Some figures

Here’s my trip in numbers:

–          22,271km

–          70 days (48 days of riding)

–          464km a day on average

–          Longest day: 783km

–          Shortest day: 237km

–          About 1,100 litres of fuel

–          2 front tires (last one still in use)

–          3 back tires (last one still in use)

–          1 transmission kit

–          4 spark plugs

–          1 air filter

–          1 set of rear brake pads

–          2 oil filters

Things that broke:

–          An oil leak from the chain tensioner seal; fixed in Volgograd.

–          The GPS mount and the chain guard bolts vibrated loose and got lost.

–          The rear rim was badly bent in Kazakhstan; fixed in Astrakhan.

–          The front left indicator was smashed in Norway.

–          Not a single puncture!

Things I lost:

–          A watch

–          A razor

–          A towel

–          A nail clipper

–          Two bottles of all-purpose concentrated soap

–          A pair of summer riding gloves

Things that got stolen:

–          The right pannier inner bag containing:

–          A tool kit

–          An air compressor

–          A spare oil filter

–          A can of chain cleaner

–          Spare chain links

–          Straps

–          A small tripod

–          A GoPro camera

–          A puncture repair kit

–          A Coleman multifuel stove (broken)

–          Maps

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Thanks

I spent 70 days on the road and during that time I met a lot of wonderful people to whom I am very grateful. They helped me, took care of me, entertained me, kept my company, gave me advice, food, drink, a place to sleep and generally made this trip the experience of a lifetime.

I would therefore like to thank them all, one by one, here.

ON THE ROAD:

Thanks to

Mattia and Danilo for their hospitality, a wonderful risotto and directions on the best road to Slovenia.

Metka and Franci for their hospitality, for the tour of Ljubljana and for showing me the beer shop, for a memorable dinner in great company with your friends, for all the bike travel stories and especially for the CrampBuster, which proved to be invaluable on the long stretches of road in Russia.

The staff at the car wash out of Ljubljana, for banging my pannier back to shape.

The staff at BikerCamp in Budapest, for having such a nice place for bikers to stay and for lending me the tools to fix my panniers.

Dalina, at Terra Mythica in Ighiu. I was very happy to see you again, and you all made me feel at home. Thanks also for a wonderful dinner out, and I hope you enjoyed the ride up to the lake. Thanks also to your family and all the rest of the staff. Tell your father I’m sorry I could not stay one more night to share some Palinca J

To the guy in charge of the car park at the top of the Transfagarasan road, who did not charge me once I told him about my trip.

To Igor and his mother their hospitality, for finding a secure car park for my bike in Lviv and refusing to let me pay for it and for a nice conversation on his balcony.

To Luda and Sofia for their hospitality, for a wonderful traditional Ukrainian dinner, and especially to Luda for meeting me on the outskirts of Kiev, taking me around the city, translating for me, washing my clothes and making me feel at home.

To Denys for his hospitality, his tasty organically-grown vegetables and the tour in the forest by his house, I’m glad to have helped with your Spanish, which by the way, is unbelievably good (remember, “abejas”)

To the Luhansk MC for escorting me to the city center (is there a better way to enter a city?) and calling my host and arranging for her to meet me.

To Anna for her hospitality, for letting me stay a day longer in her apartment and showing me her city, the train factory, the military pilot school and the planes there, for a lovely dinner out and generally for turning what was going to be just an overnight stay in a city I did not know anything about into a great weekend.

To Andrey and his girlfriend for their hospitality and for an amazing night tour of Volgograd.

To Lex for some inspiration and great stories on adventure travel, for his company in Volgograd and Astrakhan, before and after the rim incident, and for coming with me on a Saturday night expedition in Astrakhan to try and find some local bikers to help fix my bike. I’m glad you completed your trip and are back home, good luck on your next adventure.

To Martin for being such a nice riding companion, for the great time we had crossing into Kazakhstan and camping on our first night in the country. I hope the Stans were an amazing adventure (yes, I’m a bit jealous), I’ll want all the info I can get off you on that route, I’d love to attempt it sometime in the future.

To Kate and the guys at BikerCity34 who serviced my bike in Volgograd and invited me to stay for lunch in the workshop.

