are everywhere. For another, they are all insanely fast.
And not the "insanely fast" of the 20 year old kid with his new sportbike racing back and forth in front of your local McDonalds on a Friday night. Not the "insanely fast" of the leathers-clad bros screaming up the sea-to-sky early on a Saturday morning. This is the "insanely fast" of a shorts-clad grandpa screaming by you on a maxi-scooter. This is the "insanely fast" of a paunched-out, middle-aged german man flying by on a 1200cc adventure bike. It's the actual "insanely fast" amateur racers laying rubber arcs around the steepest and sharpest corner you've ever seen in your life. It's just a totally different world of motorcycle riding and I felt like I didn't belong. Scratch that. I didn't belong.
Worse, everybody knew that I didn't belong. When I'd pull up behind a car, they'd practically throw themselves onto the shoulder trying to get out of my way, thinking that I was some kind of regular, European motorcycle rider. They'd eventually drift back over into the middle of the lane once they realized that there was something fundamentally wrong with the kook puttering away behind them. In the meantime, a good 2-3 other motorcyclists would go flying past, blind corners or oncoming traffic be-damned. They'd scurry off into the distance with only their weird little "euro-kick" of thanks for us to remember them by.
Indeed, on the slopes below Les Gets, after getting passed by the 50th middle-aged man on a 1200cc adventure bike, I stopped, pulled over, and started to wonder what the hell I was doing. It was hour two and my jeans were already chafing me. My high-top Vans were hot as hell. My camera bag wasn't staying put. I took a photo of a cricket. I dropped a lens on the ground. I thought about how the world was probably trying to tell me something. And then I kept going. And I'm glad that I did.
Junket Lesson #3 - It doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to be.
After this re-grouping of my thoughts, things started to get better, very quickly. The traffic thinned as I started towards my first mountain pass above Cluses. I caught my first few glimpses of the insane scenery that would rattle my brain for the next few days. And I started to realize that my route didn't really matter, because it wasn't possible to take a bad turn.
It's been a dream of mine to take a ski vacation somewhere in the European Alps. Once again though, I've been paralyzed by decisions. If you're going to fly over to Europe to ski, you want to go to the right place, right? From over here, it's hard to tell a Zermatt from a Kitzbuhel from a Val D'Isere. How could you possibly choose the right resort from all of these potential options?
Once you see the place in person, it's almost worse! You find yourself on the top of a mountain, surrounded by ski lifts, and you've never even heard of the place. It's exactly what you pictured the Alps to be, complete with the cows and the fields and the cute little houses. You ride over a pass, and there's another similar place on the other side. And then another. And another. In my 4 days of riding, I only covered 750km. I clipped off some of the largest and well known resorts in Europe...Val D'Isere, Tignes, Les Arcs, Sestriere, Les Gets. But I also passed (no exaggeration) at least 100 other ski resorts that I'd never heard of, that all looked kind of amazing.
This is where this starts to tangentially relate back to mountain biking. It's possible to consider my trip as some kind of pre-scouting for a pretty damned amazing mountain bike adventure. One could very easily rent a car in Geneva, and then spend the next few weeks hopping mountain top to mountain top, riding a new set of trails each day. The concentration of mountains, trails and bikes is difficult to comprehend for someone that comes from a place where you can drive a few hundred km without seeing much more than a tree.
Junket Lesson #4 - The bikes are everywhere
It only takes a handful of oldtimers cranking up a 20km mountain pass in 35 degree heat to understand that cycling in Europe is different. It really hits home when you find yourself on a tour stage 3 days before the race comes through and people have already been camped out for a week, laying claim to their perfect spot.
Riding the Col du Galibier was a true eye-opener for me. I'd already come through some gnarly passes (including the Col de L'Iseran near Val D'Isere) but nothing was quite the spectacle of Galibier. My climb up took forever, as I kept stoping roadside to take photos and check things out. The backside descent was truly nerve-wracking. The asphalt is not smooth and the exposure is frightening. The descents just go on and on and on, and when you finally think you've bottomed out, another valley opens up below you. Near the bottom, I came up upon a group of 5-6 dudes on road bikes. Once the pitch steepened, they were gone. Here I was with a motor, fat tires and several inches of suspension travel, not to mention a full face helmet, and I had to work hard to keep them in view (granted...the cars they flew by that I then had to work to pass had something to do with this...but don't ruin my story!). It takes a shocking amount of skill and bravery to race down a mountain like that with skinny tires and lycra. Watching this stage a few days later on TV I was surprised by how little of this comes through on the broadcast. "Show the cliff! Show the cliff!"*
Especially in this, the heart of the Tour, mountain bikes take a bit of a backseat to road bikes. But still, each mountain top village has at least 2-3 shops with a fleet of rentals out front (any many of these fleets are a 50% e-bikes). It's truly a world of bicycles and a bit of an inspiration. On numerous occasions I found myself thinking "enough with the excuses. If some old guy can hammer up this pass in the middle of the day, I can certainly figure out a way to ride my bike to work more often."
I have not.
Junket Lesson #5 - Throw your mileage expectations out the window
I had a plan. That plan was to follow the Routes des Grandes Alpes from Cluses down to the ocean. It was going to take 3 days for me to do this, and then I was going to spend the fourth day racing back to Geneva as fast as I could. This plan was idiotic.
I wound up covering almost exactly 1/2 of the mileage I expected to. It took so long to get anywhere and it absolutely pummelled the shit out of me. On day two, I pulled over near the bottom of the Col de L'Iseran and I just sat on somebody's front yard trying to figure out what to do (pulling over roadside in exhaustion, confusion and exasperation was a bit of a theme for the trip). In the end I decided to go to Italy, just because it seemed a bit closer than my other options and something Italian for dinner sounded pretty great.
Too much in too little time is a general theme of any trip that I take. Especially in a part of the world where each great destination is just one valley over, this can be taken to the extreme. And for this trip, I decide to truly embrace this mindset and see as much as I possibly could. Many of my greatest travel discoveries have come from having no plan and taking an un-planned turn to check something out.
This part of the world will reward this kind of behaviour. There truly is something else around the next corner, every single time. You would have to work hard to find a bad meal or an ugly spot. If you ever get a chance, jump at the opportunity to visit. The only real regret is that I only had four days.
*I wrote most of this before I heard about Bjorg Lambrecht's death at the Tour de Pologne. Witnessing what these guys ride in person honestly left me thinking about how strange it is that there aren't more deaths at these major races. Compared to World Cup DHers we're talking faster speeds, sketchier bikes and less protection, not to mention a whole other pile of guys competing for the same stretch of road. It's truly bewildering and awe inspiring.