To Vitali from the Volgograd Ferrum MC, for recommending the workshop. I am really sorry I did not have the time to meet you in person and share a beer, your advice was really helpful.

To Valentin and Marina in Astrakhan. I cannot say how grateful I am to you for letting me stay in your apartment until my bike was fixed and I could go on with my trip. Marina, thanks for all the meals you cooked for me, Valentin, your help translating both on the phone and with Arkan was invaluable. I will always be in debt with you.

To all the Ukrainian and Russian truckers who stopped to help my by the side of the road in Kazakhstan, for letting me hook my bike to their trucks and inflate my tire.

To Dasha for making my long wait in Astrakhan much more enjoyable, for the beers, the swimming in the Volga, the henna tattoo, the night out with your friends, introducing me to some nice Russian music and for translating when we found Arkan.

To Arkan for helping me fix the bike. Without your help I would not have been able to continue my trip, let alone take my bike back home with me. I am eternally grateful, and I must say, meeting you was quite an experience!

To Ivan for his hospitality and for taking me on an exhilarating climb up a 120-metre high chimney in an abandoned power plant in Volgograd. That was quite an experience! I had a great time with you and Sasha.

To Ilia for leading me through horrendous traffic between Volgograd and Voronezh, one of the hardest bits of the trip, and for hosting me in his apartment in Moscow and showing me the city. I am really grateful for your hospitality and your taking time off work to take me around, and I hope to meet you again sometime in the future, maybe in the Altai mountains!

To Sami for a nice in Finland along the border with Russia and for a tour of the Winter Battle memorial and some interesting history lessons (and for making me want a KTM so badly!)

To the cyclist I met in the campsite near Ivalo for his advice on places to visit off the beaten track before heading to the Nordkapp, definitely worth the two-day detour (and broken indicator).

To Alf Tonny for his hospitality, midnight barbecue with his friend Bjorn and introducing me to some great music.

To Lenna for her hospitality, for taking me to a nice music festival on the beach, for showing me a place where I could service the bike myself, and for some great late-night conversations about the things that matter in life.

To the staff in the bike shop outside Stockholm for taking my bike late in the afternoon without making an appointment and staying after business hours to change the tire and the chain kit.

To Andrew, the Canadian guy in my room in the hostel in Stockholm, for the great time we spent in the city and the beers we had on Saturday night.

To Andrés, the Colombian who worked in the hostel, for the barbecue he organized at the weekend and for washing my clothes at the hostel for half the price the laundry charged.

To Nadia, our host in Sarajevo, for taking care of us as if she was our grandmother, for packing us lunch for our journey to Belgrade, and for sharing her family story during the war with us in spite of the language barrier.

To the woman who found us cold and looking for an affordable place to sleep in Sta. Maria after coming down from the Stelvio and offered a room in her beautiful home.

AT HOME:

Thanks to:

Stehpen Stallebrass and Walter Colebatch for their advice and inspiration.

The staff at Suzuki official dealer Hamamatsu Motor for their technical advice and support.

Ignasi Calvo for his advice on Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

To all the people in V-strom Club España, Stromtroopers, Adventure Rider and Horizons Unlimited for their technical advice and know-how. Those forums are an endless source of knowledge.

To Montse, at work, for letting me go for two months and making this whole thing possible.

To Paulina and her family, for putting me in touch with their relatives in Lviv and Kiev.

Diana, for putting into words the idea for a trip like this, which had been sitting in my mind for too long and encouraging me to do it.

To my flatmate and all my friends for patiently listening to me go on and on about the trip, the route, the bike, the preparation…

To my parents and my sister, for their encouragement and support, and especially to my dad for his help and advice on all things mechanical while we were preparing the bike.

To Nat, who came into my life once this project was already started, for her love, support and understanding, for joining me on the road for the last three weeks and enduring extreme hot and cold, long riding days, rain, hunger and sleep with no riding experience.

Home

Day 70 – Monday 2nd of September – St. Thomé to Barcelona (611km)

I could have left the campsite without paying. I got up early, but I did not think it was so early that both the reception and the bar would still be closed. I imagined it was because we were already starting the low season, at least judging by the atmosphere in the place. There was an air of post-summer melancholy to it, there were only a few caravans left, scattered amongst the trees here and there in the vast camping ground, no kids playing around, no cars full of holidaymakers coming and going. Even the air felt colder than on the first mornings of my trip, but maybe that was just because it was early morning and my mind was playing tricks. Be as it may, my feelings were overcome by the looks of the place and I felt melancholy creep into my soul. I knew every little gesture that would follow that day would be the last one – packing the bike, rolling out onto the road, smelling the fresh morning air riding country roads, looking for a place to have breakfast, stopping later in the morning to take off a layer of clothes as the day would grow hotter, finding a petrol station, looking for a place for lunch, stopping to check the GPS for more scenic routes if I was making good progress…

The door to the reception/bar area was open, but there was only a young girl there cleaning and getting things ready to open the place later. When I told her I was leaving and I wanted to pay she told me that reception was not open yet, nor was the bar, which meant that if I was to wait, I had to do so with an empty stomach, which I did not want to do. I gave her the money for the night, told her I had spent the night in plot 83 and asked her to give the money to whoever was in charge.

Motorbikes have a discount on French motorways, and as I had decided that I did not want to enter my country through the motorway along the coast, but through the Pyrenees, I took the motorway for the first part of my way back home. Shortly after I got back onto the autoroute, I stopped for breakfast at one of those great French service stations and was soon reunited with my old friend, the wind.

I had sat out on the terrace of the restaurant to enjoy my breakfast in the sun, but once I had finished my sandwich and juice, I was only able to enjoy a few sips of coffee before the wind blew away the plastic cup. Well, at least it did not blow it onto me…

I had not had such strong winds since the start of the trip except for the beginning of that sand storm in Kazakhstan which blew away my leather gloves. A few hours of fighting the wind on the motorway later, I found myself thinking that after all the weather conditions I had ridden through, I was surprised that this was the one I was hating the most. The strong winds were made even worse by the turbulence created by trucks and vans, and I got so sick of it that in the end I turned off the motorway much earlier than I had planned to and went back to country roads, as I would me more sheltered from the wind there and travelling slower would mean less turbulence from other traffic.

It was not much better… France is a great country with many things to see but unfortunately, most of those things are not in central France. I rode through miles and miles of small sleepy towns, fields, some industrial areas, more fields and more sleepy towns, still accompanied by the wind and having to endure hundreds of old people trundling along those country roads on their Citroën Berlingos at 20km/h. If you go to France as a tourist, there are wonderful things to see. In my case, I was going on a very long tour starting in Barcelona, which meant that France was a country I had to ride through before I got to the interesting bits. If I ever do something like this again, I think I will just take a ferry to Italy and then to the Balkans and just bypass it.

I finally made it to Perpignan, where I wanted to turn west and head for the Pyrenees. It was already lunchtime, so by the time I had left the big town and the industrial parks that surrounded it behind I started looking for a place to eat. I wanted to find a nice small town restaurant and enjoy one last meal on the road, but it was not to be. I wonder if it was a national holiday or the French simply do not like to work on Mondays, but I did not manage to find a single thing open in the towns and villages I rode through. I also needed to fill up again, so I was heading to a supermarket petrol station I had found on the GPS, and since I had not seen an open restaurant or bar, I thought I would buy something there and just find a nice spot by the road now that I was closer to the mountains. That option was quickly discarded as I rode onto the supermarket car park. Not a soul in sight, all shutters down and only a couple of credit card-operated petrol pumps in the scorching sun to greet me. I filled up, and as I was still wearing the inner lining in the jacket and pants –it was cold in the morning- I started to take them off without even pushing the bike away from the pump. Sure enough, as I was in the middle of my striptease, not one, but three cars, a motorbike and a guy on foot carrying a jerrycan turned up to use the damn pump. Where did they come from!? I had ridden across the whole town and it was completely deserted! I moved the bike away and finished changing clothes while a middle-aged mademoiselle tested the other four people’s patience by taking her own sweet time to figure out how to use her card to pay for the petrol.

I rode on trying to find somewhere to eat, and in the end had to give up and stop at the only place I found open. A McDonald’s restaurant. Yes. A McDonald’s burger. In France. On my last day. I could not believe it either.

At least the day got better once I rode past Prades and up the N116 heading for the border. I had been on that road countless times coming from my side of the border, as I normally go skiing in that area, and it is an amazing road, but I had never been any further than Mont-Louis. On clear days you can look down the valley from there and see the sea in the distance, and I had always wanted to do that last part of the road leading down to Perpignan. What a road and what a way to get back to my country! I rode up the winding road all the way to the part I already knew, enjoying the beautiful afternoon and the stunning landscape that these old familiar mountains offer. Down in La Cerdanya, I crossed one last border and finally entered my dear home land.

As I said, I usually come up to this area to go skiing in winter or hiking in summer. Coming from Barcelona, there is a tunnel that gets you here faster, but you have to pay a toll to use it and it is not cheap. However, most people, myself included, prefer to take that route than the mountain pass above, as it takes too long and is tiresome to drive it. It had been quite a while since the last time I took the pass, and I had forgotten what a great road it is. Since it was a Monday, there was nobody on the road and I had it all to myself. I had a blast riding up to La Collada, taking the engine to the red line with every gear change, leaning into corners enjoying the perfect tarmac, the flowing road and the breathtaking scenery.

I stopped at the top of the pass and as I took in the views I thought that there was no better way back home.

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It is funny how travelling such long distances puts things in perspective. When I come here, the journey home at the end of the day usually feels long, you are near the border, in the mountains, a long way from Barcelona. When I got back on the motorbike I saw that the GPS indicated I had 140km to my flat. All throughout the trip, when I saw that I had 150-100km to get to my destination on the GPS I had the feeling that I had already made it and that I only had to ride the last few km into town and find the place where I was going to spend the night. I laughed and took the first corner down that familiar road.

I made it to Barcelona very quickly and run into the late afternoon rush hour. My motorbike and my riding suit were covered in dirt, dust and insects from the last 14 countries, my face was unshaven and sunburned and I had a stupidly big grin on my face. People looked at me in traffic lights as if I had got lost on my way to Dakar. I took the Gran Via to get to the center, and there is a big elevated roundabout where it meets the Diagonal. The sun was already low when I rode up onto it, bathing the city in a warm orange glow. I stood on the footpegs, looked at the sun going down beyond the Sagrada Familia, closed my eyes for a second and thought ‘I’m home’.

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The beginning of the end

Day 69 – Sunday 1st of September – Interlaken to Geneve to St. Thomé (559km)

Today the long way home started. We packed up and tried to get an early start, as I wanted to cover as much distance as possible after dropping Nat at Geneva airport in order to avoid a long ride the following day, as I did not want to take the motorway on my last day on the road.

We decided to avoid the motorway going to Bern and cut across the mountains on road 11, which took us to Aigle, and from there we rode along Lake Lehman’s southern bank to Geneva. It was a beautiful morning and the traffic was quite light, allowing us to enjoy our last few hours together on this trip.

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We made it to Geneva airport in good time, and kissed goodbye in front of the terminal. I looked down at my GPS and instead of entering the coordinates for my next destination as I had been doing for more than two months, I pressed “home”. Set to avoid motorways and toll roads, it showed I had a long way to go, but I had two days ahead of me. I waved goodbye and rode off. Having Nat with me for so long had been a very pleasant surprise, and I felt a bit lonely as I hit the road out of Geneva.

I was running low on fuel, but I thought that I would stop to fill up once I was out of the city. It turned out to be a mistake. I rode for a long while without seeing a petrol station, and I was getting a bit nervous – the tank was practically empty, and I did not have any fuel in the jerrycan, I had put what was in it into the tank once I was back in Europe, thinking I would have no problems here. I set the GPS to find a petrol station even if it meant leaving the road I was travelling on, and it sent me into a sleepy French town where I found a deserted supermarket petrol station after some backstreet riding. Luckily enough, the pump accepted my credit card and I was able to fill up. However, when I got back on the bike I saw that the GPS was now giving me a much longer route back home than before. I tried to reprogram it, but then it said that the route was too long and it was not able to calculate it. I rode out of the town in the general direction I knew I had to go, hoping I would be able to program it further along.  It was hopeless, it refused to give me a way back that was not on the motorway. I did not have a paper map, and navigating French back roads can be a nightmare if you do not know where you are going. By early evening I was too tired to travel like that and decided to take the motorway, go as far as I could that day and then find a campsite.

I made it past Montélimar, where I stopped once again for petrol. I checked the GPS and voilà! There was a campsite just 12 km from where I was. I was not expecting anything great, just somewhere to spend the night, but the area around the campsite was quite beautiful, and once more, I regretted not having enough time to see a bit more. It was almost dark by the time I had finished setting up the tent, so I ordered a beer at the bar, had some dinner and went to bed.

It would have been easier to walk up to the Jungfrau

Day 68 – Saturday 31st of August – Interlaken (0km)

The number one tourist attraction in Interlaken is the Jungfrau. The tallest peak in the region, it stands 4,158m above sea level, and about 600m below that there is an observation center that offers visitors a unique view of the surrounding peaks and that glacier that extends at its feet. What makes this place special, aside from the fact that it is the highest building in Europe, is that tourists do not need to climb up the mountain to get to it, there is a railway that reaches as far up as 3,454m, travelling inside the mountain to Jungfraujoch station, an underground complex that would not look out of place in a Bond movie. From there, a short elevator ride takes people to the observation center.

It is an astonishing place and one definitely worth visiting, but there are a couple of things to take into account before deciding to go there. First, it is not cheap. A return ticket will set you back just over 160€. Second, the weather is very changeable at that height, which means that you may end up paying a small fortune just for a fancy train ride and get zero visibility once you are at the top.

I had already been there years ago (it cost about 60€ then, which was still expensive for a student on an Interrail trip), so we decided to do something different with our last day before heading home. The campsite rented kayaks, something I had never tried before, and we thought it would be a great idea to explore the lake.

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We were given a couple of life vests, a water-proof barrel to keep our stuff dry and were told to keep close to the left shore as the various ships and boats we would be sharing the waters with were not very considerate towards tourists drifting onto their paths. We dragged the kayak to the cannal, launched it into the water, strapped the barrel onto it and then managed to sit in the thing without tipping over, which I considered a great success already.

We pushed ourselves away from the shore and started paddling up the canal leading into the big lake. We had decided to go for a tandem kayak, as we thought it would be funnier than getting individual ones, but it soon became clear it had been a mistake. With zero experience, the damn thing was impossible to keep straight. We tried to coordinate the paddling, but it was hopeless, we were just wandering from left to right, from right to left, all the time trying to keep away from passing boats.

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Every time we got the thing going straight for a few metres, either Nat or I would paddle to fast once or twice, or even just give a small push with the paddle on the wrong side, and the kayak would start turning fast to the wrong direction. After some exhausting experimentation, we discovered that if only one of us paddled it was quite easy to go on a straight line, and I also discovered that Nat paddled harder on her left side, meaning that left to paddle alone, she would go round in big clockwise circles. We also discovered that we had both been trying to paddle and steer the boat, while the right thing to do is have the person sitting at the front just paddle and the one at the back paddle and steer.

Having learnt the lesson and having had to stand a few condescending smiles from other more experienced kayakers sailing past and from people watching from the shore and enjoying the show, we managed to make some progress and started to enjoy the scenery. The shores of the lake were lined with quaint wooden houses half-hidden in the trees, and most of them had a jetty and a boat. It was a beautiful day and there were a lot of people sunbathing by the shore or diving into the lake from their back gardens. After a couple of hours we made it to a public swimming area with a floating platform and decided it was a good place to go for a swim before heading back. The water was quite cold, but it was a pleasure to swim in such crystalline waters.

On our way back we kept the kayak heading straight and true, like real pros, and we made good progress, which was all the more surprising when after about an hour we realized how far we still had to go. We had the feeling that we had not gone very far from the campsite to the swimming platform – true, we had taken a couple of hours to get there, but we had been going on a very erratic line, struggling to go straight – and now we were becoming aware how how much distance we had covered, which made us feel kind of proud.

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We took a few pictures before handing the kayak back and then went for a walk in Interlaken for the rest of the afternoon. In the center we saw a convoy of old Nissan Skylines that were taking part on a rally going from Kuwait to Morocco via Europe – it looked as if they were having great fun!

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We bought some food and a couple of beers for dinner and headed back to the campsite to sort out all the gear and decide which things would stay on the bike and which things Nat would take on the plane.

As we were packing I realized that was it – the journey was coming to an end. Nat had originally planned to join me only for the Swiss leg of the trip because I thought I would be back in Europe much later than I was and not wanting to do so many kilometers on her first trip on a motorbike, she had decided to fly back to Barcelona, so I was going to take her to Geneva the following morning. In the end though, my change of plans meant that she had joined me in Helsinki and we had travelled for about 4,400km on the bike together. Not bad, taking into account that she did not have proper riding gear and had to wear several layers of clothes and a waterproof jacket underneath a summer riding jacket I had lent her, as well as a pair of hiking boots that were not exactly waterproof. She was very, very brave.

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Mountain passes

Day 67 – Friday 30th of August – Sta. Maria to Interlaken (305km)

I said in my last post that I agreed with Top Gear’s conclusion saying the Transfagarasan road was better than the Stelvio pass, but that did not mean that it was the road I enjoyed most in my trip. That honor will have to go to the journey we did today on our way from Sta. Maria to Interlaken, which took us across no less than five passes.

We started climbing the first one right after leaving Sta. Maria, it was the Ofenpass, and at that time in the morning there was no other traffic on the road. It might not have been as visually spectacular as the Stelvio, but as a road to enjoy on a motorbike it was perfect. Fast corners, nice landscape, Swiss-quality tarmac… roads do not much better than this.

We made it to the other side with the tank almost empty, so we stopped at a petrol station in the first town we found. There were quite a lot of bikes queuing there, and it seemed that there was nobody in charge of the pumps or in the register, we had to use a credit card or bank notes to pay for the petrol. Several bikers, including ourselves, tried putting different cards into the machine, which rejected them all, and it would not take anybody’s bank notes either. Frustrated and practically running on fumes, we went on, hoping to find another petrol station before turning right for the next pass, which was quite near. I programmed the GPS to look for one – this is one of the most useful you can do with it – and it led us to one a few meters from the start of the road up the pass.

With the tank full, we started climbing the next pass, the Albulapass, which took us to the Chur area. From there on the road was a tad more monotonous, nice and widing, through beautiful landscape, but without the excitement or views of the passes and with a lot more traffic, as it was a main road. The longuish ride to the next three passes before Interlaken was made a bit more entertaining by a long caravan of classic cars we met, closed by a black Ferrari 575 which provided an excellent soundtrack to go with the views.

We stopped before starting to climb the following pass, the Oberalpass, and I had a can of energy drink to keep me going, as it was turning out to be quite a long day. It was sunny and warm, the roads were excellent and we were not going to cover a lot of kilometres to Interlaken, but riding on such fun roads was exhausting and we had three more passes to go.

Shortly after the Oberalpass we started climbing the Furkapass and the Grimselpass, which were one right after the other. On the way up the first one we saw some thick black smoke coming up from the bottom of the deep valley. We stopped to take some pictures a few corners further up the road and saw it was an old steam train painfully making its way up the valley. It was progressing very slowly, belching out a thick column of smoke. We stopped for lunch at the top of the pass and saw it again nearing the entrance of the tunnel that would take it to the other side of the mountain, far below us. I had been thinking that it had to be a great experience to ride those mountain railways in an old tourist steam train, but seeing how much smoke the engine was making as it entered the tunnel I thought it would not be so much fun for the passengers to breathe soot for the length of the tunnel.

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We had lunch on a grassy knoll overlooking the road, admiring all the exotic metal driving past on both directions – you name it, we saw it. From the usual selection of Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis to Lotuses, Caterhams, TVRs, and some kit cars I was not able to identify. As for the motorbikes, there were hundreds of GSs, you would think they are cheap to buy, seeing how many populate the roads all over Europe!

The road took us down a deep valley where we saw an old train station where the line coming from the valley ended and passengers switched to the old steam trains for the reminder of the way up. The road down from the top of the Furkapass kept crossing the train line, and once at the bottom it almost immediately started climbing again for the Grimselpass, the last one before Interlaken. From the beginning of the last section of the Furkapass we got a privileged view encompassing the railway going down to the bottom of the valley, the station, the road up the next pass and even a glimpse of the lake at the top of it, all in glorious late afternoon light. We went past another lake on the way down from the Furkapass, on a road that offered yet more gorgeous views for what was the last bit of our ride in the heart of the Alps.

After all these marvellous rides, I can come to my own personal conclusion and choose the road traversing the Furkapass and the Grimselpass as the best road I have ever ridden.

I am aware that I missed other great names, such as the St. Gothardo pass or the St. Bernardino pass, but we just did not have the time to properly explore the area. Well, that will be the excuse to come back here in the future.

We stopped in a town called Innertkirchen to do some shopping for dinner and then rode the last few kilometres to Interlaken, where it did not take us long to find a great campsite right by the canal connecting both lakes, within walking distance from the city center.

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The Stelvio

Day 66 – Thursday 29th of August – Cortina d’Ampezzo to Sta. Maria (237km)

Those of you who are Top Gear fans will remember that Clarkson and company declared the Stelvio pass the best road ‘in the wooooorld’ until they discovered the Transfagarasan road on their visit to Romania. I had the privilege of riding that road almost two months ago and I completely agree with them – it is an amazing ride and a must for any bikers riding Europe. Today, however, our route back home was going to take us across the Stelvio and I was eager to see how it compared with the Transfagarasan and whether it deserved that second place.

I was very excited at the prospect of riding another legendary road, what I did not know was that the two days it would take us to get to Interlaken were going to be a feast of absolutely marvelous mountain passes that would make it very difficult to come to a conclusion and chose the best one.

I had bought a good old paper map of the Alps in Slovenia which had a lovely level of detail, and we were going to use that to navigate for the next few days, using the GPS only as extra help to get from one waypoint to the other and programming it on the way, as I did not want to depend on whatever route it might decide from A to B and miss on some great roads.

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We rode out of Cortina under a glorious blue sky, my allergy all but gone, and were soon climbing a pass called Di Sella. The tarmac was in excellent condition, there was not much traffic aside from other bikes and the road wound its way up the pass through lush fields of green, a combination of fast corners at the bottom and hairpins at the top. It was here that I saw for the first time that Italians number the corners on their mountain passes, so can count how many you have to go.

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We stopped at the top of the pass, where there were hundreds of cars parked. It was clear that it was the starting point of many hiking and climbing routes, and the place was crowded. Luckily, we were able to just park the bike next to a couple of GSs right by the road and decided to take a short walk up the mountain to enjoy the views. Nat was feeling a bit cold after the ride in the morning air, but a brisk hike up a mountain trail dressed in bike gear soon warmed us up.

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After taking a few pictures we got back on the bike and rode down the other side, which turned out to be even better.

Rides like this put all other roads in perspective, and once we were down from the mountain pass and going to Bolzano, what might have been a decent road felt like the dullest thing in the world. We went past the city, took a short stretch of free motorway to Merano and then got back on a B-road again, heading for the Stelvio. There were about 50km to the point where the road leading up the pass started, and the traffic was quite heavy. To make matters worse, there were not many overtaking opportunities, at least not legal overtaking, so I was starting to worry. We passed several trucks easily, but what I did not like was the fact that there were quite a lot of motorhomes on the road. I assumed that trucks had no reason to take the Stelvio, but I was afraid that the tourists crawling along on their motorhomes might want to visit it, thus completely ruining the experience for all the enthusiasts riding bikes or driving sports cars that might end up stuck behind them, chugging up the road at 20km/h.

Overtaking as many as I could on those last 50km before the Stelvio, I could not help but to agree with Mr. Clarkson. A truck might be slow, but at least it is performing a service to society, a caravan is just a moving obstacle on the road driven by someone who is too good to sleep on a tent but too mean to pay for a hotel. And not even that, those things, especially motorhomes are expensive, why not just buy a decent car, enjoy a good drive and spend the difference in a hotel!?

Anyway, by the time we got to the junction, we had left all of them behind, and we had a clear road ahead of us. After passing a couple of towns I was very pleased to see signs limiting the length and weight of the vehicles allowed up the pass, which meant that there would be no caravans, motorhomes or tourist coaches blocking our way. Great! I dropped a couple of gears and leaped for the first serious corner.

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What a ride! This was a very different place from the Transfagarasan – one hairpin after the other, I had to take them in first gear, using the whole width of the road to carry enough inertia to keep the bike from falling over or stalling. Remember, this was no sports bike, but a fully loaded adventure tourer with two people on it. In spite of that, it performed admirably, roaring its way up the road and, surprisingly, keeping up with much more powerful machinery.

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Nat did a beautiful co-piloting job, looking up the road as we approached each corner and letting me know if the way was clear for me to use all the available tarmac, and the odd slow car was quickly overtaken between hairpins. Oh, and talking about slow cars, I felt really, really sorry for a convoy of gorgeous Lotus Elises that spent the last part of the way up helplessly stuck behind a RAV4 driven at 10km/h by a family of tourists who looked absolutely terrified at the corners.

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There were hundreds of bikers at the top of the pass, and while the GS seemed to be the machine of choice (there are thousands of these things everywhere!) people had ridden up here in all kinds of things, including an old woman on a classic Vespa.

I bought a Stelvio pass sticker to put on the bike and then sat down to have a rest and ponder whether this was better than the Transfagarasan or not.

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The landscape was no doubt amazing, high rocky mountains covered in snow, deep valleys, lush pine forests at the bottom… but the corners were too tight for my taste, at least on the eastern side, which meant that the riding was less enjoyable than in the Romanian road, which had faster corners. This was all first and second gear. Of course the Stelvio is a well-known name for riders in Europe, and there is something magic to it, but that fame has a price, which brings me to the second reason why I prefer the Transfagarasan. Unlike the Transfagarasan, the Stelvio attracts a lot of people, which is OK as far as bikes and sports cars go, but there are also a lot of people driving very slowly on it, which spoils the experience if you are stuck behind one of them for a while. Finally it also suffers from the same problem that affects all great driving roads in Western Europe – cyclists. Hundreds of them, fantasizing they are wearing the maglia azzurra in the Giro. There is virtually no traffic on the Transfagarasan other than a few enthusiasts, and that is reason enough for me to agree with the boys from Top Gear and rate it above the Stelvio.

Which does not mean I think it is the greatest road ever…

To be completely fair, I have to confess that we did not ride down the other side of the Stelvio, so my impressions might be incomplete. We were heading for the Davos area, so once at the top, we took a smaller road that went down the northern side. It was great – no traffic, faster corners, beautiful scenery, and it even had a bit of adventure riding factor, as halfway down the tarmac disappeared and it became a dirt track for the rest of the ride. It was quite funny to see the faces of some guys on sports bikes and a couple on a Porsche trying to make their way up the pass!

Once in the valley we started looking for a campsite, but there was only one in the area and it did not look very nice. Add to that that the night was going to be quite cold up there and we decided to ride to the next town and try to find a room to rent or some kind of B&B.

The town was called Santa Maria, and it did have a hotel and a youth hostel, but to our dismay the hostel was booked full and the hotel was way too expensive. We were standing by the bike in the center of the town, tired and cold, not very happy at the prospect of having to spend all evening trying to find accommodation when a huge truck came along and started to very slowly negotiate the narrow space between two old buildings. Its flanks were literally only a couple of inches from the walls on each side, and as we were watching the show I hear a voice say ‘cool, uh?’ We turned around and saw a woman contemplating the scene next to us. We got chatting about it and she told us that it was a daily thing, there were big truck passing through the old town quite often. She then saw the bike and asked ‘are you looking for a room?’

It turned out she lived in a big old house round the corner and she had done up a room in the ground floor to rent to tourists. She made us a very good deal, so we parked the bike in her garden and spent the night there. It was much, much better than we could have hoped for. The room was big and cosy, the bathroom was almost as big as the room and best of all… the floor was heated. It was better than many hotels I have stayed in.

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